Archive for the ‘Travelers’ Tales’ Category

Alberuni accurately calculated the earth’s circumference, figured out that the Indian subcontinent was once a sea, first determined that the speed of light was greater than that of sound, showed that the orbits of planets could be elliptical, refuted alchemy and debated with Avicenna. As if this wasn’t enough achievement for one lifetime, he journeyed with Mahmud Ghaznavi to India and took up the task of providing an “accurate description of all categories of Hindu thought”, compiling an encyclopediac work that provides us an excellent source of the scientific and religious thinking of India circa 1000 CE.

On religious topics, he examines the beliefs of the Indians in God and studied Patanjali, the Gita, the Puranas and Kapila’s Sankhya. He discusses the views of the Indians on the “First Cause”, the existence of souls and their transmigration, the nature of matter, origin of action, and their notions on liberation.  A striking aspect of the book is his extensive comparisons of Indian thought with Greek, Islamic, Sufi, Christian and Zoroastrian viewpoints.

Alberuni studied Indian astronomy and mathematics and the works of Brahmagupta, Aryabhatta and Varahamihira. On Indian astronomers’ belief in the roundness of the earth: “if the earth were not round, it would not be girded with the latitudes of the different places on earth, day and night would not be different in winter and summer. And the conditions of the planets and of their rotations would be quite different from what they are”. He also discusses grammar and metrics and Indian notions of time, which run into the millions of years as well as fractions of seconds. While discussing notions of time, he says “The Hindus hold the eternity of the Creator to be determinable, not measurable, since it is infinite”. He disagrees, however, stating that “it is extremely difficult to imagine a thing which is determinable but not measurable, and that “the whole idea is very far-fetched”.

Alberuni tries his best to understand other civilizations on their own terms and looks for common ground between his own religion and the religions of India. He is still unable to completely avoid his own frame of reference – for example, the assumption of the concept of One God as being inherently superior (remind me again, exactly why is the worship of one invisible being superior to the worship of more than one invisible being)?

Alberuni is uncompromising in his adherence to the scientific method and to accuracy. He admits it frankly when he does not possess enough information on a topic. As much as possible, he quotes from books and from primary sources, instead of trying to provide his own interpretations. He is disapproving of what he believes to be Indian astronomers’ pandering to popular belief. It also exasperates him that the Indians use different nomenclatures for the same things. “They use or invent numbers of names and who is to hinder or control them?”

Unlike Ibn Batuta, Alberuni does not always have a very good relationship with his patrons – a fondness for objective truth will do that to you. He does travel with Mahmud to India, but is distinctly uncomfortable with Mahmud’s plundering and havoc-causing. However, he is realistic enough to realize that royal patronage is essential for science – “for they (kings) alone could free the minds of scholars from the daily anxieties for the necessities of life”. For such is the nature of genius, to be dependent on barbarians for sustenance.


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The first thing that strikes you while reading Ibn Battuta’s account of his travels is what a compulsive name dropper he is. In page after page, he mentions sultans who have honored him and sheikhs he has dined with. Ibn Battuta is a well regarded man, and don’t you forget it for an instant.

The second most striking thing is how lightly he takes the dangers of medieval travel. Modern airline passengers make a bigger fuss over missed connections than Mr. Battuta does over dangerous desert journeys across the Sahara or his caravans getting attacked in India. In North Africa, our dedicated traveler does not let fever slow him down, tying himself to the saddle of a camel lest he should fall.

As a scholar of Islamic Law, Ibn Battuta was much sought after by the nobility of his era. With Islamic civilization flourishing across North Africa, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, he found his travels very rewarding and his services in much demand. He was invited by Delhi’s Sultan, Muhammed Bin Tughlaq, to be a Qadi on an annual salary of 12000 dinars. In the Maldives, not only was he aggressively head hunted to be the Qadi, but also gained upward mobility by marrying into the royal family. In one unintentionally funny episode he ticked off the miserly Sultan Sulaiman of Mali for being tightfisted with his patronage. After Battuta rightly pointed out the error of his ways, and his deficiencies with respect to other monarchs, the sultan, suitably shamed, made recompense.

For such a well traveled man, Ibn Battuta’s worldview can be rigid and unchanging. In his stint as Qadi in the Maldives, he tramples over local customs while delivering judgment. For him, the world is firmly divided into the camp of the believers and others, and he views the unbelievers with disdain – unless of course they are gifting him pearls like the ruler of Ceylon. While this attitude may jar one’s sensibilities in these politically correct times, it is worth remembering that Ibn Battuta was a man of his time.

To modern readers, Battuta’s travels are fascinating for the information they yield on many countries. We learn that Turkish women did not wear the veil and were given a lot of respect for “they hold a more dignified position than the men”. In Maqdashaw (Mogadishu in Somalia), “a town endless in its size”, its people were powerful merchants, and manufactured cloths that had no rival. In sharp contrast to the Mogadishu of today, the picture emerges of a city prosperous with trade with many ships docking at its harbor. Its nobility wore clothes of Egyptian linen and robes from Jerusalem. And the people were extremely large and fat of body, each person “eating as much as a group of us would”. Aden, we learn, was “the port of the Indians, and to it come large vessels from …….. Malabar ports”.

And yes, he did go to Timbuktoo.

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