CRUCIBLE: Travel and Retreat

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/15 April) – The University of the Philippines will have a long vacation with the shift of academic calendar (August to December for the First Semester) in consonance with UP’s educational thrust on internationalization. Incidentally, Filipinos will be having a long break too next week. As usual, many will go to provinces with their families and friends while others will travel and visit places. Meanwhile, some religious minded ones would probably do their own retreat during All Souls Day and All Saints Day. People are excited with much needed break. It is a respite from their routine.

Source of vibrancy

Let us take a break, too, from our rather intense discourse about the Bangsamoro these past two Fridays. Let us take a look into a tradition in Islam that has profound impact in the vibrancy of the Muslim world: the imperative to travel and to engage in retreat. Some of us might think that these are not tradition well cherished in our faith. On the contrary, if you look at the expansion of Islam since the 7th century a big factor is due mainly to the phenomenon of journey and travel. In fact, our frequently quoted verse of the Qur’an reads:

“Do they not travel and see what was the end of previous generations before them?” (Yusuf: 109).

Said verse speaks directly on the thrust to travel as a means to understand the ayah (sign) in creation including history, its cycle and relics. Travel provides insight into the fate and conduct of previous nations.

Prophet Muhammad (SAW) is himself a known traveler. Before he was vested with the mantle of prophethood, the Prophet used to travel in many parts of Arabia. It is mentioned more prominently that as a trader the Prophet travelled to Shams or Damascus and other neighboring places of Makkah. Traveling is also practiced by the sahabah (companions), the tabiin (followers) and many great scholars of Islam.

Famous among them came from different places and did great service to Islam like Imam Bukhari, a known Hadith collector from Bukhara, a medieval city now part of Uzbekistan. It is the same with Imam Muslim of Nishapur, then a vibrant city of Khorasan now part of Iran; and the heads of four madhahib (Schools of Thought) are known travellers too. Al-Ghazali, Ibn Arabi, Ibn Khaldun and many other intellectual giants travelled extensively. Many mutakallimun (scholastics) were referred to as peripatetic thinkers and philosophers; they travelled far and wide, straddling from one place of the Muslim world to another.

Arab navigation

Incidentally, our South African visitor last Friday informed us that Robin Island, the place where the late Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, has a known graveyard visited by Mandela during his incarceration as well as by many South Africans and other people from neighboring countries until today. The person buried there is known as Tuan Guru. When I asked why the name is Bahasa or Malayu, our visitor informed us that Tuan Guru actually came from Java. He was a known alim (learned person) during his time. When he died, Tuan Guru was buried in the Robin Island around 18th century.

If we follow the seerah (biography) of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) as written by Ibn Ishaq, a number of Prophet’s closest companions, accordingly, were sent to China. According to Seyyed Qudratullah Fatimi, a Pakistani scholar who followed their life tract, at least, five of them he found out were buried in China. This means the spread of Islam to China antedated the time of Umar ibn al-Khattab, Utman ibn Affan, two Caliphs responsible in the expansion of Islam immediately after Prophet Muhammad (SAW). If indeed they reached China during or few years after the time of the Prophet, then it is most probable that the spread of Islam to other parts of India Sub-continent and Southeast Asia may have proceeded too from China.

It is worthy to note that the tradition of Arabs in navigation including their mastery of monsoon or musim and how they were able to travel through the Silk Road or Trade route facilitated the spread of Islam beyond Arabia, North Africa, Europe towards India Subcontinent, China, and Southeast Asia. Dean Cesar Adib Majul encapsulated the role of Arab navigation and the subsequent spread of Islam particularly in Southeast Asia. He wrote:

“During ancient times, the Arabs of the southeastern part of the Arabia Peninsula were the first navigators of the Indian Ocean. They had discovered the secret of its monsoons. The Romans learned of the ocean routes from the Arabs and used them, to be followed by the Sasanian Persians. But by the 4th century, the Arabs came to monopolize the route once more. From India, they sailed further east to the Malay Peninsula; and China was not far away. Chinese records inform us that as early as 300 AD, long before the advent of Islam, the Arabs (possibly with Persians) had a counting house in Canton (which they later on called “Kanfu”) where they met for business transaction and which also served as a warehouse of their merchandise. Thus it can be said in general that for the 4th century to the 7th century, the sea trade between Egypt, Persia and India on one hand and that of India to Southeast and East Asia on the other hand, were progressively falling under Arab control. It is certain that the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions knew a lot about China and a hadith or Prophetic tradition attests to this. In addition, it is highly probable spite of the contention of some Western orientalists, that some of the Prophet’s Companions had gone to and died in Chinese sea ports (p. 1).”

In other words, Arab navigation and trade facilitated the spread of Islam to many parts of the world, which expedited, in turn, the travel of Muslim voyagers, scholars, and missionaries, and so on. It is worthy to note that the tomb of the person buried in Bud Datu in the island of Jolo dated around the 13th century is inscribed with a hadith (Prophet’s saying): “a person who dies in faraway places dies a martyr.” It shows that many scholars of old took to heart the thrust to travel bringing forth the words of the Qur’an and the Sunnah (tradition) of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) to all corners of the world.

Ziyarah tradition

Early this month, by the way, the Ministry of Tourism in Malaysia launched a project referred to as “Islamic tourism.” It is not held in Kuala Lumpur but here in Manila. In fact, tourism is a major source of income of many countries today. Beautiful places and relics of the past in different places are made available. This is not just true in Western countries. It is a trend, too, in the Muslim world.

Incidentally, the idea of pilgrimage as a form of journey, for instance, while becoming popular in the West is deeply rooted in the haj tradition of the prophets. We are not only talking about the tradition after Prophet Muhammad (SAW). We refer even to an age long haj or pilgrimage tradition of past prophets.

Pilgrimage comes from Latin word peregrine “to walk” or “to visit.” It resonates strongly with the idea of ziyarah, which means to make a visit to important places. In fact, the haj and umrah make the Muslim ummah always on the move where they congregate in a single place every year while they come from different corners of the world. Indeed, the tradition of journey is intrinsic in Islam. On the contrary, we may be able to explore the expanse of the earth – from north to south, from east to west. Yet, what is this travel and exploration for?

Travelling is most popular as we generally call it now as tourism. We take advantage in travelling especially when there is an opportunity for us to have a long vacation. It has certain practical benefits allowing people to recharge especially after long work and so on. As today’s work force has been subjected to so much stress, there is indeed a need to have a break so they are able to re-invigorate themselves and are able to face their future tasks with new enthusiasm and expectations. They usually engage in work-break cycle in a rather routine manner. Is it enough to travel and to explore even as we feel invigorated for a while aware the onset of stress and boredom striking back? Is it the real purpose of travel and doing retreat?

Journey and retreat into the realm

Incidentally, there is a tradition in Islamic thought that also highlights the idea of travel or journey and retreat, but they are of different kind. Ibn Arabi’s conception of “journey” is indeed unique. It is written in one of his classic works, “Journey to the Lord of Power” known in Arabic as “Risalatu l-anwar fiimaa yumnaa shahiiba l-khalwa mina l-asrar” (Treatise on the Lights in the Secrets Granted to one who undertakes Retreat). In truth, he said, there are around six Realms or mawatin where one would have to inevitably engage in the journey of “life.” Ibn Arabi wrote:

“The Realms, although they are many, are all derived from six. The first Realm is [the pre-existence in which we were asked the question] “Am I not your Lord?” Our physical existence has removed us from this Realm. The second Realm is the world we are now in. The third Realm is the Interval through which we travel after the lesser and greater deaths. The fourth Realm is the Resurrection on the awakening earth and the return to the original condition. The fifth Realm is the Garden and the Fire. The six Realm is the Sand Dune outside the Garden. And in each of these Realms are places which are Realms within Realms, and the realization of them in their multiplicity is not within human power.” (p. 27).

If you notice, those of us that travel are simply concerned with exploring the second Realm (journey in the world). If we follow Ibn Arabi’s construction, it is only a small portion of the real journey of life. The like of Ibn Arabi and others are not contended with simply travelling to what is familiar. Ibn Arabi is, in our view, inspired with the Qur’anic verse:

“How can you reject the faith in God? Seeing that ye were without life; then He gave you life; then He will cause you to die and will again bring you to life and again to Him will ye return (Baqarah: 28).”

For obvious reasons, the travel that we are usually familiar with is the journey, at least, in the second stage of the Realm. Even then, no one is capable of exploring every nook and corner of the world. The scope of one’s travel is always relative. The likes of Ibn Arabi and others are not contented with that because they conceived life not simply as beginning nor ending with the world. In fact, they view life in this world simply as a stage; it is just a Realm. He and others are concerned with the life before and the life after we live in this world. Hence, this tradition speaks of a travel that is unconventional; yet, it is the most profound. For the experience, he said, of a person who engages in real travel by doing real retreat (khalwa) under the guidance of a shaykh (learned person) is immense. It is far more exciting from experience resulting from what a person would see in the north, in the south, in the east, and in the west.

For, a traveller may be amazed with past events and the relics of old and nature that may be considered as wonders of creation, yet, Ibn Arabi and his cohorts would not be contented in just gazing at them. It is like appreciating an artwork unaware of the Artist. If it be so, then one’s understanding of such piece of art is incomplete. So that this kind of travellers who follow the Prophet’s tradition of retreat or khalwa and i’tikaf is that, they do not only appreciate the world they see; they also have to know the Creator of the world.

Many of these travellers or seekers of truth migrated from their own places of origin and died in different places. Yet the message they reveal resonates even with other personalities and their works. Ibn Arabi’s work we quoted was written in the 13th century.

But there is another person who was born in latter part of the 19th century. He also came up with a treatise that is relatively similar with Ibn Arabi’s “Risalatu l-anwar.” It is the Risalatu n-nur (Treatise of Light) of Said Nursi. In Volume IV (“The Rays” with chapter, “The Supreme Sign,” Said Nursi speaks of the same thrust suggesting, too, that he won’t be happy in doing traditional voyage unless he is able to understand in a manner of saying the art and the Artist. In the “Supreme Sign” or Ayatu l-kubra, Said Nursi says:

“Indeed every voyager who comes to hospice and the realm of this world, opens his eyes and wonders who is the master of this fine hospice, which resembles a most generous banquet, a most ingenious exhibition, a most impressive camp and training ground, a most amazing and wondrous place of recreation, a most profound and wise place of instruction. He asks himself too who is the author of this great book, and who is the monarch of this lofty realm. The first presents itself to him the beautiful face of the heavens, inscribed with the gilt lettering of the stars. That face calls him saying, “Look at me, and I shall guide you to what you seek. (p. 131)”

This is the first introduction that Said Nursi speaks of a traveller amazed with the wonders of creation. While such entity contains certain truth, fact is such a conception is simply a slice of the whole notion of Truth. While the former is generally the thrust of science, and while important, unless it is taken in its wholeness, certain “acts” of nature, say, like doing praises and supplication that demands holistic understanding of Truth won’t really be knowable and understandable to conventional travellers. Unlike Ibn Arabi, Said Nursi is inspired in the “Supreme Sign” with the Qur’anic verse:

“The seven heavens and the earth and all beings therein, declare His glory: There is not a thing but celebrates His Praise; and yet ye understand not how they declares His glory! Verily He is Oft-Forbearing, Most Forgiving (Isra: 44)!”

The difference between such personalities like Ibn Arabi, Said Nursi and so on with many of us is that, we hardly see the reality of such a sublime verse referring to nature doing supplication. It means the heavens and the earth and the movements in creation are, by itself, not static entities; they are in constant celebration rendering praises to no less than the Creator, Allah (SWT).

The problem with us as typical travellers we hardly see the inner meaning wherein entities of creation we appreciate are, in truth, also doing their own praises, supplication and so on. Hence, it speaks probably why Islam makes it imperative to engage in “journey” or “travel” particularly the recourse to khalwa and i’tikaf so we understand why they do so.

Ibn Batuta

With this insight, let us maximize our time with this small break given us with the hope that we are able to engage in a journey that is comprehensive so that we won’t just be doing things that are usual or transient. Instead, it is something that will enrich us and something that will invigorate us. It is something what Ibn Arabi refers to as “travelling” or “retreating” into the Realm or mawatin, as stage or substrata of moment. It means in every second, in every minute of our life, we have to be always in certain state of consciousness tasting (dawq) or experiencing our inner thoughts. In other words, what these great scholars of Islam are saying is that, there is something beyond physical journey – a journey that is far more awesome if we are fortunate enough to be inspired and to be given the hidayah (guidance) to follow the footsteps of the Prophet, the sahabah, and many others who had engaged with their own travel, their own journey, and their own retreat.

Incidentally, the famous Ibn Batuta who travelled from North Africa, Middle East, Central Asia, India, China, Thailand and Sumatra in Indonesia is not only an ordinary traveller. He was unlike, comparatively speaking, Marco Polo who happened to have travelled around a century before him. Ibn Batuta is also a great scholar of Islam. His travelogue is written in one of the classics, the “rihla” – a journey literature in Islamic thought. It shows that scholars of old take the world as their laboratory or museum. They are not restricted to their own areas, to their own world of myopia. They follow the Qur’anic reminder:

“O My servants who believe! Truly, spacious is My Earth: Therefore, serve ye Me – (and Me alone) (Ankabut: 56)!”

They maximize their time in trying to learn from the wide expanse of the earth bringing forth and advancing the cause of their quest.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A slightly revised khutbah delivered at the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines on 11 April 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].