Uhud, 1

December9

He was at times a raucous man, given to wrestling and quick to speak. He looms larger than life in our stories today: Hamza, beating sense into Abu Jahl; Hamza, the first Muslim who dared to pray in the Kaaba’s shade. Hamza, who even mortally stabbed did not give up the fight. The small rough stones of Uhud sigh under our weight. Remnants of sunlight ebb from the sky, leaving clouds increasingly white.  It is maghrib time on the outskirts of Madinah, and everyone hurries to pray.

The martyrs are buried three to a grave, in a square plot on the battleground. A handful of headstones, rough reddish things lacking inscription, mark the place where Hamza lies with two of his companions. The remainder of the seventy rest behind them. The air is bruised with waiting. History can be either sterile or loud, either dry or wet. In the shade of Jebel Uhud, arrows sing, injuries drip. From up the mountain, at any moment, one may hear Omar’s scream. Spears fly, javelins sing, the Prophet’s teeth are broken.

The pilgrims climb down from the mountain where the archers once stood, and pick their way through the rocks to the masjid. A handful of others slowly recoil from the viewing grate surrounding the graves. They ask Allah, with wide sad eyes, to improve the martyrs’ fate. This battleground, the air testifies, is different from the rest. At others, we recall victory. Khyber’s patience, Badr’s courage. The unity between Ansar and Immigrant surrounding the Battle of the Trench. But sunburnt Uhud, overlooking the city, through air perfumed by crumbling mint, is a memory of disobediance. Uhud is a memory of loss.

I am tempted, walking past carts to the mosque, to reach down and pick up a stone, a memory with rough edges, which I could save to taste, to smell, to hold in my hands when we return to our city. I could better tell others about Uhud’s pain if I could record the flavor of its earth. The muadhdhin calls down from the minaret’s top, and I turn my attention to hurry. The rocks of Uhud are for everyone, a voice in my heart tells me. If you cannot memorize the taste of the earth, then learn its groans under your feet.

A garden of small brown sandals grows beneath the stairs to the musala. I step out of my own pair, and push them to one side of the sprawl. Inside of the mosque of the martyrs, function dominates form. The roof is made of fiberglass pads, wrapped in paper the color of tin. Coarse red carpets line a concrete floor, while a handful of fans, not quite white, turn tiredly above. The air smells of dust, which having seeped in through the ceiling’s cracks now finds it impossible to seep out. By process of erosion, Mount Uhud is washing away. Some seven meters have disappeared since the day of battle. At this rate, in twenty-five thousand years, there will be no mountain left.

Women in prayer, here in the Gulf, resemble cormorants in flight. Jet black, we bend and rise in unison, each heart conducted by the same two wings. It is only after the obligatory portion of the prayer is finished that differences arise: some worshippers sit, some stand, some read, some cry. Other gather near the back of the musala around thermoses of tea, or small boxes of fermented milk. Children turn cartwheels, or read Qur’an, or race cars along the boundaries of the rugs.

Leaving through the mosque’s back doors, I reflect on its modernity. This is the most contemporary mosque that I have visited in Saudi Arabia. It is also the most plain. The absence of ornamentation comes almost as a relief. The most soothing of all of our daily prayers are those in which we can feel, with certainty, our humility. The postures of salah are not proud ones: comfort comes, for the one who prays, in resignation’s shade.

I would like to ask the other pilgrims why they have come here, tonight, to pray. The Prophet’s Mosque is perhaps five kilometers to the south; there exists within its sanctuary not an inch deprived of beauty. We believe that each salah performed within this mosque carries with it the reward of 1000 prayers; who would turn away from this possibility? Fa bi ayyi alla’ rabikum ma tukathiban? In the same city, the world’s oldest mosque, Masjid Quba, offers those worshippers who come enter its gates a similarly rich reward. A prayer performed within its walls is, we are told, worth a lifetime. The air in Masjid Quba is as cool and sweet as water; even in prostration, nose to the ground, one’s chest is loosened, one’s heart refreshed. I could imagine, just from breathing, what jannah’s air is like.

Not so for the air in Masjid al-Shuhada, nor for the air outside of it. Stepping out of the mosque, my eyes feel dry. The evening singes dates left uncovered on carts by men who have gone inside to pray. Half fresh, half dried they are the colors of the hair snipped from our heads after Sa’ee; the colors of earth, the colors of skin, from wheat, to yellow, to black. Other carts bear bags of silvery green Medinan mint; still others, sage, and cakes of powdered brownish spice. Cinnamon? Cardamom? Cumin or cloves? I cannot give their sweetness a name.

Streetlights along the path back to Madinah are now the brightest lights, since the sun has finished sinking. The horizon is interrupted by minarets and swathes of black, where groves of dates are growing. It is too dark to read, but not too dark to climb. With Jebel Uhud over my shoulder, I start up Mount Ainain.

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