In 1325 A.D. the young legal scholar Abu Abdallah ibn Battuta set out from his native city of Tangier on the north coast of Morocco to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. “I braced my resolution to quit all my dear ones,” he tells us in his celebrated Rihla, or Book of Travels. “I set out alone, having neither fellow- traveler in whose companionship I might find cheer nor caravan whose party I might join." His departure may have been poignant, but his loneliness did not last long. Within, a few days he was meeting all sorts of people on the road, and as he traveled back and forth across the Eastern Hemisphere during the ensuing twenty-nine years, he made hundreds of friends, married numerous women, fathered several children, and counted among his associates eminent scholars, royal officials, rich merchants, and Mongol kings.
Indeed, one of the more fascinating aspects of Ibn Battuta’s travels through the equivalent of nearly fifty modern countries is that he was repeatedly running into people he knew. Wandering lost in the remote forests of northern Turkey, he met up with “an acquaintance,” who saved him and his traveling companions from perishing in a snowstorm. When he tried to make a visit in cognito to the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean, travelers who had known him in northern India 1,600 miles away recognized him and blew his cover. In southern China he met a man named al-Bushri whom he had known slightly in India and who came originally from a town in Morocco only forty miles from Tangier. About five and a half years later when he was traveling in the northern Sahara Desert at the opposite extremity of the hemisphere, he became the house guest of al- Bushri’s brother!
In the age of the global village we might not be terribly surprised to bump into some old acquaintance while changing planes in Tokyo or Frankfurt. But six and a half centuries ago, when the world’s population was many times less than it is now, cities were much smaller and more widely scattered, vast deserts and oceans separated settled communities, and the pace of travel was limited to the speed of horses or sailing ships, we might suppose that few people ever ventured far beyond their natal land.
In fact the caravan trails and sea lanes of the fourteenth century hummed with travelers on long-distance errands of all sorts. Among travelers, moreover, Muslims were preeminent. Because the lands of Islam dominated the center of the Eastern Hemisphere and extended nearly all the way across it, Muslim merchants moved incessantly here and there among the major regions of Eurasia and Africa carrying the greater part of the hemisphere’s international trade in luxury and everyday goods. Other Muslims went abroad to make the holy pilgrimage Hajj) to Mecca and Medina in Arabia, a journey that might take a poor pilgrim several years. Still others traveled as diplomatic emissaries, imperial messengers, wandering mystics, or cultured scholars in search of books and famous teachers.
Islamic civilization was highly cosmopolitan in the fourteenth century in two respects. First, Islamic cities had on the whole the most heterogeneous populations of residents and transient visitors of any cities in the world. This was especially true of cities of the Islamic heartland partly because the region between Egypt and Persia (what we call today the Middle East) was geographically the narrow bottleneck of the hemisphere (semi-arid steppes to the north, deserts and seas to the south) and therefore the funnel through which all the east-west trade routes passed. A diverse assortment of transients and temporary residents-Arabs, Persians, Jews, Kurds, Berbers, Turks, Greeks, Italians, and Catalans-walked the streets of Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Tabriz, Alexandria, and, most cosmopolitan of all in Ibn Battuta’s time, Cairo.
Islamic internationalism was also evidenced in the collective life of the ‘ulama, the class of Muslim religious and legal scholars. In Islamic belief individuals who traveled to make the hajj or to further their education in the religious sciences were thought to merit divine approval. Garbed in white gown and voluminous turban, the ‘alim, or pious scholar, was a common sight on the open road as he scurried from one city to another to seek out a particular legal text, study with a celebrated teacher, or attend a religiously endowed college. Moreover, because the ‘ulama were the lettered class and the guardians and interpreters of the sacred law of Islam (shari’a), the more skilled and gifted among them were much in demand to fill bureaucratic posts, direct religious institutions, and lead diplomatic missions. Fourteenth century Islam was a civilization not only of many cities but many kingdoms as well. Secular sultans and princes normally regarded it as their moral duty to treat lawyers and religious doctors in their service with respect and generosity. On the other hand, rulers could be fickle about whom they favored or disfavored. Consequently, ambitious and talented scholar-bureaucrats moved frequently from capital to capital in search of prestigious and lucrative posts. And if they should for some reason irritate their princely employer, they might skip town at very short notice.
The ‘ulama of the medieval centuries might collectively be described as the best-traveled and most cosmopolitan intellectual class in world history up to that time. Their primary loyalty was not to state, nation, or tribe, but to the dar al-Islam, or House of Islam, the lands where Muslim populations predominated or at least where Muslim communities ruled. In Ibn Battuta’s time the dar al-Islam extended straight across the Eastern Hemisphere. Consequently, the most mobile and best educated among the scholarly class possessed a sharper universalist vision of humankind, a broader mental grasp of the inhabited regions of Eurasia and Africa, than any other group in the world.
Lettered Muslims of North Africa or Andalusia (southern Spain) were particularly inclined to make long trips abroad, partly to fulfill the religious obligations of the hajj, partly to make study tours of Cairo, Damascus, and other university cities of the Middle East. From the point of view of an Egyptian or Syrian scholar, North Africa was jazirat al-maghrib, the “island of the west,” a region of mountains and plains cut off from the center by sea and desert. Moroccan and Andalusian intellectuals were acutely conscious that they lived in the “far west.” A journey to the center was an opportunity to acquire books and diplomas, commune with the best scholars, and generally immerse oneself in the cosmopolitan life. North African sojourners were likely to earn both scholarly credentials and intellectual prestige in the Middle East and so return home to honorable and well-paying jobs in service to their religious community or their king.
Excerpted from the foreword by Ross E. Dunn to the book "Ibn Battuta in Black Africa" by Said Hamdun & Noel King. Click on the image below to buy this book.