The First And Greatest Islamic Travel Writer
Early in the fourteenth century there was something in the air. In 1336 Petrarch, an Italian scholar wrote the first European travel account. His journey was modest: he merely climbed a mountain and looked down from the peak at his companions who had refused to follow him. He wrote disparagingly of his cowardly friends and so a rich tradition of European travel writing was born. Little did Petrarch know, as he toiled up Mount Vetoux, that the first and arguably the greatest ever Islamic traveler and chronicler of times and places Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta was engaged in a journey that would take him 29 years. It would also make him a legendary travel writer, respected in Islamic history for taking the message of Islam wherever he went.
A great historian, traveler and storyteller of our own era, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, has made Ibn Battuta’s name famous in the West over the past decade. In 2001 his book Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battuta was published by John Murray, London. It is an account of his journey following the first leg of Ibn Battuta’s epic journey (just from Tangier to Constantinople – Ibn Battuta eventually covered three times the ground covered by Marco Polo) and is a marvelous transportation both across a territory largely unknown to the Western reader, namely north Africa and the near East, and between the 14th century and the present day. The book spread Ibn Battuta’s name more widely than ever before.
Not much is known about Ibn Battuta; all that we know of him he tells us himself. He was born in 1304 and died some time between 1368 and 1377. He was a Berber Sunni Islamic scholar and jurisprudent from the Maliki Madhhab, a school of Fiqh (Sunni) law and at times a Qadi or judge. But it is his work as an explorer and travel writer that earned him lasting fame. His various accounts document his travels and excursions over a period of almost thirty years, covering some 73 000 miles (117 000 km). Ibn Battuta’s journeys covered almost the entirety of the known Islamic world at that time, and beyond. His travels took him through north and west Africa, through southern and eastern Europe, the middle east, the Indian subcontinent, central and south-east Asia and China.
At the insistence of the Sultan of Morocco, Abu Inan Faris, Ibn Battuta dictated accounts of his travels to a scholar named Ibn Juzayy, whom he had met while in Granada, the seat of Islamic Spain. The account, written by Ibn Juzayy and interspersed with the latter’s own comments, is the primary source of information about his journeys. The title of the work may be translated as A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling, but is most often referred to simply as the Rihla or Journey. While apparently fictional in part, the Rihla still gives as complete an account as exists, of these parts of the world in 14th century. For centuries his book was practically unknown even in the Islamic world, but in 1800 it was rediscovered and translated into several European languages.
Although hazardous in the extreme, Ibn Battuta survived all his journeys unscathed. He died in Morocco at a ripe old age (for those times) of over 60. He succumbed to the same disease that claimed his mother’s life — the Black Plague.