As a Travel Writer I’ve come to see travel as much more than just the opportunity to get away from the mundane. My Muslim heritage has taught me that travel is actually an education with the potential to transform us at a deep and spiritual level, if we allow it to do so. It’s why travel is actively encouraged in Islam – even our ritual obligations, such as fasting and prayer can be postponed or collapsed to make travel easier.
But before I continue with this post, let’s be clear about the term travel. I am not talking about heading off to a five star resort in Dubai or Sharm el Sheikh where all our expectations and creature comforts are met. That would be a holiday. I’m talking about really travelling, the proper independent stuff that takes you out of your comfort zone, brings you up close and personal with the realities of another culture and society, and makes you reflect in ways you simply cannot lying on a beach sipping a ‘halal’ Mojito safe in the knowledge that security will ensure no pesky locals bother you. Even if the latter is more your look, try reflecting on these eleven aspects of Islamic culture that make clear the power of travel:
1. The Hajj (or Umrah)
Travel is one of the integral aspects of the Islamic pillar of Hajj, when Muslims are required to travel to Makkah, for a transformative experience. If you’ve never been, a glance at the works of Muslim travellers like Ibn Battuta and even Victorian explorer’s like Richard Burton makes clear the power of a journey to the holy city. The Hajj and Umrah (lesser pilgrimage) also involve numerous rituals of motion and travel, such as the tawafs (initial and farewell) around the Ka’ba, the walk between Saf’a and Mar’wah, and the (Hajj only) journeys to Mina, Mount Arafat and Muzdalifah. Each of these demanding the pilgrim meditates and reflects whilst in motion.
2. The Prophet
Travel was openly encouraged by the Prophet Muhammad who, amongst other things, saw it as an essential way to seek knowledge. Preserved narrations such as the oft-cited “seek knowledge even unto China” support this. The Prophet also experienced highly spiritual journeys himself including the mystical ‘night journey’ or Meraj in which he ascends through the Seven Heavens, meets the prophets of before and receives instruction from God about the daily prayers. Later, when life in Makkah became too dangerous the Prophet encouraged emigration for his followers, and emigrated himself to Medina. Even during his formative years, the Prophet spent a great deal of time travelling with his family’s business caravans all over the Middle East. These travels would later have a profound impact on his ability to respect, tolerate and empathise with difference.
3. A travelling tradition
Muslims come from a long line of famous travellers transformed irreversibly by their experiences. This includes the world’s most travelled man, Ibn Battuta who was born in Tangier, Morocco and travelled for 30 years after setting off for the Hajj in 1325, aged only 21. Muslim scholars often covered great distances to acquire knowledge like the Sunni Muhaddith, Muhammad al-Bukhari who collated his volumes of hadith through extensive travels across the Muslim lands. Then there are the prophets who embarked on monumental spiritual journeys that transformed their character and strengthened their inner resolve, like that of Musa (Moses) alongside al-Khidr.
4. The spirituality of Travel
“Be in this world as if you were a stranger or a traveler along a path”, this is a popular hadith about attachment to the material world and it is therefore no surprise that every spiritual tradition in Islam (and most other faiths) incorporates ‘wandering’ or ‘travel’ as part of the soul’s training. The wisdom behind this is to encourage detachment to the dunya (material world), i.e. make it ‘strange’ to the spirit, and thereby develop a greater appreciation of the hereafter. Following his spiritual crisis, the great medieval theologian Abu Hamed Muhammad ibn Muhammad al Ghazali – often called the ‘Proof of Islam’ – embarked on just such a journey.
5. Love of God
Through travel we get to know God better, it’s that simple. I have had some of my most spiritual moments staring out across a mountain range, a desert, lake, or even just humanity going about its daily existence. Travel makes the familiar unfamiliar to us and in doing so we come to better appreciate God’s creation. Throughout the Qur’an verses ask man to reflect on what has been created on earth and in the heavens – what better way to do that then on the road?
6. The birth of humility
Nothing quite extinguishes ignorance like real life experiences. In an increasingly global world saturated by media, we find it easy to sit on one side of the world and judge people on the other. Using video, news articles and pictures it is easy to arrogantly believe we know a people or a place just by how media has represented them. Yet the very meaning of ‘media’ is that it is in the middle of reality and a mere representation of it. It is not the reality. Travelling to places we have judged or thought we knew is the best way to realise this, because it teaches us just how wrong we can be and addresses our ignorance. Travel makes us see that actually we know very little.
7. Know thyself
Talk to anyone who has ‘travelled’, especially solo travellers and you will be blown away by their self-confidence, open-mindedness and how well they seem to know themselves. Travel creates a better you, because it takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to ask questions about who you are, why you are and what you are. Muslims believe there will come a time when one will stand alone in front of their Creator and be cross examined. Travel allows you to cross examine yourself without the expectations of society, culture, religion and family. Those who have done this will tell you that nothing is more liberating than having only your own expectations.
8. Experience something ‘new’
The world is an amazing place full of amazing experiences waiting to be had. To not enjoy some of these whilst you’re here seems such a waste. In an age where travel is becoming increasingly cheap, and information on how to do so safely widely available, few excuses remain to not see the world at least once. Those who don’t will never see a sunrise over an ancient man-made masterpiece like Macchu Picchu; they won’t ever listen to the silence of a natural wonder like the Sahara desert;
nor will they taste the sweetness of a star fruit shaken from its tree by Bangladeshi village children.
9. Appreciate what and who you have
We always take our parents, brothers, sisters and homes for granted but spend a few months on the road and then taste your mother’s home cooking or listen to your father’s boring stories of old. Come back after a month Euro-railing and see if your sister is actually as annoying as you thought or your older brother as overbearing as he seemed. ‘Absence makes the heart fond’ they say. What that really means is you finally appreciate what you have been blessed with.
10. Regain your faith in humanity
One day I am going to write a book about the kindness of strangers on the road for those who, like me were also born into a ‘world’ that seemed difficult to trust. It was travel that regained my faith in humanity.
From the gypsies in the hills of Tuscany who drove my family and I up a mountain to catch the last bus to Omar, the Turkish man who we fell in love with after he spontaneously took us on a road trip through rural Turkey, I have had beautiful encounters with strangers all over the world and come to realise that actually people are amazing. Growing up in 1980s inner city London, that was difficult to imagine. I now know that the vast majority of human beings in the world are caring, wonderful and respectful people.
11. Islamic history
There is so much Islamic history just waiting to be unearthed and by travelling to places significant in Islamic history, whether it be Medina or Cordoba in Spain, we come closer to our roots, our past and our heritage. It is only by knowing where we came from, can we truly know where we are travelling to.