Ibn Battuta Research Paper

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Ibn Battuta, an Arab scholar and traveler, has garnered more recognition for his travel journals than Marco Polo. The accounts of his journeys in Eurasia and Africa, which record observations of nearly every conceivable facet of life in the fourteenth century, illuminate the values, customs, and cosmopolitanism of educated Muslims in the late Mongol era.

Among travelers of premodern times who have left any record of their adventures, Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Lawati at-Tanji ibn Battuta is unrivaled for distance covered and sights seen. The account of his journeys in Eurasia and Africa between 1325 and 1354 is one of the most absorbing and historically valuable documents to come down to us from the medieval era. His Rihla strikingly reveals both the far-flung cosmopolitanism of Muslim civilization in the fourteenth century and the dense networks of communication and exchange that linked together nearly all parts of the Eastern Hemisphere at that time.

Born in Tangier, Morocco, in the time of the Marinid dynasty, Ibn Battuta grew up in a family known for careers in legal scholarship. He received an education in the religious sciences, literature, and law befitting a young Arab gentleman. In 1324, he left Morocco to perform the holy pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca in western Arabia. Initially, he may have intended to study Islamic law in Cairo or one of the other Muslim university centers, and then return home to a respectable career in jurisprudence. Instead, he set forth on a remarkable twenty-nine year odyssey that took him from what is now Tanzania to Kazakhstan and from the South China Sea to tropical West Africa. He traveled by donkey, horse, camel, wagon, and ship, covering in all 116,000–120,000 kilometers. His account of his adventures includes numerous delights, tribulations, and brushes with death. He was shipwrecked off the coast of Sri Lanka, lost in a mountain blizzard in Anatolia, captured by Indian bandits, attacked by pirates off the Malabar Coast, nearly executed by the Sultan of Delhi, infected with disease, and drawn into a plot to overthrow the government of the Maldive Islands. He also married and divorced several times, bought and sold slaves, fathered children, and sat in audience with Mongol monarchs.

Everything we know about Ibn Battuta’s routes and destinations is to be found in the narrative he produced at the end of his traveling career. The itinerary and chronology as he reports them are complex and often puzzling, but despite numerous uncertainties, we may with some confidence group the travels into ten major periods:

  1. 1325–1326. Tangier to Mecca by way of Cairo and Damascus.
  2. 1326–1327. Mecca to Iraq, western Iran, and back to Mecca.
  3. 1328–1330. Mecca to Yemen, East Africa, South Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and back to Mecca.
  4. 1330–1333. Mecca to Syria, Anatolia, the Pontic-Caspian steppes, Byzantium, the Volga River valley, Transoxiana (in presentday Uzbekistan), Afghanistan, and North India.
  5. 1333–1341. Residence in the Sultanate of Delhi and travels in North India.
  6. 1341–1345. Delhi to Gujarat, Malabar, the Maldive Islands, Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), and Bengal.
  7. 1345–1347. Bengal to Indochina, Sumatra, and southern China.
  8. 1347–1349. Southern China to Sumatra, Malabar, the Persian Gulf, western Iran, Syria, Egypt, Mecca, Tunis, and Morocco.
  9. 1349–1351. Travels in Morocco and southern Spain, including visits to Fez, Tangier, Gibraltar, Granada, Sale, and Marrakech.
  10. 1351–1354. Sijilmasa on the northern fringe of the Moroccan Sahara to the West African Sudan, and back to Fez.

The relatively stable political conditions that prevailed in many parts of Afro-Eurasia in the second quarter of the fourteenth century no doubt facilitated Ibn Battuta’s prodigious journeys. This was the twilight of the age of Mongol dominance. When he began his traveling career, four great Mongol states, three of them Muslim, ruled the greater part of Eurasia. Among other large and flourishing states were the Mamluk Empire in Egypt and Syria, the Sultanate of Delhi in North India, and the Mali Empire in West Africa—all Muslim. Typically, the rulers of these states encouraged long-distance trade and provided security for the interurban journeys of Muslim diplomats, preachers, and scholars, including Ibn Battuta.

Ibn Battuta’s motives for travel were many. First, he journeyed as a religious pilgrim. He took part in the rituals of the hajj in Mecca six or seven times during his career, and indeed the Holy City became the central hub of his peregrinations. Second, he traveled to pursue advanced studies in Islamic law, though he attended lectures, as far as we know, only in Damascus and Mecca. Third, he traveled as a devotee of Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam. He visited a number of cities and Sufilodges specifically to pay his respects to living scholar-saints or to the tombs of deceased ones, thus sharing in the aura of divine grace associated with them. Fourth, he journeyed to seek employment. In Delhi, he received generous salaries and honors for serving the Muslim Turkic government as both a judge and a royal mausoleum administrator. For several months he held a judgeship in the Maldive Islands. We must also accept that his motive for visiting some places, tropical East Africa, for example, was simply that these were parts of the Muslim world he had not yet seen.

According to the scant references to him that appear in other Arabic texts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, he died in 1368 or 1369, after serving in his later years as a judge in an unidentified Moroccan town. A tomb where tradition says he is buried still stands in the heart of Tangier. The Moroccan scholar Abelhadi al-Tazi has recently reported documentary evidence suggesting that the traveler’s bones may rest in Anfa, a port town that today lies beneath modern Casablanca.

Ibn Battuta identified himself with the Muslim learned class (ulama), and that status, which he displayed in piety, dress, social manners, and religious knowledge, gained him entry to the homes and princely courts of the powerful and rich. We have no evidence, however, that he was an especially accomplished intellectual. When he ended his traveling career in Fez, he wrote the account of his adventures in collaboration with Muhammad Ibn Juzayy (1321– 1356 or 1358), a young Moroccan scholar, who had skills Ibn Battuta did not possess to compose the travels in proper literary form.

Formally titled “A Gift to the Observers Concerning the Curiosities of the Cities and the Marvels Encountered in Travels,” the Rihla circulated in manuscript form among educated North Africans in the fourteenth century and in West Africa, Egypt, and possibly Syria in subsequent centuries. In the mid-nineteenth century, French scholars discovered manuscript copies of the Rihla in Algeria and prepared both a printed Arabic text and a French translation. Since then, the account has been translated into English, Spanish, German, Persian, and several other languages. In recent years, Ibn Battuta has become more widely known in Western countries owing to publication of popular articles about him and to his inclusion in most encyclopedias and world history textbooks.

The Rihla is of immense documentary value, partly because it illuminates the values, customs, and cosmopolitanism of educated Muslims in the late Mongol era and partly because Ibn Battuta recorded observations of nearly every conceivable facet of life in Muslim and in some measure non-Muslim societies. His subjects of lively and sometimes critical commentary include religion, education, state politics, royal ceremony, law, warfare, gender relations, slavery, trade, agriculture, cuisine, manufacturing, geography, transport, and the achievements and failings of numerous jurists, theologians, monarchs, and governors. The Rihla is the only surviving eyewitness account from the fourteenth century of the Maldive Islands, Sudanic West Africa, and several other regions.

The book belongs to the genre of literature known as rihla, that is, an account of journeys usually centered on a pilgrimage to Mecca. This genre flowered in North Africa and Muslim Spain between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, and Ibn Battuta’s text is the most ambitious representation of it. Scholars agree on the authenticity and reliability of the Rihla in general, and independent sources have corroborated many of the traveler’s detailed observations. Even so, the itinerary and chronology present numerous inconsistencies and conundrums, and the journeyer’s statements are sometimes inaccurate. Parts of the descriptions of Syria, Iraq, and Arabia are copied, usually without attestation, from at least two other earlier travel accounts, though we cannot be sure how much responsibility for this borrowing might lie with Ibn Juzayy or later copyists. Scholars have also concluded that the accounts of journeys to Bulghar on the upper Volga River, to the city of Sanaa in Yemen, and to northern China are almost certainly fabrications. Moreover, debate continues regarding the trustworthiness of Ibn Battuta’s claim to have visited any part of China. Nevertheless, the Rihla is a preeminent source for fourteenth-century world history, and because its author reveals so much about his own personality, attitudes, and opinions (far more than does his near contemporary Marco Polo), the narrative continues to captivate modern readers.


  1. Abercrombie, T. J. (1991). Ibn Battuta: Prince of travelers. National Geographic, 180(6), 3–49.
  2. Beckingham, C. F. (1993). The Rihla: Fact or fiction? In I. R. Netton (Ed.), Golden roads: Migration, pilgrimage and travel in mediaeval and modern Islam (pp. 86–94). Richmond, U.K.: Curzon Press.
  3. Dunn, R. E. (1993). Migrations of literate Muslims in the middle periods: The case of Ibn Battuta. In I. R. Netton (Ed.), Golden roads: Migration, pilgrimage and travel in mediaeval and modern Islam (pp. 75–85). Richmond, U.K.: Curzon Press.
  4. Dunn, R. E. (2004). The adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim traveler of the 14th century (2nd ed). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  5. Gibb, H. A. R. (Trans.). (1958–2001). The travels of Ibn Battuta, a.d. 1325–1354, Translated with Notes from the Arabic Text (C. Defremery & B. R. Sanguinetti, Eds.) Vols. 1–3, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press for the Hakluyt Society;. Vol. 4, London: Hakluyt Society; Vol. 5 (Index, A. D. H. Bivar, Compiler), Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing.
  6. Hamdun, S., & King, N. (Trans. & Eds.). (1994). Ibn Battuta in Black Africa. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener.
  7. Hrbek, I. (1962). The chronology of Ibn Battuta’s travels. Archiv Orientalni, 30, 409–486.
  8. Mackintosh-Smith, T. (2001). Travels with a tangerine: A journey in the footnotes of Ibn Battutah. London: Picador.
  9. Mackintosh-Smith, T. (Ed.). (2003). The travels of Ibn Battutah. London: Picador.
  10. Universite Abdelmalek Essaadi. (1996). Ibn Battuta: Actes du Colloque international organize par l’Ecole Superieure Roi Fahd de Traduction a Tanger les 27, 28, 29 Octobre 1993. [Ibn Battuta: Proceedings of the International Colloquium Organized by the King Fahd Advanced School of Translation at Tangier le 27, 28, and 29 October, 1993] Tangier, Morocco: L’Ecole Superieure Roi Fahd de Traduction.

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