Zara Choudhary is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sacred Footsteps; an online publication devoted to alternative and spiritual travel, history & culture from a Muslim perspective
We talk to Zara about her experiences as a writer on topics related to Islamic history, archaeology and culture and the future of Muslim tourism.
What is the intention behind Sacred Footsteps and how did you come up with the name?
The intention behind Sacred Footsteps at the very beginning, was to create a platform aimed at Muslim travellers, history enthusiasts, and those generally interested in Muslim culture. Back when we started, there was very little reliable travel information or good quality travel writing aimed specifically at Muslim travellers, and even less about spiritual sites such as maqams and dargahs.
The name ‘Sacred Footsteps’ is intended to reflect a number of things; firstly the idea of travelling, with purpose, for the sake of spiritual benefit and getting ‘closer’ to God. This sort of travel has deep roots in our tradition, and well known figures such as Imam al-Ghazali sought (and achieved) spiritual transformation through it. Secondly, it conveys something that as Muslims we aim to do, which is to follow in the footsteps of the Messenger of God صلى الله عليه وسلم, and live our lives in accordance with his message. Thirdly, since we are also a history publication, it refers to the traces left by previous generations - whether in the form of physical buildings, institutions, or cultural practices.
The Editorial Team includes Zara Choudhary (Editor), Zirrar, Omar Rais, Yasmine Ahmed-Lea. How did you all meet and find you have shared common interests?
We all met through Sacred Footsteps itself. After I launched the publication, I found that people with whom the concept resonated, started to get in touch about wanting to contribute. That is how Zirrar, Omar and Yasmine all got involved. We all share a similar vision, and importantly I feel, we all have different strengths and bring something different to the team. Aside from the four of us, who make up the Editorial Team, we have a wider team of contributors and regular writers also, and are incredibly fortunate that they are based all over the world. They are therefore able to bring a depth of knowledge and experience about their culture and heritage to our content.
How did you collectively identify a need to offer spiritual & alternative travel, history & culture from a Muslim perspective?
Mainly because that is the content we needed for ourselves - and it just didn’t exist. Each of us has travelled a considerable amount, and unfortunately, even today, a lot of travel content aimed at Muslims is centred around finding halal food. We wanted more than that; we wanted to know about local history and the spiritual sites of a place - and the best way to find this information is usually through people based locally.
We also felt, collectively, that while many organisations already offered courses on learning about various aspects of our Deen and how to practise it, there were fewer resources centred on Muslim history and cultural traditions. For example, each year we do a Story on Instagram صلى الله عليه وسلم showing the ways in which communities around the world celebrate birth of the Prophet during the month of Rabi al-Awwal. We put together content from 20-30 cities, and its an amazing way to see the cultural diversity that exists in the Muslim world.
Showcasing the diversity of the global Muslim community is an integral part of what you do, what myths do you hope to dispel through this?
Primarily the myth that Muslim culture is a homogenous entity. This is a myth that even many Muslims in the West seem to believe. In our modern world, there is a tendency to look upon differences among Muslims as an aberration from the ‘norm’. But Islam has always had its own distinct local flavours, which are reflected in the traditional dress of people, their architecture and arts, the songs they sing, the ways in which they celebrate on religious occasions. We see that heritage as something to preserve and celebrate.
Why do you think telling our own stories about Muslim history and culture is important?
For those of us based in the West, Muslim history and culture was often shown to us through an Orientalist lens, undoubtedly distorting our understanding. It is important that we tell our own stories to prevent that happening, otherwise it’s very difficult to connect meaningfully with our tradition.
What are your thoughts on the inclusion of faith travel in the mainstream travel industry?
I think its a good thing in the sense that it allows Muslim travellers to feel a sense of security - its not always easy to travel, especially if you visibly ‘look’ Muslim, so knowing that you’re travelling with an organisation catering to your faith-based needs, whether that be food related or ensuring you have somewhere to pray, makes things a lot easier.
You offer uniquely packaged tours, do you find there is a growth in the Muslim tourism industry and how is the perception of travel tourism changing?
One thing I’ve noticed with those who choose to travel with us, is that they are not after “mainstream” travel experiences. They don’t want to go shopping in malls or lie on the beach all day (not that there is anything wrong with that). For many, travel is a chance to connect with a heritage that they’ve never had the opportunity to connect with before; or its about learning something from a whole new place.
Through your travel packages you encourage sustainable, ethical and responsible travel practices, what does this entail and can you share some tips?
I think its important to acknowledge that no travel is going to be 100% sustainable, ethical or responsible, but we should always strive to do what we can. We try to ensure the
accommodations used on our trips are locally owned and benefit the local economy. The same goes for restaurants and other services.
What are some of your most memorable travel moments?
My most memorable travel moments are almost all ones that were completely unplanned. The one that means the most to me, is when I ended up, unexpectedly, staying in someone’s home overnight in the desert in Mauritania, after we got lost. I slept on a carpet under a starry sky - and it was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.
What does the future of Islamic art and culture look like to you?
On the culture side in particular, I really hope we will continue to see a diversity of cultural practises among Muslims; I hope that Muslims from non-Arab backgrounds will take pride in their own traditions, and not view them as somehow inferior to Arab ones (which is sadly pretty common today).
I’m really interested in Islamic architecture, and how it always took on the architectural styles and practises of the local region wherever Muslims went - and transformed it into something new. I’m curious to see how mosques in the West will look in the future, and whether there will be a move away from the style of domes and minarets we’ve typically seen so far. There are already some interesting developments with mosque design in the UK, in terms of taking on local building materials and design elements, I’m excited to see how that trend will develop, and whether we will eventually have our own distinctive British mosque style.
For more information on Zara Choudhary follow Insta: @zara_choudhary
For Sacred Footsteps follow
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