Ibn Jubair: Capturing the Decline of Islamic Power

by FSTC Published on: 17th May 2006

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Ibn Jubair is widely recognised as one of the greatest travellers and geographers of Muslim history. From excerpts his work, The Travels of Ibn Jubair, as presented in this short article we are able to gain insightful reports on the situation of Muslims in various parts of the Muslim world, and more particularly the plight of those Muslims living in oppressive former Muslim lands.


Born in Valencia (1145), Ibn Jubair (Ibn Jubayr) travelled widely from Spain to Iraq and returning via Sicily. Accounts taken from ‘Rihla Ibn Jubair’ (The Travels of Ibn Jubair) are particularly valuable for his numerous first-hand observations regarding the Muslims in both Eastern and western parts during a time when the reach of Islamic governance was in decline. In fact soon his beloved Valencia would be lost to the forces of King James I of Aragon in 1238, and would never return to the Muslims. Yet when we read Ibn Jubair’s moving accounts of oppressed Muslims in Norman Sicily, we feel that Ibn Jubair must have felt that Islamic rule in the Western parts was coming to an end.

Prior to this, however, Ibn Jubair visited Alexandria in the spring of 1183; a visit which left a profound impression on him, especially the city’s famous lighthouse. Throughout his work, Ibn Jubair praises the achievements of Islam, most particularly the establishment of hospitals and madrasas, particularly those within Damascus, which as a city he describes as one of the friendliest places he had ever visited and that ‘it surpasses all other cities in its beauty’ referring to it as ‘the paradise of the Orient.’

“…the itinerary of Ibn Jubayr is well depicted by two maps in R.J.C. Broadhurst’s The Travels of Ibn Jubair. One map deals with his travels in the east of the Muslim World , the other shows his travels in the west. One of the first places Ibn Jubayr visited was Alexandria in Egypt, in the spring of 1183, and it left strong impressions on him, especially its famed giant lighthouse of which he had this to say:

One of the greatest wonders that we saw in this city was the lighthouse which Great and Glorious God had erected by the hands of those who were forced to such labour as ‘a sign to those who take warning from examining the fate of others’ [Quran: 15:75] and as a guide to voyagers, for without it they could not find the true course to Alexandria. It can be seen for more than seventy miles, and is of great antiquity. It is most strongly built in all directions and competes with the skies in height. Description of it falls short, the eyes fail to comprehend it, and words are inadequate, so vast is the spectacle.*

..drawing of the ancient Light House of Alexandria by Abu Hamid Al-Gharnati (Source)

Ibn Jubair also passed by the Muslim lands in Crusader hands. For Ibn Jubair, little differentiates some of the Crusaders from pigs, in particular King Baldwin IV whom he sees as al-khinzir (the pig) and his mother as al-khinzira (the sow), epithets he must have picked up from the Muslims he encountered in Frankish Galilee.

‘When the infidels used to take from every man under the rule one dinar, he (Baldwin) may God curse him) used to take from each of them four dinars and he used to cut off their feet. There was not among the Franks anyone more arrogant or proud than he was (may God put him to shame).’

On his travels through the Holy Land, Ibn Jubair speaks of the Franks’ absence of cleanliness, and is particularly scathing in his description of Crusader Acre: `It stinks and is filthy, being full of refuse and excrement.’

One of the most insightful accounts of the Sicilian Muslims is provided by Ibn Jubair, returning from the East via Sicily in 1185. His visit lasted less than four months, and his encounters with Muslims were all made along the north coast between Messina and Trapani. He refers here to the woes that befell the Muslims, and their precarious situation:

‘Thus it is told that when a man loses his temper with his wife or his son, or a woman with her daughter, and they in a fit of anger throw themselves into a church, they are made Christians and baptised, nor can a man see his son again nor a woman her daughter in any other guise, so that those with insight fear that it then happen to the Muslims of Sicily as it happened to those of the island of Crete (when all the inhabitants, what with one thing, and what with another, were all forced to become Christians.) May the world of damnation fall over the infidel!’

In Messina he met a high-ranking royal official who had chosen to protect himself by concealing his Muslim faith. In Palermo, he met Qaid Abu Kassim ibn Hammud (also known as Ibn al-Hagar) a respected Muslim leader who deplored his own condition to the point of regretting that he had not been sold away in slavery to a Muslim country.

‘One of the nobles of this island who have inherited the quality of lordship from father to son… greatly praised for his virtues and charity towards the Muslims, ransoming prisoners and giving largess to poor wayfarers and pilgrims so that the whole town rejoiced at his coming, this man had lost the favour of the tyrants through intrigues, had been imprisoned in his house, and had all his palaces confiscated and also the possessions inherited from his ancestors….’

He expressed a wish to meet Ibn Jubair and they talked. In this conversation, Ibn al-Hagar stated that he and all his relatives only desired to sell all they had and thus be liberated from their woes and be free to live in Muslim lands. When our pilgrim parted from Ibn al-Hagar, he wept and made them weep.

`The nobility of his lineage, the singular gifts of his character, the fine earnestness of his life, his charity towards relatives, his liberality, the beauty of his person and his soul, moved us deeply,’ said Ibn Jubair.

Ibn Jubair also contrasts the favourable situation of Palermo Muslims, who had many mosques with teachers of the Qur’an, were allowed the public call to prayer, practiced as merchants, and had their own Qadi (or Judge) for the settlement of their legal disputes. However, even here, the position of the Muslims was actually precarious, since they depended on royal or seigniorial protection and were at risk from basic Latin antipathy. Muslim parents had difficulties in coping with children who could throw off parental restraints by embracing Christianity. Muslims wanting official posts had to change or conceal their faith.

Underlying tensions between the Christian and Muslim populations were real, and threatened the future order of the whole kingdom due to the fact that a number of crypto-Muslims came to occupy crucial posts in its workings. Such men did very well out of the monarchy. Achmet received three casalia from Roger II for his services. Such patronage, as in this case, may also have played a part in encouraging favourites to accept baptism. Achmet left his lands to Palermo cathedral, which is why his story is known. Some powerful Muslims were well connected with the court at Palermo, and others of Muslim origin served in royal offices, both in local government and in the ports, even to obtain responsible positions, baptism was probably indispensable. Ibn Jubair reports that wealthy Muslims were active in the work of buying back men enslaved for their faith, but they did not or could not do much for their co-religionists in the countryside whose lot seemed to Ibn Jubair thoroughly pitiable.

Pharos Alexandria – Fischer von Erlach (Source)

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