The city of Medina is cool and calm, a gentle beginning for pilgrims making the Hajj. Here people enjoy daytime temperatures in the 80's and 90's; regular breezes tickle the air under long dresses and refresh faces tightly confined by headscarves. It's green. Built up around an original agricultural community Medina today enjoys trees and shrubbery. Historically men and women worked the crops side by side, including in the days of Muhammad the Prophet. Historically men led battles and women were close by, not only tending the wounded but also urging their champions forward, and lifting swords and batons if the situation demanded. In Medina pilgrims get in touch with their forebears, as may Americans on a visit to Williamsburg.
Or Gettysburg. Although study, prayer and worship dominate the days, buses regularly take people to the battlefield site of Uhud on the outskirts of the city. At Mount Uhud a small Muslim army of 700 defended itself against its massive enemy from Mecca that was three thousand strong. Careful strategy and strong allegiance to the leadership was the key to survival. Muhammad the Prophet is known for his military savvy. He brought forward his 700 with Uhud to their backs, the better to prevent becoming surrounded. Atop the mountain he assigned 50 archers to watch the soldiers' backs. He ordered them to stay put.
They did not.
When it appeared the Muslim army was succeeding some archers went to the valley to plunder, as was the custom of the day. And while they were away from their posts the enemy captain brought his cavalry around to the back, successfully surrounding the defenders of Mecca. A fierce and brutal battle ensued. Pilgrims at the site today imagined the shouts, the clanging blades and the stench of blood. The Prophet himself was wounded and according to record, broke a front tooth. His cherished Uncle Hamza was killed. Today, Muslim pilgrims mourned as Christians do at Gethsemane.
What lessons do pilgrims retrieve from this visit to their Gettysburg? Certainly the casualties were fewer and the battle did not last as long. Certainly the motives were distinct: one to save a Union, the other to fortify independence.
Pilgrims of the Islamic Society of Boston who are the subjects of my new film on Hajj are confronting the reality that strife was at the start of this faith tradition and strife curses it still. The community's 7th century enemy, the Quraish, eventually became Muslim. In the 21st century myriad political and economic woes draw Muslims into ferocious battle with one another, in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Algeria and on.
Today's Muslims in Medina, girding themselves for the grueling pilgrimage that begins in Mecca where the temperature reaches 106 degrees and breezes only rise from the sizzling hoods of cars, and crowds reach estimated peaks of four million, know that they will perform rituals together without fighting one another. This reality of brotherhood should inspire them to recover a spirit of their faith that is forgotten once hajj is complete: a spirit of connection to a higher, better, kinder source. Today's fractured Muslim community or ummah seeds hatred of itself. Acts of mercy and compassion are the fulfillment of God's will. Putting one's life on the line for one's faith is more powerful than killing another for his or her beliefs. Above all, they are recognizing that now is the time to seek and bolster wise leaders and followers, who will not betray the good of the many for the avarice and cowardice of the few.
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