Archive for November, 2008

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.