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A Lesson Learned from Ibn Battuta

I remember one Christmas vacation, as a child, visiting my Uncle in New York City. I was about 10 or 12 years old. I enjoyed visiting him and his family; my most fond memories are of sleeping in the living room on the floor under the blankets with my brother and cousin. The three of us would wrestle. I, being the oldest, always won. The match was always a combination of pleasure and pain. Mostly my pleasure in winning our bouts, and their pain in being defeated by a finishing move I liked to call, "the migraine". Anyway, this one particular time, I distinctly remember, not for the excitement, but for the boredom. Boredom because my Uncle had picked up one of his many issues of National Geographic Magazine and sat me down away from my cousin and brother, and told me to read the cover article. He placed the article on the table in front of me, and tapped on it twice, and said "He traveled the world by foot". The idea fascinated me. The length and difficulty of the article did not. Of course, this was followed by "I want you to read the whole thing, and then come back and tell me what the article is about". I never did read the article. I weaseled my way out of it. I do, however, remember being mesmerized by the idea that someone could travel the entire world by foot. I remember returning to school and spilling this interesting fact that I knew none of my friends, and possibly my teachers knew; that Ibn Battuta traveled the world by foot.

Today, Ibn Battuta fascinates me for who he was and what he set out to accomplish. A scholar of the highest order, he travelled the world by foot, covering a distance of 117,000 kilometers (73,000 miles) over a span of 30 years. To put those big numbers in perspective, the circumference of the Earth is 40,075.16 km (24,901.55 m). A little math shows that this is equivalent to walking about 3x around the world (2.925 to be exact). One must also take into account that his range of travel extended from the Iberian Peninsula, through desert sands of Morocco to the Horn of Africa, to the southeastern port city of Quanzhou, China, and back to Morocco again, where it is presumed he died from the Plague.

His travels, a remarkable feat unto itself, were usually accompanied by his appointment of Qazi (Judge) wherever he stayed. His longest and most famous tenure as Qazi was from 1333-1342 A.D. in Delhi, India, under the regime of the Delhi Sultanate, during the reign of Sultan Muhammad Tughluq.

Ibn Battuta even had time to sit and dictate his manuscript to another scholar, Ibn Juzzay. This was aptly named A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling or just Rihla (" Journeys"). This dictated all that he remembered of his travels. While some accounts in the manuscript seem fictionalized; the claims are offset by the vividness and complexity of his accounts. Nevertheless, his accounts appear to be some of the best collected accounts of the 14th century Islamic World.

Ibn Battuta's goal was to see if it was possible to travel the Islamic World; and to experience the differences that encompassed that world. Never during the course of his travels did he say it was too hard, or did he weasel his way out of it. From beginning to end, from one corner of the known Earth to the other, Ibn Battuta "traveled the world by foot". Perhaps that was the point of the exercise. Perhaps that was the reason my Uncle uttered that phrase, "traveled the world by foot". Perhaps it was an inkling of how a task, whether it seems longer than possible, or more difficult than capable, if taken one step at a time, any goal can be made easy and made enjoyable. I guess if I had read that article, I would've known this.

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Anonymous said... September 5, 2013 at 9:28 AM

I like the idea that you say Ibn Battuta was "a scholar of the highest order." I think that is what we all should aspire to be.

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