Medina: the city of the Prophet

December 17, 2007, Monday/ 19:50:00
Though not an obligatory part of hajj (pilgrimage), visiting Medina, the city of the Prophet, is an experience almost no hajji (pilgrim) misses. Medina is the city that the Prophet and his followers fled to when conditions in Mecca became unbearable. The name of this migration, hijrah, became the name of all voluntary or imposed migrations of believers done for the sake of religion.

Visiting Medina during the hajj season is particularly breathtaking. Pilgrims who have first visited the Kaaba and then Medina inescapably make comparisons between the two cities. It is true that the Prophet himself made the comparison in favor of Mecca, saying that one prayer in Mecca is rewarded 100,000-fold and a prayer in Medina 1,000 times; but again, he chose to stay in Medina even after his hometown was reassumed and he died and was buried in this refuge. Some Sufis were in favor of living and dying in Medina, to such an extent that they would keep their pilgrimage to Mecca as short as possible so as not to risk death outside Medina. The fact is that no objective comparison can be made between the two holiest cities and shrines of Islam. It is all subjective. Just as there are Meccan and Medinan chapters in the Quran, some Muslims are Meccan in nature and some are Medinan. Some find the deepest meanings of existence packed around the Kaaba and some realize them while watching silently the tomb of their beloved Prophet.

I am neither. I am a Jerusalemite. That third-holiest city of Islam is the city that speaks to me most. This puts me in a relatively objective position while observing the feelings of Muslims in Mecca and Medina. The hajj is full of symbols and rituals in Mecca, all of which busies the pilgrims and gives them the sense that they are fulfilling their duties. In Medina, they are left alone with their consciousnesses. Sitting in the Rawzatul-Mutahhara (the Clean Garden), a Muslim find no escape in circumambulation or in white ihram dresses or in the stoning of Satan, standing on the Arafat Mountain, touching the Black Stone or sacrificing animals; they have to deal with themselves.

The Meccan experience is an outward experience, with symbolic references to inner meanings. Medina is one solely within. The fact that the latest changes in the landscape of the city erased almost all signs of the past, including the gravestones of the first cemetery of Islam, traps the visitor in the present time. Whereas in Mecca the questions and answers are collective, in Medina they are all personal.

People have different expectations from this personal-present time experience. The night we arrived at our hotel in the immediate vicinity of the mosque of the Prophet, I was amazed to hear an American-Muslim journalist begging the receptionist to give him a room overlooking the mosque. Our ancestors, the Mamluks and the Ottomans, never constructed a building higher than the mosque of the Prophet, and here the American guy was fancying sleeping with a panorama of the Prophet's dome. He was refused. Apparently many first-comers had asked for the same favor earlier. "I would not be able to sleep in such a room," I thought. And that was the fate awaiting me. Fortunately it was not a top-floor room, but it was overlooking the green dome of the Prophet's Mosque under which Prophet Mohammed and his first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Omar, are buried.

Not being able to sleep, I preferred to spend the night in the mosque itself. In the past, the mosque was closed after midnight. But this year, King Abdullah asked the mosque be kept open 24 hours. The current mosque is an immense structure that can host about 1 million people; whereas the mosque of the Prophet is a small part of it that can host about 300. Thus it is always full and there is always somebody waiting to find an empty place for prayer.

I was lucky to find a place in between the mihrab (prayer niche) and the tomb of the Prophet. Spending about six hours there, reciting, meditating, praying and repenting, was worth a lifelong experience. I wouldn't suggest that I myself felt His spiritual existence in the air; that would be disclosing the extremely personal, but I am sure that many in that congregation were opening their "account books" in the presence of the Prophet; some with shame, some with honor. Many in that congregation had felt the immense reality of breathing the air that the Prophet himself breathed; had sensed the crashing misfortune of not being able to represent the Prophet as he deserved to be in this modern age.

No tomb or sepulcher of a religious or a national leader in the world, tells the visitors that much about themselves. You can learn a lot about the final days of Jesus in Jerusalem; you can reconstruct the heydays of the Egyptian civilization in the pyramids; but none will tell you about your inner realities as much as the Mosque of the Prophet does.

This is of course a Muslim pilgrim's point of view. I hope that Christians are experiencing similar things in the yard of the Holy Sepulcher, or Jews in front of the Wailing Wall.

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