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The Rihla of Ibn Jubair between 1183 and 1185

Ibn Jubair, whose full name is Abu al-Husayn Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Jubair al-Kinani, was born in 1145 in Valencia, in Muslim Spain, into a noble family. His father, Abd al-Salam, who was from Kinanah near Makkah, was a civil servant who had been sent by the Caliph of Damascus to put down the uprising that eventually led to the establishment of the Almohad dynasty in Granada. Ibn Jubair studied in the town of Jativa in the province of Valencia, where his father worked as a civil servant. He later became secretary to the Almohad governor of Granada.

In 1182, Ibn Jubair was forced by the Governor, under threat, to drink seven cups of wine. But no sooner had he done so, it is said that the Governor “was seized with sudden pity and in remorse” and had filled seven cups of gold dinars which he gave to Ibn Jubair. To expiate his godless act, although forced upon him, Ibn Jubair decided to perform the Hajj to Makkah. And so, on 3 February 1183, accompanied by Abu Ja’far Ahmad ibn Hasan – a physician of Granada, Ibn Jubair began his “Rihla” (which means journey/travels) to Makkah.

He left Spain from the port of Ceuta, boarding a ship bound for Alexandria (al-Iskandariyah) in Egypt, via Majorca, Sardinia and Crete. He reached Alexandria on 27th March, from where he travelled south to the port of Aydhab, from where he crossed the Red Sea and eventually on the 22nd of August he reached the city of Makkah. Ibn Jubair stayed in Makkah for seven months to perform Hajj until 15th March 1184, when he departed for Madina on what would be his journey back to Granada. As part of his ziyarah of the Prophet he wrote that: “He stood beside it [the Rawdah] in salutation and kissed the earth on its sides” and prayed in it.

He left Madina after a few days and travelled north, eventually crossing the Euphrates river and into Kufah. He then travelled northwards in Iraq, passing by Baghdad, Tikrit, Mosul, before travelling into what is now Syria. He then travelled south through Syria via Aleppo, Damascus and other coastal towns of the Mediterranean Sea, before setting off on ship from Acre back to Southern Spain. Eventually, in April 1185, Ibn Jubair returned to Granada, more than two years after he had left it; and praised Allah abundantly.

This was Ibn Jubair’s first of three travels. The second trip lasted from 1189 to 1191; the third, begun in 1217, was ended by his death in Egypt, at the age of 72. It was his first travel that he is most known for, and which he documented as a book of travel diary. In it, Ibn Jubair provides a highly detailed and graphic description of the places he visited. The book contains first hand observation of geographical details as well as cultural, religious and political matters. Below are some very interesting selections of what he observed between 1183 and 1185.

  • Alexandria had colleges and hostels for students erected by the Sultan Ṣalaḥ ad-Din Ayyubi. Where, students find lodging and tutors to teach them the subjects they desire, and also allowances to cover their needs. The Sultan also grants them baths, hospitals, and the appointment of doctors who can even come to visit them at their place of stay, and who would be answerable for their cure. The Sultan also paid for the distribution of two thousand loaves of bread to the poor on a regular basis.
  • Alexandria had between eight and twelve thousand mosques; often four or five of them in the same street.
  • By 1183, Ibn Jubair notes that Cairo (Misr) had been largely restored following the fire damage at the time of the breakup of the Fatimid dynasty in 1169.
  • The outside of the Ka’ba was covered in green silk (not black as it is today) with cotton warps, and the upper part had a band of red silk on which was written in Arabic “Verily, the first House founded for mankind was that at Bakkah [another name for Makkah]” (Quran, 3:96).
  • The Ka’ba had five windows of richly stained Iraqi glass.
  • The door of the Ka’ba was opened every Monday and Friday except in the month of Rajab, when it was opened every day. The people who opened it were known as the Shayba – the hereditary custodians of the Ka’ba that dates back to the time of the Prophet.
  • The Haram had four Sunni imams at the time (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’, Hanbali) as well as a fifth imam from the Zaydi school. Each imam led their own congregation at slightly different times and place in the Haram. But at the evening prayers (Maghrib and ‘Isha), all four imams prayed at the same time because of the shortness of time. Ibn Jubair observes how sometimes this led to what he calls “oversight or inadvertence by the worshippers” which led to cries of ‘God is Great’ from all sides” to rectify a mistake.
  • The 15th of Sha’ban was held in high esteem by Makkans, when they performed extra prayers both singly and in congregation.
  • The month of Ramadhan in Makkah would be accompanied by an increase in candles such that the Haram “blazed with light and shone with brightness” for the tarawih prayers.
  • Ibn Jubair describes the markets of Damascus as “the finest in the world and the best arranged and most handsomely constructed”.
  • On the day of ‘Arafah, the people of Damascus would remain in the Great Mosque of Damascus following the afternoon prayers, to pray and seek blessings until the sun set.
  • By 1184, many areas of Sicily had been surrendered to non-Muslim rule, but with Muslims remaining as its inhabitants. In the city of Palermo, he described the situation as tense and the Friday Khutbah was made illegal by the Norman king. Yet, still, Muslims preserved their faith, looked after their mosques, and came to daily prayers at the call of the muezzin. There were countless ordinary mosques, and most of them were used as schools for Qur’an teachers.


The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, trans. by Ronald Broadhurst, Goodword Books, 2007.

– By Dr Mamnun Khan


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