I Left My Heart in Madinah: Looking for the Beauty


Photo courtesy of G, my White Lady 🙂

I grew nervous as I realized that all the immigration officers were male. At least in Qatar, they had female staff, and because of my niqab, they always told me and hubs to go to the ‘family’ section. Here at the King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Madinah, all the immigration officers were male. No females in sight. But something in me told me they wouldn’t ask me to lift my niqab. We were in Saudi after all.

I needn’t worry. Alhamdulillah they didn’t. He just looked at my passport, did something to it, looked at me, and let me go.

Next stop; baggage claim. But before we could get to the baggage area, we had to pass through some officers who would look at our passports and make sure we were the passport holders. It was probably sometime after asr when we landed. As I looked at the man who was supposed to let us pass, I noticed that his lips were moving, with no audible words. I looked at the other officers way up front. They had the zhikr beads in their hands and they were also making zhikr. Then it hit me. Subhanallah…they were probably doing their evening azhkaar! Even while doing their jobs! Subhanallah…

Now, that is really humbling, and what a ‘in-your-face’ reminder that was too! I can think of times when I’m rushed while doing my evening azhkaar and have to get up and cook or whatever, and I can say that most of the times that I do that, I don’t continue saying  my azhkaar.

Now, the Madinah airport is nothing to brag about if you’re talking about organization and aesthetics. But, we were in Saudi, what did you expect? I have heard so many stories of how things are in Saudi, that I expected the worst, and that helped set my mindset and frame of mind in the right place. It allows the mind and heart then to notice other things, and maybe to even look for the beauty amidst all that chaos. To me, seeing the men doing their evening azhkaar while being on the job, was the perfect Ahlan wa Sahlan into the Kingdom. Allahu Akbar!

Allahu Akbar indeed.

Aali Imran 3:191

Sahih International

Who remember Allah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], “Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You [above such a thing]; then protect us from the punishment of the Fire.

The ayah before this categorizes these characteristics under ‘Ulul Albaab’ [the people of understanding].
Aali Imran 2:190
Sahih International

Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding.

Remembrance of Allah can be done in so many ways, and the beauty of Islam is that Allah has detailed some specific acts of worship to the t. I mean, otherwise, people can just claim that they remember Allah, right? In their own unique ways. But no, part of the beauty in these specific acts of worship that Allah has specified for us is that they unite us, they create a bond between us as an ummah, because even though there are numerous ways to remember Allah, there are some ways that are made uniform and specific. When we do them, or when some of us do them, and these are witnessed, we recognize them and these forms of specific zhikr themselves remind us to remember Allah!
Now, how cool is that!
Oh and speaking of ummah, how cool is it that we may not speak the same language, we may not understand each other, but when we do certain acts of worship, we end up uttering the same language; Arabic. Subhaanallah!!! (even if we do so without understanding…obviously, there is something lacking there, but even in that alone, is the beauty of submission – this post after all is about looking for the beauty…so…)

Part of our hajj preparation, well, at least for me, was harassing people I know who have gone, and asking them millions of questions. I had to sift through their replies to form a picture of what I was getting myself into. There was a pattern to all the advice; expect the worst and be patient.

I am good with expecting the worst. I like that advice. It fits my personality. As for being patient…ahh…I didn’t know how large my patience circle was. I figured that I just had to brace myself and see what happens. Alhamdulillah though, I realized that my patience circle for dealing with crowd, pushing, shoving, long waits with no idea of when it would end, is pretty big. My wonderful sisters have really helped me by mentioning this need for patience again and again, and even shared what they went through. I think that itself helped enlarge my patience circle. Alhamdulillah…

And I think….that also cleared up my ‘lenses’ and made it easier for me to see the beauty in little and big things throughout this journey.

When Sh Omar gave us a tour of the masjid, we learned that the masjid now, covers pretty much all of the city of Madinah during the time of the Prophet saw. The gate from which we usually enter the masjid from the direction of our hotel, is where the caravans and visitors to Madinah would come in from when they arrive in Madinah. The place where we usually prayed if we came late (if we leave the hotel room not immediately after azhaan was called), was where the souq (market place) was in Madinah.

One thing that seemed peculiar to me the first few days was that men were praying behind the women’s row. What happens is that when they come in late, the women are already filling up the allocated spaces in the masjid courtyard, so instead of trying to make it to the men’s side, which is way far up ahead, these men laid down their mats behind the women and joined the jamaah right away. (No, they’re not supposed to do that)

Back home, broken rows during congregational prayer always bothered me. If I’m praying next to my girls, I would nudge them to close the gap. If I’m praying next to other people, I’d signal with my hand for them to close the gap. Sometimes they do sometimes they don’t. With this, I follow Sh Yaser B’s advice; try, and if they don’t listen, leave them alone. And by the way, don’t spread your feet to close the gap such that you’re almost doing a split. I honestly can’t even imagine praying properly in that position.

Anyway, in masjid nabawi, especially in the courtyard, there were so many broken rows! I don’t mean the sectioned off areas. They would section of areas such that there would be aisles for people to walk and so physically, the rows are not joined all the way. But this logistic had to be done and it’s not within my control anyway.

However, it bothered me. I asked Sh Omar about it. He said,

“You can’t really do anything about it. But when there are two parts of a row, choose the one that is the closest to the imam.”

Aha! It reminded me of what Sh Yaser had also said in Fiqh of Salah class. I had asked how the women’s row should be started, because sisters like to start from the right, even if it’s ridiculously far from the imam. He said,

“Start from behind the imam, wherever the imam is.”

It may be that it’s hajj season, but to see everyone headed towards the masjid when the azhaan is called is just…indescribable. The shop-owners would pull down their metal (zinc whatever) store door, whip out their prayer mats and pray in front of their shops (Sh Omar said they’re not considered to be part of the jamaah though because in order to be part of the congregation, you have to be connected physically by the rows).

Praying in the courtyard of the masjid means you are putting your forehead on the marbled floor, that is, if you don’t have a prayer mat with you. During Zuhr and Asr, if you don’t have your prayer mat between you and the floor, you might get a tad *hot*. What I love about praying in the courtyard are those big circular fans attached to the pillars. They remind me of walking by open eateries in Phoenix (and some in Malaysia too – though I don’t know why they want to add more to the humidity!), with their mist fans. It really cools you in the afternoon heat, and it’s really nice and serene. There were times when I just sat there after salat, and I was hot, but patience pays off, because every now and then, I’d feel the cooling effect of the fan and its mist (you can actually feel some of the water vapors on you).

The masjid courtyard feels so family-friendly. From my room in the hotel, if you look out the window in the late afternoon sometimes, you could see families strolling across the marble floor with a child or two riding their bikes. Forget kids, I even saw grown men riding their bicycles across the masjid courtyard! And of course, every morning, they would clean those huge robotic umbrellas using imported foreign labor. These men would climb up into the umbrella and clean it with soap and water. The marble floors were swept and mopped regularly several times a day. I think I even almost slipped on these floor a few times.

Praying in the interior part of the masjid was something else. If you have tried to make it to the inside for prayer times, you may end up memorizing this one phrase that the female security guards would always shout to the oncoming traffic of determined sisters, “Maa fee Makaan! Maa fee Makaan!” (No more space inside! No more space inside!)

Seriously, I have grown to love these female security guards. And maybe I’m biased towards them due on one incident. They would always check our bags when we are about to enter the masjid (if it was the US, these security guards would be armed with those metal detectors and we’d probably have to step through some X-ray thingies), and one time, as this one guard was checking mine, she asked me,


“Maleezee,” I replied.

Then she said something in Arabic, out of which I only manage to grasp, “Malaysians and Indonesians are some of the best people…they are nice” Arabic words that brought me to that understanding “7huluwwan, khairan min an nisaa” and of course “Maleezee, Induneesee”

From the first impression, they may seem intimidating and harsh. After all, their job is to usher people inside the masjid, and stop people from entering the masjid if it’s already full, and in this process, they may end up shouting (a lot), sometimes pushing, tugging, stopping. But you really have to look at what is required to do this task. They have to deal with people from all walks of life, some with more civility (by modern standards), other with less, and yet others who still insist on doing what they want to do regardless of the rules.

We were told by Sh Omar to be at the masjid by 10 am to make it for Jumuah prayers. We got there at 10:30 am, and guess what, we missed getting inside the masjid and only got as far as the doorstep.

“Maa fee makaan!”

So, we laid down our prayer mats and rucksacks by the masjid doorstep and sat down. It was the perfect place to witness what these female security guards had to deal with on a daily basis and even more so during hajj season. There were a few ladies sitting in our row who were voicing out their dissatisfaction (in Arabic, but I was able to put some words together and get the gist of what they were saying)with the guards. The guards heard them. And one of them said to them,

“Be grateful! Say Alhamdulillah! You are at the Prophet’s masjid! Say Alhamdulillah! If you can’t make it inside right now, there is always other salah times, asr, maghrib, isha…”

I find this a beautiful reminder. Subhaanallah. It may seem harsh, but really, if you think about it, she’s right. Look at the big picture. What struck me even more was the response of this security guard. She didn’t take it personally. She took it as an opportunity to remind her fellow sister of gratitude.

The masjid was full, but of course, people still insisted on going inside anyway. So, the guards had to literally wrestle these insistent ladies away from the door. One lady was begging to get inside and showed the guard her forearm, which had a very visible bump. I was guessing she wanted access to the Zamzam water. The guards looked at her hand and nodded and told her gently that she still couldn’t go inside. Others tried to sneak through the guards, and as more kept on insisting on going inside, some ladies came out of the masjid. As the guards were saying, “Maa fee makaan, maa fee makaan!” these ladies who were coming out confirmed it. And so the conversation between them and the guard went somewhat like this,

“There are no more spots inside, right?”

“No, there are no more spots. It’s full!”

“I told you so!”

As the crowd finally realized that there really were no more spots inside the masjid, the spots outside filled up. It was at this time that I saw the compassion of these security guards, mashaaAllah. Somehow, they got some cups of zamzam water from inside and passed it to the ladies outside, particularly this one lady who had that growth on her arm.

Of course, as people kept coming to the the door, the guards would shoo them back, but by now, most people understood that they were not to go inside or even try anymore. So those who did get up to the door had reasons. One of these was to ask for mushaf from inside the masjid, especially since it was a long wait till Jumuah prayer.

MashaaAllah, the guards retrieved a bunch of masaahif from inside the masjid and put them on the pillar so those outside can access them. I know this may seem obvious since it’s part of their job, but, I don’t know, I find this…beautiful. Maybe because most of the time, these guards are yelling and stopping people from entering the masjid when it’s full, and ushering crowds to areas they don’t really want to go to, and making sure people are not just loitering in the aisles. These tasks require them to be firm and serious. I’m sure it’s tiring too. The only time they get to sit and not have to raise their voices is when the masjid is full and no one attempts to go inside, or when people are praying. But in actuality, they are serving the people. The masjid had a digital sign just atop the door, and one time, I saw the a message flashing by, saying something like,

We are only trying to make things more organized so you have a good experience

It actually made me sad to see that message. It should be clear that that is what they are doing. To think otherwise … one must not be using his common sense.

As more people came to attend Jumuah, any spots that looked empty, even when they’re not, were filled. The three of us, Asha, Edo and me, had secured 3 spots for ourselves behind the pillar, but since we had about 2 hours till the khutbah started, some of us leaned against the pillar and faced the jamaah. That made it seem like our spots were empty since it was just our feet on the mat. So some sisters came and filled that spot.

One particular lady tried to do that behind me. She was a very petite lady, a bit elderly and looked Asian. She was very small too, so when she was trying to fit in the spot, I realized it, but didn’t have to heart to tell her to go back. So I let her stay there. As it was, I wasn’t really sitting at my spot, but had moved a bit further up front by the pillar, facing the qiblah.

I thought,

Oh, we’ll just figure out how to fit in the row when we’re about to pray inshaaAllah. No big deal.

We sat there, for quite a long time. Even though we weren’t directly under the noon sun, and we also had the blessing of getting some blast of AC from the inside of the masjid right in our face, it was still relatively hot. I think it was especially hard for the older ladies, though Edo mashaaAllah held her own, like the typical Somali lady! She even helped some other ladies who needed physical assistance!

After a while, the elderly Asian lady started to look a bit sick. Edo signaled for me to give her some water. We gave her water. I noticed that she is actually quite beautiful. I mean, she was old, but looking at her face, I could imagine what she looked like when she was younger. She has this petite frame, and her face has this sweet, innocent look, with an easy smile. She looked fragile too.

I don’t remember at which point this happened, but the lady behind this Asian lady at one point started to signal or pull this lady back to the row behind me, or maybe she was signaling to me to tell this Asian lady to get out of my spot. Remember when I had talked about the patience circle? For some reason, alhamdulillah, my patience circle with crowds was really big. To be honest, being in the crowds in Saudi reminded me of the crowd in Indonesia. My father, who migrated from Indonesia to Malaysia, would regularly take us kids back to Indonesia so we would appreciate the luxury in Malaysia by seeing how hard life was in some parts of Indonesia and I remember having a very small patience circle back then. Of course, the crowd during tawaf, I cannot compare that to the crowd in Indonesia. That crowd in tawaf is an animal in its own category.

Anyway, I felt compelled to take this Asian lady under my wings. So I signaled back to the other lady that she was fine where she was. Let her be. We continued waiting for the khutbah.

And again, I don’t remember at which point this happened, either before or after the khutbah, but after quite some time, this Asian lady, all of a sudden took my face close to hers and kissed my cheek out of pure appreciation and thanks. I was surprised. And even while typing this post of ‘Looking for the Beauty’, I had initially forgotten about this incident. It was only when I let this draft ruminate that I remembered it. Subhanallah, this pretty old lady just expressed thanks to me in her own way. I don’t remember what I did in response. Maybe I just smiled and nodded. But I remember thinking,

What did I do for her? I didn’t do much. I just sat and let her sit there and gave her water and let her be, and probably smiled at her every now and then when I was checking on her.

But I have to admit that it kind of gave me a warm fuzzy feeling inside. I know that’s cliche, but it kind of made my day. I never saw this lady again, but subhanallah, just recalling this incident made me think that we really shouldn’t belittle any good deeds. A simple smile can make someone’s day. It really can.

And I have to admit one thing that bothered me a lot back home. Among sisters, it would bother me when there is a language barrier. I find that when there is a language barrier, it impedes communication that I would like to engage in and only allows at times for communication that can tend to be become idle talk (like shopping or cooking or nice abayas). There in Madinah, language barrier stares you in the face defiantly. You’re forced to figure out how to communicate whether you like it or not.

With this old Asian lady, I didn’t utter a word. I  just gestured, smiled, and nodded. But subhanallah…between all of that and her weary smiles, a lot happened and a lot was conveyed. And subhanallah…beauty was realized, and beauty transpired. Something beautiful happened there, on that Friday afternoon, at the doorstep of Masjid An Nabawi, while the female security guards were busy doing their jobs and later sitting on their chairs, probably getting their temporary rest.

If you’re thinking,

Yeah, that’s easy to say, you’re in Madinah. You’re not in Makkah yet!

let me tell you that even in Makkah, in the hajj crowd, there is beauty to be found. But that deserves its own post inshaaAllah.

Whenever I try to make my way inside the masjid, I would make sure I go a bit early. But when I knew I was late, it’s usually confirmed when I see from afar the guards waving both arms back and forth to the oncoming crowd shouting, “Maa fee Makaan!” That’s when I usually settle with taking a spot somewhere just outside the masjid door.

You have to look for the beauty. I mean, seriously. It’s so easy to see the ugly side of things, but when you look for the beauty, subhanallah, it’s an experience of its own.

One of these was when we were trying to pray in the rawdhah. Anyone who knows and has tried to do this knows how crazy it can be. Some sisters in our group were even saying that it’s not worth trying because of all the craziness and pushing and shoving that occur there. It’s appalling, especially so close to where the Prophet saw lies.

I did go, with 3 other sisters, so there were 4 of us. There were two Somalis, one Maleezee, and one Pakistani.

“Sudaan, sudaan!” one security guard tried to separate us by telling our two Somali to join the Sudanese group. We were actually clueless as to what was happening, but as soon as we realized that they were grouping people by nationalities (which we later learned was the organization method of letting people in the rawdhah), I started saying back, “Amreekee, Amreekee.”

At this, the security guards were taken aback. One of them actually said, “MashaaAllah! Amreekee? All four of you? (in Arabic of course)”

They looked like they didn’t really know where to place us, because of course, there were no American group. Most Americans are diverse anyway that we would be thrown into the Pakistanis, Indonesians, etc anyway. So one guard placed us with the Indonesian group, which we realized was a blessing. Why? Because we didn’t have to worry about being trampled.

So we sat with the Indonesians and were also herded with them as we moved from one place to another in the masjid, headed towards the rawdhah. Before we were herded though, as we were sitting and reading Quran, all of a sudden, there was an uproar. It seriously sounded like the floodgates of hell had opened up. Spontaneously, we stood up in response. What we saw was groups upon groups of women running, yes, running (in the masjid) through a door that had just been opened. It seriously reminded me of the chaotic rush US shoppers would engage in on big shopping days. It sounded like a stampede.

The Indonesian group remained sitting though. See why I said it was a blessing? So we sat back down. But that was only a preview of what our experience in the rawdhah would be like.

The guards moved us group by group towards the men’s area, towards the rawdhah, so this was the only time we got to go to the men’s side. As they herded us along, they had us sit in spots along the way, and gave turns to each group. We soon realized that the Indonesian group was not moving, and it occurred to us that maybe, because the Indonesians are so nice and non aggressive, they’re being taken advantage of. We felt bad for them and as we saw other groups being herded ahead of them, we decided to just go with any group. Well, we ended up with the African group. Serves us right. We even later realized that while we were standing, waiting, with the African group, to be let into the rawdhah, they had let the Indonesian group in. Ahh..if only we had had more husn zdhan in the guards and more patience!

Eventually we did get inside the rawdhah. Suffice it to say, the crowd was moving us along, and we found ourselves headed towards what was probably the rawdhah. We held on to each other’s arms though throughout the whole thing (I didn’t want to say ordeal). Before we knew it, we looked down and,

“Green carpet!!! This is it!”

We were there! In the rawdhah! The rest of the masjid had red carpet, and what distinguishes the rawdhah from the rest of the masjid is that green carpet. Now, the thing to do is pray, but with the crowd pushing in on us, there was no way we could pray! In fact, at one time, I found myself with one leg on one side of a sister who was making sujud, and the other leg on her other side and the crowd was pushing me. I was seriously afraid of crushing the sister because I couldn’t steady myself. In the middle of all this, you know what I witnessed?

A sister who was not praying at the time, was standing right by the sister who was praying, calmly said, “Let her pray, let her pray.” She said this while smiling (in the middle of the fiasco that was happening). She nodded her head, stroked my arm and said this to me again and again. Subhanallah. That act of kindness and compassion of giving someone else a chance to pray peacefully in the most sought spot in that masjid erased all the apparent ugliness that people usually talk about when they speak of trying to pray in the rawdhah. At least that was how it felt to me. Subhanallah…really, when we talk about how bad the ummah is, remember that there is always the good and that good can overshadow all the bad.

Since there were four of us, we took turns praying in the rawdhah. As two of us prayed, the other two guarded us. I often wondered how it would be to pray, particularly make sujud in a situation where you are at the risk of being trampled. Would it even be worth trying? Well, I found out then, and later on in Makkah. I can understand now why and how people would stay in sujud in that situation. It actually really forces you to have some semblance of khushu at least, because you’re trying to make the most of it as it may be your only chance. Subhanallah…the Sakinah…only comes from Allah…when logically there would be no Sakinah in such a situation.

There were other little random acts of kindness that touched my heart throughout my stay in Madinah. One was when a lady joined the row and prayed next to me and used the other half of my prayer mat. She left after we finished, but after a few seconds, she came back and said to me, “Thank you,” while pointing towards the prayer mat. Subhanallah…it was not needed, and it was such a small deed, but it left a huge mark on my heart.

Another time, I was praying next to an elderly Indonesian lady who was just sitting. She smoothed one part of my prayer mat while I was praying. I know this sounds very negligible, but subhanallah, again, it touched my heart. Why these little things particularly left indelible marks on my heart is because I always hear people saying,

“The Arabs are harsh, and rough and they push you around there in Madinah, Makkah.”

And I have seen women who are mean to each other in the masjid, and I acknowledge this, but maybe, I refuse to fully embrace this statement about our fellow Muslims. It doesn’t seem befitting somehow. Yes, I know we are not as organized as we should and can be, and I know we are not as kind to each other and we should and can be, but isn’t it depressing to live acknowledging and expecting this from our fellow Muslims? I have seen and felt the result of this attitude. You end up going to places with a sour expression, expecting the worst from people, and getting offended and insulted very easily. It’s not fun to say the least.

There were many other random acts of kindness from total strangers that occurred. I have to say that alhamdulillah, my experience was a positive one. Sure there were some negatives, but, I don’t think it’s worth dwelling on. What really truly warms my heart is dwelling on and recalling those random acts of kindness.

Yes, the Prophet saw may not have liked what was mostly happening on the rawdhah, but he (saw) might have been pleased with these little random acts of kindness that happened inside his masjid. I particularly enjoyed the times when I was alone in Madinah, for I was freer to retreat into my own head, observe, experience, and reflect. I wish I had written down all those beautiful incidents, but I know enough to remember that that is what I remember most about Madinah. Almost everyone I know who went to Makkah and Madinah say they love Madinah. I can see why.

You can say all the nasty things you want to say about Saudi, and I might agree with you, but you have to admit that whatever they did wrong, they did some things right. You just have to look for the beauty. And you will find it. InshaaAllah…


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