How to travel like Ibn Battuta?

Ibn Battuta is one of my heroes. He is what Americans would call ‘badass’ . He sits well on top of the list of people I have admired and loved – for their generosity of spirit, sense of adventure or sheer bravery. What started as the journey of a 20 yr old man to go to Hajj or the annual pilgrimage, became a 29 year adventure, in which he travelled over 75,000 miles and an equivalent of over 44 countries. One of the significant achievements that Ibn Battuta has to his credit is the fact that he traveled the known world then – or most of it, anyway – almost twice over. And mind you, this was either on foot, by ship or on a horse/ Camel back. An interesting talk by Prof. Paul Cobb on Ibn Battuta’s travels is here.

When she felt like teasing me, my (late) mother called me the future Ibn Battuta, the peripatetic traveler who traversed the world, in 14th century. She based her prediction on the fact that I had a mole on my foot (a family superstition) and also because I loved to learn about new places. Whether or not I will be a world-traveler and a scholar is something I would rather not speculate about, but I have certainly seen more of the world than many of my family members and friends. The spirit of travel that my mother alluded to, the thrill of discovering new places, of hearing different languages, trying different foods, listening to the sounds of music of different lands and experiencing different ways of organizing life has stayed with me and continues to inspire me – on a daily basis.  So, how does one travel like Ibn Battuta?

Traveling like Ibn Battuta means being curious. It means to learn constantly as one travels. It also means that one observes, takes notes and asks questions. It implies an open mindedness – to the customs, traditions, values and norms of the people that one visits – even if they are drastically different from that of ours. Traveling like Ibn Battuta means being flexible, being considerate and being friendly. An authentic Hadith of the prophet says “If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, God will cause him to travel on one of the roads of Paradise.” Islam also views human life as a journey, and the Prophet Muhammad it said to have told his followers to view life as such – and not to get too attached to anyone or anything – in the true spirit of being a traveler. One may travel the world, yet remain ignorant. It is possible to be impervious to the world outside, if one is close-minded and generally indifferent to the world outside. What is needed, it seems, is a curiosity, borne out of the need to genuinely learn from the ‘other,’ without any prejudgment and biases.

With modern transport, travel may have lost some of its old-world charm, but it does form character and expands one’s mind.  As Bruce Chatwin, the British travel writer said, ”As you go along, you literally collect places.” My sense is that all great travelers including Ibn Battuta ‘collected places,’ and this informed their rich characters.

While the days of pre-passport travel have long gone past, what remains are the fragments of those days: memories and dreams of traveling unrestricted. Before I get ahead of myself and paint a romantic, idyllic picture of the 14th century, let’s step back and recall that there was no mass-rapid transit back in the day. No trains, Airplanes or Amtrack. One’s best bet was a Ship, Camel or a Horse and yes, let’s remember that there were bandits and Highway men. But despite all this, travel represented something that it doesn’t today: A sense of expansion, deliverance from limitation and a sense of belonging to the world outside of our own.

Travel is not an equal playing field. As someone with a ‘third-world’ passport, I have been made aware, more than once, that my mobility is not guaranteed. I have always, more than anything, wanted to be mobile – to pick my backpack and move. As a light-traveler, I usually like to just pack a small suitcase and carry my backpack. With this, I have traveled quite a bit. My adventures have involved arguing with visa officers in the American, Austrian and Dutch embassies involving health insurance, the amount of money I had in my bank account to why I want to visit their country. In each case, I won my case. But the fact that I, as a young brown male, from a former colony should have to justify why I have to travel, is something I (still) don’t quite understand. While impressionable teens from the U.K. or the U.S., can pack their bags, buy a ticket and just show up to (almost

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Image source :

) any country in Asia or Africa, and write what they want, create a discourse about these places – the gender relations, the food, the way they are treated – and a million things; I sense that something is not right in our world. A 16 year old me could never do such a thing. Power relations between countries, visa treaties become all too real when one travels under those terms. Despite this, I have been lucky and have seen quite a bit of the world we live in.

All of this brings me back to my starting point: Ibn Battuta is dead. So is the mode of transport and the spirit of travel that he embodied. But to revive his sense of curiosity, scholarship and genuine compassion for others, it is necessary to start with an openness, humility and curiosity.

Is the global chai shop out of currency?

I wrote this three days ago, at Jeddah Airport, waiting for the connecting flight to Chennai. Half awake and half asleep, I am conscious of the hundreds of people around me – possibly thousands, who are anxiously waiting to leave the Airport and reach their destination. I see a fleet of Saudi Arabian Aircraft waiting to be air bound outside, with just one thought – I want some coffee to wake me up. But the 27 Moroccan Dirhams in my pocket cannot save me from myself, in this particular situation.

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Photo credit :

                I went up to the local Traveler’s Corner restaurant in the waiting lounge and the South Asian man at the counter announces that Moroccan Dirhams are not acceptable currency, which means I have to go to the ATM located outside of the Duty Free Shop, that is about 500 yards away. Not sure of the ATM there and the effects of using my card on it – I resist. In the past few days, I have read far too many articles about card fraud and internet theft to actually walk into some random ATM and try transacting anything. I just want to have coffee, with my cash or the credit cards in my pocket – I have two of them. “No sir! Cash only,” announces the man. “But I have cash, here you go” I say, handing him the Dirhams”.

“Moroccan money, not acceptable sir”, he declares and I curse under my breath. A halal curse. I am in the holy land, after all. I consider using the ATM, but don’t want to risk losing my card or three dollars as service fee for getting four dollars out of the damn machine, I stop myself. This seems to be such a wasted effort. And I am not any wiser, post the struggle to inject some coffee into my sleep-deprived system. God! Grant me some coffee. This is the prayer escaping my lips right now.

                On another note, I think Tom Friedman and others like him, who extol the ‘flat world’ are so wrong. I wonder if they have tried having coffee or chai at this chai shop in Jeddah. Why, if this ‘flat, inter-connected world’ is a reality, am I struggling to use cash that I have , or cards that are sitting in my pocket – to buy something as simple as a coffee? Why are Moroccan Dirhams not acceptable currency – a Muslim currency in a Muslim world, when Dollars are welcome, while Dirhams are not. Is it the dollar’s hegemony, yet again? My brain is too tired to think about all of this. But I cannot resist. Reading all that macro-economic theories in class – years ago has had some side-effects. Those lectures from my former IMF economist professor come flashing back, in such moments.

May be their theories emerge from drinking too much coffee at JFK or Dulles Airports. Or the well connected and integrated Dubai or Qatar International airports. For some dose of ‘reality’ I think Friedman and his gang need to head over to Jeddah. More when I am awake. Right now, I am sedated with the smells of Oudh wafting through the air, the sounds of Qur’an recitation and blaring screens, announcing destinations around the world – all in Green, the Saudi national color. I am feeling slightly overwhelmed. A little bit of coffee would help, but I will have to wait. The global chai shop is out of currency, it seems.


Book Review: Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an by Denise A. Spellberg


If the only thing you learn from this book is that the founding fathers had the wisdom to use Islam as a test case, to set the limits of tolerance in America, then that’d be sufficient. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an is a well-researched book, that locates the debates during the time (and before) Jefferson about Islam and its role in America and she draws out the implications of the same for our times. It shows Jefferson as a practical man, who had the vision and foresight to argue for the religious rights of (then) non-existent Muslims (free men). In this, she portrays Jefferson as a liberal hero and a visionary. In time such as these when Islam has come to denote everything that is negative, illiberal and not desirable, she shows, rather well that despite the reservations that Jefferson had about some of the practices of the religion, he thought it to be integral part of America. And this is an important reminder for all of us.

For those familiar with the Islamophobia prevalent in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and America, there is not much new material in this book. But she does do a good job of offering the context in which these debates occurred. Right from Dante’s inferno, which doomed the Prophet Muhammad to the bottom of Hell, to Voltaire’s play Mahomet, that fictionalized much of his life; there is a lot of material that Spellberg points to, that was used by those opposed to Islam in general and full integration of Muslim ideas in Europe in particular. This book also reminded me of Carl Ernest’s Following Muhammad, a brilliant book that charts the history of how Islam was perceived in the past and the contemporary understandings of the religion in Western societies. Similar to the treatment in Ernest’s book, Spellberg offers the challenges that Islam faces today, as it did in the earlier stages of its founding and propagation.

She points out that much of the prejudice against Islam came from Continental Europe and it was adopted by those who had not read or researched Islam much. Islam was positioned as the anti-Christ faith and was defined in direct opposition to Christianity. “Islam was thus for Christians of all denominations a weapon with which to vilify fellow believers, and it would prove effective, eventually to be appropriated for additional political and personal attacks on both sides of the Atlantic” (pg.17). While it was not all bad, and there were champions of pluralism and tolerance, they were few and far in between. She names Royall Tyler as another person who wrote a positive account of Muslim experience, allowing the subjects to speak forcefully for themselves and explain their beliefs. The Algerian Captive is an example of such work (pg.27).

In an effort to locate the debates surrounding American Muslim civil rights with our times, she points out that Jefferson was called among other things “a Mohammedan, an atheist,” pejoratively, because of his support of religious freedoms for all. This was a slur used against him, in his campaign of 1800. It is surprising that not much has changed since then and our current President, who has been called the same thing by birthers and those who deny that President Obama is an American born citizen. Further, one must remember that the debates about Islam and Muslims occurred in the context of the religious liberties that were to be given to minorities, among them Jews, Catholics and Muslims. Spellberg points out that while Catholics and Jews were real and were seen in somewhat of a negative light, Muslims were an unknown quantity. Questions of race became prominent in the context of citizenship as Jefferson and others thought of Muslims in terms of Turks and Arabs and not the Muslim slaves who were already present in the country (Pg. 168).

She also reminds readers that the suspicion that Muslims faced, because of their ‘foreign’ origins was not just limited to them. Catholics, Jews and other Protestants also faced discrimination and hatred. James Madison, like Leland, argued that “religious liberty is a right and not a favor.” It was not something the government could infringe or limit to select believers. (Pg. 241). She points out that Leland vocally championed the rights of Muslims and Catholics and Jews at a time when such inclusiveness was unusual and unpopular. And unlike Jefferson and Madison, the two famed Virginian political leaders whom he supported, Leland had himself had suffered persecution because of his faith. This persecution opened their eyes to the majoritarianism that could force the minorities into a position of weakness and suffering and this is exactly what they wanted to avoid.

As she makes her case, rather forcefully that American Muslims should be considered full and active citizens of this country and not as ‘outsiders.’ “Now, as in the 18th century, American Muslims symbolize the universality of religious inclusion and equality promised in the nation’s founding by Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Leland and others, an ideal still in the course of being fully realized more than two centuries later. Any attack upon the rights of Muslim citizens should be recognized for what it remains: an assault upon the universal,” she adds. And going by the reasoning of her arguments, the fact that full legal participation and acceptance has occurred for both Jews and Catholics is a sure sign that Muslims can expect this too. Although challenges to this are evident, given the efforts by certain groups to challenge the legitimacy of this notion of plurality, the fact that it is ingrained in the American constitution is a guarantee of its success, she seems to be saying.

For those wanting to hear an interview with the author, check out this link on NPR.




[i] Full Citation: Spellberg. Denise A. Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. Alfred A. Knopf. NY. 2013