Opinion: Ibn Battuta, the first ‘Islamic’ tourist

RUSHDIMalaysia Insider


“Say, (O Mohammad), Travel through the land and observe how He began creation. Then  Allah will produce the final creation. Indeed, Allah, over all things, is competent.” Quran 29:20.

Islam also encourages “knowledge tourism”.  A well-known statement, unsure if Hadith, states, “Seek knowledge, even though it may be in China”, implies “knowledge is to be sought because it is needed in every way, by both the individual who seeks it and the Muslim community. So, no matter what difficulties one may face in acquiring knowledge, he should try to pursue it as much as he or she can.” Adil Salahi, Islamic Scholar.

Muslim travel market

Today, the Muslim travel/tourism market, according to DinarStandard Thomson Reuters State of Global Islamic Economy (SGIS), 2013, is US$137 billion (RM452 billion), about 13% of global expenditure, and expected to reach US$181 billion by 2018.

In context, the global Muslim market ($137 billion) is the largest market against major tourism hub destinations like the United States ($122 billion), China ($89 billion), the United Kingdom ($65 billion), and France ($52 billion).
Furthermore, four of the top five fastest-growing airports, a pulse for tourism, in the world are Istanbul, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Incheon and Jakarta

Finally, the top Muslim country destinations are Turkey (36 million tourists in 2013), Malaysia (25 million), Saudi Arabia (14 million), Egypt (11 million) and Morocco (9 million).

Thus, the Muslim dollar is respectably contributing to world tourism, and companies and countries want to access, retain, and grow this segment of the market. But, an important aspect of tapping (parts of) this market requires certain rules of engagement that are aligned to the faith, Islam.

Today, we have countries, Muslim and non-Muslim, that are positioning or enlarging their proposition for Muslim travellers.

For example, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, India, Vietnam, Australia and others are making efforts to provide halal restaurants and hotels, Ramadan specials, and prayer rooms (airports, hotels, malls, etc).

Can they learn from Ibn Batutta’s travel?

Form Islamic tourism

However, the “welcome sign” for tourists has been narrowly labelled as shariah compliant, halal or Islamic tourism.
An immediate perception for non-Muslims and those Muslims wanting a country cultural experience, not an Islamic, which is haj and umrah, is that it’s not for them.  Thus, does the narrow definition result in an exclusionary approach that excludes potential dollars.

Today, Islamic finance has been saying, spending time and resources for all of mankind, but non-Muslim mankind says “call it something else, like participation finance, as I do not want to endorse your religion”.

Thus, shariah-compliant or Islamic tourism needs to learn a lesson from Islamic finance, and, because it’s an early stage of development, the branding for inclusion is timely.
Ibn Battuta

Many have called the great jurist, Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan explorer with Berber background, as the world first (Islamic) tourist. During his lifetime, he covered and 117,000km and 44 countries, from Maghreb to West Africa, Central Asia, China, South and Southeast Asia.

He, himself, stated:
“I have indeed – praise be to God – attained my desire in this world, which was to travel through the Earth, and I have attained this honour, which no ordinary person has attained.”

And, the Muslim world has acknowledged and honoured Ibn Batutta’s travels: be it a mall (Dubai’s Ibn Batutta mall), song (Layar Battuta from the 2002 Malaysian album Aura by Noraniza Idris), film (Journey to Mecca) and more.

Thus, the lesson from Ibn Battuta’s travel is about enrichment associated with local cultural experiences. It was not about finding “his home away from home”, but “travel through the land and observe how He began creation…” 29:20, while seeking knowledge in places like China.

Towards family friendly tourism

To move towards authentic halal tourism, we need to go through the needed cosmetic approach, much like going through shariah-compliant finance to get to shariah-based finance.

Today, we have alcohol- or bar-free (dry) hotels offering prayers rugs, qiblat direction on ceiling, Ramadan-hour breakfast (pre-dawn meal) and fast breaking, separate timings for swimming pool use for men/women and halal food.
These important attributes are equally applicable for all “value-oriented” families, hence, such hotels are “family friendly” destinations.

Thus, the first step is rebranding and labelling it as “family friendly tourism”.

Second, “family” implies activities for children, mother, father and (possibly) the entourage. Yes, availability of halal food is an important determinant in picking a location, about 67% according Dinarstandard’s Global Muslim Lifestyle Tourism Market 2012.

But, many factors come into play in choosing a country (airline with frequency and inexpensive fares), destination city (“free” from crime and health concerns, transport accessibility, malls, theme-parks, sight-seeing (ecology, heritage, etc.), wellness/medical) and hotel/resort (with Islamic conscious staff, room size, ambiance and amenities).
(DinarStandard, beyond halal food, what are the priorities in descending order for “halal lifestyle destinations”, and is Turkey leading the movement?)

Third, what if the destination hotel/resort went beyond the basic halal food and was also promoting local impact investing? Here, it would be good to see the implementation of the tagline, “think global, act local” in a meaningful, not nominal, manner.

As halal (or religious) slaughter is about the humane treatment of the animal before the knife, equivalent to the organic movement, the hotel/resort must not just be about prayer mats/director, alcohol-free, etc, but also a story about their staff (guest connecting), education/training scholarships (investment internally), community development (trickle across) and amenity outsourcing (multiplier effect).

(For building a new hotel, remodelling, refurbishing, or refinancing the conventional debt of halal hotel, Islamic finance structures, like sukuk, would be a differentiator for many guests. These same people, probably having Islamic bank accounts, would like to sleep peacefully.)

The corporate and investing world has recognised the importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR), much like ethical or organic consumption, hence, these guest dwellings must convey they are an anchor of the community, much like towns around a university.

They should be able to tell their guests that (1) the amenities, mini-fridges and halal cosmetics are sourced locally and (2) their “dollars” are being circulated in the local community, from where their employees are sourced or reside.
The end result is a holistic halal approach that connects with guests where they become the hotel’s ambassador.

The tourist, Ibn Batutta, travelled for 29 years and vowed not to travel the same path twice. It means the each family friendly destination must be a unique local experience.

I wonder if Ibn Batutta, if he were alive today, would he visit today’s “halal- or shariah-compliant” destinations?
Something more is required that connects with the faith, but also leaves the experience enriched and imagination twinkled! – April 1, 2014.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.