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25 Apr, 2011

1.2 Billion Global Muslims Urged: “Travel to Learn from History”

Kuala Lumpur: Former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has called on the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims to travel through the Islamic world and beyond not just to sightsee but to learn from the successes and failures of the Islamic civilisations through the ages.

Noting the presence of Muslims as far afield as Central Asia, China, Africa and Southeast Asia, and the contributions of Muslims to the study of science, mathematics and astronomy, he said it was more important than ever today for Muslims to understand how Islam spread so far and wide and how the pursuit of knowledge had contributed to its expansion through the ages.

Dr Mahathir was speaking on April 14 at an International Conference on Islamic Tourism, Haj and Umrah organised by the Malaysian Association of Travel & Tour Agents with the support of Tourism Malaysia and the Ministry of Tourism. The first leader in the Islamic world to voluntarily step down in 2003 after a premiership of 22 years, Dr Mahathir was making a rare appearance at a travel industry conference since his retirement from official public life.

His call for increased Islamic travel could galvanise and alter the shape, structure and form of travel by Muslims worldwide. Many of his views are supported by the theme and content of the ongoing global Islamic exhibition www.1001inventions.com.

Noting that the global travel & tourism sector is growing partly because millions of Muslims now have the means and the ability to travel, he said the time is ripe for them to convert this into an opportunity for an educational experience and study the history of Islam.

He said, “Many, many countries are well known for this historical voyage of Islam through the ages. They are not holy places. But visiting them will help Muslims know how Islam expanded through Central Asia, to the west and north Africa and then to Andalusia and beyond.

“We need to know about the things we have done in the past, which have preserved the Muslims through the centuries. It is now more than 1,400 years since the Prophet (Mohammed) brought Islam to us. We need to know the history of Islam, and to do that we should visit Central Asia, even China and Syria, Iraq and of course Saudi Arabia and North Africa and even Spain. These are places we need to visit to know our identity, how (Muslims) prospered and built the greatest civilisations in the history of mankind and then how they regressed unfortunately. Do we just forget this?”

Quoting the dictum which he said was “quite relevant to our religion,” Dr Mahathir noted, “Those who forget the mistakes of history will be condemned to repeat them over and over again.” He added, “So we must know our history in order to identify the mistakes we made so that we can avoid those mistakes. If we don’t know our history, we will keep committing the same mistakes which led to the decline of Islamic civilisation. The travel business must exploit this, and make sure that Muslims can travel to these historical places where Islam was promoted, accepted and prospered.

“Not many know that there are Chinese Muslims known as the Uighurs (Turkic people) and the Han people (the ordinary Chinese, although as Muslims they are known as Ooi). They built mosques long before mosques in Malaysia. We need to know how these people could be converted to accept Islam and still remain Muslims today. There are more Muslims in China than in Malaysia. And they live the life of Muslims, perform the Hajj and their daily prayers. They have their mosques although their mosques look like a Chinese temple. But they still accept it and go to perform their prayer.

“We should know about Central Asia where some of the great Muslims lived and spread the teachings of Islam. Not many of us know that Spain was ruled for 800 years as a Muslim country, long before we became Muslims in Malaysia. The Alhambra was built by Muslims and until today, a lot of places begin with the words “Al” which is Arabic. And many of their practices can be traced back to Islam.

“How did the Muslims spread to a Catholic country like Spain? How did they expand and prosper for 800 years? And then we lost Spain. Why did we lose it? Visit Spain and see what happened when people began to quarrel amongst themselves, when everybody wanted to be the leader. When you have more leaders and less followers, you cannot get anything done. These are the mistakes Muslims made.”

Dr Mahathir cited the Spanish city of Cordoba (known in the Islamic days as Qurtuba) which he said once had the biggest libraries containing not only books on Islam but the works of so many great Muslim scientists, philosophers and mathematicians.

Then, he said, in the 15th century of the Islamic era, somehow a feeling arose that the word “Iqra” (the opening word of the Quran, literally meaning “Read”) meant that the only book Muslims should “read” is the Quran and not others.

“This diverted Muslims only to the study of religion and away from science. You can see that was the time when the Muslims began to lose their way and began to retreat. And soon, all countries were under non-Muslim rule, with the exception of Saudi Arabia. They were conquered because they lost their knowledge of how to defend themselves. They were broken up into small states which were all weak and were constantly fighting against each other.

“These are the mistakes we made. So when you bring your tourists to these places, tell them how they became Muslims, how they prospered and how they declined and why they declined. These will become lessons for the Muslims not to repeat the present day mistakes.

“Tourism can play a very big role in the understanding of the religion. You will know what were the good things we did in the past and what we did that caused the decline of the Islamic Ummah and eventually (reduced us to) secondary or tertiary powers. There is not a single Muslim country which can be described as developed. Not a single country that has the capacity to defend itself.

“There are no Muslim countries that can send people to the moon. To send people to the moon, you need rockets. But we cannot build our own rockets as we do not have the knowledge and yet the origins of this knowledge came from Muslims. For a rocket to fly accurately from one point to another, it needs to calculate the trajectory of its direction, and for that, scientists have to understand algorithms. And who invented algorithm — Al Khwarizmi. And yet today we don’t know much about it. But we neglected all this as unimportant and then only later on we found it was very important.”

Today, he said, “our detractors are talking of putting space stations from where they can fire at us. And we cannot do anything. When they draw cartoons of the Holy Prophet, we protest and burn their flags. But that’s all we can do. We can only look with open mouths. The consequences of neglecting the knowledge that can defend the Ummah against its detractors is what we can learn from history. And this we can learn through travel.

“Then there was a man named Ulugh Beg from Uzbekistan. He built the labs to study the movement of stars and the planets. His work is now kept in the library and was used to figure out how to reach the moon.

“So the travel business should also be concerned about the history of Islam, the progress of Islam, the monuments built by the Muslims, the advances made by them in science. Muslims like Ibn Khaldun who mapped the world and ensured that they were able to travel at all. It took Vasco da Gama until the 15th century to go around the Cape of Good Hope. But we Muslims were travelling from Arab countries to Southeast Asia and China hundreds of years before that, through the Silk Road.”

Dr Mahathir added, “The travel business is in the position to acquaint people with the background of Islam and the history of Islam and the mistakes we made and why we should avoid making those mistakes. Muslims should travel to all those places, which were part of the Muslim Ummah. In those days, we did not have states like Iraq and Syria. They were part of one single territory where the people were Muslims. The British and the French divided the area into Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan and now they fight each other. And this is the result of our mistakes.

“We need to travel not only to see the sights and beauty of the place but also learn from the past and know how to correct our mistakes so that we will be able to emerge from our present position, where we always begging for our needs from others.”

(Editor’s Note: InComThu was organised in collaboration with the Saudi Arabian embassy, Malaysian Airlines and the Legend Hotel and sponsored by Firefly airlines, Hong Leong Tokio Marine Takaful, Standard Chartered Saadiq, POS Malaysia, The TA Edge and Rabbani Travel & Tours. Further details, including copies of the presentations, are available here.)