Medina and the Prophet’s Tomb
by Kamran Pasha
Today I left one world and entered another. I fled the world of materialism and competition for earthly success, and traveled through a portal in time. To a realm of pristine spirituality, hope and joy.
As my Saudi Airlines jet approached the holy city of Medina, that change was made vividly clear by the stark landscape I witnessed through the passenger window. After flying for hours over the stark deserts of North Africa, Egypt and northern Arabia, the view below shifted unexpectedly. The golden earth suddenly became black as coal and I gazed down at the eerie sight of obsidian sands stretching to the horizon.
I had read that the land around Medina was blackened after millennia of volcanic activity. Indeed, that was how I had described the region in my novel. But I was not prepared for how striking the sight really was. It was as if the earth itself had created a boundary around Medina, designating the oasis as special and distinct from everything else around it. A perhaps fitting image for a small town that had been forgotten by history until that fateful day in 622 AD when Prophet Muhammad came here to escape persecution. In just a little over a decade, this anonymous oasis would become the capital of one of the greatest civilizations ever known to man.
Stepping off the plane onto the sacred earth where the Prophet himself walked 1400 years ago, I was struck by the sensation of having pushed through a veil, of crossing into another dimension. The desert air was dry, and yet smelled of roses and jasmine. There was a stillness all about me unlike anything I had ever experienced. As if a divine blanket had come down and put my senses to slumber, allowing my inner heart to awaken.
My mother and I gathered our bags and settled in to our suite at the Medina Hilton, which is adjacent to the Prophet’s Mosque – the largest house of worship in the Islamic world, capable of holding several million people at once. And then we joined our pilgrimage travel group to visit the holy sanctuary for the first time. The mosque is special for many reasons – the original structure was built by Prophet Muhammad himself and served as both his home and ultimately his burial site. The tomb of the Prophet is covered by an immense green dome that is one of the most beloved architectural marvels of the Muslim world.
We entered the mosque at around midnight and the huge complex was still buzzing with activity. Thousands of worshippers crammed into the oldest section of the mosque, the one originally built and used by the Prophet and his Companions. I saw Africans float by in colorful robes, Arabs chatting animatedly on cell phones, Chinese men who cheerfully jostled with Turks to get close to the sacred sites. The crowd moved slowly and reverentially toward the great mihrab – the arched alcove where the Prophet himself led prayers in his lifetime. At times, it felt as if I was in danger of being crushed by the press of bodies on all sides. And yet, remarkably, there was no fear, and people remained patient and kind-hearted, holding back the crowd so that elderly worshippers had room to pray or just breathe. It is said that the most important virtue of the Pilgrimage is that it teaches you patience, and I was surprised to see how relaxed everyone was, despite the constant tumult of the crowd.
I was somehow able to maneuver myself through the mass of believers and actually got close enough to touch the sacred mihrab with my hand. It was truly an overwhelming feeling to connect with such an important part of my spiritual history. It was here that the Prophet had stood before his followers, preached to them and led them in prayers. And it was here that he performed his last public act as he was dying. The Prophet had emerged from his sick bed and come here, and the overjoyed believers thought he was healed of the illness that troubled him. They had assumed that the Prophet had come to lead them again in prayers, which had been led by his close friend Abu Bakr while he had been incapacitated with fever.
But the Prophet was too weak to lead the ritual, and instead instructed Abu Bakr to continue leading the service while he prayed beside him. When he died shortly thereafter, the fact that Prophet Muhammad had chosen Abu Bakr to lead the prayer on his behalf convinced most Muslims that Abu Bakr should serve as the next leader of the community. All of this history flashed though my mind as I touched the mihrab, as it was at this exact location 1376 year ago that these momentous events took place, events that would forever alter the course of history. Abu Bakr had kept the Muslim community unified after the Prophet’s death and had set in motion the political and military events that would soon transform Islam from a small desert community into a global empire.
After I left the mihrab, I pushed through the crowd again, and approached with great awe the most important site in Medina, the second most important place in the entire Muslim world.
The grave of Prophet Muhammad.
As I recount in my novel, the Prophet said farewell to his community after Abu Bakr completed the prayer, and then retired to the house of his favorite wife (and my novel’s heroine) Aisha. There his illness worsened, and he died in her arms on June 8, 632. The Prophet was buried directly underneath the place where he had passed away in Aisha’s apartment, and his tomb still stands, along with those of his first two successors, Abu Bakr and the mighty Umar ibn al-Khattab, who were buried next to him.
The Prophet’s tomb is surrounded by an intricate silver grate and his grave is covered by a stone cenotaph draped in beautiful rugs. A large circle in the tomb wall indicates the exact placement of his head, and it was to this spot that the believers congregated. It is a central Muslim belief that the Prophet was fully human and in no way divine, and Muslims do not pray to him, only to God. But Muslims also believe that the Prophet’s consciousness still resides in his grave and that he is fully aware of those who come to visit his tomb. And it is tradition to greet the Prophet with the words “Peace be upon you O Messenger of God” when approaching his grave, which I did when I finally managed to squeeze through the crowd to stand before his tomb.
I don’t think I can put in words the emotions that ran through me when I stood at Prophet Muhammad’s grave. A unique mixture of joy and sorrow. Joy at finally being able to address the man who I believe to be God’s messenger. And deep sorrow that I can only do so through barriers of stone and earth rather than face-to-face as had those who were lucky enough to have lived at his side.
I looked around me and saw that I was not the only one who had been moved by the power of the experience. Grown men were weeping like children as they held their hands out in greeting and wished the Prophet peace. I felt a sudden flush of brotherhood with one man who stood beside me, an Algerian from Montreal whose face was soaked with tears at seeing the Prophet’s tomb. We spontaneously embraced and held each other as brothers in faith. We had never met before, but it didn’t matter. We shared one thing that was a deeper bond than any other. We both loved this remarkable man who had given the world our beautiful religion of Islam. A man who had died 14 centuries ago, and yet in a very real and tangible way, was still alive, right there in front of us.
I have been in Medina for only six hours and already I have been transformed.
Kamran Pasha is the author of Mother of Mother of the Believers: A Novel of the Birth of Islam which will be available from Atria books in April of 2009. http://www.kamranpasha.com