It is sometimes difficult to remember that we are now in the holy month of Ramadhan, a sacred month in the Islamic traditions when the holy Quran began to descend from the Mind of God to the mind of the Messenger Mohammed, upon him blessings and peace, and beyond into the minds and mentality of past, present and future generations. However, the events of recent weeks belie the tradition that says the gates of Hell are shut tight and the gates of the Paradise are opened wide. Several bombs have gone of in Istanbul killing numerous innocent civilians and creating widespread damage and havoc among the population. Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, shook recently with the after shocks of the explosions on an apartment complex housing largely expatriate Arab nationals. The cities of Iraq have become the battleground of insurgency and counter-insurgency in a surprisingly well-orchestrated effort to rid the country of an American occupation.
If we listen carefully to the events we hear reported in the mass media outlets, Ramadhan has become a time of heightened terrorism and an opportunity for one group or another, either Muslim or non-Muslim, to invoke the holy season of fasting and vigilance in the name of various suspect causes. Is there anyone left who does not use the name of God or the forces implicit within the context of a given religion for his or her own selfish purposes and ends? Are we all bounded by the rhetoric of a given time and place and caught in the turmoil of conflicting cultures and worldviews? Is there anyone left who still goes about the business of living in a manner that is still in keeping with their ancient and abiding traditions, people who view the reality of their existential situation in the light of enduring principles whose value transcends the time and place of any given moment or region or formal religion even? Are there any people left who still pursue the fine art of living wisely and well?
During the holy month of Ramadhan, Muslims flock to the two holy places of Madinah and Makka because it is a sacred month of raised consciousness of God through the bodily fast and of a heightened spirituality that is the direct result of such a rigorous physical, mental and spiritual effort. I recently received time off from my duties as a professor at an Engineering university in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to join the vast horde who converge on the two holy places of Makkah and Madinah to make the “lesser pilgrimage” called Umrah and to take advantages of the multiple blessings that accompany the blessed month of Ramadhan. The following account highlights certain impressions that resulted from my visit to these two holy cities in Saudi Arabia, impressions that hopefully belie the ignorant and often false notions that now predominate across the globe about Muslims and their beliefs, impressions that may begin to sketch a narrative event of the fast of Ramadhan in the holy places of Makkah and Madinah as the expression by millions of Muslims the world over in light of its true meaning and significance.
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As our chartered Saudia flight packed with a contingent of pilgrims circles for a landing on this predawn mid-November morning, I notice in the distance a luminous glow of light reaching vertically into the overcast heavens. The al-Masjid al-Nabawi (The Prophet's Mosque) announces its location at the very center and heart of the city of Madinah in a blaze of light. Visible from outer space even, this beacon of light is certainly the most obvious landmark in the darkness of the desert plane. As if in counterpoint to this unexpected radiance, a pale harvest moon descends soberly toward the Eastern horizon, drenching the desert landscape with its silvery incandescent moonbeams. I have returned once again to the City of Light after an interval of 15 years.
The airport itself is small and unpretentious and I pass through customs without much ado. No one seems to notice or care that I am an American Muslim of Boston Irish ancestry, perhaps because I am dressed in the Pathan native cloth consisting of baggy pantaloons tied together with a cloth rope and an overhead shirt that flows gracefully down to the knees. I am wearing it because more comfortable attire could not be found that is so well suited to the Islamic prayer rituals and the other demands of the lesser (umrah) pilgrimage. That together with a white skullcap allows me the luxury of incognito as I blend into the surroundings with the other eager pilgrims. The Saudi Government pilgrim visa stamped across a full page of my passport will gain me entry into the Kingdom even if it may raise eyebrows if not questions later when I return to the US.
The bus ride into town could have been anywhere in the Middle East, the dry and dusty desert landscape by the side of the road, the invading billboard signs advertising things people don’t need and shouldn’t want, the craggy rocky hills silhouetted against the horizon, the dingy cement houses and cluttered shops huddled together in close proximity. We pass a traffic light here, turn a corner there, when suddenly we emerge onto the grand concourse of the sacred mosque of Madinah, called the Prophet’s Mosque because the Prophet himself is buried in one corner called the Sacred Chamber in an area that originally comprised the rooms where he lived with his wife 'Aishah. The first mosque of Islam was the extension of the house of the Prophet.
The sight of this magnificent edifice is overwhelming in the least for its mammoth size and stately presence. For sheer bulk and magnitude, this architectural wonder strikes awe in the beholder. The entire structure rests serenely amid an open expanse of plaza that extends perhaps 500 meters on each side of the mosque and whose surface is covered with alabaster and marble. Everything about this broad setting bespeaks of openness, air and light and provides striking views of the mosque from any angle of approach. This is the very center and heart of the city. Everything beyond the sacred enclosure immediately becomes an afterthought to the necessities of daily life. A grand avenue leads down from the mountains beyond the edge of the small city to the five grand portals that distinguish the front side of the mosque. At a glance as you approach from the grand promenade, the building seems monumental. Like a photo that simply refuses to contain the image you wish to capture, the sight of the mosque simply refuses to be contained in a single glance. You have to span your vision from left to right, right to left, to take it all in, and even then, it seems incomprehensible to fully grasp.
The setting then comes alive with the sheer numbers of people that are moving in and out and around the mosque. Much like witnessing the celestial bodies or calculating the astronomical numbers of stars and galaxies, the numbers of people range beyond the scope of clear comprehension and only because you are there with the rest of this vast congregation can you begin to believe what you appear to be experiencing. For the sheer force of its impression, this is like no other moment in time. There seems to be a secret here worth exploring. Indeed the secret lies in the intention of those who have joined me on this pilgrimage, all of whom have a single-minded focus and a purpose that is absolute and beyond any doubt. The sheer numbers of people bring a reality to the situation that might otherwise be lost. It is the supreme example of humanity giving rise to the expression of their deepest yearning and nothing and no one is going to come between them and their aspirations.
The day is punctuated of course by the five devotional prayers of Islam and at any given moment vast crowds of people are either moving toward or away from the imposing sanctuary of the mosque. As I arrive in the early morning after my night flight to greet the Prophet and extend my “salams” as is the Islamic custom, I find myself moving against a sea of humanity who are now exiting the holy mosque after the early morning prayer and the commencement of the fast. The entire concourse is bathed in light amid the otherwise still darkened night within the city and this light no doubt shines heavenward as a vertical symbol of human aspiration and a love for God like no other love, while grand colonnades bedecked with gilded lamps that are harmoniously dispersed across the concourse illuminate the marble-floored forecourt like silent sentinels watching over the faithful. In the distance in the Eastern sky, the promise of dawn begins to emerge over the horizon behind the rocky Madinah hills just outside the city.
Once inside the imposing stone structure of the mosque, the building gives way to endless archways, rows, pillars and colonnades that extend disbelievingly in every direction and seemingly for miles. The descending archways give a feeling of infinity of space while the rows of carpets, and the rows of worshippers standing upon them, give a feeling of an eternity of time, for the ritual prayer captures for the mind of the devotees a moment of eternity within the present moment. The pillars and colonnades, marble bedecked and with glittering brass frames containing shimmering lamps at their crown give a feeling of open expansiveness and light that is breath taking to behold. The endless rows of carpets left to right, row upon row, extend all the way from back to front of the mosque, which however cannot be seen from the front entranceway.
The faithful have now settled into their routines following the prayer. It is nearing six in the morning and some people have rendered themselves supine in various postures of repose, no doubt through the sheer exhaustion of having spent most of the night in prayer and night vigils within the sanctuary of the mosque as is the custom during the holy month of Ramadhan. It is clear that they are either exhausted or accustomed to sleeping on the floor. Some roll up the carpets to use as a pillow. Others have pulled a length of carpet over themselves like a make-sift blanket. They are all in various attires of Islamic dress including jalabiyas, kaftans, thobes and the Pakistani badla (suit) that I am wearing, complete with shawls, scarves, skullcaps, Gulf-style headdresses and turbans. Many of them have wrapped themselves in their long shawls or unraveled turbans to resemble shrouds wrapped for burial, recalling sleep as the “lesser death”. The mosque in principle is nothing but open, extended space, with no furniture or marking points, containing only floor carpets for the faithful to sit on and the mihrab or sacred niche that indicates the direction of Makkah and provides the setting and enclosure for the imam to lead the prayers.
The mosque is a sacred sanctuary as well as a venue for prayer; in Islam it is the sacred architecture par excellence and therefore is considered a work of art. Upon entering the mosque, the Muslim returns to that harmony, order and inner peace that is the cornerstone of all spirituality. As such, the building gives way to become a primordial symbol of the sacrality associated with a house of worship. Indeed, in the Islamic worldview, the earth itself is a sacred mosque where men and women of all types and generations express their fullest sense of worship through living and working within the sanctions of the Divine Priority, in keeping with the hadith which states that “the earth was placed for me as a mosque and purifier.”
I intend to make my way through this magnificent place of worship deep into the inner sanctum of the original mosque, which became the extension of the family quarters of the Prophet highlighting the concept of the mosque as the logical extension of the home. It is here along the original southeasterly section of the mosque that the Prophet lies buried, together with his Companions and first Caliphs Abu Bakr al-Saddiq and Umar bin al-Khattaab. It is customary to visit the tomb of the Prophet and greet him with Salams upon first entering the sacred enclosure of the mosque. I make my way slowly amid the multitude and savor every moment. The mosque is still jam packed with people of every race and nationality. Old and young intermingle; many are lying supine, others are gathered in groups or sitting in circles sharing their impressions. People are moving about as I am, deferring to the space of others, careful to step over those who are resting supine on the floor as if they hadn’t a care in the world.
As I move deeper into the mosque, I notice that the upper walls and ceiling are embellished with geometric forms, arabesques, Quranic calligraphy and mini domes hand-carved from wood in remembrance of the traditional era when the handcrafts represented a form of art. Given the size and dimensions of the mosque, it is quite a trek from front to back. Deep within the well of the enclosure, I come upon an inner open courtyard that gives rise to the heavens. It comes upon you unexpectedly and already the dawn light is bathing the inner courtyard in beams of early morning daylight. I take note, however, of a group of huge, light-colored sunshades that have been cleverly designed to open at the push of a remote controlled button and fan out overhead in perfect symmetry to protect the worshippers from the onslaught of the mid-day desert sun that promises to fill the courtyard open to the elements. I am told that the opening of these gigantic mechanical umbrellas is a sight to behold.
I know I am nearing the tomb of the prophet through two pieces of evidence, the architectural change of the building which has a smaller, more crowded, and less grandiose aspect and dates back many centuries to the time of the Prophet and the early Caliphate era and by the density of the crowds of people all vying for proximity to the resting place of the Prophet. There is a section of the mosque cordoned off and positioned adjacent to the wall of the Prophet’s tomb that is referred to and revered as riyadh al-jannah or a garden of the Paradise. The Prophet has referred to this part of the mosque by saying: "What is between my house and my minbar is a garden from the gardens of Paradise." It is an area that according to the traditions of the Prophet is actually a part of the Paradise that will rise upward and return to its original home on the Day of Judgment, which in Islam is alternatively referred to as the Day of Accounting and the Day of Religion.
Many years ago when I first became Muslim, I remember quietly entering this section of the mosque and ensconcing myself there on the light blue carpet distinguished from the red oriental carpets spread through the rest of the mosque. There was indeed not only a special quality of serenity and calm there that one would come to expect in the paradise, but I felt as I sat cross-legged on the carpet as if I had come home at last and that there was no where else to go. An ethereal scent seemed to unexpectedly permeate the air and I remember considering what that scent reminded me of until I had to confess that it reminded me of nothing related to this world, that it had an otherworldly quality that seemed exquisite and heavenly.
As I sat in this “garden of Paradise”, my mind took on wings and I began to fly. Call it auto suggestion of the tradition if you like, but a dream quality seemed to emerge like dawn mist over the waters of a lake. The strange, otherworldly scent began to raise my level of consciousness from the mundane to the sublime in some unconscious manner, and I felt I was entering another dimension virtually impossible to describe. Then without warning, I felt a surge of emotion well up inside me from depths I didn’t know existed, an emotive feeling so strong and satiating that I could do nothing but surrender to the power of these sacred emotions and I began to sob a storm of hot tears for all I was worth. At first I didn’t know why I was crying, except that I realized that the place, the moment, and the overall ambiance were powerful enough to evoke such an unexpected, powerful reaction. The outburst was not convulsive or hectic; it was sheer weeping without an obvious catalyst. It was not the kind of grief cause by the death of a loved one or the loss of a valued treasure; instead it was an emotive collapse without hill or valley, a release from the rigidity that holds us together in life, vast and inconsolable at first as a child’s first confrontation with the unknown. The hot tears came as a soothing balm for the trials and tribulations of my life, the frustrations and the shattered hopes, the dreams, the remorse, the failures and perhaps even the successes. I sobbed for the person I had been and the person I might well become. The sobbing slowly died within me throb by throb until a wave as cool as spring water flowed across the shore of my being and an abiding peace streamed through my mind and body. I had received the gift of tears spoken of in the traditions of Islam in which the soul uses the mind and body to free itself of certain complexes of the psyche and psychological knots of the spirit as a form of liberation from the lower self and as a means of purification.
On this occasion fifteen years later, however, I had to forgo scaling the heights of such elevated spiritual emotion as I experienced on that former occasion – or so I thought – because the section of the mosque called the riyadh al-jannah” was simply a teaming caldron of wide-eyed humanity all in contest for a piece in this paradise on earth. I therefore joined the more sober, turgid throng making its way down the aisle that passes in front of the three tombs of the Prophet and his beloved companions Abu Bakr and Omar. It was slow going indeed, and except for the occasional shove or elbow in the ribs, perhaps it was a good thing, because as you approach the front doors of the tombs with their silver encrusted plating covered with Quranic verses, the realization suddenly dawns with an expectation brimming beyond belief that one is approaching the very presence of the Prophet. Here is where he lived, where he prayed and where he died. Here lies the man that Allah chose to receive His revelation and to deliver it as the Holy Quran to future generations of humanity. Through his mind passed the very words of God and from him they passed out into the world of humanity down to the present time. Muslims spend a lifetime attempting to find ways to express their love of God, but their love of the Prophet comes naturally and spontaneously because he is the vehicle and the path through which the love of God is possible.
As I turn a corner and approach the aisle that passes in front of the enclosed rooms containing the various tombs, the dense but still orderly crowd thickens considerably. People with cupped or extended hands in an attitude of prayer are moving slowly forward at the pace of molasses and everyone proceeds deferentially, concerned for the comfort of their Muslim brothers and not wishing to create an undue stir. Then I am there and I send forth my Salams to the beloved Prophet, upon him blessings and peace. Neither the hectic throng nor the imposing and unexpected presence of military guards at the doors of the tombs can disturb the surging feeling of humility and awe that begins in the pit of my stomach and rises to the tip of my cognitive consciousness lifting me off my feet and beyond the gravity limits of this world. As I shuffle myself along as only one of a surging crowd of worshippers, I feel lost in the wave of a deep and abiding emotion, as I think, we remember the Prophet Mohammed every day in our prayers and we invoke his name and sayings as a matter of course, but now I am here at his tomb, visiting his ancient home and place of earthly investiture. I have presented myself here in person to make my holy Salams to the memory of his sacred person and his exemplary life. Together with all Muslims, I feel a deep and overwhelming love for the Prophet to the extent that the evocation of his memory creates a feeling of melting in the heart and brings tears to the eyes. It is a powerful, indeed an overwhelming moment. In the presence of greatness, I utter my humble doa as intercessions to God through the Prophet as I remember all those in need within the circle of my life, a dying brother, my diabetic friend and all those who asked me to intercede on their behalf.
A moment whose quality will be remembered for years to come has passed me by, just as the slow-moving sea of humanity I am part of has pass by the tomb enclosure. Before I fully realize what has happened, the crowd has deposited me outside the mosque again like a piece of driftwood thrown ashore by the sea and I gaze distractedly and a little disoriented at the blinding light of the eastern horizon as the sun announces its arrival and bathes the eastern face of the mosque without any thought or mercy for the faithful.
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Later in the day, after the mid-afternoon prayer whose timing occurs when “the shadow equals the man”, I strolled through the open concourse within the forecourt of the Prophet’s mosque to witness the late afternoon activities and the preparations taking place for the breaking of the fast, the eagerly anticipated and communal breakfast that commences precisely at the call of the adhan (the call to prayer) just after the descent of the sun beyond the perimeter of the horizon.
The swarm of pilgrims has dispersed somewhat but the place is still teeming with life and activity. The crowds proclaim endless movement in, out and around the mosque. The suk or marketplace at the edge of the concourse begins to come to life with the dying rays of the relentless desert sun that even on this mid-November afternoon has drawn temperatures up to 100 degrees. I hear the grating sound of metal as the shopkeepers upon the metal shutters protecting their shops. I espy a small ledge or shelf by a fountain that marks the end of the grand promenade and the beginning of the concourse leading to the five front portals of the mosque. It looks like an opportune place to observe the late afternoon activity around the mosque. Once ensconced on this narrow uncomfortable shelf, I observe the goings-on.
The grand promenade leading up to the mosque ends here, circling the fountain and returning whence it came. All traffic is blocked, but I notice that certain cars are allowed through the police barriers, especially vehicles that are delivering food to the mosque. It is clear that people have now shifted gear. A great number of local people from Madinah are now in full preparation for the breaking of the fast. Across the great expanse of the forecourt, matting has been laid down row upon row. The rows seem to number in the thousands. Upon this matting is laid a kind of plastic tablecloth in length-wise strips. Trucks pull up, trolleys appears out of nowhere, and great cartons of oranges and bananas, large boxes of yogurt and dates, are unloaded by determined and efficient townspeople. Soon thereafter, I notice great vats of briyani being unloaded from various trucks, this being a tasty favorite dish made of meat and rice pungently seasoned with fried tomatoes, onions and a multitude of spices. The trucks swing in around the fountain, people jump out of the vehicle, download these great containers onto trolleys which are rolled away in the direction of the mosque.
Meanwhile, every manner of humanity are making their way somewhere round about the mosque precinct. I notice a group of women moving with stately grace through the swirling masses, several of them bearing cartons of goods on their heads, a small rounded cloth separated box from head as a concession to good sense. I see invalids being pushed around in wheelchairs; a man is driving his own motorized chair, an obese person is being pushed around in a make-shift vehicle large enough to accommodate him; there are even one or two people who pass by being carried in overhead litters. Parents with children, husbands and wives, rowdy street urchins who greet me boldly in Arabic with the words “How are you Papa?”. An elderly man with a sculptured beard and supporting himself heavily on a hand-carved branch of a tree ploddingly makes his way up to me and sits himself down. Our two different worlds meet briefly on this occasion. He greets me with the traditional Islamic greeting that every Muslim understands: Salam alaykum (peace be upon you), and I return his greeting. We exchange smiles and hand gestures in the spirit of communal friendship, brought together here for these few moments in this time and this place in the name of the one God that binds us together. Then, with a sigh, he takes his leave and with the support of the makeshift cane, makes his slow way back into the mosque. My heart goes with him for a few moments in my mind's eye before he is lost again in crowd.
It is time to give up my treasured shelf by the fountain and prepare myself for the great event of the breaking of the fast and the evening prayer. Interspersed through the great concourse are pavilions with signs indicating that the hammam (bathroom facilities) and parking lie below the upper concourse. A set of escalators leads deep into the cavernous underground where there are endless batteries of parking available that can accommodate up to 5,000 vehicles. I observe the curious surreal quality of the sight of various crowds of people serenely availing themselves of these swift moving stairs. On an intermediary level lie the hammam areas accessed through a traditional stairway. I proceed there to take care of the necessary natural functions along with a great many other people and once completed proceed to the ablution stations which are well appointed with a stone seat in front of a faucet well placed to accommodate both hands and feet. A small shelf is there to accommodate eye classes, watches, caps and other paraphernalia that people have with them. The facilities of the hammam are marked by convenience and cleanliness and seem very spacious.
It may seem awkward to even mention these things, but to the harried pilgrim, many of whom have no real place to stay, these conveniences make a huge difference in the ease and comfort in which they perform their spiritual duties. To the outsider the ablution may seem like an inconvenience and a test of endurance, but to the Muslim it is a pleasant interlude in addition to having a practical as well as symbolic reality. I eventually find a free ablution station and sit myself down to perform the Islamic wudhu, a ritual cleansing that must proceed every prayer and Quranic recitation. Most people have now come to know that it involves the washing of the hands, nose and mouth three times, the arms to the elbow, the head, ears and feet to the ankle. What they may not realize is that after trudging through the dust and heat of this desert clime, the wurdu ritual is unexpectedly refreshing and gives pause to the perspicacity of the divine command to undergo this preliminary ritual to wash away not only the sweat and dust and sometimes sleep of the individual, but also on some symbolic level to cleanse the inner human world of the impurities that have crossed the threshold of the mind and heart during the intervals of forgetfulness between the prayers.
When I emerge from the underground hammam quarters, the scene has altered considerably. Across the great concourse and forecourt of the Prophet’s mosque, a vast crowd now sits politely row upon row that number in the thousands on matting and carpets that extend from east to west across the forecourt. It is a mythical sight that is incredible to behold. The dying sun casts its late afternoon rays across the court, bathing the open plaza and the multitude of pilgrims sitting there in the foreglow of sunset. The expectant people who have been fasting since the early morning call to prayer sit cross-legged in front of their simple break-fast fare patiently awaiting the first call of the adhan that marks the end of the fast.
There is still a half hour before the call of the sunset prayer and I am determined to brave the crowds within the mosque and find a place in anticipation of breaking the fast and saying the prayer within the mosque enclosure. I make my way toward the great central portal, weaving discreetly through the vast crowd of people either sitting on the ground or moving up and down the aisles that give access to the doors of the mosque. As I take off my sandals and pass through the mighty doorway, I notice a Quranic verse (The Rocky Tract 46) chiseled into the stone lintel over the door: “Enter therein, (Paradise) in peace and security”.
I am stunned by an insistent echo as I cross the threshold, “Come, come, come, sit here! Tofaddal!" This is the Arabic greeting of invitation to join a repast. Somebody has taken me by the arm and is escorting me through the maze of legs and feet to what seems like the sole remaining place in the otherwise cavernous and body packed enclosure, roofed with cascading archways in descending order as far as the eye can see. I feel dazed by the sudden good fortune and glad to have a place inside the mosque where I can break the fast and say the prayer. How this was actually going to happen in the next few minutes however was anyone’s guess.
As I settled myself onto the carpet in front of my place setting, I see around me that bee hive activity that has made the breaking of the fast possible in the first place. Local citizens of Madinah have commandeered the mosque to create perhaps the largest breakfast place sitting in the world. Row upon row of carpets as far as the eye can see and extending across the broad concourse of the inner mosque from east to west have been equipped with food and drink so that the faithful may break their fast. Lengthy strips of cellophane have been laid length-wise and at my own place sitting, a microcosm that mirrors perhaps tens of thousands of place setting now existent throughout the mosque. There is an appetizing ring loaf of bread, freshly baked and sprinkled with tasty sesame seeds that radiate an odor of wholesome goodness in the style of true bread that one seldom finds today. There are a number of fruits including an orange and a banana and a handful of Madinah dates at each place setting. There is a full milk cup of yoghurt accompanied by a small tray of freshly ground zattar that Arabs favor and like to sprinkle into the yoghurt. Every place setting has a small plastic spoon to stir and eat the yoghurt. It is a magnificent if not unbelievable display of planning and forethought. Of course feeding the faithful during the Ramadhan is incumbent upon the Muslims and brings with it special blessings that are highly favored. Minutes before the call of the adhan and the momentous breaking of the fast, Zamzam water is poured and passed along the rows from large thermos containers situated along the aisles of the mosque.
In a final gesture of generosity, I am quickly passed a small plastic cup of Arabic coffee pungent with the spice cardamom, which I set down in front of me amid the array of delicacies that await my consumption. Then I hear the piercing cry of the adhan. Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, followed by the profession of faith that there is no god but the one God and Mohammed is the Messenger of Allah, magnified tenfold and cutting through the silence like a piercing cry from the beyond. The vast congregation consisting of some astronomical number beyond reckoning or comprehension but certainly approaching perhaps a million Muslims, paused for a brief second as if the loud report of a bullet had unexpectedly sounded, then everyone to the individual invoked the name of God and broke his fast with water and fresh dates in the traditional manner of the Prophet some 14 hundred years ago.
I break my fast on a date and proceed with my makeshift repast, washing it down with a shot of Arabic coffee and refreshing gulps of the beloved Zamzam water whose purity and crystalline taste cannot be matched from any other well in the world. The thought crosses my mind that saying the prayer amidst this wreckage of food and drink, orange rinds and plastic cups, could be a problem. I had not accounted, however, for the planning and ingenuity of those responsible for this brief repast. Within minutes, our host for this little section of the mosque and his aids descended upon the rows depositing the left over bread, dates, and fruit into great plastic bags reserved for the task. Once done, the entire assemblage of waste was carefully gathered up within the folds of the plastic floor cloth, which summarily disappeared down the row and out of sight of the worshippers. The entire mosque had been restored to an ordered cleanliness in less than the minute it took me to dislodge my aging bones from the floor and stand together with the other worshippers in well defined rows to offer our sunset prayer.
If the world and all that it contains is woven from the stuff of which shadows are made, and if man is the transient and exile disconnected from his true self and the prodigal in search of his ancestral hearth, then this journey to the holy places that begins sitting cross-legged on a carpet with a million other aspirants and breakfasting together on water and dates becomes transformed into the true journey to that final abode of which the revelation speaks. In partaking of a revealed tradition, one gains entry into a world of vision and light; it is a reality woven of the stuff of which not shadows but threat of light is made. It makes demands on us as in the discipline of the Ramadhan fast, but in compensation, its vision and light becomes a part of one's inner world and leads a person beyond the borders of his or her natural shadow self.
I look around at the sea of humanity surrounding me and think to myself: there is power here. The other earthly duties of Islam recall certain qualities and principles unique to each particular duty. The basic testament of faith recalls the serenity that companies the knowledge of God. Prayer remembers communication with the Divinity as well as a means of self-expression of one's innermost thoughts and aspirations. Charity or zakat emphasizes the need to remember the poor and needy, while the Hajj pilgrimage recreates in a formal ritual the journey of a lifetime.
The bodily fast, however, in which the physical senses are tamed through the sheer force of a person's will, contains a subtle message of latent potential power that is impossible to ignore. It is a raw and natural power whose force emerges out of its own defining quality. It is the defining power of wind over water; of water against stone, of fire against wood. It is the creative power of the bud to become the bloom or the transformative power of the caterpillar to become the butterfly, a power whose force is to absorb and potentialize everything that runs to meet it and fall under its sway it. It is the power of the word to stir the mind, of the voice to move the emotions, of the feathers of a wing to lift the bird. What, then, of the potential power behind the collective ummah (community) to bring themselves together and unite under a single unifying truth with a presence of mind and a determination of spirit not only to climb but to move mountains.
As I glance across the carpet at the people around me, words simply fail. There is an aura of silence that underscores the general hubbub produced by such a vast congregation that speaks more than enough. Facial expression and body language, friendly eyes and broad open smiles, a nod of the head, a gesture of offering, these become the modes of expression that cut across all language barriers, culture, race or nationality. I feel an outpouring of warmth and an emotive melting of the heart, a brotherliness and camaraderie that is impossible to explain or describe. A brief vision crosses my mind of New York and Paris and Kuala Lumpur and Sydney, for I am a well-traveled person and familiar with most of the major cities of the world. I have seen New York’s Statue of Liberty and Paris’ Eiffel Tower. I have climbed the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and listened to the arias of the Sydney Opera House echo across the Sydney harbor. Nothing, however, can match this staggering spectacle for its sheer magnitude, for the raw projection of a mass humanity as a single spirit, and the sense of sacred purposefulness that emanates through the broad expanse of the mosque.
Having finished the sunset prayer in congregation with the fellow worshippers, I took my leave of the Prophet’s mosque and proceeded back out into the grand concourse together with the other streams of humanity who were now set on going about their business at hand. As I disappear back into the vast throng from whence I came, I notice once again the pale and ponderous moon climbing back over the horizon; a full moon no less for this was the mid-point of Ramadhan, wearily raising its saffron face beyond the broad porch of the horizon to set up vigil once again over the faithful. It is a breezy mid-November evening, one day in the ayam Allah (the days of Allah), in the holy month of Ramadhan 1424 A.H., in Madinah al-Munawwarah, the City of Light.