Ibn Battuta: A Scholar's Epic Journey

Seek knowledge even if the journey took all the way to China. (Proverb)

This morning I stumbled upon a video that mentions one famous traveler, Ibn Battuta. And the deeper I dig, the more fascinated I am by his journey. It is one thing to visit a place and buy merchandise before return to home, but another thing is to travel intentionally to explore foreign lands in the pursuit of knowledge and then go back home 24 years later.

The most inspiring thing about his life is that he was an outlandishly learned scholar who managed to parlay his knowledge of Islam into the most magnificent road trip in history. He went to Mali, Constantinople, India, Russia to Indonesia; he was probably the most well-traveled person before the invention of the steam engine. And everywhere he went, he was treated like a king, and then he went home and wrote a really famous book called "The Rihla" that people still read today.

Yap, it looks like he had the most awesome life ever.

Ibn Battuta was born into a family of Muslim legal scholars in Tangier, Morocco, in 1304 during the Marinid dynasty. The men in Ibn Battuta's family were legal scholars. He was raised with a focus on education; however, there was no "madrasa," or college of higher learning, in his home, Tangier. Thus, Ibn Battuta's urge to travel was spurred by his interest in finding the best teachers and libraries, which were then in Alexandria, Cairo, and Damascus. He also wanted to make the hajj as soon as possible out of eagerness and devotion to his faith.

Unlike Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta came from an educated family. And in fact, the idea to explore the Muslim world across the globe was not his initial intention. The life-altering event happened when he was twenty-one years old and quite alone in his hajj that he desired to travel and explore, as illustrated by this passage from The Rihla, his detailed account of his wondering:

“I set out alone, having neither fellow-traveler in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose part I might Join, but swayed by an overmastering impulse within me and a desire long-cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries. So I braced my resolution to quit my dear ones, female and male 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 Desperation

— from The Travels of Ibn Battuta

So, in June 1325, at the age of twenty-one, Ibn Battuta set off from his hometown — Morroco — on hajj to Mecca, a journey that would ordinarily take sixteen months at that time. And he would not see Morroco again for twenty-four years.

Batutta began his journey riding solo on a donkey but soon linked up with a pilgrim caravan as it snaked its way east across North Africa.

In his first journey, in the early spring of 1326, after a trip of over 3,500 km, Ibn Battuta arrived at the port of Alexandria, at the time, part of the Bahri Mamluk empire. He met two ascetic pious men in Alexandria. One was Sheikh Burhanuddin, who is supposed to have foretold the destiny of Ibn Battuta as a world traveler saying:

”It seemed to me that you are fond of foreign travel. You will visit my brother Fariduddin in India, Rukonunnid in Sind and Burhanuddin in China. Convey my greetings to them.”

And that became the moment for him to finally realize what he wanted to pursue.

The Journey

To talk about his itinerary alone overwhelms me, so I prefer just to put the map below:

Ibn Battuta's Itinerary

Ibn Battuta studied law as a young man before he left his native town to make the hajj to Mecca in Arabia in 1325. He took a year and a half to reach his destination, visiting North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria along the way. After completing his first hajj in 1326, he toured Iraq and Persia, then returned to Mecca. In 1328 he embarked upon a sea voyage that took him down the eastern coast of Africa as far south as the region of modern Tanzania. On his return voyage, he visited Oman and the Persian Gulf and returned to Mecca again by the overland route across central Arabia.

He then spent eight years in India, most of that time occupying a post as a qadi, or judge, in the government of Muhammad Tughluq, Sultan of Delhi. In 1341 the king appointed him to lead a diplomatic mission to the court of the Mongol emperor of China. The expedition ended disastrously in a shipwreck off the southwestern coast of India, leaving Ibn Battuta without employment or resources. For more than two years, he traveled to southern India, Ceylon, and the Maldive Islands, where he served for about eight months as a qadi under the local Muslim dynasty. Then, despite the failure of his ambassadorial mission, he resolved in 1345 to go to China on his own. Traveling by sea, he visited Bengal, Burma's coast, and Sumatra's island, then continued to Guangzhou.

During a career on the road spanning almost thirty years, he crossed the breadth of the Eastern Hemisphere, visited territories equivalent to about 40 modern countries, and put a total distance of approximately 73,000 miles behind him.

In his book The Rihla, Battuta explains various information regarding the kingdoms and places he has visited. Including the political condition, the culture, the economic situation to some trivial things about the weather.

Ibn Battuta was interested in political conditions and glories of foreign rulers; in all sorts of strange customs, such as those of marriage and burial; in the construction of Indian beds and the kind of fuel used in China; in strange inventions, such as wagons in the Crimea or supposed way of getting rid of vermin; in remarkable animals, minerals, and to a greater degree, trees and plants, especially those useful to humans.

And all these aspects help us today to understand life in all these diverse places in those times.

My first question about his journey was, how did he support himself?

Turns out mainly because he was a scholar of fiqh and was therefore in considerable demand wherever he went. Ibn Battuta has stayed to work as a Qadi in several places along the way; this means that you really get a broad sense of the politics and the people in each destination.

Other than that, it is likely because the Muslim faith inspired people to give money and gifts to travelers. And because Ibn Battuta was a student and eventually a famed traveler, he received many gifts and honors.


To form an idea on the variety of Ibn Battuta's observations, a few examples follow. Thus, in Egypt, he makes many observations of Cairo:

“There you find them all, the great scholars and the ignorant, men of stature, and frivolous men, the gentle and those short-tempered, those with great fame, and those totally ignored. The city's population is so high that their movements remind of the waves of the sea… although an old city, it still remains youthful."

On the River Nile, he states:

“The Egyptian Nile surpasses all rivers of the earth in sweetness of taste, length of course, and utility. No other river in the world can show such a continuous series of towns and villages along its banks, or a basin so intensely cultivated. Its course is from south to north, contrary to all other great rivers. One extraordinary thing about it is that it begins to rise in the extreme hot weather, at the time when rivers generally diminish and dry up, and begins to subside just when rivers begin to increase and overflow. The river Indus resembles it in this feature…. Some distance below Cairo the Nile divides into three streams, none of which can be crossed except by boat, winter or summer. The inhabitants of every township have canals led off the Nile; these are filled when the river is in flood and carry the water over the fields."

The skills of the Chinese are what amaze him most, though, very talented and precise people. He states:

“I never returned to any of their cities after I had visited it a first time without finding my portrait and the portraits of my companions drawn on the walls and on sheets of paper exhibited in the bazaars… Each of us set to examining the other's portrait and found that the likeness was perfect in every respect… They had been observing us (in the palace) and drawing our portraits without our noticing it. This is a custom of theirs, I mean making portraits of all who pass through their country. In fact they have brought this to such perfection that if a stranger commits any offence that obliges him to flee from China, they send his portrait far and wide. A search is then made for him and where so ever the person bearing a resemblance to that portrait is found is arrested 30."

Traveling like Ibn Battuta means being curious. It means to learn continually as one travel. It also means that one observes, takes notes and asks questions. It implies an open-mindedness – to the customs, traditions, values, and norms of the people that one visits – even if they are drastically different from that of ours. Traveling like Ibn Battuta means being flexible, being considerate and being friendly. Hmm, I should remember these for my next travels.

Final Trips

One of his last trips was to Granada, a part of Spain that still under Muslim control. He went back to the Empire of Mali in West Africa.

In Granada, Ibn Battuta met with Muslim Leaders. He also met a young writer and poet named Ibn Juzayy. They would meet again when Ibn Battuta’s travels were finished.

Ibn Battuta did not want to make the long, painful trip to Mali. However, the sultan of Morocco ordered him to. The Sultan wanted to learn more about the wealthy land.

That was how he finally met Mansa Musa I, sultan of Mali Empire, who probably the wealthiest person that ever lived.

Musa depicted holding a gold coin from the 1375 Catalan Atlas.

Mansa Musa is famed for his vast gold reserves and for sending envoys to the courts of Europe and the Middle East. In 1324, Mansa Musa went on hajj to Mecca, and he traveled with an entourage of thousands. It's been said that 100 camels each carried 100 pounds of gold. It's been recorded that he built a fully functioning mosque every Friday of his trip, and performed so many acts of kindness.

Ibn Battuta wrote about him: "He flooded Cairo with kindness, spending so much in the markets of North Africa and the Middle East that it affected the price of gold into the next decade." Prices on goods and wares greatly inflated. This is the only time recorded in history that one man directly controlled the price of gold in the Mediterranean."

Ibn Battuta spent eight months in Mali as the guest of the Sultan. And then he returned to Morocco in 1354 for good. He was now fifty years old.

After returning home from his travels in 1354, and at the suggestion of the Marinid ruler of Morocco, Abu Inan Faris, Ibn Battuta dictated an account of his journeys to Ibn Juzayy, a scholar whom he had previously met in Granada. The account is the only source for Ibn Battuta's adventures.

Though his prose may not have been the most exhilarating, Ibn Battuta established the science which would eventually become the art of travel writing. Along with his journey, he recorded copious observations, notes, insights, and lessons.

He spent the next year dictating his story Ibn Juzayy. The result was an oral history called A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling, better known as The Rihla (or “travels”). Though not particularly popular in its day, the book now stands as one of the most vivid and wide-ranging accounts of the 14th-century Islamic world.

Written in the conventional literary style of the time, Ibn Battuta’s Rihla is a comprehensive survey of the personalities, places, governments, customs, and curiosities of the Muslim world in the second quarter of the fourteenth century. It is also the record of a dramatic personal adventure.

The numerous translations of the Rihla, together with the extensive corpus of encyclopedia articles, popular summaries, and critical commentaries on Ibn Battuta and his career that have accumulated since the eighteenth century, are a tribute to the extraordinary value of the narrative as a historical source on much of the inhabited Eastern Hemisphere in the second quarter of the fourteenth century. The book has been cited and quoted in hundreds of historical works, not only those relating to Islamic countries but to China and the Byzantine empire as well.

If you don't have time to read The Rihla itself, at least there are lessons learned you can adopt regarding how to be a good traveler like Battuta:

  • Always keep an open mind.
  • Go to school.
  • Plan on changing your plans.
  • Don't forget to make friends.

So, that was the story of Ibn Battuta. A humble start from the solitude and feeling lonely, then finally turned him to have the best life ever.