An Islamic theology of travel

Silence.

 

That was what greeted my question “Could you write for me what you think Islam says about travel?”

I try to hang out with the Islamic community when I can, in my spare time in Ireland.  It’s not always the easiest in Irish life, given most of Irish life happens in the pub (and not just in negative ways).  But I try.  I do it, partly because I feel every city needs those who broaden their horizons and don’t just guess what different people think.  But those who live among them.  I hope legislation in this land will reflect not hostility or naivety, but will reflect the thoughts of those of us who live our daily lives in the midst of such beautiful communities.  And the other reason I partly do this, is because I feel that if the Christian message is true, these are some people from some of the most unreached places in our world with the good news.

Now some of you may feel my categorisation of people as “them and us” is already a horrible one.  But largely it’s realistic in first generation immigration, in a quite racist society (to many extents).  Integration is not a reality widely embraced.  Vocal protests at the mosque application (in Cork), and general attitudes towards the international community who announce their long-term intentions may not be frosty, but they’re certainly not welcomed with open arms, contrary to what the Irish reputation is for short-term visitors.  In NUIG (Galway’s main university) yesterday, I once again took up my mantra, of helping people to see things in term’s other than “them vs us” but as “human, alongside human”.

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NUIG Quadrangle

So it’s not without knowing Muslim friends and theologically aware ones, that I got my answer, or indeed, a lack of answer.

Yes, they were quick to tell me about Muhammad and his travels.  And how pilgrimage forms part of the central tenets of Islam.  But unless we are to mimic Muhammad’s travelling warfare, it’s hard to see where pleasure travelling fits in to Islamic theology.

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Hajj – the pilgrimage prescribed in the 5 pillars of Islam, for those who can manage it.  Thanks to Allahsword.net for the image.

And that presumably is because the world is a bad thing in Islamic thought.  Following on from the dualism that so haunts much of religion (Buddhism, Islam, Mormonism and much of even Arminian Christianity), Islam frequently proclaims from the minarets:

“Prayer is better than sleep” (As-salatu Khayrun Minan-nawm)

The spiritual is better than the physical.  There is a dichotomy.  A dualism oft found in Greek thought, that haunts some of Christendom too.

And what does a life that lives that out fully look like?  Well a consistent one would presumably have to dump pleasure travelling and the delighting of the things of this world.  I’m not sure there can be any other take on such strong statements.  Even travelling to stir our hearts to worship the creator would still be lesser than praying, according to this.  And applied to the rest of life, you’re left praying or perhaps doing Da’wah (telling other people of Allah).

But in case you think I jump to conclusions too quickly, and I do not know my Hadiths very well, take it one step further back.  What is the god of Islam like?  Because we become what we worship.  Muslims will want to be like their god.

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Not only are the 99 names interesting, but the proportion to which the Qu’ranic text emphasizes certain ones, is telling.  Thanks to Allahsword.net for this.

And there we find a distant and sovereign god.  One set apart from creation who rarely interacts with it clearly and who is not known in any meaningful way by his followers.  One who drops a book down to a single person, about a period in history where we have little to verify the contents of that book.  And one whose followers live in that pattern; not particularly concerned with the book or knowing the historicity of Muhammad; not engaging with much of this world.  Waiting.  Waiting for the moment paradise will come – the “real world”.

And yes, I’m sure there’s exceptions.  There are many Muslims who have shaped this world in beautiful ways and take their inspiration from Islam.  But my point is, that if you have a consistent systematic theology of Islam, one must abandon pleasure travelling.

And perhaps that’s where, if you’re going to poke holes in my argument, you would need to say that I misunderstand Islam in looking for a systematic theology.  Perhaps Islam holds tensions that are less dominated by western logical systems.  Perhaps the call to prayer and distance of god from this world can be reconciled by other truths I’m not yet aware of, within the heartbeat of the Qu’ranic text, Hadiths and life of the Prophet.

And so I leave this open for any of my friends to enlighten us and help us flee from dualism to an appreciation of this world – something that will help is yearn to explore it, plumb the depths of it, look after it and enjoy it for what it is…a beautiful creation!

It’s over to you…

Spiritual good, material bad??

Often I meet folk on my travels who say: “Prayer, reading your Bible, going to church, telling others about Jesus and a few other things [my cheeky edit: not many] are great things to do.

However travelling for fun, taking time off, sleeping, having passions, playing sport, doing art, playing computer games and sex….well they’re not so good.”

Why?  Well, they’re, erm, not as spiritual!  Or so the thinking goes in most religions. 

The Islamic call to prayer reminds us that prayer is better than sleep.  I struggle to have a normal human conversation with Jehovah’s Witnesses who I meet!  And in forms of Buddhism, we must try to escape this world and the trappings of physical reality.  Even sadly some Christian preachers I’ve heard saying that the “real you” is just some soul part that will go to be with God forever in some airy fairy land in the sky.

Often called “dualism” in theology/philosophy, this ancient belief that makes you feel guilty about doing fairly normal things in life and does not look fondly on the fact that Christ is Lord over everything in life, always lurks round the corner in most Christian circles.  I would argue it stems more from Greek Platonic thought (Plato) than from the Bible but it profoundly shapes the way many of us think.

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Plato and some amphitheatre steps.  Probably annoyingly the cultural equivalent of having a picture of me next to a Leprechaun.

Here’s two ways it did for me at university:

I was raised with a passionate heart for Jesus and sharing Him with others.  With great Biblical teaching all my childhood, and wonderful practical training with United Beach Missions, the facts of eternity just seemed to spark an inevitable reaction with me as my convictions grew (oh so gradually!).  First year at university and I would sit and weep at my desk in Sherwood Hall, watching carefree people go past in their hundreds on the way to a lost eternity.  Thankfully the CU taught me amazing ways to share this with campus, but still, this heart for people debatably meant that I felt that doing my studies was not as God-honouring as evangelism.  Or at least the maths part certainly.  Philosophy mentions god the odd time…so that’s alright, no?  I’m thankful for those who quickly saw which way I was going and corrected my trajectory very gently, so that I could delight in serving God in mathematics lectures as much as in CU meetings!

Secondly, I guess I met dualism in my philosophy lectures.  It’s one of the most ridiculed concepts in all of philosophy (or at least Descartes was in my lectures!), and so in an aggressively secular department (all the god-dy type people went off to do their philosophy through the Nottingham Theology department with John Milbank et al.), I faced a challenge.  I think many Christians studying philosophy are stuck thinking they need to defend popular dualism.  We have a soul and a body, so we have to be philosophical dualists!  Whilst not all believers have agreed (bizarrely, if you ask me), I think some form of dualism is probably inevitable, but just not Cartesian or not necessarily even substance dualism either.  What does that leave you with?  A headache perhaps.  But I’ll have shot at answering it sometime else for those of you who are more philosophically minded.  I do think it’s more reasonable than it’s given credit for!  Or so I spent my dissertation trying to prove.

Not sure whether your travelling can really be as God-honouring as outreach?  Check out this on washing dishes, that may provoke some thoughts: A theology of mundane things, like washing up

Or try reading Julian Hardyman’s “Maximum Life” (previously “Glory
Days”).  I’ve a few second-hand copies if people want.
maximum life