My friends were due to pick me up from my house at 11am. I'd packed everything the night before (mainly jubbahs and suntan lotion). My passport was in the top draw of my bedside table along with my plane tickets, tucked safely away in a brown envelope. About an hour before my friends were scheduled to arrive, they called me to let me know they were running on time. I calmly went over to open my bedside table draw and... confusion.
There were phone bills, bank statements, some old photos and a passport-sized empty space. Where could my documents be? I had been very careful with them and vividly remembered checking and double-checking the night before. I opened the drawer below: nothing but receipts and warrantee cards. All of a sudden this wasn't looking so good.
I must have already put it in my luggage, I told myself, and so I unzipped the bag. All I could find were my clothes. Maybe in my jacket pocket, I thought, more out of hope than expectation. Again there was nothing. I looked through everything and then searched again and again, each time more hurriedly than before.
I completely unpacked all my stuff and started to empty my drawers. Still nothing. I sat down on my sofa, head in my hands. I guess I'll just stay at home for the next couple of weeks. Maybe I'll just go to the local mosque for Itikhaf. If Allah (swt) wanted me to go, He wouldn't have made my passport and tickets disappear. I looked up at the clock on my wall; it was slowly nearing 11 o'clock. My friends would be here soon, eager to start our journey together. I would have to tell them I wasn't coming. It would be a shame for them to start their trip off by having to console a friend, but some things were unavoidable.
Then, all of a sudden, something inside of me went 'ping'! I quickly walked back into my bedroom and took the whole top drawer out of my bedside table. I then continued to take out each of the remaining drawers and, lo and behold, on the floor, scrunched at the back of the cupboard was a small, brown envelope. I didn't need to open it to know what was inside. Alhamdulillahir rabbil 'alameen! My passport was safe, my tickets were safe! The clock now read 10.55 so I quickly stuffed everything back into my luggage and put my envelope carefully into the inside pocket of my jacket, before there was a 'toot' of a car horn to let me know my friends had arrived to take me on my way.
Arrival in Madina
In comparison to what happened before I had even left my house, the rest of the journey was relatively uneventful, so I shall pick up the story in dusty Saudi Arabia. There were 12 of us on the trip together, about half were raised in Muslim families and the rest of us had embraced Islam later in life.
We were extremely close friends, we'd planned the trip for months and it was amazing that it all had worked out well and we were all here, together. Some, including me, were in our second Ramadan but others were going through their first ever experience of fasting. We planned to stay in the (relatively) quiet and peaceful Madina for a few days, before going the more intense Makkah for the last 10 days of Ramadan.
Nothing could have quite prepared me for the sight of the Masjid al-Nabawi. It was large of course, very large. It was also mesmerisingly beautiful. As we entered, our eyes strained as we tried to make out the wall at the front. All we could see were arches, gorgeous black and white arches stretching out in front of us into the distance. And of course there were people.
No matter how gigantic the mosque is, it was struggling to contain the mass of bodies. People of all ages, shapes, sizes and colours were sitting in every spare square-inch of marbled floor or patterned carpet.
Some were chatting, some were reading the Qur'an or doing dhikr, and others, like me, were in silent awe, looking around in all directions, trying to come to terms with exactly where we were. This is it! This mosque is built on the site of the town where the Prophet and all his blessed companions (ra) lived. We were walking on the same ground on which they walked; we were breathing the same air.
All of a sudden everything seemed to fall into place in my mind and in my heart. We found a spot where we could be close to one another, offered our two rak'at for entering the mosque, and sat down, waiting for Zhuhr prayer. Except it wasn't going to be Zhuhr, it was Jumma prayer, because all this was happening on a Friday, the most blessed day of the week!
Outside of the mosque, on the white marble floor, rows and rows of mats were put out for people to sit and wait for the setting of the sun, so we could break our fast. One family looked after each row, and that family would feed us some of the traditional food from their home country. One evening we would eat Kazakhstani food, the next night would be Nigerian, and so on. Even though I come from multicultural London, the large number of different nationalities and communities on show was startling.
We may not have shared a common language, but it is amazing what a smile and a 'Salaam' can do. Nobody cared which madhab or group other people were from, which scholars they followed or type of mosques they went to. The only thing that mattered was that we were all Muslims, we were all here to worship Allah (swt), and we all liked eating chicken.
During our time in Madina, we had a few day trips around the country. We visited the first mosque built by the Prophet , and the mosque in which the Qiblah changed direction from Jerusalem to Makkah. But none of these affected me quite as much as Uhud, the site where the Muslim army suffered defeat to the Quraish. We climbed the hill where the Muslim archers were stationed, under strict orders from the Prophet not to leave their post under any circumstance.
They had stood there while the Muslim army had started to win the battle, and some of them were sure that the battle had come to an end. They saw many of the Quraish turn to run away, and so they decided to climb down the hill so they could chase them and get some booty for themselves.
This had been a fatal error, because once the archers left the hill, the Quraish saw their chance to attack the Muslims again. The Quraish won the battle in the end, and the Prophet himself got badly injured.
As we stood on the hill, looking down at the same patch of ground that the archers had looked down on over 1400 years previously, I started to think how it related to me, and to my life. There have been many situations where I knew what I should be doing, when I had been given directions from Allah (swt) and the Prophet through the Qur'an and the Hadith.
Sometimes something has tempted me to forget what I should be doing, in a similar way that the chance of booty had done to the archers themselves.
I asked myself if I had stayed steadfast, at my post, or if I had run down the hill chasing worldly gain instead. The answer to this question made me quite upset, thinking about the opportunities I have missed and the time I have wasted.
I was then consoled by the fact that the Prophet asked Allah (swt) to forgive the people of Uhud on numerous occasions, even on his deathbed. It reminded me that Allah (swt) has made us weak for a reason: so that we can truly taste His Rahmah (mercy).
At the front of the Masjid al-Nabawi is a small square called the Rawdah. If someone offers a prayer here, it is as if they have prayed in Jannah (Paradise) with the Prophet himself.
It is very difficult to get into, especially during Ramadan when the Mosque is almost at its most crowded. My friends and I tried on numerous occasions, finding that it was easiest to get into shortly after sunrise, when many people were getting some sleep.
I only managed to get in once, but it was well worth the effort. I prayed two rak'at and made a short du'aa, and it was the most peaceful and tranquil I have ever felt, I barely noticed the fact that I was kicked hard in the head whilst in sujood.
Next to the mosque is the graveyard of many of the Sahaba and Martyrs (ra). When I visited it, I couldn't help but think how beautiful the graves were: a simple stone was put at the head of each tomb. These were amongst the greatest people who have ever lived, yet their graves were little more than piles of dust.
This is what will become of all of us, it doesn't matter if we are rich or poor, and no amount of expensive domes or beautiful cloth draped over our graves will change the fact that our bones will crumble into the earth.
These great people lived their lives purely for the sake of Allah (swt), and He will reward them with great delights.
I started to think about the people who I have known who have passed away, especially my dad. I thought about how much I wished I could have done more to make him proud of me, and now the chance to do that was lost forever.
It made me realise that life is so precious, we take it for granted until it is gone - and that I should try my best to let my family know how much I love and treasure them, while I still have the chance. I made a resolution that I would never again regret missed chances with people, and never take my own life for granted, either.
Farewell to Madina
Before we knew it, our time in beautiful Madina was coming to an end, and we began preparations for the next leg of our journey. I donned my Ihram (which was a bit short for me so I was careful to keep my legs together when sitting down), cleaned and shaved, bade farewell to the Prophet and his town, and got on the minibus for our next stop: the Masjid al-Haram.
Journey to Makkah
The bus roared along the motorway, passed the sign saying 'No non-Muslims beyond this point' and into the blessed city of Makkah. An apprehensive atmosphere fell over my friends. We were still chanting 'labaik Allah-humma labaik' ('Here I am, O Allah, here I am'), but the buoyant enthusiasm of earlier in the journey had all but disappeared.
It was getting really serious now: the main purpose of our journey halfway across the world was now directly in front of us.
uestions rushed through my mind. Would I manage to stay focused on Allah (swt)? Why didn't I do more to prepare for this? I used the last few moments of the journey to memorise some specific du'aas which I had been given months earlier, and had never got round to learning.
What could have been so important back home that kept me from taking the time to try to learn these? Back home, with all its materialism and distractions, felt a very long way away indeed.
Please don't misunderstand this, I was very grateful and honoured to be there, but I didn't feel worthy of such an honour. I though of all the people who were unable to come with us.
A friend of mine had only taken his Shahada about six months previously, but had already memorised long portions of the Qur'an. Another had left his family in Poland because they rejected him when he converted to Islam. But everything for me had been so easy; everything had been laid out on a plate. My pathetic, self-involved moping was interrupted by the minibus coming to sharp halt outside our hotel.
The journey continues here