Rihla, or traveling to seek knowledge is an Islamic tradition, whose roots extend as far as the Prophet Muhammad himself, who prioritized learning and knowledge. His famous Hadith “Learning is from the cradle to grave” has inspired billions of people to travel, seek knowledge, over the last 1400 years of Islamic history. This tradition of learning and traveling for knowledge is epitomized by two scholars and student travelers, whose lives I will discuss here, in brief: Ibn Battuta and Malcolm X. In this article, I seek to answer the question: Are we losing this tradition of student-travelers, in an age when travel is so easy and relatively cheap. What lessons can we learn from the personal histories of student-travelers such as Ibn Battuta and Malcolm X?
I heard a lecture about Ibn Battuta’s travels (starting in 1325 C.E), a few weeks ago at the Upenn Museum and the blog post about that lecture is here. The gist that is relevant to us here is that travel in the era of Islamic Empire was easy. No passports, no visas or even travel documents. There were hostels for travels along the path where weary travelers could stop by to rest. This however came at an enormous cost: travel was harsh, dangerous and very slow. Ibn Battuta traveled for months on the road and his sea voyages lasted a longer time. From the time of the Islamic conquests from 7th century uptil about 15th or even 17th century; one could travel anywhere between Africa to China and beyond with relative ease, provided one had the means and the right connections, with the Islamic Empire providing one vast area of interconnected routes through which traders, travelers, pilgrims and scholars could pass through. And knowledge networks were formed this way, point out many scholars, who have studied this phenomenon of how travel influenced the flow of knowledge. His travels were dangerous, adventurous and at times fun. Ibn Battuta’s knowledge and scholarly standing helped him enormously, as it helped him earn a living as he traveled – he was a qazi or a judge, trained in Islamic jurisprudence, a valuable skill to have in those days.
As the Oxford Islamic Learning portal points out: “Religious travel in Islam reflects an extraordinary degree of intercontinental cooperation among constantly intersecting groups that perform overlapping functions. The general pattern resembles a web of interlacing and autonomous networks instead of a rigid hierarchy, spontaneous collaboration rather than central direction, and fluid process over fixed structure. This vast web encompasses Muslims in every part of the world, helping to create a universal Islamic identity that transcends nationality, race, gender, and class. The Hajj has always been the most powerful expression of Islamic unity and egalitarianism, and today its unprecedented size and diversity make it more important than ever.” In contemporary times, with the growth of technology, while the tradition of traveling on such a scale to learn may have been reduced, or rather the purposes of travel changed; pilgrimage to perform the Hajj does remain significant.
While travel for Ibn Battuta began as a spiritual quest, he in fact wanted to go to the annual pilgrimage i.e., the Hajj, but eventually ended up traveling for over 23 years of his life; for Malcom X, it came towards a much later stage of life, also inspired by the desire to go to Hajj. While for Ibn Battuta, it expanded his knowledge networks, increased his understanding of the world, for Malcolm X, travel transformed him. It made him question the narrow mindedness with which he had approached other human beings, up until then, having been taught a racist ideology by his mentor Elijah Muhammad. It was his Letter from Mecca that really shows his transformation. Malcom X’s letter reads:
“Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.” Malcom X goes on to point that America needs to understand Islam because “This is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white’–but the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.”
He was reacting to the profoundly warm welcome he received as a state guest in Saudi Arabia and many other countries that he visited during this trip. This sojourn was not only professionally rewarding, in that he met many heads of state and formed very strong networks that would serve him for the next few years of his life; but also personally transformative – in that he realized that his racism towards whites was misplaced. This trip, more than anything else, changed his mind from being a racist to one who realized that he was in the wrong and that white man indeed, can be benevolent and kind towards others. Not all white men were devils, as he had previously imagined.
This theme of traveling and spiritual transformation is also explored by Zareena Grewal. In her book Islam is a Foreign Country (2014), Grewal, professor at Yale University contextualizes the contemporary travels of American Muslim youth, who travel around the world, to seek ‘authentic’ Islamic knowledge. Malcolm X, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf are examples of this phenomenon. Both are considered iconic ‘student-travelers’ who went to the Arab world and Africa in search of spiritual and religious insights and learning, she points out.
Grewal further traces how the moral geography for Americans has moved over the decades – it was different for the Black African Muslims, than it was for those in the 1960s’ onwards, when the Arab and South Asian countries became part of the dominant diasporic imagination. They were seen as racial utopias and the core of Ummah’s moral and political core. This, she adds has significantly shifted since the 1990s’, with the examples of spiritual leaders such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, who, like Malcolm X is an iconic Muslim student-traveler. This rihla, or traveling to seek knowledge is also a result of specific set of historical ruptures. She argues rightfully that the shift in religious leadership that occurred in the U.S. from the 1960s onwards- from the indigenous African Americans towards a more educated, elite South Asian and Arab professional class of people is part of this shifting moral geography.
In contemporary American society, these travels are also inspired by those who are aware of the lack of religiously trained scholars, since most of the mosque leadership is taken up by those who have a ‘secular’ education and are professionally successfully, either as doctors or engineers. In her analysis, Grewal points out that of the hundreds of students who have left the U.S. to study in the Middle East and returned, most are disappointed with the results they produce after they return. The communities expect them to play roles as Imams at mosques at best and also to be ‘role models’ for youth here. While this is an expectation that is normal, she points out that the public discourse of crisis in the U.S. does not allow them to play a constructive role in society, often relegating them to passive positions. They become ‘carriers rather than mediators of the tradition.’ As she points out.
The biggest lesson one can draw from both these travelers’ lives is that travel is transformative by nature. Leaving one’s home, the comfort of the familiar and the known can expose us to dangers, unknown people and situations. Overcoming them can help one gain new knowledge, sharpen one’s instincts and also transform one’s thinking – if one approaches it with an open mind. As countries are clamping down their borders and restrictions on travel are beginning to become much more than they ever were, one could be forgiven for asking whether we are regressing as a people. While the means to travel, technology and access has definitely increased, we have erected other boundaries in the name of national security, borders and imagined threats that stop us from traveling and exploring the world that is yet to be discovered. Perhaps this tradition will help us realize the rich promises that travel for learning holds.