Visit to Medina - A City of Peace
By Nasim Hassan
Medina is a city of peace and serenity where people from many Muslim countries converge to pray. I am visiting the city for the third time in a span of 30 years. The Medina of the past has undergone a vast transformation. The change is marked and striking.
A few decades ago, Medina was a small town with bazaars surrounding the old Turkish-built Masjid. People could easily pray in Riazul Janna inside the masjid and see the tomb of the Prophet (pbuh). They could recite the Holy Qur’an; pass across the corridor where policeman allowed a passing glimpse of the inside area. Outside the masjid, there were a large number of jewelry shops, clothing and other gift items. I remember even seeing a shop selling betel and cigarettes. Every shop had people who could speak quite a few languages, particularly Urdu and Punjabi.
I land in Medina after a long flight from New York to Jeddah in March 2016. The airport has expanded and we pass the new railway station. The road is lined up with date palm trees on both sides and some places in the median.
Your experience of Medina would be different from other pilgrims. Medina has a very unique history starting from the arrival of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). If you are looking for any historical markers you can’t find them without the help of a knowledgeable tour guide.
Gradually, the Saudi government has started to preserve a few remnants of historical importance. In fact, the current area of the Masjid covers the whole area of the ancient city. Everything in this area has been rebuilt. The current capacity inside the masjid can accommodate about half a million worshippers. However, during prayer time, the corridors surrounding the masjid have the same capacity. So during the Hajj time about one million people can pray in the masjid. The expansion continues and additional capacity is planned by year 2020.
It is early morning at 5:30 AM and I am walking towards the masjid from my hotel. I see literally a sea of people moving towards the masjid. I feel a sense of peace and calm as I step inside the masjid. After entering from gate 15, I pass the area specified for women. My wife Raheela moves on to the women section while I continue towards the entrance for men. The whole area is bright as day break approaches.
Although there is a shoe rack at every entrance, I wrap my shoes in a plastic bag and carry them in my backpack. It is very easy to place the backpacks at the base of the masjid pillars. Every pillar has a shoe rack. So there is hardly any need to leave the backpack outside.
As the prayer starts people move forward to fill up the front rows. But, there are still big gaps that remain.
After the prayer, there is a procession of people moving out. I linger on at the entrance to see people of various nations in different dresses exiting from the masjid.
The corridor has shade canopies that open slowly early morning with light sensors. The Saudi government employs hundreds of people to maintain and clean the masjid on a daily basis. The employees are very helpful. There are many people from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India who are working in the masjid. Saudi people have left such trivial jobs for migrant workers. Outside the masjid, there are many ladies wrapped up in Hijab from head to toe who are seeking charity. This time around I did not encounter male charity seekers. Perhaps the Hajj season is more lucrative for them.
Several of my close friends have asked to pray for them at Riazul Jannah. This is a designated place where the Prophet (pbuh) walked from his home to the lectern to give khutba. After the Asr prayer I proceed to Riazul Jannah. The place is packed with people. It is blocked by the police and they allow a few people at a time. The waiting line is very long. I pray as my friends instructed me and continue to proceed towards the exit passage where you can see the outer grill enclosing the tomb of the Prophet (pbuh). The number of people at the time appears more than that during the Hajj of 2012 when I was able to pray in Riazul Jannah.
On the right side of the exit I see a group of people from South Asia pray as they face up towards the Masjid Nabavi. A policeman is trying to turn their faces towards Kaaba instead of the masjid but they are adamant and continue praising the Prophet (pbuh) in Urdu.
As I move towards the hotel I see several groups from other countries. I see Turkish, Indonesian, Bangladeshi, Malaysian people. Some families are taking their meals in the courtyard. Nobody disturbs them. There are two cats sitting around them. It seems Medina welcomes everyone without distinction.
They are very kind and generous and share dates and water with me. The Turkish people particularly are very warmly disposed even though we do not understand each other. I take photographs with my I-phone.
I approach a group of three elderly friends sitting in the courtyard. They tell me they are from Naroval, Pakistan. They agree to let me photograph them. If one of them says something the others readily agree with him. I ask their names but to my surprise one of them said he would not disclose it while the other two instantly agreed with him. I leave them with a smile and walk away towards my hotel.
There are primarily five sites in Medina that pilgrims visit during the Hajj or Umra season. These are Masjid Nabavi, Masjid Quba, Masjid Qiblatain, Uhad Battleground and Jannatul Baqi. Although Medina had a large number of historical places, only a few have been preserved. A good guide can point out the location of the trench, garden of Salman Farsi and few others. Recently, the Saudi government has started to preserve their heritage. There was an exhibition on the biography of Prophet Mohammed outside Masjid Nabavi. Everything was written in Arabic without any photographs. Some models and maps were on display.
On March 27, 2016, I visited Mount Uhad where the second battle took place after the Prophet’s migration from Makkah. It is a bright sunny morning and the weather has warmed up. The mountain range consisting of small hills is in sight. The open area has a parking lot and shops. These shops have dates, prayer mats and various kinds of tasbihs.
There is a small hill that is crowded with people. It appears to be vulnerable as dust is rising around the crowd. The guide mentions that the Prophet placed a contingent of fifty people on this hill with arrows to forestall an attack from behind. This hill is called Aynayn. Abdullah Bin Jubair was the leader of the group that stayed behind. He was martyred on the hill along with ten companions. The hill would perhaps disappear after a few decades owing to erosion.
Fortunately, the Saudi government does not allow people to visit the mass graves of Sahaba Karam. Hazrat Hamza was also buried here. There is a fence around this site but the mass grave can be seen from a distance.
Our tour guide Ahmed passionately narrates the story of sacrifice of many people. Umm Ammara from Medina, who was nursing wounded soldiers, took up a big shield to save the prophet from the onslaught of arrows and swords. Then she took out a sword and started fighting the Makkan invaders. She continued even after she was wounded. Sixty-five Ansar of Medina laid down their lives out of about seventy martyrs in this battle.
Our guide continues the narration about a critical moment in this battle. At one time, when Musab Bin Umair was killed, the Muslims thought that the Prophet had passed away. Then Kaab Bin Malik saw the Prophet and the Muslims gathered around him. Seven people were facing up to the enemy and safeguarding the Prophet.
This site seems well preserved and hopefully will stay. Everything else around old Medina has disappeared during the past fifty years. This site reminds us of the epic struggle of the Muslim community during the early period of Islam. It also shows that the Prophet (pbuh) had to himself work hard for everything he achieved.
Our group continued its journey towards Makkah to perform Umra with the memories of Medina where peace continued to envelop the environment.