manuscript illustration of two men riding camels near a building with arched openings

In Review

Border Crossings

Conversation near a village” from a manuscript by Maqamat al-Harîrî, illustrated by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî (13th CE). Wikimedia Commons, PD

By Emran Qureshi

News reports abound displaying the west and the Islamic worlds locked in mortal conflict. The violence obscures peaceful contact and mutual curiosity that have historically existed between the sibling civilizations. Paradoxically, at this moment of globalization and air travel, there is a heightened interest in trekking to the farthest corners of the globe. Travel guides, such as Lonely Planet and U.S. television’s Travel Channel, flourish. We might believe this modern fascination with exploration to be new. It is not. It has a very distinguished historical pedigree.

In the medieval era, Muslim travelers embarked upon voyages of discovery where they traveled across the known globe and wrote about the diverse peoples and cultures they encountered from Europe to China. The eminent Marshall Hodgson, author of The Venture of Islam, makes a point often overlooked by those valorizing the modern world: there was a considerable movement of peoples, commerce, and ideas across the known global premodern world. It is this ethos and spirit of medieval globalization that intrigues me.

In recent years, there has been a flowering of scholarly works exploring Muslim travelers in the premodern era. Among the more noteworthy is Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discovery, 1400–1800, in which Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam richly explore the travel genre (safar nama) of the Mughals and Safavids in an era of contact and discovery between Muslims and non-Muslims.

In exquisite detail, the authors relay the travel narratives of Ottomans, Mughals, and Safavids as they encounter alien lands and peoples. The stories they have chosen show the interconnected cultures. Travelers possessing the lingua franca of Persian and Arabic had access to cultures and peoples that shared a common Islamic heritage. There was migration toward powerful imperial centers, such as those of the Mughals and Ottomans where Islamic legal scholars offered their services (similar to lawyers and businessmen who flock to the international capitals of today).

Intense diplomatic contact existed among the major Muslim imperial courts. The Ottoman chronicler Mustafa Na’ima describes the visit of the Mughal ambassador, Haji Sayyed Ahmad Sa’id, who was considered to be erudite, learned, and able to engage with considerable wit in the Ottoman court, and Na’ima laments the embarrassments offered by his Bosnian counterpart.

In Europe Through Arab Eyes, 1578–1727, Nabil Matar captures this same feeling of interconnectedness through Arab explorers who traveled to the lands of Christendom in the seventeenth century and shows the intellectual curiosity existent within medieval Arab Muslim consciousness, and thus demolishes hoary Orientalist clichés. The author turns his attention to Maghrebi (North African) encounters with the European “Other” during a period of convivencia. Conflict and the expulsion of Muslims from Andalusia created an environment in which travel was resisted by some Islamic legal scholars who felt that it would strengthen those bent upon subjugating North African lands. The Reconquista and the onset of the Spanish Inquisition, which targeted Muslims and Jews, produced shockwaves of exile and émigrés fleeing newly intolerant lands. Andalusian exiles settled in a part of Fez called the Andalusian neighbourhood. Cervantes was read in Tunis. Christian designs influenced mosque designs. Some of the accounts narrated are of Maghrebi Muslim ambassadors and diplomats sent to European capitals. Matar describes one poignant cross-cultural encounter of love: the diplomat Ahmad Ibn Qasam, while in Olonne in 1612, was learning French and succumbing to feelings for a young beautiful European noblewoman teaching him. Many men had asked for her hand in marriage and she had turned them down. She explained that the Moorish measure and conception of beauty appealed to her. Over time, he developed reciprocal feelings for her and lamented, “love grew between us so much that I was distraught by it.”

But it is with the travels of Ibn Battuta, the medieval Muslim explorer who has often been compared to Marco Polo, that this interconnected global Muslim culture can be most fully appreciated. Arabic scholar Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a man who has devoted his adult life to retracing the footsteps of Ibn Battuta, calls Battuta’s travels “one of the greatest journeys of all times” and “an odyssey from one end of the known world to the other”; a journey that would take him some 75,000 miles, approximately three times the distance Marco Polo journeyed, and would span the Maghreb, Arabia, India, and South East Asia.1 The time period of the travels, roughly from 1325 to 1354, was when the Crusades were receding into historical memory and the Mongol hordes, who had threatened a swath of the Eastern Muslim world with death and destruction, had themselves converted to Islam.

In Travels with a Tangerine, where Mackintosh-Smith begins his own journey, he explains the fascination with Ibn Battuta:

It was a world of miracles and mundanities, of sultans, scholars, saints, and slave-girls, in which outrageous fortune and dubious dragomen—the sort Pegolotti warned against—steered a course that lurched between luxury and poverty, asceticism and hedonism. IB, I discovered, had a penchant for the picaresque and a storyteller’s delight in close shaves, honed along the way by constant recounting in princely courts and caravanserais. He escaped pirates, storms and shipwrecks; he dodged the Black Death, purged himself of a fever with an infusion of tamarinds, survived the near-fatal consequences of undercooked yams and endured diarrhoea caused by a binge on melons; he worked for the Sultan of Delhi . . . who had bumped off his father in a Buster Keaton–style collapsing pavilion operated by elephants—and lived to tell the tale.2

Mackintosh-Smith’s writings are suffused with gentle and occasional ribald humor, and the strength of the author’s voice makes this a refreshing examination of the Muslim world, especially in an era of globalization and tightened borders, where cultures rub and sometimes chafe against one another. Mackintosh-Smith is a humanist teasing out the shared humanity that binds us together, while telling us about a medieval traveler who has much to teach us about the post-Battutian human condition. But we learn, too, about such things as the black plague as it raced through the Middle East and we read Ibn Battuta’s account of how Damascenes responded to imminent calamity:

At the time of the Great Plague at Damascus, the viceroy ordered a crier to proclaim that the people should fast for three days. At the end of this period all conditions of men assembled in the Umayyad Mosque, until it overflowed with them. They spent the night there in prayers, liturgies and supplications. After the dawn prayer, they all went out together, barefoot, carrying Qur’ans. The entire population joined in the exodus, male and female, small and large; the Jews went out with their book of the Law and the Christians with their Gospel, their women and children with them, all in tears and humble supplications, imploring the favour of God through His Books and His Prophets. They made their way to the Mosque of the Footprints and remained there in supplication until near midday.3

At this moment in history, the black plague triggered intense religious persecution of Jews in Christendom; but there was a contrasting response in Damascus, where the people of the monotheistic faiths lived far more tolerantly.

Mackintosh-Smith’s relationship with Ibn Battuta is complex. He writes: “In many places I have shadowed him more or less closely. Elsewhere I have dropped in on him. I have left gaps, and sometimes big ones.” In fact, a few Western scholars have argued that Ibn Battuta did not in fact visit some of the locales that he claimed to visit and that some of his writings were plagiarized from contemporaries. Hodgson wrote:

Ibn Battuta was not a profound man, but he was a serious and resourceful traveller. His memory was not always accurate, he could confuse what he saw with what he was told, and he could be misled by guides and informants . . . but he was both more perceptive and far more indefatigable as a traveller than was Marco Polo. . . . In any case, his book describes the greater part of the civilized world through the eyes of a travelling Muslim scholar endowed with curiosity for a wide variety of detail and with diligence to meet prominent figures of learning or politics. It is a major document of the first half of the fourteenth century.4

Hodgson further says that Ibn Battuta was “remarkably dependable,” considering that he did not record his experiences until he returned home; further, they were recorded by the scholar Ibn Juzayy whom many suspect of having embellished his tale.

What I find most interesting is when the contemporary Western world and the premodern Islamic world collide and blend, such as when our modern-day Ibn Battuta, Mackintosh-Smith, visits the shrine complex of Nizam al-Din, a Sufi pir, or master, and compares this iconic figure of Indian Islam, whimsically but not irreverently, to a pop star. The shrine is famous for qawwalis, what Mackintosh-Smith calls “sacred jam sessions.” On the occasion of his visit, the shrine is well attended by Muslims, Europeans, and a smattering of Hindus and Sikhs as they witness a qawwali. The Sufi mystic, al-Hujwiri, noted, “It is neither dancing nor foot-play nor bodily indulgence, but a dissolution of the self.” Mackintosh-Smith enjoys his discussion with Khwajah Hasan Sani Nizami, a gentle Sufi scholar, and Akhilesh Mithal, described as an antiquarian of the old school, who translates Persian couplets for the British traveler.

Along the journey, he detours to Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in Uttar Pradesh, which he calls the “Alma Mater of Indian Islam,” expecting to find an institution brimming with religious scholars, but instead finds a modern university. His host at AMU, Iqbal Ghani Khan, is a beret-wearing leftish historian and trade unionist who trained at the School of Oriental Studies in London and at Duke University, and is an authority on the eighteenth-century French presence in India. Khan expresses fear at the increasing strength of the Hindu nationalist political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the “saffronization” of India’s educational system and its attendant consequences for an Indian Muslim minority.

There are many moments when Mackintosh-Smith shares his displeasure at the creeping blandness of globalization that is displacing local norms. He enters a Sharjah McDonald’s (Makdunaldiz), where one can procure a tishiz barjar, tishikin mak najit, or a habi mil, and admits to having dessert at Baskin Rubinz. In Dubai, he visits the Ibn Battutah Mall, which contains 275 stores. Shoppers are greeted by a man in the attire of the fourteenth-century traveler; here, Arab culture is globalized. In Mackintosh-Smith’s and the writings of other modern-day travel writers, there is a common thread with that of premodern medieval encounters. Some travelers braved ideological distances to show that the distance between seemingly alien cultures was not as a great as perceived. These are enduring lessons for our time.


Travels With a Tangerine: From Morocco to Turkey in the Footsteps of Islam’s Greatest Traveler, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. Random House, 368 pages, $14.95.

Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discovery, 1400-1800, by Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. Cambridge University Press, 416 pages, $116.

Europe Through Arab Eyes, 1578-1727, by Nabil Matar. Columbia University Press, 344 pages, $45.


  1. Twentieth-century scholarship on Ibn Battuta received a boost with the efforts of H. A. R. Gibb, the James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic and University Professor at Harvard, who began the Herculean effort to translate Ibn Battuta’s chronicles into English, but sadly did not live to see the completion of the task, which Charles Beckingham then finished in 1994. The new English translation, based on the French edition (1853–1859) of C. Defremery and B. R. Sanguinetti, generated considerable scholarly interest. It is this translation that Mackintosh-Smith abridges, annotates, and introduces in a single volume.
  2. Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Travels With a Tangerine: From Morocco to Turkey in the Footsteps of Islam’s Greatest Traveler (Random House, 2004), 9.
  3. Ibid., 165.
  4. Marshall G. S. Hodgson, review of The Travels of Ibn Battuta, vol. 2, trans. H.A.R. Gibb, Middle East Journal 17 (Winter–Spring 1963): 183–184.

Emran Qureshi is a nonresident fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School.

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