Six and a half centuries ago, the Islamic world saw itself as the unquestioned pinnacle of civilization. What was it really like? The only answer we really have is in the diaries of Ibn Battuta, the wanderlust scholar who clocked 75,000 miles by camel, by foot and by wagon. He was known as “the best traveled man on earth.” He first set off on his travels in 1325, retired to Fez at last in 1354, spent the rest of his life remembering it all, and died in 1378 when he was seventy-three. During this time he traveled through the entire Islamic world from Africa to China.
Scholars for the most part, have confirmed that most of what he said is accurate; and though there are certainly chronological blurs in the narrative, and some hazy topographic moments, it can be believed, at least as art, if not in effect on a literal basis. It can be believed implicitly for example, when he tells us that locusts cannot fly when they are cold, or that African cannibals believe white people to be unripe. Or that the claims that the males of Barahnakar, though otherwise shaped like humans, have snouts like dogs. Or that in Kaylukari, a place unknown to geography, he met a princess of warlike tastes, who commanded a corps of Amazons and often engaged in single combat herself.
If it was not always true in detail, it is certainly true in the sweep, and Ibn Battuta’s memoirs form an incomparable panorama of Eastern life in the fourteenth-century. The story is built around the great trade and pilgrim routes of the Islamic world, with their long established habits of loyalty, comradeship and peculation. Around its highways flourished a society of the roads, ranging from the thieves who beset the pilgrim routes to the Young Brotherhood who courteously ushered the traveler from town to town in Syria. Ibn Battuta’s passage through that fraternity, often with introductions, always with the credentials of his faith and learning, gives a theme to his narrative and a tenuous cohesion to the shambled Moslem world.
(see link at end)…The customs of the Ahmadi dervishes at Umm ‘Ubayda
As the caravan stayed here [Wisit] three days, I had an opportunity of visiting the grave of ar-Rifai which is at a village called Umm ‘Ubayda, one day’s journey from there. I reached the establishment at noon the next day and found it to be an enormous monastery containing thousands of darwishes [dervishes]. After the mid-afternoon prayer drums and kettledrums were beaten and the darwishes began to dance. After this they prayed the sunset prayer and brought in the meal, consisting of rice-bread, fish, milk and dates. After the night prayer they began to recite their litany. A number of loads of wood had been brought in and kindled into a flame, and they went into the fire dancing; some of them rolled in it and others ate it in their mouths until they had extinguished it entirely. This is the peculiar custom of the Ahmadi darwishes. Some of them take large snakes and bite their heads with their teeth until they bite them clean through. Read More:http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/1354-ibnbattuta.asp
Like all the best travelers, Ibn Battuta had strong views about the places he visited and the people he met. Nowhere in the world, for instance, were there more excellent people than the Khwarizmians of the Uzbek country, who were generous and hospitable, and who whipped all those absent from morning prayers. Nobody could be much worse than the Russians, who were red haired and blue eyes, had ugly treacherous faces, and were Christian. The Maldivians were upright, pious, sound in belief, and sincere in thought. The people of Iwalatan, in the Sahara, were ill mannered, racially
ogant, and promiscuous. The most gifted people in the world were the Chinese; the most submissive, but the most resolute against injustice were the Africans. Though he excelled in these sweeping judgements, it is the details of daily life that give his work its conviction and its style.
…The sultan of Birgi shows Ibn Battuta an asteroid
As we were sitting there, he said to me “Have you ever seen a stone that has fallen from the sky?” I replied ” No, nor ever heard of one.” “Well,” he said, “a stone fell from the sky outside this town,” and thereupon called for it to be brought A great black stone was brought, very hard and with a glitter in it, I reckon its weight was about a hundredweight. The sultan sent for stone breakers, and four of them came and struck it all together four times over with iron hammers, but made no impression on it. I was amazed, and he ordered it to be taken back to its place.
We stayed altogether fourteen days with this sultan. Every night he sent us food, fruit, sweetmeats and candles, and gave me in addition a hundred pieces of gold, a thousand dirhems, a complete set of garments and a Greek slave called Michael, as well as sending a robe and a gift of money to each of my companions. All this we owed to the professor Muhyi ad-Din–may God reward him with good !
Ibn Battuta buys a slave girl
We went on through the town of Tim, which is in the territories of this sultan, to Aya Suluq [Ephesus], a large and ancient town venerated by the Greeks. It possesses a large church built of finely hewn stones, each measuring ten or more cubits in length. The cathedral mosque, which was formerly a church greatly venerated by the Greeks, is one of the most beautiful in the world. I bought a Greek slave girl here for forty dinars. Read More:http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/1354-ibnbattuta.asp
When Ibn Battuta at last retired to Morocco, the world he had wandered had begun to crumble. The Byzantine Empire was in its last century, and the Ottomans were nearly ready to fall upon Constantinople. The sultanate of Egypt was so wracked by rivalry that between 1341 and 1351 eight successive Mamelukes briefly occupied the throne. In Spain, the Moslem provinces were being whittled away one by one; in Europe the first portentious enterprises of the Renaissance were stirring. Anarchy threatened half of Islam. Yet the Islamic civilization survived, and even today one can still recognize its flavor and its spirit, and experience many of the sensations Ibn Battuta recorded almost seven centuries ago.
The deepest fascination of Ibn Battuta’s memoirs lies in their context. The setting was that of a once paramount civilization fast relapsing into fissiparous units held together only by a cultural heritage. Within that setting, however, our traveler moves along familiar paths, insulated by manners of thought and conviction against the political convulsions that are occurring all around him.
We too, live in a world where political certainties are shaky, where one can no longer depend upon the Stars and Stripes, the Maple Leaf or whatever, to give us security, where infidels of every persuasion are able to succeed to power…