The approach to Makka lies through mountains,
sharp, unforgiving angles of granite. The road to
Madina passes through great plains of basalt: the
harra wastelands which provide dramatic reminders of
the region's volcanic past. Several eruptions are
recorded by the Muslim historians, the most fearsome
taking place in 1257, when a volcano poured out
fast-moving orange streams of lava, which were only
deflected to pass to the east of the city by the
fervent prayers of its inhabitants.
Desiccated by the merciless desert air, these
seas of fire have dried to form black basalt plains,
which stretch beyond the horizon. They are God?Ô
defence of the city, whose glassy sharpness kept at
bay the idolatrous invaders of Quraish, forcing them
to confront the believers at their only point of
access, at the Battle of the Trench. The desolation of
this landscape of flat blackness, interrupted by dry
sarha bushes, and, far away, the shapely profile of
extinct volcanoes, gives the impact of arrival an
extraordinary dramatic power.
The proximity of the City, on the motorway
inevitably dubbed the Hijra Highway, is first
announced by the slip-road to Abyar Ali, the Wells of
Ali. These are sweetwater sources much frequented by
pilgrims, eager to benefit from the medicinal
properties of these deep, cold wells once owned by the
Blessed Prophet's son-in-law. Pilgrims from the
Subcontinent, in particular, flock here to catch the
precious fluid in bottles, to be given to relatives on
their return: a gift almost as welcome as the Water of
Ten minutes drive, and Quba is reached. Here,
the black barrenness of the harrat suddenly gives way
to a verdant sea of green. Alfalfa, watermelons,
cucumber and tomatoes grow here, between fruit trees
and the ancient symbol of Madina, the date palm
itself. In this prosperous suburb, now a place of
coffee-shops and small parks, can still be found the
Zarqa wells from which the Blessed Prophet drank when
first he reached the City, and which are the secret of
the land's fertility. Here, too, the Madinan Muslims,
and the penniless but radiant refugees from Makkan
tyranny, patiently lined the walls and the high
places, hoping for a glimpse of God's Messenger and
the faithful Abu Bakr, as they appeared as dots on the
The mosque at Quba, the first place of worship
founded in Islam, is impressive but sober. The 1986
reconstruction retains the familiar features of
Madinese architecture, which are ribbed white domes,
and basalt facing over a modest exterior that recalls
Madina's primordial simplicity. The courtyard,
screened overhead by day from the scorching heat, is
flagged with black, red and white marble. Calligraphy
by great Turkish masters soars overhead, proclaiming
the uniqueness of this place. Arabesque latticework
filters the light of the palm groves outside. Doves
coo in the window-niches.
Despite the sense of peace, few linger here. The
pull of the Haram, the Sanctuary, is everywhere, and
as the sun lowers in the west the pilgrims have
thoughts only for the Prophet's Mosque. At this time,
there is only one destination for visitors and
city-dwellers alike. In Ramadan, in this city, it
would be possible to switch off the traffic lights in
the late afternoon. Every road becomes a one-way
street, pulling the visitor towards the cool, radiant
heart of the city.
Visitors who have not set foot in Madina before
are often in tears by now. The blessings of a still,
loving Presence can be breathed everywhere, softening
hearts, and loosening tongues in dhikr. Shops and
buildings pass by, but here the city itself is no more
than a blur. Visitors come here for one place, and for
one person alone.
The road skirts the Manakha district, and passes
the Mosque of Abu Bakr, its Ottoman minaret pointing
to the clear, reddening sky. Then, the splendour of
the Haram is suddenly revealed. A minaret, and then
several more, sparkle in welcome. And then the adhan
rises, piercing the warm air with its magnetic
A sea of quiet humanity pours into each of
seventy gates. Many have removed their sandals long
beforehand, out of respect for the ground, which holds
the Messenger in its embrace. Within, there is clear
light, carpets, water-barrels, and an extraordinary
dynamic which draws the visitor on, and in, until at
last the courtyard is reached, and the pilgrim stands
in the presence of the Best of Creation.
Hundreds of thousands are being fed. These
guests of the Prophet sit, while those honoured with
this service circulate, smilingly handing out dates,
or small containers of yoghurt. In this palace of the
Prophet, no-one, however poor, goes hungry when the
time of the fast is ended. Children tumble on the
carpets, laughing with delight at the experience of
the endless sanctuary. There is a murmur of grateful
conversation, and of prayer.
The space is articulated with supreme genius. To
one side is the Gate of Gabriel, leading on, and in,
to the Rawda, and to the mihrab in which the Messenger
himself laid his forehead on the earth in adoration of
God. On one side is the dakka, the carved marble
platform on which the muezzin and his assistants await
the appointed time. On the other rises the gold grille
beyond which lies the cool and shaded silence beneath
the great dome. The air here is perfumed by the rarest
of incense and musk, announcing the presence, beneath
the flagstones, of the Best of Creation, and Abu Bakr
and Umar, his closest companions.
The modern Egyptian poet al-Fayturi expresses
the emotions of millions:
Over the Prophet's form every speck of dust
is a pillar of light
ascending from the dome of his tomb
to the dome of the skies.
And the awe that makes our foreheads bow
draws its own horizon, and higher horizons,
from hands and from lips -
the road of "In the name of God."
The proximity is overwhelming for some pilgrims,
whose humility and awe forces them to sit at a
distance, perhaps some way down the mosque.
Others cannot sit too close. Everywhere, there is
worship, bowing and prostration, the mellifluous
murmuring of the Qur?Ân, and wordless contemplation.
A hadith tells us that Á?rayer in my mosque is a
thousand times better than prayer in any other mosque,
saving only the Sacred Mosque itself.????s the iqama
sounds, and half a million men and women rise with
longing for the prayer, the calculation does not feel
like an overstatement.
Prayer in the Rawda is especially sought after.
A hadith affirms that "the space between my grave and
my pulpit is one of the Meadows of Paradise." Here,
listening to the awesome gravity of God's word, the
continuity with the blessed past is felt intensely.
The greatest saints and scholars of Islam have stood
here: after the Companions came countless thousands:
the Four Imams worshipped here, as did al-Shaybani,
IbnJurayj, al-Zuhri, Sibawayh, Ibn Qutaybah,
al-Ghazali, al-Nawawi, A??sha al-BaÁÖniyya, Ibn
Khaldun: all the great souls of Islam have prayed
here, humbled by the Prophetic presence.
After the silent prayers of the day, the
worshippers drink the words of the Qur?Ân thirstily.
The greetings of peace are given, and the lines break
up as they worship individually. Circles of
remembrance form in the Rawda, as turbanned Turks
repeat a litany, guided by their teacher, prayer-beads
in hand. Nigerians, Uzbeks, Bangladeshis and a whole
sea of Indonesians do likewise.
A Baluchi folk-melody, 'May I see the towers of
On the tongues of this Rawda's nightingales
are words of wisdom,
More beautifully coloured than all the
flowers of Madina!
Among the many Prophetic litanies which the
careful ear may hear in this place, the most
widely-used is the Dala'il al-Khayrat, the Indications
of Blessings, by Imam al-Jazuli, whose tomb in far-off
Marrakesh breathes something of the spirit of Madina.
This great prayer begins with over two hundred Names
of the Prophet, culled from the scriptures, and which
may also be read in exquisite Naskh calligraphy above
the green tiles on the qibla wall. Hundreds of names
recall him: the Messenger of Mercy, the Emissary of
Virtue, Reliant, the Beloved of God, Seal of the
These pilgrims know that they are in the
presence of the most influential man in history. He
had found a people divided by the crudest pagan
ignorance, and left them united in the purest and most
Formerly they had denied life after death;
twenty-three short years on, they lived with it
constantly before their eyes. He had found them unable
to rule themselves, torn by age-long vendettas,
knowing no law other than the selfish interest of the
tribe and the individual's honour; and he left their
hearts so united that they withstood the shock of his
death, and went out to liberate the world.
In this place, the Messenger guided his
disciples. Here they learnt how to be still before
their Lord, how to restrain their anger, to live for
others, to show compassion to young and old. This was
the crucible of a New World Order: the most effective
school ever known.
And presiding over it all, still, is the
presence of the Prophet. His mission for the Muslim
commonwealth awaits its final consummation, when, at
the Resurrection, he shall appear with his name of
Intercessor. There is no Muslim alive who does not
hope for the honour of resurrection under his green
Banner of Praise, and for the rapture of salvation
through his pleading before his Lord. Adab, good
manners in his presence, is hence passionately
cultivated and prayed for. Those who respectfully move
forwards, to stand before the gold of the Wajiha to
greet him, are moved not only by love and gratitude
for what he did, but by fervent hope for his prayers,
help and pleading amid the terrors of the Apocalypse.
He said: "No Muslim greets me but that Allah
restores my spirit to me so that I am able to respond
to him." Five times a day, worshippers end their
prayers by invoking blessings and peace upon his
spirit. No human being, since the beginning of time,
has been more blessed. And this reciprocal rite of
taslim is the culmination of a lifetime of calling
down God's blessings upon him, a cosmic process in
which God and the Angels themselves join. In the
presence of his spirit, salat and salam come
continuously. The entire mosque is filled with prayers
for him; and this is the largest building in the
world. Here, the existence of humanity finds its
"Not one of you believes," says a hadith, "until
I am dearer to him than his father, his son, and all
mankind." The power of this love detains many in the
mosque. But the body has its rights, and others slowly
leave, to find a place to eat in this crowded city.
Restaurants of all kinds abound, and the air around
the mosque loses its hint of musk and sandalwood, to
become fragrant with the aroma of Turkish kebabs,
Lebanese meze, Malaysian satay, Sudanese chicken and
beans. In the darkness, street vendors offer the
garments of fifty countries:Indonesian batik, Damascus
muslin, Egyptian cotton, Moroccan chiffre. Prayer
beads of olive pits, amber or ebony dangle from
shelves. Women browse through jewellery, heaped high
with no fear of thieves.
The cheerful fellowship of the eating-houses is
not the profane self-exaltation of the smart Western
restaurant. Here, companionship is the main item on
the menu. Struggling for words, Muslims of two hundred
nationalities speak about their homes, about the
troubles of the world, about their hopes for an end to
the unbearable shallowness of the modern world, and a
return to God.
The air outside is now much cooler. Those who
know the city may briefly visit some of its nearer
shrines, such as the Mosque of the Two Qiblas, with
its resonances of the lost Muslim city of Jerusalem,
the Third Holy City. Unlike Madina, Jerusalem has been
tragically desacralised in recent decades, with the
introduction of night clubs, pornography, and every
form of degradation. But Islam's grasp on Madina is
still strong. Such is God's power in defence of His
Messenger that no enemy army has succeeded in
capturing it, since the dawn of Islam.
The adhan sounds for isha, and the veins of the
city pump back towards the mosque which is its heart.
Grateful for God's gift of food and drink, the
pilgrims are eager for the prayer, followed by the
Tarawih rite extending almost two hours into the
Tarawih in Madina is one of the great spectacles
of the world. Perhaps a million men, women and
children, stand in neat lines in the mosque, on its
roof, and in the marbled spaces nearby. Tarawih in
Mecca is an experience of austere majesty; in Madina,
it is characterised by delight and by love. To pray in
the company of God's Messenger, who rose through the
seven heavens to bring to us the gift of prayer, and
who will intercede for tides of humanity, is an almost
inexpressible joy. Villagers from Pakistan,
shopkeepers from Turkey, Nigerian businessmen, and
Bosnian farmers, all stand together, their differences
annihilated by the presence of the man whose mission
was truly universal.
In the Qur'an, there is nothing of Arab pride.
Its original context in history was the Arab people,
but it pays little attention to them. It is
farsighted, affirming that each previous prophet had
been sent only to his own people; but that now, a
Prophet had come who was for all mankind. And here is
the proof of that mission's truth and of its success
under God: a million human beings, outwardly diverse
but of a single heart, basking in the glow of Madina.
After Tarawih, it is tea-time. Midnight, under
the arc-lamps of this warm city, is no time for sleep.
Sufi fraternities meet in homes, and recall the
glories of the Beloved of Madina. Hadith are read, in
the sing-song style traditional in the city.
Commentaries are given in the delightful Madina
dialect, so rich in Syrian and Turkish words.
Tahajjud prayers attract perhaps a quarter of a
million, deep in the small hours. Others are sleeping
in the streets, or in the hotels, which range from
small Egyptian resthouses with doubtful stairs, to the
five-star plushness of the Sheraton and the Green
Palace. On the roofs of many hotels are small gardens,
and here, even at this hour, the Sufi orders are again
enjoying their fellowship in the spirit.
The sunna recommends that at least some of the
night be spent in sleep. Two hours before dawn, most
of the city is silent. And then, the first adhan, more
than an hour before the adhan for the prayer, rises
into the black sky. The hotels serve a pre-dawn meal,
but few linger until the last moment. An hour before
the dawn prayer begins, the mosque is already full,
the worshippers knowing by experience the value of
this time. The Suffa, the small veranda attached to
the Prophetic tomb, is crowded with turbaned men,
prayer-beads in hand. Here lived the poorest of the
Companions, those who were under the most intense
spiritual guidance, who hungered, and lived in rags,
The final adhan sounds, and then the iqama. The
prayer is said, followed by the atmosphere of peace
and consummation which ends each prayer. Many remain
until ishraq, the individual prayer said after
sunrise. Others hail taxis, and visit the outlying
The most important of these is Mount Uhud. The
Blessed Prophet proclaimed it as ÁÂ mountain which
loves us, and which we love????Its mysterious quality
has been reinforced by aerial photographs, which show
that the mountain spells the Arabic name of Allah. To
walk in its dry valleys is to encounter solitary
pilgrims, meditating on the evanescence of life.
Occasionally a qalandar is seen, with untidy hair,
fingers heavy with brass rings, his eyes disquietingly
bright. Some live in this hill throughout their visit,
descending to the valley to pray.
Ramadan is a time of renunciation. Although the
morning air is still cool, the sense of detachment
granted by the fast has sobered the crowds, and
focussed their minds. The pilgrims clustered around
the iron grille which allows them to view the graves
of the Martyrs of Uhud read from prayerbooks, or
repeat the words of the muzawwir, the official guide.
"Peace be upon you, Hamza, the Lion of God, the uncle
of God's Messenger!
Peace be upon you, Mus'ab, hero of the
Companions!" Beside the cemetery, the authorities have
constructed a mosque for those who wish to pray in
The great cemetery of Madina, however, is
al-Baqi'. This lies near the Prophet's tomb, from
which it was until recently separated by one of the
gates of the walled city, the Bab al-Baqi'. The
cemetery has many names, including Jannat al-Baqi',
The Garden of Baqi', and Baqi' Âl-Gharqad, a reference
to the brambles (gharqad) which covered it when Islam
first arrived. In the fifth year of the Hijra, the
Companion Uthman ibn Maz'un died, and was buried
here, and on the Blessed Prophet's instructions the
area was cleared of brambles and became the last
resting place of the Companions.
Today, Baqi' is the most visited graveyard in
the world. Until recently rough cement walls
surrounded it, but in 1996 the authorities replaced
these with fine granite, pierced with large iron and
brass grilles, to commemorate and honour this place.
Some pilgrims stand by the grilles, but others,
particularly in the cool hour after dawn, venture in
by the splendid new gates.
To facilitate circulation, the authorities have
established cement pathways throughout the cemetery.
Guidebooks provide detailed maps of the plots, naming
hundreds of the individuals who are buried here.Hence
the pilgrims, guided by their muzawwirs, stand, or
crouch, before the tombs of the Mothers of the
Believers: A'isha, Hafsa, Umm Habiba and the others.
Nearby is the Blessed Prophet's infant son, the two
year old Ibrahim, whose death caused the Prophet such
pain. The pilgrims move on to salute Uthman, the third
Caliph, and then Imam Malik and his teacher
Nafi'. Al-Abbas, the Prophet's uncle, is here. So too
is Halima al-Sa'diyya, the nurse whose dry breasts
miraculously flowed with milk when the infant Muhammad
was set to them. To one side is the grave of Imam
Shamyl, the nineteenth-century hero of the Caucasus,
visited by Chechen and Daghistani pilgrims to this
Al-Baqi' is a powerful place. Other cities
consider it their pride to host a single saint; but
here there are hundreds. All around lie at rest the
men and women who heard the Prophet's summons, and
broke the idols of their forefathers, and gave their
lives to his cause. To this blessed ambience is added
the baraka of Ramadan, and as the days pass, this too
gains in power.
The fasting city of Madina has other wonders,
although not all are as spectacular as the Haram and
al-Baqi'. There is one mosque no bigger than a
prayer-mat, surrounded by two layers of bricks, which
marks the spot where the Blessed Prophet once prayed.
An elderly man lives nearby, and sweeps the tiny
mosque daily, dispensing prayers and teaching-stories
to the visitors.
The tribes of Aws and Khazraj, who welcomed the
Prophet and his teaching, still live in Madina,
retaining their traditions of courtesy and
hospitality. The basalt homes in which they once
lived: the traditional
Madinese bayt al-bi'r, built around a courtyard
which was often covered with a net and filled with
tropical birds, are now mostly gone. Yet otherwise,
not much has changed in fourteen hundred years.
Pernicious and cheapening influences from the world
outside are successfully excluded.
Madina shows the truth of the hadith that
"Madina expels impurities as a furnace expels
impurities from iron." The form of the city has
changed, but the heart is immutable. In Ramadan, more
than at any other time, the continued strength of
Islam is manifest here. The city is well-defended; as
a hadith recorded by Imam Muslim states, the
Antichrist cannot enter it, but will be driven away on
the lava-plains by al-Khidr himself. In this city,
and in this month, the Muslims are at home.