Flying to the two holy cities for Umrah is an experience on its own.

We took our plane to Medina from Istanbul. Alhamdolilah! Such a pure feeling it was. Five minutes before touchdown, the entire plane rocked, not with technical or weather turbulence mind you but with chants of Takbeer – the magical Allah-o-Akbar. *Which reminds me, somebody needs to put that crew of South West on that plane sometime soon INSHALLAH!*

As a Muslim, you might find the Talbiyah extremely uplifting. I did. It gets you in the mood to pray, to be a proper pilgrim. You feel humble and lucky and excited all at once and jump out of that plane (metaphorically), thinking that the Holy Mosque would be right there as soon as you exit. But it isn’t. Instead there’s a rectangular lounge that is hot and humid and one of your kids wants to go to the restroom. Your husband is the perfect man ever created so, of course, he takes the kid, only to rush out seconds later with facial expressions that mimic an earthquake of 8.1 magnitude.

“It’s wet!” he whispers harshly.

Do NOT ask for details. You don’t want to know the how, why, what…just…don’t. Just know that whoever wanted to go will have to hold it in. Or you can bring along a diaper. Whatever. You’re not in Istanbul anymore. No clean public restrooms. No proper restaurants to eat in, no benches in the parks to relax on, in fact, there are no parks.

There is, however, heat that bites, dust that you can taste, a sense of being cut off from the world (which is oddly peaceful), a comfortable ride to your hotel (thank you, nice travel agent), and Urdu written on almost every sign board from the airport to the inside of Masjid-e-Nabvi. I was quite impressed to be honest. If you’re a literate Pakistani who can read and likes to follow instructions because that’s the smart thing to do in a foreign country, you’d find these sign boards useful.

Medina is located on a mountainous plateau. It is an oasis surrounded by mountains, hilly areas and the desert. The city was called Yathrib once before the Prophet migrated there, after which it came to be known as the City of the Prophet or Madina-tun-Nabi or simply Madina meaning The City for short.

The city is built around the Prophet’s Mosque. It was in this city that the first state of Islam was established under the governance of the Prophet himself. He’d lived his early life in Mecca but Medina saw and reaped the blessings of his prophethood. It was this city that was testament to 11 years of the rule of the Prophet's Islam and completion of God’s message to mankind.

The Rowdah from the outside. You can see it from the outer courtyard of Masjid Nabvi - The Green Tomb

All over the world, places as enriched by the past as Medina are preserved to the tee because they deserve to be. Obviously, you’d expect to experience the same in this holy city.

But you won’t. And you can’t.

Almost all historical relics and sites in Medina have been destroyed, bulldozed, erased and constructed over. They’ve preserved a few mosques and burial grounds including the Holy Mosque of the Prophet and Janat-ul-Baqi (the burial ground of several holy personages such as members of the Holy Prophet’s family, and his companions),

Why is that so, you might ask.

According to the Wahhabi school of thought, the prevalent ideology in the Saudi Kingdom, visiting or showing attachment to any religious relic or site other than a mosque is prohibited in Islam. They interpret it as shirk meaning assigning partners to God, which in turn forms the basis of their takfiri ideology, which in turn lets them accuse the rest of the Muslims who do not conform to this opinion as infidels, which in turn makes such Muslims wajib-ul-qatal (worthy of being killed), which in turn is not very nice. Anyway, that’s a different rant for another day. Ahem.

We had a chance to tour the city of Medina briefly in the 4 days that we spent there and see the few places they have preserved.

The tour bus takes you first to Mosque of Quba, the first mosque of Islam.

Masjid Quba

According to Hadith, offering two rakaʿāt of nafl prayers in the Quba Mosque is equal to performing one Umrah. The simple beauty of this historic building with its white stone minarets, a spacious interior adorned with arches decked with green emblems bearing the names of Allah, the Prophet and his companions, and red oriental carpets is timeless. It was serene and I enjoyed it for the entirety of the fifteen minutes that we were allowed to stay there. Mind you, there are two levels to the mosque, or at least to the ladies’ section of it. Go upstairs since that part isn’t crowded and makes for a better experience of visiting the mosque. I liked that the ladies area of Quba was bright and airy.

Next stop is Mosque of the Two Qiblas or Masjid-al-Qiblatayn.

According to Islamic tradition, the historical importance of this mosque lies in the fact that it was here that Prophet Muhammad received the command to change direction of prayer (qibla) from Jerusalem to Mecca, and the entire congregation changed direction during prayer. Before that command, the Muslims prayed facing Mosque Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem instead of the Kaaba in Mecca.

Previously, the mosque contained two prayer niches or arches, an old prayer niche facing Jerusalem and another facing Mecca – the two Qiblas or Qiblatayn. However, under recent renovations to the mosque, the Jerusalem niche was removed, hence, destroying the historic relevance to the story of the change of Qibla, taking away from the very name of the mosque – the Qiblatayn. Without anything unique to show, Masjid Qiblatayn is like any other mosque now.

I asked our very amiable tour guide WHY on earth would the government do that?! He said lots of pilgrims (Pakistanis mostly, yes, he pointed THAT out!) would wrongfully face Jerusalem and pray despite strict warning from the mosque staff, hence, committing a grave sin of prostrating while facing a place other than Mecca. Therefore, the government ordered that arch to be removed.

Seriously?

So in order to discipline a few idiots, they destroyed the very relic that gave that mosque its historic value. This is how, ladies and gentlemen, you tactfully throw the baby out with the bathwater. If the mosque staff had arrested those loons and deported them for not following orders instead of destroying history, I’d have applauded that!

Another bone I have to pick with the premises of Masjid Qiblatayn is the pathway to the ladies’ side of the mosque. First, it goes through an area that contains the men’s restrooms. Imagine that. It wasn’t fun sashaying through throngs of men either scurrying in or out of the facility. Secondly, the pavement that leads to ladies’ section of the mosque is sandwiched between the mosque boundary on one side and the road on the other.Then, right after you successfully get out of the restroom crowd, your way is blocked by a gigantic gift shop. Yes, blocked. By a gift shop built ON that pavement. So you either squeeze your way to your section through the tiny space left between the gift shop and the mosque’s outer wall on the pavement. Or you walk on the road, dodging traffic. One of my many moments when I wanted to hit someone on the head!

Last stop for the day was Mount Uhud.

Mount Uhud

Uhud is a mountain north of Medina. It was the site of the second battle of Islamic history fought between Muslim and Meccan forces.The present battlefield of Uhud contains the sacred burial ground of the martyrs of Uhud (they were buried on site of their fall in battle) and the historic Archers’ Hill.

The burial ground where Syed-us-Shuhuda lies is flattened as per Salafi beliefs. Standing outside the graveyard and peaking in through the iron fence, all you can see is 3 small stones standing in the middle of a vast, sandy lot. There is no knowing which of these 3 stones marks the grave of Hazrat Hamza and don’t even think about finding out the exact number of martyrs buried there anyway. You may send your love and respect to them through the barrier, nonetheless.

The Archers’ Hill is located a few yards away from the graveyard. There is a makeshift bazaar in between, consisting of a few shops in open tents selling dates and prayer mats and such. The Hill itself is significant because it was from behind this hill that a segment of the Meccan cavalry, led by Khalid Bin Walid, attacked and surprised the Muslim forces as the archers on the hill left their posts, contrary to the Prophet’s orders, to claim their share in the spoils of war. Unfortunately for them, Bin Walid’s smarts got the better of them in proving that the battle wasn’t quite over. When you visit, you’ll have the opportunity to climb the hill as it isn’t very high and the track not difficult. In fact, by the looks of it, I’m worried it might eventually turn into nothing but a sand dune considering the amount of unhindered human traffic that visits and climbs it every day.

View of the tent bazaar from the Archer's Hill

Other than this, there’s nothing in the battlefield of Uhud to remind you or educate you with regards to what historic events took place there. I was hoping perhaps the government, with all their money and ownership of all land in the kingdom, had preserved it. Like the battlefield of Shiloh in the US with monuments erected every few feet, telling the visitors of every significant event that occurred during the civil war, inscriptions and plaques studded at every opportunity to relate history to all those interested in learning, and huts and headquarters preserved to let the visitors feel how it was to be in that place at that time. But at Uhud, there is none of that.

You may have noticed by now, this neglect and destruction of Islamic history is not unique to the sites mentioned above in the Saudi Kingdom. This is how they roll, to say the least.

We were lucky enough to know a local who promised to take us for more sightseeing. The only problem was that there were no sites left to be seen and just the stories to be told by the locals. And once that generation of locals perishes, who knows how people will remember which rock stands for what, which tree tells which tale and which well served whom.

Our new guide took us to the date orchid that belonged to the Prophet himself. The date palms still stand tall and bear fruit and the land is vast there. It was beautiful. At least some satisfaction for the soul that was seeking some trace of the Prophet’s life in his own city.

We were also lucky to enter the home of a Syed family (yes, they could trace their roots so sue them!) that had preserved, in a corner of their garden, the footprint of a camel the Prophet once rode on. According to the family, the footprint was made while the animal had stepped on some wet bricks as the Prophet and his companions worked to build something.

The rest of that day of searching Medina for history was nothing but an enraging experience as our guide took us from site after site that was not there as it used to be during the days of Prophet Muhammed. He took us to a small, filthy parking lot in the center of a residential neighborhood. It was like any other lot where cars were haphazardly parked. Turned out there used to be a small mosque there that was demolished very recently. Significance of the mosque was that the command of prohibition of alcohol was revealed in that mosque. Before that revelation, as the guide showed us, the gutters that lined the narrow street there would be red and overflowing with wine. That is how much the Medinites drank. But now you can feast your eyes on the muddy pickup trucks parked there instead.

Next, he showed us a well that was sealed from all sides. It was the well from which the Prophet used to drink regularly and from which water was drawn for the Prophet to bathe and prepare him for his funeral according to Islamic tradition. You’ll find no markings on the well to denote this fact. In fact, you can see how it’s trashed quite insolently.

Women's view of the shrine inside Masjid-e-Nabvi

We also saw the remains of the date orchid owned by Hazrat Abdul Rahman ibn Auf. I say remains because the date palms have deliberately been burnt to the ground by orders of the government. Whoever burns trees down? WHO?! Did they really think people will start worshipping trees?

On our way back to the hotel, we passed by a sad looking yellow building that was apparently a girls’ school. This was where the houses of the Ansars in old Medina had stood upon which little girls had climbed to sing the welcoming song for the Prophet when he entered the city after migrating from Mecca to Medina. Not that building schools for girls is wrong but why there? Why not a few blocks down the road from there?

This is all you get to ‘tour’ while you’re in the City of the Prophet…who spent ELEVEN YEARS of his life there!

Fact of the matter is, Medina is not your average tourist-attracting-historic-place. It is a holy city where non-believers aren’t allowed to enter and the only reason the believers flock there is because the Prophet had lived there. This thoughtless destruction of the old city when ALL of it should’ve been preserved as a national treasure (because that is one of the best ways to pass on history), and the construction of hotels and malls all around the Sacred Mosque reeks of deliberate commercialization that is not holy but painful and gross.

The city of Medina is hard, made of stone, and would add little or nothing to your knowledge base with regards to Islamic history, the daily life of the Prophet, his companions or even life in Arabia during his time.

The only place that heals you is the Prophet’s Mosque itself. And that is so because of the Green Tomb, Rowdah-tur-Rasul, under which the Prophet lies. But don’t get too excited at the prospect of visiting his shrine, thinking oh, freedom,at least we have that! No, you don’t. There are rules to be followed and protocol to be observed or they’ll throw you out. Literally.

Masjid Nabvi is vast, constantly renovated and expanded, articulately constructed and an epitome of architectural beauty. The moment you step onto the premises, you cannot help but marvel at how gorgeous it is. From the white marble floors outside, the mechanical umbrellas that shade over expansive courtyards, the thoughtful layout of the entrances, the doors of the mosques studded with gold and glittering materials, the arches, the minarets, the red carpets that are rolled out for congregations to the inside of the mosque with its intricate pillars, wooden partitions, thick soft carpets, glossy chandeliers, walkways and studded ceilings that you can stare at all day! Yes, it’s beautiful.But it’s not this beauty of the extended mosque that attracts us. It’s the Holy Shrine cradled inside the mosque.

However, the Keepers of the Harmain don’t want to entertain this thought because shirk.

It was 10:00 at night, day one at Masjid Nabvi, we were strolling in its outer courtyard. The mosque is built around the shrine of the Prophet such that the famous Green Tomb of the shrine is visible at one end from the outside.We turned a corner and there was the Green Rowdah. Right there for real in front of us! This was what we had come for so, of course, we stopped and pointed it out to the kids, and decided to stay there a few minutes. I punched on my camera phone to make a video of the monument – just like I’d made videos of monuments in Istanbul. It wasn’t even two minutes – 1 minute and 44 seconds to be exact – when a Mutawa (Saudi religious police) interrupted and ordered me to stop filming. And why?? Because shirk. Yes, filming the Rowdah is somehow equal to assigning partners to Allah. I had a good mind of saying precisely how I felt about it but I knew better not to.

Take note here. Don’t ever argue. Just do as you’re told. To be fair, it is their country so their rules. Be nice and obey and save yourself and them any trouble.

Entering the shrine is a feat on its own. While the entrance from the men’s section is unhindered 24/7, the women have to abide by timings and rules. We are sorted into groups by country, then, sent one after the other for better crowd management. Or so they say as if women crowds are larger than men. That cannot be the case because while men can travel alone, the women must be accompanied by men in that country and by laws ordained for pilgrimage. So, the number of men coming for Umrah or Hajj will forever be more than the number of women coming for the same reason.

Most of the women coming from Pakistan are rural. Looking at them, it is evident they perhaps haven’t even been to the big cities of their own homeland let alone the world outside. You have to admire their intense faith and passion that enabled them to afford travelling to Medina and pay homage. And when they arrive at the shrine, they are told to wait, greeted by a truckload of restrictions – don’t cry here, don’t pray here, don’t call out to the Prophet, don’t look at it, don’t even stand facing it too long!

The women’s area of the shrine is a small quadrilateral bordered by plastic screens that hide away the entire shrine pretty much. I couldn’t see Sunehri Jaalian (the golden latticed screen so unique to the shrine), the platform of Ashab-e-Kahf, Prophet’s prayer niche or anything for that matter because it’s all covered. While the men can really visit the shrine, the women just have to come back with a sense of that experience without really experiencing or seeing anything.

It wasn’t always like that but they’ve made it so over the years. It can't be to control crowds because they are doing a good job of that back in Mecca where everyone is allowed access to the Muta’af (courtyard of Kaaba) and everywhere else in the Grand Mosque without restriction. There isn’t even any separation for men and women in Masjid-al-Haram. And mind you, more people visit the Kaaba than they do Masjid Nabvi.

Having said all that, I got ample chance to pray and be there at the mosque. Even if it’s not the same as it used to be, it is the Prophet’s mosque, it is his Rowdah, it is Medina, and I was there. That soulful feeling, for a believer, is enough to last a lifetime.

At least, I was there. At least, I have seen it.

*After Medina, it was time for Umrah and visit Mecca, the House of God that I worship…that’s an experience I’ll pen in my next blog. Stay tuned.*