Ross Dunn Keynote Address at Ibn Battuta Event
Ross Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century (University of California Press, 1989), new edition to be published shortly by UC Press.
Published: Wednesday, March 02, 2005
Abu Abdallah ibn Battuta was born in Morocco in 1304 and educated in Islamic law. At the age of twenty-one, he left home to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. This was only the first of a series of extraordinary journeys that spanned nearly three decades and took him not only eastward to India and China but also north to the Volga River valley and south to Tanzania.
Not as a citizen of a particular country but as a citizen of the Dar al-Islam.
I began thinking a number of years ago about the fact that 2004 was the 700th anniversary of the birth of Ibn Battuta by the Gregorian calendar, and hoping there would be some commemoration of that event. This is now the third I have participated in and one was held in Paris in June that I was not able to attend.
. . .
Let me take you back more than 670 years to the early winter of 1331. A small party of men and women are riding through a violent snowstorm in the hills of northwestern Turkey, Anatolia. The leader of the group is Abu Abdallah ibn Battuta, a Muslim legal scholar of Moroccan origin, who is on his way to the coast of the Black Sea. The travelers had been deserted by their guides. The path ahead is hidden by snow, and nightfall is rapidly falling over the forest. Ibn Battuta goes on ahead of the group to find help. Eventually he sees a building in the distance which turns out to be a lodge of Sufi mystics. He enters the hostel and tries to explain to the Sufi brethren that his companions need help fast. But he cannot make himself understood, because he does not speak any Turkish. Suddenly a member of the community comes forward who speaks Arabic, Ibn Battuta's native language. The Moroccan looks at this man and discovers that in fact he knows him.
As Ibn Battuta tells this in the narrative of his travels, “the two of us had an acquaintance.” An acquaintance? Here is Ibn Battuta several thousand miles from his homeland, traveling through the rural woodlands of northern Anatolia, and he meets somebody he knows. As the story turns out, the Arabic-speaking man quickly understands the emergency, a rescue party is sent out, and the lost travelers are found and brought safely to the lodge.
Well, Ibn Battuta was probably not as surprised as you might think to meet an acquaintance in the forests of Anatolia. In fact one of the more fascinating aspects of his travels for 29 years through the equivalent of about 40 modern countries is that he was always running into people he knew. In Mecca, in north India, in Bengal, in China, in the African Sahara.
When he visited the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean in the 1340s he tried to keep secret that he had previously served as a qadi or Islamic judge in India. But some other travelers came to the Maldives who had known him personally in Delhi, 1600 miles away. They recognized him, spilled the beans to the local authorities, and he found himself shortly thereafter being appointed as a judge in the Maldive Islands, even though he didn't want to do it.
In southern China he met a man named al-Bushri who, it turned out, he had known previously in India. Al-Bushri was a scholar and merchant and he had come originally from Ceuta in Morocco, only forty miles from Tangiers where Ibn Battuta grew up. In his narrative account Ibn Battuta says, "When we conversed after our formal greeting, it occurred to me that I knew him. I looked at him for a long time. He said, 'I see you are looking at me as though you knew me.' I said, 'Which country are you from?' He said, 'From Ceuta.' I said, 'I'm from Tangiers.' He greeted me and wept. I wept, too. I said, 'Have you been to India?' He said, 'Yes, I have been to the capital, Delhi.' When he said that to me, I remembered him and said, 'Are you al-Bushri?' And he said, 'Yes, I am’.”
This, however, was not the end of the story. About five and a half years later Ibn Battuta was visiting an oasis in the northern Sahara desert at Sijilmasa, in the opposite, western end of the eastern hemisphere. Whom did he meet there but al-Bushri's brother? In the Rihla he says rather casually about the two brothers, “How far apart they are.” What an understatement.
So these are the places where Ibn Battuta met members of the al-Bushri family [Ceuta, Sijilmasa, Delhi, Fuzhou]. Today, when we travel, we may once in a while bump into someone we know while we are making an airport connection in Chicago or London. Well, six and a half centuries ago, the world's population was many times less than it is now. Cities were much smaller and more widely scattered. The pace of travel was limited to the speed of horses and sailing ships. So we might suppose that few people ever ventured beyond their homes.
In fact, the fourteenth-century world was a much more mobile one than we might imagine. Caravan routes and sea lanes were busy with travelers moving back and forth across the eastern hemisphere. Among these travelers, Muslims were to be seen from Spain and West Africa to Central Asia and southern China. Muslims were the preeminent travelers.
Why were Muslims, as we might say, all over the place? Muslim civilization dominated the central part of the Eastern Hemisphere and extended nearly all the way across it. Muslim merchants moved incessantly from region to region, carrying the greater part of the hemisphere's international trade.
Other Muslims made the holy pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, the Hajj, and many were away from home for many years. Still others traveled as diplomats, imperial messengers, wandering Sufis, soldiers, or cultured scholars in search of books and famous teachers.
Ibn Battuta's book of travels, called the Rihla -- the journey -- shows more dramatically than any other single document the range and cosmopolitanism of Islam as a civilization, especially in this period, from 1000 to 1500 C.E. Ibn Battuta traveled more that 73,000 miles, by my count. But he was almost always moving between one Muslim community and another, with one exception. In these cities and town he always found people that he shared language, religious faith, cultural values, and cultural understanding with, whatever their origin or color.
So Ibn Battuta really saw himself not as the citizen of a particular country, which is a modern idea, but as a kind of citizen of the Dar al-Islam, the house of Islam. The Dar al-Islam was a complex network of interconnected cities and town that spanned the hemisphere. It was a land either where Muslims predominated in the population or where they ruled.
So this was a world that included not only Muslims but also Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus. Let's trace Ibn Battuta’s travels, rather simplified, on this map [see above]. Well, who was this man who traveled so far? His full name was Abu abd Allah Muhammad Ibn abd Allah al-Lawati at-Tanji Ibn Battuta. The Al-Lawati, as the [Moroccan] Minister pointed out, signified that his family was of Berber origin. We have no evidence that he spoke a Berber language. In speech, dress, and culture he was a sophisticated city-dwelling Arab.
He came from a family of legal scholars and it is clear that he received a good, basic education in Tangiers in the religious and legal sciences. Specifically, he would have learned the Maliki system of legal interpretation. There are four major schools of Islamic law in Sunni Islam, each teaching slightly varying in interpretations. The Maliki School was the one that dominated in North Africa.
Tangiers is on the western end of North Africa, facing Gibraltar and nearly facing the Atlantic Ocean. It was a cosmopolitan city. Not a big one, but nonetheless it was visited by merchants not only from the Muslim world but also Italians, Genoese, Venetians, Catalans, and others from Europe. So he may have grown up in this environment developing an urge to travel.
He received a good education there because of his family background. We can imagine that he would have participated in a lesson circle with other small boys with a teacher to learn the Quran, and then gone on from there to more advanced studies.
He left home at the age of 21 to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. This was a long journey, but for a young legal scholar not a particularly unusual one. Why didn't he just go to Mecca and then come home again? I think we can identify five interrelated motives for his heroic travels. First, he traveled to make the Hajj, which he did not once but at least five times. Mecca became the hub of his travels. Much of the time he was either traveling to or away from Mecca. He did spend some extended time in Mecca. He didn't just pass through for the pilgrimage ceremonies.
Secondly he traveled as a man of knowledge and a member of the social class known as Ulema or people of learning. He identified himself as an educated gentleman who pursued studies in the religious and legal sciences. He studied with teachers in Damascus for a short time, and he almost certainly attended lectures in Mecca. But we should not think of him as a brilliant scholar, comparable, say, to the faculty of UCLA. He never wanted to stay in one place long enough to undertake intensive study. He did, though, visit many colleges of higher learning in different cities in order to meet and converse with local scholars. He visited colleges in Baghdad and in Cairo. So we know that he spent a good deal of time in madrasas where he could always get a bed and meals. And he could hang out with the local scholars, even though he doesn't seem to have done much studying himself.
Third, he traveled as a devotee of Sufism, which we might characterize as the mystical dimension of Islam, the dimension that emphasizes the individual quest to know God and his love. In the fourteenth-century Sufi teachings and practices were becoming well established in North Africa. He journeyed to a number of places specifically to visit a saintly Sufi master or the tomb of a Sufi saint in order to partake of the Baraka or divine blessing in the sense of divine grace that that saint might bestow on pious Muslims.
Fourth, he traveled to gain employment and generous rewards in the service of Muslim rulers.
Finally, we have to admit that he journeyed to some places just because they were there. He seems to have wanted to make a complete tour of the Muslim world, and he declares in his narrative that he wished to travel so that he would never ever retrace his steps. Well, he did not come close to managing that, but he gave it a good try.
What sort of world was it that would permit a Moroccan from the far western end of the Muslim world to range so far and wide in relative safety and at times with little money in his purse? At other times he had a lot of money in his purse; his fortunes vary greatly. Again, more generally, why were Muslims all over the place in the thirteen hundreds?
First of all, the second quarter of the fourteenth century was the twilight, you might say, of the age of the Mongols. This era was the century and a half or so when Mongols came. First the great conqueror Genghis Khan and then his sons and grandsons and great grandsons ruled a huge part of Eurasia. So at the time of Ibn Battuta's travels, at least the earlier part of that period, there were four great Mongol kingdoms, each of them a sprawling empire in its own right.
The rulers of these states generally encouraged and protected long-distance trade across their borders and tolerated merchants of all religions. In fact strong states were the rule in the early fourteenth century across much of the eastern hemisphere. These included, in addition to the Mongol states, the Mamluk sultanates of Egypt and Syria, the Delhi sultanate of northern India, the Mali empire in West Africa, and the Marinid kingdoms in Morocco.
In regions where there were no large kingdoms there were nonetheless prospering, stable city-states. Venice, Genoa, Mogadishu, Calicut, and many others. Merchants and other travelers moved quite freely from port to port and town to town with little hindrance except from bandits, pirates, bad weather, and disease.
In other words, the first half of the fourteenth century was not a bad time for an adventurous Muslim like Ibn Battuta to make a trip, in fact the grand tour of Eurasia and Africa. The second half of the century was much bleaker. It started with the Black Death and was a time of trouble and turmoil across much of the hemisphere. If Ibn Battuta had been born maybe just a decade or two later, perhaps he would not have traveled at all.
There was also another quality to the world in which Ibn Battuta lived which helps explain the pattern and motives of his experience. John Voll, a scholar at Georgetown University, has suggested that the Dar al-Islam may be described as what he calls a world system of cultural and social communication. It was a dynamic, coherent network of cultural interchange that had great significance for Eurasian and African peoples in the pre-modern centuries. Voll sees this world system as what he calls a shared discourse. In other words it had cultural symbols, rules, patterns of expectation that Muslims shared.
Through the medium of this shared discourse Muslims exchanged ideas, did business, and cooperated in a wide variety of practical endeavors. And Jews and Christians regularly participated in this network as well.
In other words, Muslim civilization was not only religion, literature, art, and beautiful buildings. It was also a cultural network. It involved intense interaction across huge distances among peoples of diverse ethnic identities. This Islamic world system existed because Muslims, whether they were merchants or diplomats, soldiers or scholars like Ibn Battuta, were comfortably circulating within this world setting up new lines of communication and tightening already existing ones.
The remarkable expansion of Islam in this period involved a social movement that is the travel and migration of individuals who had literacy, special skills, or holiness and who were needed out on the frontier where the Islamicization of society was taking place.
So you might say that Ibn Battuta was a sort of educated frontiersman. He was an Arabic-speaking gentleman and lawyer from a North African city, and his social status as a member of the Ulema class qualified him to be treated with respect and even to get prestigious jobs out beyond the central lands of Islam, in places like East Africa, Anatolia, Central Asia, India, Southeast Asia, and West Africa. It is often said that military conquerors and merchants were the main agents in spreading Islam beyond the Middle East. But wherever a group of Muslims settled in an alien place, they aimed to conform their lives as best they could to the Sharia, the body of Islamic religious law.
The new community needed always to build Muslim institutions in order to conform their lives to the law. Institutions of law, worship, and education. And this required that literate religious and intellectual cadres be on hand. It was these educated specialists who laid the foundation of Muslim civilization in new areas. Also in places where Muslim warriors took power, warriors whose grandfathers were often sheep and horse and cattle herders, in places like that where they took power there was an even greater demand for educated personnel to supervise mosques, schools, courts, ministries of state, and of course, skilled builders, artisans and artists to create palaces, mosques, and colleges.
For the most part these educated people had to be recruited from the larger cities of the central lands, from Cairo, Damascus, Tunis, Fez, Isfahan, Samarkand. The rulers of new Muslim states in places like Anatolia, India, or West Africa knew the great political value of attracting jurists, professional theologians, and others from the great cities of the center and getting them out to the frontier, because these educated immigrants served to legitimize the status of rulers on the frontier as proper Muslim princes.
Ibn Battuta’s narrative includes many pages on the nearly eight years he spent in India. The ruler who employed him there was Muhammad Ibn Tughluq, the Turkish-speaking sultan of Delhi. This man was a true eccentric. A pious Muslim, very learned, but also erratic, unpredictable, and sometimes very, very nasty to people who crossed him. According to Ibn Battuta, Ibn Tughluq did not trust Muslims of Indian descent, let alone Hindu Indians. And so he tried to attract to the royal court Arabic- or Persian-speaking lawyers and administrators from abroad to serve him. He preferred them, Ibn Battuta tells us, to the people of India, singled them out for favor, showerd his benefits upon them, appointed them to higher offices of state, and confered upon them magnificent gifts.
So we can infer from Ibn Battuta’s narrative that quite early in his career he considered going to India to try his luck at the court of Delhi. India was one of the most dynamic frontiers of Islam in the fourteenth century. Ibn Battuta was aware that the sultan was trying to recruit educated people abroad. And the narrative mentions many, many names of people of Persian or Arab background who were also flocking to Delhi for these well-paying jobs.
Ibn Battuta arrived in India by way of inner Asia and Afghanistan, probably in 1334, though the dating here is problematic. He was soon introduced at court and he got a position as a qadi or judge. We can only conclude, though, that the job was something of a sinecure. In other words he didn't do much work. He was a scholar of the Maliki School of law in a country where a different school, the Hanafi, was practiced. He was not fluent in Persian. He knew some Persian but he wasn't fluent in it, even though that was the language of the bureaucracy and the law clerks.
Finally, he admits in the Rihla that he had Persian-speaking assistants who apparently performed most of the duties of the judgeship. Later he served as the administrator of one of the royal tombs. In these jobs he got, at least for a time, very well off indeed. Then rather suddenly he fell out of favor with Muhhamad Ibn Tughluq, as seemed to happen to almost everybody eventually. This was because he unwisely associated with a known dissident. He was even held prisoner in the palace for a time and he thought he was going to be executed. He writes in the Rihla, "The day on which they began…was a Friday and God most high inspired me to recite his words 'sufficient for us is God and excellent the protector.' I recited them that day 33,000 times and passed the night in the audience hall. I fasted five days on end, reciting the Quran from cover to cover each day and tasting nothing but water."
Well, his prayers paid off; he was released. Not only that, the sultan forgave him and in 1341 appointed him envoy to the Mongol emperor of China. As the narrative tells us, this mission never reached its destination because most of the ships assigned to it went down in a storm off the southern coast of India -- that is an adventure tale in itself that I won't go into here today. After the collapse of that expedition Ibn Battuta went on his own initiative to the Maldive Islands, which lie southwest of India. This string of atols was another region where Islam had been established not very long before.
The queen there welcomed foreign scholars who could lend prestige to this diminutive royal court. When the chief minister found out that Ibn Battuta was visiting and that he had been a qadi in Delhi, he literally forced him to take the post of chief judge. But Ibn Battuta quickly warmed to the job. He was zealous in enforcing the law. One thing he tried to do was to oblige women of the island to dress more modestly as he was used to seeing in the urban central lands of Islam. He tells us, "Most of the women wear only one apron, from the navel to the ground, the rest of their bodies being uncovered. It is thus that they walk abroad in the bazaars and elsewhere. When I was judge there I tried to put an end to this practice and ordered them to wear clothes, but I met with no success. No woman was admitted to my presence in a lawsuit unless her body was covered, but apart from that I was unable to affect anything."
In the Maldive Islands he also played the part of the frontier adventurer, more audaciously than he ever had before. There are some murky stories in the narrative, but he admits that he actually became involved in a plot to overthrow the queen and the prime minister and to install himself and others as new rulers of the islands. Well, the conspiracy never came to anything but it shows to what extent he was a man of ambition, not just a humble scholar.
When educated Muslims arrived in a place for the first time looking for employment they naturally tried to find entrée to elite political and scholarly families. It was the first thing that you would do. Marriage was undoubtedly an important institution in forging alliances between powerful local families and educated newcomers. Ibn Battuta contracted at least nine marriages in the course of his travels. In every case he made a social or a political connection to a local family that was useful to him. In Delhi he married a woman who was the daughter and sister of high government officials. In the Maldives he records a total of six marriages, most of them with politically prominent families. In fact he knew that a well-made marriage was a potential source of power. He says in the narrative, about his experience in the Maldives, "After I had become allied by marriage to the person who I have mentioned, the chief minister and the people stood in awe of me." Another translation would be "the people feared me,” because he was now connected.
Perhaps because of the difficulty and unsuitability of traveling long distances with wives he ultimately divorced all of them and returned to Morocco a single man. He also had a number of slave concubines, and he talks about them quite freely in the narrative, though he tells us little about his wives -- and we would not expect him to be frank in his narratives about his private domestic life. So we can imagine Ibn Battuta back at home in later middle age, holding some judgeship there and thinking about his unknown children growing up all along the eastern hemisphere.
In terms of the quality of his own learning, Ibn Battuta was probably typical of the educated frontiersman. He certainly had a strong undergraduate education before he left Tangiers. He also had the social status of a learned gentleman with a refined manner of dress, a standard of hygiene, a vocabulary that exploited that status. On the other hand there is no evidence that he was a scholar of unusual attainment. His narrative offers no evidence that he ever undertook the long years of study required to memorize and master the body of Malaki law books and other standard texts.
We do have some comments about Ibn Battuta, very brief ones, in a collection of biographies of notables, published in the fifteenth-century. The assessment of his scholarship here is not enthusiastic. The compiler quotes the famous scholar, Ibn al-Haqiq, to the affect that “Ibn Battuta had a modest share of the sciences.” Another translation is more blunt, “Ibn Battuta did not have too much of what it takes.”
The great traveler then was almost certainly an indifferent scholar who probably could never have gotten a prestigious civil or religious post, certainly not tenure in Cairo, Damascus, or Fez. But it was also men like Ibn Battuta, lacking advanced scholarship, but nonetheless culturally sophisticated, socially ambitious, and certainly in his case charming, who accounted for a large proportion of the educated people who gravitated out to the Muslim frontier. Out there rulers were less discriminating about the people they hired.
So, Ibn Battuta was a remarkable historical figure because of the sheer energy of his travels and because he took pains to compile a book about them, but his career was not unique. I think he fit the common focal type of the fourteenth-century among the educated class. He illustrates to me the fact that the Muslim civilization worked as an eminently cosmopolitan system of social links and cultural communication. I think it is safe to say that educated Muslims of that time possessed a more expansive consciousness of Euro-Asia and Africa as a whole, than any other group. However, to understand that and to grasp the significance of Ibn Battuta’s narratives, we must think of that entire landmass as one; Afro-Eurasia as a whole; it was the was the whole place on the map where events of world historical importance unfolded, and that was, in a sense, his home.
Well, Ibn Battuta finally returned to Morocco in 1349, having survived the Black Death, which was just then breaking out. He went back to Tangiers for a time, where his mother and father had both died in his absence, his mother perhaps of the Black Death. He also spent a short time in Granada, in Spain. And there in the autumn of 1351 he met a man named Ibn Juzayy, a young literary scholar who would figure importantly in his life a little later on.
He went back to Morocco, and then in 1351 he set out on his last great journey. This time his route was 80 days across the Western Sahara Desert, the most fearsome wilderness on the planet. Ibn Battuta’s descriptions of the many places he visited are precious historical documents because we have no other surviving eyewitness accounts from the fourteenth-century, and among the most valuable records is his description of the Empire of Mali which covered a huge part of the grasslands of West Africa. He is really the only eyewitness observer of Mali, at its imperial zenith in the middle of the 14th century; the only one to give us an account that has survived.
So his journey then starts here [pointing to map], and he crossed the Sahara into Mali. He would have traveled first across the high Atlas Mountains, down into the desert, and traveled along the River Ziz, which flows into the desert and disappears there. And he started his journey from Sijilmasa, which was then an important caravan city. Today there is a substantial population in that area, but the city itself is the ruin that you see here. And it was in Sijilmasa that he met al-Bushri's brother and stayed with him for about four months getting for the caravan journey across the desert.
Well, after that journey, he returned to Fez in 1354 and it was then that Sultan Abu Inan, the Marinid ruler of Morocco, heard about him and commanded him to set down an account of his travels. And if the Sultan says, “Write up your travels for me,” then you do it! And he did this with the assistance of this young literary scholar named Ibn Juzayy, whom he had met in Spain.
This scholar’s job, Ibn Juzayy’s job, was to take dictation from Ibn Battuta, or perhaps work from a rough draft. We have no evidence that Ibn Battuta arrived home with any notes. In Ibn Juzayy’s own words, his job was to report the travels faithfully, but also “giving care to the pruning and polishing of its language, and applying himself to clarification and adaptation to the taste of readers.” In other words, Ibn Juzayy was to be a good editor for a man who had no advanced training in Arabic grammar or literary style.
It is important to understand that Ibn Battuta’s Rihla is not a diary; it is not a journal that he composed along the road. It is a work of literature, and it belongs to the genre of literature called the Rihla, or book of travels centered on a pilgrimage to Mecca. This genre was particularly well developed in North Africa.
Well, we know almost nothing about Ibn Battuta after his Rihla was finished. He apparently became a judge in a Moroccan town. It might have been Anfa, a medieval city that today, unfortunately, lies buried underneath the modern city of Casa Blanca. The brief biographical mentions of him, and a few other books, say that he died in 1368 or 1369. By tradition his remains rest in Tangiers on Ibn Battuta Street and this is the little tomb that one can visit in the heart city. But there is no inscription there and no one is sure, and Moroccan scholars, others, will not say for sure that this is really where he is. But it does commemorate him.
As far as we know, the Rihla circulated among educated people in North Africa and eventually West Africa and Egypt up to modern times. Then in the mid-nineteenth-century, French scholars obtained copies of the manuscript in Algeria. They prepared a printed Arabic text together with a French translation. And it was from that point that Ibn Battuta began to assume his world-wide historical reputation as a journeyer. Some have referred to him as the “Marco Polo of Islam.” I would prefer to call Marco Polo the Ibn Battuta of Europe. The Rihla has been published in many languages, and of course including English.
Some students have asked me, “What did Ibn Battuta look like?” We have no idea other than the fact that he had a beard, which a number of the scholarly class would have had anyway. He [Ibn Battuta] mentioned that when he was traveling through the Ukraine in the winter, and performed ablutions for prayer, the water froze in his whiskers, it was so cold. In any case, we would have expected a number of the scholarly class to have whiskers and to probably also wear a turban. Other than that, the modern depictions of him are purely imaginative.
Finally, I am pleased that Ibn Battuta is becoming better known in the United States. Virtually all high school and college world history textbooks introduce him. Several popular magazines have featured Ibn Battuta, including the article by our friend Tom Abercrombie, in National Geographic, and you will hear from Tom later. I know of three or four, and maybe now after today, five or six documentary film projects that are at least in the talking stages. In 1999 the Islamic Museum of Kuwait produced an enchanting one-man act and multimedia show called, “The Travels of Ibn Battuta.” Several publications for young people have appeared in English, including a fantasy of the “Indiana Jones” variety.
Finally, I must mention that in 1976, and I say this particularly because of Kamal’s involvement here, in 1976 the International Astronomical Union honored the traveler by naming a lunar crater after him. It is 11 kilometers wide and on the near side of the moon; that is perhaps the greatest tribute of all.
One thing I have not done in this talk is raise the question, “Why should we believe anything that Ibn Battuta says?” Some of you may be familiar with a book that Francis Wood wrote some years ago, arguing that Marco Polo never went to China at all. We have John Mandeville, the fourteenth-century European writer, who describes world travels, when in fact he appears to have stayed in his armchair the entire time. Why should we trust Ibn Battuta’s Rihla? Well this is a question about the text that I am not going to raise here, but maybe some of my colleagues in the Panel Session later will want to do that, or I would be happy to discuss that with you. Thank you.