Life in Medina




In the Prophetic Medina we find a small, dusty town with clusters of extremely simple, small and humble houses made entirely from mud bricks and palm timber and branches,  and intimately mixed with small orchards, mostly palm, and animal pens in and out of which camels, sheep and goats and also horses and donkeys move.  The Mosque itself is similarly built except that it is larger-  some fifty metres long and forty wide, a small but not tiny mosque by our times standards. When it rains water pours from the palmy roof and muslims pray covered in mud and their coarse woollen dresses begin to smell like soaked sheep,  not too pleasant a smell.  Almost nobody wears shoes and average dress consists of two unstitched pieces of cloth (which Greeks and Romans also had- but more luxuriously), one wound around the waist (called ‘izar’) and reaching mid-calves while the other (called rida) thrown over the shoulders.  There are no toilets, no running water.   People including women relieve themselves by going out to the fields until they found a lonely and secluded enough spot, carrying a water jug for cleansing parts affected afterwards.  Sometimes they just cleanse themselves by using suitably shaped stones and even lumps of dried earth. The entirely dirt roads of the town is strewn with all kinds of animal droppings which people, as cleanliness-conscious practicing Muslims must negotiate carefully when they walk through them.  With bare feet the embarrassment caused by messing one’s feet can be imagined-  hence the obligation to wash feet before salat together with the other most exposed parts which are the hands, forearms, and face. 


Because the rest of the head is less seriously affected by pollutants and only dust settling on them is the usual contamination, the top of the head, the back of the neck and the insides and backs of the ears are simply wiped by wet hands.  If, after washing the feet, socks or high shoes are worn then at every other ablutions during the day these forms of footwear may just be wiped over as well, using the wet hands.  But if the shoes are messed in the street then any sticking mess is removed by rubbing with dry earth until all traces disappear-  for dry clean earth is a very porous as well as abrasive substance and can cleanse any solid objects rubbed with it. But the fact remains that the Prophetic Medina was a humble place, despite its pious inhabitants best intentions, by the urban hygiene standards of today.  We ourselves can afford to wash and perfume ourselves and clothes with most effective detergents and perfumes and plenty of hot water, walk on mainly much cleaner streets (for animals are not as much part of our lives as before except a few dogs and cats) and step into mosques laid with tip-top clean carpets which are frequently vacuumed.  Had we been taken to a mosque which duplicated the Prophet’s we would be shocked by its humble and extremely primitive character.  How could we proud and fastidiously cleansed moderns bring ourselves to sit on a dirt and even mud floor fearing a downpour from the roof thatched by palm branches which would leak at every shower? How could we put our faces on the dirt floor, inhaling and exhaling part of the dust or smearing all over with mud our faces, palms, knees and feet?  How could we walk out hundreds of yards sometimes, jug of water in hand and looking for a place to relieve ourselves,  sometimes in the dark of the night? 


The diet also was extremely humble and often very meagre if not altogether unavailable.  Dates and water were the standard fare for most, occasionally supplemented by milk, barley (no wheat was available), broth, meat and some vegetables-  in that order.  Generally even the trading Meccan Arabs were so poor that rather than killing their precious animals for meat they would cut off tail fat from sheep or make a cut and suck the blood of their camels to relieve hunger. Thankfully Allah banned such barbarities.  When Muawia, aged about 14,  supposedly the son of the top leader and tycoon of Mecca Abu Sufyan was in Medina with his father after their Islam, he used to go barefoot and once begged a visiting petty Arab king to take him on his mount so that he would no more burn his poor soles on the hot sand-  which request the king refused.  When he became the king he recognized this old king among the visitors who came to him at his palace in Damascus, treated him well but reminded him of his unkindness in the past.  So that was the fare of the Arabs of early Islam and the Prophet sws deliberately chose to live like the humblest and most long-suffering among them.  


This stark simplicity and these privations of lifestyle in no way diminishes the citizens of the Prophetic Medina.  That was what they had found and how could they live.  On the contrary it magnifies them;  they started from humblest and weakest possible ways and means for success and with the Prophet sws as their leader achieved in a mere decade improvements in the spirit and the conduct of a nation other leaders could not achieve in a thousand years. These handful of men whom the Prophet sws single-handedly civilized and trained achieved in a single generation physical and moral conquests no other generation in no other nation could match.  In other words judging by what they found and what they left to us the first Islamic Medinese community have been the most successful ever group of idealists and achievers.




From the mid-Umayyads onwards we find Muslims, especially in Syria and Egypt (Umayyad strongholds) moving into the cultural and political boots of the Byzantines (Eastern, Greek-speaking Romans) and perhaps to a lesser into those of the Persians.  Not only the already developed urbanity of these societies were inherited but new architectural and sub-structural additions (e.g.  piped water to all homes) were being made.  Egypt’s control of the Nile was  made even more complete and sophisticated while new edifices like the Dome of the Rock mosque were  built with the dome plated in gold.


In Abbasid Bagdad,  slightly more than half a  century later we find a glorious metropolis with a population over a million (swelling up to three another century later) criss-crossed by paved and at nights lit streets, some of which were additionally covered by arches to prevent rain inconveniencing the urban and urbane citizens who were richly clothed and luxuriously fed. Almost all were literate and as worldly-wise as today’s metropolitan populations.  All houses were solidly built (except perhaps some outlying slums),  often with central patios around which two or three storied premises rose, with ample windows,  delicate balconies and fur and carpet laid vast and comfortable quarters.  A bathroom and toilets were standard, running water from taps routine, fed from the rivers after purifying their waters and pumping the clean water through a network of pipes to all parts of the city.  There were majestic buildings including not only palaces and mansions but hospitals, mosques, hotels and schools and libraries boasting of book counts of hundreds of thousands on subjects ranging from botanics to Indian literature and from Aristotelian philosophy to the travelogues by world-trotters from Morocco to China.  So neither these Baghdadi citizens could contemplate to live in a town like the Prophet’s sws Medina nor under its just and pious political regime.  For corruption had become rife and the accepted way of bureaucracy.




A regime like the Umar’s RA could simply not work in Baghdad.  Despite all his firmness Umar would be too democratic, too humble-living  and too just.  These Baghdadi muslims had something pre-Islamic Persian about them,  most of their bureaucrats were ex-Persian professionals coming in dynasties steeped in the ethos of absolute and arbitrary dynastic rule as implemented through equally dictatorial if tactful bureaucrats. For them lining their pockets was part of the job and with their ex-kings called the shahs had an unwritten and unacknowledged understanding to the effect that success as bureaucrats from the wazir (vizier) down entitled them to any amount of concealable bribery if not outright embezzlement. So living under a ‘neither himself eating nor allowing others to eat’ ruler was simply too Spartan an arrangement for all concerned. The rulers themselves as well as their high office holders taxed exorbitantly and at times actually sold government positions to the highest bidders. Too regular rulers , like Umar b. Abdul Aziz of Umayyads and Al Mansur of Abbasids were mortally resented (for blocking the lucrative corruption) and the first was in fact disposed of by poisoning by his own family. Al Mansur was lucky enough to survive plots and make a lot of his agents to disgorge their ill-gained grabbings and was immensely resented and hated for it.


The new muslims (with old habits) respected descent from great worldly families more than personal piety and approved pomp more than pious  frugality. And their ‘khalifas’ did not disappoint them.  What is more, even the most pious ulama like Abu Hanifa or Mawardi had long learned that they had to endorse and adapt to the Persianized system and its ethos and allow, at least by silence, the so-called Divine right of dynastic or usurping rulers whether called khalifas or sultans.  Abu Hanifa’s star pupil, imam Abu Yusuf had to accommodate the extremely luxurious and occasionally loose-living Harun al Rashid who could however be forgiven for what he did on the grounds that his subjects would not respect him enough without glorious luxuries and occasional impieties.  And in fact given the ethos of the times Harun was by comparison very pious.


Obviously piety has never been a majority concern among Muslims or any other religious community (ummah) and even the Prophet sws had a hard time with most of his companions among whom a sizable section were downright bad apples and known as the ‘munafiqun’, i.e., the hypocrites. They formed  a sly gang of gossipers, subverters, double-dealers  and tormentors and were very much described and decried in the Qur’an. There is even a sura called ‘al Munafiqun’.


It was only Sayyidina Muhammad’s sws overwhelming aura of leadership, his miraculous spiritual powers, his unequalled wisdom and his skills in handling all sorts of characters and other forms of Divine help that saw him through his great ordeal of being a prophet and messenger of Allah.  Among his khalifas only Umar came anywhere near him in ability to rule men.


Wine and dancing girls as well as less speakable impieties were routinely part of Abbasid palace life and even discussions and debates allowing atheism and other blasphemy found an audience in it. Poets unabashedly praised not only the khalifa and other greats but also the joys of wine and illicit and even perverted sexual exploits and were amply rewarded by their patrons.  A time came when poets, musicians, singers and dancers became more popular and idolized than highest ulama and holiest saints and street concerts similar to today’s rock and pop mass craze consumed the youth and the general populace alike.   Abbasid’s was a Renaissance, in fact the first Renaissance which led by tortuous ways to the Italian (and from there Western) with both its good and bad sides.  It was all due to the adoption of both cultural assets and liabilities from outside Islam and most notably the Hellenic and the Persian. Islamic Law which evolved and was codified at the same time had to and did take account of these imports and had to accommodate some of them as part of its allowables. For example absolute dynastic rule had to be taken on board and its not too outrageous evils explained away at least in spiritual terms, like a bad nation deserving a bad ruler.  Obedience to any effective power holder became the norm.Judging by the disastrous failures and great disruptions to public order caused by self-styled Islamic rebels one has to admit that ulama wasn’t entirely wrong.  

But pious life, as much as desired, was also allowed and appreciated.  So the Abbasid age are the times when most ascetic Sufis and their premises and congregations flourished.  Initially ulama suspected these new arrivals and sometimes with good reason.  But eventually a lot were won over to Sufism, especially after al Ghazali explained and defended the better forms of Sufism.


So what we see from above is this:  Ulama, despite confusions and prevarications recognised that times and cultural climates had changed and neither the Prophetic Medinese politics nor even the piety could survive these changes without flexing and adapting.  Absolute and arbitrary rule ‘a la Persian’ had to be and was legitimised if in counterbalance made it had to respect occasional fatwas by ulama. So Harun had Abu Yusuf as his chief qadi and mufti and allowed him to overrule his many decisions on religious grounds.


Sufis and their many new practices and vocabulary and discourses had to be legitimised as well, barring any extreme and obviously deviant or blasphemous-looking ones.  And all such adaptations and allowances did a lot of good.  A great sufi lore was built up to the envy of all mystical and esoteric traditions outside Islam.  Islam’s new dynastic or usurping rulers acquitted themselves well in many respects if scandalizing in a few others and on the main Islam continued to grow and spread and for a thousand year represent on the whole the superior civilization in both the spiritual and themporal * spheres.  It did this by retaining its Prophetic foundation intact while adding and modifying as necessary (in the sense of inevitable) in the light of compelling influences like the Greek and Persian.  These two corrupted some for real, especially the ruling and rich classes as well as some thinking and teaching souls but Islam was too strong to be corrupted by them except when the corruption was freely and deliberately chosen. 


The sum total may be that Islam could not grow and spread and civilize a very large section of mankind as it did absorbing and adapting substantial elements from other accomplished civilizations;  It had its great risks but there is no great achievement without some great risk-taking.  Not everything outside Islam is necessarily bad.  On the contrary Islam’s adopting and adapting constructive and salutary elements from outside its Qur’anic scope began with the Prophet sws himself and continued by his immediate worthy successors.  He sws said “Wisdom is the lost property of the muslim.  Wherever he finds it he may pick it up”.  He sws also said “Seek learning even on to China”.  Which means not everything we need in the way of detail may be available in the Qur’an and the Sunna.  The two contain certain universal principles and only some detailed information and guidance on matters affecting or will come to affect our lives.  These muslims felt free to import from others, beginning from the Prophet’s own time and especially accelerating during the Umar’s RA.  For example. The Prophet sws banned the eating of donkey flesh when he learned that the jews ridiculed his Arabs for it while Umar RA introduced accountants from Greek backgrounds to practice book-keeping and accountancy for the control of his fast growing assets on behalf of muslims.  Ummayads and Abbasids adopted many Roman and Persian governance practices and laws, like the land laws.   Muslims’ fast growing empire needed sophisticated laws and practices which Arabs hardly knew or needed before given their simple and primitive lifestyle.  And jurists like Abu Hanifa  whole-heartedly helped in these.  




Now we muslims are living in our own developing age.  We are faced for a few centuries now with an overall more sophisticated culture and civilization originating from the Christian and post-Christian West.  And we already did some borrowings from outside Islam, almost entirely from the West but seemingly less successfully and discriminatingly than our ancestors.  Turks, Persians, Egyptians…  have been ‘westernizing’ in fitful stages and partialities beginning from military matters and diversifying into other areas a lot of which have been silly and even downright impious.  For example both Ottomans and Later Persians employed western military officers to refashion and rearm and retrain our armies which had a growing record of abject defeats against the European armies. Even their dress was westernised to the resentment of many. But our Medieval ancestors had also done likewise if with less wholesaleness and slavishness.  Otherwise Islam would long cease being their main guidance for life.  But again, theirs were better times-  they were acting from a position of strength, they were learning from nations they had conquered and controlled. We are to learn from nations who conquered us or at least overwhelmed us by their might and sophistication.  And we did learn.  But that has been neither enough nor the most discerning and discriminating learning. We learned/adopted things which we could do well without while left out vast tracts of learning and skills we needed only too badly and urgently.


So we must revise our policies and selections so far and revise our strategies from the points of both piety and realism.  A study of the contemporary issues facing us as muslims and also as the members of the world community as a whole will equip us with some more information and bring in the inspirations to improve our lot and increase our share of control of events. Allah help us.




Below are some issues we shall be discussing and tackling, among others.   1.  The issue of civil liberties/ human rights   2. Democracy  3. War and peace  4. Science and technology  5. Philosophical and ideological fads.      Almost none of these can be taken in isolation of the others and therefore we shall find that we shall have to repeat ourselves many times at different junctures of discussion, albeit in different contexts and with different emphases. 

Lastly we must never lose sight of the fact that all men and women, whatever their race or nationality and beliefs and practices are ultimately our kin and kith because we are descended from our ultimate single couple of parents whom we call Adam and Eve,  whatever that belief mean to whomever.  It should at least mean that we have been sharing a large pool of genes by a grand lottery which genes move among all people at however different frequency and among all species we human beings are the only one with no subspecies;  but We can inter-breed as successfully as no other species can-  even the leopard and the jaguar which look almost identical cannot inter-breed to produce fertile individuals-  all of which verify that we are special, we seem to have descended from a single couple and therefore all our genes are compatiple across the board. 


So we ARE brothers and sisters and we should never be too intense and categoric in denouncing and fighting each other.  Even when at cross purposes or crossing swords we should have the best interests of each other at heart and our ultimate and dearest aim should be peace and reconciliation,  friendship, love and sharing. Sufism teaches that not a single person is an unmitigated infidel but a temporary captive of his or her gross ego.  Somehow eliminate the ego from the equation and you have a saint in each and every one-  except the destructively insane.  Which of course is an excuse and calls for treatment and not so much punishment.












The West has been a late comer into civilization in all likelihood because of the cold climate most of Europe suffers from.  The earlier coming in of Greece and Italy, the warmest countries also suggest this.  Even in these two Mediterranean climates the warmer parts, namely the south,  flourished earlier and faster.  First to blossom was Crete (Minoan, c. 3000 BC) and Cyprus (c. 2000 BC) followed by the southern Aegean (Ionian,  c. 1000 BC),  then Athens (c. 500 BC) while Rome came in C. 200 as a civilized power,  under Greek influence.   North Western Europe like France and Britain had to wait Roman conquest and consolidation and even then were hardly more than backwaters to their Mediterranean conquerors.  In fact they had to wait more than a thousand years, namely until the advent and flourishing of the Islamic civilization to make their debut as civilized powers,  civilized under the often not appreciated enough influence of Islam, especially the Spanish.  So apart from Rome, we may date the advent of today’s mighty Western power from the 12th century at the earliest soon after which Renaissance (imitation of Islamic civilization by gradually outgrowing Medieval Christianity at least in its most obstructing elements) came about.  It took another three centuries for Renaissance reach and take root in the more northern countries like Britain and Scandinavia and another two until it partially penetrated Russia- the coldest of all.


So from late 16th century onwards Western powers whose major member was the German-Spanish Holy Roman Empire the West approached the power of Islam as represented by the Ottoman power and was not able to gain decisive superiority until the late 17th to early 18th.  Which means, in every respect Islam in its various political configurations was the dominant civilized power for a  thousand years.


What helped the West to turn the tide against its rival Islam is manifold.


Firstly the spread of the Roman-based Catholic faith with the pope more or less in charge and Christian kings more or less cooperating and coordinating with the papal authority Western Europe became a rather cohesive bloc of nations while Islam was fracturing into often short-lived kingdoms from East to West.  The Abbasid caliphs interestingly yet less powerfully looked like the popes, i.e the spiritual head of a large section of humanity.  But while the Roman popes were elected and therefore more realistically represented a reconciliation of conflicting interests in Christendom  the caliphs were dynastic in their accession and ‘the weaker the better’ was more the reason behind the accession of each,  sultans controlling Baghdad seeing to that.   So popes could mobilize their subjects far more effectively and extensively than the caliphs and that should perhaps explain why the Crusades they launched against Islam were generally successful for more than a century.   The disruption and destruction the Crusades inflicted upon Islam were hardly repaired when another wave of equally barbaric invasion descended upon it-  that of the Mongols.  This caused another century of demolition on Islam thus making a total of three consecutive centuries of it.  It is to the great credit of Islam that despite such devastation it survived all and continued almost as strongly as before, in the form of the Ottomans to complete a thousand years of superiority. 


But the West did not only benefit from the destructive effects of its Crusades and that of Mongol invasions on Islam.  It also benefited from at least two other processes.  Firstly, it learned very much from Islam and broke out of its cultural stagnation and went into youthful growth.   Secondly as from the late 15th century it explored and exploited new sea routes to immensely vast and rich new lands whose revenues became eventually so large that they allowed the Western nations to invest in education, industry and civil developments in general as never before.  Men of ideas, science and scientists as well as industrialists gained enormously in stature, eventually surpassing churchmen in prestige and public and royal appreciation.  Discovery followed discovery, invention followed invention.  So, when learning and money came together Western prowess and ingenuity began to call all the tunes.  What is more, with immense lands to conquer and exploit so easily the West lost most of interest in and fears from the Islamic East.  The increasingly unimportant Mediterranean could be left to the ‘turks’,  the West had its Atlantic, Indian and then the Pacific Oceans to rule over.


It took the West about three centuries after the discovery of Americas to decisively gain superiority over the Muslim world and the rest.  But once the superiority was gained it was aggressively and ruthlessly exploited.  By the time the West began to eat into Islam’s territory (late 17th century onwards) it had already controlling more than half of the rest of the World.  From Philipines in the east to Peru  in the west European nations were effective rulers and colonizers. These were soon supplemented by Australia and the polar regions and then India and all south east Asia.  Only China and Japan remained.  The first succumbed by mid 19th century while Japan saved itself by emulating the West with incredible speed and comprehensiveness and had to wait the end of the Second World War for a taste of Western occupation and dictation.  Even then it survived its defeat and prospered on it thanks to its foregoing and timely pre-emptive adaptation to the Western reality. 


The West completed its triumph by bringing down all Islamic empires,  Indian, Persian and Ottoman, the last by early 20th century and drawing the map of the Islamic lands to its own tastes in its own interests.  All in all it won even when it was beaten in wars (which was rare anyhow) because its multi-faceted power, from the immense economic and technological to diplomatic and social the nations had to submit to it.  So, Turkey survived the Western assault only to submit to its economic and political power while Viet Nam defeated the mighty America only to reform itself into capitalism and embrace American friendship.  The mighty China successfully defied both the mighty Soviet Russia and eeven mightier USA only see Russia to be tamed by the USA and itself in hurried imitation of the West as a matter of survival.


But we should not think that either the modern West and nor the Westernisation of other nations outside it have no precedents in history.  On the contrary the dictum ‘history consists of repetitions’ holds true in this again.  We see in all properly enough recorded history (the earliest of which is that of the Middle East) shows time and again that less advanced nations eventually feel compelled to imitate other more fortunate nations, those blessed with more natural assets and accidental opportunities, even when they beat in war the latter.  Ancient Egyptians were imitated by their admiring neighbours as were a bit more recent Babylonians.  The Greeks learned very much from both and Romans from them. So much so that a century or two before the Christ Romans and Greeks had a shared civilization in which the Greeks were the cultural masters and the Romans the worthy pupils.  Politically however it was other way round.  Similarly when Mongols were winning against muslims we find Egyptian Mamluk armies dressing and grooming like the Mongols presumably to feel as terrific.  Eventually Mongols won most battles but lost the cultural and totally emulated muslims. After the experience of the Crusades and seeing the example of muslim Spain the Western nations emulated and imported a lot of cultural and social elements from Islam.      


So what we muslims face now is not much different from what we faced when we met the superior Byzantine and Persian cultures,  superior in academic learning, sophisticated social organization and economic activity.  We imported an adopted a lot from them and we recently similarly imported and adopted a lot from the West.  If that is Westernization we have done a lot of it and perhaps need a lot more of it. But with discrimination,  more than so far and also with more exports.



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