Ibn Battuta, African Explorer

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Imagine that you are living in North West Africa and it’s now the 14th century. Like many others, you have an inner desire to travel and explore the world around you. You want to explore the rest of your continent and you also want to go to the far East and find out what’s there and what is that continent like that they call Asia. There is a tiny obstacle though, there are no airplanes to take you there, no trains, buses, cars or even bikes –if you were thinking you’ll just cycle around the world like the few famous cyclists who did it. Will you go ahead and embark on such a journey? Not only do you not have a modern mean of transportation, but you don’t have a GPS system to guide you on your way, you don’t even have your nowadays nifty helper known as google to help you when you’re lost, not even a lonely planet guide to help you plan your trip, let alone a smart phone that you could browse through with a few taps to find the best route that would take you to your destination. You might be wondering now, what exactly are the means that you have to embark on that journey? The answer is, riding solo on your donkey/camel, hitchhiking with caravans, risky ship journeys, and a sky full of stars serving as your map. Can you do it?

That is exactly what Ibn Battuta did almost 735 years ago when he was at the ripe age of 21. Born on the 25th of February 1304 by the full name of Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta to a Muslim Moroccan family of a Berber origin from the city of Tangier, Ibn Battuta was raised among a family of Islamic legal scholars who served as judges. Thus, he received an education in Islamic law and was later on asked by the Maliki Muslims to serve as their Islamic judge. However, right after he finished his education when he was 21, he decided to set on the journey for Hajj, the Islamic holy pilgrimage to the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. And so this was the start of a journey of a lifetime, all alone without a single companion, he bid his family farewell and set off towards Mecca on his own and reached his destination after 16 months.

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Moroccan stamp depicting Ibn Battuta (source)

After performing his religious duty of Hajj, his thirst for knowledge increased and he grew more curious to find out about other undiscovered lands and cultures. Driven by his wanderlust – as most youth of his age would be; only he had no means to facilitate his journeys-  he spent almost twenty nine years travelling around the different parts of the eastern hemisphere.

He began his journey by exploring the Middle East region, for on his way to Mecca, he visited Egypt, and then after Mecca, he crossed the Arabian Desert and traveled to Persia and Iraq, and then up North to Azerbaijan, and finally back south to Yemen. True he started off solo on his journey, but he soon discovered that for safety measures it was better to join travelling caravans. For most of the routes he took were rugged and bandit infested. His travelling might seem marvelous on paper, but they weren’t that easy in reality. One of the incidents that he faced was that at some point he developed a fever so severe that he had to tie himself to his saddle to avoid collapsing and falling off his ride.

He covered most of the Muslim world in the Middle East, and after Yemen he joined a sea voyage to the Horn of Africa where he visited Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. After touring Africa, Ibn Battuta journeyed north back through Egypt, Syria and then sailed to Turkey. Then, he decided to travel to India by passing through Constantinople and Afghanistan, in hopes of securing a post as an Islamic Judge. And secure a post he did. Upon his arrival, he received a wholehearted and generous welcome by the Sultan of Delhi and he stayed there for about eight years during which he got married and had children. Due to his status as an Islamic scholar, many regions offered him such warm welcome and even showered him with gifts like fine clothes and horses.

Ibn Battuta still had the urge to roam and discover, and so at the first given opportunity, he travelled as the Sultan’s envoy and leading a group to China. This journey however, was the start of a series of unfortunate events and hardships. His group was harassed and he was even kidnapped and robbed of all his possessions, and when he tried to sail away, his ship faced a storm that killed many of his companions. After that, he spent over a year in the Maldives and then he finally went back to China, which was then marked as reaching the edge of the known world. He finally turned around and travelled back home to Morocco, where he arrived in 1349, by which time, both his parents have passed away. It was a brief stay in Morocco, for he then headed to Spain, Niami and Timbuktu.

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Ibn Battuta Itinerary (source)

Upon his final arrival to Morocco in 1354, and at the suggestion of the ruler of Morocco,  Ibn Battuta started to dictate his journals and document his astonishing adventures in the famous book, ” A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and The Marvels of Travelling”, which is commonly known as the “Rihla” or  “Travels”.  Following the completion of documenting his travels, he worked as a judge in Morocco and passed away around the age of 64 in 1368.

The Rihla is not only an enjoyable narration of Ibn Battuta’s globetrotting adventures, it is also filled with interesting anecdotes that offer a unique insight into the mind of a young Muslim traveller. Moreover, let’s not forget that he was a judge, this mere fact reflects an important characteristic of his personality, and that is …wisdom. That alone offers a unique view on the contents of his narrations. No matter how many years pass, how ‘old’ the book might seem to be and how far away the life of Ibn Batutta is from us, his story and his travelogue account offer both an entertaining read and an informative source of the medieval civilization, which is still consulted and referred to up till this day.

During his 75,000 km of travels, Ibn Battuta married up to 10 times. In some cases it wasn’t clear whether he received offers and couldn’t say “No” to marriage out of self-preservation instincts. In other cases, it seems as though he enjoyed the company of women and saw marriage as a way to avoid fornication under Islamic law. He offered an insight into the world of casual sexual relationships in the Islamic world in his commentary on the Maldives:

It is easy to marry in these islands because of the smallness of the dowries and the pleasures of society which the women offer… When the ships put in, the crew marry; when they intend to leave they divorce their wives. This is a kind of temporary marriage. The women of these islands never leave their country.

Ibn Battuta married free women and married slave women (called “concubines” in the past times). He received concubines (slave wives) as gifts and sometimes paid to marry.

Ibn Battuta offered insights about many people, places (including the Great Wall of China) and events relating to his time. He mentions prominent people he met, what he heard about places he didn’t visit, commented on towns, cities, rulers, merchants, dates, Islamic saints, ports, religious observations, and indirectly male and female sexuality under Islamic law. As well as being an observer, he was also a representative of the culture he came from to the places he visited, in so doing offering information to curious foreign rulers and merchants about alternative legal and political systems.

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Ibn Battuta, African Explorer

by Editorial Team time to read: 5 min