I was anxious and excited as we boarded the bus at Medina's small airport. What would I see? How would it feel? "Just watch for it," my husband whispered to me, as our religious group leader lectured us in Arabic on the city's history, the love that The Prophet Muhammad had for it, and what he must have felt as he entered it after fleeing Mecca more than 1,400 years ago.
As our leader's melodious voice rose in the welcoming song that the Medinans are said to have sung to the Prophet, others on our bus joined in. I don't know Arabic, and my Islamic history is weak--but I listened to the song and was moved to tears. And every pilgrim on that bus strained to see the Prophet's Mosque. When the mosque came into view, it was like coming home. And after all the spiritual turmoil I had endured--reconciling my need to do the Hajj with leaving my small children behind--I finally felt a sense of serenity, a feeling of real belonging. Medinah is special that way.
As more than two million Muslims descend on Mecca and its surrounding lands for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, nearly all will also trek a few hundred miles to Medina. There are no special clothes to wear in Medina during the Hajj season, no mantra to recite, no rituals to follow. In fact, visiting Medina and the Prophet's Mosque are not requirements of Hajj.
Hajj always focuses the world's attention on Mecca, the Haram (Grand) Mosque, and the Ka'ba, or House of Allah. And rightly so: Mecca is the birthplace of Islam, where The Prophet Muhammad first received revelations of the Qu'ran. The city is deeply rooted in Islamic history and known to Muslims and non-Muslims around the world.
But ask any Hajj pilgrim what they fondly remember about their experience, and visiting Medina and the Prophet's Mosque is right up there with the Hajj itself. It is intrinsically bound up in the holy pilgrimage, but largely unknown to non-Muslims. So why do most pilgrims place such importance on visiting Medina? The answer rests in Medinah's status as the Prophet's city of refuge, the city where adherents flocked to Islam as his preaching deepened.
It also has to do with the Prophet's status as a flesh-and-blood man who did the most of any human for Islam. Allah--the same God known to Christians and Jews--is an unknown entity: all-powerful, almighty. Muslims go to Mecca and perform the Hajj because we love Allah, because He commanded us to do so, because it is the ultimate path to connect with Him.But we choose to visit Medina because it is the Prophet's beloved city. It's like a cool drink of water after the blissful agony of seeing the Ka'ba and performing the Hajj. I always feel close to Allah, and the Hajj brought me even closer to Him. But, being fallible, I sometimes overlook the importance of The Prophet Muhammad. And so visiting Medina was a way of rediscovering him--and relearning all the history that makes the city special.
After receiving the early revelations of the Qu'ran and preaching to largely deaf ears in Mecca, The Prophet Muhammad was instructed by Allah to leave the city and migrate to Medina around 622, according to Islamic history. His dangerous flight to Medina is marked as the Hijra, or emigration, from which the Muslim calendar begins.
Many other aspects of Islamic practice, manners, and traditions were also established by the Prophet in Medina. He laid the foundation for the Muslim Ummah (unified nation) by instructing the Medinans to adopt the Meccans who fled with the Prophet, and share their property with them.
And in a polarized world, in which the Muslim majority decries the actions of an extremist minority, it was enlightening to walk the streets and visit the sites where The Prophet Muhammad preached tolerance, inclusion, strength, and fairness.
A visit to the Uhud graveyard north of Medinah cemented this feeling for me. This graveyard was the site of the battle of Uhud, fought by the Prophet and his followers against the Arab Quraysh tribe soon after he arrived in Medina. On the verge of victory, the Prophet's army lost after a number of warriors disobeyed his commands. Yet, according to Islamic history, he was instructed by Allah to be forgiving and teach courage and faith.
Standing at the ancient battle-ground with the bright sun blinding me amidst masses of pilgrims, everything appeared to fade away until all I saw was the empty land before me framed by the low mountains behind it. It was so unassuming, yet so important. This was real jihad, I thought. This was a true battle where courage, honesty, and true sacrifice were the badges of honor: The Prophet lost the battle because some of his men disobeyed him. But as jihad is an internal struggle for truth and faith, the Prophet forgave his men and taught them to listen and have faith.
Medina's greatest connection to the Hajj is that the Prophet Muhammad made his first pilgrimage from Madinah in 630 after a previous aborted attempt, thus setting the example for how Hajj should be performed. And it was during this pilgrimage that he destroyed idols that were in the Ka'ba, turning it back to a Muslim site.
And perhaps the most lasting landmark of the Prophet--and one of the holiest places after the Grand Mosque in Islam--is in Medina: Masjid an-Nabi, or the Prophet's Mosque. Though the Prophet helped construct other mosques, Masjid an-Nabi holds a distinct honor, because he bought the land and constructed his home there. It is beloved by Muslims, who often say they feel a special closeness to the Prophet when praying in the mosque.
For me, my mother put it best into words when she explained the varying feelings of seeing the Ka'ba versus going to the Prophet's mosque: When you visit Allah's home, you have the most direct connection to Him-like how you are with your mother, she said to me. You love and respect Him, you fear Him, you get angry with Him, you question Him, and you accept Him as the final word.
When you visit the Prophet's Mosque, it's like visiting the most respected and beloved person you'll ever know: You feel safe, peaceful, and surrounded by his love and all his sacrifices for you and Islam, she said to me. There is a kind of peace in Medina that you'll never feel anywhere else.
And so once again, before and after the Hajj, the city of Medinah will be filled with pilgrims visiting its historic Islamic sites, soaking up the peaceful atmosphere of the city, and praying in the Masjid an-Nabi. If Mecca is the heart, then Medina is the body of Islam.
When I'd completed the Hajj, though my travel group was on a strict schedule that didn't allow for a repeat visit, my husband and I broke away and went back to Medina for just one glorious day. It was that important.