Precise dating for the first part of Ibn Battuta’s trip is all but impossible. We know that he arrived, or at least that he remembered arriving, in Alexandria on April 5, 1326, so just a bit shy of ten months after his departure from Tangier. We know (again, based on his recollection) that he set out from Tunis toward the beginning of November 1325. But otherwise he doesn’t really offer a lot of help with the chronology of his trek across North Africa. We’re of course further hampered by the fact that Ibn Battuta dated his adventures according to the Islamic calendar, whereas we’re converting dates to the Gregorian calendar. So when we do get specific dates keep in mind that they could still be a little wobbly. And also keep in mind that this whole journey is being recounted by Ibn Battuta years after he took it, which introduces some extra wobbliness into the situation. To simplify things, even though he doesn’t get to Alexandria until April 1326, we’ll treat his North African leg as 1325 and start 1326 with his arrival in Egypt.
Ibn Battuta’s first travels would have taken him, obviously, out of Tangier and through his homeland, Marinid Morocco. The city of Tangier was founded by the Carthaginians as Tingi in the fifth century BCE and eventually became a colony and the capital of the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana. It was captured by the Vandals in the fifth century CE, then returned to Roman (Byzantine) control before being conquered by the Umayyad Caliphate in 702.
Tangier was an important city in the 14th century, but not an especially prominent one. It was important because it was one of five cities or towns along the Strait of Gibraltar. On the Iberian side of the strait sat Gibraltar, Algeciras, and Tarifa. On the African side, Ceuta and Tangier. Of the five, Tangier was probably the least important because it sat on the western edge of the strait. The other four sat closer together and further east, and they were more crucial to the cross-strait traffic in commerce and armies between Muslim North Africa and Muslim Andalusia, a territory that was shrinking fast due to Christian advances.
This still made Tangier more important (and wealthier) than inland towns, but didn’t afford it the same level of importance that marked Ceuta. It was growing more important, however. Social and cultural elites from Andalusia were beginning to flee the encroaching Christians to North Africa and Tangier was one of their ports of arrival. Additionally, Mediterranean trade was beginning to spill out into the Atlantic and European traders were starting to sail south along the African coast in an effort to get to West Africa’s gold without having to go through North African traders. Portugal would make Tangier one of its targets in the 15th century, finally capturing it in 1471. When we meet up with Ibn Battuta, though, it was just entering this period of importance and hadn’t yet reaped the benefits.
Ibn Battuta studied Islamic law growing up–we know this because that’s how he earned his living during his travels. Specifically, he studied in the Maliki school of jurisprudence, which has dominated Africa for most of Islamic history. The four main Sunni legal schools differ in terms of the sources they use to determine the law. All four agree that the Quran is the primary source followed by the Hadith (the sayings and deeds of Muhammad as related by his companions). Malikis differ from the other four schools by looking next to the customs and practices of the people in Medina for guidance, theorizing that Medina is where Muhammad formed his movement and therefore that community’s traditions should be close to what Muhammad taught. There were Malikis all over the Islamic world and therefore Muslim rulers all over the Islamic world had need of Maliki legal scholars to serve as judges. Hence all the available work for Ibn Battuta along the way.
It’s also fairly clear that Ibn Battuta was exposed to Sufism while in Tangier. We don’t really know how much and he doesn’t seem to have been devoted to any particular Sufi order, but Ibn Battuta does visit a lot of Sufi quarters and holy sites during his journey. Sufism was still coalescing in the 14th century from informal Islamic mysticism to a set of coherent movements with coherent beliefs, but it was also becoming a more popular form of religion as old orthodoxies, heavily affected by the loss of the caliphate at Baghdad in 1258, were weakening.
So that’s the environment and background that Ibn Battuta was leaving behind. Next time we’ll cover his journey across Zayyanid Algeria and Hafsid Tunisia.