Islamic perspective

The caravan of summer


Something of the real difference between pilgrim and tourist can be detected by comparing their effects on the places they visit. 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 may be a matter of conjecture, but perhaps we can say something about the state of the social. Pilgrimage sites like Mecca may serve as great bazaars for trade and they may even serve as centers of production (like the silk industry of Benares) but their primary "product" is baraka or mana. These words (one Arabic, one Polynesian) are usually translated as "blessing", but they also carry a freight of other meanings.

The wandering dervish who sleeps at a shrine in order to dream of a dead saint (one of the "people of the Tombs") seeks initiation or advancement on the spiritual path; a mother who brings a sick child to Lourdes seeks healing; a childless woman in Morocco hopes the Marabout will make her fertile if she ties a rag to the old tree growing out of the grave; the traveler to Mecca yearns for the very center of the Faith, and as the caravans come within sight of the Holy City the hajji calls out, "Labaika Allahumma!" "I am here, O Lord!"

All these motives are summed up by the word baraka, which sometimes seems to be a palpable substance, measurable in terms of increased charisma or "luck." The shrine produces baraka. And the pilgrim takes it away. But blessing is a product of the imagination and thus no matter how many pilgrims take it away, there's always more.

In fact, the more they take, the more blessing the shrine can produce (because a popular shrine grows with every answered prayer.) To say that baraka is "imaginal" is not to call it "unreal." It's real enough to those who feel it. But spiritual goods do not follow the rules of supply and demand like material goods. The more demand for spiritual goods, the more supply. The production of baraka is infinite.

By contrast, the tourist desires not baraka but cultural difference. The tourist consumes difference. But the production of cultural difference is not infinite. It is not "merely" imaginal. It is rooted in languages, landscape, architecture, custom, taste, smell. It is very physical. The more it is used up or taken away, the less remains. The social can produce just so much "meaning," so much difference. Once it's gone, it's gone. The modest goal of this essay is to address the individual traveler who has decided to resist tourism. Even though we may find it impossible in the end to "purify" ourselves and our travel from every last taint and trace of tourism, we still feel that improvement may be possible.

Not only do we disdain tourism for its vulgarity and its injustice, and therefore wish to avoid any contamination (conscious or unconscious) by its viral virulency, we also wish to understand travel as an act of reciprocity rather than alienation. In other words, we don't wish merely to avoid the negatives of tourism, but even more to achieve positive travel, which we envision as a productive and mutually enhancing relationship between self and other, guest and host, a form of cross-cultural synergy in which the whole exceeds the sum of parts. We'd like to know if travel can be carried out according to a secret economy of baraka, whereby not only the shrine but also the pilgrims themselves have blessings to bestow.

Before the Age of Commodity, we know, there was an Age of the Gift, of reciprocity, of giving and receiving. We learned this from the tales of certain travelers, who found remnants of the world of the Gift among certain tribes, in the form of pot latch or ritual exchange, and recorded their observations of such strange practices.

Not long ago there still existed a custom among South Sea islanders of traveling vast distances by outrigger canoe, without compass or sextant, in order to exchange valuable and useless presents (ceremonial art-objects rich in mana) from island to island in a complex pattern of overlapping reciprocities.

We suspect that even though travel in the modern world seems to have been taken over by the Commodity, even though the networks of convivial reciprocity seem to have vanished from the map, even though tourism seems to have triumphed. Even so, we continue to suspect that other pathways still persist, other tracks, unofficial, not noted on the map, perhaps even "secret" pathways still linked to the possibility of an economy of the Gift, smugglers' routes for free spirits, known only to the geomantic guerrillas of the art of travel.

Perhaps the greatest and subtlest practitioners of the art of travel were the Sufis, the mystics of Islam. Before the age of passports, immunizations, airlines and other impediments to free travel, the Sufis wandered footloose in a world where borders tended to be more permeable than nowadays, thanks to the trans nationalism of Islam and the cultural unity of Dar al-Islam , the Islamic world.

The great medieval Moslem travelers, like Ibn Battuta and Naser Khusraw, have left accounts of vast journeys, Persia to Egypt, or even Morocco to China, which never set foot outside a landscape of deserts, camels, caravanserais, bazaars, and piety. Someone always spoke Arabic, however badly, and Islamic culture permeated the remotest backwaters, however superficially. Reading the tails of Sinbad the Sailor (from the 1001 Nights) gives us the impression of a world where even the terra incognita was still, despite all marvels and oddities, somehow familiar, somehow Islamic. Within this unity, which was not yet a uniformity, the Sufis formed a special class of travelers. Not warriors, not merchants, and not quite ordinary pilgrims either, the dervishes represent a spiritualization of pure nomadism.

According to the Koran, God's Wide Earth and everything in it are "sacred," not only as divine creations, but also because the material world is full of "waymarks," or signs of divine reality. Moreover, Islam itself is born between two journeys, Mohammad's hijra or "flight" from Mecca to Medina, and his hajj, or return voyage. The hajj is the movement toward the origin and center for every Moslem even today, and the annual Pilgrimage has played a vital role, not just in the religious unity of Islam, but also in its cultural unity.

Mohammad himself exemplifies every kind of travel in Islam; his youth with the Meccan caravans of Summer and Winter, as a merchant; his campaigns as a warrior; his triumph as a humble pilgrim. Although an urban leader, he is also the prophet of the Bedouin and himself a kind of nomad, a "sojourner"an "orphan." From this perspective travel can almost be seen as a sacrament. Every religion sanctifies travel to some degree, but Islam is virtually unimaginable without it.

The Prophet said, "Seek knowledge, even as far as China." From the beginning, Islam lifts travel above all "mundane" utilitarianism and gives it an epistemological or even Gnostic dimension. "The jewel that never leaves the mine is never polished," says the Sufi poet Saadi. To "educate" is to "lead outside," to give the pupil a perspective beyond parochiality and mere subjectivity.

Some Sufis may have done all their traveling in the Imaginal World of archetypal dreams and visions, but vast numbers of them took the Prophet's exhortations quite literally. Even today dervishes wander over the entire Islamic worldbut as late as the 19th century they wandered in veritable hordes, hundreds or even thousands at a time, and covered vast distances. All in search of knowledge.

Unofficially, there existed two basic types of wandering Sufi: the "gentleman-scholar" type, and the mendicant dervish. The former category includes Ibn Battuta (who collected Sufi initiations the way some occidental gentlemen once collected Masonic degrees), andon a much more serious level the "Greatest Shaykh" Ibn Arabi, who meandered slowly through the 13th century from his native Spain, across North Africa, through Egypt to Mecca, and finally to Damascus.

Ibn Arabi actually left accounts of his search for saints and adventurers on the road, which could be pieced together from his voluminous writings to form a kind of rihla or "travel text": ( a recognized genre of Islamic literature) or autobiography. Ordinary scholars traveled in search of rare texts on theology or jurisprudence, but Ibn Arabi sought only the highest secrets of esotericism and the loftiest "openings" into the world of divine illumination; for him every "journey to the outer horizons" was also a "journey to the inner horizons" of spiritual psychology and gnosis.

On the visions he experienced in Mecca alone, he wrote a 12-volume work (The Meccan Revelations), and he has also left us precious sketches of hundreds of his contemporaries, from the greatest philosophers of the age to humble dervishes and "madmen," anonymous women saints and "hidden Masters." Ibn Arabi enjoyed a special relation with Khezr, the immortal and unknown prophet, the "Green Man," who sometimes appears to wandering Sufis in distress, to rescue them from the desert, or to initiate them. Khezr, in a sense, can be called the patron saint of the traveling dervishes and the prototype. (He first appears in the Koran as a mysterious wanderer and companion of Moses in the desert.)

Christianity once included a few orders of wandering mendicants (in fact, St. Francis organized one after meeting with dervishes in the Holy Land, who may have bestowed upon him a "cloak of initiation" the famous patchwork robe he was wearing when he returned to Italy), but Islam spawned dozens, perhaps hundreds of such orders.

As Sufism crystallized from the loose spontaneity of early days to an institution with rules and grades, "travel for knowledge" was also regularized and organized. Elaborate handbooks of duties for dervishes were produced which included methods for turning travel into a very specific form of meditation. The whole Sufi "path" itself was symbolized in terms of intentional travel.

In some cases itineraries were fixed (e.g. the Hajj); others involved waiting for "signs" to appear, coincidences, intuitions, "adventurers" such as those which inspired the travels of the Arthurian knights. Some orders limited the time spent in any one place to 40 days; others made a rule of never sleeping twice in the same place. The strict orders, such as the Naqshbandis, turned travel into a kind of full-time choreography, in which every movement was preordained and designed to enhance consciousness.

By contrast, the more heterodox orders (such as the Qalandars) adopted a "rule" of total spontaneity and abandon "permanent unemployment" as one of them called it an insouciance of bohemian proportions a "dropping-out" at once both scandalous and completely traditional. Colorfully dressed, carrying their begging bowls, axes, and standards, addicted to music and dance, carefree and cheerful (sometimes to the point of "blameworthiness"!), orders such as the Nematollahis of 19th century Persia grew to proportions that alarmed both sultans and theologians. Many dervishes were executed for "heresy."

Today the true Qalandars survive mostly in India, where their lapses from orthodoxy include a fondness for hemp and a sincere hatred of work. Some are charlatans, some are simple bums, but a surprising number of them seem to be people of attainment...how can I put it?...people of self-realization, marked by a distinct aura of grace, or baraka.

All the different types of Sufi travel we've described are united by certain shared vital structural forces. One such force might be called a "magical" world view, a sense of life that rejects the "merely" random for a reality of signs and wonders, of meaningful coincidences and "unveilings." As anyone who's ever tried it will testify, intentional travel immediately opens one up to this "magical" influence.

A psychologist might explain this phenomenon (either with awe or with reductionist disdain) as "subjective"; while the pious believer would take it quite literally. From the Sufi point of view neither interpretation rules out the other, nor suffices in itself, to explain away the marvels of the Path. In Sufism, the "objective" and the "subjective" are not considered opposites, but complements. From the point of view of the two-dimensional thinker (whether scientific or religious) such paradoxology smacks of the forbidden.

Another force underlying all forms of intentional travel can be described by the Arabic word "adab". On one level "adab" simply means "good manners," and in the case of travel, these manners are based on the ancient customs of desert nomads, for whom both wandering and hospitality are sacred acts. In this sense, the dervish shares both the privileges and the responsibilities of the guest.

Bedouin hospitality is a clear survival of the primordial economy of the Gift - a relation of reciprocity. The wanderer must be taken in (the dervish must be fed) but thereby the wanderer assumes a role prescribed by ancient custom and must give back something to the host. For the Bedouin this relation is almost a form of clientage Ð the breaking of bread and sharing of salt constitutes a sort of kinship. Gratitude is not a sufficient response to such generosity. The traveler must consent to a temporary adoption, anything less would offend against "adab".

Islamic society retains at least a sentimental attachment to these rules, and thus creates a special niche for the dervish, that of the full-time guest. The dervish returns the gifts of society with the gift of baraka. In ordinary pilgrimage, the traveler receives baraka from a place, but the dervish reverses the flow and brings baraka to a place. The Sufi may think