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