Written by Douglas Bullis. Illustrated by Norman MacDonald
At age 21, Ibn Battuta “set out alone, having neither fellow-traveler in whose companionship
I might find cheer, nor caravan whose party I might join, but swayed by an overmastering impulse within me, and a desire long-cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries [of Makkah and Madinah]. So I braced my resolution to quit all my dear ones…and forsook my home as birds forsake their nests. My parents being yet in the bonds of life, it weighed sorely upon me to part from them, and both they and I were afflicted with sorrow at this separation.” He did not return to Tangier until 1349, some 24 years
Despite his travels and his book, Ibn Battuta was not a travel writer in the modern sense. Four things can help us today understand what we read about his experiences between 1325 and 1354.
First, though the book is commonly referred to as “the Rihla,” that” is not its title, properly speaking, but its genre. (The title is Tuhfat al-Nuzzar fi Ghara’ib al-Amsar wa-‘Aja’ib al-Asfar, or A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling.) The Prophet Muhammad’s traditional injunction to “seek
knowledge, even as far as China” had the effect of legitimating travel, or even wanderlust, and, in the Islamic middle ages, gave rise to the concept of al-rihla fi talab al-‘ilm, travel in search of knowledge. In Islamic North Africa in the 12th to 14th centuries, as paper became increasingly widely available, educated men began to pen and circulate first-hand descriptions of their pilgrimages the Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah. Such an account was called a rihla, or “travelogue,” and it combined geographical and social
information about the route with the writer’s description of and emotional responses to the religious experience of the Hajj. The rihla is thus a category of Arab literature which Ibn Jubayr and, almost a century later, Ibn Battuta brought to its finest flowering.
Though Ibn Battuta’s Rihla is, at its roots, a work of devotion, its distinction from other works in the category lies in the vast sweep of the writer’s secular accounts: He embraces geography, politics, personalities, natural history, local customs and his own exploits, all mostly very far afield from the Holy Cities and the established routes of pilgrimage.
Ibn Battuta enlarged the scope of the rihla genre.
Second, the Rihla is a memoir. There is no evidence that Ibn Battuta took any notes that survived his peregrinations. Indeed, writing the Rihla was not even the traveler’s own idea: It was the brainchild of the Marinid sultan of Fez, who saw reason to record what Ibn Battuta had experienced—or, at least, what Ibn Battuta was able and willing to recall of his experiences. Given this fact, and the duration and complexity of Ibn Battuta’s sojourns, his many gaps, inconsistencies and self-regarding embellishments are
Third, the Rihla is what we would today call an oral history, and Ibn Battuta is not so much its author as its source. He dictated it over the course of two years to the sultan’s court poet, who claims, in an introduction, to have approached hisassignment with due humility. However, most scholars agree that Ibn Juzayy would have guided and edited Ibn Battuta’s recollections, and that, in addition to his own insertions, he took interpretive liberties with some of Ibn Battuta’s accounts, in all likelihood to bring them up to stylistic standards of the time and to make them more meaningful to his audience: the sultan in particular and educated gentlemen in general.
Finally, the Rihla comprises nearly 1000 pages in the four volumes of its leading English translation, and the present writer and editors have necessarily omitted more than they have included when selecting highlights from this vast text. For example, the present article describes mostly urban, secular experiences, albeit viewed through the eyes of a specialist in Islamic law; however, the Rihla abounds in accounts of holy places and revered people that we have largely omitted. Similarly, Ibn Battuta’s near-encounter
with what he and his shipmates unquestioningly regarded as the legendary rakhkh, or roc—the bird as big as a mountain that haunted the southern Indian Ocean—is also omitted from the present account.
Thus our world traveler’s adventures have been filtered several times—through his own memory, through his scribe’s literary preferences, through the modern editors of the Arabic text, through a translator, and through a writer and editors—to become the account you now hold in your hands. Nonetheless, we hope the result makes this astute, often delightfully idiosyncratic traveling companion more understandable than ever, for Ibn Battuta offers the clearest and broadest glimpse available to us of the daily workings
of a civilization that was arguably as successful in its worldwide reach 700 years ago as ours is today. He lets us gaze closely at unfamiliar people who, like us, were confident in their civilizational purpose. With Ibn Battuta we can vicariously travel the world during the age when Islam was the very definition of global civilization.
This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the July/August 2000 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.
Source: Saudi Aramco