Ibn Battuta Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Ibn Battuta 1304-1369

(Full name Abu Abdallah Muhamad ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Lawati) Moroccan travel writer and historian.

Renowned for his travels throughout the Islamic world and beyond, Ibn Battuta is believed to have covered over 75,000 miles in his journeys—three times the distance of Marco Polo's famous journey to Cathay. Battuta recounted his travels, dictated from memory, for one of the principal secretaries of the Sultan of Morocco. Battuta's narrative includes accounts of places, persons, societies, customs and ceremonies he encountered, and proves a rare chronicle of Islamic life during the fourteenth century.

Biographical Information

Ibn Batutta was born on February 24, 1304 at Tangiers, Morocco. He is believed to have belonged to an upper class family that settled in Tangiers many generations before Battuta's birth. Many of the men in his family served as qadis, or judges, a profession Battuta also adopted once he finished his travels and settled in Fez. Battuta began his journeys in 1325, visiting lands throughout the Islamic realm. He enjoyed the favor of many of the lords at whose courts he stopped, often serving them as a courtier or ambassador. Battuta was married and divorced several times, and at one time owned slaves. He also traveled as a religious pilgrim, assimilating the lessons he learned from the various holy men he encountered. Battuta escaped the Black Death—a plague that devastated populations worldwide—in 1348. When his extravagance and prominence aroused the suspicions of rulers in Delhi and the Maldive Islands, Battuta again managed to avoid disaster and was allowed to continue his travels.

Major Works

Upon his return to Fez Ibn Battuta regaled the Sultan of Morocco and his court with tales of his adventures. The Sultan then hired a secretary, Ibn Juzayy, to document the tales in writing. The resulting rhila, or travel book, entitled Tuhfat al-nuzzār fī Gharā'ib al-amsār wa-‘ajā'ib al-asfār [Gift to Those Eager to Observe the Wonders of Cities and Marvels of Journeys, 1358], contains Juzayy's transcription of Battuta's tales, edited and embellished upon by the secretary, who at times drew upon the writings of Ibn Jubayr, a twelfth-century Andulusian scholar.

Critical Reception

Battuta's narrative is valued for the literary merits of its vivid description and comprehensive analysis of medieval Islamic life as well as for its utility to archeologists and other scholars for whom the work serves as a unique guide to the relics and ruins of the society in which Ibn Battuta lived. Critics have assessed the rhila's credibility as a historic document, concluding that many dates and exact details were greatly altered by Battuta and Juzayy. The treatment of women in the narrative has been examined by at least one critic, Marina A. Tolmacheva, who maintains that the travelogue is an historically and culturally significant account of the quality of life for Muslim women in Battuta's era. Modern writers continue to publish accounts of their attempts to retrace Battuta's route, providing their own descriptions of their surroundings and comparing them with the depiction of the same locations in the fourteenth century.