I wish I was Ibn Battuta

If I had to choose just one pastime activity in this life, it would have to be traveling. And when I do travel, I choose one special prayer (Do’a) before embarking on any trip. It is a prayer recited by the Prophet himself:

"O God! I ask You to bless us on this journey, for us to be kind to others and to be righteous. Guide us to do on this journey what pleases You. O God! make any hardship easy on us, and make this journey short and easy. O God! You are our Companion on this journey. Take care of the families we left behind. O God! protect us from everything bad that could happen on this journey and protect us from any ugly scene. O God! protect us from returning home to find any loss among our loved ones or in our properties."

The first recognized professional world-traveler in history was a multi-talented Muslim by the name of Ibn Battuta (Abu Abdallah Mohammed Ibn Battuta), born in 1304 in North Africa. He was the first true travel writer, as well as an explorer and scholar; the first traveler ever to integrate his journeys with his vocation. Officially, Ibn Battuta was trained as a lawyer and judge (or Qadi) and so was hired by a number of countries who needed his judicial expertise.

Unlike many bureaucrats down through the ages, however, Ibn Battuta was well-liked both by rulers and common folk. He spoke many languages and was well known as a scholar of multiculturalism, long before most languages even had a word for it! While in India, the Sultan of Delhi offered him the job of Ambassador to China, and of course Ibn Battuta accepted, because it meant a chance to experience yet another different culture.

On the Maldives Island, he spent nine months working as a chief judge on the local Sultan’s request, and even married into the royal family.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a British writer who has lived in Yemen for more than 20 years, wrote a fine book about him in 2003, "The Travels of Ibn Battutah."

The significance of Ibn Battuta’s journeys is unique; he truly lived his travel experiences, staying in various countries not mere days or weeks, but months or years, as long as he was needed. He wrote about places and people of the known world at his time. Having begun his epic journeys at the age of only 20, he continued covering the earth’s surface for three decades, accumulating more than 100,000 kms (a longer distance even than that of Marco Polo).

The range of Ibn Battuta’s itinerary is indeed impressive. Among the places he visited (in today’s modern names) are: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, China, North Africa, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Central Asia, East Africa, Turkey, and Andalusia in modern Spain. He is known to have visited almost every Muslim country, state, or caliphate of his time as well. Even the space age remembers Ibn Battuta; a crater on the Moon was named after him.

His multi-volume book covering a long life of journeying was simply known as "Rehlat Ibn Battuta" or "Ibn Battuta’s Journey." But he gave it a full title, translated as "A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling."

Ibn Battuta remains a unique and honored personality, not only because of his stamina and versatility, but because he never insulted or demeaned any culture, regardless of how different it was from his own — a rare quality in any period of history. He met and spoke with common folks and ruling classes alike and wrote about both. And he was the ideal impartial observer, for since his trips were entirely self-financed, he owed no one any favor or preference.

And while world travel in his day may have seemed simpler (if much slower) it was not without risk and danger. Despite his skills in communication and diplomacy that endeared him to so many, Ibn Battuta also faced threats of death and kidnapping whenever he became too influential as a judge; dishonest rulers who were uncomfortable with his high ethical standards often kicked him out.

Ibn Battuta actually became a world traveler by accident. At age 20, he journeyed to Mecca on his first Hajj pilgrimage. He was so fascinated at meeting Muslims from near and far that he decided to visit their home cities and countries so as to know more about them and their diverse cultures. Thus he matured not only as a devout practicing Muslim, but also as one who loved to travel and who used his profession as lawyer and judge to set up courts wherever he was asked to do so.

I have now been privileged to visit most of the countries where Ibn Battuta set foot, but certainly not in the same depth as he. I was usually invited to give keynote lectures on Microchip design and / or on Islam and I feel blessed that both skills made these journeys accessible for the traveler in me. There is a long list of countries or regions I have yet to visit, however, such as Eastern Europe, South America, Oman and Yemen. So I still cherish my dream to live just like Ibn Battuta, even if only for a year.