People have long traveled for diverse reasons, and there were various types of voyagers in the medieval Muslim world, including ardent pilgrims, wandering dervishes, and enterprising merchants. But, starting in the 8th century CE (2nd century Hijri), another large contingent joined the ranks of the itinerants: many Muslims began traveling extensively in pursuit of sacred knowledge, especially (but not limited to) to hear and write down ḥadīths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) from those who were transmitting them. This spontaneously gave rise to a remarkable, informal, decentralized,
unregulated, diverse global information network. We get some idea of the extent to which this voyaging reached by observing that ˁAlī ibn al-Ḥasan ibn ˁAsākir (d. 571/1176, a major hadith-voyager and chronicler) compiled a book called “The Forty City [Narrations]” (Arbaˁūn Buldāniyyah), which contained forty ḥadīths heard from forty different teachers in forty different cities, tracing back to forty different Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, and dealing with forty different topics. In his prelude to the book, he describes the hadith-voyagers:
“So, [the ḥadīth-folk] intently pursued gathering [ḥadīths] in all moments and circumstances, flying to [different] lands like eagles and falcons, consequently living lives of poverty and destitution in [willing] exile from home, and tolerating – on this quest – coarse food and clothing.”
It became unusual for someone laying claim to knowledge to not have traveled to seek knowledge from distant teachers. A couple of prominent exceptions are Imām Mālik ibn Anas (d. 179/796, the eponym of the Mālik school of law) and Abū Bakr ibn Mujāhid (d. 324/936, the famous canonizer of the Seven Quranic Readings, whose scholarly travel was restricted to his hajj travel to Makka).
Imam al-Shafi`i (d. 204H) wrote some lines of poetry encouraging people to travel. Three centuries later, Qadi Tartushi (d. 520H, a Maliki jurist and judge) wrote a rejoinder, discouraging people from travel, on the basis that times had changed. You can read both pieces of poetry, with their translations, here.
So, what about today? Two quick points:
1. Start Local
Scholars of the past would not travel for knowledge until they had exhausted the knowledge available to them locally. Most large metropolitan areas in the US (and probably many other countries) have individuals within them who are qualified to teach you the basics of one or more Islamic disciplines, and perhaps even things beyond that. It is rather a waste of money to travel overseas simply to learn the ABCs of a discipline that you could learn at minimal cost and without travel. If you delay your educational voyage until after you have mastered the basics, your overseas studies can also be more productive (such as by studying advanced texts that you couldn’t study locally). Of course, if you have additional legitimate motives for travelling overseas at an early stage, such as to spend some time living in a city where you hear the call to prayer (adhan) fives times a day, or to sightsee, or visit relatives, then that is a separate matter, and you are free to make your decision after due thought and diligence.
2. What about technology? Can’t I be a virtual globetrotter, attending online classes in multiple countries, and save the costs of traveling? Yes, you can do that, and might get the same information content, but you won’t get the intangibles and other elements that constitute the full experience: The tiring exertions and other difficulties of travel that will make you truly value what you got out of the trip…. The invaluable face-to-face dimension of student-teacher interactions through you which you can experientially learn things about behavior, manners and ethos in a way that you won’t find in a book…. and if you are traveling to a different country, the broadening of horizons that comes from living in a different culture and seeing the challenges and joys of its people. For an advanced seeker of sacred knowledge, travel is almost essential.
And of course, if you want to be a knowledge-voyager, then as with any deed by which you intend devotion, check your intentions.