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Volume 15, Number 4July/August 1964

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Second City Of Islam

A small community in western Arabia, it played a crucial role in the life of the Prophet ...

Written by 'Abd Al-Quddoos Al-Ansari

In Medina, the Prophet Muhammad found at last the faith and unshakable support denied him by his own tribe, the Quraish of Mecca. In Medina were revealed to Muhammad the concluding suras —chapters—of the Koran, the foundation of Islam. In that city, Muhammad planned, and fought nearby, the three decisive battles against his Meccan foes. And from Medina he launched the host of believers, ten thousand strong, who awed his opponents into lasting submission. In Medina, Muhammad lived the final decade of his life, and there he died and was buried. From Medina the first three Caliphs, or successors of the Prophet, ruled the Arab empire.

So significant is Muhammad's arrival in Medina from Mecca, in 622 A.D., that the chronology of Islam rests upon that single momentous event. The very name Medina, which in Arabic means simply "The City" without further qualification, eloquently attests to its importance. Yet outside Islam, the crucial role it played in the development of a religion whose 435,000,000 adherents girdle the earth is all but unknown.

Compared to Mecca, a bustling, sophisticated trading center which was already the focus of animistic religion in the Arabian Peninsula, Medina was, in pre-Islamic times, an agricultural settlement called Yathrib by its inhabitants. Situated in a mountain basin on the uptilted western edge of the plateau of western Arabia, some 90 miles from the shores of the Red Sea, Yathrib owed its modest prosperity to plentiful water sources and lands made fertile by ancient lava flows. Citrus groves, grapes, figs, wheat, almonds, and dates, of which there were an estimated 130 varieties, provided a livelihood for the few thousands who dwelt there. Unlike Mecca, which was dominated by the Quraish, Yathrib was split into many factions, whose quarrels threatened to turn the city's precarious peace into anarchy.

A chance encounter by six pilgrims from Yathrib during the pagan festival at al-'Aqaba, near Mecca, with Muhammad ibn (son of) 'Abd Allah (as the Prophet was then known), proved to be the hinge on which the history of Islam was to turn. The men from Yathrib listened to the Prophet's preaching and his recitation of the Koran and eagerly spread his teachings on their return to their native city. To the Arabs of Yathrib, the word of God as revealed to Muhammad seemed the solution to their city's dissension, and the following year at al-'Aqaba witnessed the fateful meeting between Muhammad and a delegation of twelve from Yathrib. Won by his divine message, the men of Yathrib made with Muhammad a covenant, agreeing to eschew idolatry, theft and adultery, to tell no lies, to abjure female infanticide (a common practice in Arabia in those early days), and to abide by the ordinances of the Prophet. On their return home, they were accompanied by a reader of the Koran. The measure of the success of this, Islam's first missionary, was the submission of 73 men and two women from Yathrib to Islam at the next annual pilgrimage. The men from Yathrib also swore to defend Muhammad's life and teachings to their last breath.

The intercession of the men from Yathrib was timely. Muhammad had found the Quraish of Mecca singularly unresponsive to his revelations. Dismissed at first as an eccentric, Muhammad aroused more active opposition as his teachings attracted adherents, few in number but fervent in their belief. The commercial oligarchy which ruled Mecca feared, and rightly so, that the simple morality and surrender to divine dictates preached by Muhammad jeopardized their worldly rule. To such a degree had their attitudes hardened that, by the time the men of Yathrib pledged their lives and fortunes to the service of Islam, Muhammad and the small group of Muslims of Mecca were no longer safe among their fellow townsmen. Now the allegiance of the men of Yathrib offered Muhammad and his followers not only a sanctuary, but a challenge to convert the Medinites, and they determined to avail themselves of it.

Singly, and in twos and threes, Mecca's tiny Muslim community drifted away to Yathrib, just over 200 miles to the north, until at last only the Prophet, Abu Bakr, a loyal follower who would become Muhammad's first successor, and 'Ali, his son-in-law, remained in the city. One night Muhammad, accompanied by Abu Bakr, secretly left Mecca. Eluding their pursuers, they made their way to Yathrib.

The Prophet was received with jubilation by the populace, and from all sides beseeched to honor this or that family by being its guest. Fearing that by accepting the hospitality of one he would offend the others, Muhammad, according to pious tradition, mounted his camel and decreed that where the camel halted, so would he. The camel stopped at a clearing within the town, then at once arose and stopped again a little beyond, at the house of Abu Ayyub (later called al-Ansari—The Helper). For the next seven months Muhammad lived in the humble home of Abu Ayyub, while, with his own hands and the help of his followers, he built the first mosque of Islam in the clearing where his camel had first stopped.

Muhammad's early days in Medina were attended by a poverty unusual even for one who, like Muhammad, disdained personal comfort and pomp. In this agricultural community, farm labor was very nearly the only occupation, and the newcomers from Mecca, who had no lands of their own, were hard-pressed to keep alive. These Muhajirin, or Muslim immigrants from Mecca, were a real burden to their co-religionists the Ansar, or helpers, in Medina. So the Prophet made each one of the Ansar legally adopt a brother from the Muhajirin, and share his wealth with that brother, thus fusing the two groups into one solid social and political entity which became the nucleus of the future Muslim community. However, the Prophet abolished this brotherhood after the battle at Badr.

The relative security of Medina had not caused Muhammad to forget his mission of uniting his people. His following in Medina grew steadily stronger until at length he was ready for a test of strength with the Meccans. Medina's position astride the north-south trade routes between Mecca and Syria, indeed, made such a clash inevitable. It came on the evening of the 17th of Ramadan, in the year 2 A.H. ("Anno Hegirae"—in the year of the flight), when Muhammad led his troops to meet the Meccans at Badr, 11 miles southwest of Medina. Opposing his 305 men, 70 camels and 3 horses was an array of 950 Meccans, 700 camels and 100 horses.

The Medinites, though vastly outnumbered, were confident of victory because they were fighting for the supreme cause. The Meccans rushed headlong at their foe while the Muslims, at Muhammad's strict orders, fought in closed ranks, hurled volley after volley of arrows at the Meccans and unsheathed their swords only at the last moment. The Prophet and his troops won a signal victory: by noon the Meccans had fled, leaving 70 dead on the field and an equal number captive, to Muslim losses of about 15.

The history of war would record the Battle of Badr as a trivial skirmish were it not for its far-reaching consequences. Islam was immeasurably strengthened by the victory, while the leaders of the Quraish now knew their very survival was at stake. In Mecca, preparations were renewed for war. In Medina, the Prophet reminded his followers that Allah Himself had guided their blades and missiles: "So it was not ye who slew them, but God slew them; and those shafts were God's, not thine."

Two more contests between the Meccans and Medinites, at the Battle of Uhud and the Battle of the Ditch, served to convince the Quraish that further offensives against Muhammad and Medina were pointless. So strong had his forces grown, in fact, that on the 10th of Ramadan in the year 8 A.H. he led his followers to a final confrontation of the Quraish outside Mecca. Realizing their inability to give battle with any hope of victory, the Meccans surrendered themselves to Muhammad's mercy, which proved infinitely greater than many a victor's before or since. Instead of giving the city over to rapine, the Prophet sought the reconciliation of his former enemies. Many of them, unused to and awed by such magnanimity in a conqueror in those days of violence, immediately embraced the religion they had formerly rejected. Destruction was reserved only for Mecca's pagan idols.

The two years remaining in the life of the Prophet saw the extension of Islam to nearly the whole of Arabia. A military expedition was even mounted against forces of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in Syria, and though the two armies never met in his lifetime, the threat of Arabian arms resulted in the submission of a number of petty Christian and pagan princes to Islam. During the ten years he spent in Medina, Muhammad planned 65 campaigns and raids and personally led 27 of them. Their success was as much a tribute to his shrewd leadership as to the devotion of his soldiers and his personal indifference to danger.

Medina itself became, under the influence of Muhammad, a practicing theocratic community. By precept and personal example, Muhammad instilled into the community a sense of the divine purpose which motivated him, a recognition that the life of this earth is purposeful to the extent that it fulfills the dictates of Islam. Unchanged and unchanging since the days of Muhammad, these "Pillars of Islam" impose on all believers five obligations: confess to the uniqueness and omnipotence of God and the prophecy of His Messenger, Muhammad; say five prayers daily, the first before daylight and the last about two hours after sunset; observe complete abstinence from food, water and stimulants, as well as complete continence, during daylight hours in the holy month of Ramadan; make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime whenever possible; and distribute at least one-tenth of one's income in alms to the poor.

Ten years after the Hijrah from Mecca, the 63-year-old Muhammad contracted malaria and on the 13th of the month of Rabi' al-Awwal (June 8, 632 A.D.), he died. According to tradition, the Prophet was buried under his wife 'Aisha's house, very close to the mosque which he himself built on his arrival in Medina.

The respect which Muslims pay to Medina as the site of the tomb of the Prophet is amplified by the presence there of the graves of some of Muhammad's kin, companions and successors. The Prophet's father, 'Abd Allah, his only son, Ibrahim, and his daughter, Fatima, some of his wives and the first three "orthodox" caliphs, Abu Bakr, 'Omar and 'Uthman—all found final rest in or near Medina.

The Mosque of the Prophet is the dominant visual feature of Medina. Islam has no sainthood, and thus the worship of any being other than God—even the Prophet Muhammad—is forbidden. Though a visit to the Mosque confers merit on the pilgrim, it is not obligatory according to the canons of Islam. Nevertheless, because of its powerful religious associations, to pray in the Mosque of the Prophet has been a goal of the faithful for more than 13 centuries.

The Mosque of the Prophet today is irregularly rectangular in form, 380 feet long on its north-south axis, 280 feet broad at the south and 220 feet at the north, the whole being enclosed by a wall 30 feet high. The south portion of the Mosque, approximately one-third of the total area, is covered by a roof of lead supported by 320 massive marble columns in 12 rows. This part of the Mosque contains ar-Rawdah —The Garden—and the hujrah, an enclosure open only to the custodians of the Mosque, which contains the tombs of the Prophet, the caliphs Abu Bakr and 'Omar, and, in a separate place, the Prophet's daughter, Fatima. The concealment of what to other religions might be objects of veneration is explained by a saying of Muhammad's: "O Allah, cause not my tomb to become an object of idolatrous adoration! Allah's wrath falls heavy upon the people who have made the tombs of their prophets places of prayer."

Directly above the brocade-covered tombs rises the great green dome of the Mosque, the most lofty landmark on the horizon of Medina; rivaled in height only by the four minarets at the Mosque's corners and the fifth in the west wall from which the faithful are called to prayer. On either side of the Mosque grounds are colonnaded hypostyles which bound the area formerly occupied by Fatima's garden and the Prophet's well.

Twice burned, and repeatedly restored and enlarged by Muslim rulers of the city, the Mosque has changed in appearance but not in its essential character through the ages. Pilgrims in Medina perform their five daily prayers in this mosque, moving from one place to another and offering prayers of penance, thanksgiving and praise of God, and the Testification and the Profession of Faith.

The influence of Medina has been steady throughout the history of Islam, drawing Muslims to the scene which witnessed the final epochal events of the Prophet's life. But by the Middle Ages both Medina and Mecca had lapsed into comparative obscurity as political power gravitated steadily toward the Mediterranean. The Mosque of the Prophet, however, continued to be a place not only of respect but of learning.

The fortunes of war brought the Umayyads, the 'Abbasids, the Mamelukes and the Ottomans, each in their turn to assume control of the holy places, each embellishing the shrines according to the tastes of the age. But the monumental mosques, however impressive to the eye, are to the Muslim the least substantial part of his religion. For what is important to the true believer is not the form but the substance, and the substance of Islam is the word of God, as revealed to Muhammad at Mecca and Medina in the Holy Koran.

'Abd al-Quddoos al-Ansari, who was born in Medina in 1910, is a writer, poet, historian and editor. His magazine al-Manhal, which is devoted to literature, science and history, was founded in 1937 and is published in Jiddah.

This article appeared on pages 30-33 of the July/August 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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