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▶  More from Ancient Combat Book Reviews Author's Notebook Yusef of the Dusk
The Judge with Twenty Cooks
The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century by Ross E. Dunn

1986, University of California press, Berkeley, CA, 357 pages

Ibn Battuta made an oath “never to travel by the same road twice,” and came close to keeping it as he traveled more of the medieval world than any other known person. This was made possible to a large degree by the expansive dominance of Islam and his status as a marginal scholar willing to offer his services to petty princes, usurpers, and half-barbarian invaders new to Islam, who sought advice from men of learning. Ibn was schooled in the “globalist” ethos of his age and would be an equivalent agent to a modern financial advisor specializing in corporate acquisitions. Muslim potentates ruled primarily with the aid of foreigners, as there was little loyalty to a sultan, making the foreigner without local connections a theoretically unlikely plotter.

More compassionate than many of the brutes he served, Ibn was a quintessential Muslim of his time, with zero sense of loyalty to those to whom he swore fealty and even less compassion for his many wives and slave girls whom he impregnated, took from their homes and divorced or abandoned, often as they carried or nursed his children. He had a soaring ego, humanely tempered by many admissions that he was unlearned enough or unqualified for many of his appointments. Ibn lived in an age of bumbling amateurs, as the far-flung world of Peace through Submission to God was rent by Turkish war slaves, ravaged by foreign invaders scourged by the Black Death two years ahead of Europe, and challenged by Christian pirates and Hindu partisans. Most of all, the World of Islam—a world foremost one of chattel slavery and elite duplicity—was failing on an ethical level as those newly brought over to the Faith clothed their savage practices in its façade of elegance. The world Ibn Battuta journeyed through was coming apart at the seams, with him seeming almost a pied piper of dissolution as he traveled one step ahead of death and disaster in his “quixotic quest” to outdo “Abdallah-al-Misri, the traveler and a man of saintly life,” in gross outline, lacking—in the spirit of his degenerate age—the perspective to aspire to anything more than a crude stumbling through the crumbling world.

With that said, Ibn Batutta did the undreamed infidel readers an immense service in his mostly honest presentation of the flawed world as he saw and understood it. His saving grace seems to have been the fact that he was part of the rising countercurrent of sufism, which seems to have softened what otherwise might have been a crass and purely materialistic account such as that rendered by his near contemporary, Marco Polo. Despite his mean morality, his monstrous curiosity, and honest self-abasement, he manages to engage the reader in such moments as his survival of numerous maritime disasters:

“Death stared us in the face and the passengers jettisoned all they possessed and bade adieu to one another.”

Ibn Batutta journeyed the Islamic World for 25 years and left the reader with a sketch of a proto-globalist society in the throes of collapse. Ross E. Dunn, for his part, provides well-elected quotes from and fitting context for the life of a literate man whose thirst for adventure surpassed that of even the warring princes he served, oddly enough as an itinerate judge and advisor, attended by slaves—often in platoon strength—through most of his quarter-century of far seeking.


This book served as an historical source for my novella, Yusef of the Dusk. Ibn made his journey across the Arabian Sea 230 years after Yusef. However, the seagoing technology remained identical and the author of this book, Dunn, provided in overview of the region going back to 1196, five years before Yusef’s tale.

For a review of a book from early in the site's history which relates to this period in Europe read: The First Lady Of History: Barbara W. Tuchman

Thanks to PR for the reminder.

He: Gilgamesh: Into the Face of Time

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PRJuly 22, 2017 11:51 PM UTC

THis sounds like a useful adjunct to Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century."