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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 4 - Medieval Narrative  


Islamic Travel Narratives--The Rihla of Ibn Battuta

The Islamic world of the fourteenth century extended from the Atlantic kingdoms of Granada and Morocco, on either side of the Straits of Gibraltar in the west, across the Eurasian land mass to the South China Sea in the east. Despite the differences in language and habit that inevitably existed among the inhabitants of such a vast geographic span, a common religion brought Muslims together spiritually. The pilgrimage (or hajj) to Mecca, a journey that all Muslims are expected to make at least once in their lives, brought these diverse co-religionists together physically.

During the medieval period, pilgrims often recorded their impressions of the different Islamic territories through which they passed en route to Mecca as well as Medina, Mohammed's burial site 200 miles to the north. As a result, the pilgrims practiced a genre unique to Islam, called the Rihla, a travel narrative that emphasized cultural rather than political or purely visual detail.

The most copious of all Rihlas covers the travels of Ibn Battuta (1304-1368), a native of Tangier, Morocco, who embarked on the hajj when he was just twenty-one years old. After he reached Mecca and Medina in 1326, he simply could have returned to Tangier, having fulfilled his religious obligation, and practiced law, the tradition of his family. Instead, finding that travel was his true vocation, he crossed and re-crossed the Islamic world, once spending eight years as a judge in the Muslim court of the Sultan of Delhi and often serving as a judge within the highly organized travel caravans in which pilgrims banded together on the road to Mecca.

Although he returned to Morocco from time to time, Ibn Battuta kept striking off in new directions. In his thirty years on the road, he met the most famous and powerful figures of the whole Islamic world, visiting such venues as Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Persia, Afghanistan, Russia, India, Constantinople (Istanbul), West Central Africa, Ceylon, the Maldive Islands, Burma, Sumatra, southern China, and southern Spain. He covered approximately 75,000 miles and, according to the calculations of one scholar, spent time in territories belonging to 44 modern countries. Not until 1354 did he return home to stay.

Wanting a permanent record of Ibn Battuta's remarkable range of experiences, the Sultan of Morocco hired a young scholar named Ibn Juzayy to transcribe Ibn Battuta's account of the world he had seen. While the accuracy of the resulting narrative is therefore difficult to judge--we know, for example, that some descriptive passages are borrowed from other, earlier rihlas, and that the chronology of Ibn Battuta's trips cannot in some instances be correct--the four volumes of The Travels of Ibn Battuta communicate the genuine flavor of Muslim life in the fourteenth century, even if Ibn Battuta himself did not actually participate in all of the events he describes. Like many other travel accounts, this Rihla mixes the fantastic and the authentic in order to evoke a certain vision of the world. Here, as elsewhere, truth and fiction merge.

The account excerpted below renders a well-documented picture of the great pilgrimage caravans on the road from Damascus to Mecca and illustrates the way Islamic travelers self-consciously walk in the footsteps of Mohammed as they approach the holy city. This translation is from an abridged version by H. A. R. Gibbs, published in 1929; the full translation of the entire four-volume work into English is not yet complete.

Excerpt From The Rihla Of Ibn Battuta

When the new moon of the month Shawwal [that precedes Ramadan, the season of fasting, in the Muslim calendar] appeared in the same year [1st September 1326], the Hijaz caravan left Damascus and I set off along with it. At Bosra the caravans usually halt for four days so that any who have been detained at Damascus by business affairs may make up on them. . . . The caravan stopped for four days at a place called ath-Thaniya outside Karak, where preparations were made for entering the desert. Thence we journeyed to Ma`an, which is the last town in Syria, and from 'Aqabat as -Sawan entered the desert, of which the saying goes: "He who enters it is lost, and he who leaves it is born." . . . The Syrian pilgrims have a custom that, on reaching the camp at Tabuk, they take their weapons, unsheathe their swords, and charge upon the camp, striking the palms with their swords and saying "Thus did the Prophet of God enter it." The great caravan halts at Tabuk for four days to rest and to water the camels and lay in water for the terrible desert between Tabuk and al-'Ula. The custom of the water-carriers is to camp beside the spring, and they have tanks made of buffalo hides, like great cisterns, from which they water the camels and fill the waterskins. Each amir or person of rank has a special tank for the needs of his own camels and personnel; the other people make private agreements with the watercarriers to water their camels and fill their waterskins for a fixed sum of money.

From Tabuk the caravan travels with great speed night and day, for fear of this desert. Halfway through is the valley of al-Ukhaydir, which might well be the valley of Hell (may God preserve us from it). One year the pilgrims suffered terribly here from the samoom-wind; the water-supplies dried up and the price of a single drink rose to a thousand dinars, but both seller and buyer perished. Their story is written on a rock in the valley. Five days after leaving Tabuk they reach the well of al-Hijr, which has an abundance of water, but not a soul draws water there, however violent his thirst, following the example of the Prophet, who passed it on his expedition to Tabuk and drove on his camel, giving orders that none should drink of its waters.

. . . Al-`Ula, a large and pleasant village with palm-gardens and water-springs, lies half a day's journey or less from al-Hijr. The pilgrims halt there four days to provision themselves and wash their clothes. They leave behind them here any surplus of provisions they may have, taking with them nothing but what is strictly necessary. The people of the village are very trustworthy. The Christian merchants of Syria may come as far as this and no further, and they trade in provisions and other goods with the pilgrims here. On the third day after leaving al`Ula the caravan halts in the outskirts of the holy city of Madina [sic].

That same evening we entered the holy sanctuary and reached the illustrious mosque, halting in salutation at the Gate of Peace; then we prayed in the illustrious "garden" between the tomb of the Prophet and the noble pulpit, and reverently touched the fragment that remains of the palm-trunk against which the Prophet stood when he preached. Having paid our meed of salutation to the lord of men from first to last, the intercessor for sinners, the Prophet of Mecca, Muhammad, as well as to his two companions who share his grave, Abu Bakr and 'Omar, we returned to our camp, rejoicing at this great favour bestowed upon us, praising God for our having reached the former abodes and the magnificent sanctuaries of His holy Prophet, and praying Him to grant that this visit should not be our last, and that we might be of those whose pilgrimage is accepted. On this journey our stay at Madina lasted four days. We used to spend every night in the illustrious mosque, where the people, after forming circles in the courtyard and lighting large numbers of candles, would pass the time either in reciting the Koran from volumes set on rests in front of them, or in intoning litanies, or in visiting the sanctuaries of the holy tomb.

We then set out from Madina towards Mecca, and halted near the mosque of Dhu'l-Hulayfa, five miles away. It was at this point that the Prophet assumed the pilgrim garb and obligations, and here too I divested myself of my tailored clothes, bathed, and putting on the pilgrim's garment I prayed and dedicated myself to the pilgrimage. Our fourth halt from here was at Badr, where God aided His Prophet and performed His promise. It is a village containing a series of palm-gardens and a bubbling spring with a stream flowing from it. Our way lay thence through a frightful desert called the Vale of Bazwa for three days to the valley of Rabigh, where the rainwater form pools which lie stagnant for a long time. From this point (which is just before Juhfa) the pilgrims from Egypt and Northwest Africa put on the pilgrim garment. Three days after leaving Rabigh we reached the pool of Khulays, which lies in a plain and has many palm-gardens. The Badawin of that neighbourhood hold a market there, to which they bring sheep, fruits, and condiments. Thence we travelled through 'Usfan to the Bottom of Marr, a fertile valley with numerous palms and a spring supplying a stream from which the district is irrigated. From this valley fruit and vegetables are transported to Mecca. We set out at night from this blessed valley, with hearts full of joy at reaching the goal of our hopes, and in the morning arrived at the City of Surety, Mecca (may God ennoble her!), where we immediately entered the holy sanctuary and began the rites of pilgrimage.

The inhabitants of Mecca are distinguished by many excellent and noble activities and qualities, by their beneficence to the humble and weak, and by their kindness to strangers. When any of them makes a feast, he begins by giving food to the religious devotees who are poor and without resources, inviting them first with kindness and delicacy. The majority of these unfortunates are to be found by the public bake-houses, and when anyone has his bread baked and takes it away to his house, they follow him and he gives each one of them some share of it, sending away none disappointed. Even if he has but a single loaf, he gives away a third or a half of it, cheerfully and without any grudgingness. Another good habit of theirs is this. The orphan children sit in the bazaar, each with two baskets, one large and one small. When one of the townspeople comes to the bazaar and buys cereals, meat and vegetables, he hands them to one of these boys, who puts the cereals in one basket and the meat and vegetables in the other and takes them to the man's house, so that his meal may be prepared. Meanwhile the man goes about his devotions and his business. There is no instance of any of the boys having ever abused their trust in this matter, and they are given a fixed fee of a few coppers. . . .

Among the personages who were living in religious retirement at Mecca was a pious and ascetic doctor who had a long-standing friendship with my father, and used to stay with us when he came to our town of Tangier. In the daytime he taught at the Muzaffariya college, but at night he retired to his dwelling in the convent of Rabi'. This convent is one of the finest in Mecca; it has in its precincts a well of sweet water which has no equal in Mecca, and its inhabitants are all men of great piety. It is highly venerated by the people of the Hijaz, who bring votive offerings to it, and the people of Ta'if supply it with fruit. Their custom is that all those who possess a palm garden, or orchard of vines, peaches or figs, give the alms-tithe from its produce to this convent, and fetch it on their own camels. It is two days' journey from Ta'if to Mecca. If any person fails to do this, his crop is diminished and dearth-stricken in the following year. One day the retainers of the governor of Mecca came to this convent, led in the governor's horses, and watered them at the well mentioned above. After the horses had been taken back to their stables, they were seized with colic and threw themselves to the ground, beating it with their heads and legs. On hearing of this the governor went in person to the gate of the convent and after apologizing to the poor recluses there, took one of them back with him. This man rubbed the beasts' bellies with his hand, when they expelled all the water that they had drunk, and were cured. After that the retainers never presented themselves at the convent except for good purposes.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Why does a pilgrimage or journey play a central role in so many different religious faiths?
  2. The Arabian desert has imprinted itself on Arabic literature. What sort of imagery does the experience of the barren wilderness conjure in this description?
  3. Have you read any other literature that praises the kind of gracious behavior displayed by the inhabitants of Mecca? Why is their conduct so highly prized?