11 Muslim Travellers of The Past

History is sought after by everyone. Whether you’re a king or an ordinary man, we all aspire to know it. What’s more, it’s understood by everyone, regardless of your level of knowledge. Whilst it entertains and helps us understand human affairs and people, it also attempts to arrive at the truth and provide explanations for certain things. This is more important in times like these when a critical eye is seldom found and little to no effort is being made to explain and arrive at the truth. History also acquaints us with biographies of devout individuals which allows us then to imitate good behaviour in religious and worldly matters. (Ibn-Khaldūn et al., 2015)  

Muslim travellers were leading pioneers in broadening their horizons [through travel] not only because they desired to travel, but also because they had a religious incentive behind doing so. Religion and a passion for travel both corroborated each other which fuelled their interests in traversing different lands across different continents. It did not stop there. Muslim travellers contributed to knowledge of history, geography and discovery as J.H. Kramer states, ‘Europe ought to look upon them as its cultural ancestors in the domain of geographical knowledge, of discovery, and of world trade.’ (Arnold and Guillaume, 1931)

Many historical works have listed a great number of Muslim travellers since the emergence of Islam until present times. However, below I present to you a non-exhaustive list of those Muslim travellers whose lives we know more about. Brief details are given for each leaving the reader at liberty to study and research their travels in detail.

1. Ibn Batutah

Full Name: Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Abdullah al-Lawati al-Tangi Ibn Batutah

Born: 1304

Death: 1369

Place of Birth: Tangier, Morocco

Occupation: Scholar, Traveller, Explorer, Geographer.

Places Travelled: North Africa, West Africa, Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Middle East, Indian Subcontinent, Central Asia, Southeast Asia & China.

Interesting Facts: Starting his travels at the age of 20 in 1325, Ibn Batutta only intended to perform Hajj. However, his curiosity had him continue his travels for another 29 years. Towards the end of his voyage, he sailed for 40 days towards the ports of China. Upon returning he noted, ‘“China is the safest and most agreeable country in the world for the traveller. You can travel all alone across the land for nine months without fear, even if you are carrying much wealth.” (Dunn, 1995)

Written Works: The Travels of Ibn Battuta

2. Zheng He [Jung Ha]

Statue of Zheng He located in Stadthuys, Malacca, Malaysia

Born: 1371

Death: 1435

Place of Birth: Yunnan [foothills of the Himalay Mountains]

Occupation: Chinese Admiral, Explorer, Diplomat & Mariner

Places Travelled: Far East, India, Persian Gulf, Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, East Africa, Southeast Asia

Interesting Fact: Admiral Zheng He caught the travel bug from a young age when he witnessed his father undertake the Hajj journey. Zheng He’s travels were more diplomatic missions. Even still, it allowed him to venture and explore, thus allowing him to return and record his travels. He was one of the first Muslim Chinese travellers to have reached as far as Mogadishu in East Africa making him one of the greatest Chinese Explorers.

3. Imam Ghazzali

Full Name: Abû Hâmid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazâlî

Born: 1058

Death: 1111

Place of Birth: Tus, Khurasan Province, Iran

Occupation: Philosopher, Theologian & Jurist

Places Travelled: Baghdad, Syria, Palestine, Saudi Arabia

Interesting Fact: Imam Ghazzali’s interest for travel emerged from a thirst for sincerity and humility. Due to his academic expertise, he was appointed in a very high academic teaching rank in one of the greatest universities in Baghdad. However, over time he started realising that much of what he was doing was pretence, lacking any substantial sincerity. He felt as though due to being well versed in religious texts and theology, pride and a sense of honour was overtaking his mind. He therefore made a decision to go solo and travel for some time with the hope that he can attain sincerity in his actions.

He set of from Baghdad in the year 488 AH and headed towards Syria with the intention to travel further to perform Hajj. He stayed in Damascus for around two years in solitude and confinement. Thereafter he made his way to the Holy Lands, Palestine. There he stayed in Masjid al-Aqsa and later made his way to Hebron. After a short stay, he finally made his way to Makkah for Hajj. He then returned to Baghdad after having travelled for 11 years. Throughout his travels, he engaged himself in purifying his soul and reconnecting with Allah. He also completed his greatest literary works in these 11 years known as Ihya Ulum al-Din.

Some historians mention that Imam Ghazali also travelled to Alexandria in Egypt.

Written Works: Ihya Ulum al-Din

4. Evliye Celebi

Statue of Evliye Celebi in Egar, Hungary

Full Name: Derviş Mehmed Zilli

Born: 1611

Death: 1684

Place of Birth: Istanbul, Turkey

Occupation: Ottoman Traveller, Explorer, Historian, Scholar & Linguist

Places Travelled: The Ottoman World – Balkan Countries, Middle East, Africa, Europe, Iran, Caucasus

Interesting Fact: It was in the Ahi Çelebi Mosque in Eminönü, Istanbul that Evliye saw a dream in which the Prophet Muhammad SAW blessed his travel intentions. When Evliye’s father discovered his intentions, he gave him some parting advice;

Visit the saints and all the places of pilgrimage and in all the lands you visit, write in volumes all about their plans, tall mountains, lonely trees and stones, their towns and their monuments and castles, their conquerors and their founders and compose a book which will be called ‘Book of Travels’ [Seyahatname].

His father gave him a bag with 12 books to read and around 200 gold coins to fund his journey. (Travelatelier.com, 2019)

Evliye was a unique traveller in his times as he had made travelling his profession as he had an insatiable wanderlust for travel (Dankoff, 2004). Travelling for around 50 years he wrote about his journey in ten volumes. He was regarded as one of the first travel writers in Ottoman history.

Written Works: Seyahatname (The Travelogue)

5. Ibn Jubayr

Full Name: Abu al-Husayn Muhammad ibn Ahmad Ibn Jubayr al-Kinani 

Born: 1145

Death: 1217

Place of Birth: Valencia, Spain

Occupation: Traveller, Explorer & Poet

Places Travelled: Spain, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia & Italy.

Interesting Fact: Ibn Jubayr travelled for a period of two years when he set off from Granada (Spain) for Hajj. In that time travelled he through Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Acre, Italy and other places. He is known to have had written his travelogue in a modern style which acts a great guide for those wanting to travel to similar places. Ibn Jubayr wrote in simple prose but when it came to describing places and objects he met in his travels, he went into a lot of detail. Such details that are till this day helpful to archaeologists and art historians. As he was also a poet, contained within his travelogue, the reader will find many lines of beautifully written poetry which sums up certain experiences he had or how he felt in a certain place.

One of the reasons why he set out on this journey was due to a forced heinous sin he was threatened to do. The Prince at the time threatened Ibn Jubayr to drink seven cups of wine. Upon doing so, he was compensated with seven cups of gold dinars. This was due to the remorse the prince felt for forcing Ibn Jubayr. Ibn Jubayr made a hasty exit and set off on his journey to get away from the corrupted court. Little did he know at the time, his journey would have a great impact on geography and travel writing.

Written Works: The Travels of Ibn Jubayr

6. Shihabuddin Ahmed Ibn Majid

Born: 1433

Death: 1536

Place of Birth: Oman

Occupation: Traveller, Navigator & Writer

Places Travelled: Europe, Asia, Africa & Southeast Asia

Interesting Fact: Ibn Majid’s father and grandfather were also navigators like him. He was known as the prime Muslim authority on the Indian Ocean thus gaining the title, Lion of the Sea (Sardar, 1999). Ibn Majid was known to lead Vasco De Gama (Portugese Explorer) – as a captain – across the Indian Ocean when Vasco was on his initial voyage to India.

Written Works: Kitab al-Fawa’id fi Usul ‘Ilm al-Bahr wa ’l-Qawa’id (Book of Useful Information on the Principles and Rules of Navigation)

7. Sulaiman al-Mahiri

Full Name: Sulaiman al-Mahiri Ibn Ahmad Ibn Sulayman

Born: 1480

Death: 1550

Place of Birth: Yemen

Occupation: Navigator, Writer & Traveller

Places Travelled: America, Russia, Asia, Middle East

Interesting Fact: A student of Ibn Majid, he was also fascinated by navigation and travel. Gaskin-Reyes (2016) states that it is believed by some that Al-Mahiri was amongst one of the first to have reached the Americas. Not only that, but he was even known to have reached the Bering Strait which is the strait that separates Russia and Alaska – a place barely populated today.

8. Al-Masudi

Statue of al-Masudi on top of the Natural History Museum, Vienna, Austria

Full Name: Abu Hasan Ali Ibn al-Hussain al-Masudi

Born: 893

Death: 956

Place of Birth: Iraq

Occupation: Explorer, Traveller, Travel Writer & Historian

Places Travelled: Persia, India Africa, Far East, Asia

Interesting Fact: Al-Masudi was a descendant of Abdullah Ibn Masud, one of the greatest companions of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. At a young age of twenty he began his travel adventure. He travelled through Persia and India, as well as into Madagascar and Indochina, in the early part of the 10th century (Gaskin-Reyes, 2016). He also travelled to Zanzibar in Tanzania, Oman, Armenia, Sri Lanka and Georgia. He did not confine his learning to teachers and books but instead preferred to travel to gain knowledge. A statue of Al-Masudi now stands on top of the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria. Al-Masudi was one of the first Muslim travellers to arrive at the shores of the four Comoros Islands, derived from qamar or moon.

Written Works: Akhbar al-Zaman [preserved in Vienna]

9. Ahmad Ibn Fadlan

Born: 877

Death: 960

Place of Birth: Baghdad, Iraq

Occupation: Ambassador & Traveller

Places Travelled: Europe, Asia, Russia, Middle East

Interesting Fact: Ibn Fadlan was actually sent as an ambassador to Bulgaria at the time of the Volga Bulgars. Due to this, he was known for travelling extensively around Asia with much of his time spent in Russia. (Gaskin-Reyes, 2016)

Because of spending a lot of time in Bulgaria and Russia he mingled with the Khazar and Rus people. He recorded details like their religion, culture, diets and how they dressed. A movie based on Ibn Fadlan has been produced called The 13th Warrior starring Antonio Banderas.

Written Works: Risala [Journal]

10. Al-Idrisi

Al-Idrisi’s World Map

Full Name: Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi al-Hasani al-Sabti

Born: 1099

Death: 1165

Place of Birth: Ceuta, Spain

Occupation: Geographer, Cartographer, Writer, Scientist & Explorer

Places Travelled: Spain, Morocco, Italy, Turkey & Eastern Europe

Interesting Fact: There is a statue of al-Idrisi in Ceuta, Spain. Al-Idrisi worked under King Roger II of Sicily and in that time produced an atlas of maps of the world. It was classed as one of the best maps created in history. According to Scott (1904), geographers copied al-Idrisi’s map without any alteration. Al-Idrisi is even recorded to have had travelled to England at a fairly young age. He eventually settled in Sicily, Italy.

11. Yaqut al-Hamawi

Full Name: Yaqut Shihabuddin Ibn Abdullah al-Rumi al-Hamawi

Born: 1179

Death: 1229

Place of Birth: Istanbul, Turkey (with Greek origins)

Occupation: Biographer & Geographer

Places Travelled: Egypt, Syria, Iraq & Persia

Interesting Fact: According to Durant (1950), Yaqut was captured in war and enslaved and then later sold to a tradesman from Baghdad. The merchant provided him with good education and later set him free. Yaqut used to find it difficult to settle in one place and therefore used to take advantage of travelling. He funded his trip by becoming a book-seller and then a geographer as he was fascinated by what he saw and experienced. (Durant, 1950)

His greatest break through was his compilation called Mujam al-Buldan which means The Dictionary of the Countries. In it he discusses all things about different countries such as the history, geography, archaeology as well as natural sciences. (Durant 1950) He also went further by commenting on mountains, seas and islands in different parts of the world.

Written Works: Mu’jam al-Buldan


If you know of any more Muslim travellers that should be part of the list, comment below.

Bibliography

Ibn-Khaldūn, ʿ., Rosenthal, F., Dawood, N., Lawrence, B. and Ibn-Ḫaldūn, (2015). The Muqaddimah. 4th ed. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Arnold, T. and Guillaume, A. (1931). The Legacy of Islam. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Dunn, R. (1995). Petualangan Ibnu Battuta. Jakarta: Yayasan Obor Indonesia.

Travelatelier.com. (2019). EVLIYA CELEBI & HIS BOOK OF TRAVELS “SEYAHATNAME”. [online] Available at: https://travelatelier.com/blog/evliya-celebi-his-book-of-travels-seyahatname/ [Accessed 14 Jun. 2019].

Sardar, Z. (1999). The touch of Midas. Mapusa, Goa: Other India Press.

Gaskin-Reyes, C. (2016). Water Planet: The Culture, Politics, Economics, and Sustainability of Water on Earth: The Culture, Politics, Economics, and Sustainability of Water on Earth. ABC-CLIO.

Newton, A. (1997). Travel and Travellers of the Middle Ages. London: Routledge.

Scott, S. (1904). History of the Moorish Empire in Europe. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

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