Science In the Film

"I had the pleasure to see the great film Journey to Mecca: In the footsteps of Ibn Battuta at its Premiere at the Smithsonian Institution. This Giant Screen/IMAX film represents a wonderful opportunity for science and technology centers to introduce audiences to this remarkable and relatively unknown epic traveler and explorer, Ibn Battuta and also to Islamic culture. The film is set largely at the end of the Golden Age of Islam - a period of intellectual flourishing and great scientific advancement. The film and its associated Educator’s Guide includes the Astrolabe an amazing invention and the precursor to the modern computer. I highly recommend this film."

Anthony "Bud" Rock, CEO - Association of Science and Technology Centers

Ibn Battuta began his travels at the end of what is commonly referred to as the “Golden Age of Islam” – a period which included an astounding number of scientific inventions and refinements, as outlined in the book 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World and the related travelling exhibit. There are several major areas of specific scientific references to pursue in the film including cartography, mathematics, navigation, astronomy and physical geography.

Cartography and Mathematical Calculations

The most comprehensive world atlas of the time was compiled over 15 years by the highly celebrated cartographer and scholar Muhammad al-Idrisi. The map which was completed in 1154 is recognized as being the greatest single work of physical geography in the medieval era. Among other advancements, it showed that the Earth was round. Islamic scientists had known for centuries that the Earth was round, but many Europeans still clung to the belief that it was flat. The map was used for centuries because of its accurate mathematical plotting and calculations.
Muhammad al-Idrisi (1099-1166ce)

Islamic scientists were great mapmakers because they used the most accurate astronomy and advanced mathematics. As a result, map plotting and cartography became a respected branch of science. Centuries later, Christopher Columbus would study the maps of Al-Idrisi and other Islamic cartographers.

The film’s opening narration by Ben Kingsley is over the Al-Idrisi map. As well, Ibn Battuta buys one of Al-Idrisi’s maps in the market (souk) scene. He opens the map and traces his planned journey on it. The map is displayed two more times in the film to track Ibn Battuta’s progress on his journey.

Al-Idrisi map of the known world, completed 1154 C.E.

Astronomical Instruments

“I have the tools to navigate and find my own way.”
Ibn Battuta, 1325 (while using an Astrolabe in the film)

Since the dawn of Islam in the 7th Century, Muslims have been called upon to pray five times a day in the specific direction of Mecca. These prayer times are astronomically determined, changing from day to day, and therefore it has always been critical for Muslims to know exactly where they are and what time it is. Islamic scientists pioneered large observational instruments designed and constructed to study the heavens. These large-sized instruments reduced the percentage of error in their calculations. Muslims went on to be some of the greatest astronomers of their time. The first observatories opened around 850 C.E. in Baghdad and Damascus.

Islamic astronomers developed the 3D armillary spheres to position accurately the sun, stars and moon in relation to the Earth and other planets. During his travels, Ibn Battuta became a master of astronomy and was an active stargazer as noted in his 1,000 page travel journal, the Rihla.

With the leadership of Caliph al-Ma’mun (786-833 C.E.), who emphasized the need for large fixed instruments and further research, astronomy became viewed as a legitimate science. He also helped establish the House of Wisdom, one of the greatest intellectual academies. Islamic scientists were also skillful tool and instrument makers. Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi studied design of constellation images for celestial globe makers and was one of the designers of astrolabes.


In the 9th century, Muslims invented and developed an extraordinarily accurate device called the Astrolabe to help them make these complex calculations.

Astrolabes were the precursors of digital computers. They were 2-D models of the heavens, showing how the sky looked at a specific place at a given time. They could take altitude measurements of the Sun, could tell the time during the day or night, or find the time of celestial events such as sunrise and sunset. Astrolabes were the cutting edge of technology, developed and used prolifically by Muslim astronomers before making their way into Europe where modern astronomy was born.

“The Astrolabe is the most important astronomical calculating device before the invention of digital computers, and the most important astronomical observational device before the invention of the telescope.”
Dr. Harold Williams, American Astrophysicist.

The earliest produced astrolabe was in the 9th century. The most popular astrolabe was the planipheric astrolabe, where the celestial sphere was projected onto the plane of the equator.

Samples of Science-Related Quotes in the Film

“Astronomers have observed the circling of the planets in the night sky. We mirror the movement of the heavens, circling the Ka’bah seven times.”
Ibn Battuta, 1326

“I turn to the evening sky and rejoice at the sight of the new moon. We must now reach Mecca in eight days, when the Hajj will begin.”
Ibn Battuta, 1326

The Science Behind the Hajj

As noted in the film, in 1974 the International Astronomical Union named a crater on the moon in honour of Ibn Battuta.
The Hajj is an annual 5 day religious event that is over 1400 years old. It happens once a year, but at a different date each year based on the lunar calendar used by Muslims. According to this calendar, each month begins with the sighting of the crescent, or “new” moon. That is why when Ibn Battuta sees the crescent moon, he knows the caravan must reach Mecca in eight days when the Hajj will begin.

There are several related travelling exhibits including: 1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage in our World, Islamic Science Rediscovered (a.k.a. Sultans of Science) and Treasures of the World’s Cultures from the British Museum.