Ibn Battuta in Black Africa

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Ibn Battuta in Black Africa

by Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta


A travel narrative set in East Africa from 1329 to 1331 and in West Africa from 1352 to 1354; part of a larger work written in Arabic (as Rihla) in 1355, republished as Voyages d’ibn Batoutah in 1893-95, excerpted and translated into English in 1975.


Ibn Battuta recounts his voyage to the East African coast, and a journey over 30 years later from Morocco across the Sahara Desert to the empire of Mali.

Events in History at the Time the Account Takes Place

The Account in Focus

For More Information

Born in Tangier, Morocco, in 1304, Abdalla ibn Battuta is often regarded as the foremost traveler of medieval times. In three decades of nearly constant wandering, he set foot in the territories of more than 50 modern nations. His journeys took him from northern Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, then on through southwest and central Asia, India, Southeast Asia and China, and back across North Africa to Spain. He distinguished himself especially by recording his two trips into black Africa. While there are some other medieval accounts of cities like Mogadishu and empires such as Mali, many were written by sedentary scholars who transcribed the tales of merchants and travelers. Ibn Battuta actually visited Africa and came home to write an eyewitness report of what he saw. After returning to Morocco in the 1350s, he dictated an account of his many journeys at the request of the reigning Marinid Sultan there. His Rihla (Book of Travels), of which Ibn Battuta in Black Africa is an excerpt, remains one of the most important documents of a great age of travel, commerce, and exploration.

Events in History at the Time the Account Takes Place

The Dar al-Islam

Amazingly, the journeys that took Ibn Battuta from the western edge of Europe to the eastern edge of China very rarely carried him out of Muslim territory. The Dar al-Islam, or “house of Islam,” consisted of the lands where Muslim populations predominated or at least where Muslim communities ruled. Islam was arguably the first worldwide religion. From 632 c.e. Arab armies began to move out from the Arabian Peninsula and within a century they had expanded the amount of territory under Muslim rule to include a swath of lands extending from the Straits of Gibraltar to the borders of China. Over the following centuries, the population in those territories gradually achieved Muslim majority status, and a recognizable Muslim civilization developed based on cultural patterns strongly influenced by Islam. By Ibn Battuta’s day this expansive zone of influence, which gave rise to a comparatively cosmopolitan culture of traveling, had broadened to include much of central Asia, from the Caucasus to Mongolia, to an urbanizing region of West Africa, and to parts of India and the lands that rim the Indian Ocean (including East Africa). In many of these regions, Islam was not yet the faith of the majority, but Arabic was the lingua franca for trade and scholarship, and Islamic customs were as familiar as the Muslim traders, scholars, spiritual leaders, and others who had settled in or regularly visited towns along the maritime and overland trade routes. Even more amazing than the size of the Dar al-Islam was the mobility of its inhabitants and the variety of cultural interactions that took place within and even beyond its far-flung borders. Such mobility was a function of two factors. The first was geography: the land masses and bodies of water in the Dar al-Islam were linked in such a way that they facilitated rather than hindered intercommunication. Secondly, the combination of a rapidly spreading faith with unifying features and the religious tolerance embodied in Islamic law helped extend Muslim cultural and political influence. “Islam encompassed both a faith and a sociopolitical system” (Esposito, p. 38). By Ibn Battuta’s time, the Muslim state had long since broken up into a fragmented commonwealth of semiautonomous principalities, emirates, and sultanates governed by military commanders and local rulers. In the mid-thirteenth century, the Mongol army had captured the capital Baghdad Abbasid and destroyed the city that symbolized Muslim political unity and cultural splendor. By the fourteenth century, however, the vanished political unity had been supplanted by a remarkable degree of cultural cohesiveness. Historian Richard Bulliet contrasts a view of Islamic history from the political “center” with the view from the “edge” in order to explain the cultural unity of Islamic society in later centuries:

Where the view from the center starts with a political institution, watches it expand mightily, and then observes its dissolution, the view from the edge does the opposite. It starts with individuals and small communities scattered over a vast and poorly integrated realm, speaking over a dozen languages, and steeped in religious and cultural traditions of great diversity. From this unpromising start, an impressive measure of social, institutional, and doctrinal cohesion slowly emerges, the product of immense human effort….

(Bulliet, p. 8)

Bulliet places Muslim scholars, or ’ulama—of whom Ibn Battuta was one—at the center of this social and religious process. It is not only through the extension of Muslim rule that an intercommunicating zone broadly influenced by Islam developed. The growth of cities and trade, the spread of literacy and the dissemination of ideas, the migration of diverse groups, and the establishment of Muslim institutions also fostered the development of this intercommunicating zone. In short, Ibn Battuta lived in a fundamentally Muslim cultural milieu, a milieu that was the result of over six centuries of Muslim political, economic, religious, and cultural development, and it was this fact that made it so easy for him to travel across the face of the earth. In the Dar al-Islam, peaceful trade was encouraged; piracy and thievery were punished. The lanes of trade ran openly from the Straits of Malacca to the Straits of Gibraltar by sea, and from Xian, China, to Timbuktu, Mali, over land. While never easy, even crossing the Sahara Desert was relatively safe; centuries of trade had led to methods of assuring the safety of caravans. Everywhere Ibn Battuta went, he could count on finding a masjid (mosque), the Arabic language, and people who would respect, house, and sometimes even employ a man learned in the study of the Qurʾan and Islamic law.

Ibn Battuta—the world traveler

Ibn Battuta belonged to an esteemed family of judges and legal scholars who worked in Morocco and in Andalusia, or Muslim Spain. Ethnically, he was descended from the Berbers who inhabited rural Morocco, but his family lived in the city, spoke Arabic, and identified with urban, Arab, and Muslim culture. He attended mosque schools from a young age, going on to obtain a religious and legal education that included studies in basic skills such as grammar, rhetoric, and logic. An important part of such an education was acquisition of cultivated attributes associated with adab, or refined manners—restrained and devout conduct, proper grooming, and the ability to engage in witty and intelligent conversation. “From his accounts… it is evident that even though he may have had no profound intellectual gifts, he was, to use the modern phrase, a ’class act’” (Dunn in Ibn Battuta, p. xv).

Ibn Battuta belonged to the class of ’ulama, trained in law and theology. He was not exceptionally talented or ambitious except in one area typical of the ’alim’s life—traveling. Born on the western edge of the Dar al-Islam, his journey began with his wish to carry out the fifth pillar of Islam, the hajj, or the obligatory pilgrimage a Muslim must make to Mecca (or “Makkah”), while he was in his early twenties. The hajj journey was the start of over three decades of uninterrupted roving, conversing, and observing. While he occasionally served as a diplomat, or


Islam was, from the beginning, both a popular religion and a learned one. Its basic beliefs and practices are simple and succinct, but the Islamic scholarly tradition that developed from study of the Qurʾan (its holy book) and the Sunnah (examples based on the life, words, and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad) quickly attained great depth and breadth. Branches of Islamic religious scholarship ranged from scriptural exegesis and law to linguistics, history, and philosophy, and they were enriched by the encounter with scientific and literary traditions from the Greek, Persian, Indian, and Roman civilizations. Because Islam is both a religion and a way of conducting daily affairs, including principles for organizing civic, economic, and social life, interpretation of the Qurʾan and Sunnah can have far-reaching political consequences. Therefore, Muslim rulers acquired the services of Muslim scholars of law and the religious sciences known collectively as the ’ulama. The very legitimacy and prestige of rulers have, in fact, been associated with the degree of respect and hospitality they showed toward scholars. Patronage of scientists such as geographers, astronomers, mathematicians, and physicians, whose expertise was also grounded in a thorough religious education, offered a paramount way of embellishing a ruler’s reputation. One sure sign of a wealthy and influential state was its intellectual apparatus: grand courts of law, extensive libraries, and famed universities. Even outlying areas sought out the best they could find in scholarship; scholars, no less than traders, were agents for transmitting culture from one area to another. Muslim rulers in territories that had only recently begun to Islamize, such as parts of India, Africa, and Southeast Asia, were particularly keen to enhance their images by attracting ’ulama to their courts. A member of the ’ulama—an ’alim—was likely to be much in demand. In other words, the ’ulama had reason to travel. In an age when reading a syllabus of works often meant traveling to the libraries where they were housed, or perhaps reading the work at the feet of its author, an ’alim might decide on his own to journey to Baghdad, Damascus, Cordoba, or Cairo to peruse a certain book or to converse with a famous scholar of the law or science. Scholars also corresponded regularly, and sent agents to seek out important works in the book markets of major cities. The ’ulama were, in fact, “the best-traveled and most cosmopolitan intellectual class in world history up to that time” (Dunn in Ibn Battuta, p. xii).

studied in a particular place, he seems to have been much more excited by the mere fact of travel. He tells the reader in the Rihlah that he resolved never to travel by the same road twice. Contemporary historians have determined that he probably did retrace his steps on occasion, but this self-prescribed condition did result in his covering new ground most of the time. Rather than anything he might have committed to paper as a second-rate scholar of the law, the contribution Ibn Battuta made by recording his observations of places and people has been best appreciated. The Rihlah is a gold mine for historians, and a testament to the cosmopolitan character of Muslim society at the time.

Today’s scholars have noted that as a writer Ibn Battuta “has his pettinesses,” such as namedropping (Hamdun and King in Ibn Battuta, p. 4). There is reason for this, though, in that his connections to prominent holy men and scholars of his day provided him with funds from donors for his travels, and the record of how all these rulers received Ibn Battuta at their courts gave weight to his claims of veracity and embellished the Rihlah in the eyes of his audience. Thus, there was more at stake than a mere recording of his observations. They were a means to winning future financial support and luxuries. Although he certainly showed himself able to endure hardships with equanimity, Ibn Battuta showed a fondness for luxury that donations and gifts from Muslim rulers helped him indulge. Yet he also demonstrated compassion for the less fortunate—the slave, for example, in the desert, even if he himself traveled with the aid of slaves, whom he received as presents. He likewise demonstrated daring and perseverance in overcoming the hazards and hardships of various means of transport in all sorts of weather.

East Africa—from Mogadishu to Kilwa

The East African coastline varies from an arid landscape of dunes and marginal grazing land around the Horn of Africa to rich grazing and cropland and forested regions beyond the equator. Numerous ports harbored coastal trading and fishing craft as well as ocean-going dhows typical of the international trade around the Indian Ocean rim. From Greeks and Persians to Arabs and Indians, East Africa welcomed visitors from all the great seafaring nations. These traders came in search of products unique to Africa: gold, ivory, turtle-shell, coconut oil, and spices, as well as fabrics manufactured there. From foreign ports, they brought to the coast of East Africa textiles, metal tools, glassware, wine, and wheat.

There is evidence of Islamic influence along East Africa’s coast as early as the eighth century—almost directly after the initial spread of the faith. The rise of Islam brought an increase in trade


While enormous Chinese merchant vessels called junks plied eastern waters, the typical vessel in the western regions of the Indian Ocean trade was the dhow, a relatively small vessel made of planks lashed together with coconut-fiber rope, called coir. In contrast to iron nails, which had to be replaced about every 10 years, the lacing might last as long as 60 years. The hull was carvel-built, meaning that the planks were laid side-by-side rather than overlapping. Unlike the square sails used in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic for over a thousand years, the large triangular lateen sail was an innovation that allowed ships to tack against the wind. A lateenrigged dhow, often with two masts, allowed a pilot to run with the wind in any direction except directly into it. Introduced into shipping in the Mediterranean Sea following the Arab conquests, the lateen sail became an important technical innovation in medieval shipping, one that made possible the transoceanic voyages that ushered in the Age of Exploration.

and migration to and from East Africa. Arab merchants settled and intermarried with indigenous royal families, and helped populate prosperous trading towns. “Kiswahili” refers to the blended culture that sprang up in towns and cities such as Kilwa, Mogadishu, Mombasa, and Zanzibar. These communities were poised on the coast (on islands, if possible) to take advantage of trade from both sides—the interior and the foreign ports. In Ibn Battuta’s time, the townspeople were predominantly Muslim, of mixed African and Arab heritage. Ibn Battuta took note of the fabrics manufactured at Mogadishu, which were named after the city (Gibb, p. 374). The rich suit of clothes he was given by the ruler of the city attests to the far-flung trade links in which East African towns were involved:

These robes of theirs consist of a silk wrapper which one ties around the waist in place of drawers (for they have no acquaintance with these), a tunic of Egyptian linen with an embroidered border, a furred mantle of Jerusalem stuff, and an Egyptian turban with an embroidered edge…. He brought also a jug of rose-water of Damascus, which he poured over me and over the qadi.

(Gibb, pp. 376-77)

Relatively few reports have come down to us describing the day-to-day lives of the cities of the East African coast south of the Horn. This land, called “Zanj” by Arab geographers, encompassed the coast south of the Horn of Africa to Kilwa. There is a wealth of stories about how Arabs came to settle this coast, but modern historians doubt their accuracy. Those written down in the early eighteenth century suggest the region was first introduced to Islam in the seventh or eighth century by the Omani Julanda family; however, it seems more likely that the African people called the Zanj mingled with the Arabs through trade and settlement. Intermixing and migration continued over several centuries, and was still in process during Ibn Battuta’s visit.

Kilwa is the southernmost of the large trading cities of the Zanj region, and also the one about which the most is known now, owing to the excellent archeological record there. Before the twelfth century, Kilwa served mainly as an outpost directing trade to and from Mogadishu. All this changed when the Mahdali dynasty took power in the late twelfth century. Through means still unknown, the Mahdali made Kilwa a great center for traders in gold mined in the area known today as Zimbabwe. Through the early fifteenth century, Kilwa boomed. Mahdali sultans issued their own coinage and erected grand stone buildings, many of which have since been excavated, giving modern archeologists a clear picture of Kilwa’s splendor.

There were three main social groups in Kilwa. The ruling class were of mixed Arab, Persian, Indian, and African ancestry, and controlled both government and commerce. Recently arrived traders who came to seek a fortune formed, along with the artisan classes, a middle group. Below them were servants and slaves who performed menial and agricultural tasks and were probably brought to Kilwa as a result of raids into the interior. Relations between coastal peoples and those of the interior hinged on trade and raiding. Cities existed because of the trade in African products like ivory or gold, but the coastal groups did not attempt to rule those of the interior.

Kilwa, like its neighbors, swung on the fortunes of trade. It expanded as trade burgeoned, and shrank when ships went elsewhere. Not surprisingly, then, excavations have shown that towns in the area grew up rather haphazardly. Streets were no more than the empty space between buildings. Public structures like the mosque and the shaykh’s (ruler’s) palace were mixed among private dwellings. Poorer people built their homes of mud, with palm-frond roofs; the wealthier built houses of stone. Ibn Battuta related that “The city of Kulwa is one of the finest and most substantially built towns; all the buildings are of wood, and the houses are roofed with dis reeds. The rains there are frequent” (Gibb, p. 380). His claim that the buildings were wooden has puzzled archeologists, since the remains that have been excavated are clearly of stone. Students of the Rihlah assume that his memory was faulty.

This, then, was the physical nature of the towns Battuta visited along Africa’s east coast. They were far from the central lands of the Dar al-lslam, yet they were home to devout and often learned scholars and rulers. These centers bustled with energy and reflected the heritage of African culture alongside Muslim ways of life.

Mali, 1352

Mali was one in a line of powerful West African empires just south of the Sahara Desert. Like the Kingdom of Ghana before it, the basis of its wealth was the inland delta of the Niger River, a region that hosted agriculture, herding, and fishing. Muslim Berber traders who crossed the Sahara Desert from the north brought copper and salt from mines in the Sahara, as well as luxury products from the North African coast. Coming in the opposite direction were traders with gold, who traveled northward along the Niger to exchange gold for these goods.

Mali arose from the ruins of the declining empire of Ghana. Most people in Ghana had lived by farming and tending livestock, but the ruling class grew wealthy by the trade in gold and other commodities. Ghana did not produce gold, but did control its points of exchange. The gold trade was taxed, and the king of Ghana kept all gold nuggets for himself, restricting the trade to gold dust. Ghana declined after 1200, in part because the discovery of new gold fields prompted its southern regions to assert independence. Civil war toppled the empire, after which a man named Sunjata emerged to found the Mali empire, which lasted into the seventeenth century (see Epic of Son-Jara , also covered in African Literature and Its Times). The dominance of Mali brought a number of developments to West Africa. First, Mali’s kings were mostly Muslim, although they tolerated traditional religious and social practices alongside those of Islam. The matrilineal family and inheritance structure common in West Africa was retained even after the spread of Islam, influencing political, economic, and intellectual life. Malian merchants pushed farther south to open up new trade routes and sources of gold. By the time of Ibn Battuta’s journey, Mali’s fame had begun to spread beyond North Africa to medieval Europe, which received as much as two-thirds of its gold from West Africa by way of North African ports. Though Mali survived in various forms until the seventeenth century, its heyday was over by the end of the 1400s.

At the height of Malian power, in 1324, a few decades before Ibn Battuta’s trip to West Africa, the ruler Mansa Musa made a famous pilgrimage to Mecca, which became legendary in Muslim history as well. “His caravan was said to have been preceded by 500 servants carrying staffs of solid gold, and the Arabs were astounded by the prodigality with which he gave alms” (Adloff, p. 112). One of Mansa Musa’s contributions following his pilgrimage was to strengthen Mali’s links with the great urban centers of Muslim culture. He encouraged Muslim scholars to visit his realm, brought back books as treasures, and commissioned a North African architect to construct a grand Friday mosque in Timbuktu, as well as several palaces. But Islam gained adherents mostly in Mali’s towns; in the countryside, there were fewer adherents.

There were distinctions between town and country in other regards too. Though trade was the most lucrative aspect of the economy, and the basis of Mali’s claim to fame in the world across the Sahara, the vast majority of the population were engaged in farming, herding, and fishing, especially during the Niger delta’s seasonal floods. Agriculture was well developed, the chief crops being sorghum and millet. There was a more varied economy in the major trading centers, which also saw the emergence of an Arabic and Islamic scholarly tradition alongside the rich West African oral tradition. As he settled into his house in the quarter of Timbuktu where Moroccan merchants and scholars lived, Ibn Battuta was introduced to Dugha the griot. (A griot is a traditional figure in West African society; the griot served as an advisor and confidant to rulers, as well as a keeper of the oral traditions.)

When Ibn Battuta visited the court of Mansa Suleyman (Mansa Musa’s brother), he witnessed ceremonies that seemed designed to reinforce the Mansa’s authority. For example, he described how the Mansa’s subjects threw dirt on themselves when in the presence of the sovereign to demonstrate their humility in the presence of his power. In reality, the Mansa’s hold on power was more limited and tenuous. The sovereign’s prime function was to dispense justice. Cases that others had failed to resolve were referred to him, and his was the last word. In other matters, his power was less than absolute. Scholars have noted that the Niger delta towns, which preceded and outlasted the reign of the larger states, enjoyed both prestige and a measure of self-rule based on their wealth and the power of their ruling families (Saad, p. 11).

The Account in Focus

The Rihlah—an overview

Striving to write a factual, though elegant, literary account of his journeys, Ibn Battuta did not merely set out to tell a good story. Upon Ibn Battuta’s return to Morocco, the Marinid Sultan Abu ’Inan commissioned Ibn Juzayy, a young Andalusian scholar, to help set down an account of what Ibn Battuta had seen and done. His account makes fascinating reading, especially since he is the only eyewitness to have described some of the places and things he saw. The style of the Rihlah follows a long tradition of pilgrimage accounts, travel narratives, and geographic surveys by Muslim scholars. There are implicit as well as explicit references, for example, to the twelfth-century Rihlah of Ibn Jubayr, or to well-known geographers like al-Yaqut, al-Masudi, or al-Bakri, who also wrote about some of the regions visited by Ibn Battuta. Such works would have been familiar to a well-read Muslim scholar. Ibn Battuta’s Rihlah describes what would have interested a fourteenth-century educated Muslim reader—religious institutions and scholars, mosques, Sufi lodges and their spiritual leaders, as well as the rulers in each locality, their courts, and customs. The account also relates various adventures, close calls, and hardships, which Ibn Battuta survived with regularity. He describes a variety of landscapes and forms of transport, though not always with the detail that modern historians might wish for. The same can be said of the economic, social, and political conditions he encountered, though the Rihlah is a rich source in the aggregate. His purpose in writing, unlike some Muslim geographers and travelers, was not as much scientific as literary and biographical. Ibn Battuta’s fellowship with various traveling companions, jurists, holy men, and various women (always within the limits of Muslim propriety) was woven into the account along with the pleasures of food, excellent lodging, pleasant conversation, and fine clothing, which was heaped upon him as a traditional sign of honor by most of the rulers whose courts he visited. Political commentary tends toward the judgmental, being more dispassionately descriptive than analytical, with the exception of his commentary on the Muhammad Tughluq, the Delhi Sultan in whose employ he spent some time.

The Rihlah of Ibn Battuta, while not widely known in Muslim literary circles until the twentieth century, circulated among learned folk in North Africa, West Africa, and in Egypt, where it was copied and preserved in numerous libraries. Until the early nineteenth century, when two German scholars translated parts of it, the Rihlah remained unknown to Western readers. John Burckhardt, the famous nineteenth-century Swiss traveler, acquired an Arabic copy in Egypt, and in 1829 British orientalist Samuel Lee published an abridged English translation. Several additional manuscripts came to light in the mid-1800s, from which a printed edition of the Arabic text and a French translation were prepared. Using that authoritative Arabic text, later translations have since been made, the best known of which is perhaps Sir Hamilton Gibb’s 1929 abridged version, and a complete translation in several volumes for the Hakluyt Society. In spite of Ibn Battuta’s somewhat dubious scholarly status as a “geographer in spite of himself,” the Rihlah has become a standard source for studying the period (Gibb in Dunn, p. 5). Over the past two centuries, an extensive body of articles, commentaries, and historical pieces, as well as translations in many languages, have accumulated in connection with the work (Dunn, p. 5).

Account summary

Ibn Battuta’s early trip to East Africa was shorter and simpler than his later visit to West Africa, both of which are covered in Ibn Battuta in Black Africa. Beginning with an adventure-laden Red Sea crossing, Ibn Battuta’s journey to East Africa started at Aden, on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. He sailed to Zaila, on the coast of what is now Ethiopia in East Africa, where, as he describes it, the stench of fish and slaughtered camels and the oppressive heat led him to stay on board ship even in rough waters. He describes this city as “one of the dirtiest towns in existence, vile and evil-smelling” (Ibn Battuta, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, p. 15). The next day his party set sail for Mogadishu, arriving there two weeks later. Ibn Battuta describes the inhabitants’ custom of rowing out to meet the ships with trays of food, each laying claim to a merchant on the vessel and obligating the traveler to let the resident act as his agent in commercial transactions. From then on, the visiting merchant was his host’s responsibility and all business was conducted in the host’s presence. As a jurist, Ibn Battuta became the responsibility of the local shaykh, or administrator. Not only did the Shaykh of Mogadishu lodge Ibn Battuta, but he also honored the jurist with ceremonies and gifts. Ibn Battuta provides a long description of the shaykh’s administrative duties, which included arbitrating civil disputes and judging points of law. He describes the food served to him at length, a menu of fresh tropical fruits and vegetables exotically preserved and spiced:

Their food is rice cooked with ghee placed on a large wooden dish. They put on top dishes of kushan—this is the relish, of chicken and meat and fish and vegetables. They cook banana before it is ripe in fresh milk… and they put sour milk in a dish with pickled lemon on it and bunches of pickled chillies, vinegared and salted, and green ginger and mangoes.

(Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, p. 13)


Crossing the Sahara Desert successfully depended on precise navigation to reach the string of oases at which a caravan could water horses or oxen, eat, and rest. Not surprisingly, the trans-Saharan trade was controlled by experts, the nomadic Berbers who made their home in the desert. By Ibn Battuta’s time, the nomadic way of life was giving way to more settled patterns as the stability and prosperity of the trade routes provided opportunities to establish rule in certain areas. Also by this time camels had become the preferred beasts of burden. In fact, it was the camel, introduced to North Africa around the time of Christ, that made possible regular trade across the Sahara (Bovill, p. 15). The camel could travel more than twice as far as horses or oxen before needing food and water. Without this “ship of the desert,” Mali would not have been as significant to regions north of the Sahara, nor would Islam likely have spread to Mali as early as it did. Camels formed part of the caravan in Ibn Battuta’s time, which resembled a miniature and mobile state. Its leader was called a khabir (Arabic for “one having experience”); like the captain of a ship, he was responsible for following the proper route and ensuring the safety of the caravan. There were also muezzins and imams: those who called and led the prayers for the Muslim community. Finally, a scribe or notary was usually employed to formalize fiscal transactions and legal documents. Mostly the caravan consisted of traders, but it might also include pilgrims, members of the ’ulama, and curious travelers like Ibn Battuta. Often it made progress to the beat of kettle drums, of chanting, or of singing; the Qurʾan was frequently recited, as Ibn Battuta reported doing on his return trip from Mali. When the caravan arrived at an oasis or at its final destination, the people waiting there rejoiced in celebration, for its safe arrival signified an opportunity to gain wealth, and thus constituted an occasion for revelry.

From Mogadishu, Ibn Battuta sailed south to Mombasa, and thence to Kilwa. Here he met the Sultan Abu al-Muzaffar Hasan, called “Abu al-Mawahib.” His nickname means “father of gifts,” a tribute to this sultan’s generosity. In his account, Ibn Battuta notes that the people of Kilwa engage in regular raiding of the neighboring non-Muslim Zanj, but also showers praise on the sultan for his piety and his reputation for generosity. Ibn Battuta recounts a time when the sultan literally gave a beggar the clothes off his back. Leaving Kilwa, Ibn Battuta sails back to Arabia. His next journey to black Africa will not take place until his visit to Mali two decades later.

In 1352 Ibn Battuta set out with a caravan of merchants from Tangier on the route that led toward Fez and the town of Sijilmasa across the Atlas Mountains. After 25 days, they arrived in the desert outpost of Taghaza, “a town with no good in it” (Black Africa, p. 30). Taghaza was populated only by slaves who worked the salt mines there, living in houses built of salt slabs for lack of lumber, drinking brackish water, and eating only camel meat and dates brought in by the caravans. Ibn Battuta bemoans the bitter water and plagues of flies; his party stayed in Taghaza ten days, then moved on toward Tasarahlha. From there, the next caravan stop was Iwalatan, ten days’ march across the open desert. The takshif, a scout, was hired to go ahead to the city and alert friends of the merchants that the caravan was approaching. Devils, Battuta warns, attempted to mislead the takshif, and if he became lost, the caravan would have almost certainly perished before reaching the safety of the town.

Ibn Battuta remained in Iwalatan, the northernmost outpost of Mali, for 50 days. Upon his arrival, he was given a symbolic meal—a sparse mixture of grain with honey and milk. Overlooking the symbolism, Ibn Battuta mistook this meager offering as a sign that he should expect “no good” from the blacks (Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, p. 37). However, he decided to stay, and was eventually won over by their hospitality. Ibn Battuta expresses shock at the lack of modesty displayed by women in Mali, at the freedom with which they mingled with men, and at the women’s manner of dressing, which was much scantier than in other Muslim societies, where women were never seen in public with bare breasts.

From Itawalan, Ibn Battuta engaged a guide to take him to the capital city of Mali. En route he encountered the Niger River, which, like many travelers before and after him, he mistakenly assumed to be a western branch of the Nile River. He speaks of the massive baobob tree, and relates an incident about crocodiles that is typical of the relaxed manner in which he sometimes recalls life-threatening incidents:

One day I went down to the Nile to answer a need [i.e., to relieve himself] and one of the blacks came and stood between me and the river. I was astonished at his bad manners and the paucity of his shame. I mentioned that to someone. He answered, “He only did that for fear on your behalf of danger from the crocodile…. He made a barrier between you and it.”

(Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, p. 43)

He also describes the strange foods of the land—for example, gharti (a plum-like fruit); fonio (mustard); and nabaq (lotus). At first, Ibn Battuta was less than impressed with Mansa Suleiman, the Emperor of Mali. To his chagrin, the Mansa did not shower him with gifts, at least not until Ibn Battuta pointed out to the ruler that he might be unfavorably compared to others who had been more generous hosts, including his brother, the great Mansa Musa: “I have indeed traveled in the lands of the world. I have met their Kings. I have been in your country four months and you have given me no hospitality and have not given me anything. What shall I say about you before the Sultans?” (Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, p. 46). Ibn Battuta comments on certain Mali customs that strike him as being inconsistent with Islamic practice. One such custom required those subjects who approached the Mansa to strip the clothing off their backs and cover themselves with dirt. Ibn Battuta finds this debasing. He is also disapprovingly amused by a poetic recitation in which the poets dressed as birds. Worst of all, from his point of view, is the aforementioned lack of modesty among women.

In spite of these shortcomings, Ibn Battuta finds much to his liking in Malian culture. He lauds the people’s piety, sense of order, and intolerance of injustice, even stating that “of all people they are the furthest from [injustice]” (Black Africa, p. 58). As proof of their religious devotion, he notes that some parents were so dedicated to the importance of learning to recite the Qurʾan by heart that they confined those offspring who showed insufficient devotion to this mastery until they demonstrated improvement.

Leaving Mali after eight months’ residence, Ibn Battuta set out on the Mima road. It carried him home by a more easterly route than the one by which he came. He notes the presence of hippopotami in the river, and also the great heaps of their bones left by river-dwellers after slaughtering and eating them. After a long journey from Walata, Ibn Battuta arrived at Timbuktu, where he encountered the hospitality of one Farba Suleiman, who gave him a quantity of millet and a slave boy. “The boy he gave me,” reports Ibn Battuta, “is still with me up till now” (Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, p. 66). He moved further along the Niger River toward the city of Goa, from whence he finally struck out into the desert. At Takadda he received the command of the Sultan Abu ’Inan to return home. He traveled through the land of the Berber Hakkar, another of the few groups he judges to have “no good in them”; their occupation of robbing passing caravans probably made him feel threatened (Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, p. 74). Finally he arrived at Fez, and his long journey ended. It was the last significant trip in a remarkable career. Almost 50, Ibn Battuta had spent the majority of his adult life away from his native Morocco. After completing his collaboration with Ibn Juzayy to compose the Rihlah, and after retiring to what was probably a comfortable existence, he died in 1368.

Whom can you trust?

Ibn Battuta conducted his travels in a world very different from our own, one in which the great majority of people were born, lived, and died within narrow geographic confines. The vast region of Afro-Eurasia where Islam was the majority faith and cultural influence, however, was one in which people from all walks of life managed to travel a great deal.

All through the literary sources from the medieval Islamic world are found accounts that suggest an almost incomprehensible amount of coming and going across huge stretches of land and water…. Muslims from every region and of every station left home and roamed to and fro over the continents, taking with them knowledge of the farming techniques, plant life and cookery of their homelands and seeing on their way the agricultural practices, plants and foods of new lands.

(Watson, p. 93)


Although Ibn Battuta’s Rihlah was not known in Europe until the nineteenth century, a description of Mali produced for Pope Leo X in the sixteenth century sparked European curiosity and fired the imagination of explorers for centuries to come. This famous account of the mysterious land of gold beyond the Sahara was the work of Leo Africanus. Leo, whose Arabic name was al-Hassan al-Fasi, was an Andalusian Arab born in Granada, Spain, around 1494, just after the city was taken over by Christian rulers Ferdinand and Isabella. Al-Hassan’s family was either exiled or fled to Fez, Morocco, a city known for learning and culture. His occupation as a notary and a judge in rural Morocco took him into the lands bordering the Sahara, including a trip with a merchant caravan across the Sahara to Mali, Bornu, and the Lake Chad region.

Returning from a journey to Constantinople around 1520, Leo was captured by Venetian pirates. Taking note of the value of an educated captive, the pirates carried their prize to Rome and presented him to Pope Leo X. The Pope had him baptized as Leo Giovanni, but he may have secretly remained Muslim, Learning that Leo possessed coveted knowledge of Africa, the Pope encouraged him to write a book on his travels, which Leo composed in Arabic and translated into Italian. After the Pope passed away, Leo returned to Africa, where he died in 1552.

Leo Africanus’s Description of Africa was printed in Latin and Italian. By 1600, translations into English and other languages were in print. The description, which proved accurate, had become one of very few firsthand sources of knowledge about sub-Saharan Africa. For three centuries this work was the standard guide on sub-Saharan Africa.

The Rihlah of Ibn Battuta, like the long list of travel narratives before it, attests to the continuation of this general state of affairs. Ibn Battuta is a symbol of the cosmopolitan atmosphere that prevailed in the eastern hemisphere during his time, which facilitated his travel not only in the sense that transportation and facilities for the comfort of travelers were available, but also in the cultural sense. Ibn Battuta’s account shows that a reasonably educated, though not prominent, individual could easily find lodgings, make a living along the way, be received graciously by the great and the humble alike and—most important for a pious person—carry out his Islamic duties without interruption, wherever he traveled along the network of trade routes, cities, and principalities under Muslim rule or influence. While Ibn Battuta certainly faced the perils of his era—such as illness, rough terrain, warfare, and harsh weather—his proven ability to reach safe haven among people who could speak some Arabic, offer him hospitality, and share his Muslim sensibilities demonstrates how well-woven was the cultural fabric of his era.

Even in a cultural milieu where travel was not unusual, Ibn Battuta stood out as extraordinary. It was to be expected that the tale of his extensive travels might be greeted with some skepticism. Fanciful travel accounts and fantastic tales and legends were also a part of Muslim literary culture. One need only think of the tales of the voyages of Sindbad, which were transmitted as much by oral storytellers as in written form. Thus, it is not surprising that Ibn Marzuq, a North African scholar of Tlemcen who was present as the Rihlah was being composed, wrote that some in the court of Sultan Abu ’Inan suspected that Ibn Battuta was telling lies. Ibn Marzuq stated his conviction, however, that Ibn Battuta was innocent.

Literary context

Ibn Battuta is among the best-traveled of medieval writers, but he is not the most famous to Western readers. That honor goes to Marco Polo, the Venetian whose voyages to India and China stimulated the European imagination from the fourteenth century on. In the Muslim world, Ibn Battuta’s name must be mentioned alongside those of al-Muqadassi, Yaqut, Ibn Jubayr, al-Masudi, and Ibn Fadlan, among many other geographers, scientists, and literary figures. Al-Muqadassi lived in the tenth century, and spent twenty years traveling in Muslim lands, of which his books give detailed material accounts. Unlike Ibn Battuta, however, he did not travel to or describe non-Muslim lands, although al-Masudi and the historian al-Tabari did do so. Yaqut, slightly earlier than Ibn Battuta, was a Greek by birth, who was enslaved and taken to Baghdad, where with the support of his merchant owner, he traveled widely and eventually wrote an influential work of geography. Ibn Jubayr was far less widely traveled than the others; his book describes only his two-year pilgrimage to Mecca and the eastern Mediterranean as far as Iraq. Nevertheless, he gives a minute and evocative account of Muslim life during the Crusades. Still, Ibn Battuta remains “the only eyewitness account we have of both the East African city-states and the Mali empire in the fourteenth century” (Dunn in Ibn Battuta, p. xix).

Latter-day reception

The Rihlah has held up very well under the scrutiny of modern critics and historians, who have generally judged Ibn Battuta to be honest and accurate to a remarkable degree. Attempts to trace the exact itineraries and time of the various legs of his journey have certainly pointed out problems in the sequence and exact location of his exploits. Multiple travels in an area may have been consolidated as the account was written. What has emerged from these efforts, however, is a testimony to his remarkable memory, especially considering the fact that he apparently possessed no extensive record of notes that he could consult. On the other hand, there were undoubtedly many works that he and his ghost-writer Ibn Juzayy could consult in constructing a reasonable account. These would have served both to jog his memory and to fill in where detail was lacking—for example, in the descriptions of Baghdad and some other cities that closely “resemble” passages of Ibn Jubayr’s own, and earlier, Rihlah. Such plagiarism, if it could be called that in an age that accepted and even expected the citation of earlier, well respected works, was normal literary practice. There is also the possibility that Ibn Juzayy included such citations more liberally than Ibn Battuta might have done on his own, and later copyists might have further “enhanced” the manuscript with such additions. Clearly, at certain points, Ibn Battuta succumbed to faulty memory; for instance, he reports having traveled a distance of over a thousand miles in less than a week. Occasionally too he lapsed into excessive credulity or hearsay, but, to be fair, part of his method seems to be deliberate objectivity. Following a well-established tradition of scholarly responsibility, Ibn Battuta makes clear distinctions in his account between what he has seen for himself and what he has been told, leaving it to the reader to judge the credibility of the account.

On the whole, Ibn Battuta’s narrative is marked by temperance and sobriety, even while it reflects the traveler’s wide-ranging fascination and appreciation for the varied world that unrolls itself before him. Among the best passages of the Rihlah are those that report on the everyday: the foods and simple practices of the people he visits. Other times he reveals tantalizing glimpses of his own personality, although the account is very restrained in this regard, except when he waxes judgmental upon seeing something of which he disapproves. Overall it is a testament to his observational abilities, and to the wonderful variety of the medieval African world, that his simple narrative still captivates both scholarly and more casual readers after so many centuries, and that extensive examination of historical and literary evidence has verified much of his account to the best of our current knowledge.

—Susan Douglass and Jacob Littleton

For More Information

Adloff, Richard. West Africa: Yesterday and Today. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

Bovill, W. Caravans of the Old Sahara. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933.

Bulliet, Richard. Islam: The View from the Edge. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Dunn, Ross E., The Adventures of Ibn Battuta. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.

Esposito, John. Islam: the Straight Path. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P. The East African Coast. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

Hourani, George. Arab Seafaring. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1951.

Ibn Battuta, Abu Abdullah. Ibn Battuta in Black Africa. Trans. Said Hamdun and Noel King. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 1994.

Gibb, H. A. R., trans. The Travels of Ibn Battuta a.d. 1325-1354, Translated with Revisions and Notes from the Arabic Text Edited by C. Defrémery and B. R. Sanguinetti. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the Hakluyt Society, 1958.

Pory, John, trans. The History and Description of Africa, and of the Notable Things Therein Contained, Written by al-Hassan ibn-Mohammed al-Wezaz al-Fasi, a Moor, Baptised as Giovanni Leone, but better known as Leo Africanus, Done into English in the Year 1600. London: Hakluyt Society, 1896.

Saad, Elias N. Social History of Timbuktu, 1400-1900: the Role of Muslim Scholars and Notables. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Watson, Andrew M. Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

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