“To travel is to live.”– Hans Christian Andersen
It was around this time last year that I traveled to Tanzania, on my first trip to the African continent. After seeing the stars shine on the other side of the world, I have never been the same since. It was a journey that began far before I packed my suitcases or boarded the flight and one that is never really over, because of the memories and intrinsic changes that remain within me long after my physical return.
Throughout history, people have traveled for a whole host of reasons. In my case it was to implement humanitarian aid projects. The truth is that any journey, however far away, however long it lasts, possesses the potential to enlighten and enrich the soul, therefore serving as a means to discover and attain nearness to He who created and sustains this world.
From the very first step onto the flaming red African soil, I found wonder and beauty in every person’s face, in every mud hut that was a symbol of the natural simplicity and struggle of the families, in every word spoken in the native tongue—not to mention the surreal, mesmerising natural beauty with which the continent has been blessed. The overwhelming culture shock was tempered by the recognition that human life is the same everywhere and kindness exists in a smile regardless of what country you are in. I opened my eyes and heart and learned more about the world than newspapers could ever tell. I traveled to bring what little I could to a part of the globe whose riches are dispersed differently and made many realizations in the process, which I wish to share with you.
“And it is enough to realize Allah’s beauty when we know that every internal and external beauty in this life and the next are created by Him, so what of the beauty of the Creator?” – Ibn Qayyim
The aim of every step we take should be to please and worship our Lord, and a necessary component of this is to fully appreciate the beauty around us in all its magnitude and depth. On my journey, I realized that the meaning of being a traveler is far deeper than I had first thought. It is to see, hear and feel beauty in the mundane; it is to marvel at the artistry of Allah (subhanahu wa ta`ala – exalted is He) everywhere you turn; it is to relate the physical world around you to its source, God The Sublime. With the right mindset, travel becomes a spiritual process that fundamentally transforms your existence, and it is essential for every Muslim to experience. In this way, I understood that the purpose of travel was not just to go, but to be, and thus my travels resulted in the stimulation of my mind and soul.
The value of travel is not proportional to the number of stamps on your passport. You may gain more from experiencing a single country thoroughly and in all its complexity than from superficial and hurried trips to fifty countries. The traveler mentality of appreciation and reflection can be applied to a trip to the supermarket just as much as a trip across the world. It can transform how you view your neighbors, the attention you pay to the birds you hear in the morning, or how you treat the cashiers in the supermarket, but the focus of this article will be on travel to foreign places.
The concept of travel as a means for spiritual growth, contemplation and learning as well as a means for societal progress has been important throughout Islamic tradition and history. It is clear from the accounts of Muslim geographers who mapped the globe; students who ventured far and wide to study with scholars; astronomers, linguists, scientists and emissaries that embarked on voyages around the world, as well as from the sunnah (tradition) of the Prophet ﷺ and the following Qur’anic ayah (verse):
“Say, [O Muhammad], ‘Travel through the land and observe how He began creation. Then Allah will produce the final creation…” (29:20)
Actions are judged by intentions, so the first step toward getting the most out of your trip is to make the sincere intention to travel for the sake of Allah (swt), for every step you take along the way to be a step closer to Him. You can start by reciting the du`a’ (supplication):
Allahumma aftahli abwaaba rahmatika - O Allah, open the doors of your mercy to me.
As with everything in Islam, travel has a higher purpose. This purification of intention will insha’Allah (God willing) facilitate the productivity and maximize the gain from the trip, both in this life and the next, so taking some time out to order your thoughts and prayers is essential.
While traveling, praise Allah (swt). Be grateful for the opportunities He has afforded you, seek Him everywhere you look, call out to Him and He will respond. During a moment of nighttime stillness, stand in awe of He who placed the stars there for you to see. When meeting people on your travels, remember that they are in their own right blessed works of His creation and that you can learn something from every single one of those souls He has put in your path.
Open your mind. We are an ummah (community) rife with racism and cultural prejudices and superiority complexes. Adopt the fundamental Muslim attitude that no human is better than another except according to his piety, captured in the verse:
“O mankind, indeed we have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another…” (49:13)
Cultural traditions and differences—such as in food, music, and clothes—are part of the beauty of diversity that Allah (swt) has blessed us with. They should be celebrated (within the bounds of Islam) and most importantly, respected. As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” With the right approach, visiting other countries and experiencing other cultures can break down barriers, build mutual understanding and connect people—all of which are critically important for Muslim communities today. Be prepared to re-examine and revaluate your perceptions to ensure that you do not filter out anything that does not fit your pre-existing ideas. Try not to see things as YOU are, but instead, as THEY are.
Research is also key to getting the most out of your trip. Read books about the region and the people you are visiting. Make an effort to learn the language. Find out about the history, geography and local customs. This will give you context and ultimately enable you to fully live the experience. Immerse yourself in the place where you are traveling and aim to have the most authentic experience possible. Often, sticking to only the tourist attractions of a country can prevent you from seeing the real deal. Whether getting lost in the terracotta-colored alleyways of downtown Rome or eating a home-cooked meal on an African beach, aim to see the country the way the locals do, rather than skimming the surface as a foreigner.
As with all aspects of life as a Muslim, there are etiquettes for travel. Due thought and consideration must be put into safety, following the rules of the land, always upholding good morals and being as ethical as possible. Also, as morbid as it sounds, we are encouraged to prepare a last will before embarking on travel.
Being away from your usual environment can be emotionally, physically and spiritually rejuvenating. Seize this opportunity to challenge yourself. This could mean breaking a bad habit, conquering a tendency to remain within your comfort zone or reflecting on how you can develop as a person. While much transformation will occur without you even realizing, take that extra step to actively better yourself.
It can also be very refreshing to unplug from technology like phones and laptops. Enjoy your time away from the stress that arises from nonstop communication and allow your soul to regain peace, balance and focus.
As you travel, keep track of your achievements and reflections in a diary. Some prefer video diaries or blogging others a conventional pen and paper. Whatever method you choose, be sure to record your journey to look back on in years to come, share with loved ones back home, and utilize as a tool for ongoing personal development.
A picture speaks a thousand words. Photographs can trigger feelings and nostalgia like nothing else, and freeze-framing moments along the way is now second nature to many of us. Whether your pictures get uploaded to Facebook or Instagram, developed and exhibited in a gallery, shown to family and friends or scrapbooked, a good camera is definitely a worthwhile investment.
Prepare beforehand. Attend to technical necessities like identifying masjids (mosques), obtaining necessary vaccinations and planning how to navigate your route. Your research should tell you what to pack, such as mosquito repellent or warm clothes. Have an idea of what you are doing and when in order to make the most of your time, but be open to spontaneity! Embrace whatever happens with good will and view it as an adventure.
And last but definitely not least, the most important provision, Allah (swt) tells us in the Qur’an, is taqwa (God-consciousness). Be conscious of Him in all your dealings and affairs.
Every one of the hundreds of countries across this world has its own personality and is home to millions of unique souls. Even the sunset is not quite the same in any two cities. Each place has its own world to offer you, if you are willing to explore it.
But being a traveler does not mean you have to voyage for thousands of miles. You have the ability to think, feel and live as a traveler starting right now if you want. You must simply seek everyday to be inspired, healed and challenged by what’s already around you. Engage meaningfully with the world and allow it to awaken your soul, open your mind and fill your heart. Embrace whatever He gives you in the daily journey that is life, all the while drawing closer to your Lord.
“The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” —Marcel Proust