Today was our last day in Medina, the city of the Prophet, before we head to Mecca, the center of the Islamic world. My mother has adjusted well and is beginning to overcome her phobia of crowds. We have had the good fortune of meeting friendly Muslim women who have taken my mom under their wing and eased her into the hectic experience of the holy city. They have taken her to the mosque with them every day, as I can only accompany her part of the way, to the entrance of the women’s section.
The fact that men and women pray separately in Islam often troubles non-Muslims, so I will try to explain its purpose. First, Islam is not unique in this regard. In Orthodox Judaism, men and women also pray separately, as can be seen every day at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. This is very much an ancient Semitic practice that comes right out of the Bible, and is not foreign to the Jewish or Christian experience. But how does one respond to modern complaints by Westerners that this practice is inherently sexist?
The Muslim response is simple – prayer is a time for inner reflection and contemplation, a period when the natural sexual energy between men and women should not serve as a distraction. This is particularly a concern due to the intimate nature of worship in Islam, where formal prayer consists of ritual bowing and prostration. Muslim women like my mother tell me that they appreciate the separation of the sexes at these times, as they would feel self-conscious and vulnerable bowing with men’s faces peering at their rear ends from behind. And any man who is being honest and not “politically correct” would admit that the sight of a woman kneeling in such a position would arouse him sexually.
Islam is a religion that accepts human nature as it is, rather than pretending that it is something else based on idealism or wishful thinking. In Islam, the sexual urge is recognized as a natural part of human experience, a blessing from God when channeled properly, but one that can debase human dignity if left to the whims of human lust. While many Westerners would disagree based on modern political indoctrination, I would counter that human experience speaks for itself. Whatever ideal the West wishes to impose on the male-female dynamic, the truth of sexual attraction remains stark and undeniable in day-to-day human experience. And Islam’s purpose is to take human beings as they actually are and inspire them to be better, rather than preach empty words that no one actually follows in real life. In that way, Islam establishes a practical way of living, rather than exhorting ideals to be honored with lip service and ignored in daily life.
In any event, my mother has found the company of other believing women as a boon during this journey, and their support has given her the strength and courage to face the daily rush and unimaginable crowding at the Prophet’s mosque. And for that I am thankful.
During our last day in Medina, we did a tour of the city and visited some of its remarkable historical sites. Our first trip was to the Quba Mosque at the southern borders of the city. Quba was the first mosque built by Prophet Muhammad when he left Mecca and journeyed to Medina to establish a safe haven for his persecuted followers. Before entering the city proper, the Prophet stopped at Quba where he built the mosque with his own hands, carrying stones on his back and climbing into the dirt to lay its foundations. To me, that story has always served to remind me of his visionary leadership. Revered by his followers as God’s messenger, he could have simply given orders and sat back watching people do the dirty work on his behalf. But the Prophet understood that a true leader gets into the trenches with his community and does the hard lifting. It was small acts like this that endeared him to his followers and showed his natural talent as a statesman.
One of the most surprising things about the Quba Mosque is the presence of a Jewish cemetery next door. It is an ancient site that has stood undisturbed since the early days of Islam. Despite the current tensions in the Middle East due to the Arab-Israeli conflict, history shows that Jews and Muslims got along reasonably well over the centuries. Jews were better treated in Muslim lands than they were under Christian rulers. And in Spain in particular, Muslim and Jews enjoyed a rich and friendly relationship. When the golden age of al-Andalus was brought to an end by the Inquisition, the Jews of Spain fled Christian persecution and turned to Muslim countries for protection. Many Jews settled in the Ottoman Empire, where they thrived alongside their Muslim neighbors, and Jews even rose to the position of top government ministers under the sultans of Turkey.
As I looked out at the ancient Jewish graves, many better preserved than those of Muslims in the devastated ruins of Jannat al-Baqi, I felt both a moment of sadness and hope. Sadness that their remains so much mistrust and fear between Jews and Muslims today. And sadness that some of our Jewish brethren in Israel do not afford Muslim graves the same respect. There is currently a huge controversy in Israel about plans to destroy an ancient Muslim graveyard so that the ironically named “Museum of Tolerance” can be built on its site. But many Jews in Israel have joined their Muslim countrymen to protest the planned desecration of the graveyard as a violation of Jewish tenets respecting the dead. And it is the fact that Muslims and Jews are standing together to protest this injustice that gives me hope. History shows that our communities are brothers, sons of Abraham through Ishmael and Isaac. And I hope that we can overcome the poison of the past century to inaugurate a new golden age where our communities can be even better friends than they were in the not-too-distant path.
From the Quba Mosque and the Jewish cemetery, we went by bus to Mount Uhud, the site of one of the most pivotal battles of early Islam – a battle that I detail extensively in my novel.
On March 23, 625 AD, the Meccan idolaters launched an invasion of Medina after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the puny Muslim army a year before at the wells of Badr. At Uhud, the Muslim forces were outnumbered 700 to 3,000, but they had faced similar odds a year before at Badr and had utterly defeated the Meccans. And like their miraculous victory at Badr, the Muslims initially trounced the Meccan forces and forced them into retreat. But a group of Muslim archers, positioned by the Prophet on the mountainside to protect its rear passes, became anxious that they would lose out on the war booty left behind by the retreating Meccans. So the archers violated the Prophet’s orders and abandoned their posts. At that moment, the brilliant Meccan general Khalid ibn al-Waleed broke through the undefended pass and attacked the Muslims from behind. The Muslims went from impending victory to shocking defeat, and many of the Prophet’s followers were killed, including his beloved uncle Hamza.
The Meccan victory at Uhud was due primarily to the leadership of Khalid, one of the most remarkable military commanders of all time. The irony of Uhud is that Khalid would later turn against his Meccan masters and embrace Islam. When he later took charge of the Muslim armies, Khalid swept the forces of Islam to stunning victories against the Persian and Byzantine Empires. His military genius led to the conquest of Persia, Iraq, Syria and Jerusalem, within only a few years after the Prophet’s death. Khalid’s victories transformed Islam from a small and irrelevant desert religion into a global civilization. The irony of Uhud is that Khalid, the man who led the forces that killed the Prophet’s uncle, would one day become one of the Prophet’s greatest followers and earn the title “The Sword of God.”
Standing on the barren plain under the shadow of Uhud, I was struck by how influential that small skirmish was to the history of mankind. The mountain was overflowing with crowds who had come to commemorate those who gave their lives on this field 1,383 years ago so that the community that produced my mother and I could survive. The crowds were too great to go out into the section of the battlefield where the martyrs of Uhud were buried. I was disappointed that I could not come close to the grave of Hamza as I had the tombs of the Prophet and his followers in Medina. But I said a prayer for Hamza and the martyrs of Uhud from the distance, knowing that the angels would carry my blessings on the wind.
As looked out at the bleak landscape that had seen so much bloodshed, I remembered the story I recounted in my novel about the barbarism of the Meccan forces. When the Muslims were forced to retreat from Uhud, a Meccan woman named Hind came out among the dead. She was the wife of the Meccan leader Abu Sufyan and is a major character in my novel. Hind was looking for the body of Hamza, the man who had killed her father at the battle of Badr a year before. She had hired an assassin, an Abyssinian slave named Wahsi, to seek out Hamza and kill him at Uhud. Wahsi was an expert with a javelin, and his aim had proved deadly true. When Hind found Hamza’s corpse, she desecrated the body, cutting off his nose and ears and tearing out his liver. In a scene vividly described in my novel, Hind descended into the ultimate barbarism – cannibalism. She proudly ate Hamza’s liver in front of the horrified Muslims.
When Mecca fell to Muslim forces a few years later, one of the most remarkable examples of the Prophet’s compassion was that he pardoned Hind for her horrible crime against his uncle Hamza, who had been like a brother to him all his life. By then, Prophet Muhammad had become the absolute ruler of all of Arabia. He could exact any revenge he wished without fear of consequence. But, when he had the chance to punish her crimes, the Prophet instead chose to forgive Hind.
That, to me, is the sign of true power.
As these thoughts went through my mind, our guide called us back into the bus. It was time to go and make preparations for our journey to Mecca. I looked out at the battlefield, which had seen the best and worst of mankind locked in an epic clash, and I smiled thinking that the men who died here did not do so in vain. They had given their lives hoping that a future generation could one day visit Mecca, the holy city from which they had been expelled.
It was because of their sacrifice that my mother and I finally could.