“The area between my house and my minbar is one of the gardens of Paradise…” Hadith
For centuries upon centuries, pilgrims visiting Mecca have also made their way 200 miles to its north. Though it plays no part in the pilgrimage, visitors enter Madina eagerly, often overcome with emotion, and for one reason alone: this is the city of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
The subject of countless poems and devotional songs, Madina with its green dome, beneath which the Prophet lies, has been immortalised as the city of lovers, longing to be near the beloved. The Rawdah (literally garden), the area in which the Prophet once lived, and where his tomb now lies, is considered a part of Paradise, where countless visitors to the city have sought to pray for centuries.
Below are the accounts of eight travellers and pilgrims, some Muslim, others not, who visited Madina and the Rawdah. For some, the experience is emotional and faith affirming, for others it is merely of academic significance. Their narratives usually reveal the political climate of the time, and often provide us with a window into the past, of historical Madina, giving us an image of the city in an age before widespread photography. But the one thing that stands out in every narrative, no matter the period in which it was written, is the sheer love that exists for the Prophet, if not by the writer, then by those that surround him/her.
1. Sir Richard Francis Burton
Richard Burton was an English writer and explorer, best known for his translation of 1001 Arabian Nights. Though not a Muslim, he travelled to Mecca and Madina for the Hajj in 1853 disguised as a pilgrim.
Upon arrival in Madina: “We halted our beasts as if by word of command. All of us descended, in imitation of the pious of old, and sat down, jaded and hungry as we were, to feast our eyes with a view of the Holy City.”
When pilgrims around him exclaimed supplications: “Such were the poetical exclamations that rose all around me, showing how deeply tinged with imagination becomes the language of the Arab under the influence of strong passion or religious enthusiasm. I now understood the full value of a phrase in the Moslem ritual, ‘And when his’ (the pilgrim’s) ‘eyes shall fall upon the Trees of Al-Madinah, let him raise his Voice and bless the Apostle with the choicest of Blessings.’ In all the fair view before us nothing was more striking after the desolation through which we had passed, than the gardens and orchards about the town. It was impossible not to enter into the spirit of my companions, and truly I believe that for some minutes my enthusiasm rose as high as theirs. But presently when we remounted, the traveller returned strong upon me: I made a rough sketch of the town, put questions about the principal buildings, and in fact collected materials for the next chapter.”
Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah vol 1, p. 279-80.
2. John F. Keane
Born in India during British rule, John F. Keane was fluent in Urdu- no doubt a great asset for his pilgrimage in 1877-8, despite his lack of faith.
Madina at first sight: “As seen from the distant birdseye point of view to which it first presents itself to the pilgrim’s delighted gaze, its tall, snow-white, uninterrupted walls and numerous gilded minarets, with the morning sun gleaming over them, and the broad green belt of cultivated ground encircling it- as seen, I say, at such a time, by the way-worn pilgrim from Meccah, it is a fresh bright jewel, bounded by a vast grim barrenness of desert, an opal and pearl mosaic set in a brilliant border of shining green enamel. What a moment it was to many of us! The one aspiration of many of their lives was now accomplished. There, beneath them, reposing in the bosom of the plain, lay their goal, “Medinah the Honoured,” the tomb of the Prophet, by whose side they could now lay down their weary bones to rest for ever; nor cared their how soon, in their certainty of eternal bliss.
To other of us what a glass sight it was too, after days and nights of perpetual forward, forward, yet scarcely seeming to make any advance over the drear dry miles of rocky arid desolation, to see before us the end of our apparently interminable journey at last- Medinah, which should have been named the fortunate.”
Six Months in the Hijaz, p. 90-1.
3. Ibn Battuta
14th century Moroccan traveller and scholar Muhammad Ibn Battuta, is known as one of the most prolific travellers of the Medieval period, travelling as far east as China and Vietnam. He visited Madina several times in his lifetime.
Inside the mosque and Rawdah: “That same evening we entered the holy sanctuary and reached the illustrious mosque, halting the salutation at the Gate of Peace; then we prayed in the illustrious “garden” between the tomb of the Prophet and the noble pulpit, and reverently touched the fragment that remains of the palm-trunk against which the Prophet stood when he preached. Having paid our meed of salutation to the lord of men from first to last, the intercessor for sinners, the Prophet of Mecca, Muhammad, as well as to his two companions who share his grave, Abu Bakr and ‘Omar, we returned to our camp, rejoicing at this great favour bestowed upon us, praising God for our having reached the former abodes and the magnificent sanctuaries of His holy Prophet, and praying Him to grant that this visit should not be our last, and that we might be of those whose pilgrimage is accepted. On this journey our stay at Madina lasted four days. We used to spend every night in the illustrious mosque, where the people, after forming circles in the courtyard and lighting large numbers of candles, would pass the time either in reciting the Koran from volumes set on rests in front of them, or in intoning litanies, or in visiting the sanctuaries of the holy tomb.”
The Travels (Rihla), p. 74.
4. Sultan Jahan Begum
Sultan Jahan Begum (1858‒1930), also known as Sultan Kaikhusrau Jahan Begum, was one of the female rulers of Bhopal. Known as a reformist, championing the advancement of women’s education, in 1903 she went on Hajj, and visited Madina.
Her grandmother, Nawab Sikander (who also wrote a travelogue about her experience of the Hijaz) was unable to visit Madina due to safety concerns four decades earlier. In a speech she gave to “nobles” upon her arrival in Madina, she states:
“I owe unnumbered thanks to Almighty God who, in removing from my path the difficulties which deprived my grandmother the Nawab Sikander Began (who has found a seat in Paradise) of this great blessing, has fulfilled my long-cherished desire and given light to my eyes by the dust of the holy Medina. At the same time I invoke the choicest peace and blessings of heaven upon that beloved Prophet to visit whose sacred tomb I have come all this way with the utmost eagerness and sincerity. My grateful acknowledgements are then due to His Imperial Majesty the Sultan (May God perpetrate his Empire) for his cord.”
The Story of a Pilgrimage to Hijaz, pp.264.
Owing to her status as royalty, she was given special permission to visit the Rawdah. She writes: “The Sheikh-ul-Haram had made excellent arrangements for the occasion, so that only eunuchs were permitted to be present; there were no men inside the shrine.
The Haram is usually closed at night, but is kept open at all hours during the holy month of Ramzan. I, therefore, experienced no difficulty in obtaining admission. The Pasha in charge of the Haram, the Kazi, the Mufti, and certain other notables stood at the doorway to receive me. I alighted from the conveyance clad in a burqa, and after exchanging salutations with these gentlemen entered the Haram. Presently I reached the holy tomb and my guide Sayyad Hammad assisted me to perform the rites of visitation.”
The Story of a Pilgrimage to Hijaz, p. 269-70.
5. Winifred Stegar
Australian Winifred Stegar embarked on the Hajj in 1927 along with her husband. The account of her arduous journey to reach the Hijaz was written as an elderly woman, looking back on her life.
“Somehow Medina had a very cosy, homely air about it, I expect it was from the many trees…The men of Medina are the most handsome I have ever seen. They reminded me of pictures of Christ; they have a creamy complexion, rather long faces and soft brown eyes, and a little carriage…
There were quite a lot of indignant men outside staring up at the vast green dome, because some bullet marks had been found upon it- only a few little marks, but our people bubbled with excitement at the sacrilege. No one knew who did it. Some blamed the Turks, fancying that it was a sign of their resentment at being driven out, but as the Turks were all good Muslims it did not seem to me likely that they would harm the Mosque deliberately.
Somehow you really felt that this was a holy place and that love dwelt in it. Mecca was harsh and cold in comparison. You seemed to merge into the past with a gentle sadness here, feeling that the spirit of the great Prophet still lingered over the place he loved so well.
Entering the huge carved doors that led into the courtyard you could have imagined that you walked beneath the sea, so soft and green was the light beneath the mighty green dome. The dome was so high that date-palms grew beneath it; their fruit was sold at fabulous prices. Under this same dome stood the equivalent of an ordinary four-roomed cottage, only all its outer walls were made of beautifully wrought iron of most intricate design. In the centre of each wall was a small peephole, again like the gold circle round the Kaaba stone.
The place was to be approached with reverence. Looking through the nearest wall, I saw a small room of no more, say, than twelve feet square. The floor was of black and white squares. In the centre was a tomb covered in black velvet- that of the Prophet Muhammad. The inner walls were also made of wrought iron, heavily gilded. Black velvet drapes were looped here and there and against the inner wall; these were the flags of the Holy One used in battle, but there were no weapons to be seen. All very sombre in effect.”
Always Bells, p. 112-14.
6. Arthur J. B. Wavell
British soldier and explorer Arthur J. B. Wavell travelled to Medina in 1908 in Muslim guise. After observing the “kaleidoscope” of races and “babel of languages” in the Prophet’s Mosque, he notes:
“The extravagant emotion of the Indians, when they actually see with their own eyes this tomb which they have from childhood been taught to regard with superstitious awe, contrasts with the subdued behaviour of the more phlegmatic Arabs- while the Javanese and Chinaman seem determined to be astonished at nothing. Yet all of them are impressed in their way. Many burst into tears and frantically kiss the railings: I have seen Indians and Afghans fall down apparently unconscious. They seem to be much more affected here than before the Kaaba itself. At Mecca the feeling is one of awe and reverence, here the personal element comes in. The onlooker might fancy they were visiting the tomb of some very dear friend, one whom they had actually known and been intimate with in his lifetime. With frantic interest they listen to their guide as he describes the surroundings. Here is the place were the Prophet prayed, the pulpit he preached from, the pillar against which he leant- there, looking into the mosque is the window of Abu Bakar’s house, where for long he stayed as a guest, and beyond is the little garden planted by his daughter Fatima.”
A Modern Pilgrim in Mecca, p. 93.
7. Eldon Rutter
Eldon Rutter was an English convert who visited Madina in 1925. A somewhat mysterious figure, he was known as Salah al-Din al Inkilizi (Saladin the Englishman).
“Half-way across the Mosque we came to a marble pulpit on our left-hand, and a few paces further stood an isolated mihrab. The latter was encased in slabs of white, black, red and green marble, arranged in elaborate patterns. It is known as Mihrab en Rabi- the Prophet’s prayer-niche.
Turning to our left, we passed between the pulpit and the mihrab, and entered a forest of massive stone columns. To our right, that is, to eastward, a beautiful screen of green-painted iron and brass work, extending from floor to roof of the Mosque, was visible through the rows of columns. From its upper extremity, great curtains of dark-green silk hung in festoons, being caught up with brass chains or hooks. Unseen behind that screen lay the Prophet’s tomb.”
The Holy Cities of Arabia, p. 192.
After reciting salutations to the Prophet (pbuh), at his window, “Taking a pace to the right we faced the window of Abu Bakr and uttered long greetings to him also. This accomplished we followed a similar procedure at Omar’s window; after which we went close to the Prophet’s window and looked in. I saw nothing save a black pall or curtain hanging several feet away from the railings. Here now remained no costly ornaments whatever. Most of the jewels which once hung before the tomb had been long since removed…”
“The extravagant salutations and supplications which my guide addressed to the Prophet are regarded as unholy by the puritans. Before we began to perform the rites, my guide had confided to me with a secret air that he would now “visit me the tomb according to the manner of the true Muslim who love Allah’s Prophet- God bless him and give him peace!…”
The Holy Cities of Arabia, p. 195-6.
“Excluding renowned shayks of religion, the only people who are admitted into the Hujra, without first being thoroughly catechised, are kings and princes. Even these are expected to enter for the ostensible purpose of performing some menial service; admission for the purpose of examining the interior is not permitted. The visitor takes a broom, a duster, or a lighted lamp, and silently assists the aghas in their duties. The actual vault containing the tombs of the Prophet and his two companions is always covered with a black pall. The tombs are said to be surmounted by a black stone building, but no Arab writer has given a convincing account of the interior of the sepulchre, for the reason that nobody save the aghas, and those who constructed it, has ever seen it. I was informed that the aghas are dumb on this subject, and I myself did not venture to open the question with any of them. The people of El Medina make a greater mystery of Muhammad’s tomb than the Mekkans make of the Kaaba. Out of their tales is that when the lamps in the Mosque are put out, a light emanates from the Prophet’s tomb and illuminates it more brightly than before.”
The Holy Cities of Arabia, p. 203.
8. Michael Wolfe
American journalist and author Michael Wolfe performed the pilgrimage in 1990, three years after his conversion. His account of the Hajj and his time in the Hijaz is one of the first written by an American.
“I felt electrified to be in the garden. At a time when palm trees grew here, this modest space of fifty yards had served as the tiny headquarters of an empire. Here Muhammad forged a government in exile. Here he maintained his household and raised his children. Across the way, on a wall near the tombs, lay a spot where he received new revelations. Fazeel, who revered great writing, dubbed that part of the mosque “the Prophet’s study.”
The Hadj: An American’s Pilgrimage to Mecca, p. 296-7.