Ibn Battuta and His Times

Battuta’s stories continue to enthral us since his travels across the Islamic worlds in the 14th century – an enduring character in folklore, his journeys illustrate that medieval society was a more open space than imagined in contemporary times.

Ming Junk – A Chinese junk ship with his rigging deployed. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Set against the contemporary polity, marked by a visible shift towards right-wing populism, medieval society is often imagined as populated with men and women of a variety of ambition and talent who became world-renowned invaders, conquerors, explorers, merchant-adventurers, religious heads, and monarchs. But those were few and far between. Often in opposition to evidence medieval society is seen as closed and cloistered and is interpreted without taking those times into account. The movement and exchange of people and ideas is understood in a very limited context. Thus, the role of travellers who have left behind narratives of their voyages is valuable.

Ibn Battuta’s figure and his legends stand out in this regard. His tales are much more voluminous even in comparison to those of Marco Polo. They provide a window to a lost world through the eyes of a conservative Muslim judge who nevertheless harboured a lust for knowledge and believed in never covering the same road twice. He managed to live an extraordinary life of political and cultural exploration. He seemed to have a large appetite for danger and adventure. In doing so he revealed a society that was equally unpredictable, fluctuating and one where cultures constantly mingled and collided. In the present times when Muslim conservatism is often criticised in law and press, his travels recount great diversity of customs and characters across what were considered then the Islamic lands. His conversations about his travels help us discover our past in the most engaging manner.


Battuta belonged to a family of Berber Sunni Muslim legal scholars in Tangiers, Morocco. He left home in 1325 at the age of 21 to fulfill his duty as a pious Muslim to go on a Hajj to Mecca and continued travelling for another 29 years. He covered most of Dar al-Islam, that is, territories under Islamic rulers which would constitute about 44 countries in modern times stretching from West Africa to Maghrib (region of North Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea) to the Horn of Africa, Central to South to Southeast Asia and Middle East to China counting some 1,20,000 km.

A Song dynasty junk from a 13th-century painting with the typical rectangular sails, the stern-mounted rudder, and large rectangular-shaped construction from bow to stern of the Chinese junk. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Battuta’s fascinating travels took him through freezing mountain passes and scorching deserts, turbulent rivers and thick forests, barren landscapes deprived of habitation and throbbing urbanscapes teeming with life whilst being received by emperors and common folk alike and enduring attacks by bandits, pirates and wild animals. He developed the desire to learn from eminent Muslim scholars as well as seek good fortune with his skills. He married numerous times, had many partners and also fathered several children. His many adventures are recounted in the Rihla or Journey.

One of the best known scholars on Battuta, Tim Mackintosh-Smith who created a BBC documentary retracing his footsteps called the Rihla an ‘epic’ travelogue and ‘…a work of geography and ethnography, a pilgrim guide and a gossip column’. American author Douglas Bullis explained that the Rihla was part of a growing genre of travel literature penned by educated men at the time who were following the Islamic injunction of traveling to seek knowledge. Battuta’s narrative broadened the scope of this genre by including details on society, polity, geography, customs, and personalities aside from holy places and revered men. But his memories were narrated and recorded after his return almost thirty years later and hence carry inconsistencies because of several layers of filtering by his writer Ibn Juzayy and present day authors and scholars. The Rihla has faced criticism about its chronology, itinerary and possible plagiarism. Nevertheless Ibn Battuta remains a great source of oral history. His English translator H. A. R. Gibb calls it ‘…first and foremost a human diary’.

Dihli and its Sultan

Winding his way through many lands and peoples Ibn Batuta found his way to the court of Mohammad Bin Tughlaq, the Sultan of Delhi in 1334. The man of whom Macintosh-Smith says ‘no traveller ever had itchier feet’ came to rest in Delhi for eight full years or a quarter of his travel life. He said of Delhi:

On the next day we arrived at the city of Dihli, the metropolis of India, a vast and magnificent city, uniting beauty with strength. It is surrounded by a wall that has no equal in the world, and is the largest city in the entire Muslim Orient.

Of the Qutb Minar he said:

In the northern court is the minaret, which has no parallel in the lands of Islam. It is built of red stone, unlike the rest of the edifice, ornamented with sculptures, and of great height. The ball on the top is of glistening white marble and its ‘apples’ (small balls surmounting a minaret) are of pure gold. The passage is so wide that elephants could go up by it. A person in whom I have confidence told me that when it was built he saw an elephant climbing with stones to the top.

And of the Iron Pillar at Mehrauli:

In the center of the mosque is an awe-inspiring column, and nobody knows of what metal it is constructed. One of their learned men told me that it is called Haft Jush, which means ‘seven metals’, and that it is constructed from these seven. A part of this column, of finger’s breadth, has been polished, and gives out a brilliant gleam. Iron makes no impression on it. It is thirty cubits high, and we rolled a turban round it, and the portion which encircled it measured eight cubits.

Many traders, scholars, soldiers, artists, craftsmen and travelers arrived at the imperial city of Delhi attracted by stories of its riches. The Sultan welcomed foreign scholars with many gifts and lured them to stay in his service. Battuta was accorded the position of a Maliki judge with a generous stipend, revenues from several villages, cash allowances from the treasury and other gifts. In spite of his brilliance and generosity the Sultan was an eccentric, suspicious and violent ruler looking to steady his government by recruiting foreign scholars, judges and administrators.

As Ibn Battuta himself states:

This king is of all men the fondest of making gifts and shedding blood. His gate is never without some poor man enriched or some living man executed, and stories are current amongst the people of his generosity and courage and of his cruelty and violence towards criminals. For all that, he is of all men the most humble and the readiest to show equity and justice.

An illustration from Jules Verne’s book “Découverte de la terre” (“Discovery of the Earth”) drawn by Léon Benett. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Always skirting the displeasure of the Sultan, Battuta finally fell foul of him because of his own association with a sufi sheikh who had angered the emperor. The sheikh was tortured and eventually beheaded. Meanwhile, Battuta fasted day and night as his life hung in a balance for nine days when the Sultan contemplated over his decision. Though pardoned eventually, Battuta was thoroughly broken by the experience. Abandoning life of high luxury he devoted himself over the next five months to another sufi ascetic called Kamaluddin Abdullah al-Ghari.

Battuta was finally summoned by the emperor once more to lead an embassy of 15 returning Chinese envoys back to China with clothes, gold and silver vessels, swords, scabbards, hats, horses, male slaves, dancing girls and even eunuchs, protected by as many as a thousand soldiers. But as luck would have it Battuta’s group was attacked by rebels a few days outside of Delhi. In the ensuing skirmishes he was separated from his group and after much hardship and having been robbed of everything somehow found his way back to them a week later.

The group managed to reach Cambay and from there to Calicut. Here they hired two Chinese junks (sailing vessels) and a smaller kakam to go further. But misfortune dogged this mission and not only did Battuta witness the horror of a violent storm whipping up and drowning the junks in shallow waters along with its precious cargo, animals and people, his own smaller vessel left without him and was later nabbed by pirates. Suffice to say that Battuta’s time with Delhi was over at this point and he did not dare return to the irascible Sultan to risk explanation of how the whole embassy had disappeared and he had survived. Battuta’s journeys continued however and he did make it to China at some point after many detours in Maldives, Sri Lanka, Sumatra and so on.

A storyteller par excellence

Sheikh Abu Abdullah Mohammed ibn Abdallah ibn Mohammed ibn Ibrahim al-Lawati al-Tanji ibn Battuta (for that was his full name) was not just a legendary traveller but a great source of history for the lands he visited. His verbal portraits of his times, foods, customs, peoples and places offer us an insight into this period like no other. All those who wander are not lost is an axiom which is possibly best applied to this man. And he lived to tell the tale.

Medha Saxena is an assistant professor at Ramanujan College, Delhi University.

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