TRAVEL THE GUIDE’S WAY
wrote by a friend of mine whom i know in 2004
Our Great Imam, the Quraishi mujtahid, asy-Syafi’i, once wrote in his book:
“Travel! Set out and head for pastures new,
Life tastes the richer when you’ve road-worn feet,
No water that stagnates is fit to drink,
For only that which flows is truly sweet,
No lion that spurned the hunt could catch its prey,
No arrow unreleased could earn a score,
A sun that hung immobile in the sky,
Would soon become a universal bore,
Sandal is mere firewood in its native grove,
Gold is but dust, unmined within the lode,
Things that are stationary have little worth,
They only gain their value on the road.”
The Imam wrote these precious lines, for us to ponder the value of travel, at a times when the word ‘tourism’ is unheard of. It was a time when the Arabic word ‘siyahah’ is understood as a spiritual journey, a movement of a physical body that signifies the migration of the spiritual soul from a lower ground to a higher height.
Tourists and tourism are modern inventions. When the great Imam was still alive among his people, there were only Sufi dervishes who fought the spiritual struggle, and the mujahidin who fought the physical war. There were also only merchants and pilgrimages who strove to get the best deal from both worlds. But, as the age of the earth grows older, the weakness in mankind grows more, and they substitute the good with the bad. In doing so, the age of tourism was born.
I was not fortunate enough to live in the blessed era of the Great Imam, but still count myself lucky, to be able to learn about his life and the life of other luminaries. I learnt from my late Grandfather, who used to teach at the local mosque and himself was very well-travelled, of the Imam’s adventure and misadventure, from the Twin Cities of Lights, to the Felix Arabia to the Cradle of Civilisation, searching for wealth, that is knowledge, and guides, that are scholars.
My Grandfather, bless he, told me stories of great Sufis like Abu Yazid al-Bistami who was born in the Bistam in current day Iran and buried in Baghdad. He told me of the Gauth-al-Azam Abdul Qadir al-Jailani and his confronting with the thieves on his way to Baghdad. And there was the account of Hujjatul Islam al-Ghazali, travelling from Tus (in Iran, near the Afghanistan border) to Baghdad to Damascus and back. And the journey of Ibn Arabi from al-Andalus to ash-Shams, and of Mawlana ar-Rumi with Shams Tibrizi. I was in all being prepared, by Grandfather, to acknowledge that as long as one keeps one’s intention pure, a journey is rewardable with the ever-bountiful Garden.
Of course, I did not understand and appreciate everything he said to me, everything he read out from old, yellowish books or recall from his never-aging memory. At times I was a little bit confused and many times was doubtful that such people exist. I grew up yearning to see such men. I love to hear their stories and would be excited to meet the real people. Well, at least, I vowed, that if God ever let me do the ‘journey’, I will imitate their examples. After all, much of this religion is about imitating others, isn’t it?. The Prophet s.a.w. once said “Pray as you see me pray.” And he also instructed his Companions that they should weep when they read the Qur’an. If they don’t find themselves weeping, then, he s.a.w. said, “just let the tears flow, as if you are really crying.”
But mere imitation is not the simple answer to the question: what is the distingushing feature of those people from by-gone era to modern tourist that, God Wiling, would enable me to achieve their state?
Well, for a start, the journey of these pious people involves a spiritual shift. They did not just travel to look for ‘beauty in nature’, or ‘glorious ruins’, or ‘just for something authentic’, or even worse, ‘just for the fun of it!’. It never cross their mind to journey for the sake of being able to claim to people ‘I have been there!,’ so much like the slogan of a Malaysian student travel group: ‘Been there, done that, and still manage a degree!’ As is always the case then, these spiritual intrepids always have very little needs. They were real backpackers, travelling tight-wad with no intention for speech-clad tourist guides.
It is indeed a sign of the Hujjatul-Islam’s wisdom (by the way, he earns this title not for nothing!) when he commented that some knowledge cannot be written in words or in speech for they require the attainment of certain spiritual station, and only to be learnt through experience. For this type of knowledge, Imam al-Ghazali, a Great Mujtahid of asy-Syafi’i school, wrote “…if you experience it you know, and if not it cannot be described in words and in writing.” This is the case with a journey that is guided by spiritual needs. Changes in a place, (a city, a shrine, a forest) may be subtle, but at least they can be observed. The state of the soul, while may be a matter for conjecture, can undergo a shift, and for people who travel for the spiritual needs, the shift though invisible to senses, is real and experienced with consciousness.
Pilgrimage sites, like the Blesses City of Makkah, may serve as great bazaars for trade and, like the city of Benares that produces silk, may even serve as centre of production, but their primary ‘product’ is barakah. The wandering dervish hopes to seek an initiation on a spiritual path, the pilgrims of Hajj aspire for the sacredness of the site and rites for forgiveness of past sins, saying Labbaikallahumma labbaik! (Oh Allah, here I come!’) as soon as the centre of Faith comes into view. All of these are summed up by the word barakah (i.e. blessing).
The real blessing of this barakah is that no matter how many people comes to take the blessing, it never dries up. This spiritual commodity does not follow the rules of trade where the supply runs low when the demand is so high. In fact, it is indefinite.
The tourist, on the other hand, does not go out for this blessings. All that they wish to see (languages, culture, nature) are all material and worldly in nature. And as such these things have their limits. That is why we hear about people losing their culture, local languages threatened by infiltration of foreign words, traditional cuisine lost in favour to fast, ready-to-made food, trees fall to make road for tourist lodgings etc. In other word, tourist and tourism live on ‘terrorising’ other people and making war with nature. The explosives detonated with every clicks of camera, the tanks comes bus-loaded with the foreign ‘armies’ that want to see the ‘strange’ things they so afraid of that they never want to come out from the comfort of their transport. While real things felt by the pilgrims and the dervishes, nothing ever really touches the tourists.
The Great asy-Syafii, may Allah have mercy on his soul, may also want to tell us that not only the act of travelling and the sites of visits have barakah, the barakah once taken away also remain forever with the visitor even when he is dead. That is to say that the pilgrims, or the dervishes, or the mujahids, themselves can forever be a source of barakah. That is why the Prophet s.a.w. said that the prayer of the one in a journey (musafir) is answered. There is also a saying (athar), which was related by one of my teachers, saying that once Allah s.w.t. send down a blessing on a place, He s.w.t. would not take away that blessing from the place forever, and it is said that the same is applied when Allah has sent down a blessing on a person.
Our responsibility that live in the modern world is not only to resist the damaging virulence of modern tourism but also to educate people that there is an art of travel. The Sufi dervishes were perhaps, and still are, the best practitioners of this art. Before there are passports, border checks, immunisations, and other impediments to free travel, the Sufis to travelled footloose in a world where the borders are more permeable than they are today. Travellers like Ibn Battuta, Ibn Jubayr etc, left behind gems describing their journeys in the Islamic and non-Islamic world. There were always notes on caravanserais, musafir-khanah (many are still in used in Iran), bazaars, and most importantly, act of piety. The Sufis represent true spiritual nomadism not quite representable by religious warriors, merchants or even the pilgrims.
Sayyidina Muhammad s.a.w., while is the best of guides, himself gives the best example of all kind of travel in Islam. At the beginning, he was, like many Sufis, a ‘sojourner’, an orphan, tending goats and sheeps just like the nomads. Then came his youth, where he was part of the Quraishi Winter and Summer Caravans, successfully handling trade for his uncle and future wife Khadijah. Then came his period as Prophet and leader of both the civilised Arabs and desert Bedouin and the ‘Ajam – the foreigners/people from abroad, which also saw him flourishing as triumphant war leader, yet remain a simple and humble pilgrim.
His s.a.w. word, “Seek knowledge, even if you have to go to China”, lifts travel above all mundane utilitarianism and gives it an epistemological dimension. “The jewel that never leaves the mine is never polished,” said the sufi Sa’adi, echoing the poem of asy-Syafii. The fact is the words of the Prophet and the Great Imam al-Mazhab asy-Syafi’i have been echoed repeatedly by other influential giants of this ummah over the centuries. The teacher of Hujjatul Islam al-Ghazali, al-Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwaini, wrote that among the requisite of knowledge are:
Zaka~un, wa hirsun, wa-ftika~run, wa ghurbatun,
Wa talqinu ustazin, wa thowilu zaman.
A quick mind, zeal, poverty, foreign land,
A professor’s inspiration, and of life a long span.
The tradition then made it way into the Western civilisation by way of Bernard d’Chatres (d. 1130), in most probability quoting directly al-Juwaini, writing:
Mens humilis, studium quaerendi, vita quieta,
Scrutinium, paupertas, terra aliena.
A humble mind, zeal for learning, a quiet life,
Silent investigation, poverty, a foreign land.
As I finish typing this short musing out, I can only wish that all these incredible people and Grandfather are still alive. They certainly had understood the meaning and secret of this art and its barakah. I need to be taught more to travel their way!