Ibn Battuta, the famed 14th century Moroccan traveler, set out in 1325 from his native Tangier on an epic journey to Mecca, the historical and cultural center of Islam. By the time he returned 29 years later, he had traveled the world from West Africa, Spain and India to China and the Maldives, covering some 75,000 miles and three times further than Marco Polo. At the instigation of the Sultan of Morocco, Ibn Battuta dictated his reminiscences, which became one of the world’s most famous travel books, The Rihla.
On a summer day in 1325, a 21-year-old legal scholar named Muhammad Ibn Battuta set off from his home in Tangier, Morocco, on a pilgrimage to the sacred city of Mecca. “I braced my resolution to quit all my dear ones, female and male, and forsook my home as birds forsake their nests,” a much older Ibn Battuta rhapsodized in the celebrated account of his journey, the Rihla.
That journey would last nearly 30 years and cover more than 100,000 km. By the time Ibn Battuta returned to Tangier, he had traversed — by foot, by donkey, by camel and by boat — nearly the entire length of the Muslim world and beyond on a quest for knowledge and experience. And while that quest would ultimately take him as far as China (for did not the Prophet Muhammad encourage his followers to “seek knowledge, even in China”?), for the most part, Ibn Battuta kept within the boundaries of what was known at the time as Dar al-Islam, “the abode of Islam” — that region of the world where Muslims ruled and Islamic law prevailed.
As a purely geographic designation, Dar al-Islam referred to the stretch of land that fell under Muslim sovereignty, with Mecca — the “congress of the Muslim world,” as Ibn Battuta termed it — pulsing at its heart. Yet for him and his contemporaries, Dar al-Islam connoted more than mere geography. It was above all else an ideal, an aspiration, a shared sense of consciousness held by a global collection of like-minded individuals who maintained more or less the same beliefs and practices and who, as such, composed a single, unified and divine community: the ummah. This is what the pilgrim and the merchant, the warrior and the peasant would have understood as the source of his or her identity. Indeed, as U.S. historian Ross Dunn notes, Ibn Battuta “was a member of the literate, mobile, world-minded elite” and would have regarded himself as a citizen “not of Morocco, but of Dar al-Islam, to whose universalist spiritual, moral, and social values he was loyal above any other allegiance.”