The Most Influential
People in History
Abu ‘Abdallah Muhammad
ibn ‘Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Lawati ibn Battuta [EE-ban ba-TU-TA]
1304 – 1368/69
Islamic Traveler and Author
Exploration Ranking 18th of 26
Ibn Battuta, Morocco, 1963 stamp.
Abu ‘Abdallah Muhammad ibn ‘Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Lawati ibn Battuta is commonly held to be the most-traveled individual before the 19th century.(1) Ibn Battuta (as he is usually referred to) was the author of one of the most famous travel books, whose documentary value gave it lasting historical and geographical significance.(2) His travel book stimulated the study of geography and remains one of the premier sources of early cultural geography.
Born in Tangier, Morocco, Ibn Battuta was from a family of judges and educated in Islamic law. In 1325, at age 21, he set out from his home on a pilgrimage or hajj to Mecca, Saudi Arabia about 3,000 miles away. His adventures inspired him to travel farther. In the early 14th century, amazing opportunities were available to a Muslim traveler. The Islamic world, united by religious custom, trade, and the language of the Qur'an, extended from Spain to Indonesia, and from the Central Asian steppe to Zanzibar. His first foray took him overland around Iraq and Persia (modern day Iran). He then traveled by sea down the east coast of Africa, where traders had spread Islam as far south as modern-day Tanzania. Between these journeys he improved his legal knowledge in Mecca, making himself readily employable in any Muslim state he might visit.
In 1332, he decided to seek employment at the rich court of the Muslim ruler of Delhi. Instead of traveling to India by sea routes from Arabia, he made a vast detour overland via Christian Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), along the Silk Road into Mongol-ruled Central Asia, and across the snow-capped Hindu Kush. The Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad bin Tughluq, was pleased to be served by a visiting scholar, but Ibn Battuta found him a capricious employer. Eventually, sent on a mission to southern India, he decided not to return to Delhi. Instead, he followed the sea trade routes from Sri Lanka around Southeast Asia to imperial China.
In the known world, there was almost nowhere further to travel. In 1349, Ibn Battuta finally returned home. His return coincided with the devastation of the Black Plague, the effects of which he observed with horror. His parents had also died in his absence. Barely stopping at Tangier, he continued to travel, first into Muslim-ruled southern Spain, and then by camel caravan across the Sahara Desert to the fabled empire of Mali. By now he had seen enough.
Adding up all his travels, he covered an amazing 75,000 miles, three times the distance covered by Marco Polo, visiting 44 countries in 30 years.
In 1356, two years after his return home for good, the ruler of Morocco, Sultan Abu ‘Inan commissioned Ibn Juzayy, a literary scholar, to record Ibn Battuta’s dramatic personal adventure, as well as his observations about the Islamic world of his day. Ibn Battuta and Ibn Juzayy collaborated for about two years to compose their work, a rihla, or book of travels. It became a comprehensive survey of the personalities, places, governments, customs and curiosities of the Muslim world in the second quarter of the fourteenth century.
(1) Explorers: Great Tales of Adventure and Endurance (New York, 2010), p. 68.
(2) Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia, Volume 6, 1993, 15th Edition, pp. 218-219.
1. Battuta’s Rihlah (Travels), originally in Arabic, c. 1354.
2. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta – A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century by Ross E. Dunn, 1986, newest revised edition 2012.
3. Ibn Battuta – Prince of Travellers, National Geographic Magazine, December 1991, pgs. 2-49 (includes an excellent map of his routes).