Travel and Travelers

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Travel has been a part of the Islamic culture from the beginning. The obligation of every Muslim, once in a lifetime, to make the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca and Medina was an early and significant reason for much of the travel.

Before air transport the greater the distance one needed to travel on the hajj the more the journey tended to become a grand study tour of the greater mosques and madrasas of the Muslim heartland. It was an opportunity for the traveler to acquire knowledge.

The expansion of Islam beyond its early borders meant that such a pilgrimage invariably required long-distance travel. The conversion of the local population to Islam necessitated travel for both new converts and for those proselytizing. This expansion resulted not only from war, but also through commerce as traveling merchants established trading posts farther away from Islam's original center.

The most fundamental values of Islam have tended to encourage a high degree of social mobility and to free movement of individuals from one city and region to another. Travel was promoted through Islamic culture and put great emphasis on egalitarian behavior in social relations based on the ideal of a community allegiance to one God.

Travel was made easy by the dynamics of social life centered on an egalitarian, contractual, and relatively free play of relations among individuals striving to conform to Islamic moral standards. Wherever an individual traveled, pursued a career, or bought and sold goods, the same social and moral dictates of Islam largely applied. The language common to early Islam, Arabic, ensured another unifying characteristic.

The pattern of travel and migration of adherents to Islam all but ensured a persistent dispersion of architects, writers, craftsmen, legal scholars, scribes, Sufi divines, and theologians outward from the older centers of Islam to the new frontiers of Muslim activity.

The members of the cultural elite maintained during traveling a close tie with the greater cities of the central part of the Islamic lands. They created, thereby, not only a scattering of literate and skilled Muslims across several continents, but an integrated, growing, self-replenishing network of cultural communication.

A great interest in knowledge and learning has been a common thread of Islam from its earliest days. Travel solely in search of knowledge has been an integral part of the intellectual life of the Islamic world. The scholarly class was an extraordinarily mobile group, who circulated incessantly from one city and country to another, studying with renowned professors, leading diplomatic missions, and taking up posts in mosques and government chanceries.

Scholars from the more remote part of the Islamic world traveled to the countries considered central to Islam in search of civilized models, higher knowledge, and learned companionship.

The need for travel and interest in it created an equal need for knowledge of geography and navigation both on land and sea. As a consequence the rihla, or book of travels, emerged. The genre recounted for the reader the journey to Mecca with information and entertainment of religious sites on the route.

A copy of a Catalan map showing North Africa appears in the volume two color insert.

See alsoBiruni, al- ; Ibn Battuta ; Ibn Khaldun ; Pilgrimage: Hajj.


Eickelman, Dale F., and Piscatori, James, eds. Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.

Thyge C. Bro