The interview with Abdul Sahib Shakiry went along on his interests and activities as a promoter of Islamic tourism, with its correlate concept, responsible tourism. It is in this perspective that he advocated for the role of such encounters to develop mutual knowledge and understanding between various communities and cultures. Hence, tourism towards the Islamic world and from the Islamic countries to Europe are to be encouraged and intensified in order to bring people together and share their common values instead of stressing their differences.
This week on the Muslim Heritage Radio Show, we will be focusing on the topic of Islamic tourism. We are very grateful to have on the show Abdul Sahib Shakiry who is based in London. He is an astute businessman with experience going back many years. He has set up an Islamic Tourism magazine and the Islamic Tourism website. The website link where you can find all the information related to this theme is www.islamictourism.com.
Thank you very much for joining us.
Thank you. It is my honor to participate on your programme and I am happy to answer your questions.
Can you briefly mention about your background and how your interest in Islamic tourism initially came about?
I started very early in my career working in the shoe industry and I became one of the leading manufactures in Iraq. So we had about 30 branches or more at a certain time, and by the end of the 1970’s we had more than 500 and up to 600 people working in our factory. Then I started traveling around in Europe from 1955, mainly for my business. In my free time, I went visiting many different areas. At that time, most of my trips were focusing on exhibitions and the trade magazines in our trade or any other trade that was related to our trade. Hence, in my free time, I would visit tourist sites which focused on culture or entertainment. This gave me a very good background about the world of tourism.
When I settled in the UK in 1980, I started different economic activities such as establishing an experimental model shoe factory in Vauxhall, London, with several shoe branches under the name of Rafid Shoes Ltd. In 1983, I established TCPH (Technical Consulting and Publishing House Ltd.) and starting publishing Al-Hidhaa, a trade magazine for leather and shoe industry in Arabic and English. This followed another publication called Al-Ridaa, which dealt with textile and clothing industry. These two trade magazines were issued for 10 years and gave me another chance to travel and attend exhibitions and conferences throughout the world. Before these magazines were published, all trade magazines in those fields were local language and subject to the trade. I left the world of publication from 1994 to 1999, but came back to it through one conference which was focusing on the famous city of Najaf. This conference raised my ideas that there was much undiscovered wealth/ information to be gained from the Islamic heritage and tourism industry. I therefore decided to spotlight this industry and make it worldwide to benefit all races, creeds and religions. My background in the other trade publications gave me the courage and inspiration to take on this task.
Which year did you set up the Islamic Tourism magazine and website and what are the aims and purposes of this initiative that you have started?
The preparation for the Islamic Tourism Magazine (ITM) took one year at least. Before that, I considered having an encyclopedia. The first issue of ITM was published in 2001. It aimed to promote the new wealth of Islamic heritage around the world, to benefit the populations of those destination countries, to try to fill the gap between Muslims’ and non-Muslims’ culture, by making information about such places accessible in our multilingual magazine. This magazine is not a purely business driven enterprise, it is more of a cultural magazine which aims to have an educative purpose too.
Can you mention some of the famous landmarks in different parts of the Muslim world which the ITM has covered so far?
This is such a broad question. Such landmarks cannot be specified and it would be unfair just to mention a few. Every country is rich in heritage. The magazine has covered many countries and the articles can be accessed via the ITM website.
You recently wrote an article on the potential tourism opportunities in Iraq. In light of the current situation in Iraq, can you explain how you envisage such opportunities manifesting themselves in the very near future?
My article was written immediately after the change in Iraq. I don’t want to say it was a liberation or occupation. After the change, I wrote that “could Iraq be the focus of tourism in the world?” I don’t recommend anyone to go and I also do not suggest that anyone should not go, because Iraq for the time being is not very safe. But, many people have such a strong faith in the holy places in Iraq that they still continue to go to visit Iraq in their thousands, from inside of Iraq or from the neighboring countries, especially Iran. And Iraqis are by nature peaceful people. What is happening at the moment is something that has been orchestrated by external ideologies and interests in the wealth of Iraq. So it is political motivations actually and nothing to do with the religious sector. They use religion for political means in order to control each other.
Can you mention some of the important landmarks, monuments, heritage sites in Iraq?
Iraq is one of the unique countries in the world which has heritage places for the whole of humanity and religions. If we look at it from a historical perspective, we see the city of Ur, one of the first cities discovered in the world. Prophet Abraham (AS) was born in Ur and it is from there that he started his mission to Jerusalem and from Jerusalem to Mecca to build the House of God. There are many other Babylonian and Sumarian historical places. If we take the major religions in the world, there are so many prophets that have ties with Iraq and have landmarks in Iraq, especially in the north and south west of Iraq. Then, if we come to the Muslims, we have so many places for the family of the Prophet (pbuh), the Ahlu ‘l-Bayt. Imam Ali (ra), Imam Hussein (ra), Hasan al-Askari (ra) in Samara. In the other sector, we have Shaykh Abdul Qadir Gilani (ra), Imam Abu Hanifa (ra). Everybody can certainly benefit from Iraq’s heritage. For example, those who have immense respect and reverence for Shaykh Abdul Qadir Gilani (ra) travel from places like Pakistan and North Africa; this could be a great source of business for Iraq. This applies to all the religious heritage places in Iraq which are held and revered by the many faith traditions. Many of the important heritage places in Iraq have been written about in the ITM, with pictures too.
Do you have any details about the economic benefits that Islamic tourism can bring to these respective countries based on your experience in this field?
Today the tourism industry is booming everywhere. There are billions available in budget streams to cater for this industry. But all this tourism is based on competing with each other through hotels and other logistics, whereas the root of Muslim heritage and Islamic tourism leads to the heart of the people. It is a multi-faceted arena where one can learn so much from each other through this channel. If we take the example of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, they have millions of people traveling every year for the Umrah or the Hajj, but they are still now promoting other tourism which is not linked to the religious rites that pilgrims visit the kingdom for. I feel, if a multi-faceted approach is used for Iraq, it does have potential to be a leading tourist center in the world day.
We have international organizations like UNESCO who focus on world heritage sites. Are there any famous or not so famous Islamic sites on the UNESCO world heritage list that you are aware of?
First, I would like to thank you very much for bringing this question up, because even the first issue of ITM which we distributed at a conference in Damascus, UNESCO were apart of the conference that took place on culture and tourism in Damascus. UNESCO is aware about this area, but we do not have too many personnel at this juncture to deal with the public relations side in order to promote and raise awareness about the Muslim heritage sites. We personally have not asked them about this and do not know very much on what they have in their records. I know lately, they have added Samara as part of the world heritage sites list.
What are the procedures for recommending a site to be included in the world heritage list?
As I said, there is a lot of work that can be done. For instance, there is a conference coming up in Brussels and they will be speaking about how to protect the Islamic holy places around the world. The conference is being attended by Prince Hassan from Jordan. There is a lot of work that needs to be done together in an organized manner in order to achieve such objectives. Those organizations that have the financial clout to support such noble initiatives have to come forward and provide assistance in order for such projects to yield productive results.
In certain parts of the Muslim world, many of the sacred Muslim heritage sites have been desecrated, and at times demolished, so that very little of the original remains. Has the ITM done anything to raise awareness about such practices which have taken place in Saudi Arabia and in Iraq in recent times?
The magazine is a tourism magazine. The point you have raised is all political, we don’t want to get ourselves involved in the political issues. The aim of the magazine is to promote pure and clean tourism. Muslims have to go around the world. We have a book now called Tourism Prospects. All my articles focus on how to educate the people in the schools to take tourism as a subject. Referring back to your question, this is a political decision and the answer should come from the root, from those people in Saudi Arabia in considering changing their ideology on these issues. To save the Muslim heritage in these lands, it is in the hands of the people in political power and not a question to do with religion only.
What has been the response to the ITM and website since you set it up?
The response has been very welcoming and everybody is interested. Especially as in this day and age, the name of Islam can raise much skepticism in certain media outlets. People are very interested about the idea of Islamic tourism at large. Some Arab regions were ignoring this aspect of Islamic tourism. But if anybody now goes to our website, they can see the thousands of visitors that view the website on a weekly basis. People are interested from all over the world. We constantly receive emails of appreciation. We cover all types of tourism and promote responsible tourism. We have gone beyond the understanding of the concept of Islamic tourism. Islamic tourism includes all types of tourism which are committed to family morals, humanitarian and Islamic values. The concept has been taken up by major international organizations like the United Nations and the British Reed Exhibition company which has adopted the slogan responsible tourism.
Are there any impending or future projects that you are working on at the moment?
We have a very ambitious programme of publishing articles on the theme of tourism on a weekly basis in 5 languages. The 5 languages are Arabic-English, Arabic-German, Arabic-Spanish, and Arabic-French. We aim to increase the number of languages in which the articles are translated into such as Russian, Chinese, Indonesian and other Far Eastern languages.
One thing that I have picked up in the ITM and website is that you do not only focus on the conventional Muslim countries, but you also focus on countries in Europe. If you can briefly mention about the European dimension of Islam which your articles are focusing on?
In the beginning, I was asked by the BBC “for whom are you making this magazine?” I told them that tourism has no border. You can’t have a restrictive approach of what is included within the parameters of tourism and what is not. In the same way that Islam has no border. Why we are promoting European tourism is that so long it is moral tourism, this is needed also. This also provides an opportunity for people to learn from each other also. We are encouraging the Muslims to go to every corner of the world. Today, the world has become a global village and the ITM wishes to have this principal playing a key part in the manner that it projects itself. This is a big obligation in terms of trying to bring many people together as long as the aims of this project are not political or religiously orientated, but based on humanitarian principles. We feel this is possible with the Help of God.
It is an important point that you raise. Muslims today are an integral part of Europe and it is important that we are able to demonstrate aspects of our civilization in a positive manner?
Actually, that is happening already. If you go to the museums in cities like London, Paris or Berlin, you see all our heritage there. It’s not only a case of us promoting our heritage, we would also like to know about their heritage too. It is an exchange and not a one sided project where we do not recognize the other side.
Are there any final comments you wish to make on this overall theme of Islamic tourism?
For the people around the world, I am requesting that just care to visit the ITM website; I am sure you will find it inspiring and find many things that you are looking for. My request is to all organizations that are working in tourism, from hotels to governments, please develop this and let this media which is unique in the world because it is multilingual dimension expand. We are promoting tourism with a responsible tourism. At the same time, we are looking for people who may wish to get involved in this initiative from a management perspective, as this initiative is not my work, but a work for the whole of humanity at large.
Thank you for joining us on the show. You have highlighted an important aspect of Muslim heritage that people need to be aware of and I wish you the very best for your magazine, website and any future publications and works that you do.
Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to open my heart and speak on this topic. I hope that this is the start of future good works and mutual cooperation in this area.