The prodigal Ibn Batuta

ByZoya Ansari

Designation: She has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


December 10, 2022

The prodigal Ibn Batuta

Zoya Ansari describes legendary exploits of an
inveterate traveler

Some people are born to travel and the Moroccan prodigy Ibn Batuta is an outstanding example in this context. The prodigal Ibn Batuta experienced tremendous rigours while traveling but as a committed traveler he never shirked from venturing on this dangerous experience. He risked dangers on land and sea, travelling in groups, large or small but rarely alone. The travel was undertaken for a variety of reasons: sometimes he moved with merchants who transported goods while he also traveled to meet kings, sultans who valued him and he, in turn, gained deep insights into their working arrangements. Crucially, support for travel of Ibn Batuta came from the skills and labour of travel guides and transport experts who manned the varied types of craft that traversed the rivers and seaways, or the caravans, themselves veritable societies in motion, that crossed landscapes linking one realm or continent to the next. Though Ibn Batuta was a medieval traveler but he was extremely prominent amongst both the rich and the restless. Ibn Batuta was unique for his keen observation and deep sense of curiosity along with his intention to leave the written account of his travels for posterity.

In this context, Ibn Batuta’s unique contribution is compared with the multitude that travelled but few individuals left accounts of their experiences. Indeed, travel itself did not have a literary or intellectual purpose and only those literate, educated persons with a desire or inducement to record their journeys did so. Throughout Muslim domains travel did mould the lives of many a scholar, literate merchant or scholar/merchant. One aim of their journeys, if not the sole objective, was the acquisition of knowledge, whether religious or mundane. In this respect history frequently mentions two greatest travelers of the entire medieval period who produced their renowned works. Marco Polo, the Venetian, was 17 when, in 1272, he embarked on his adventures among the Mongols in China and was absent from Italy with his father and uncle for 23 years.

Marco Polo died aged 69 in January 1324, at the very moment when a younger Muslim contemporary, Shams al-Din Abu Abdallah Muhammad b. Abdallah b. Ibrahim al-Luwati al-Tanji, better known as Ibn Batuta, was preparing to set out on his own travels, initially on pilgrimage to Makkah and Medina. Ibn Batuta was born in 1304 and was a native of Tangier in modern-day Morocco. He was, therefore, a Maghribi, or Westerner, as persons from that region of North Africa were known. He was a subject, too, of the ruler of the Marinid dynasty with its capital in Fez. Further, he was ethnically a Berber, a Sunni Muslim, trained in the Maliki tradition of Islamic legal practice and acted in the capacity of qadi or religious judge on several occasions. He wrote in Arabic, the majority language of educated Muslims throughout the Middle East, and beyond; later, while in India, he claimed knowledge of spoken Persian as well.

Ibn Batuta left family behind in his birthplace, Tangier, in June 1325, aged 22. He returned home for good after nearly 30 years abroad. The length of time he spent outside Morocco was about 28 years of near continuous absence, or 44 per cent of his life’s span. The geographical extent of Ibn Batuta’s travels took him well beyond the Arab world and he encountered two major Muslim language barriers, Turkish and Persian, during his travels, in the latter of which he acquired some competence. After completing his first pilgrimage, Ibn Batuta began his venture to the fringes of the Muslim Ummah, first southwards to the East African coast and then on his journey through Anatolia, the Crimea and Afghanistan to India, where he remained for several years. After India, and an interlude in the Maldives Islands, he voyaged to Sumatra on the very eastern fringe of the Ummah.

His return from China to Morocco was not the end of his travels. He was soon off again to visit the receding frontier of the Muslim presence in al-Andalus and then southwards again, this time into the West African Sudan. This was not a consciously conceived grand plan from the beginning but rather an enterprise that emerged from the travel experience itself. Once Ibn Batuta had decided that performance of the pilgrimage was not an end in itself he ventured again. Located as it was on the Ummah’s westernmost fringe, he never rejected his Moroccan homeland but rather viewed it as one of several vital points on the perimeter of that greater formation of the Ummah that he had witnessed in his lifetime of travel.

Ibn Batuta narrated his travels to the author of works on poetry, Islamic law and theology, Muhammad Ibn Juzayy who was appointed as Ibn Batuta’s collaborator by the reigning Marinid Sultan of Morocco, Abu Inan Faris. Ibn Juzayy’s commission was to assemble from Ibn Batuta’s dictation into a compilation which should comprehend what was of profit in them. The full title of Ibn Batuta’s work highlights two separate but inter-related themes: cities together with their hinterland (amsar) and the journeys (asfar) to and from them. Ibn Batuta’s narrative provides insight into the actual experience of travel in which he is seen coping with the forces of nature, the vagaries of fortune and of human behaviour, even descriptions of uneventful stages of a journey and all of these could combine to reflect those experiences and assist imagining the living drama of medieval travel. Ibn Batuta’s initial objective and motive for departing his native Tangier was inspired by a desire to inform and entertain his audience and his goal was to give pleasure and instruction.

Together with his gender, this bundle of known characteristics constituted his identity and he wrote foremost for an Arabic-reading North African public that would have included women. Fourteenth-century Muslim domains occupied the middle portion of a longer period of dramatic expansion of the Islamic social order. Ibn Batuta was aware of Muslim losses in the West during the Christian re-conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (al-Andalus), yet was hopeful too of potential gains in the East which, indeed, were finally realised in Anatolia with the establishment of the Ottoman Empire.

Despite the gains and losses, during the half millennium between roughly 1000 and 1500, the Muslim world on balance had expanded threefold in size, well beyond its early Middle Eastern heartlands. Ultimately, a permanent Muslim presence – of greater or lesser significance – was established in regions which Ibn Batuta had visited in the course of his travels. In modern geographical terms, these areas included Central Asia, India, South East Asia, China and sub-Saharan Africa; he also managed a brief detour to Constantinople, the future Ottoman capital of Istanbul.

Ibn Batuta in the fourteenth-century a world encountered that was politically one of relative calm and consolidation following upon the deluge of the Mongol invasions the previous century that culminated in the destruction of Baghdad and the Abbasid caliphate in 1258. The Mongol successor states, ruled by Genghis Khan’s descendents who had converted to Islam, busily promoted conditions conducive to the movement of people, merchandise and ideas across highly porous cultural and linguistic frontiers. Ibn Batuta also experienced Islam as a minority faith in India, where, however, Muslims were politically powerful and also where Islam was still marginal and not firmly grounded as in central Africa and in Sumatra and Java in South East Asia such as modern Indonesia. TW


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