H. A. R. Gibb (essay date 1929)
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.]
1. IBN BATTúTA AND 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...
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