By Irene Aviles
Travel is the best form of active learning! I have spanned the globe covering all seven continents in an effort to understand specific cultures and religions. It is of such importance to me that I created a company specializing in villa travel so families can travel together and expose their children to another way of life – outside the bubble of their own community. As my children graduate from high school and embark
onto higher learning, I believe their exposure to world cultures and religions will help them see commonalities we share yet have a deep respect for our differences.
I have also been working on my master’s degree at Harvard University studying Religion with an emphasis on Social Justice. I am often asked what it is about religion that fascinates me to the point of study, and it all comes down to the desire to understand others and their opinions. I believe religion is an underlying force that defines humanity and is deeply intertwined with culture, politics and economics. Therefore, I would like to share some things about Islam that I studied from a cultural studies perspective – a method of viewing religion through its interwoven political, economic and cultural influences, rather than a devotional expression or theology of faith – with no issue of right and wrong. Studying the different human constructions of Islamic traditions helps to glean an understanding of how Islam started and where it stands today. While learning the basics of the belief system and its evolvement through centuries of wars and rulers with political and economic changes, one can appreciate the various interpretations that are derived even within a particular faith. Of course, the cultural backdrop of Islamic roots and how it spread to other cultures and nations was especially interesting. My hope is that you will become interested in learning more about Islam and consider traveling to these foreign lands.
In short, Islam shares similarities with Christianity and Judaism as all believe in the same God and the prophets of the Torah and the Christian Bible. The Prophet Mohammad is believed to be the last of the prophets to deliver a message to humanity from God. The foundation of Islam is declared with one phrase, “There is no god but God” along with a belief that Mohammad is the last prophet; they also follow pillars of faith as a guiding source. Islam is expressed through art, poetry and song so their cultural arts and architecture are influenced by this beautiful expression to God. The Quran is their holy book, and since it was originally an oral text in Arabic it is best experienced when listened to in an oral presentation versus a written text.
While I have previously traveled to some Islamic countries – Ephesus in Turkey, Maldives, and the Lakshadweep Islands off the Indian coast – I have been re-energized to visit even more places. We often say visiting a country on the internet or through the media is not the same – you
can’t touch it, smell it or interact with others. You cannot understand someone’s culture unless you go to their turf. While we must acknowledge when political matters are inflamed and follow travel advisories there are numerous countries that are typically safe. I am going to Dubai and Abu Dhabi this summer, which is part of the United Arab Emirates. These emirates have the highest gender imbalance with 72% male and 28% female. Studying women in Islam was quite fascinating as the Quran does not discriminate against women – as one might think – but understanding the culture of patriarchy is a different story. I will return to Maldives and visit Jordan as I am especially interested in visiting Wadi Rum and Petra, the “Rose City” – an archeological site settled perhaps as early as 9000 BC. Stay tuned!
Ultimately, our nation needs unity as we are more divided than ever, and travel can help us build bridges. The danger of religious illiteracy is that democracy cannot exist with fear of one’s neighbor. Marginalization of minorities leads to radicalization, thereby exploited by ideologies that promote extremism. I believe we should all take time to understand and be tolerant of other beliefs.