It has taken a long time, but the wheels of life quietly came a full circle for American historian Ross E Dunn on his visit to the Mishal mosque in Kozhikode. Earlier, a missed trip to Tughlaqabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, was a disillusionment of a long-standing wish on this maiden trip to India. A visit to both these places would hark back to a past, which Dunn has perpetuated in a book: The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century.
The Professor Emeritus of History, San Diego State University, says he was overcome with an overwhelming sense of disbelief when he entered the hallowed place of worship in Kerala.
Once inside the precincts of the 800-year-old mosque, he realised that it was the very same ground on which the Islamic scholar-traveller and the subject of his book, Ibn Battuta had walked 600 years ago.
The passage of time, between the two events—Battuta’s past and Dunn’s present—did not dull his thrill and joy, it heightened the moment’s anachronism.
In 1977 Dunn managed to convince the Department of History in his college to introduce a course in world history, after which he hit upon the idea of writing the book. He had learnt Arabic as a graduate, and his ‘class of six’ had translated parts of the Rihla , the account of the travels of Ibn Battuta, firing his interest in the life of the non-conformist, courageous itinerant. Dunn took 10 years to complete the book, all the time yearning to recreate the journey, feel, live, and empathise with the experiences of his intrepid protagonist. But he could not do so for several reasons. Finally, when he arrived in Delhi, in 2018, he wished to visit Tughlaqabad, where Ibn Battuta had worked, as a judge (qazi) in the court of Muhammed Bin Tughluq. Unable to do so he was deeply disappointed.
Ancient, well-preserved mosques
But in Kuttichira, in Kozhikode, his experience was different. Its two ancient well-preserved mosques, sporting local architecture—Mishal and Mucchundi Palli—were more beautiful than imagined. Nakhuda Mithqual, a Yemeni merchant and builder of Mishal, is mentioned in the Rihla . The mosques then, as now, serve as important base of Islamic culture.
“My aim in writing the book was that before the discovery of America, when the whole world was not seen as it is today, here was a man who travelled from Morocco to China and back in the 14th century, which was extraordinary. Ibn Battuta was a legal scholar and Muslims like him had a greater self-consciousness about the spread of the Muslim world in the hemisphere. Europeans did so after that. I tried to set his travels in a wider context in the world he lived.”
Dunn further expounds that Ibn Battuta’s accounts of Kozhikode and Malabar are highly significant in pointing to the fact that brisk trade, handled principally by Muslims, was quite peaceful, barring pirates.
Ibn Battuta first arrived in these parts as an emissary of Muhammed Bin Tughluq travelling overland and by sea from Delhi to China, carrying precious presents and slave girls for the emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. With vibrant trade on between the Malabar coast and China, Ibn Battuta was to board one from a fleet of Chinese ships anchored there. Dunn says that the narrative describes in detail huge Chinese vessels moored at the port. According to the narration a violent storm broke out at the time when the ship was to set sail, completely destroying two of them and driving away a third. Ibn Battuta could not board as he was apparently busy with his slave girls. Fearing that the King would learn of his indiscretions he did not return to Delhi. Instead, he moved further south and arrived at Maldives, where he supposedly fathered a son, of who he writes emotionally. Quoting the Sharia, Battuta writes of his rightful claim to the boy.
Looking at the world Ibn Battuta travelled in, Dunn says it was indeed a small world. There are mentions of meetings with several persons, travellers like him, whom he had met earlier in other cities. In Delhi, Ibn Battuta mentions names of Muslims from different parts of the Middle East—Persia, Syria, Egypt, Morocco—people who were serving the sultan as officials. “The sultan liked to hire Arabs as men of the Prophet’s race,” explains Dunn.
“I want people to understand that there was a cosmopolitan quality to the world in which Ibn Battuta lived. There was no hostile sectarianism; it was a pretty tolerant era, religious groups generally accepting one another,” says Dunn.
The Moroccan traveller’s accounts were recounted and written by a young literary scholar Ibn Juzayy in Arabic before his end in 1356. Europeans began discovering his manuscripts in the 18th century. In mid 19th century, four manuscripts were discovered in a Sufi centre in Algeria and brought to Paris by priests who were Arabic scholars. These were main sources for Dunn, for his book. “A travel writer who I admire, Tim Mackintosh Smith, who lived in Sanáa, and who traced the footsteps of Ibn Battuta, came up with a couple of other sources, a manuscript in Damascus and a letter by Andalusian scholar that mentions him,” says Dunn, explaining that Ibn Battuta was self-revelatory in his accounts. He spoke of his slave girls, wives, children, grew emotional, but not much about his physical self, other than his beard.
Finally, Dunn sees “his hero” first as a job seeker, “a careerist”, who journeyed the world, bitten by the travel bug, to look for opportunities, then as the brave traveller whose accounts help us recreate our past, and more importantly as the first modern travel writer.
He says, “It is only after his accounts, in which he places himself in the narrative that other writers begin to do so. Marco Polo, a generation earlier, writes extensively about the external, just as Christopher Columbus does but Ibn Battuta’s narratives place him as a part of the travels.”
Dunn’s visit to Delhi and Kozhikode have in a way fulfilled a part of his wish, he having visited Tangiers where Ibn Battuta was born and died. Of his book, into its third edition he says, “ I have tried to interpret the best evidences that I have in telling what Ibn Battuta says and I have put it in a context to understand the times and lives better.”