“Travelling — it offers you a hundred roads to adventure and gives your heart wings.”[ Ibn Battuta]

Moomtaz Emrith

(Windsor, ON, Canada)

Ibn Battuta — or by his full name of Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Battuta — was born in Tangiers, Morocco, on February 25, 1304, into a Muslim family of Berbers. His father was an Islamic jurist — a profession young Ibn Battuta would also follow. He would study Islamic jurisprudence and during the course of his travels and would continue to learn and also practise and serve as a Qadi (Judge). However, practicing law was not for him a major focus. Travel and adventure were. Ibn Battuta was, after all, a scholar, a traveller and a geographer. He was twenty-two years old, when he decided to go to Mecca, in Arabia (to-day Saudi Arabia), to perform the Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage), which is one of the five pillars of Islam and which enjoins its followers to visit and perform certain rituals at the Ka’aba at least once in their life time — if they can afford to do it. Ibn Battuta’s eagerness to go for the Hajj as one of the first things he wanted to do as a young man, speaks highly of his strict Islamic upbringing.

In the medieval times that Ibn Battuta lived, the Hajj journey was a hard, demanding and perilous undertaking. The travel routes were often infested by rogues and bandits and thieves who preyed on the pilgrims whom they attacked and robbed. So much so, many of the Muslim States along the Hajj routes, often maintained special armies and guards for the protection of the pilgrims. The safest way to travel in those days was to travel in groups or in a caravan — which was what Ibn Battuta did — although he initially began his journey alone on a donkey. As he tells us in his book — Journeys — the Rihlas:

“I left Tangiers, my birth place, on Thursday, 2 Rajab, 725 (H) with the intention of going on pilgrimage to Mecca. I was alone, without companions, not in a caravan, but I was stirred by a powerful urge to reach my goal (Mecca)… I left my friends and my home, just as a bird leaves its parental nest. My father and mother were still alive, and with great pain, I parted with them. For me as for them, it was cause of insufferable illness. I was then only twenty two.”

One can well imagine that when young Ibn Battuta planned his trip to Mecca, he knew of the perils of such a trip but energetic and enthusiastic as he was, he knew he would just do fine. As he proceeded on his journey to the Holy City of Islam. little did he know that his pilgrimage trip would actually turn into an odyssey and would take him literally to all the countries in the Muslim world — commonly referred to as Dar al-Islam. On top of those, he also visited China and the South Asian countries, including India, which then had a Muslim Sultan — Muhammad Tughlug. Also, he went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and the islands of Maldives.

In fact, it would be almost thirty years by the time he returned home to Tangiers in 1349, by which time, he had visited and stayed in practically all the countries of East and West Africa, including the present day countries of the Maghreb (North Africa) and, by the time he arrived back in Tangiers, he had already covered an incredible journey of some 111,700 kilometres that exceeded by far the journey of the famous European traveller, Marco Polo. However, when Ibn Battuta’s itinerary came to be known, there was little hesitation among those in the know, to hail him as “the world’s greatest traveller.”

One can well imagine the sensation Ibn Battuta’s return created in his home town of Tangiers not to mention the whole of Morocco. Ibn Battuta became ‘a national hero’ and everyone was eager to hear the tales of his travels, the people he had met and lived with and of their cultures, habits and customs. Eventually, soon after, Abu Inan Faris, the Marinid King of Morocco, requested him to narrate his fantastic travels to his main scribe by the name of Ibn Juzayy, who duly recorded Ibn Battuta’s whole story in a collection that came to be known simply as the Rihla or (Journey). However, the complete title of the book was “A Gift To Those who contemplate the wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling.”

Ibn Battuta’s book gives a fascinating insight into his itinerary. It provides a touching account of his adventures and of the life and customs and cultures of the people he met and visited along the long odyssey of his historic journey. In fact, in some instances, Ibn Battuta’s account of the people and places that he describes in his book is quite lyrical and sentimental. As a matter of fact, his Rihla is still consulted by scholars and students of history seeking to learn more about how people lived in those far off days.

Ibn Battuta entered India by way of Afghanistan and the Hindu Khush. Delhi was then ruled by a Muslim Sultan — Mohammed Tughlug, who was known for his unpredictable and violent temper. The majority of Tughlug’s subjects were Hindus, who never ceased to give him a hard time and ever strove to get rid of him. So much so, in order to help him keep order and peace, Tughlug needed learned and qualified Muslims in his administration. Ibn Battuta thus hoped to get employment from the Sultan as a Qadi (Islamic Judge), which he did and, as such, he would stay on for several years in India. However, he soon got tired of the Sultan’s cruel and unpredictable behaviour. Sometimes, the Sultan would treat Ibn Battuta with great respect and courtesy and sometimes times with suspicions and threats. So much so, Ibn Battuta, understandably, decided to leave his employment as he never knew what to expect from the Sultan. However, Muhammad Tughlug would not let him go. Fortunately, for him though, soon an opportunity presented itself. The Sultan needed an Ambassador to China and he asked Ibn Battuta to be his man in China, which Ibn Battuta readily accepted as it provided him with the opportunity to get away from Tughlug and also the privilege of visiting a new country, meeting with new people and learning about their lives and customs.

It is said that soon after Battuta completed the narration of his book in 1355, he literally ‘disappeared’ from the public eye and people would not hear of him for a long time. The speculation was that after years of a tumultuous life as a traveller and wanderer, he had finally opted to settle down to a life of peace and tranquility!

Ibn Battuta fulfilled his mission in China and then proceeded to head home. He arrived back in Tangiers to find that a lot had changed since he last left the city some three decades ago. His parents were all dead. He decided to settle down to a new life of peace and quiet. It is said that he got married and moved to some quiet community with his new wife. However, after that, very little is known about him or his death which, it is speculated, occurred in 1368 or 1369. Nor much is known about his burial place. For a long time, Ibn Battuta would remain an unknown figure outside the Muslim world — that is, until the German explorer and traveller, Ulrich Jasper Seetzen, came across a manuscript of the Rihla. Suddenly, the West took notice and the world’s greatest traveller found himself getting the recognition that he justly deserved. To-day, Ibn Battuta is justifiably reckoned as one of the great figures of world history and one of the illustrious heroes of Islamic history.