We suspect that even though travel in the modern world seems to have been taken over by the Commodity, even though the networks of convivial reciprocity seem to have vanished from the map, even though tourism seems to have triumphed. Even so, we continue to suspect that other pathways still persist, other tracks, unofficial, not noted on the map, perhaps even “secret” pathways still linked to the possibility of an economy of the Gift, smugglers’ routes for free spirits, known only to the geomantic guerrillas of the art of travel.
Perhaps the greatest and subtlest practitioners of the art of travel were the Sufis, the mystics of Islam. Before the age of passports, immunizations, airlines and other impediments to free travel, the Sufis wandered footloose in a world where borders tended to be more permeable than nowadays, thanks to the trans nationalism of Islam and the cultural unity of Dar al-Islam , the Islamic world.
The Prophet said, “Seek knowledge, even as far as China.” From the beginning, Islam lifts travel above all “mundane” utilitarianism and gives it an epistemological or even Gnostic dimension. “The jewel that never leaves the mine is never polished,” says the Sufi poet Saadi. To “educate” is to “lead outside,” to give the pupil a perspective beyond parochiality and mere subjectivity.
Some Sufis may have done all their traveling in the Imaginal World of archetypal dreams and visions, but vast numbers of them took the Prophet’s exhortations quite literally. Even today dervishes wander over the entire Islamic world but as late as the 19th century they wandered in veritable hordes, hundreds or even thousands at a time, and covered vast distances. All in search of knowledge.
As Sufism crystallized from the loose spontaneity of early days to an institution with rules and grades, “travel for knowledge” was also regularized and organized. Elaborate handbooks of duties for dervishes were produced which included methods for turning travel into a very specific form of meditation. The whole Sufi “path” itself was symbolized in terms of intentional travel.
In some cases itineraries were fixed (e.g. the Hajj); others involved waiting for “signs” to appear, coincidences, intuitions, “adventurers” such as those which inspired the travels of the Arthurian knights. Some orders limited the time spent in any one place to 40 days; others made a rule of never sleeping twice in the same place. The strict orders, such as the Naqshbandis, turned travel into a kind of full-time choreography, in which every movement was preordained and designed to enhance consciousness.
(Source: Peter Lamborn Wilson—’Sacred drift: the art of Sufi travel’, ‘The Caravan of Summer’ essay)