The Life of Ibn Battuta


The life of Ibn Battuta

The website of Faculty Association Ibn Battuta wouldn’t be complete without at least some explanation of who the dear man actually was. Whereas we can travel all around the world by booking plane tickets with the credit card of our parents, Ibn Battuta journeyed through the Islamic world on the back of a camel. This page will provide you with a short summary of his travels and adventures.

ʾAbū ʿAbd al-Lāh Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Lāh l-Lawātī ṭ-Ṭanǧī ibn Baṭūṭah, as his full name is written in proper English, was born in 1304 in the Moroccan city of Tangier in a family of Berbers. Unfortunately, not much is known about is youth.

The man himself is mostly known for his travels. Travelling itself is of course not unique in the Islamic world, not even during the time of Ibn Battuta, as the well-known pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the Hajj) was already a tradition during his lifetime. Nonetheless, Ibn Battuta’s journey towards Mecca would eventually become known as perhaps the most famous pilgrimage of them all. Well, besides the original by Muhammad himself of course. In those times, the Hajj was not merely a journey towards Mecca, but it was also recommended to use the Hajj to get familiar with the history, geography and traditions of the places and peoples visited on the road to Mecca. Which Ibn Battuta did. However, after his pilgrimage to Mecca Ibn Battuta did not simply return home, he travelled on and on and on. Ibn Battuta’s reasons for travelling around so much even after his pilgrimage are not really fully known, but we do know that there was a large demand for scholars in the Islamic countries of Asia of that time. It could be that Ibn Battuta was merely looking for work and responded to that demand. It could also be that Ibn Battuta discovered a certain curiosity in himself that wanted to explore the world and understand its peoples and places.

We know so much about the travels of Ibn Battuta, because he wrote a very detailed report of his journeys and adventures. It must be said though that historians highly doubt whether all the information in his report is true, and whether his observations were the result of first-hand experiences or simply reproductions of legends, myths and stories. To give an example, Ibn Battuta even claims to have visited Beijing. Historians find that very hard to believe, for many different reasons. What we know for sure is that Ibn Battuta at least visited many different Islamic places, and always felt at home everywhere he went. This tells us that the Islamic world of that time was very much homogeneous. That is also what his work is famous for: it shows how uniform and united the Islamic world was at the time. On a critical note, it could be argued that though he was quite the adventurer, he always remained in a relatively safe cultural setting.

The adjective ‘relatively’ is used, because Northern Africa wasn’t always the most stable region during Ibn Battuta’s lifetime. There were different conflicts between countries and dynasties, and there were Bedouins that regularly raided travellers and pilgrims. This, however, did not stop Ibn Battuta from starting his journey on the 14th of june in 1325, when he was 22 years old. Because the Hajj had to be completed by all Muslims, Northern Africa had quite a good infrastructure for travellers. Inns, water, food, turbans and camels were all widely available on the route towards Mecca. This does not mean that travelling was always easy for Ibn Battuta. When he approached Tunis, he tied himself to the saddle of his camel with his turban, to avoid falling of the saddle out of pure exhaustion. When entering Tunis, some well-known people that he travelled with were greeted by the locals, but Ibn Battuta was completely ignored. “This hurt me so much that I couldn’t hold back my tears, and wept bitterly.’ Ibn Battuta travelled past the Mediterranean coast to Alexandria, along with a trade caravan. In Alexandria, Ibn Battuta met the ascetic Burhan al-A’radj. This Sufi-sheik discovered that Ibn Battuta liked travelling and told him that he would meet his brothers in Hind, Sind, and China, and that his brother Dilshad in Hind would save him from a predicament. It was also through this sheik that Ibn Battuta came in contact with Sufism, a rather mystical stream of the Islam with connections to Buddhism. When Ibn Battuta left, he travelled passed the Nile towards the south to find a way to cross the Red Sea over the water. This turned out to be difficult, so he went back north to get to the Arabian peninsula over land. Eventually he ended up at Damascus where he joined a caravan of pilgrims. It took him 40 to 50 days to reach Mecca from there, a distance of around 1000 miles. In his travel report, Ibn Battuta describes the geographical specifications of Mecca very thoroughly, along with The Great Mosque of Mecca and multiple well-known inhabitants of the city.

Although Ibn Battuta had completed his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1326, he decided to travel on. He journeyed towards Persia and Iraq and returned to Mecca in 1327 to meditate. In the year 1330, his lust for travelling got the better of him and he travelled towards Eastern-Africa; Yemen and Oman. After this journey, he again returned to Mecca for a short time, after which he went to Damascus. Here, he received his teaching qualification. Later, he also travelled through Asia Minor (now Turkey), Southern Russia, and Hind and Sind (now India). Here, his travel report focusses mostly on his own adventures and his destiny, and less on geographical information. The information about peoples, geography and history that is in his report about this journey as properly based on legends and stories, rather than first hand observations.

In 1334, Ibn Battuta arrived in Delhi. He would remain here for seven years, living and working in the court of the sultan. During one of his travels through India, he was captured by ‘infidels’. He managed to escape, but got lost. After seven days of roaming around with no food or water, he met another drifter at a well. This stranger gave him water and food, and explained that is name was “Joyful Heart”. They started travelling together, in search of civilization. However, Ibn Battuta soon got sick and ‘Joyful Heart’ carried Ibn Battuta on his back for quite some time, during which Ibn Battuta fell asleep. After some time, he woke up from falling on the floor, waking up completely alone in a small village. Here, the village chief told him that in Persian ‘Joyful Heart’ would be translated as Dilshad. In this village, Ibn Battuta was able to meet up with the group of travellers that he was travelling with when he was captured.

According to his travel log Ibn Battuta also visited the Maldives, an archipelago to the south of India. These islands were famous for their women, and here Ibn Battuta married three of them. With one of his wives Ibn Battuta also had a son. These women refused to leave the island, so therefore Ibn Battuta separated from all of them and left his wives and son behind to continue travelling. He visited Sumatra and maybe even China (as stated, historians find that doubtful). In 1349, he returned in Morocco after 25 years of travelling, and settled in Fez. Settling in Fez did not mean that Ibn Battuta was finished travelling, as he still visited Granada, Mali and Sudan while living in Fez. In Granada, Ibn Battuta met famous scholar Ibn Juzayy, who became his friend. Eventually, Ibn Juzayy would be the one to finalize Ibn Battuta’s travel logs, by turning Ibn Battuta’s notes into a complete and readable narrative.

Ibn Battuta passed away when he was 64 years old, a respectable age for those times.