The Holy City of Medina: Sacred Space in Early Islamic Arabia
THE HOLY CITY OF MEDINA – Book Sample
Introduction – THE HOLY CITY OF MEDINA
Throughout Islamic history sacred spaces have always held immense political, religious and cultural significance; the king of Saudi Arabia today holds as his official tide khadim al-baramayn, ‘Guardian of the Two Sanctuaries’ (Mecca and Medina), and more than two million Muslims now travel from all over the world each year to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Many of them will also visit Medina. 1
As the town that offered the Prophet protection when his own people denied him, as the location of the first Muslim polity, the first mosque, Muhammad’s sanctuary (baram) and his grave, and as the earliest centre of the Islamic empire at the time when the Muslim armies were conquering most of the Middle East, Medina’s position in the salvation history of the Muslim community is clear today.
The continued political valence of the tide khadim al-baramayn – a tide apparently first used by Saladin in an inscription of 587/1191 in Jerusalem2 – and the number of contemporary visitors demonstrate the staggering success of those who have worked over the centuries to patronise Medina’s sacred spaces and to promote its widely accepted status as a holy city.
In such modern studies as exist of Medina’s sacred space(s) and its history as a holy city for Muslims worldwide, scholars commonly assert that the town was ‘sanctified’ originally through the Prophet’s emi gration (Ar. hijra) there from Mecca in 1/622, his establishment ofa baram there, and then further by his death and burial there.
Albert Arazi, in a stimulating article, summarised this view succinctly: ‘The hijra to Medina, ancient Yathrib, gave that town a new dimension, that of sanctity.’ Then, after the establishment of a Haram there and with the placement of Muhammad’s grave there, Medina attained ‘a surplus of sanctity’.3
There is little doubt that Muhammad’s hijra to Medina and his death were events with enormous repercussions for the early Muslim com munity.4 We may, however, have good reason to feel unsatisfied with a narrative of Medina’s sanctification, its emergence as a holy city, that considers most of the process to have been over shortly after the time of Muhammad’s death in 11/632.
This narrative leaves a number of questions unanswered. Put simply, we should not assume that Medina would have invoked the same significance for Muslims of the second/eighth or third/ninth centuries as it had for those of the first/seventh. The purpose of this book is to present a greater sense of the diachronic and gradual processes by which Medina’s sanctity was first developed and then consolidated.
Chapter 1 investigates some practices of sanctifying space which existed in the Hiiaz on the eve of Muhammad’s career; the following chapter then seeks to explain why he chose to declare a Haram – one of the most socially and religiously important of these pre-Islamic forms of sacred space – at Medina and, in doing so, how he adapted that pre Islamic practice. in Chapter 3, I address the developments in ideas of what a Haram was after MuHammad’s death and the subsequent rapid conquest by his followers of widespread territories with different reli gious and political traditions of their own. it is to be expected that any such developments would affect doctrines about Medina’s Haram and its perceived sanctity, and we will see that some Muslims even came to ques tion the existence of a Haram at Medina.
The second half of the book takes the discussion beyond Medina’s Haram. Chapter 4 turns to the creation of a sacred landscape in Medina
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