This column explores the story of the legendary Arab traveller Ibn Battuta – a globe trotter, holy man and ‘Waliullah’. The Arabs have had a good tradition of keeping correct and reliable records of historical episodes. Ibn Battuta’s travelogues are an instance of this. Ibn Marzug of Tlemcen (died 1379), Grand Mufti of Cairo, spoke of Ibn Battuta in the following words: “I know of no person who has journeyed through so many lands as Ibn Battuta did; and he was withal generous and well-doing.”
The following text is a free rendering from ‘The Travels of Ibn Battuta’, edited by Tim Mackinstosh-Smith (Picador, London). Ibn Battuta was born in 1304, a native of North Africa (Tangier), ethnically not an Arab – although culturally he was a perfect Arab Muslim. He was a Sunni Muslim and a Qazi (judge) by profession. His full name was Shams al-Din Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Ibn Battuta al-Lawati al-Tanji. ‘Shams al-Din’ (sun of religion) is a typical name given to scholars, mainly from the East. His travels extended from Africa to Asia, via the Volga River, and beyond Zanzibar. His travelogue is packed with people and events, short on landscapes and adverbs, but enormous in content and described with a close, clear gaze of a miniaturist; diverse, yet God-fearing. Here follows one of the stories.
One day, in the spring of 1350, a gathering took place in a garden near Granada. The owner of the garden, a scholar of Islamic Law, had invited several notables from the capital to meet two guests. One was a poet and peasant who composed verses in the crispest classical Arabic. The other was a Moroccan from Tangier (Ibn Battuta), who had recently returned from the East. “I was with them in that garden”, recalled a young writer a few years later. “Shaikh Abu Abdallah Ibn Battuta delighted us with the stories of his travels. I took down from him the names of the famous people he had met and we profited greatly from him.” Granada was the last Moorish stronghold in Spain at the time. Most of Spain had already been retaken by the Christians.
Ibn Battuta told us about a world far-flung but close-knit. In China, he had heard a verse of Sa’di – the poet of Shiraz, the other end of Asia – being sung at a river in Hangzhou. Not far away, in Fuzhou, he bumped into a man from Ceuta, a day’s journey from his own home town of Tangier. After leaving Spain, he stayed south of the Atlas Mountains with the man’s brother. In embattled Granada he met natives of Anatolia, Central Asia and India.
He dictated his travels to others to be written down. A few years after that meeting in the garden, the Sultan of Morocco commissioned Ibn Juzayy – the young writer who had enjoyed hearing Ibn Battuta’s tales – to take down the traveller’s memoirs. The result was ‘Tehfat al-nuzzar fi ghara’ib al’amsar wa aja’ib al’asfar’ (Gift to those who contemplate the wonders of cities and the marvels of travelling) – also known as ‘Rihlah’ or ‘Travels’ for short. It covered travels of over an area of approximately 75,000 miles.
Ibn Battuta started his journey on Rajab 2, 725 AH (1324 AD). On April 5, 1326, he reached Alexandria. During his stay there, he heard tales of a ‘Waliullah’, Shaikh Abu Abdullah al-Murshidi, who was living in retreat in the village of Munyat Bani Murshidi. There he was visited by amirs, sultans, notables, ministers etc, every day, and he would serve them all food, each to his choice and desire, even out-of-season fruits. Ibn Battuta set out from Alexandria to seek out this sheikh and travelled to Fawwa, a town known for its many orchards and a remarkable supply of valuable products. In the town is the grave of the saintly Shaikh Abu’l-Najah, a seer of that country.
The place where Shaikh Abu Adallah al-Murshidi retired lies close to the town but is separated from it by a canal. Ibn Battuta arrived at Shaikh’s cell an hour before the afternoon prayer. When he entered the cell, Shaikh rose to meet him, embraced him and called for food. He was dressed in a black woollen tunic. When the hour of the afternoon prayer arrived, he asked Ibn Battuta to lead the prayer – he did so on every occasion the latter stayed with him. While preparing for sleep, he said: “Go up to the roof of the cell and sleep there”, for this was during the summer heat. On the roof were a straw mattress and a leather mat, vessels for ritual ablutions, a jar of water and a drinking cup.
That night while sleeping, Ibn Battuta dreamt he was on the wings of a huge bird that flew in the direction of the ‘qiblah’, then made towards Yemen, then eastwards, then south, and finally made a long flight towards the east, alighting in some dark and greenish country, where it left Ibn Battuta. He was astonished at the dream and thought to himself, “If the Shaikh shows me he knows of my dream, then he is all they say that he is.” After the afternoon prayers, the Shaikh revealed that he had knowledge of the dream. He said: “You shall make the Pilgrimage to Mecca and visit the tomb of the Prophet at al-Madinah, then you shall travel through the lands of al-Yaman and al-Iraq, the land of the Turks and the land of India. You will stay there for a long time and you will meet there my brother, Dilshad of India, who will rescue you from a danger into which you will have fallen.” He then gave Ibn Battuta travelling provisions, some small cakes and silver coins, and bade him farewell.
In the next part we will skip Ibn Battuta’s many travels through various countries on his way to India and tell about his meeting there with the brother of Shaikh Abu Abdallah al-Murshidi (his saviour).