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Lasting Impressions of the Muslim World

In Story, Travel on October 19, 2010 at 9:40 am

Published in the Arabian Woman magazine in the U.A.E.

Being in Dubai, the crossroad of the worlds’ new trade routes and a melting pot of cultures, has afforded my husband and I the opportunity to explore the world, and so we began, with the Middle East, in search of a spiritual awakening. We chose the countries that had the most historical significance to Islam, the religion we both follow, namely; Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Turkey.

Saudi Arabia houses two of Islam’s holiest sites, and to them, we headed first, a fitting start to our pilgrimage, as it is the birthplace of Islam, and even believed to be the cradle of civilization. In Makkah, we performed the Umrah (the lesser pilgrimage). Makkah, is for Muslims the world over, a sanctuary. The Kabah, which means “a high place with respect and prestige”, is the convergence point of every Muslims prayer, the direction to which we turn every day, five times a day. In Makkah, I felt the unity of the global Muslim community, as we all carried out the same rituals in unison and harmony, helping and edging each other along. It is the place wherein all barriers of class, gender, age and race fall away and everyone is equalized before God. As we performed the Tawaf (circumambulation) of the Kabah, we were mindful that we moved anti-clockwise, against time, against the fast paced modern world and against convention, in an attempt to get closer to the ultimate reality of God. For me personally, the Umrah (lesser pilgrimage) is close to my heart, because of the rituals associated with Hajar, the African wife of the Prophet Abraham, being an African woman myself. A lot of what Muslims do in the pilgrimage today is an imitation of what she did, centuries ago. This, I feel, raises women to lofty heights in the eyes of God, for Hajar was a slave woman, but today she is buried in the most sacred of places, at the edge of the Kabah, and millions of Muslims emulate her actions to gain nearness to God. Makkah was also an opportunity for me to meet Muslims from far reaching countries of the globe, and to forge lifelong friendships based on common beliefs and love for our religion. The prophet Abraham prayed to God to make Makkah a sanctuary for the people, as that is what it is to me, a safe-haven, a spiritual retreat and a second home.

Next, we visited Islam’s second holiest site, and perhaps a more emotional one – Medina, the city of the Prophet Muhammad, in which his grave is situated. So different from Makkah, which is characterized by the frenzy of people rushing to perform their pilgrimage, Medinah is a peaceful city, calmness descended upon my body and soul, the moment I entered the Prophets Mosque. Men and women flock to the Prophet’s tomb, to send their greetings and salutations to him. At his grave site, emotion reigned over rationale, and tears of love flowed for my beloved Prophet, for his sacrifices and for his love for us, the Muslim community. 1400 years after his death, the city of the Prophet is still alive with his aura and his presence looms over it, like a shady tree under a hot sun. While Makkah is the birthplace of Islam, and the direction to which we pray, Medina comes to symbolize the social and political dimensions of Islam, as it is here that the Prophet set up the communal life of Islam. I was overcome by a great sadness to leave this place, even though it was not my first visit, my heart longed and prayed to God for a return to this abode.

Saudi Arabia is also home to many other sites of historical importance to Islam, like the battle grounds of the first battles fought for Islam. More importantly, the city of Jeddah is the grave site of our Mother, Eve. She is buried there, her grave housed in a cemetery complex, which we visited, on our way out of the kingdom. Needless to say, my hairs stood on end, at the thought that I was at the grave of the first woman on this earth. The name Jeddah, in fact, means grandmother, a tribute to Eve.

Our spiritual awareness now awakened and alert, we proceeded to Jerusalem, going through Jordan, and crossing into Palestine overland. It didn’t matter that we waited over 6 hours at the border, to get clearance into the holy city. What mattered was that, we got in. The first thing that caught my eye in the skyline of Jerusalem is the famous “Dome of the Rock “and I immediately whispered a thank you to my Lord. The walls of the old city loom high above its inner cobblestoned streets and alleys, which are a delight to explore.

The significance of Jerusalem, and particularly the Al Aqsa Mosque, goes back centuries in history, to the time of the early prophets, so many of them who traversed and preached in this Land. In the Holy Quran, it is said that Al Aqsa, and its precincts are blessed, so based on this information, we were ready to partake in these blessings.  We visited the tombs of the prophets Moses, Noah, Lot, Abraham, Joseph, Jacob and David, a number of old mosques, churches, the birthplace of Jesus and the Wailing Wall. The highlight of course, was the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, which was the first direction to which Muslims prayed before Makkah, and also the place where the Prophet Muhammad was lifted to the heavens, in an epic journey known as the Me’raj.  The courtyard of the mosque complex is a scene of families’ picnicking, and children frolicking, a picture perfect setting, were it not for the presence of armed soldiers all around. Experiencing the resilience and dignity of the Palestinian people in the face of such oppression, had a profound effect on me. The crisis of Palestine, as a humanitarian one, I thought I well understood, coming from South Africa, a country which was previously ruled under Apartheid, a segregationist ideology, where all people who were not white, were disadvantaged and discriminated against. Yet knowing this, did not prepare me for the harsh realities of everyday life faced by the Palestinian people, and still to, the generosity displayed by them even under such conditions was awe inspiring. We were overwhelmed at the munificence and hospitality of the Palestinian people, who were so overjoyed to hear that we had journeyed all the way, just to visit them and their holy sites. They took us in wherever they could, going out of their way to ensure our safety and comfort.

Going through checkpoints and constantly being at gun point at the hands of the soldiers, made me extremely nervous, and witnessing firsthand the Israeli wall, was angering and frustrating, but even so, none of this detracted from the holiness of the place. A friend I had met in Medina, from the West Bank town of Hebron, invited us to stay with her and her family, and from all my experiences, this is the most special and the most memorable. We were taken into the folds of her large family and treated like royalty with feasts held in our honour, despite their meagre conditions. The honour they showed to us as guests humbled and overwhelmed me. I also met many people from different walks of life, who were visiting Palestine to witness the crisis and to raise awareness or campaign against it, which was an excellent networking experience for an aspiring writer. Palestine will remain etched in my heart and mind, for its people, more than its sights.

After this very rejuvenating time, we bade Palestine goodbye for now, and travelled back into Jordan, where we spent a week touring the various natural and historical phenomena across the country, from snorkelling at Aqaba, a night under the stars in Wadi Rum, a walk back in time through Petra, a hike in Wadi Mujibs’ waterfall canyon and the ultra-weird feeling of floating in the Dead Sea. Jordan too, has no dearth of religious sites, and we visited these too. So many places stand out in my memory, like Lots cave, the place where Prophet Lot took refuge from the evil doings of his people, and from where he watched them drown in God’s wrath; the tomb of the Prophet Shuaib, the father in law of the Prophet Moses, in a valley near Salt, called Wadi Shuaib; the Bethany beyond the Jordan where the Prophet Jesus was baptized by the Prophet John; and Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have seen the Promised Land before dying. Jordan was a great opportunity to reconnect with Biblical and Quranic parables; it is a land where the scriptures come to life.

Subsequent on our itinerary, was Syria. Having many friends in Syria, it was very easy to see the country. We started off in Aleppo, and worked our way south, to Damascus. At every juncture, we were amazed by monumental castles, mosques and churches, from Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad eras. My favourite place was the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, a monument riddled with history stretching far back into the Byzantine then Roman eras, before being converted into a Mosque by the conquering Muslims. Our guide said to us, “Understanding this place is understanding the history of Syria”. What is wonderful is that the architecture of each era survived through the rest, making it an interesting convergence point of different cultures.

Throughout Syria, there are various sites related to the Prophet Muhammad’s family and their tragic end, when they were mercilessly killed at the battle or Karbala, now situated in Iraq. This was eye-opening, and showed me that there is more than meets the eye to our glorified religious history. We also visited the tomb of the Prophet Abel, the son of the Prophet Adam; here I was truely dumb struck at how far back in time this country goes! Another stop we made, was the city of Bosrah, which besides being an important Roman town, is also the place where the Prophet Muhammad met the monk Bahira, who foretold his prophecy. The monastery of Bahira still stands today. The Damascene ambience is yet unrivalled for me, and I immediately fell in love with the old city souks and their treasures. I was also impressed by the various Arabic language institutes dotted around the city, teeming with foreign students hungry to learn the language of Islam. Meeting and befriending these students was a lovely opportunity to experience local life in Syria.

Last, but not least, we ended our trip with a five day stop-over in Istanbul, Turkey. An apt ending to this spiritual sojourn, as Turkey is the country in which the last of the Islamic Dynasties, the Ottomans, ruled. Like every tourist, we visited the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia, marvelled at their architectural splendour and intricate handwork and snapped lots of photographs. However, given the spiritual nature of our journey, and the fact that we arrived in Istanbul on the third day of Ramadan, there was much more to see, as a Muslim. Firstly, I cannot go any further without saying how beautiful and festive the Ramadan atmosphere in Istanbul is. Families gather in the gardens outside the big Mosques before sunset, waiting for the call to prayer to signal the breaking of the fast, after which a carnival resumes, in between prayers and dinner.

Amongst other sites, the Topkapi museum stands out, because of the artefacts of religious significance that it houses, from the clothes of the Prophet Muhammad and his family and the weapons of his companions, to the more mind boggling (because of their age), staff of Moses, turban of Joseph and sword of Solomon.  It also contains the scripts of some of the earliest Quran’s written and its setting along the Bosporus is a picturesque way to spend a few hours. In Istanbul, there is another mosque called the Eyup Camii, which is the grave site of the Prophet Muhammad’s close friend, Abu Ayyub Ansari, considered the fourth holiest site in Islam, so of course we couldn’t miss it, as well another shrine called Hirkaye Sherif, where another of the Prophet Muhammad’s robes is kept, and showed to the public only in Ramadan, luckily for us. The most striking aspect of Turkey is the way in which each every monument and artefact is carefully preserved, so that generations of Muslims thereafter can go there, and reconnect with their religious heritage. In times of late, Turkey has seen a massive Islamic resurgence, which opposes the current secularist state, so religion hangs fresh in the air, and it is a heady feeling. I was so taken by the Turkish hijab, bright and colourful silk scarves worn with elegant trench coats, and couldn’t help but get a few for myself. Istanbul has revived the Islamic arts, and is truly a city of culture.

This journey has enriched my life in countless ways, from the people I met, the sights I visited and the activities I took part in, each one of which has left its own unique mark on my life. It has made me proud to be a Muslim and has awakened in me a struggle for justice against oppression. It has fostered in me a deep religious tolerance, because I saw how intertwined the three monotheistic faiths are in history, and how each one sough to preserve the heritage of the others. It has rekindled a flame for seeking knowledge and thirst for meeting new people from different cultures. It has helped me to understand my religion, my prophets and it has, for now, satiated my spiritual appetite.


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