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Ramadan in Madina
Kerim Fenari

The approach to Makka lies through mountains, sharp, unforgiving angles of granite. The road to Madina passes through great plains of basalt: the harra wastelands which provide dramatic reminders of the region’s volcanic past. Several eruptions are recorded by the Muslim historians, the most fearsome taking place in 1257, when a volcano poured out fast-moving orange streams of lava, which were only deflected to pass to the east of the city by the fervent prayers of its inhabitants.

Desiccated by the merciless desert air, these seas of fire have dried to form black basalt plains, which stretch beyond the horizon. They are God’s defence of the city, whose glassy sharpness kept at bay the idolatrous invaders of Quraish, forcing them to confront the believers at their only point of access, at the Battle of the Trench. The desolation of this landscape of flat blackness, interrupted by dry sarha bushes, and, far away, the shapely profile of extinct volcanoes, gives the impact of arrival an extraordinary dramatic power.

The proximity of the City, on the motorway inevitably dubbed the Hijra Highway, is first announced by the slip-road to Abyar Ali, the Wells of Ali. These are sweetwater sources much frequented by pilgrims, eager to benefit from the medicinal properties of these deep, cold wells once owned by the Blessed Prophet’s son-in-law. Pilgrims from the Subcontinent, in particular, flock here to catch the precious fluid in bottles, to be given to relatives on their return: a gift almost as welcome as the Water of Zamzam itself.

Ten minutes drive, and Quba is reached. Here, the black barrenness of the harrat suddenly gives way to a verdant sea of green. Alfalfa, watermelons, cucumber and tomatoes grow here, between fruit trees and the ancient symbol of Madina, the date palm itself. In this prosperous suburb, now a place of coffee-shops and small parks, can still be found the Zarqa wells from which the Blessed Prophet drank when first he reached the City, and which are the secret of the land’s fertility. Here, too, the Madinan Muslims, and the penniless but radiant refugees from Makkan tyranny, patiently lined the walls and the high places, hoping for a glimpse of God’s Messenger and the faithful Abu Bakr, as they appeared as dots on the shimmering horizon.

The mosque at Quba, the first place of worship founded in Islam, is impressive but sober. The 1986 reconstruction retains the familiar features of Madinese architecture, which are ribbed white domes, and basalt facing over a modest exterior that recalls Madina’s primordial simplicity. The courtyard, screened overhead by day from the scorching heat, is flagged with black, red and white marble. Calligraphy by great Turkish masters soars overhead, proclaiming the uniqueness of this place. Arabesque latticework filters the light of the palm groves outside. Doves coo in the window-niches.

Despite the sense of peace, few linger here. The pull of the Haram, the Sanctuary, is everywhere, and as the sun lowers in the west the pilgrims have thoughts only for the Prophet’s Mosque. At this time, there is only one destination for visitors and city-dwellers alike. In Ramadan, in this city, it would be possible to switch off the traffic lights in the late afternoon. Every road becomes a one-way street, pulling the visitor towards the cool, radiant heart of the city.

Visitors who have not set foot in Madina before are often in tears by now. The blessings of a still, loving Presence can be breathed everywhere, softening hearts, and loosening tongues in dhikr. Shops and buildings pass by, but here the city itself is no more than a blur. Visitors come here for one place, and for one person alone.

The road skirts the Manakha district, and passes the Mosque of Abu Bakr, its Ottoman minaret pointing to the clear, reddening sky. Then, the splendour of the Haram is suddenly revealed. A minaret, and then several more, sparkle in welcome. And then the adhan rises, piercing the warm air with its magnetic summons.

A sea of quiet humanity pours into each of seventy gates. Many have removed their sandals long beforehand, out of respect for the ground, which holds the Messenger in its embrace. Within, there is clear light, carpets, water-barrels, and an extraordinary dynamic which draws the visitor on, and in, until at last the courtyard is reached, and the pilgrim stands in the presence of the Best of Creation.

Hundreds of thousands are being fed. These guests of the Prophet sit, while those honoured with this service circulate, smilingly handing out dates, or small containers of yoghurt. In this palace of the Prophet, no-one, however poor, goes hungry when the time of the fast is ended. Children tumble on the carpets, laughing with delight at the experience of the endless sanctuary. There is a murmur of grateful conversation, and of prayer.

The space is articulated with supreme genius. To one side is the Gate of Gabriel, leading on, and in, to the Rawda, and to the mihrab in which the Messenger himself laid his forehead on the earth in adoration of God. On one side is the dakka, the carved marble platform on which the muezzin and his assistants await the appointed time. On the other rises the gold grille beyond which lies the cool and shaded silence beneath the great dome. The air here is perfumed by the rarest of incense and musk, announcing the presence, beneath the flagstones, of the Best of Creation, and Abu Bakr and Umar, his closest companions.

The modern Egyptian poet al-Fayturi expresses the emotions of millions:

Over the Prophet’s form every speck of dust

is a pillar of light

ascending from the dome of his tomb

to the dome of the skies.

And the awe that makes our foreheads bow

draws its own horizon, and higher horizons,

from hands and from lips -

the road of ‘In the name of God.’

The proximity is overwhelming for some pilgrims, whose humility and awe forces them to sit at a respectful distance, perhaps some way down the mosque. Others cannot sit too close. Everywhere, there is worship, bowing and prostration, the mellifluous murmuring of the Qur’an, and wordless contemplation.

A hadith tells us that ‘Prayer in my mosque is a thousand times better than prayer in any other mosque, saving only the Sacred Mosque itself.’ As the iqama sounds, and half a million men and women rise with longing for the prayer, the calculation does not feel like an overstatement.

Prayer in the Rawda is especially sought after. A hadith affirms that ‘the space between my grave and my pulpit is one of the Meadows of Paradise.’ Here, listening to the awesome gravity of God’s word, the continuity with the blessed past is felt intensely. The greatest saints and scholars of Islam have stood here: after the Companions came countless thousands: the Four Imams worshipped here, as did al-Shaybani, Ibn Jurayj, al-Zuhri, Sibawayh, Ibn Qutaybah, al-Ghazali, al-Nawawi, A’isha al-Ba‘uniyya, Ibn Khaldun: all the great souls of Islam have prayed here, humbled by the Prophetic presence.

After the silent prayers of the day, the worshippers drink the words of the Qur’an thirstily. The greetings of peace are given, and the lines break up as they worship individually. Circles of remembrance form in the Rawda, as turbanned Turks repeat a litany, guided by their teacher, prayer-beads in hand. Nigerians, Uzbeks, Bangladeshis and a whole sea of Indonesians do likewise.

A Baluchi folk-melody, ‘May I see the towers of Madina’, sings,

On the tongues of this Rawda’s nightingales are words of wisdom,

More beautifully coloured than all the flowers of Madina!

Among the many Prophetic litanies which the careful ear may hear in this place, the most widely-used is the Dala’il al-Khayrat, the Indications of Blessings, by Imam al-Jazuli, whose tomb in far-off Marrakesh breathes something of the spirit of Madina. This great prayer begins with over two hundred Names of the Prophet, culled from the scriptures, and which may also be read in exquisite Naskh calligraphy above the green tiles on the qibla wall. Hundreds of names recall him: the Messenger of Mercy, the Emissary of Virtue, Reliant, the Beloved of God, Seal of the Prophets ...

These pilgrims know that they are in the presence of the most influential man in history. He had found a people divided by the crudest pagan ignorance, and left them united in the purest and most exalted monotheism. Formerly they had denied life after death; twenty-three short years on, they lived with it constantly before their eyes. He had found them unable to rule themselves, torn by age-long vendettas, knowing no law other than the selfish interest of the tribe and the individual’s honour; and he left their hearts so united that they withstood the shock of his death, and went out to liberate the world.

In this place, the Messenger guided his disciples. Here they learnt how to be still before their Lord, how to restrain their anger, to live for others, to show compassion to young and old. This was the crucible of a New World Order: the most effective school ever known.

And presiding over it all, still, is the presence of the Prophet. His mission for the Muslim commonwealth awaits its final consummation, when, at the Resurrection, he shall appear with his name of Intercessor. There is no Muslim alive who does not hope for the honour of resurrection under his green Banner of Praise, and for the rapture of salvation through his pleading before his Lord. Adab, good manners in his presence, is hence passionately cultivated and prayed for. Those who respectfully move forwards, to stand before the gold of the Wajiha to greet him, are moved not only by love and gratitude for what he did, but by fervent hope for his prayers, help and pleading amid the terrors of the Apocalypse.

He said: ‘No Muslim greets me but that Allah restores my spirit to me so that I am able to respond to him.’ Five times a day, worshippers end their prayers by invoking blessings and peace upon his spirit. No human being, since the beginning of time, has been more blessed. And this reciprocal rite of taslim is the culmination of a lifetime of calling down God’s blessings upon him, a cosmic process in which God and the Angels themselves join. In the presence of his spirit, salat and salam come continuously. The entire mosque is filled with prayers for him; and this is the largest building in the world. Here, the existence of humanity finds its justification.

‘Not one of you believes,’ says a hadith, ‘until I am dearer to him than his father, his son, and all mankind.’ The power of this love detains many in the mosque. But the body has its rights, and others slowly leave, to find a place to eat in this crowded city. Restaurants of all kinds abound, and the air around the mosque loses its hint of musk and sandalwood, to become fragrant with the aroma of Turkish kebabs, Lebanese meze, Malaysian satay, Sudanese chicken and beans. In the darkness, street vendors offer the garments of fifty countries: Indonesian batik, Damascus muslin, Egyptian cotton, Moroccan chiffre. Prayer beads of olive pits, amber or ebony dangle from shelves. Women browse through jewellery, heaped high with no fear of thieves.

The cheerful fellowship of the eating-houses is not the profane self-exaltation of the smart Western restaurant. Here, companionship is the main item on the menu. Struggling for words, Muslims of two hundred nationalities speak about their homes, about the troubles of the world, about their hopes for an end to the unbearable shallowness of the modern world, and a return to God.

The air outside is now much cooler. Those who know the city may briefly visit some of its nearer shrines, such as the Mosque of the Two Qiblas, with its resonances of the lost Muslim city of Jerusalem, the Third Holy City. Unlike Madina, Jerusalem has been tragically desacralised in recent decades, with the introduction of night clubs, pornography, and every form of degradation. But Islam’s grasp on Madina is still strong. Such is God’s power in defence of His Messenger that no enemy army has succeeded in capturing it, since the dawn of Islam.

The adhan sounds for isha, and the veins of the city pump back towards the mosque which is its heart. Grateful for God’s gift of food and drink, the pilgrims are eager for the prayer, followed by the Tarawih rite extending almost two hours into the night.

Tarawih in Madina is one of the great spectacles of the world. Perhaps a million men, women and children, stand in neat lines in the mosque, on its roof, and in the marbled spaces nearby. Tarawih in Mecca is an experience of austere majesty; in Madina, it is characterised by delight and by love. To pray in the company of God’s Messenger, who rose through the seven heavens to bring to us the gift of prayer, and who will intercede for tides of humanity, is an almost inexpressible joy. Villagers from Pakistan, shopkeepers from Turkey, Nigerian businessmen, and Bosnian farmers, all stand together, their differences annihilated by the presence of the man whose mission was truly universal.

In the Qur’an, there is nothing of Arab pride. Its original context in history was the Arab people, but it pays little attention to them. It is farsighted, affirming that each previous prophet had been sent only to his own people; but that now, a Prophet had come who was for all mankind. And here is the proof of that mission’s truth and of its success under God: a million human beings, outwardly diverse but of a single heart, basking in the glow of Madina.

After Tarawih, it is tea-time. Midnight, under the arc-lamps of this warm city, is no time for sleep. Sufi fraternities meet in homes, and recall the glories of the Beloved of Madina. Hadith are read, in the sing-song style traditional in the city. Commentaries are given in the delightful Madina dialect, so rich in Syrian and Turkish words.

Tahajjud prayers attract perhaps a quarter of a million, deep in the small hours. Others are sleeping in the streets, or in the hotels, which range from small Egyptian resthouses with doubtful stairs, to the five-star plushness of the Sheraton and the Green Palace. On the roofs of many hotels are small gardens, and here, even at this hour, the Sufi orders are again enjoying their fellowship in the spirit.

The sunna recommends that at least some of the night be spent in sleep. Two hours before dawn, most of the city is silent. And then, the first adhan, more than an hour before the adhan for the prayer, rises into the black sky. The hotels serve a pre-dawn meal, but few linger until the last moment. An hour before the dawn prayer begins, the mosque is already full, the worshippers knowing by experience the value of this time. The Suffa, the small veranda attached to the Prophetic tomb, is crowded with turbaned men, prayer-beads in hand. Here lived the poorest of the Companions, those who were under the most intense spiritual guidance, who hungered, and lived in rags, and prayed.

The final adhan sounds, and then the iqama. The prayer is said, followed by the atmosphere of peace and consummation which ends each prayer. Many remain until ishraq, the individual prayer said after sunrise. Others hail taxis, and visit the outlying shrines. 

The most important of these is Mount Uhud. The Blessed Prophet proclaimed it as ‘a mountain which loves us, and which we love’. Its mysterious quality has been reinforced by aerial photographs, which show that the mountain spells the Arabic name of Allah. To walk in its dry valleys is to encounter solitary pilgrims, meditating on the evanescence of life. Occasionally a qalandar is seen, with untidy hair, fingers heavy with brass rings, his eyes disquietingly bright. Some live in this hill throughout their visit, descending to the valley to pray.

Ramadan is a time of renunciation. Although the morning air is still cool, the sense of detachment granted by the fast has sobered the crowds, and focussed their minds. The pilgrims clustered around the iron grille which allows them to view the graves of the Martyrs of Uhud read from prayerbooks, or repeat the words of the muzawwir, the official guide. ‘Peace be upon you, Hamza, the Lion of God, the uncle of God’s Messenger! Peace be upon you, Mus‘ab, hero of the Companions!’ Beside the cemetery, the authorities have constructed a mosque for those who wish to pray in this place.

The great cemetery of Madina, however, is al-Baqi‘. This lies near the Prophet’s tomb, from which it was until recently separated by one of the gates of the walled city, the Bab al-Baqi‘. The cemetery has many names, including Jannat al-Baqi‘ (The Garden of Baqi‘), and Baqi‘ al-Gharqad, a reference to the brambles (gharqad) which covered it when Islam first arrived. In the fifth year of the Hijra, the Companion Uthman ibn Maz‘un died, and was buried here, and on the Blessed Prophet’s instructions the area was cleared of brambles and became the last resting place of the Companions.

Today, Baqi‘ is the most visited graveyard in the world. Until recently rough cement walls surrounded it, but in 1996 the authorities replaced these with fine granite, pierced with large iron and brass grilles, to commemorate and honour this place. Some pilgrims stand by the grilles, but others, particularly in the cool hour after dawn, venture in by the splendid new gates.

To facilitate circulation, the authorities have established cement pathways throughout the cemetery. Guidebooks provide detailed maps of the plots, naming hundreds of the individuals who are buried here. Hence the pilgrims, guided by their muzawwirs, stand, or crouch, before the tombs of the Mothers of the Believers: A‘isha, Hafsa, Umm Habiba and the others. Nearby is the Blessed Prophet’s infant son, the two year old Ibrahim, whose death caused the Prophet such pain. The pilgrims move on to salute Uthman, the third Caliph, and then Imam Malik and his teacher Nafi‘. Al-Abbas, the Prophet’s uncle, is here. So too is Halima al-Sa‘diyya, the nurse whose dry breasts miraculously flowed with milk when the infant Muhammad was set to them. To one side is the grave of Imam Shamyl, the nineteenth-century hero of the Caucasus, visited by Chechen and Daghistani pilgrims to this day.

Al-Baqi‘ is a powerful place. Other cities consider it their pride to host a single saint; but here there are hundreds. All around lie at rest the men and women who heard the Prophet’s summons, and broke the idols of their forefathers, and gave their lives to his cause. To this blessed ambience is added the baraka of Ramadan, and as the days pass, this too gains in power.

The fasting city of Madina has other wonders, although not all are as spectacular as the Haram and al-Baqi‘. There is one mosque no bigger than a prayer-mat, surrounded by two layers of bricks, which marks the spot where the Blessed Prophet once prayed. An elderly man lives nearby, and sweeps the tiny mosque daily, dispensing prayers and teaching-stories to the visitors.

The tribes of Aws and Khazraj, who welcomed the Prophet and his teaching, still live in Madina, retaining their traditions of courtesy and hospitality. The basalt homes in which they once lived: the traditional Madinese bayt al-bi’r, built around a courtyard which was often covered with a net and filled with tropical birds, are now mostly gone. Yet otherwise, not much has changed in fourteen hundred years. Pernicious and cheapening influences from the world outside are successfully excluded.

Madina shows the truth of the hadith that ‘Madina expels impurities as a furnace expels impurities from iron.’ The form of the city has changed, but the heart is immutable. In Ramadan, more than at any other time, the continued strength of Islam is manifest here. The city is well-defended; as a hadith recorded by Imam Muslim states, the Antichrist cannot enter it, but will be driven away on the lava-plains by al-Khidr himself. In this city, and in this month, the Muslims are at home.

Kerim Fenari