أَفَلَمْ يَسِيرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ فَتَكُونَ لَهُمْ قُلُوبٌ يَعْقِلُونَ بِهَا أَوْ آذَانٌ يَسْمَعُونَ بِهَا
Have they not travelled in the land so that they should have hearts with which to understand, or ears with which to hear?
(Surat al-Hajj, No.22, Āyat 46)
Verses 42-44 of Surat al-Hajj discuss the people of the past who rejected God and His Messengers. The verses mention their ultimate end and the abandoned buildings and cities which they left behind. Then verse 46 talks about traveling and learning from the history of the past. Those who travel on the land and think about the places they travel through will gain insight and understanding. Historical sites can be compared to books with a lot of thought-provoking material. Those who delve into them emerge with new perspectives on the bigger questions of life.
Going through lands on which other people lived, reminds one of the transient nature of this world. They too lived with long hopes and amassed wealth and power in this world. But they had to leave it and go. Other people inhabited their lands and took over their possessions. Little remains from them except the fruits of what they accomplished while on earth, good or bad.
This verse above talks about the impact of traveling on the intellect of the travelers. They gain new understandings. The heart is the seat of knowledge and the organ of spiritual understanding. The verse mentions hearts and ears, but not eyes. ‘Allāmah Tabātabā’ī in Tafsīr al-Mīzān says that is because the verse is talking about two groups of people. One who understands things with their own intellect and have receptive hearts. The second group are those who take guidance from other people by listening to them. They trust these people and get their understandings from them. Hearts and ears are thus mentioned as two means of reaching a correct understanding of things. A lack of this understanding is termed as blindness of the heart as the verse goes on to say:
فَإِنَّهَا لَا تَعْمَى الْأَبْصَارُ وَلَٰكِن تَعْمَى الْقُلُوبُ الَّتِي فِي الصُّدُورِ
For indeed, it is not the eyes that are blind, but blind are the hearts which are within the chests (22:46).
Travel can be transformative when it is undertaken properly. A vacation for pleasure may not always serve the purpose. But when travel is done for spiritual and educational reasons, it can help the traveler to come to many deep understandings. Travel has been encouraged by the Quran in many places, especially to see the remains of previous civilizations. Allah says:
قَدْ خَلَتْ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ سُنَنٌ فَسِيرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ فَانظُرُوا كَيْفَ كَانَ عَاقِبَةُ الْمُكَذِّبِينَ
Similar situations [as yours] have passed on before you, so proceed throughout the earth and observe how was the end of those who denied (Q 3:137)
قُلْ سِيرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ ثُمَّ انظُرُوا كَيْفَ كَانَ عَاقِبَةُ الْمُكَذِّبِينَ
Say, ‘Travel through the land; then observe how was the end of the deniers’ (Q 6:11).
Travel is undertaken by many people these days. Despite the hassle and inconveniences which are sometimes encountered, travel has become a common means of taking a break, connecting with family and friends, and undertaking spiritual journeys like ‘Umrah and Ziyārat. But we must remember the essential purpose of traveling as outlined in the Quran. When we travel, we must reflect on the history of the places and gain insight from it. Our intellect will become sharper and more perceptive.
Sources: ‘Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān
Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Ed), The Study Quran.