International Ibnu Batuta Conference on Travel, Trade, Tradition and Trajectories

Dr. Edward Iron

Director, The Honkong Institute for Culture, Commerece and Religion


Religion in Ibn Battuta and Al-Buruni:  Approaches to Religious Studies

The term religion as a academic category is a product of the 19th century academic universe.  Scholarly writings on religion are found in all the major religious traditions.  But roping religious activity off from the surrounding belief systems in order to put it under a microscope is  something associated with modernity.

This paper challenges the standard view that religious studies grew solely out of the work of such modern scholars as Max Müller, Durkheim and Weber.  We argue that there are important precursors in many cultures.  Looking in particular at the Muslim world in pre-modern times, we find that Ibn Battuta and Al-buruni represent approaches to religion that are still relevant today.  In particular both writers showed the way for modern ethnographic research.

Ibn Battuta, the 14th century CE legal scholar and world traveler, represents the spirit of fast-paced exposure.  His multiple travels in Asia, Central Asia, and Africa opened the door to expanded understanding of a multi-cultural world.  Al-Buruni, the tenth-century polymath from Khwarezm, left behind a path-breaking study of Indian religion.  His massive work was a systematic, scholarly investigation.  

Both approaches remain relevant today.  Indeed, in many ways we follow in the footsteps of these giants.