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Spring 2003 | Volume 26, Number 2

The Voyages of Ibn Battuta

Exploring the Divergent Paths of Islam and the West

NO THEME IS MORE CENTRAL to the history of the second millennium than the rise of the West. Perhaps no educational task is more urgent since the attacks of September 11, 2001, than to gain a clear understanding of the history of relations between Islam and the West. The voyages of Ibn Battuta, the world’s greatest pre-modern traveler, focus our attention on the critical turning points leading to the divergent paths between Islam and the West over the past six centuries.

In lectures throughout the state of Washington, Don Holsinger speaks on “The Travels of Ibn Battuta,” “Abraham’s Triple Heritage” and “Africa’s Hidden Treasures.” The map behind Holsinger depicts routes traveled by Ibn Battuta.  

Exploring when and how those paths diverged may enable two great civilizations to rediscover how much they have in common and to embark on a course of respectful co-existence and renewed cooperation in the 21st century.

Ibn Battuta’s remarkable travels at the dawn of the modern global age help us to ask the right questions. How did Europe emerge as the center of a modern global system? What explains the acceleration of change in the West? Why not in the Middle East, China, India or one of a number of other regions? The answers are less obvious than traditionally assumed and remain intensely debated and researched by historians. The answers are also relevant to decisions that will shape the 21st century.

Ibn Battuta was born into a Moroccan family of Muslim legal scholars in 1304. After studying law, he left in 1325 for the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of Muslims who are financially and physically able to accomplish it. As he circled Mecca’s Grand Mosque, observing fellow pilgrims of diverse languages, races, and ethnic and geographic origins, he must have realized that he would be welcomed anywhere in that enormous inter-communicating world stretching from West Africa to East Asia.

For the next three decades, he traveled continuously, covering an estimated 73,000 miles, an area comprising more than 40 countries on today’s world map. His travels highlight the remarkable unity of the 14th century Afro-Eurasian world and the central role that Islam played in providing the webs of security, stability and communication across the greater part of it.

On his way to Mecca, Ibn Battuta passed through Egypt, Palestine and Syria. Later he toured Iraq and Persia and then sailed down the east coast of Africa, reaching what is today Tanzania. Following his return to the Persian Gulf, he headed for the Muslim Sultanate of India, taking a circuitous route through Anatolia, passing through the Christian city of Constantinople before traversing the plains of West Central Asia, finally arriving at the Sultanate of Delhi, where he served as a judge.

“I left Tangier, my birthplace, the 13th of June 1325 with the intention of making the Pilgrimage to [Mecca].… to leave all my friends both female and male, to abandon my home as birds abandon
their nests.”

The young Muslim lawyer called China “the safest and most agreeable country in the world for the traveler.” Ironically, it was here that Ibn Battuta experienced his severest culture shock, admitting that he “stayed indoors most of the time and only went out when necessary.” Such an odd response by one of the world’s most cosmopolitan travelers is explained by the fact that until that moment, his experiences had reinforced an assumption that the spread of Islam was synonymous with the spread of civilization. Chinese culture was neither Muslim nor had an interest in becoming so, and yet it was as advanced as any culture that he had encountered. China challenged his cultural chauvinism.

Ibn Battuta returned to Morocco just ahead of the advancing frontier of Bubonic Plague that would ravage much of the Eastern Hemisphere. Following a brief visit to Muslim Spain, he embarked on his last great adventure, crossing the Sahara Desert and visiting the impressive West African kingdom of Mali before returning home to record his life experiences.

Had Ibn Battuta been told during his last years that one part of the world was about to gain unprecedented power and mastery over the rest of the world, which region would he have chosen? It is possible to construct a variety of plausible answers to the question. The exercise forces us to define for ourselves what we mean by “development” and to identify those cultural, political, economic and technological factors that we see as keys to the formation of our modern global system.

Had Ibn Battuta placed his bets on China as the future center of power, the events of the first decades of the 15th century would have appeared to vindicate his prediction. Between 1405 and 1433, seven gigantic naval expeditions set sail from China, eventually reaching as far as East Africa. China appeared to be on the verge of discovering the water route around the tip of Africa. One can imagine a huge Chinese fleet sailing into European harbors at the end of the 15th century rather than European vessels sailing into Asian harbors. Had Ibn Battuta predicted that the small Anatolian state that he passed through would be the future center of Ottoman Turkish power, he would undoubtedly have felt vindicated had he lived to witness the Golden Age under Sulayman the Magnificent in the mid-16th century.

The point is that Ibn Battuta might have anticipated a number of different scenarios, but he would never have imagined the one that in fact came to pass: a relatively backward and marginal part of the Afro-Eurasian world called Europe gaining unprecedented mastery over virtually all of the Eastern Hemisphere and a yet-unknown New World.

What then were the keys to Europe’s subsequent rise? The traditional answer emphasizes cultural revolutions we call the Renaissance and Reformation, out of which came the rise of science, the expansion of capitalism, the development of representative government, and an expanding spiral of modern benefits emphasizing individualism, free will and reason. Another interpretation argues that Europe’s development also needs to be viewed within a global context. This line of reasoning emphasizes a partly accidental series of discoveries initiated in 1415 with the Portuguese defeat of Morocco and capture of the African city of Ceuta, which became a base for Portuguese expansion.

The first decades of the 15th century signaled China as the promising center of a global system. The last decade of the 15th century witnessed a China withdrawn from the sea lanes, and two Iberian powers, Portugal and Spain, sponsoring three voyages that would knit together the world as a unit for the first time. These included Bartolomeo Dias’ discovery of a water route around the South African Cape in 1488 and Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India via the Cape Route in 1498. Mid-way between the two voyages, Christopher Columbus, also seeking the spices of Asia, stumbled upon the Americas.

Adam Smith, the Enlightenment’s most astute economic historian, noted in 1776 the significance of this “decade that changed the world”: “The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind. … By opening a new and inexhaustible market to all the commodities of Europe, it gave occasion to new divisions of labour and improvements of art, which, in the narrow circle of ancient commerce, could never have taken place. … To the natives, however, of both the East and West Indies, all the commercial benefits which can have resulted from those events have been sunk and lost in the dreadful misfortunes which they have occasioned.”

The impact of the discoveries was not as sudden or dramatic in the Middle East as in the Americas, where the unintended introduction of diseases wiped out entire populations. However, the Middle East’s central location as crossroads of the Eastern Hemisphere was altered as ships increasingly bypassed it. A region that had long been the cradle of world civilization became increasingly marginalized, the Industrial Revolution providing the final instruments of outside control.

Yet history is full of irony; over the past century, geography has once again thrust the Middle East into the center of world attention with the discovery of oil and natural gas deposits that provide the world with its energy lifeblood. Those who live in the Middle East today are forced to ask themselves whether that black gold has been more of a blessing or a curse.

Ibn Khaldun, a North African contemporary of Ibn Battuta, is rightly considered the first modern historian. This 14th-century Tunisian’s insights into the nature of history have lost none of their sharpness. “The writing of history requires numerous sources and greatly varied knowledge. It also requires a good speculative mind and thoroughness… The capital of knowledge that an individual scholar has to offer is small. Admission of one’s shortcomings saves from censure. Kindness from colleagues is hoped for. It is God whom I ask to make our deeds acceptable in His sight. He is a good protector.”

That spirit of honest and humble truth-seeking is an honored tradition in both the Christian and the Islamic worlds. It deserves to be nurtured and renewed. The words of a contemporary Tunisian historian, Muhammad Talbi, continue that tradition and offer hope for the future of relations between Islam and the West at the dawn of the 21st century. “Neither Islam, nor any other theistic faith, has any other choice today than to accept adventure,” says Talbi. “For science is every day setting further and further forward the frontiers of mystery and of the universe and, so doing, poses questions from which neither philosophers nor theologians can excuse themselves without a radical and fundamental denial of humanity. ... We have this need of urgently hearkening to God today, with contemporary ears, in the insistent present.”

A Brief History of Relations Between Islam and the West

For the past 14 centuries, since the rise of Islam in seventh-century Arabia, the civilizations centered at the two ends of the Mediterranean have struggled to understand each other. Those with power are always tempted to confuse power with intellectual superiority, with virtue or with both. The value of examining 14 centuries of relations between the Middle East and the West is that the dramatic shifts in power undermine such arrogant assumptions on both sides and remind us how much the two civilizations have in common and how much they have borrowed from each other.

  · The rapid expansion of Arab-Muslim power following Muhammad’s life in the seventh century gathered a vast area, extending from Spain in the West to India in the East, under a single political authority, planting seeds of mutual hostility between Western Christendom and Islamdom during the formative stages of both civilizations. Exaggerated images of the fearsome, violent and barbaric nature of “the other” imbedded themselves in the language, literature and art of both civilizations

  · Frankish Crusaders
from the Western Mediterranean regained the offensive momentum during the 12th and 13th centuries, gaining control of the Holy Land for a while, the periods of warfare etching more deeply the negative myths on both sides.

  · With the dramatic rise of Ottoman Turkish Islam in the 15th and 16th centuries, the balance of power shifted again to the Eastern Mediterranean, creating genuine fears in the West of being overwhelmed by the forces of Islam. The 1453 fall of Constantinople, the last bastion of Byzantine power, and the subsequent Ottoman sieges of Vienna in the heart of Europe, became potent symbols of the recurring “threat from the East,” adding yet another layer of negative imagery in the collective consciousness of the West.

  · The 18th-century
industrial transformation — first of England, and then of other parts of Europe and North America — dramatically altered the relations between the West and the Middle East, as it did relations between the West and the rest of the world. The tools of expansion arising from the Industrial Revolution, comprising weapons, railroads, steamships, telegraphs and quinine, subjected much of the Middle East and the larger Muslim world to European domination, leaving a legacy of humiliation and resentment still deeply felt.

  · Further adding to widespread feeling
of resentment mixed with envy in the Middle East has been the conflict over Palestine since the last decades of the 19th century. The rise of Jewish nationalism (Zionism), largely in reaction to an upsurge of European anti-Semitism, culminated in the establishment of Israel and the frustration of Palestinian national hopes in 1948. Over the following decades, Israel served as a Western “window” on the Middle East. Its chronic insecurity in the face of Arab hostility reinforced Western, and in particular American, images of the Islamic world as aggressive, intolerant and hostile to Western values.

  · The resurgence of Islam
over the past quarter century, most dramatically demonstrated in the Iranian revolution of 1979 that replaced an American-allied tyrant with a traditionalist Muslim tyrant, revived and hardened deep-seated prejudices between the Middle East and the West. The subsequent rise of increasingly militant Islamic movements, supported at times by the United States to facilitate the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union, culminated in the terrorist attacks of September 11, carried out by a tiny fanatical organization in the name of Islam and overwhelmingly condemned by the world’s one billion Muslims.


Don Holsinger enjoys teaching, whether the course is “The West and the World” or “The Rise of Islamic Civilization,” and he extends his classroom statewide in public lectures for the “Inquiring Mind” program of the Washington Commission for the Humanities. Ever since the first Gulf War in 1991, churches, community groups, cultural organizations and news media have sought out Holsinger’s well-researched historical perspectives on Islamic peoples, cultures and civilization.

With a Ph.D. from Northwestern University, Holsinger has taught at SPU since 1990. In 2000, he was part of a Christian Peacemaker Team that patrolled the tense boundary between the Israeli and Palestinian-controlled sections in the West Bank city of Hebron.


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