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

Prof. Ross Dunn

San Diego State University. USA

Bio 07- 21-2018

Ross E. Dunn is Professor Emeritus of History at San Diego State University, where he taught African, Islamic, and world history. He holds a PhD in History from the University of Wisconsin.  In his early career he specialized in North African history, publishing Resistance in the Desert: Moroccan Responses to French Imperialism, 1881-1912 (1977). Teaching world history inspired him to write The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century (1987). This book is currently in its third edition and has been published in five languages. The first elected president of the World History Association, Dunn has dedicated much of his career to advancing world history education in both K-12 and collegiate institutions. A leader in the project to write national standards for history in the United States in early 1990s, he subsequently coauthored with Gary B. Nash and Charlotte Crabtree History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (1997). In 2015 he co-edited with Laura J. Mitchell and Kerry Ward The New World History: A Field Guide for Teachers and Researchers with the University of California Press. His numerous articles include Since 2001 he has served as director of World History for Us All, a web-based model curriculum for world history in schools.  In 2014 he and Laura J. Mitchell coauthored Panorama: A World History, a college-level textbook that aims to provide an integrated, coherent narrative of the human past. He is an associate director of the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA. In 2012 this center published World History: The Big Eras: A Compact History of Humankind for Teachers and Students, which he coauthored with Edmund Burke and David Christian. In 2012 he received the Pioneers of World History award from the World History Association. He is on the steering committee of the recently formed Alliance for Learning in World History, a collaborative project to advance the professional development of world history educators.


An Educated Muslim on the Frontiers of Islam

In this presentation I would like to situate Ibn Battuta’s travels in the broad context of Afroeurasian history in the 14th century. I will argue that although he had several motives for traveling 73,000 miles from Morocco to China and back, he was one participant among many in a huge trans-hemispheric web of Muslim social interaction that embraced a large part of Afroeurasia in the fourteenth century. The Dar al-Islam may be described as a world system of cultural and social communication that involved long-distance travel of many people for diverse reasons. The extensive growth of Islam in that period involved a social movement, that is, the journeys and migrations of individuals who possessed literacy, special skills, or holiness, and who were needed in places where the Islamization of society was then taking place. Urban educated Muslims subscribed to and mutually shared a set of symbols, practices, rules, and patterns of expectation. Through this shared discourse, Muslims exchanged ideas, did business, and cooperated in a wide variety of endeavors. Merchants moved incessantly from region to region, carrying the greater part of the hemisphere's international trade. Muslims also traveled to make the hajj and in the roles of diplomats, wandering Sufis, and cultured scholars in search of books and teachers.

Ibn Battuta was not an alien wanderer but a member of a social class of people known for traveling from city to city. He was an Arabic-speaking gentleman and lawyer of a North African city. And his social status as a member of the ‘ulama class qualified him to be treated with respect. I will argue that there were thousands of literate people like him, people who traveled by land and sea to seek knowledge, opportunity, wealth, and a variety of professional jobs in the wider Muslim world. Beyond the central lands of Islam, many Muslim states were relatively young in the 14th century. Rulers in places such as Anatolia, Central Asia, India, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and West Africa, whose near ancestors may have been converts to Islam, understood the great political value of attracting jurists, professors, theologians, poets, calligraphers, and experienced administrators to their realms. These educated immigrants served the crucial function of helping to culturally legitimize the status of rulers out on the frontiers as proper Muslim princes. New Muslim communities needed to build institutions of jurisprudence, worship, education, and administration. And this required that literate religious and intellectual cadres be on hand. It was these educated specialists who laid the foundations of Muslim civilization in new areas. As remarkable a personality as Ibn Battuta was, he also a represented a social type, a kind of educated frontier migrant who made the hajj, advanced his education, and associated with Sufi mystics, but also launched an interesting and lucrative career—to make something of himself in a world that presented numerous opportunities.

Writers sometimes present Ibn Battuta as a heroic icon of Muslim piety, devotion, and deep scholarly knowledge, which he shared across Afroeurasia. He was certainly pious, but he also played the roles of husband, father, lover, adventurer, warrior, conspirator, charmer, flatterer, and ambitious careerist. We are just lucky that he survived long enough in a dangerous world to produce an autobiography that became one of the supreme narrative accomplishments of the premodern age.