Islam’s second holiest city

Medina…in brief

Medina, originally called Yathrib, was an oasis 275 miles north of Mecca. It was an agricultural settlement, with widely scattered palm groves and armed farmsteads, and it numbered among its inhabitants both Arabs and Jews. The two groups lived in a complex political association which late in the sixth century CE began to unravel, resulting in a grave civil war throughout the oasis. This was the condition that led to Muhammad’s invitation to leave his native Mecca (q.v.) and migrate to Yathrib, where it was thought by some that this charismatic holy man might successfully arbitrate the oasis’ woes. The migration (hijra) took place in 622 CE and marks the beginning of the Muslim era.

Once settled in Yathrib, thereafter called “the City of the Prophet” (Madinat al-Nabi), or simply Medina, Muhammad began to set the subsequent course of Islam as a religious and political society. The courtyard of his residence served as the first mosque for the Muslims. Early on he had a falling out with the Jews and consequently changed his direction of prayer from Jerusalem to the Kacba in Mecca, and likewise modified his fasting practice away from a Jewish model.

As for the political problems of Medina, Muhammad first regulated them by gaining assent to a document (the “Constitution of Medina”) knitting all the inhabitants into a single political. Soon, however, another, more peremptory solution presented itself. In 624 Muhammad and his Muslims successfully attacked a Meccan trade caravan at nearby Badr Wells. The results disheartened the Meccans and emboldened the rest of the Medinans to declare openly for their new leader and his Prophetic claimse. Badr led to other successes, and it became increasingly clear to the Medinans, and eventually to the Meccans as well, that Muhammad and his message was a force to be reckoned with in Western Arabia. By the time of Muhammad’s death in 632 the movement called Islam had not only won Arabia but stood poised to conquer the great but enfeebled super-powers of Byzantium and Iran.

Muhammad’s first four successors chose to remain in Medina, and so the oasis settlement became the capital of the new Islamic empire. The city remained, for all that, a simple place not much changed from the Prophet’s own days there. In the intervening twenty-odd years the Muslim armies were still on the march across North Africa and Iran, and when they finally came to rest and the booty of empire began to be invested in the adornment of its capital, that capital had moved elsewhere. Medina was not to be the seat of sovereignty, its sovereigns eventually decided. Nor did sovereignty ever return to Medina, though eventually under the Ottomans it gained the ascendency over its political rival Mecca.

The two city also became rivals in sanctity. Muhammad himself had constituted Medina a “sacred area” (haram) like Mecca, through probably for commercial purposes since it possessed no shrine. Eventually Medina got its shrine as well. At his death Muhammad was buried in the apartment of one of his wives in Medina, right off the courtyard that served as the first mosque in Islam. Later rulers began to invest in the expansion and beautification not only of the mosque but of the Prophet’s own tomb. Other celebrated Muslims were buried nearby, his daughter Fatima, Abu Bakr and Umar (who lay next to the Prophet), and Uthman as well. Their tombs too received secondary embellishment, but it was the Prophet’s own sarcophagus, invisible inside a draped, grilled enclosure within the enlarged mosque, that began to attract Muslims to Medina. The hajj might be made only to Mecca, but a ziyara or pious visit to the Prophet’s tomb at Medina was on the itinerary of every Muslim pilgrim to the Hijaz.

Thus Medina and Mecca became known as the Haramayn, the “Twin Sanctuaries,” and the distant caliphs and sultans who ruled the Holy Cities of Arabia rejoiced in the title “Servant of the Haramayn.” It was an expensive honor. The ruler was responsible for the caravans that set forth from within his domains on their long and dangerous journey to the Hijaz. They carried with them the annual allocations from the imperial budget and from private sources for the support of the personnel of the Haramayn, everyone from the Grand Sharif who ruled them to the lowliest sweeper at the Prophet’s mosque in Medina.

In medieval times Medina enjoyed little political importance. The Sharif lived in Mecca by preference, and the Egyptian or Ottoman governor usually in Jidda on the coast. What changed the political fortunes of the city was, indirectly, the British establishing themselves in Egypt, which channeled the direct communication from Istanbul to the Hijaz overland through Syria, thence south through Medina to Mecca. To strengthen the link the Turks constructed a telegraph line to Medina, followed in 1908 by the completion of the Hijaz Railway, which was for political reasons extended no further than Medina. Medina thus became the chief communication center of Ottoman Arabia, and so its chief garrison town as well.

When Husayn announced his revolt against the Turks in 1916, Mecca fell quickly; but Medina, with its garrison of regular Ottoman troops under the command of the redoubtable Fakhri Pasha held out against the Sharifian forces until January 1919. With the end of the war, Medina formed part of Sharif Husayn ibn Ali’s short-lived Kingdom of the Hijaz. Husayn’s bitter rival Ibn Sacud took the city without much difficulty in December 1925 and it was absorbed with the rest of the Hijaz into the newly enlarged Saudi kingdom. There were misgivings at the time that the Wahhabi Saudis might extend their severe disapproval of the cult of the dead to the Prophet’s own tomb in Medina, but the fears were groundless. The Saudis destroyed some minor shrines, but the Prophet’s mosque and tomb they eventually made larger and more ornate than before. Medina today is a large modern city with few physical traces of its pre-Islamic or even medieval past.


Bibliography: See the bibliography under “Mecca.”


One Comment

  • I noticed, when i listened to the C.D.’s of the 3 religions, how F.E.Peters has made a very complex study into something we can all understand. Thank you.

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