Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Battuta

Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Battuta (1304 to 1368 or 1377, year of death uncertain) was born in Tangier, Moroccoduring the time of the Merinid Sultanate, which ruled in the Islamic calendar year 703. He was born into a Berber family and was a Sunni Muslim scholar and jurisprudent from the Maliki Madhhab (a school of Fiqh, Islamic law). At times he also acted as a Qadi or judge. However, he is best known as an extensive traveler or explorer, whose written account of his journeys documents travels and excursions over a period of almost 30 years and covering some 75,000 miles (120,700 km). He traversed almost all of the known Islamic world of his day, extending also to present-day India, theMaldives, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia and China, a distance readily surpassing that of his prior, near-contemporary and traveler Marco Polo. While the Muslim world was governed by many different dynasties, Ibn Battuta’s experiences show that there was a remarkable religious and cultural uniformity, evidenced by his ability to gain legal employment in numerous locations.

Almost all that is known about Ibn Battuta’s life comes from one source—Ibn Battuta himself (via the scribe Ibn Juzayy). Some aspects of his autobiographical account are probably fanciful, but for many others, there is no way to differentiate between his reporting and story-telling. Therefore, details about his life are to be read with some caution, especially in cases where fictional additions are not obvious. Mernissi (1997) used his work to show how women did exercise authority within the Muslim world, since Battuta worked for women sultanas as well as for men.

His Account

His name may alternatively be rendered ibn Batuta, ibn Batuda or ibn Battutah. He is also sometimes known by the appellation Shams ad-Din, a title or honorific at times given to scholars particularly in the Islamic East, meaning “the Sun/Illuminator of the Faith.” His full title and name is given as Shams ad-Din Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammed ibn Ibrahim Ibn Battuta al-Lawati al-Tanji.

At the instigation of the Sultan of Morocco, Abu Inan Faris, several years after return from a journey, Ibn Battuta dictated an account of his travels to a scholar named Ibn Juzayy whom he had met while in Granada, Spain. This account, recorded by Ibn Juzayy and interspersed with the scribe’s own comments is the primary source of information for Ibn Battuta’s adventures. The title of this initial manuscript may be translated as A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling, but is often simply referred to as the Rihla, or “Journey.” Though apparently fictional in places, the Rihla still gives us the most complete an account we have on record for certain parts of the world in the fourteenth century.

The Hajj

At the age of (approximately) 20 years old, Ibn Battuta went on a hajj – a pilgrimage at Mecca. His journey to Mecca was by land, and followed the North African coast of the Maghreb region quite closely until he reached Cairo. At this point he was within Mameluk territory, which was relatively safe, and he embarked on the first of his detours. Three commonly used routes existed to Mecca, and Ibn Battuta chose the least-travelled: a journey up the Nile, then east by land to the Red Sea port of ‘Aydhad. However, upon approaching that city he was forced to turn back due to a local rebellion.

Returning to Cairo he took a second side trip, to Damascus (then also controlled by the Mamluks), having encountered a holy man during his first trip who prophesied that Ibn Battuta would only reach Mecca after a journey through Syria. An additional advantage to this side journey was that other holy places were along the route—Hebron, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, for example—and the Mameluke authorities put special effort into keeping the journey safe for pilgrims.

After spending the month of Ramadan in Damascus, Ibn Battuta joined a caravan travelling the 800 miles from Damascus to Medina, the city where Muhammad had been buried. After four days, Ibn Battuta journeyed on to Mecca. There he completed the usual rituals of a Muslim pilgrim, and having graduated to the status of al-Hajjias a result, now faced his return home. Instead of returning home to Morocco he continued traveling, eventually covering about 75,000 miles over the length and breadth of the Muslim world, and beyond (about 44 modern countries).

His next destination after Mecca was the Il-Khanate in modern-day Iraq and Iran.

To Iran and the Silk Road

Once again joining up with a caravan he crossed the border into Mesopotamia and visited al-Najaf, the burial place of the fourth Caliph Ali. From there he journeyed to Basra, then Isfahan, which was only a few decades later would be nearly destroyed by Timur. Next were the cities of Shiraz and Baghdad, the latter of which was in bad shape after Battle of Baghdad (1258) when it was sacked by Hulagu Khan.

On this leg of his journey Ibn Batttua met Abu Sa’id, the last ruler of the unified Il-Khanate. He traveled with the royal caravan for a while, then turned north to Tabriz on the Silk Road. The first major city in the region to open its gates to the Mongols, Tabriz had become an important trading center.

Second Hajj and East Africa

After this trip, Ibn Battuta returned to Mecca for a second hajj, and lived there for a year before embarking on a second great trek, this time down the Red Sea and the Eastern African coast. His first major stop was Aden, where his intention was to make his fortune as a trader of the goods that flowed into the Arabian Peninsula from around the Indian Ocean. Before doing so, however, he determined to have one last adventure, and signed on for a trip down the coast of Africa.

Spending about a week in each of his destinations, he visited, among other places, Ethiopia, Mogadishu, Somalia, Mombasa, Zanzibar, and Kilwa. Due to a change in the monsoon season, he and the ship he was aboard then returned to south Arabia. Having cut short what was to be his final adventure before settling down, he immediately decided to go visit Oman and the Straits of Hormuz before he journeyed to Mecca again.

Turkey and India

Ibn Battuta eventually sought employment with the Muslim sultan of Delhi. In need a guide and translator if he was to travel there, Ibn Battuta went to Anatolia, then under the control of the Seljuk Turks, to join up with one of the caravans that went from there to India. A sea voyage from Damascus on a Genoese ship landed him in Alanya on the southern coast of modern-day Turkey. From there he traveled by land to Konya and then Sinope on the Black Sea coast.

Crossing the Black Sea, Ibn Battuta landed in Caffa (now Feodosiya), in the Crimea, and entered the lands of the Golden Horde. There he bought a wagon and fortuitously joined the caravan of Ozbeg, the Golden Horde’s Khan, on a journey as far as Astrakhan on the Volga River. When Ibn Battuta reached Astrakhan, it coincided with the impending birth of one of the Khan’s children, an event for which the Khan had permitted his wife to return to her home city, Constantinople. Seeing the opportunity to visit that city, Ibn Battuta talked his way into that expedition, his first beyond the boundaries of the Islamic world.

Arriving there towards the end of 1332, he met the emperor Andronicus III and saw the exterior of the Hagia Sophia. After a month in Constantinople, Ibn Battuta retraced his route to Astrakhan, then carried on past the Caspian and Aral Seas to Bokhara and Samarkand. From there he journeyed south to Afghanistan, the mountain passes of which he used to cross into India, where, due to his years of study while in Mecca, Ibn Battuta was employed as a qadi (“judge”) by the sultan in Delhi.

Ibn Battuta veered between living the high life of a trusted subordinate, and being under suspicion for a variety of reasons. Eventually he resolved to leave on the pretext of taking another hajj, but the Sultan offered the alternative of being ambassador to China. Given the opportunity to both get away from the Sultan and visit new lands, Ibn Battuta agreed.

Southeast Asia and China

En route to the coast, he and his party were attacked by Hindu rebels, and, separated from the others, Ibn Battuta was robbed and nearly killed. Nevertheless, he managed to find his group within two days, and continued the journey to Cambay. From there they sailed to Calicut. While Ibn Battuta was visiting a mosque on shore, however, a storm blew up and two of the ships of his expedition sunk. The third then sailed away without him, and it ended up seized by a local king in Sumatra a few months later.

Fearful of returning to Delhi as a failure, he stayed for a time in the south under the protection of Jamal al-Din, but when his protector was overthrown, it became necessary for Ibn Battuta to leave India altogether. He resolved to continue to China, with a detour near the beginning of the journey to the Maldives.

In the Maldives he spent nine months, much more time than he had intended. As a qadi his skills were highly desirable in the less developed islands and he was cajoled into staying. Appointed as chief judge and marrying into the royal family, he became embroiled in local politics, and ended up leaving after wearing out his welcome by imposing strict judgments in what had been a laissez-faire island kingdom. From there he carried on to Ceylon for a visit to Adam’s Peak.

Setting sail from Ceylon, he encountered various difficulties, but Ibn Battuta once again worked his way back to Calicut. From there he sailed to the Maldives again before attempting once again to get to China.

This time he succeeded, reaching in quick succession Chittagong, Sumatra, Vietnam, and then finally Quanzhou in Fujian Province, China. From there he went north to Hangzhou, not far from modern-day Shanghai. He also claimed to have traveled even further north, through the Grand Canal to Beijing, but this is so unlikely it is believed to be one of his tales, as opposed to an actual event.

Return home and the Black Death

Returning to Quanzhou, Ibn Battuta decided to return home—though exactly where “home” was a bit of a problem. Returning to Calicut once again, he pondered throwing himself on the mercy of Muhammed Tughlaq, but thought better of it and decided to carry on to Makkah once again. Returning via Hormuz and the Il-Khanate, he saw that state dissolved into civil war, Abu Sa’id having died since his previous trip there.

Returning to Damascus with the intention of retracing the route of his first Hajj, he learned that his father had died. The plague called the Black Death had begun, and Ibn Battuta was on hand as it spread through Syria, Palestine, and Arabia. After reaching Makkah, he decided to return to Morocco, nearly a quarter of a century after having left it. During the trip he made one last detour to Sardinia, then returned to Tangier to discover that his mother had also died, a few months before his arrival.

Andalus and North Africa

Having settled in Tangier for only a brief time, Ibn Battuta then set out for a trip to al-Andalus—(Muslim Spain). Alfonso XI of Castile was threatening the conquest of Gibraltar, and Ibn Battuta joined a group of Muslims leaving Tangier with the intention of defending the port. By the time he arrived the Black Death had killed Alfonso and the threat had receded, so Ibn Battuta decided to spend his visit as a tourist instead of a defender. He traveled through Valencia, and ended up in Granada.

Leaving Spain, he decided to travel through one of the few parts of the Muslim world that he had never explored: his own homeland of Morocco. On his return home he stopped for a while in Marrakesh, which was vastly depopulated after the recent bout of plague and the transfer of the capital from there to Fez, Morocco.

Once more ibn Battuta returned to Tangier, and once more he moved on quickly. Two years before his own first visit to Cairo, the Malian king Mansa Musa had passed through the same city on his own Hajj, creating a sensation with his extravagant riches—approximately half the world’s gold supply at the time was coming from WestAfrica. While Ibn Battuta never mentioned this specifically, hearing of this during his own trip must have planted a seed in his mind, for around that time, he decided to set out and visit the Muslim kingdom on the far side of the Sahara Desert.


In the fall of 1351, Ibn Battuta set out from Fez, reaching the last Moroccan town he was to visit (Sijilmasa) a bit more than a week later. When the winter caravans began a few months later, he was with one, and within a month he was in the Central Saharan town of Taghaza. A center of the salt trade, Taghaza was awash with salt and Malian gold, though Ibn Battuta did not seem to have a favorable impression of the place. Another 500 miles through the worst part of the desert brought him to Mali, particularly the town of Walata.

From there he travelled southwest along a river he believed to be the Nile (but that was, in actuality, the Niger River) until he reached the capital of the Mali Empire. There he met Mansa Suleiman, who had been king since 1341. Dubious about what he took to be the miserly hospitality of the king, Ibn Battuta nevertheless stayed there for eight months before journeying back up the Niger to Timbuktu. Though in the next two centuries it would become the most important city in the region, at the time it was small and unimpressive, and Ibn Battuta soon moved on. During his his journey back across the desert, he received a message from the Sultan of Morocco, commanding him to return home, which he did, and where he remained for the rest of his life.

After the publication of the Rihla, little is known about Ibn Battuta’s life. He may have been appointed a qadi in Morocco. Ibn Battuta died in Morocco some time between 1368 and 1377. For centuries his book was obscure, even within the Muslim world, but in the 1800s it was rediscovered and translated into several European languages. Since then Ibn Battuta has grown in fame, and is now a well-known figure. His travelogue is one of the most famous to come out of the Middle East.



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