Ibn Battuta and Zheng He

The Tourist and

the Admiral

Trade, Travel and Politics in a Muslim World

Journey of 1000 Li

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A mosque and young Muslim in Tunisia


Mecca, the destination for millions of Muslim pilgrims each year


Chinese Muslims attending the Friday prayers


An oasis in Tunisia


Cattle grazing near an Indian mosque

Dar al-Islam:
the Muslim World

Following the election of Kublai Khan in 1260, Mongol leaders throughout Asia began bickering among themselves. After decades of internal wars, the Mongols were so weak that they struggled to put down the rebellions that sprung up against them. Muslim leaders led rebellions and established Muslim states throughout the Silk Road region. In addition, many Mongols rulers converted to Islam, creating a wide Muslim domain from parts of China to west Africa. In this region of Muslim states, called Dar al-Islam, Arabic became a common language and Muslims could expect good treatment by others of the faith throughout the Silk Road.

As the Mongol empire collapsed, warfare and chaos were commonplace once again along the Silk Road. The dangers of travel were increased by roving armies, bandits and unpredictable governments. Each small kingdom along the route taxed merchants, making their goods more expensive to the next buyer. None of this decreased demand for the goods of the Silk Road trade. But it did propel merchants to search for other ways to transport their wares.

Merchant ships had always traveled the seaways between China and Egypt. But the disturbances in the interior of the continent, combined with improvements in shipbuilding and navigation, gave merchants all the reasons they needed to sell their camels and invest in ships. The seas were safe by comparison. Ships were faster than camels and could carry more cargo. In addition, the countries on the coasts of the Indian Ocean were generally far removed from the warring Mongols and the rebellions against them. For Muslims, the underside of Asia was a great open Islamic world, Dar al-Islam, in which they could expect welcome in most harbors.

This era saw two great travelers on very different journeys, Ibn Battuta (1325 – 1354) and Zheng He (1405 – 1433).

map of Ming period Asia and Silk Road. Source: R.Bradeen, 2001

Ibn Battuta: the World's First Tourist

Ibn Battuta is called “the world’s first tourist.” He was born in Tunisia on the north coast of Africa into a respected family of scholars and Islamic judges or qadis. At the age of 21, after finishing his education, Ibn Battuta set out to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, as all good Muslims were expected to do once in their lives: “I left Tangiers, my birthplace, with the intention of making the Pilgrimage to Mecca...to leave all my friends, to abandon my home as birds abandon their nests.” Along the way, the young man studied under well-known scholars of Islam. These studies qualified him to become a judge. The fame of his teachers made him a respected guest of Muslim leaders wherever he went: “The people of al-Basra are of generous nature, hospitable to the stranger and readily doing their duty by him, so that no stranger feels lonely amongst them.”

• Beyond Mecca

In 1326, Ibn Battuta completed his first pilgrimage to Mecca. But instead of returning home, he decided to see as many parts of Dar al-Islam as possible, vowing never to travel the same road twice. In the end, he traveled more than 75,000 miles, down the east coast of Africa and across Asia to China. In 1333, Ibn Battuta arrived in India after traveling through much of west Asia. Here too, he was well-received by the sultan of India. The sultan honored him with feasts and gifts and gave him an important position as grand judge of the capital. After seven years in India, the sultan appointed the traveler as ambassador to China.

Even this famed traveler was greatly impressed by China: “China is the safest, best regulated of countries for a traveler. A man may go by himself on a nine-month journey, carrying with him a large sum of money, without any fear. Silk is used for clothing even by poor monks and beggars. Its porcelains are the finest of all makes of pottery and its hens are bigger than geese in our country.”

He was surprised by the well-established Muslim community he found in China’s ports. China’s first mosque was built 350 years before his arrival. Muslim merchants had come to live permanently in China to manage the far end of their trade businesses. They had grown wealthy, built mosques and developed into a thriving community.

After achieving his mission in China, Ibn Battuta returned home to Tunisia, stopping in Mecca and many other places along the way. He finally settled, after 29 years of traveling, into life of a respected judge. He continued to travel throughout the western Muslim world. Everywhere he went, rulers of all ethnicities welcomed him as one learned in Islam and who had seen the furthest ends of the Muslim world.

• Zheng He: the Great Admiral

Ibn Battuta's travels were extraordinary for the distance that he covered and the fact that he traveled independently as a tourist. But travel around the countries bordering the Indian Ocean was increasingly common in this era, due to improvements in sailing technology. In the years following Ibn Battuta, a very different voyage of discovery was in the planning starting from the Chinese end of the Indian Ocean. This voyage was led by the Chinese admiral, Zheng He.


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