Almost everyone is familiar with famous western explorers like Columbus and how he discovered America or Marco Polo and his adventures in the East. What many people are not aware of is that there are many Muslim explorers who traversed lands in search of knowledge and adventure. Imagine doing that without the luxuries of cars, aeroplanes and comfortable accommodation like we have now!
Brush up on your Islamic history and get to know these amazing Muslim explorers!
Note: This article is only a summary of the lives of these great companions and explorers, and do not cover all the points of their life stories. These stories are not intended as biographies, but rather to provide a glimpse of the main incidents of each explorer’s life.
1. Ibn Batutta
Born in Tangiers, Morocco, Abu Abdulla Muhammad – or better known as Ibn Battuta, is the greatest Muslim traveller of all time. Starting his journey at the age of 20, he set out to explore the world, only returning to his home 30 years later at the age of 51. Ibn Battuta’s urge to travel was motivated by his interest in gaining knowledge and to find the best teachers and libraries, which were then located in Alexandria, Cairo and Damascus.
During his years on the road, he covered 44 modern countries, which amounts to about 75,000 miles – equal to three trips around the globe! An unparalleled traveller in his time and easily surpassing that of his near contemporary Marco Polo, he crossed Egypt, Abyssinia, Africa, Spain, Southern Russia, Indo-China, China and many many more. He also performed the Hajj four times!
Although he never wrote journals during his adventures around the world (which included him being robbed, making acquaintances with famous rulers of the time, and presiding as a judge in Delhi and Maldives), Morocco’s sultan ordered him to compile a travelogue after returning to the country for good in 1354. Dictating his stories to a writer named Ibn Juzayy, together they compiled a book entitled ‘A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling’, or better known as the Rihla, meaning “travels”. His book forever stands as one of the most eye-opening accounts of the Islamic world in the 14th century.
2. Admiral Zheng He
Always heard that Columbus discovered America? Guess what? The Muslim Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) discovered it first! Born at the end of the 14th century in Yunnan, China, he belonged to a Muslim Chinese ethnic group and was named ‘Ma He’. In China, “Ma” was considered a short name for Muhammad.
Ma He studied Islam and memorised the Quran at a young age, and grew up speaking both Arabic and Chinese. As his father and grandfather had travelled to Makkah to complete their Hajj, this ignited his curiosity about the wide world. He studied languages, religions, traditions, history and geography, to know more about the countries located westward of China.
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One of the greatest figures that spread Islam to Southeast Asia, he was an admiral, soldier, diplomat and a trader. Although of Chinese and Middle Eastern descent and a devout Muslim, he respected and gave assistance to those of other religions, besides building mosques in many places he visited. Due to his skills and knowledge, he was sent on goodwill missions to countries in Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, eastern Africa and some say much further away!
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Sadly after his death, the Chinese government changed to a more Confucian philosophy which did not support expeditions like Zheng He’s. As a result, his accomplishments and contributions were mostly forgotten for hundreds of years in China 😔 However, if you’re interested to learn more about his legacy, head on over to the Cheng Ho Cultural Museum in Melaka, Malaysia!
3. Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqqas (RA)
The maternal uncle of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, Sa’ad was one of the first reverts to Islam and a hero of different wars and raids. He led his army in one of the greatest battles in Islamic history, but was always humble in his leadership. He was known for the purity of his soul, the honesty of his faith, and the depth of his sincerity.
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It is reported that he was sent to China in 29 AH by the Caliph Uthman RA, eighteen years after the death of the Prophet ﷺ. On this expedition, he invited the Chinese Emperor Tung (Yung-Wei) to embrace Islam. According to historians, the beautiful Huaisheng Mosque in Guangzhou is the first mosque in China built by Sa’ad Ibn Abi Waqqas (RA). He passed away on this trip and was buried in Guangzhou.
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4. Abu Al Hasan Al Masudi
Known as “The Herodotus of the Arabs”, Al-Masudi was a famous historian and geographer who combined history and scientific geography in his work of world history, ‘The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems’ (Also known as مروج الذهب ومعادن الجوهر, Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma’adin al-jawhar in Arabic). Born in Baghdad, he spent a majority of his life traveling to East Africa, the Middle East, Persia, Russia, India and China, compiling his work.
His fresh approach to historical research relied not only on cultural and social matters, but also politics, using the accounts of locals in the many lands he visited. The extent of his interest and coverage of even non-Islamic lands and peoples of his day distinguishes him above his contemporaries. Although he produced a number of books and encyclopaedias chronicling world history, many of them have been lost over time. His surviving works show that his curiosity and thirst for knowledge was truly impressive!
5. Ahmad Ibn Majid
Ahmad Ibn Majid was a navigator and Arabic poet who is well-known for having assisted Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer and the first European to reach India by sea, in his quest to go around the Cape of Good Hope of South Africa. Raised in a family of seafarers, he was able to navigate ships at the age of 17 and was so famous that he was known as the first Arab seaman.
Authoring nearly forty works of poetry and prose besides conquering the seas, he was also known as ‘The Lion of the Sea’. His legacy includes the Book of Useful Information on the Principles and Rules of navigation (Kitab al Fawa’id fi usul ‘Ilm al-Bahr wa ‘l-Qawa’id), which was widely referred to by Arab sailors as it addressed celestial navigation, weather patterns and charts of dangerous areas in which to sail. He was known to have provided Vasco da Gama with a map of the world that was unknown to other European sailors at the time, which was crucial in da Gama’s successful expedition to India.
6. Karima Bint Ahmad al-Marwaziyya
Not only were men known to be great travellers in the height of Islamic civilisation, women were too! One such amazing woman was Karima al-Marwaziyya, a traveller, a great Muhaddithah (specialist in hadeeth studies) and a brilliant scholar who was born in Turkmenistan.
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It was her search for knowledge that brought her to travel far and wide. She travelled with her father through arduous journeys over sea and land, from Turkmenistan to Iran and Jerusalem, finally settling in Makkah, where she studied Sahih al-Bukhari and became one of the most well known and respected scholars of her era.
These amazing men and women of the past traversed many lands and hardships to gain knowledge and witness the wonders of Allah’s creations. May we gain inspiration from their stories and possess the strength to persevere in the search for knowledge and truth for the sake of Allah Subhanahu wa ta’ala.