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Saturday, October 15, 2011

the adventures of Ibn Battuta

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The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, by Ross E. Dunn.


The travels of Ibn Battuta have often been compared to those of Marco Polo. Even though Ibn Battuta in the course of his -year journey visited territories equivalent to about 44 modern countries, and traveled approximately 7,000 miles, he remains barely known beyond the Islamic realm. He is often referred to as “the Marco Polo of the Muslim world.” Dunn’s stated intent was “to bring Ibn Battuta’s adventure to general readers, in hopes that the Moroccan journeyer will become as well known in the Western world as Marco Polo is” (ix).


Dunn’s account of Ibn Battuta’s travels through the central regions of Islam, India, China, Indonesia, Central Asia, and East, West, and North Africa is very intricate and full of historical detail. He helps the Western reader begin to learn of Islamic customs and culture among many different people, places, and empires. Dunn rather miraculously takes the reader on a journey as he brings together in readable format Ibn Battuta’s fantastic historical travels. Dunn’s main concern is not precisely when Ibn Battuta was where, but rather to give his reader the big picture of Islamic life in the fourteenth century.


The book is written to an American audience specifically for the non-specialist interested in medieval Islam. This rather wordy book is part biography and part cultural history describing cultural, dynastic, and political detail derived from Ibn Battuta’s own record, his Rihla. Although Ibn Battuta’s travels take him far and wide he remained mostly within the cultural boundaries of what Muslims refer to as the Dar al-Islam, or the general realm of Islam. Because of this the events depicted in this book have an underlying Islamic background interwoven. In fact Ibn Battuta had very low tolerance toward pegan beliefs of other countries he visited and only felt comfortable within the Islamic circle. Ibn Battuta’s Rihla is very comprehensive in nature and therefore in Dunn’s book the reader receives detailed information of the personalities, places, governments, customs and traditions of the Muslim world. The result is a very extensive detailed commentary on fourteenth century life in the Islamic civilization.


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Ibn Battuta’s Rihla was not a daily logged travel journal; rather it is a part autobiography part descriptive recap that was written at the end of his long career. Therefore the author in retracing his steps is faced with rather large gaps in time making an accurate chronological reconstruction of Ibn Battuta’s journeys nearly impossible. Dunn has chosen to organize his book in regional increments, which actually vaguely follows the general course of Ibn Battuta’s journeys through the Muslim world. Dunn states “this is my interpretation of Ibn Battuta’s life and times not a picture of the fourteenth century through his eyes” (xi).


Despite the vast cultural detail found in Ibn Battuta’s Rihla he records very little of his personal insights or feelings. So in Dunn’s book the reader will learn very little about the true character of Ibn Battuta. I found this to be a weak point in the book; I wanted to learn more about the man behind the great traveler image.


Almsgiving is one of the five sacred pillars of Islam, and Ibn Battuta in the course of his journeys was supported by alms-givers providing him with money, clothing, slaves, horses and concubines among other things. He seldom traveled alone, and during his long journey he married and divorced several times. Ibn Battuta was a very determined traveler “If God decrees my death, then my death shall be on the road,” he states after becoming very ill during his journey to the land of Hijaz ().


As stated earlier I would have liked to become better aquatinted with Ibn Battuta in this book. I realize this would be a hard task for any author because Ibn Battuta reveals very little about himself or his feelings and almost everything know about him is found in his Rihla. This does however detract from the emotional side of the story leaving you with somewhat of a sterile historical journey.


Overall Dunn skillfully accomplishes his task bringing Ibn Battuta’s fourteenth century journey to the modern reader. He gives you a very detailed look at what it would be like to live in the Islamic realm during the early middle ages. I walked away from this reading with a broader understanding and deeper appreciation for Islamic beliefs.





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