The Little Mosque in Medina

Sheikh Jamal Rahman on what we can learn from our places of worship.
Man in Mosque, photo by Hamed Masoumi

Photo By Hamed Masoumi

Rabbi Ted Falcon, Pastor Don Mackenzie, and Sheikh Jamal Rahman, known collectively as the "Interfaith Amigos," have been learning and teaching together since 2001. They blog weekly for YES! Magazine.

The current flap over the proposed Islamic center-cum-mosque in New York City offers a good opportunity to reflect on the nature and purpose of places of worship, and to explore the importance of mosque in Islamic spirituality.

Mosques (or masjids, as they are called in Arabic) come in many sizes and styles, from the humblest storefront prayer room in a shopping mall to the gleaming Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. I have been privileged to spend time in the sacred spaces of many mosques in Muslim countries, including the awe-inspiring grand mosque in Mecca. But the house of worship that abides and resonates in my heart is one that I have never physically visited: the little mosque in Medina. This worship space was painstakingly built by the Prophet Muhammad and his community after his hijra, or migration, in the 7th century c.e., from the hostile environment of Mecca to Medina. For me, that space represents the heart of Islam and many of my favorite lessons:

We need to ask ourselves...Do we open our doors to people of other faiths so that they can pray in a place that is “simply consecrated to God”?

Bow in adoration

The location of this little mosque, adjoining the Prophet’s living quarters, offers a profound lesson about how to live a fulfilling life: We must devote equal attention to both the visible and invisible worlds. It is critical that we participate fully in the bazaar of life and discharge our earthly responsibilities. This work is essential and sacred. But the visible world is, in Rumi’s words, “a place of more or less, a place of expenditure,” and we must also tend to our spiritual enrichment by working equally hard in the invisible world, which Rumi calls “a place of income.” Thus, while the Quran offers many teachings about how to live responsibly in the visible world, it also tells us to “Bow in adoration and draw closer” (96:19)—clearly an invitation to enter the sacred space of the invisible world in a very physical way. A traditional saying reminds us of the beauty of body prayers: “One prostration of prayer to God frees you from a thousand prostrations to your ego.”

This ritual body prayer is derived from the celebrated epiphany of the Prophet, called the Night Journey. Rapt in meditation one late evening, he found himself in an exquisite vision being transported horizontally from Mecca to Jerusalem and then vertically through the seven levels of heaven. As the Prophet ascended the levels, he was dazzled by the sight of myriad angels bowing and prostrating to God, while from their lips poured words of praise and thanksgiving. Muhammad saw this as a sign that prayer must consist essentially of praising God and expressing gratitude and that we, like the angels, must use the gift of our bodies to express our adoration.

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Respect across faiths

In the little mosque in Medina, the Prophet received many delegations of Jews and Christians for conversations and negotiations that sometimes were lengthy and extended into their service times. At those times the Prophet begged his guests to perform their Shabbat and Sunday services in the mosque for “it is simply a place consecrated to God.” Thus, in the seventh century the Prophet established a model for interfaith dialogue and celebration. Today in the twenty-first century, we Muslims need to ask ourselves honestly how many mosques follow the Prophet’s model. Do we open our doors to people of other faiths so that they can pray in a place that is “simply consecrated to God”? May we take to heart the utterance of the Prophet: “The character of a Wali (friend of God) is based on nothing more than graciousness and generosity.”

Equality for Women

One of the things that touches me deeply about the mosque in Medina is that in the early years of Islam, women had a role in the religious life of the community that was unusual at that time—and in this. In the seventh century women helped build the first mosque in Medina. They performed the call to prayer, prayed alongside men, and sometimes led the ritual prayer. A woman, Umm Waarqabint Abdullah, was especially trained by the Prophet himself to act as prayer leader for her whole tribe throughout her life.

Today, women in mosques, with notable exceptions, are often relegated to separate and inferior spaces, and not allowed to pray in the main sanctuary. What is astonishing is that all these traditions of secluding women have arisen from male medieval consensus. It is incumbent on us Muslims to reflect on the role of women in the first mosque in the Islamic world and take inspiration and guidance from that example. The Quran says: “For men and women who surrender themselves to God….and for men and women who remember God unceasingly, for them God has readied forgiveness and a supreme recompense” (33:35).

It is not easy for men in patriarchal societies to renounce their supposed superiority over women. In a telling story about the eighth-century mystic Rabia, one of the most beloved female saints of Islam, several men confronted her and boasted, “The crown of Prophethood has been placed on men’s heads. The belt of nobility has been fastened around men’s waists. No woman has ever been a prophet.” “Ah,” Rabia replied, “but egoism and self worship and ‘I am your Lord most high’ has never sprung from a woman’s breast. All these have been the specialty of men.”

Blush in this world

During the last days of his life, the Prophet insisted on spending time in his little mosque. In a weak and strained voice he repeatedly asked his community for forgiveness. Had he hurt anyone by word or deed? Did he owe anyone money? Many of his followers wept at his humility, sincerity, and persistence in asking these questions. One person raised his hand and said he had lent the Prophet some money, whereupon the Prophet repaid him with deep gratitude. In those final days of the Prophet’s life, the energy of the little mosque was filled with vibrations of forgiveness.

May we take Muhammad’s example to heart and ask for forgiveness from those in our personal lives whom we may have hurt in any way. May we also seek forgiveness for any harm we may have caused, through ignorance or arrogance, in the name of our religion. When asked in the little mosque in Medina why he insisted on asking for forgiveness, the Prophet replied, “It is better to blush in this world than in the next.”

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