The Grave of Aisha
by Kamran Pasha
This morning we joined several hundred thousand worshippers at the Prophet’s Mosque to pray Fajr – the pre-dawn prayer. It was a remarkable experience, the deep silence of the early morning broken only by the beautiful recitation of the Qur’an by the imam. And when he finished reciting the Fatiha – the opening chapter of the Muslim holy book – the ancient stones of the city reverberated with the thunder of a hundred thousand voices crying out “Amen.”
Still exhausted and jet-lagged from the journey, I managed to get a few hours of sleep before returning to the Mosque for more prayer services in the day. And at the end of the Asr or mid-afternoon prayer, the Saudi religious police who keep order in the city opened the gates of Jannat al-Baqi – the ancient graveyard of Medina where many of the Prophet’s family members and Companions are buried.
I slipped through the huge throngs at the entrance to al-Baqi and stepped bare foot onto the hot desert floor of the graveyard. My sandals had unfortunately been lost earlier that day when I had removed them to pray and someone else had taken them. But I didn’t mind. The intense heat of the desert sand was hardly on my mind. My focus was on finding the tomb of the woman who had fascinated me and had caused me to write a novel dramatizing her courageous life.
I was looking for the grave of Aisha, daughter of Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s most beloved wife among the Mothers of the Believers. The heroine of my book, a woman who had advised rulers and led armies. A fiery, passionate woman who had single-handedly changed the course of history. Aisha was buried somewhere in al-Baqi, and I walked reverentially among the ancient graves in search of her tomb.
It was a challenge, as the graveyard is little more than a vast, flat plain covered in craggy rocks. The Saudi religious conservatives believe that adorning graves is a sin that leads to people worshipping the dead. This is an unusual idea that is rejected by most mainstream Muslims. The Taj Mahal is a living symbol of the kind of beautiful tombs that Muslims have historically erected to commemorate the dead and pay respect to the legacy of their lives. When the Saudis took control of Medina in the early 20th century, they destroyed all the intricately built tombs in al-Baqi and tuned this sacred site into a dry wasteland. They even destroyed the grave markers, erasing the names of those interred in the field, the most famous heroes of Islam reduced to anonymity in death. As I walked among the barren graves filled with the remains of Islam’s finest generation, I felt a deep sorrow that I did not even know the names of those whose tombs I was passing. Remarkable men and women who had given their lives to turn the tiny movement of Islam into a global religion were now cast away and forgotten by their descendants.
Finding Aisha’s grave in the midst of this stark and empty field would have normally been impossible. But the wonders of the Internet came to my aid. Old maps of al-Baqi, preserved by the Turks who once ruled the holy city, were available on the web. Not having access to a printer in Medina, I hand-copied a map of the graves off the Internet and was able to determine where many of the great figures of Islam – and characters in my novel – were buried.
I found the tombs of the Prophet’s daughters Zaynab, Ruqayya and Umm Kulthum, as well as the tiny grave of Ibrahim, the Prophet’s infant son who died shortly after the Muslims conquered Mecca and unified Arabia under Islam. As I recount in my novel, the day that Ibrahim died, the sun was eclipsed and many Muslims thought that the heavens were weeping for him. But the Prophet, who was heartbroken at the loss of his son, stepped out among them and said that the sun and the moon were not eclipsed for the death any human being, not even his own child. Even in the midst of his grief, he would not let his people fall into superstition. I stood before Ibrahim’s grave and remembered how his father had knelt down and softly patted and smoothed the burial mound as a final act of tenderness toward his little boy. The same burial mound that I now stood next to 14 centuries later, looking much as it did that day so long ago.
Deeper inside al-Baqi, I found the grave of Uthman ibn Affan, the third Caliph of Islam. Uthman was the Prophet’s son-in-law, having married his daughter Ruqayya and, when she passed away, her sister Umm Kulthum. Uthman will forever be honored in Islamic history as the man who served to preserve the Qur’an and insure its authenticity. As Caliph, Uthman ordered that copies of the Qur’an be sent to cities all over the rapidly expanding empire to prevent Muslims from changing its text. As a result of his efforts, there is consensus between both Muslim and non-Muslim historians that the Qur’an is exactly as Prophet Muhammad left it, without corruptions, alterations or later accretions. Of all the holy scriptures in the world, only the Qur’an can proudly make this claim and retain the support of skeptical modern scholarship.
Uthman was a gentle and generous man, but his reign was poisoned by the political machinations of different groups who were seeking to influence the Caliph’s policies. Uthman was unfairly tainted by the actions of corrupt governors who came from his tribe, and when rebellion broke out in the empire, Uthman was brutally assassinated. The rebels murdered the gentle Uthman as he calmly read the Qur’an and refused to raise a sword to defend himself. The Caliph’s murder led to the first Islamic civil war, which I detail in my novel, and in which Aisha played a pivotal role, much to her later regret.
Having paid my respects to Uthman, I returned near the entrance of the graveyard, where the crowd had finally begun to thin. And then I was able to approach the grave of my heroine, Aisha, the Mother of the Believers. She had been buried in a small plot of earth, surrounded by rough stones, along with the other wives of the Prophet, including Safiya, a Jewish chieftain’s daughter who embraced Islam and played a crucial role in both Islamic history and my novel.
Standing there, at long last, before the tomb of a woman who had captivated my imagination, I was at a loss for words. I greeted her and her fellow Mothers, as I had the Prophet in his tomb the day before. And then I recited the Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Qur’an, and asked God to send blessings to Aisha and the other wives of the Prophet.
As I stood there, I wondered whether her soul was aware of me, as I knew the Prophet’s soul was conscious of my presence. I wondered if Aisha knew that 1,330 years after her death, she remained one of the most fascinating and intriguing women in human history. I wondered if she could know of the book I had written to honor her memory and resurrect her voice for a new generation. And if she did, I hope she approved.
The sun was low on the horizon and the guards began guiding people out of the graveyard. I looked down one last time at this simple mound of earth that housed the remains of this remarkable woman who had changed the world.
And then I turned and left, leaving Aisha and the other residents of Jannat al-Baqi to their eternal rest.
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