By Daniela Frendo, Epicure & Culture Contributor
Travelers who have experienced Islamic culture often talk about visiting impressive mosques, exploring bustling bazaars and savoring aromatic foods. They speak about coming across a peaceful way of life and being met with sincere hospitality. This is the side of the Muslim world that tends to be overshadowed by negative and unrepresentative portrayals of Islamic culture in the media.
We’ve asked seasoned travel bloggers to share their favorite destination for exploring Islamic culture. Here are 10 places you should add to your culture carnivore bucket list.
“When most people think of Pakistan, they think of terrorism, Osama bin Laden hiding in a cave, or the Middle East crisis. But when I think of Pakistan, I think of warm welcomes, wide grins, and way, way too much free chai.
2) Istanbul, Turkey
“Istanbul might have a Muslim majority population but true to the country’s constitution, it is extremely secular and inclusive, which makes it one of my favorite cities in the world. My husband and I visited this vibrant city by the strait of Bosporus in summer 2013 and I was simply mesmerized by the blend of modern life and the rich history that thrived in perfect harmony in bustling metropolis.
Besides the Aya Sofia and the Topkapi Palace which people throng to for a glimpse of the bygone Ottoman Empire, I highly urge visitors to get the 72 hr museum pass and check out some other cool museums including the Islamic Museum of Science and Technology, which showcases advances in nautical science and math by Arabs in the 11th century AD (abacus is after all, a contribution from the Arabic world). Similarly, the Rustom Pasha mosque is another tiny little mosque displaying the breath-taking beautiful white and blue Iznik tiles that Turkey is famous for, and was voted Istanbul’s most beautiful mosque by Lonely Planet magazine.
Unlike many other conservative Muslim countries, Istanbul is pretty lax on clothing for women unless you enter a mosque or parts of Topkapi palace (particularly where the Prophet’s hair is kept) where you need to be clothed fully with no exposed hands or feet (for both genders) along with a headscarf for women (in the mosques). Here is a full guide on what to wear in Turkey to help you pack appropriately.
I highly recommend visiting Istanbul if you are a traveler at heart due to its tolerance and diversity.”
“Qatar’s growing expat population and liberal policies are at odds with its identity as a predominantly Muslim country that follows the Sharia law. The country’s attempts to strike a balance between the two have largely succeeded and today Qatar is a popular and safe tourist destination to experience Islamic culture and tradition in an increasingly modern setting.
The renowned Museum of Islamic Arts in Doha is an excellent starting point to understand the range of visual arts produced in ancient Islamic time periods and the advances made by Islamic scholars in the fields of geometry and astronomy. Venture inside the Falcon Souq in Doha to understand the thriving tradition of falconry and Qatar’s Bedouin heritage. Or watch the traditional sport of camel racing at Al Shahaniya Camel Racetrack, north of Doha. Known as the sport of the sheiks, camel racing has been practiced over generations by the Bedouin Arabs.
Doha city’s futuristic skyline, restored Souq Waqif and many government buildings depict modernist renditions of traditional Islamic architecture and patterns. You might lose yourself in the towering skyline and turquoise waters of Doha Bay but the beautiful Islamic call to prayer will bring you back to this hidden gem in the Persian Gulf.”
“One amazing place to experience Islamic culture is the sultanate of Oman. Oman is in many respects quite a conservative country, where it is seen as a sign of respect for both men and women to wear traditional dress, and the system of dowries is still firmly in place: Omani men spend many years saving up for the girl of their dreams! The country has modernised dramatically in the last 40 years and the infrastructure, healthcare and education systems are great; but development has been sympathetic and the buildings of the capital, Muscat, must still be relatively low-rise and designed in an Islamic style. The city is also home to one of the newest, largest and most splendid mosques in the Middle East.
The people of Oman are friendly and laid-back, and happy to share their culture with visitors. Oman feels more relaxed than many other Muslim countries, and as a woman I was never hassled or made to feel uncomfortable. Plus there is the amazing scenery of the coast, a rich history of dhow building and frankincense, and the stunning deserts of the interior where our guides stripped off their traditional dress and tore up the dunes in their 4x4s, shorts and t-shirts. If you fancy a safe, modern yet traditional Islamic experience with a bit of adventure thrown in, Oman is the place to go.”
5. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
“Regardless of what time you land in Kuala Lumpur, the soft call to prayers will soon be echoing throughout the city. Celebrating a population that is 40% Muslim, the more than 15 mosques throughout the city not only share the call to prayer five times a day, they create a stunning ambiance as the domes and minarets speckle the city skyline.
Finding myself in such a culturally rich city, I couldn’t wait to visit the mosques. Despite traveling around Asia for several months, I had yet to have the honor of exploring one. Luckily Malaysia, particularly Kuala Lumpur, creates an incredible introduction to Islam for travelers. The mosques, as well as other houses of worship in the city, welcome thousands of tourists each year, including solo travelers in Malaysia.
Visiting four mosques in Malaysia, each time I was met with friendly greeters eager to answer questions about their religion. In fact, several of the greeters were so zealous about answering common questions or addressing misconceptions, they were disappointed with my lack of questions. To be safe, I recommend having a few questions on hand.
To start, I recommend visiting the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur. They have a prominent guest counter where you can check out robes. To expand your journeys, exploring the vibrant display of different architectural styles, consider a day trip to either Putrajaya or Melaka.”
6. Xi’an, China
“Walking down the crowded streets of China, I found myself in a surprising and unexpected setting filled with Muslim culture tucked in every alleyway and small streets. When you travel to China, most people expect to see the typical pandas, dumpling shops, the Great Wall, etc., but what people don’t expect is to see a blooming Muslim culture in the heart of China– Xi’an.
Located in the center town of Xi’an, a city famous for the Terra Cotta Warriors, is a city called Muslim Street with a unique fusion of Chinese and Muslim culture where you can find beautiful artwork and delicious food such as lamian.”
“Egypt is famed for its historical sights but the culture is also a huge part of the amazing experience of traveling Egypt. We were there during the month of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, which made for a unique experience.
There are plenty of interesting and beautiful mosques to visit throughout the country but many Egyptians will meet together to pray wherever they happen to be. No food is eaten during daylight hours but as soon as the sun sets there is a huge party atmosphere. Iftar is the meal which breaks the fast and is usually a large feast where anyone is welcome! We tried lots of amazing foods and learned a lot more about Muslim traditions by joining locals for their evening meal. Egypt is a great place to be immersed in Muslim culture while exploring ancient history.”
“As an anthropologist the question of where is the best place to explore Muslim culture is quite a difficult one. Every country is a unique blend of religion, culture and local traditions, but let me share my experiences in a country that blew my mind and was quite different from what I expected. Iran is one of the few countries in the world that is ruled by Islamic law. Religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei has the last word in every decision and keeps an eye on whether the laws meet religious ideals. That’s why Iran has an image of being a fundamental Islamic country.
What I found was quite the opposite. Maybe because the government is imposing Islamic law upon its people, Iranians are quite critical and thoughtful about religion. Whether they are Muslim or not, they have often thought carefully about if and how they follow their religion. I was absolutely amazed by the variety in religious practice in Iran. Especially the young people who are extremely creative in bending the rules or finding a way around them. The average young Iranian girl manages to look stylish and sexy while still adhering to the Islamic dress code. The head scarf is loosely draped around her head showing as much hair as possible, the mandatory coats are as tight as can be and make up is applied to perfection.
Another reason Iran is an interesting place to experience Muslim culture is that it is one of the few countries where people follow Shia Islam. Next to the beautiful mosques, the country is filled with shrines and mausoleums where people go to pay their respects. The Islamic architecture all over Iran and Iran’s hospitality were two of the reasons why I loved Iran so much.”
Solo female travel in Iran is also an enjoyable experience!
“Studying abroad in Senegal during college was my first experience in a predominantly Muslim country, and upon arrival, the presence of Islam is immediately obvious. As in many parts of Africa, religion is a major force in people’s everyday lives there, with phrases like “inshallah” (if Allah wills it) and “alhamdulillah” (thanks be to Allah) making their way into most any conversation.
Many religious practices echo those found throughout the Middle East, with much of the population heeding the call to prayer five times a day, abstaining from pork, and fasting during Ramadan. But it was fascinating to see the particular brand of Islam that has evolved in Senegal, one that is based on Sufi brotherhoods but also intertwined with traditional animist beliefs. People deeply revere their brotherhood’s leaders, or marabouts, whose leadership also has mystical aspects, such as creating amulets for their members to wear for protection.
Learning about Islam in Senegal goes far beyond its traditional tenets and reveals the diversity that exists among Muslim cultures, and that’s what made it such an interesting experience.”
10. Samarkand, Uzbekistan
“An absolutely fascinating place to explore Islamic culture is Samarkand in Uzbekistan. Never heard of it? The ancient city was once the pride of the Silk Road with gigantic mosques, the most colorful madrasahs and tombs rivaling anything you might see in Egypt & beyond. The best part: Samarkand, despite its status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sees hardly any tourists. The most famous site in Samarkand is by far the Registan Ensemble, and you will have it almost to yourself on most days.
I’ve seen a lot of amazing places around the world, but the Registan literally took my breath away. I really cannot fathom why so few people have the city on their bucket list. Just don’t visit in July, as it will be unbearably hot!”
Where are your favorite places to explore Islamic culture?
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