Archive for the ‘Hajj’ Category

Finding God in the wilderness

Friday, December 12th, 2008

As the Pilgrimage winds to its glorious end, let me share with you some of the more remarkable experiences I have encountered over the past few days.  After spending several days praying at the Kaaba in Mecca, we were prepared for the great climax of the Hajj – the vigil in the desert plain of Arafat.  On Saturday, December 6th, my mother and I left the comfort of our hotel in Mecca and traveled by bus to the outpost of Mina, the ancient site where Pilgrims have gathered for thousands of years at the finale of the Hajj. 



As we approached the valley, tucked between towering mountains, I saw a flash of white through my bus window.  I looked outside and gasped.  The entire plain was blanketed in pavilions, stretching from horizon to horizon in every direction.  This was the famed Tent City that is erected every year to accommodate the Pilgrims that have arrived from every corner on earth to meet their Maker.  At that moment, I became aware of how vast an enterprise this truly was.  This year, a record four million people had come to perform the Pilgrimage.  Out here in the wilderness, far away from the skyscrapers and winding roads of Mecca, the true enormity of the Hajj came home to me.  Everywhere I looked was an ocean of humanity, of every shade, race and age, spreading out beyond the power of vision.  I suddenly felt truly small, like a pebble lost on the rocky coastline of an ancient and forgotten continent.  In that one instant, all of my Hollywood pretensions were stripped away and I came to see how insignificant any individual is in the vast expanse of the cosmos.  Insignificant, and yet still infinitely precious to our Creator, who has summoned us to see this magnificent sight with our own eyes.


We settled into our tents, my mother going to join an air-conditioned pavilion prepared for the ladies, while I joined the men.  We dropped our luggage off and pulled out the small mattresses that would serve as our one luxury over the next few days.  We were crammed together in the tent, sleeping next to each other like refugees from some terrible conflict.  And in a sense, we were.  Refugees from the mindless battle of modern life, the struggle to achieve material success even as the winds of economic chaos flowed against our sails.  Lying there on the ground, I was struck by how much life in the West has become an endless fight to move forward, without any idea as to where we are going.  We spend every waking hour trying to make money, and no matter how much we have, it is never enough.  And even when we imagine that we have gained victory, building sandcastles of wealth that we believe to be invincible, the marketplace turns against us like the tide and washes all off our illusions away.


The hubris of the wealthy and powerful became particularly evident to me during our stay at Mina.  I stepped outside of the tent and saw thousands of Pilgrims sleeping on the hard stones, too poor to afford the simple comfort of the tent and mattress that I had purchased.  Entire families, including those at the beginning and end of their lives, laying out in the open, under a harsh an unforgiving sun.  I realized that most of these impoverished Pilgrims had saved their entire lives to afford the journey to Saudi Arabia and had nothing left over for even the basic amenities.  They had come here literally with the clothes on their back and nothing more.  And yet I did not hear them complain about their lot, as some of my affluent colleagues inside the tent were doing when the air conditioner malfunctioned or dinner was late.  These people out here were the true Pilgrims, people who had given up everything to come here and face God.  And their faces were serene and filled with a deep contentment that I have rarely seen among the so-called privileged classes.  I felt suddenly ashamed of my own arrogance, my own obsession with the rat race and the endless pursuit of shiny toys at the expense of what really matters – faith, family and community. 


And I was not alone.  I saw a man sitting outside staring at the huddled masses sleeping amidst rocks and rubbish.  Tears were flowing down his face.  When I asked him if he was okay, he nodded.  He was a successful businessman from Florida, and he too felt the shame that was coursing through my veins at the sight of these humble and happy people all around.  “God says that on the Day of Judgment, the rich will envy the poor,” he said in a choked voice.  “I finally understand that now.  And I envy them today.”


On Sunday morning, we gathered after dawn prayers to take a bus to Arafat, a desolate and mountainous plain where we would spend the entire day communing directly with God.  The Day of Arafat is considered the most significant part of the Pilgrimage, and failing to attend the gathering invalidates the entire Hajj.  As we arrived, the reason for this became clear.  For it was here in the open plain, far from the relative comfort of the Tent City, that the believers would stand shoulder-to-shoulder before God, stripped of all man made barriers and contrivances.  I went to the central site of Arafat, the Mountain of Mercy, where Prophet Muhammad made his Last Sermon to the believers shortly before he died.  It is smaller than most of the mountains that ring the plain, a hill in truth, but one that stands out starkly in the wilderness, its dark boulders contrasting with the yellow-white sand all around.


As I climbed the ancient stones where the Prophet himself had stood almost 1,400 years ago, I gazed out at the magnificent crowd all around me.  Pilgrims from Iran mingled with believers from Africa.  Thousands of Asian faces – Indonesians, Malaysians and Chinese – contrasted with those of the Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis all around me.  White, black, brown, red, yellow and every possible shade in between.  These were the faces of mankind, all standing out in the desert under the scorching Arabian sun, hands raised to Heaven in supplication.  I understood at last why the Day of Arafat is said to be a precursor to the Day of Judgment, when all human beings will emerge from their graves and stand before God and learn the truth about who they were and what their lives really meant.


As I gazed out from the holy mountain, I remembered the Prophet’s famous Last Sermon, which I reproduce below, and which I discuss extensively in my novel.  After praising, and thanking God, he said:


“Oh People, lend me an attentive ear, for I know not whether, after this year I shall ever be amongst you again. Therefore listen to what I am saying to you very carefully and take these words to those who could not be present here today. 


O People, just as you regard this month, this day as sacred, so regard the life and property of every Muslim as sacred trust. Return the goods entrusted to you to their rightful owners. Harm no one so that no one may harm you.  Remember that you will indeed meet your Lord, and that He will indeed reckon your deeds. 


God has forbidden you to take usury (Interest); therefore all Interest obligations shall henceforth be waived. Your capital, however, is yours to keep. You will neither inflict nor suffer inequality. God has judged that there shall be no interest and that all the interest due to (my own uncle) Abbas ibn Abdal Mutallib shall henceforth be waived.


Beware of Satan, for the safety of your religion.  He lost all hope that he will ever be able to lead you astray in big things, so beware of following him in small things.


O People, it is true that you have certain rights with regards to your women, but they also have rights over you.  Remember that you have taken them as your wives only under God’s trust and with His permission. 


Do treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers.  If they abide by your right then to them belongs the right to be fed and clothed in kindness.  And it is your right that they do not make friends with any one of whom you do not approve, as well as never to be unchaste. 


O people listen to me in earnest, worship God, perform your five daily prayers, fast during the month of Ramadan, and give of your wealth in charity. Perform Pilgrimage if you can afford to.


All mankind is from Adam, and an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor does a black have any superiority over a white, except by piety and good action. 


Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim that belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves. 


Remember, one day you will appear before God and answer for your deeds. So beware, do not sway from the path of righteousness, after I am gone.


O People, no prophet or messenger will come after me, and no new faith will be born. Reason well, therefore, O People, and understand the words that I convey to you. I leave behind me two things, the Qur’an and my life example and if you follow these you will never go astray. 


All those who listen to me shall pass on my words to others and those to others again; and may the last ones understand my words better than those who listen to me directly.

Be my witness, O God, that I have conveyed my message to your people.” 


There is so much in this final sermon to discuss that it would take several volumes.  But what has always struck me about the Prophet’s words was the message of social justice and human equality that is prevalent throughout.  A clear affirmation that all human beings are equal, regardless of race.  A command to treat women well and an acknowledgment that men and woman have rights and responsibilities to each other.  And a passionate call for economic fairness and the rejection of the interest-based lending system.  Western finance is based entirely on interest, which has unfortunately led to profound economic chaos in recent days.  It is significant to note that the Wall Street Journal and Reuters have written recently about how Islamic investment funds (which reject interest-based finance) have prospered even as the mortgage-based financial meltdown threatens to mire the world in a new Great Depression.  The wisdom of Prophet Muhammad’s words and his warning of the dangers of racism, abuse of women and economic exploitation ring powerfully true today, even as they did 1,376 years ago from the very mountain I stood upon.


These thoughts weighed on my mind as I stood on the mountain, surrounded by millions of believers dressed in simple clothes, stripped of all visible signs of wealth and social standing.  As I looked upon the sea of the faithful praying in the wilderness, dressed in little more than loincloths, I realized that I was experiencing something very ancient, something deeply primordial.  It was a scene that Jesus Christ (called the Messiah in the Qur’an) would have recognized and appreciated, having himself spent 40 days praying in the wilderness.  Or John the Baptist and Elijah (also prophets of Islam), who both lived in the desert, wearing only rough clothes and eating locusts and honey.  It was a scene that Moses, a prophet and lawgiver like Muhammad, would have also felt completely comfortable in.  In fact, as I stared out at the masses gathered at the base of the mountain, I felt as if I was experiencing what it was like for the Israelites who stood at Sinai crying out to God.


And then the Day of Arafat became clear to me.  It was not only a time of prescience, imagining the Day of Judgment yet to come, but also a time of memory.  Of reconnecting with a world that is lost to modern civilization.  A world of faith and wonder that is described in glorious detail in the Bible and the Qur’an.  In that moment, I was pulled out of the 21st century and transported back to the time of Moses, Jesus and the prophets.  A time when men and women of faith regularly went out into the wilderness to find God.  This desert vigil unique to Islam, allows believers to experience what life was really like for the holy ones whose stories we read.  I suddenly felt a moment of sorrow for my Jewish and Christian friends who would probably never experience anything like this.  They would read in the holy books about such experiences in times long past.  But most would never get to live it, to follow in the actual footsteps of the great Biblical heroes who found God in the wilderness and were transformed.  I suddenly understood why modern desert vigils like Burning Man are so well attended.  The human heart longs to escape the cold metallic world of skyscrapers and automobiles and return to its origin, to the vast open plains where life is hard and every breath is a precious gift.


When the sun set upon Arafat, I stepped down from the mountain, my heart overwhelmed by the feeling that something special had indeed happened that day.  God had always been with me, and yet I realized that I had never been with Him.  Never let truly him into my heart.  Standing on that bleak and desolate plain, under the shade of the Mountain of Mercy, the barriers I had erected between my Creator and me were torn away and I could finally speak to Him directly.  And I knew finally why the Prophet said: “Arafat is the Pilgrimage.”


That night, we drove to the nearby rocky plain of Muzdalifa, where we prayed under the stars.  And then the Pilgrims began to scour the desert, looking for 49 small stone pebbles for the major ritual that was to begin the next day – the Stoning of the Devil.  Near the Tent City in Mina, stand three towering stone monoliths – the Jamaraat.  According to Muslim tradition, these three pillars represent the site were Satan appeared to Abraham to tempt him to disobey God’s command to sacrifice his son.  Each time the devil appeared, Abraham picked up pebbles and stoned him until he vanished.  The sacrifice of Abraham is a pivotal story that Jews, Christians and Muslims share, although we disagree about some of the details.  The Bible says that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac, while Islamic tradition states the boy was Ishmael (the Qur’an itself does not mention by name which son was selected, and honors both Ishmael and Isaac as beloved sons of Abraham). 


Regardless of the identity of the boy to be sacrificed, what is critical for all three religions is Abraham’s willingness to surrender to God’s command and give up what he loved the most – his own flesh and blood.  But when Abraham raised the knife to kill the boy, the angel Gabriel appeared and stopped him, substituting a ram in its place.  This absolute devotion to God and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice everything for Him is what is honored by all three religions.  And it is Abraham’s rejection of the Devil, the evil impulses within the human heart, which is honored by the Islamic tradition of stoning the Jamaraat.  As I stood before the grey stone pillars, joining the Pilgrims all around me tossing pebbles against their cold face, I realized that the human impulse to do good will always be greater than its temptation to do wrong.  In our heart of hearts, we are all Abraham, and we all have the capacity to turn against the voice of temptation, the call to expediency and moral laxitude, and drive it away from us.  As the pebbles clanged against the Jamaraat, I could hear the echo of triumph as our souls committed to the task of mastering our inner demons.


The Stoning of the Devil lasted over three days, during which we made a short trip back to Mecca to again circumambulate the Kaaba and follow in Hagar’s footsteps between the hills of Safa and Marwa.  By now my mother and I were both deeply exhausted.  We had slept little more than a few hours every night for over a week, and our stamina was at a low point.  But I was proud of my mother, who never complained, and asked only that we proceed through the rituals slowly so that she could maintain her strength.  Looking back now, I realize that the exhaustion of the Pilgrimage is very much intentional and serves a spiritual purpose.  With so little sleep and so much physical effort, our bodies were shutting down, as were our conscious minds.  We were perpetually moving about in a state that resembled a dream.  The psychological term for the experience was hypnagogia – the state between wakefulness and sleep.  As students of psychotherapy and hypnosis understand, the hypnagogic state is the ideal time to create lasting impressions on the subconscious mind.  Whatever we think about, whatever we focus on, tends to become deeply programmed into our psyche during this state, and can lead to lasting transformation of the human mind.  As I thought about this, the genius of the Pilgrimage became clear.  By pushing us to our physical and mental limits, we are provided with a unique opportunity to reprogram ourselves, to free our minds from the patterns of self-destructive behavior that had ruled our lives before.  Instead of spending a lifetime seeking answers in a psychiatrist’s chair, we are provided a powerful opportunity for psychological re-engineering while worshipping out in the desert.  Suddenly, all the stories I have heard about people being radically transformed by the Pilgrimage made sense.  And Malcolm X’s account of how he renounced a lifetime of racial bigotry after the Pilgrimage suddenly took on a new and poignant meaning.


We completed the final Stoning of the Devil on Wednesday.  We returned to Mecca one last time, where my mother and I slowly circled round the Kaaba seven times, a formal farewell to the House of God.  After we finished and said a last prayer, I looked out at the Kaaba with both joy and sadness in my heart.  It was like saying goodbye to an old friend, not knowing if we would ever meet again.


And then I turned and helped my mother walk to the bus, which would take us to Jeddah, and from there to the airport.  The past ten days have been grueling, but they have increased the love and bond between us.  My mother tells me that the experience has changed her forever.  She has a newfound respect for many of the ancient traditions of Islam that in her Western feminist outlook she sometimes dismissed as sexist.  For example, she is now considering permanently donning the hijab, the headscarf she has worn during the duration of the Pilgrimage.  She says she no longer sees it as a sign of limitation on women’s freedom, but as a noble dress meant to heighten her dignity and spirituality.  On my part, I have become cleansed of much of the materialism and greed that drove me before.  I remain committed to my career as a writer in Hollywood, but I am no longer interested in participating in the rat race nor am I fearful that I will slip through the cracks if I don’t dedicate my entire life to my career.  I have come to understand that everything I have is on loan from God and will be returned one day for an accounting.  When seen through that lens, the glamour of Hollywood looks more like fools gold than the real thing.


Before I close, I would like to share with my readers a few remarkable moments that happened on this Pilgrimage.  Moments that I would consider miraculous.  I have many photos from Medina and Mecca, taken surreptitiously on my iPhone (the Saudis prohibit photography at the sacred sites, but I chose to ignore their rules).  I will be posting these pictures on my website in the days to come.  But there was an interesting and enigmatic experience at the Prophet’s Tomb, which I think many will appreciate.  I was able to take photos of the Tomb’s outer walls with ease, but when I finally managed to come close and snap pictures through the silver grill to the grave itself, none of them would develop.  They come out black.  


Perhaps it was just a malfunction of the iPhone, but I have never experienced something like that with a digital camera.  There is an interesting Sufi tradition that says that the Prophet’s Tomb exudes a mystic light called “Noor” which can only be perceived by the spiritually aware, and can blind those who are exposed to it and are not ready for its energy.  I am left wondering whether my camera simply malfunctioned, or whether something more magical was at work.  


A similar experience happened when I took pictures in Jannat al-Baqi, the graveyard that houses the Prophet’s family and companions.  All the photos emerged perfectly clear – except for the shots aimed at the graves of his daughter Fatima and grandson Hasan, which would not develop.  In the Sufi tradition, Fatima and her children share in the radiance of Noor, and she is referred to as “The Shining One.”  Interestingly, the famed appearances of the Virgin Mary to Christians at the city of Fatima in Portugal share an Islamic parallel.  The town was once ruled by the Moors, who named it “Fatima” after locals started seeing visions of a “shining lady” who they interpreted to be the Prophet’s daughter.


Whether these photographic failures were miracles or not, I leave for you to judge.  For me, they were signs that there is still wonder and magic in this world.  If I have learned any lesson on this Pilgrimage, it is that Shakespeare was right.  There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in the philosophy of mere mortals.


I turn now to finish my packing as I prepare for the long flight back to New York City.  The last thing I will place in my suitcase will be very special.  My ihram.  The simple white garment that has served as my only clothing for the past several days.  I will take it home and have it cleaned and than placed safely away for the day it will be used once more.


For it is an Islamic tradition that Muslims who have completed the Pilgrimage to Mecca should be shrouded in their ihram when they return at last for the final meeting with their Lord.


God bless all of you, and may God’s blessings be upon Prophet Muhammad, his family and his companions.  Amen.



Recreating Genesis at the House of God

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

Today we arrived at the most important place on earth for Muslims – the holy city of Mecca.  Before we left the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, I changed from my usual clothes into the special garb of pilgrims – the Ihram, a garment made of two pieces of unstitched white cloth.  One cloth is wrapped around the shoulders, and the second around the waist.  In this way, all pilgrims are dressed exactly the same, eliminating differences of race, culture and economic status.  Whether we are kings or paupers, whether we wear suits and ties or dashikis in the world we left behind, we are all the same now – human beings standing equally before our Creator, devoid of manmade distinctions.


Dressed in my simple Ihram, I said a final prayer at the Medina mosque and bid farewell to Prophet Muhammad.  And then my mother and I climbed on to a plane to Jeddah, from where we took a bus to Mecca.  As we approached the holy city, the pilgrims began to chant in unison the sacred words of greeting which begin the journey to Islam’s heart: “Labbayk Allahumma labbayk” – “I answer your call, O God, I answer your call.”  The reference is to origin of the Pilgrimage itself, in the days of Abraham,


According to the Qur’an, the Pilgrimage was instituted 3,500 years ago by Abraham when he went to visit his son Ishmael and his wife Hagar.  Ishmael and Hagar had settled in the valley of Mecca after leaving the Holy Land upon God’s command.  Islamic tradition states that God ordered Abraham to climb a mountain and call out to mankind, inviting every human being to come and worship at the stone temple – the Holy Kaaba – that he had built with Ishmael in the desert.  Abraham was confused.  There was no one around for miles except for his family.  Who was going to answer his call?  God responded by telling Abraham to make the call and let Him do the rest.  And so it is that Pilgrims today begin the great Hajj by answering Abraham’s call. 


Labbayk Allahuma labbayk.


We continued to chant the sacred response, some loudly and others in whispered voices, as we drove to Mecca.  As we entered the outskirts of the sacred city, I noticed how different Mecca was from Medina.  The city where the Prophet is buried is a verdant oasis, a sea of rich palm trees set amidst the black volcanic hills.  But Mecca is stark and rocky, with little natural flora to bring color to the mountains of grey stone that ring its perimeter.  It is a remote and forbidding place and I am not surprised that it is known as Al-Haram – the Forbidden.  It is hard to imagine how anyone could have lived here alone, as Ishmael and Hagar did when Abraham was commanded by God to send them into the desert.  It is even harder to imagine that this empty valley would one day become the most crowded repose for humanity the world has ever seen.


As we passed through the boundaries of the holy city, I remembered the other reason that it is known as Al-Haram, the Forbidden, for there are very specific rules that govern behavior within the city walls that set it apart from any other place in the world.  First, it is the only place in the Islamic world where non-Muslims are prohibited from entering.  People of other faiths have always been permitted in Medina, which as the ancient capital of Islamic Caliphate was the home of many foreign emissaries and visitors from all over the world.  But only Muslims may enter Mecca.


Some of my non-Muslims friends have asked why that should be, suggesting that it was unfair that they should be excluded from the site.  But the Islamic response is that Mecca is not like any other city.  It is a living bridge between Heaven and Earth where normal commerce and social interaction is eclipsed by direct contact with the Divine.  It is a site where only those who appreciate its purpose and embrace its transformative power are able to enter.  Again, the tradition of sacred sites reserved only for believers comes right out of the Bible.  The inner sanctum of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was similarly forbidden to unbelievers, and the idea that there should be special places that serve as an exclusive sanctuary of faith is an ancient Semitic and Biblical practice.


Inside of Mecca, it is also forbidden to hunt animals or shed blood, or to touch an object dropped or lost by another (only the rightful owners may reclaim their own property).  When Pilgrims are wearing Ihram, they are considered to be in a state of ritual purity and are forbidden to cut their hair or nails, or have sexual intercourse.  Again, why all the prohibitions?  For the simple reason that the word “NO” is extremely powerful in every language.  The prohibitions force people to be conscious that they are in a different place from any other in the world, a special site where the mundane experiences of normal life are exchanged for something sacred.  Without “the forbidden,” the special character of the city never enters the human consciousness.  It is by recognizing these distinctions, these rules, that the human mind senses that something remarkable is happening when the boundaries of Mecca are crossed.


After arriving inside Mecca, we stopped at our hotel, the Grand Zam Zam, which is situated right next to the Al-Masjid Al-Haram, the Grand Mosque, the center of the Islamic world.  My mother and I dropped off our luggage and performed ablutions, before joining our group and stepping into the majestic mosque with minarets that tower hundreds of feet above its polished marble floor.  The building itself looks like a giant human hand with fingers raised upward, crying out to God in supplication.


We entered the Grand Mosque in trepidation.  I felt like Moses, stepping on to Mount Sinai in anticipation of a direct encounter with God.  The mosque was filled with thousands of believers of every race, color and age, streaming steadily toward the center – the great courtyard which contained the Holy Kaaba, the House of God built by Abraham himself.


My heart pounded as we drew nearer, and I could see people all about me kneeling on the ground, tears streaming from their faces.  And then I saw the object of their veneration – the Kaaba, a fifty-foot tall cubical structure draped in a black cloth covered in gold calligraphy of verses from the Qur’an.  It was a building whose image had been branded on my mind since childhood.  Every Muslim household has pictures of the Kaaba hung proudly on its walls, and it is toward this simple stone building that a billion Muslims all over the world pray five times a day.  This is the House that had been built by Abraham and Ishmael three millennia before.  A House that had once been contaminated with 360 idols and graven images, but had been cleansed by the Prophet Muhammad and restored to the worship of the One God.  For Muslims, this place is the center of the entire universe, and it is believed that the Kaaba exists in two dimensions simultaneously.  Both as a physical building on this planet, as well as a spiritual archetype that exists in Paradise beneath the Throne of God.


As I looked upon the Kaaba with my own eyes for the first time, I felt both awe and wonder.  And a deep sense of warmth and familiarity.  It felt like I had come home after a long journey and been reunited with an old friend.


My mother and I followed our group into the courtyard to perform one of the most imporant rites of the Pilgrimage – the tawaf, or circumabulation, of the Kaaba.  Circumabulation – walking in a circle around a sacred object  or site – is a ritual that exists in many religions and cultures throughout the world.  Versions of this rite exist in Buddhism and Hinduism, and was practiced at the ancient Jewish Temple when believers would circumambulate the altar during the holiday of Sukkot.  It is recorded in the Bible (Joshua 6:1-20) that the priests of Israel circumambulated Jericho for seven days before the fall of the city.  In modern mystical traditions, there are accounts of Freemasons using circumambulation as a means of spiritual initiation.  And on a purely secular level, the practice continues on college fields today, where students joyfully race around bonfires at Homecoming, as I did during my undergrad days at Dartmouth.


Why is circumambulation such a popular and widespread ritual?  I am of the view that on a deep unconscious level, that is how we experience the universe.  Even before Copernicus and Galileo, human beings intuitively knew that the cosmos was revolving around a center.  When we look up into the sky, we see the apparent circumambulation of the heavenly bodies around the earth.  And with our  modern understanding, we know that that the earth circumambulates the sun, which itself circumambulates the center of the galaxy.  It is by emulating this cosmic circumambulation that we experience flowing around something that is bigger than us.  Something more ancient and meaningful.  It is by revolving around the center that we find our place in the universe and go with the flow of life, not against it.


The rite of circumambulation around the Kaaba requires seven circuits around the sacred House, beginning at its most ancient and mysterious element — the Black Stone set in the eastern corner of the building.  The Black Stone is said to have fallen from Heaven, and many assume it is an ancient meteorite.  Islamic tradition states that it was discovered by Abraham in the desert of Mecca and placed as the foundation stone of the original Kaaba by the Patriarch.  The Kaaba has been rebuilt since then many times after being damaged by floods and, sadly, wars.  Of the original structure, the only thing that remains unchanged from the days of Abraham is the Black Stone, and when a Muslim touches it, he is transported in time and faith to that wondrous moment when Abraham himself placed it inside the walls of God’s House.


Due to the immense crowding around the Kaaba, it was impossible for my mother or I to get close and touch the sacred object, the one remnant of Paradise still on earth.  But in accordance with Islamic ritual, we raised our hand in greeting to God’s stone and began our circuits around the Kaaba. Participating in a rite that has continued uninterrupted every single day for over 1400 years.


My mother was nervous of the crowd, and there was the inevitable shoving and jostling when thousands of people are moving together in such a fashion.  But the Pilgrims made their best efforts to give space to the elderly and the weak (some circumambulating on wheelchairs).  We held each other tight in the sea of mankind circling around the Kaaba, the Holy of Holies of Islam, and continued around the structure seven times. 


We passed the Golden Doors of the Kaaba, kept locked and opened rarely in modern times, as well as a beautiful gold and glass receptacle known as the Station of Abraham, which is mentioned in the Qur’an.  The Station marks the spot where Abraham prayed after dedicating the Kaaba to the One God.  I managed to get close enough to the gold receptacle and kissed it reverently, honoring Abraham, the father of Ishmael and Isaac, and the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  And through the glass I could see the famed miracle that was preserved within – the Sacred Footprints.  According to Islamic belief, when Abraham prayed on a rock facing the Kaaba, his feet sank miraculously into the stone and left permanent imprints.  I looked down in wonder and saw for myself the deep impressions on the stone, shaped perfectly like human footprints.  They looked like they were naturally part of the rock and sunk deep into the stone.  Of course, the cynical mind would say that the footprints were carved into the rock by human hands.  But to the eye of faith, they stand out as a clear miracle – the one lasting mark left by Abraham himself.


We continued carefully around the Kaaba.  I held my mother’s hand and smiled at her in encouragement.  She suffers from osteoporosis and is deathly afraid of falling down and shattering her fragile bones.  But she showed remarkable courage and determination and plowed forward like a warrior rushing into battle.  She had been summoned here by God Himself, and she would not let her own fears stop her from answering the Call of Abraham.


As we passed the Station of Abraham, we approached a semi-circular wall that is known as Hijr Ismail.  Islamic tradition records that this was the personal prayer niche of Abraham’s son Ishmael and his mother Hagar, and serves as their tomb.  It is also the sacred site where the famous Night Journey of Prophet Muhammad began.  The Prophet was sleeping inside the wall when the angel Gabriel woke him up and took him on a miraculous journey in one night to Jerusalem, where he prayed with the spirits of Abraham, Moses and Jesus at the ruins of the Temple of Solomon, the site known in the Quran as Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa – the Farthest Mosque.  And from a prominent rock at Al-Aqsa, where the Dome of the Rock now stands, the Prophet then rose to Heaven and  traveled through the cosmos until he bowed alone before the Throne of God.  And then the Prophet returned to the Hijr Ismail, having crossed the distance of a thousand lifetimes in only one night.


The crowd swarmed around the Hijr Ismail and it was impossible to come close.  But I smiled as we passed by, sending greetings to Ishmael and his mother Hagar, whose perilous journey into the Arabian desert would one day give birth to the civilization of Islam.


After what seemed like a joyous eternity, we completed the seven circuits around the Kaaba and then withdrew to a less crowded part of the Mosque near to the Station of Abraham, and prayed in honor of the Patriarch who had founded the Kaaba.  My mother and I then turned our attention to a small stone hill named Safa at the edge of the courtyard.  It was here that we would re-enact a remarkable miracle that is recounted in the Book of Genesis in the Bible – the story of Hagar, Ishmael and the well:


Here is the account in Genesis 21 (14-20) that tells what happened to Hagar and Ishmael after God commanded Abraham to take them away from their home in Canaan and leave them in the wilderness:


“14 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.

 15 And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs.

 16 And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow shot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept.

 17 And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? Fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is.

 18 Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation.

 19 And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.

 20 And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.”


According to Islam, the miracle of the well took place right here, in the valley of Mecca.  One of the most important rites of the Pilgrimage is to recreate these events and honor Hagar’s frantic search for water in the empty desert, which God himself resolved.  Muslims believe that two hills near the Kaaba – Safa and Marwa – were the exact locations of this Biblical drama.


As Ishmael lay dying from dehydration, his desperate mother climbed Safa and looked out for any sign of water, or a passing caravan that could save them.  When she saw nothing in the barren wastes, she ran across to the hill of Marwa and looked out again from that vantage point.  Still nothing but sand and rock all around.  Despairing, Hagar ran between Safa and Marwa seven times crying out to God to save her son.  And then Gabriel appeared and told her to have Ishmael strike the rock with his foot.  And lo! A well erupted beneath the boy’s heel and they were saved.


It is a central Muslim belief that the well of Genesis still exists today at Mecca, which is utterly barren and dry except for one inexplicable water source near the Kaaba – the Well of Zamzam.  The water from the well is considered holy and Muslims believe that it contains healing properties for those who imbibe it.  The well has been in continuous use for thousands of years and has never run dry, despite the fact that millions of people pull water from its source every single day.  Even if one is a nonbeliever, it remains a remarkable wonder of geology that the Well of Zamzam continues unabated after all these years, and the water remains naturally pure and unfiltered in a region with notoriously unsanitary water sources.


My mother and I pushed through the long lines at the Well of Zamzam, and drank from the holy water in plastic cups.  I had tasted Zamzam before from water bottles brought back by Pilgrims and immediately recognized its distinct flavor.  Clean, cold and carrying a hint of mysterious minerals from deep underground.  It is unlike any water I have ever tasted and yet I could not describe why.  Describing Zamzam to someone who has not tried it is like describing colors to the blind.


After imbibing the holy water, we turned to perform the rite of Sai – the running between Safa and Marwa.  In commemoration of Hagar’s desperate search for water, we joined thousands of other believers trotting at a brisk pace between the hills.  Each time we reached one of the hilltops, we stopped and faced the Kaaba and supplicated God for his mercy and forgiveness.  My mother was particularly fascinated by the cold, hard rock at the peaks of the twin hills.  Even though the path between them and up the hillsides is now covered by a beautiful air-conditioned corridor, the hilltops stand exposed as they did in Hagar’s days.  My mother placed her bare foot on the sharp, craggy surface and winced from the harsh stone cutting into her flesh.  She wondered aloud at Hagar’s remarkable determination, as her feet would likely have been torn bloody by her race between the hills. 


But then my mother turned to me and smiled.  She understood Hagar, she said.  Every mother would have done the same.


I hugged my mother lovingly and helped her complete the seven circuits between the hills.


A Jewish cemetery and a battlefield

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

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.

The Grave of Aisha

Friday, November 28th, 2008

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.



Medina and the Prophet’s Tomb

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

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.




As the Hajj looms…

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

Tomorrow, we fly from Washington DC to Medina, the second sacred city of Islam, where Prophet Muhammad is buried.  On Thanksgiving Day, I will arrive in Saudi Arabia with my mother.  It will be interesting to see how this outspoken and strong-willed lady will react to being in a country where women’s rights are curtailed.  We will have to perform the holy rites under the strict supervision of religious conservatives whose ideology is often alien to those of us raised as mainstream Muslims.  What will this journey mean for my mother and for me?  How will this voyage into the ancient land of Islam’s birth change how we see ourselves, both as Muslims and as Americans?  And if we have indeed been summoned by a mystical voice in a dream, what awaits us when we answer its call?

Hajj, the Sacred Pilgrimage

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

My mother was always afraid to go on Pilgrimage. She was terrified of crowds, and the idea of spending days in the desert of Saudi Arabia surrounded by three million worshippers gave her panic attacks. Every year she would say: “Next year, insha-Allah.” If God wills. I always smiled indulgently at her words, knowing that God’s will was a convenient excuse for her own stubborn inaction. A pint-sized Pakistani firebrand who has lived in America for thirty years, my mother is a modern Muslim feminist. She cannot be coerced, threatened or cajoled, even by the call of the Divine. I accepted that she would never willingly go on the Hajj, the sacred Pilgrimage to the heart of Islam that is required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their lifetime. Unless, of course, it was “the will of God.”

And then, to my surprise, God willed it.

My mother had a dream in which she was summoned to Mecca. Never one to argue with the promptings of the spiritual world, my mother called me and said she was ready to go. Immediately. And as her son, I was duty bound to escort her on the voyage.