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

Image source : http://ibnbattuta.berkeley.edu/index.html
Image source : http://ibnbattuta.berkeley.edu/index.html

) 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.

Photo credit : Msn.com
Photo credit : Msn.com

                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.

 

Ibn Battuta, Malcolm X and the tradition of student travelers in Islam

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?

battutamap

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.

Malcolm in mecca

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.

Travelers’ tips from Ibn Battuta – A fourteenth century itinerant traveler

If someone has traveled over 70,000 miles in the 14th century, by land and sea; one can safely assume that this person knows a thing or two about travel and life, in general. Added to this, if one happens to be a religious scholar, who has access to Sultans and Princes around the world, then this person’s stories are definitely worth your attention, even if they are (partly) made up. Dr. Paul Cobb, Professor of Islamic History at University of Pennsylvania shared these insights in a thoughtful and humorous public talk at the Upenn Museum on Dec 4, about Ibn Battuta, the great 14th century Moroccan traveler.

Photo courtesy  : rolfgross.dreamhosters.com
Photo courtesy : rolfgross.dreamhosters.com

Ibn Battuta2    Dr. Cobb pointed out that while we take our travels with great seriousness, including making sure that we have our passports, visas and other travel documents in order, Ibn Battuta did not have to deal with these annoyances. Given that borders were porous and the Ottoman and Mughal empires, who were his hosts, ruled much of the civilized world then; he certainly didn’t need a passport. But there were far greater threats in his way – thunderstorms, pirates, disease, scorching heat of the sun and petty thieves. Dr. Cobb narrated a story that seems fascinating, intriguing and full of adventures and the “400 pages that Ibn Battuta devotes to India are just under 40% of the entire book,” he pointed out. The Travels of Ibn Battuta is a classic in travel writing and has survived centuries, partly because of the credibility of the scholar and also renewed interest in his work, after the French colonization of Algiers.

 

Beginnings of an adventure

Ibn Battuta was a 14th century scholar of Islam and originally from Tangiers in Morocco. His travels began at an early age- 22 years according to his own book and continued for 30 years. “He did not mean it to be a treacherously long journey and he admits that the motivation for his journey was the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina that every believing Muslim is supposed to fulfil.” Dr. Cobb pointed out that on route to the pilgrimage, Ibn Battuta had a dream – of flying on a bird that took him to the Holy cities and then dropped him off in the Far East. His host, a religious scholar interpreted the dream meaning that he would travel to the Far East and that many adventures ahead of him. After the pilgrimage, Ibn Battuta went to Iraq and Persia (modern day Iran) before taking the long land-route to Constantinople, with the intention of reaching India, which was ruled by Mughals.

In Egypt, he met several Sufis or mystics and one of them predicted that he would travel the world and meet other Sufis in India and other parts of the world. “I was amazed at his prediction, and the idea of going to these countries having been cast into my mind, my wanderings never ceased until I had met these three that he named and conveyed his greeting to them.” [Gibb, p. 24].

“One is not sure why he took the longer land route to India, when one considers that this was a time of bandits, pirates and no Air travel. Travel was long, hard, treacherous and life-threatening.” Dr. Cobb pointed out. He stopped by Konya in Turkey and then proceeded to Egypt and finally India, where he lived for 12 years, in Delhi, serving as a Qadi, or jurist. The fact that he was a learned man gave him access, prestige and gifts from patrons; who considered it an honor to support someone like him.

 

 

Islamic empire and networks of learning

The fact that Ottoman Empire and the Mughal Empire together owned much of the civilized world in Asia, Middle East and parts of Europe made Ibn Battuta’s travels much easier. His religious learning in Islam was a huge asset and he made a living as a judge, wherever he went. This was further augmented by the gifts he received on way from noble men and kings. Due to his stature as a scholar, people showed him respect and deferred to him, offering him gifts, hospitality and company.

As scholars have pointed out, travel and learning instilled a cosmopolitan ethic in the Islamic civilization and this was exemplified in the example of Ibn Battuta. The Sufi orders, networks of other Ulema and Mosques and Madrassas spread around the world gave him access to people, hospitality, wealth and patronage – all ingredients necessary for a successful journey. The networks of learning were strong in those days, and one’s learning guaranteed sustenance, if not great worldly success.

 

Travel Tips from Ibn Battuta’s life

On a lighter note, Dr. Cobb presented five travel tips, based on Ibn Battuta’s life and adventures. Abbreviated for greater impact, he described five habits of mind and heart that helped Ibn Battuta along the way:

  1. Keep an open mind – Though he was not very open minded in the traditional sense, having become the exemplar of what a ‘proper’ Muslim man should be, however Ibn Battura’s example should serve to remind us that one should keep an open mind, when confronted with ideas, customs and notions that we may not agree with; pointed out Dr. Cobb
  2. Go to School – The fact that Ibn Battuta was a religious scholar made his entire journey possible should not be discounted. His learning provided him with prestige, means of livelihood, and networks of other scholars and also the appreciation of what the world is about. Without this knowledge, one can safely assume that there would be no Ibn Battuta
  3. Bring snacks – Bring gifts and other articles that may be appreciated. Never a bad idea.
  4. Plan on changing your plans – Always have a plan B. Given how many times Ibn Battuta had to change his travel plans, due to bad weather, ill-health or other factors, it is advisable to be ready to change one’s plans, at short notice, if need be.
  5. Make friends – Though Ibn Battuta did not make mention of too many friends in his travelogue, he does point to a few significant ones, including scholars, fellow travelers and members of his entourage, which grew in size as his reputation grew, over a period of time. This is also a key lesson that one can glean from his life and travels.

 

For more, here is a UC Berkeley project on Ibn Battuta’s travels: http://ibnbattuta.berkeley.edu/1mahgrib.html

 

 

 

Are the Saudis getting something right?

Are the Saudis getting something right, in terms of their foreign policy, both in the MENA region and around the world? Or is it all a big mess, much like American foreign policy in the region? In a recent article in the TIME magazine, Farid Zakaria[i] pointed out that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is a disaster and that it is pouring money down the drain, while alienating itself from the global order. The kingdom’s  rejection of the Security Council seat is the most egregious example of this phenomenon. There is however, one area where the Saudi government is acting in good faith and putting its money for a cause that may actually drastically change the intellectual and foreign policy landscape of the country in the decades, if not years to come – higher education. The billions of dollars that King Abdullah has allocated to higher education may hold the prospects for a more liberal, open and vibrant in the years to come.

Pic courtesy: www.dailymail.co.uk
Pic courtesy: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

Just taking a cursory look at the number of Saudi students in American schools tells us that something profound is taking place. Post 911, the number of Saudi students in the U.S. plummeted, for reasons related directly to the tense relations that characterized the countries and people, immediately following the incident. As this Wall Street Journal article[ii] points out, in 2004, there were just 1000 Saudi students in the U.S. In 2011, there was a huge jump to over 66,000 students. This also corresponded with the increased interest and lobbying at the highest level from the Saudis to help their citizens understand the rest of the world and vice versa. On a macro-level, the overall literacy rate was 5% in 1950s and has climbed upto over 79%, since then. This is part of the strategic plan put forth by King Abdullah, who is concerned with the potentially declining oil revenues and also an increasingly networked world, where Saudis have to find their place – once the oil runs out.

I believe that this is visionary thinking and rightly puts money where the mouth is. With a greater number of students coming to the U.S., learning, interacting and sharing their experiences and lives with others, they will create a better understanding between the two countries. Once they return- and many scholarships are tied in such a way that they eventually return to Saudi Arabia- they will bring back this understanding and nuance in dealing with the rest of the world with them. I believe that this new generation of people will be the defining factor in how Saudi of tomorrow will shape up – either as a continuation of the current order, or a radical shift to a new and more open system, one that is open to many more ideas and versions of Islam and ways of life, than it is currently.

There are indicators that this is already occurring. The women contingent’s participation in Olympics in 2012 and this year’s activism to end the ban on women driving cars are both instances of reform and change that are taking place in the kingdom. Things are changing, albeit slowly. Citizens movements, and work from activists who are asking for greater integration into the global human rights discourse and activism are changing the landscape of legal reform. Saudi based humanitarian aid organizations are cooperating and working alongside international aid agencies and both the entities are learning to appreciate the different worldviews that they approach their work.

As Zakaria points out, and quite rightly, the kingdom’s vast oil wealth has been used to underwrite the promotion of Wahhabism, a rather orthodox and fundamentalist version of Islam that is not entirely acceptable to most countries in the Muslim world. While this brand of Islam has been promoted as the “mainstream” Islam by the ruling elites in Saudi, one must be aware that the diversity within the house of Islam is as much as the diversity of human races and religions – as Islam is literally present everywhere in the world. So, in short, the Saudi version of Islam does not have a monopoly of representing Islam – the presence of the holiest sites of Islam notwithstanding. Other strands of Sunni Islam are equally valid, so are Shia Islam as well as the various permutations and combinations of syncretic Islam that has emerged in India, Indonesia and the U.S., sometimes radically challenging our conceptions of what it means to be a Muslim.

All of these hold prospects for change, but most importantly it is the 66,000 plus students in the U.S. who will define the future of Saudi. And by the look of it, and having interacted with a few dozen of them, I am optimistic that there will be a more tolerant and open Saudi Arabia in the years to come. The Saudis are getting something right – and that is investing in the future of their youth. And I hope that they don’t give up on this, anytime soon.