Ibn Battuta, the Tangerine

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Ibn Battuta’s Rihala – A product of oral history

I have realized along the way, after some 35 years of global travel that – you can never understand an Arab sitting and studying books and power points in Stuttgart, nor can you understand an Afghan by sitting in Zurich. Ibn Battuta’s accomplishments can never be surpassed by any other, for such was the period and the difficulties he faced, going out into the yonder which little to guide him, be it detailed maps, dependable transportation, or finance. How he managed it is a wonder, and like many researchers, one has to admire his sheer grit and personality, for he managed the 70,000-odd miles of travel (by boat, on foot, horse, camel, donkeys, and palanquins), always deploying a charming personality and guile, layered with a thick coat of diplomacy and faith. Easily getting into and out of problems, and facing the adversities of weather, this wonderful person spent 30 years on the road.

I have already covered the stories of most travelers to Malabar already, but not Ibn Battuta for I saved it till I visited Morocco and got a feel for the place, and its people. This I did last month, and now I think I understand the land of Ibn Battuta better. I could not visit the city of his birth, Tangiers, this time, but then again, there could be another time!

The travels and travails of Shams al-Din Abu 'Abdallah Muhammad ibn 'Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yusuf al-Lawati al-Tanji Ibn Battuta are obviously entertaining and became popular after HAR Gibb published his translation of the Rihla. When first recorded and presented by his scribe, Ibn Juzayy, at the Moroccan capital Fez, to their king, readers were incredulous, and some contemporaries scoffed at the work. The stories which he reeled off, in a two-year period and filling a thousand pages, covered his 70,000-mile, 24-year long trip, his meeting with some 60 heads of state, his colorful descriptions of people and events in India, China, Constantinople, and so on, as well as the naming of some 2,000 people, are all testament to a sharp memory and personal involvement in most of the recounted events, if not all of them. Nevertheless, historians are divided in their opinion on the truthfulness of Battuta’s chronicles, though some of their critical analyses, prove to be relatively exhausting and pedantic.

We will look at some of them along the way, but let me reassure you, this is not an article that will present sections from the Rihla, it is mainly about the marvelous entertainer Ibn Battuta, himself. But before we meet the young man who set out of his home aged 21, very much like me (I left Kerala, aged 21), let us get to know the region and life there, to set the scene.

Why is Battuta called a Tangerine –Tangerines or Mandarins as peelable sweet oranges and means a native of Tangier I.e., the seaport in Morocco, across the Strait of Gibraltar. Oranges imported from Tangier, Morocco (curiously the same fruit was also known as the Chinese apple or the mandarin) were so termed. The Al Tanji in Battuta’s name means 'from Tangerine' and so, Ibn Battuta became a Tangerine! Though some authors have connected the term Battuta literally to duck making him - Ibn Battuta - son of a duck, Battuta or Batta is apparently the nickname for Fatima!! Again, mostly a supposition.

It was the period when Dar al Islam was quite different, and the Maghreb region of N Africa was buzzing with activity. The large city of Fez was an imperial capital, and Morocco reigned supreme at the apex of the Islamic world. The University of Qarawiyyin - the world's oldest university had been founded in Fez in 859 A.D. by Fatima al-Fihri and was at its zenith. But Ibn Battutah did not have anything to do with it, having been educated in lesser madrasas at Tangiers, though he was destined, at the end of his 24-year travel, to wearily land up in Fez and request patronage from the resident Moroccan ruler.

The Idrisi map

One thing which most people don’t recognize is the role played by Charif Al Idrisi (a descendant of Prophet Mohammed) of Ceuta, Morocco, and his creation of a world map around 1154. The 70-section map with South at the top and Mecca at the center, was the most popular map for at least three centuries thereafter, originally created as a six-foot silver planisphere. Idrisi’s flight from Morocco and collaboration with the Sicilian King Roger II, was apparently due to persecution from the Caliphs of Morocco who feared competition, due to Idrisi’s blood links to the Prophet. Though Battuta does not mention Idrisi, he must have found inspiration from this compatriot.

The man

Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, also known as Shams ad–Din, Al Maghribi, and as Maulana Badr-ud-din., was born at Tangier, Morocco, on the 24th of February 1304 C.E. He left Tangiers on Thursday, 14th June 1325 C.E, after a good education on Sharia law and having committed the Koran to heart. He belonged to a family which originally settled at Lawata and subsequently at Tangier for some generations and identified with the administration of the judiciary (quazi) and the hospice (mashikat). Though this was not to provide him a status of preeminence in his native lands (for there were many, better qualified), it was as we can see, sufficient in distant lands like India, where he gained prominence due to his being Arabic, knowing the Koran minutely and being knowledgeable on Islamic law. While he admits in the accounts that his main intention was to complete the Hajj (strange that he wanted to do it, not having completed his life’s responsibilities) as any other devout Muslim, I believe his plan was to collect the exalted ‘Haji’ title and proceed to India to seek an expatriate post at the wealthy Delhi court.

Many a book detail his exploits, through translations in French and English. While Lee & Gibb have provided excellent translations of the Rihla, they have not analyzed the 8-10 period Battuta spent in India, and so I had to browse through Mahdi Husain’s book detailing the same. There are many other excellent books on the traveler and his Rihla, all recently published, so you can take your pick. Let us now quickly follow him, and check some highlights.

His travels

Our man left Tangiers in June 1325, headed for Mecca, and reached Alexandria in April 1326. He then proceeded on through Cairo, Jerusalem, Tripoli, and Antioch, until he reached Damascus. The next stops were at Medina and Mecca where he performed the Hajj. In November, he left Mecca and crossed through Iraq and Iran. Getting back to Baghdad he set out again for Mecca but fell ill on the way, labored on, and settled down in Mecca for a three-year academic stay, focusing on Islamic philosophy. Footloose again, he moved towards E Africa, performed yet another Umrah, and proceeded eastward in the direction of India but stopped at Jeddah due to sailing difficulties.

He drifted off to Constantinople and eventually reached India from its North West gates, in 1333. At Delhi, he was appointed as a Qazi and assigned the office of hospice administrator (June 1334). He then traveled a bit within India and lived to witness the explosive moods of his monarch Mohammed ibn Tughlaq. After a fallout (Tughlaq hated any opposition and moved violently to quell it. Battuta was worried as he had befriended a Sufi who was anti-Tughlaq), he decided to quit working for the King, but did come back to Delhi in 1341, made a trip to Mecca and returned, only to be ordered to accompany a bunch of Chinese diplomats who had arrived from China via Calicut, on their return to China, as Tughlaq’s envoy. Luck deserted him and disasters followed. After a couple of years in Malabar, his travel became a series of sea voyages, to Maldives (1344-46), Sumatra, China and back to Calicut and finally in 1347-48, the return to Arabia after a final 7th Hajj. From Mecca he went to Cairo and started back to Morocco, reaching the Royal capital of Fez on 12th November 1349. This was a time when plague was raging in the region.

During this entire period, he spent a spendthrift life, on the edge, going through many adventures, (so much so that Tughlaq himself warned him to be careful with his finances), married and divorced many times, fathered many a child and generally remained a rolling stone, gathering no moss.

Back home

Ibn Battuta, as we saw, finally returned to Morocco in 1349, having survived the Black Death.  He seems to have visited Tangiers briefly, to discover that his mother and father had both passed away during his long 24-year absence. Footloose again, he spent some years traveling to Spain and African states.  Perhaps a stable life beckoned, for he decided to finally hang up his boots and settle down. At this juncture, Sultan Abu Inan Faris, hearing about his exploits, decided that his story had to be documented, and asked him to work with his court secretary and calligrapher Ibn Juzayy to work on it.

'Juzayy' i.e., Abu 'Abdullah Muhammad Juzayy, hailed from Granada in Spain.  After a fallout with the Grenada king, he left for Morocco where he was employed by the Marinid Sultan Abu Inan Faris as his literary secretary. Even at a young age, Juzayy was considered to be a brilliant poet, a historian, a philologist, a theologian, and a traditionist (a Shia) as well as a brilliant calligraphist.

History enthusiasts may recall that in 1348 Abu al-Hasan was deposed by his son Abu Inan Faris, who tried to reconquer Algeria and Tunisia. This was the Sultan that Juzayy and Battuta were associated with. It appears that Abu Inan Faris had very specific requirements on the composition of the Rihla, he wanted the book to be an entertainer, while Battuta, after all his struggle wanted to be recognized for his efforts, as a great and pious traveler. Juzayy of course wanted to get the honors in penning a colorful work, and followed the practices in vogue as well as his master’s orders.

Thus, came about Ibn Battuta’s extended Rihla (A Rihla is, strictly speaking, meant to cover the Hajj journey). Working perhaps on Battuta’s notes, and other travelogs already available, Juzayy completed the entertaining account in the next two years. The composition of the Rihla was finished on Wednesday, 9th December 1356. The amount of modifications and changes made by Juzayy are not yet clear, and he died the following year, in 1357. The Rihla had limited circulation within the Arab world and was neither considered factual nor reference material. 

As for the Sultan, well, despite many of his successes, he got caught in his own court intrigues, for he was strangled by his vizir in 1358, after which the Marinid dynasty began to decline. With the passing of Abu Inan Faris in 1358, all power filtered down to the viziers (just like it happened in Mysore before Hyder!), with the following sultans holding just titular positions. The county became divided, and it is said that political anarchy set in, with different viziers and outside powers supporting feuding factions.

Without a doubt, parts of the Rihla may have been borrowed from previously published accounts, sections from it document wild accounts of wonders, mysteries, and happenings prevalent in medieval Asia, and parts are products of vivid imagination and incredulous conclusions. When read these days, compared and analyzed using current moral standards, IP rights, and scientific criteria, it falls quite short. But in those days, it was a compilation set to prevalent style, though criticism circulated and ibn Battuta faced some ridicule, mainly due to the sheer extent of the travelogue.

Battuta and his Rihla

Between the storyteller and the scribe, a narrative took birth, complete with observations, opinions, hearsay, miracles, and oddities. Gaps were filled with borrowed descriptions from other travelers, a good dose of exaggeration and hyperbole at times, with personal anecdotes to effectively weld the seams of the narrative, while the scribe fitted it to the patron’s desire, styling it with poetic prose.

If read without preconceived notions and with some understanding of the locales he covered as well as their histories, you will find the Rihla, a page-turner. It is a personal account, and not set out as a dry narrative, with footnotes, maps, and references, which are all quite important today. Battuta comes across as one who has been there, who has personally visited, experienced, and witnessed the many incidents he narrates, hiding little. Somewhat boastful, with a hint of a superiority complex, Ibn Battuta takes in the wonders and splendors and writes frankly laying out his likes and dislikes on people and places, civilizations, and rulers. Rachel Singer in her paper Love, Sex, and Marriage in Ibn Battuta's Travels, concludes that his Rihla became so popular because it was virtually in 3-D, lent a personal touch, complete with warts and all, and readers could experience the journey with him.

He loved gifts and wealth, had a voracious sexual appetite, and loved hobnobbing with the big and powerful. At the same time, he was at home with the pious and simple common man too, and took in the fakirs, the magicians, the thieves, and charlatans, and above all, desired to be recognized as a learned judge from Arabia, Prophet Mohammed’s land.

The critics

There are many who criticize Battuta, some say he copied sections from Marco Polo, while others assert that Marco Polo was a fraud. Some are at pains to point out that Battuta never traveled to China or other cities like Constantinople. There are some who harangue him without knowing the place names (as in Malabar) mentioned by Battuta or having visited those locales.  Some have made their Ibn Battuta investigations, a cornerstone of their armchair scholarship. There is also a neutral group that says that either Battuta or Juzayy used filler material from other travelogues such as Ibn Jubayr, to make the book complete and an entertainer as the King wanted it. Some others add that the chronology is out of whack, as it cannot be structured linearly.

But why did this one man venture out on such an odyssey? Was it just wanderlust? Tom Mackintosh-Smith who retraced Ibn Battuta’s route feels that it was all with a purpose, quite common today. Go where you are wanted, where you will be recognized, instead of wallowing in your own domicile. He said in a recent interview (Five books Feb 2012), and personally, I believe it was a superb analysis - He realized that he could make money and get jobs in the Islamic world, especially in areas that were newly Islamized, or its leaders were newly Islamized, like the ruler of India. Ibn Battuta thought, “I can get a job there,” being a card-carrying Arab Muslim scholar. So, he went further than the pilgrimage, partly to get jobs to make money and to hobnob with sultans, and partly because he had this total fascination with the world of Islamic mysticism – Sufis, and particularly Sufi holy men……. At some point he realized he was surfing this huge wave of Islam and that he could actually be the one who wrote about the Islamic world – his Rihla could be the Rihla to end all Rihlas. I think he probably realized that, consciously at some point.

His wives, concubines, slaves, and children

There are papers, theses, and book sections on Ibn Battuta’s many wives, children, and his many concubines and slave girls. Battuta is unapologetic about his desires and always used religious permissions and the Mut’ah marriage practices, to the maximum. Li Guo in her paper feels he married and divorced over twenty women and fathered and abandoned over seventy children, during his 30 years on the road. The Rihla itself mentions some 10 wives and 5 children, and numerous slave girls/concubines with whom he had sexual relations.

Ross Dunn, the scholar who has analyzed the Rihla in great detail and is a pleasure to read and refer to, mentions that Ibn Battuta had the desire to establish a social or political connection with prominent families, by marriage, as was popular in the Indian Islamic world. Interestingly, none of those alliances forced him to settle down, and when he set out back home, he was alone.

Then again, I do not believe that he settled down after the 1356 Rihla composition, all alone in a distant Moroccan town, as we shall soon see. I am sure he became a family man once again, though there is no account of it.

Battuta and Sufism

Sufism is the mystical expression of the Islamic faith, ascetic in nature, considered as the part of Islamic teaching that deals with the purification of the inner self. It was in the 11th century that it got codified. The renaissance of Sufism started in the 13th century and Ibn Battuta seems to have been a devote, though not a Sufi, perhaps trying to understand it all, journeying to a number of places, specifically to visit a saintly Sufi master or the tomb of a Sufi saint in order to obtain their divine blessings. As we saw earlier, his association with a Sufi almost got him killed, in Delhi.

Visited Calicut 7 times  

The first visit of Ibn Battuta to Calicut was in 1343. This was when he was deputed to China with the Chinese diplomats who were returning to China. He had a lot to write about the great port of Calicut, life there, the Al-Samiri, the Chinese ships, a Tsunami, and shipwreck, but strangely does not mention too much about bare-breasted women (which he would definitely have taken note of) or other pagan aspects. He transited Calicut seven times, the last time in 1347. I will cover Ibn Battuta’s stay in Calicut in a separate article.

The mysterious Kunji Kari

Ibn Battuta seems to have visited a place that he called Kunji Kari, while sailing to Quilon from Calicut, home to a number of Jews. Well, some authors have not been able to identify the place, but it is quite clear that this was Cochangadi was written as Cochan Gari – i.e., today’s Cochin. Mehrdad Shokoohy explains – In Arabic the sound ch is represented with the letter j, and Indian g or gh with the letter k; thus, the name may be read as Konchi Ghari. Ibn Battuta’s record of Konchi instead of Kochin may be an error of memory as he wrote his accounts some years later. Could also have been a transliteration of Kochi Karai, the shore of Kochi.

Final years

Ibn Battuta vanished after the Rihla was completed in 1356 and the scribe died. It remained so, until Tim Mackintosh-Smith uncovered a fascinating tidbit, recounted both by Ross Dunn in his 2012 edition preface (Refer Mackintosh-Smiths books for detail)

Dunn explains - One bit of evidence is a letter that the eminent Andalusian scholar Ibn al-Khatib wrote to Ibn Battuta in the early 1360s, that is, several years after the traveler had definitively returned home, on the mundane subject of a land purchase. From this testimony, we learn that the aging Ibn Battuta served as a judge in Tamasna, an old place name associated with the region around modern Casablanca.

While it is stated that Battuta worked as the local judge in Tamasna, it is also clear that Tamasna had by the 1360s lost its previous importance to the Marinids, and was simply used as pastureland, thus a remote outpost.  What is apparent is that Ibn Battuta did not quite win any favors from the King, perhaps due to the lack of popularity for his Rihla, and got shunted to this outpost. Nevertheless, there is a modest tomb in Tangiers, within its labyrinth medina, said to be his, but I doubt if it has anything to do with Ibn Battuta.

So much for our intrepid traveler, who observed a lot, talked a lot, and in the end, wrote about it. He was forgotten but revived centuries later by a European writer, and well, in 1976 moved on to the moon! The International Astronomical Union honored the traveler by naming a lunar crater, after him.  It is 11 kilometers wide, situated on the Mare Fecunditatis, a lunar mare in the eastern part of the Moon's near side; perhaps the greatest tribute to his life. Roads, malls, ships, and airports have since then been named after him, and he continues to inspire.

Today one can go to Fez and still wander around the vast and bustling Medina, check out the remains of the old Dar al-Makhzen palace, the many mosques, and madrasas, and imagine Ibn Battuta wandering among them, wondering afterward what he gained after all that travel.


The Adventures of Ibn Battuta Ross E. Dunn (2012 edition)
Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah, Hall of a Thousand Columns: Hindustan to Malabar with Ibn Battutah, Landfalls: On the Edge of Islam with Ibn Battutah - Mackintosh-Smith
The Travels of Ibn Battuta - Samuel Lee
Ibn Battuta -Harvey, L.P
Ibn Battuta Travels in Asia and Africa – HAR Gibb
The Rehla of IBN Battuta - India, Maldive Islands and Ceylon - Mahdi Husain
Lying, Forging, Plagiarism: Some Narrative Techniques in Ibn Battuta's Travelogue - Ralf Elger
Concubines & Courtesans – Ed Kathryn A. Hain, Matthew Gordon

In Part 2 – I will tell you about Ibn Battuta’s exploits in Malabar