(b. Tangier, Morocco, 24 February 1304; d. Morocco, ca. 1368–1369)
Muḥammad, the son of ʿAbdallāh, whose family name was Ibn Baṭṭūṭa and who was descended from members of the Berber tribe of the Lawāta, left his native Tangier on 14 June 1325 in order to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. He returned to Morocco, to Fez, almost a quarter of a century later, in November 1349, after having visited much of Asia, going as far east as China. He went through northern Africa to Egypt, which he reached in the spring of 1326. He traveled through Egypt, Palestine and Syria, the Ḥijāz, South Arabia, and down the east coast of Africa from Mogadishu to Kilwa. Ibn Baṭṭūṭa visited southwestern Persia and Iraq, Anatolia, and southern Russia in the region of the Crimea. From there, he paid an imaginary visit to the city of Bulghār on the Volga and undertook an overland trip to Constantinople that has occasionally been doubted but seems to have taken place. He then went through central Asia to India, where he took up residence in Delhi. He spent about eight years in India, traveling along the coasts and through various sections of the subcontinent. He stayed in the Maldives for more than a year and a half, then visited Ceylon, Sumatra, and China.
Soon after his return to Morocco, Ibn Baṭṭūṭa left on a trip to Spain and then turned south to visit the mighty Mālī-Mandinka state, in particular, the cities of Timbuktu and Gawgaw (Gao). He returned to Morocco early in 1354. He dictated the story of his travels to Ibn Juzayy—a Spanish scholar and official at the court of Sultan ʿInān of Fez—who edited it in a very short time. No more is heard of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa after this.
All the details of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa’s life and accomplishments come from his Travels (in Arabic, Riḥla). His family in Tangier belonged to the legal establishment, and he received the usual legal-religious education. Going on the pilgrimage meant visiting and, on occasion, studying with the famous scholars to be met en route. These customary study trips often extended over many years; but in the case of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, although he always kept in contact with scholars and mystics, the original purpose was soon forgotten and travel became an end in itself. He thoroughly enjoyed what for most other medieval Muslims was a necessary evil, and seized every opportunity to see new cities and regions. Only a very small part of his time abroad was spent outside the realm of Islam; and when he stayed in places not under Muslim political control, he preferred to move in the circles of his fellow expatriate coreligionists, where his upbringing and his linguistic background stood him in good stead. The judicial functions he exercised for the first time on his way from Morocco to Egypt and then as a Mālikite judge in India suggest a career not unlike the one he would have pursued had he never left Morocco. He made his living from gifts and stipends—some, he says, very generous—from rulers or high officials wherever he went. He apparently undertook occasional commercial ventures on the side. Some of his marriages may have procured helpful family connections for him. He speaks often of the women he married in the various places he visited and the many slave girls who always accompanied him. He also refers to children born to his women, children whom he did not see again or who did not live to maturity.
If the summary of his travels has been left rather vague, it is not for a lack of precise dates, which are amply present in his work. It is because these dates have been recognized as frequently incorrect. Attempts to harmonize them and to establish a coherent chronology of his travels necessarily involve repeated choices between indications furnished by the author for reasons that are never absolutely cogent. Even the date he gives for his arrival in India, 12 September 1333, has been questioned. This date cannot be correct if one chooses to credit his statement that he was in Mecca during the pilgrimage a year earlier. His itinerary often cannot be followed in exact detail. He lists places, in seemingly chronological succession, that he can be assumed to have visited on different trips. He reports abruptly on side excursions that do not fit into the main itinerary. On occasion he uses literary sources, reports on events of contemporary history that he did not witness, and can be shown to present as having seen himself what he can only have been told by others. All this does not detract from the credibility of his information. It is explained not so much by slips of memory (the question of whether he had been able to keep written notes to help him in his recollections is much debated) as by the spirit and purpose of medieval Muslim literature.
Although exceptionally rich in personal data, the Travels was not meant to constitute a personal record in terms of the circumstances of the author’s life or the proper sequence of his itinerary. Its purpose was to enlighten the reader about remarkable and often marvelous things and events that could be observed in other countries and to deepen his understanding of human society and his respect for the divine handi-work in all its richness and variety. This purpose was uniquely achieved and has given the Travels its lasting greatness.
Ibn Baṭṭūṭa was not a scientist. He was not even a productive scholar in the traditional Muslim sense. While his general qualifications in the legal field must have been acceptable, the fact that he did not give the final form to his work clearly shows that he did not belong to the scholarly sector of Muslim society. His travels did not involve any scholarly or scientific research pursuits. In the traditional manner he reported the things that struck him as unusual and remarkable. He deeply believed in and reported on supernatural events, the miracles of saintly men, and their dreams and predictions. He was interested in political conditions and the glories of foreign rulers; in economic factors; 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 a supposed way of getting rid of vermin; in remarkable animals, minerals, and, to a greater degree, trees and plants, especially those useful to man (for example, the coconut, on which he lived in the Maldive Islands). The only systematic treatment of observed facts concerns the trees, fruits, and grains of South Arabia, India, and the Maldives. His curiosity about buildings and ancient ruins was not particularly great. He believed in alchemy; but while he was credulous of religious stories, he showed himself quite skeptical of marvelous natural phenomena, such as fables about the origin of the coconut, the strange shape of the vagina of certain Turkish women, or the purported age of some old man.
Ibn Baṭṭūṭa’s work is a source of unmatched importance for fourteenth-century India (to which about one-fifth of it is devoted), and even more so for the Maldives, southern Russia, and especially Negro Africa. Ibn Baṭṭūṭa often is the only medieval author to give us information on these areas; and where there is additional material, the value of his observations remains undisputed. He also contributes considerably to our knowledge of comparatively well-known areas, such as contemporary Anatolia. Whether observed fact, hearsay, or legend, whether indubitably true of suspect, his data are often the only ones we have to fill voids in our knowledge. His personal contribution lies in the single-mindedness with which he traveled in order to learn more and more about man and nature, in the skill he showed for ferreting out meaningful facts, and in his realization of the importance of these facts for the growth of human knowledge. In contrast with Christian explorers, whose journeys took them out of their own limited world and who thus brought back to it an entirely new experience, he remained spiritually and for the most part physically within the boundaries of the world of Islam. Yet he clearly belongs in the select circle of the men who, often misunderstood or not understood by their contemporaries, paved the way for the modern age of discovery.
I. Original Works. The original edition of the Travels was published in four volumes, with a French translation, by C. Defrémery and B.R. Sanguinetti (Paris, 1853–1858). There is an English translation of the first two volumes by H. A. R. Gibb (Cambridge, 1958–1962), Hakluyt Society, 2nd ser., nos. 110 and 117. For a translation of the section on India, the Maldives, and Ceylon, see Mahdi Husain, The Reḥla of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa (Baroda, 1953). For the section dealing with Negro Africa, see G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville, The East African Coast (Oxford, 1962), pp. 27–32; and R. Mauny et al., Textes et documents relatifs à l’histoire de l’Afrique (Dakar, 1966), University of Dakar, Section d’Histoire, Publication 9.
II. Secondary Literature. Works on Ibn Baṭṭūṭa include G.-H. Bousquet, “Ibn Baṭṭūṭa et les institutions musulmanes,” in Studia Islamica, 24 (1966), 81–106; H. A. R. Gibb, “A provisional Chronology of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa’s Travels in Asia Minor and Russia,” II, 528–537, of his translation; I. Hrbek, “The Chronology of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa’s Travels,” in Archiv Orientální, 30 (1962), 409–486; H. F. Janssens, Ibn Batouta, le voyageur de l’Islam (Brussels, 1948): É. Lévi-Provençal, “Le voyage d’Ibn Baṭṭūṭa dans le royaume de Grenade,” in Mélanges offerts à William Marçais (Paris, 1950), pp. 205–224; and George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, III, pt. 2 (Baltimore, 1948), 1614–1623.