Ibn Battuta Criticism - Essay

H. A. R. Gibb (essay date 1929)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Gibb, H. A. R. Introduction to Ibn Battuta: Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354, translated and selected by Robert M. McBride, pp. 1-42. New York: Robert M. McBride and Company, 1929.

[In the following excerpt, Gibb describes Ibn Battuta's travels and discusses the value of his work.]


To the world of today the men of medieval Christendom already seem remote and unfamiliar. Their names and deeds are recorded in our history-books, their monuments still adorn our cities, but our kinship with them is a thing unreal, which costs an effort of the imagination. How much more must this apply to the great Islamic civilization, that stood over against medieval Europe, menacing its existence and yet linked to it by a hundred ties that even war and fear could not sever. Its monuments too abide, for those who may have the fortune to visit them, but its men and manners are to most of us utterly unknown, or dimly conceived in the romantic image of the Arabian Nights. Even for the specialist it is difficult to reconstruct their lives and see them as they were. Histories and biographies there are in quantity, but the historians, for all their picturesque details, seldom show the ability to select the essential and to give their figures that touch of the intimate which makes them live again for the reader. It is in this faculty that Ibn Battúta excels. Of the multitudes that crowd upon the stage in the pageant of medieval Islam there is no figure more instinct with life than his. In his book he not only lays before us a faithful portrait of himself, with all his virtues and his failings, but evokes a whole age as it were from the dead. These travels have been ransacked by historians and geographers, but no estimate of his work is even faintly satisfactory which does not bear in mind that it is first and foremost a human diary, in which the tale of facts is subordinated to the interests and preoccupations of the diarist and his audience. It is impossible not to feel a liking for the character it reveals to us, generous to excess, humane in an age when life was at its cheapest, bold (did ever medieval traveller fear the sea less?), fond of pleasure and uxorious to a degree, but controlled withal by a deep vein of piety and devotion, a man with all the makings of a sinner, and something of a saint.

Of the external events of Ibn Battúta's life we know little beyond what he himself tells us. The editor of the travels, Ibn Juzayy, notes that he was born at Tangier on 24th February, 1304, and from a brief reference in a later book of biographies we know that after his return to Morocco he was appointed qádí or judge in one of the Moroccan towns, and died there in 1368 or 1369. His own name was Muhammad son of Abdalláh, Ibn Battúta being the family name, still to be found in Morocco. His family had apparently been settled in Tangier for some generations and belonged to the Berber tribe of the Luwáta, which first appears in history as a nomadic tribe in Cyrenaica and on the borders of Egypt. For the rest he divulges incidentally in a passage relating to his appointment as qádí in Delhi, that he came of a house which had produced a succession of qádís, and later on he mentions a cousin who was qádí of Rondah in Spain. He belonged, in consequence, to the religious upper-class, if the term may be used, of the Muhammadan community, and must have received the usual literary and scholastic education of the theologians. On one occasion he quotes a poem of his own composition, but the other verses quoted here and there obviously bear a more popular character than the elaborate productions of the best Arabic poetic schools. His professional interest in men and matters religious may be seen on nearly every page of his work. It is evident from the list of qádís and other theologians whom he saw in every town on his travels (sometimes to the exclusion of all other details), but above all from his eagerness to visit famous shaykhs and saints wherever he went, and the enthusiasm with which he relates instances of their miraculous gifts.

But to rate him, as some European scholars have done, for his “rigmaroles about Muhammadan saints and spiritualists” and for his “stupidity” in paying more attention to theologians than to details of the places he visited, is singularly out of place. Such religious details were matters in which he and his audience were most closely interested, and are by no means devoid of interest and value even to us. Out of them, moreover, spring some of the most lively passages of his narrative, such as his escape at Koel (the modern Aligarh), and his account of the Sharíf Abú Ghurra. But it is of far greater importance to remember that it was because he was a theologian and because of his interest in theologians that he undertook his travels at all and survived to complete them. When as a young man of twenty-one he set out from his native town with a light heart, and not much heavier purse, it was with no other aim than that of making the pilgrimage to Mecca and the holy places of his faith. The duty laid upon every Muslim of visiting Mecca at least once in his lifetime, so long as it lies within his power to do so, has been in all ages a stimulus to travel, far greater in degree than the stimulus of Christian pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. At the same time, it created the organization necessary to enable Muslims of every class from every country to carry out this obligation. The pilgrim on his journey travelled in a caravan whose numbers swelled at every stage. He found all arrangements made for his marches and his halts, and if the road lay through dangerous country, his caravan was protected by an escort of soldiers. In all large centres as well as many intermediate stations were rest houses and hospices where he was hospitably welcomed and entertained out of endowments created by generations of benefactors. When such was the lot of every pilgrim, the theologian received still greater consideration. His brethren in every town received him as one of themselves, furnished his wants, and recommended him to those at the next station. Under these circumstances the brotherhood of Islám, which knows no difference of race or birth, showed at its best, and provided an incentive to travel unknown in any other age or community.

Nor was the Pilgrimage the only institution which smoothed the traveller's path. Throughout the Middle Ages the trade routes of Africa and Asia and the sea-borne trade of the Indian Ocean were almost exclusively in the hands of the Muslim merchants. The travels of Ibn Battúta are but one of many sources which reveal how widespread were their activities. Though their caravans were exposed to greater dangers in times of lawlessness and disorganization than were the pilgrim caravans, they offered at least a measure of security to the casual traveller. It is evident from our narratives that in the great majority of cases they were animated by the same spirit of kindliness and generosity that has always marked the mutual relations of Muslims, and readily shared their resources with their fellow-travellers in case of need. Later on Ibn Battúta had more than once occasion to appreciate their services, but at the outset he had no thought of what the future held for him.

On his arrival in Egypt, with his mind still wholly set on Mecca, he received the first premonitions of his future from two of the illuminati, or saints who had attained a high rank in the hierarchy of the Muslim orders. From this point we see his vague desires gradually crystallize into a definite ambition, though he still hesitates from time to time, especially when his contacts with persons of saintly life awaken all his instincts of devotion. Foiled in his first intention of taking the direct route to Mecca through Upper Egypt (the usual route of the pilgrim caravans from the West), he determined to join instead the pilgrim caravan from Damascus, and on his way thither tasted for the first time the joys of travel for its own sake. As time was not pressing, he wandered at leisure through the whole of Syria as far as the borders of Asia Minor, before returning to Damascus to join the caravan as it set out for the Holy Cities.

Hardly was this first Pilgrimage over than he set out again to visit ‘Iráq, but turned back sharply before reaching Baghdád, and made a long detour through Khuzistán. By now, he tells us, he had taken the resolve never to cover the same ground twice, as far as possible. His mind was still set on the Pilgrimage, however, and he planned his journey to cover the interval before returning to Mecca at the end of the year. This time he renounced further travelling for a space of three years and gave himself up to study and devotion at Mecca. For the theologian the Pilgrimage meant not only the performance of one of the principal obligations of the Faith, but an opportunity of putting himself in touch with the activities of the religious centre of Islam. Mecca was the ideal centre of religious study, in the company of many of the most eminent doctors of the day. All this, no doubt, was in Ibn Battúta's mind. But we may, I think, discern a further purpose. He had already made up his mind to seek his fortune in India, to which the boundless munificence of the reigning Sultan of Delhi was then attracting large numbers of scholars and theologians from other countries. The years spent at Mecca would confer on him a better status, and render him eligible for a higher post than he could otherwise hope for.

On completing his years of study he made a tour with a retinue of followers to the trading stations on the east coast of Africa, returning as before to Mecca, then turned his back on the Holy City and set out for India. But the journey was to be longer and more adventurous than he anticipated. At Jedda there was no ship to be had bound for India, whereupon moved by some obscure impulse he turned northwards instead and began his great tour. As we follow him through the cities of Asia Minor, where he received an enthusiastic welcome from the local religious brotherhoods, across the Black Sea to the territories of the Mongol Khán of the Golden Horde, and after taking advantage of an opportunity to visit Constantinople, striking across the steppes to Central Asia and Khurásán, we find him becoming an increasingly important personage, attended by a swelling throng of followers, and becoming possessed of such means that he “dare not mention the number of his horses in case some sceptic should accuse him of lying.”

So at last he entered India by the north-western gateway, being received with honour and escorted to Delhi, where, though he obtained a full share of the Sultan's bounty and was appointed to a rich sinecure as Málikite qádí of Delhi, he was but one figure, and in no way specially remarkable among many. For seven years or so Ibn Battúta remained in this position, sometimes accompanying the Sultan on his expeditions, sometimes engaged in his occupations at Delhi, storing up in his memory all the while those acute observations which he afterwards wove into one of the most remarkable descriptions we possess of any medieval Muslim court. Little did Sultan or courtiers think that six centuries afterwards their reputations would depend on the notes and...

(The entire section is 4661 words.)

H. T. Norris (essay date 1959)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Norris, H. T. “Ibn Battūta's Andalusian Journey.” Geographical Journal 125, no. 2 (June 1959): 186-96.

[In the following essay, Norris traces Ibn Battuta's travels to Andalusia, describing the places he visited and presenting the journey as it might have appeared to the traveler.]

It is strange that Shaykh Abū ‘Abdallah Muḥammad Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, one of the greatest of Muslim travellers, should have delayed his major visit to Spain until the latter part of his career. He was born in Tangier, within sight of the Spanish coast, on 24 February 1304 and he died in 1368/69, in Morocco, “the best of countries, for in it fruits are plentiful and running...

(The entire section is 7699 words.)

Said Hamdun and Noël King (essay date 1975)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Hamdun, Said and Noël King. Introduction to Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, pp. 1-9, 12. Princeton, N. J.: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1994.

[In the following excerpt from an essay first published in 1975, Hamdun and King offer an evaluation of Ibn Battuta's travel narrative.]

Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, who was born at Tangier in North Africa in 1304 and died not far from there some sixty-five years later, was the greatest of the pre-modern travellers and will go down in history as being notable among the travellers of all time. Benjamin of Tudela, a Jew from Spain who in the second half of the twelfth century travelled to Baghdad and back, hardly touched central or south...

(The entire section is 2475 words.)

Ian Richard Netton (essay date 1984)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Netton, Ian Richardson. “Myth, Miracle, and Magic in the Rihla of Ibn Battuta.” Journal of Semitic Studies 29, no. 1 (spring 1984): 131-40.

[In the following essay, Netton argues that the Rihla of Ibn Battuta is structured like a frame story for fantastic tales.]

The riḥla in mediaeval Arabic literature is, perhaps, best regarded as an art form rather than a formal geography. Indeed, Janssens believes that Ibn Baṭṭūṭa considered the actual travel as an art as well, one that had its own set rules and regulations including a canon not to retrace one's steps wherever possible.1 But academic, scientific geography did not...

(The entire section is 4352 words.)

Ross E. Dunn (essay date 1986)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Dunn, Ross E. “Persia and Iraq.” In The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century, pp. 81-105. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

[In the following entry, Dunn describes Ibn Battuta's travels in the Iraq-Persia region.]

He also said: “After us the descendants of our clan will wear gold embroidered garments, eat rich and sweet food, ride fine horses, and embrace beautiful women but they will not say that they owe all this to their fathers and elder brothers, and they will forget us and those great times.”1

The Yasa of Genghis Kahn


(The entire section is 10369 words.)

Ian Richard Netton (essay date 1986)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Netton, Ian Richard. “Arabia and the Pilgrim Paradigm of Ibn Battuta: A Braudelian Approach.” In Arabia and the Gulf: From Traditional Society to Modern States, pp. 29-42. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1986.

[In the following essay, Netton argues that Ibn Battuta's account of his travels is not a random narrative, but is organized to show the patterns and characteristics of the Islamic world of his era.]

The Riḥla of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa (ad 1304-1368/9 or 1377) has been tackled over the years by a multitude of scholars in a variety of different ways. Often, however, the various studies which have been published have concentrated—to use,...

(The entire section is 5938 words.)

Adel Allouche (essay date 1990)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Allouch, Adel. “A Study of Ibn Battūtah's Account of His 726/1326 Journey through Syria and Arabia.” Journal of Semitic Studies 35, no. 2 (autumn 1990): 283-99.

[In the following essay, Allouche evaluates the narrative credibility of Ibn Battuta's travel accounts, especially with regard to chronology.]

The Riḥlah of Ibn Baṭṭūṭah (d. 770/1368-9) encompasses a wide spectrum of information regarding the lands this famed traveller visited in almost thirty years of continuous travel, from 725/1325 to 754/1354. The commonly accepted view, since the Riḥlah's first edition by C. Defrémery and B. R. Sanguinetti,1 has been that...

(The entire section is 6607 words.)

Thomas J. Abercrombie (essay date 1991)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Abercrombie, Thomas J. “Ibn Battuta, Prince of Travelers.” National Geographic 180, no. 6 (December 1991): 2-49.

[In the following essay, Abercromie chronicles his own journey following in the footsteps of Ibn Battuta.]

“In the name of Allah, the Benevolent, the Compassionate,” intones the blue-robed imam, his deep voice challenging the silence of the Sahara. Behind him, along a line he has scratched in the sand, men and boys of the caravan form a ragged rank, facing distant Mecca.

“Guide us on the straight path, the path of those you have blessed … not those who have gone astray,” the imam prays, concluding the Koran's opening...

(The entire section is 9479 words.)

Marina A. Tolmacheva (essay date 1993)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Tolmacheva, Marina A. “Ibn Battuta on Women's Travel in the Dar al-Islam.” In Woman and the Journey: The Female Travel Experience, edited by Bonnie Frederick and Susan H. McLeod, pp. 119-40. Pullman, Wash.: Washington State University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Tolmacheva examines the situation of Islamic women in the fourteenth century through Ibn Battuta's accounts of women's travel.]

Studies of Islamic culture have not explored the subject of travel by medieval women. It has been recently noted that, in general, “the role of travel in Muslim societies and in Islamic doctrine is not a topic which has been systematically explored by historians...

(The entire section is 8603 words.)

Ross E. Dunn (essay date 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Dunn, Ross E. Foreword to Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, translated by Said Hamdun and Noël King, pp. ix-xxxii. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1994.

[In the following essay, Dunn comments on the cultural background of the places Ibn Battuta visited in Africa.]

In 1325 ad the young legal scholar Abu Abdallah ibn Battuta set out from his native city of Tangier on the north coast of Morocco to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. “I braced my resolution to quit all my dear ones,” he tells us in his celebrated Rihla, or Book of Travels. “I set out alone, having neither fellow-traveler in whose companionship I might find cheer nor...

(The entire section is 4838 words.)