Five legendary Muslim travellers
“Have they not travelled over the land so that they may have hearts by which they may apply reason, or ears by which they may hear?”
Surah al Hajj (The Pilgrimage), Quran 22: 46
Muhammad Asad, Evliya Celebi, Ibn Fadlan, Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun. Each of these figures has left a legacy whose impact is greater than the hundreds of thousands of miles they collectively travelled, penetrating further than geographical boundaries to surpass both time and space. Fortunately for us, they took the time to record their experiences in accounts that have survived and continue to inspire, inform and educate.
Transport your mind all over the world with these five legendary Muslim travellers.
1. “Road to Mecca” by Muhammad Asad, also known as Leopold Weiss
The Road to Mecca charts the epic journey to Arabia, and ultimately to Islam, by Austrian-Jewish journalist Leopold Weiss. In 1922, at the tender age of 22, Leopold Weiss moved to live in Palestine with his uncle, where he picked up work for one of the most prestigious newspapers in Europe. His early work researched the Zionist project in Palestine, and led to him coming into close contacts with Arabs and Muslims. It was this experience that sparked his curiosity about Islam, ultimately leading to him becoming Muslim in 1926. From this point, he chose to be known as Muhammad Asad.
Muhammad Asad’s book, The Road to Mecca , is arguably the greatest contemporary Muslim travel diary. It is also one of the very few – and the only one on this list – that has not needed translation into English. Muhammad Asad’s adventurous spirit led him to leave a long family line of Rabbinical Jews to embrace Islam; enjoy personal audiences with the first king of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud; and serve as a minister for the newly-formed state of Pakistan. His account is unique as the only one in this list of a revert to Islam, and one who travelled to the Muslim world in the first half of the 20th Century.
What’s particularly special about his story is that he explored Arabia before the rush of oil and gold rendered to history the Arabia of old. Muhammad Asad immersed himself in their culture and language, and is famous for his translation of the Qur’an, ‘The Message of the Qur’an’. (This is personally one of my favourite English translations of the Qur’an because of the way Muhammad Asad beautifully delivers a holistic message of the spirit of the Qur’an and what it means to be a Muslim.)
In The Road to Mecca, Muhammad Asad shares his fascinating encounters and conversations, many of which took place with historical titans, such as Libya’s ‘Lion of the desert’ Umar al-Mukhtar. Describing when, whilst travelling through Palestine, he was stopped by a stranger and her husband, he was invited into their homes for the night, Muhammad Asad gives us a sweet taste of how ‘ibn al sabeel’ (the wayfarer) was once taken care of:
“ ‘Wilt thou not eat bread with us, and remain in our house overnight?’.
They did not ask me who I was, where I was going or what my business was. And I stayed overnight as their guest…My hosts tore small pieces from large, paper-thin loaves of bread with which they deftly scooped up the porridge without ever touching it with their fingers…
When we lay down to sleep – about a dozen people in one and the same room – I gazed at the wooden beams above me from which strings of dried peppers and eggplants were hanging, at the many niches in the walls filled with brass and stoneware utensils, at the bodies of sleeping men and women, and asked myself whether at home I could ever have felt more at home.”
Muhammad Asad’s accomplishments are too many to name in this short introduction, but most notably he began the first ever translation of Sahih al Bukhari into English, and was a key contributor to the creation of newly-independent Pakistan’s ideological framework.
2. Seyahatname Book of Travels, Evliya Celebi
Born in Istanbul in 1611, Evliya Celebi rose to prominence as a child by memorising the Qur’an and performing public recitals in the chief imperial mosque, the Hagia Sofia. He came from a prestigious family; his father served as chief goldsmith to several Ottoman sultans. His background, witty intellect and beautiful voice caught the attention of the Sultan, Murad IV, who made Evliya Celebi his companion. Celebi utilized his connections to pursue his love for travel, shunning offers of political appointments.
His playful humour is captured in his personal recollections that he recorded in the ten volumes of his travel diary. Currently only portions of his diary are available in English, such as the 2010 translation of select excerpts of the ten volumes, ‘Extract from An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi’, Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim:
“God is my witness that this took place. One day we were guests in a certain village and the Circassian who was our host wished to do a good deed…We were starving, as though we had been released from Ma‘noghlu’s prison, and we laid into the honey so fast that our eyes could not keep up with our hands. But the honey was full of strange hairs that we kept pulling out of our mouths and placing on the spread. ‘Eat,’ said the Circassian. ‘This my father honey.’
Our hunger having abated, we continued to eat the honey at a slower pace, separating out the hairs. Meanwhile, Ali Can Bey, a native of Taman in Crimea, came in. ‘What are you eating, Evliya Efendi?’ ‘Join us,’ I replied. ‘It’s a kind of hairy honey. I wonder if it was stored in a goatskin or a sheepskin.’ Ali Can, who knew Circassian, asked our host where the honey came from. The Circassian broke out weeping. ‘I took from my father grave,’ he said…”
3. Land of Darkness, Ibn Fadlan
Historians have long sung the praises of Ahmad ibn Fadlan, the 10th century secretary who travelled as part of a diplomatic mission sent by the Abbasid Caliph Al Muqtadir in Baghdad. The record he kept of his journey from Baghdad to the Russian Volga region is unique in its account for a couple of reasons. First, it proves Islam was practiced in the Volga region before the Caliph sent his delegation. Secondly, Ibn Fadlan wrote the only eyewitness account of a Viking chieftain burial. The Caliph’s envoy to Volga Bulgaria, a region near the Republic of Tatarstan in Russia, had been requested by the Volga ruler King Yiltawar, who converted to Islam in 921 AD. King Yiltawar is the ancestral father of Islam in Tatarstan, where Tatar Muslims annually pay homage to him for his introduction of Islam into the region.
Ibn Fadlan writes:
“We arrived on Sunday, 12 Muharram 310 (12 May 922). The journey from Jurjaniya (present-day Turkmenistan) to the king’s country took seventy days…we unfurled the two banners that we had with us, saddled the horse with the saddle which had been sent to the king as a present and dressed the king in black robes and a turban. Then I got out the caliph’s letter and said…’Peace be upon you, for in addressing myself to you I praise God, beside whom there is no god.’…Then the interpreter continued to translate the letter for us, word for word, and when we had finished reading, they pronounced Allahu akbar! so loudly the earth shook.”
Extract from Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness, Arab travellers in the far North.
Perhaps more famously, Ibn Fadlan also met some Viking traders during his journey. His descriptions of the Vikings, about whom very limited primary written sources exist, are valued by historians and filmmakers alike:
“Every day without fail they wash their faces and their heads with the dirtiest and filthiest water there could be…He washes and disentangles his hair, using a comb, there in the basin, then he blows his nose and spits and does every filthy thing imaginable in the water. When he has finished, the servant carries the bowl to the man next to him.”
Nevertheless, Ibn Fadlan considered the Rus very beautiful:
“I have never seen bodies more perfect than theirs. They were [tall] like palm trees. They are fair and ruddy…Each of them carries an axe, a sword and a knife and is never parted from any of the arms we have mentioned.”
Did you know?
Ibn Fadlan was portrayed by Antonio Banderas in Hollywood action film ‘The 13th Warrior’, where he meets and fights with the Vikings.
4. The Travels of Ibn Battuta, Tim Mackintosh-Smith
‘The Rihla’ by Ibn Battuta is one of the most – if not the most – famous travel diaries in the world, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The Rihla tells the story of Ibn Battuta’s incredible 75 000 mile journey, who travelled from his home in Morocco all over much of the Muslim world. In 1325 AD at the tender age of 21, Ibn Battuta began his travels with the intention to perform Hajj and study under the great scholars in Egypt and the Hejaz. His high-quality education earned him respect and an audience at many courts, and so began his fame as an adventurer. He was in many ways the first example of a ‘digital nomad’, fulfilling his passion for travel and earning a living out of it.
Among his many adventures he escaped death more than once, fleeing India and the despotic Sultan Muhammad ibn Tughluq only to be shipwrecked shortly after. Fearing for his life should he return, Ibn Battuta instead retreated to the Maldives for two years, where he became a qadi (judge) and married into the local ruling family.
Like many of the authors in this list, Ibn Battuta’s accounts have provided valuable insights into the countries and people he visited during his travels. Two years before he visited Cairo in 1326 AD, the King of Mali, Mansa Musa, passed through the city on his way to complete Hajj. The great King is said to have showered the city with acts of kindness, among them a huge disbursement of gold; so much, in fact, that it depressed the value of gold right into the next century. The king’s generosity became legendary and generated huge curiosity into the rich Kingdom of Mali. After crossing the Sahara, Ibn Battuta stayed in the empire of Mali whilst it was at its height, under Mansa Sulayman, the younger brother of Mansa Musa. He wrote:
“There is complete security in their country,” he wrote. “Neither traveller nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence.”
Deservedly, Ibn Battuta is considered by many the greatest traveller of all time.
5.The Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun
Arguably the greatest historiographer in history, Ibn Khaldun was born in modern day Tunis in 1332 and would go on to serve rulers in Andalucia, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. Like Ibn Battuta, he was given judicial responsibilities. He was given the prestigious role of grand judge of Cairo after his family were tragically killed on a ship wreck on their way to join him, but his prominent position was not without its risks. During his tenure in Cairo, he was removed and reappointed no fewer than five times, indicating that along with his genius, he was also considered a maverick. He was also a distinguished emissary, negotiating peace treaties with Pedro the Cruel of Castilla, and with the legendary Tamerlane on the outskirts of Damascus.
Ibn Khaldun created an entire new science and anyone who has read his most famous work ‘The Muqaddimah’ can clearly see from his writing that he knew he was presenting an original idea.
Ibn Khaldun wrote of his work:
‘I tamed rude speech. It may be said that Refractory language becomes [in my work] amenable to the words I utter’.
Witty, eloquent, at times brutal, Ibn Khaldun lambasted historians for exaggerations in history, criticised analysts for ‘their superficial approaches’. However, all this is secondary to the very real genius that explored the deep and complex dynamics of societies and civilization. Ibn Khaldun explored how history, customs, language, geography, and many more dynamics form an undeniable pattern in the changes that occur in mankind’s political and social organisation. In essence, Ibn Khaldun was the first ‘philospher of history’ and adopted scientific approaches to history that had never existed before him while creating new terminology that has endured to this day.
Though Ibn Khaldun may be often described as a scholar, his life cannot be described as scholarly. During his extensive travels through North Africa, Ibn Khaldun served as a minister and advisor during some of the most tumultuous periods in the dynasties that ruled the region. His life was nothing short of a rollercoaster, worthy of its own Netflix series, if they ever get around to it…
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This article was originally published in April 2021.