“Between my house and my pulpit,” Prophet Mohammed tells us in one of his more notable utterances in hadith — the Islamic prophetic traditions — “lies a garden from the gardens of Paradise.” Known as the rawdah, the aptly-colored green strip sits in the Prophet’s Mosque in the city of Medina in modern-day Saudi Arabia. Most Muslims would give much to get just a glimpse of Paradise. I wanted more. I wanted to see and smell and feel and spend the night and, ultimately, perform the early morning prayer of Fajr in it. This past January, at dawn on my final day in Medina, mere hours before my group departed to Mecca for the Umrah pilgrimage, I set out to do so. Praise be to God, I failed.
My joy at my failure in the rawdah — don’t worry, I’ll come back to that — supplied the spiritual fuel my depleted body needed as, two days later, I wheezed my way up to the summit of Jabal An-Noor. Known more dramatically in English as the Mountain of Light, Jabal An-Noor stands at an elevation of 2,106 feet, dwarfing East Rock about six times over. Yet from the moment I gazed out the bus windows at the approaching mountain and shivered at the realization that the white string lacing the summit and snaking haphazardly across the bulging rock face was not a curious geological pattern but a line of squishy human bodies, there was never a possibility I wouldn’t join them.
Not that my arsenal of excuses was not well stocked. The herniated disk in my lower back warned against anything more physically demanding than a beachside stroll. The compressed sciatic nerve punished me with jolts of electricity for the heresy of sitting, and my stomach was infected by the lukewarm fries from Al-Baik, the zero-star cousin of McDonald’s, I had for lunch on our way to Mecca. I had every medical pretext I needed to get out of the excursion without suffering the silent judgment of my peers.
The power of hindsight — the closest, perhaps, that we can come to God’s omniscience — suggests that, in many ways, my pretexts were legitimate. My Thursday hike to the summit of Jabal An-Noor precipitated a hellish Friday spent mostly with my head hanging over my toilet, screaming so raggedly that my roommates banged on the door in a panic. I attended the Friday sermon with the Kaaba in my sights but not in my mind, so occupied was it with a stomach threatening to relieve itself on the glossy alabaster tiles of the Great Mosque amid millions of fellow worshippers. When I returned to campus for my final Yale semester, I was accompanied by a debilitating blend of headaches, coughs, nausea, dizziness and bronchitis impervious to treatment.
Unaware of what was to come, I set out for the hike in a pair of cheap Skechers. But even if I had known what was in store, I wouldn’t have done anything differently.
Finding mental clarity in the face of ostensibly difficult decisions defined my time in Mecca and Medina, the two Haramayn. After forgetting to eat suhoor, the predawn meal, should I or should I not fast? Yes. After forgetting my sweater in the hotel and suffering the ice-tipped stabs of Medina’s morning breeze, should I or should I not visit the Baqi cemetery, where so many of Islam’s earliest heroes are buried? Yes. With my head pulsing and my stomach writhing, should I or should I not make a second Umrah? Yes. After a morning of teetering on the cusp of vomiting, should I or should I not perform the Friday prayers within the Haram? Yes. The binaries fade, and with it the anguish of choice. “Allah puts tawfeeq (success) where you don’t want to go,” Shiekh Yasin Dawood told us. You attain tawfeeq when you want what God wants — your salvation, and everything that leads you to it. You attain tawfeeq when you can no longer see the fork in the road. It’s all a trick question. To paraphrase Dumbledore: Should I do what is right, or what is easy? Yes.
In Mecca and Medina, the choices became easy, but their consequences did not. That’s why the ease of choice — or lack thereof — is so remarkable. It defies human nature. Scaling the Mountain of Light was akin to a germaphobe slogging through mud. Even now, I mostly remember it as a disjointed sequence of sensory impressions and incoherent and fragmented thoughts — I can’t breathe, I’m so high up, please stop, I’m sorry beggar I can’t give, almost there, maybe a break, there’s more, ya rab. Above all, pressing on my mind as heavily as the fresh blankets of sweat coating my body was the fear that I would slip several thousand feet into the jagged edges of the mountain’s aging rocks, scrambled into a mass of meat and bones to be cooked tender by the desert sun.
Every few steps, I reminded myself of a Quranic verse I had learned as a child when I knew Jabal An-Noor only as a flat frame in Islamic cartoons: “Ina ma’a al ‘usry yusra.” Verily, with every hardship comes ease. The Prophet had known this well from the very beginning of his Mission, when the Revelation from God ceased right after it had begun, with just as little warning. The Prophet feared that God had abandoned him. After the light of Gabriel’s descent had blinded him, right here at the summit of this very mountain, in the cave of Hira, the Prophet had been left in abject darkness. But eventually the light of Revelation, of God’s guidance, did return, as it must. Verily, with every hardship comes ease.
What I experienced dragging my limp body up the Mountain of Light, I too experienced two mornings earlier morning in the rawdah. Committing to a long stay in the rawdah itself was painless, but undertaking it was not. As the only garden of Paradise accessible to the prisoners of the dunya — our world in the temporal realm — the rawdah is understandably popular. Almost dangerously so. Every square inch is priceless and competed for as such. I arrived in the “quietest” part of the night, shortly after 1 a.m., only to find the rawdah fairly busy. Nonetheless, I managed to quickly secure a tight spot by a pillar in the middle of the rawdah. There, for the next four hours, I prayed, read Quran and prayed some more. I basked in the moment. I’d made it. I was in Heaven.
For the most part, there was nothing obviously heavenly about it. Pilgrims, hunched in prayer, clung to their plots of land as newcomers vied to uproot them. Replacing the sun’s warm glow was the harsh white of LED lights beating down upon us, waves of heat rolling off the human bodies planted in lines more compact than New York City traffic jams. Brown-shirted police officers with whips for tongues stood guard by the pulpit. The humid air simmered with the low hum of invocations and supplications and barely suppressed exultation. I, too, buried my face in my hands and into the darkness, begging God for everything I had ever wanted. I resisted the drowsiness seducing my mind with promises of relief from the intensifying sciatic pain in my bent right leg and arched lower back, from the winds of fervid worshippers jostling and shoving and displacing mind and body alike.
The rawdah’s exhausting crowds were but a microcosm of the experience visiting Mecca and Medina. Right outside the rawdah sits a hallway that houses the graves of the Prophet and the first two Caliphs of Islam, Abu Bakr and Omar ibn Al-Khattab. Typically, pilgrims come here to perform ziyara, the visitation of the Prophet’s grave, and they are met with the ever-present brown-shirts, who holler and prod and hurry the mass of weeping believers desperate to prolong their seconds in front of the greatest of Creation. For many, the anticipated intimacy of the ziyara devolves into a battle of bodies with fellow pilgrims and a battle of wills with the brown-shirts, whose watchfulness is matched only by their impatience.
If the rawdah is a garden of paradise, it is not because it appears before us as the Paradise of the hereafter — painless and pleasurable — but because it waters the fertile soils of iman, of faith, like no other place can. Here we offer the fruits of our spiritual growth and receive them in turn. This exchange, however, unfolds in the same manner as everything else that we do in the dunya: repeated acts of devotion, the quality and regularity of which are perpetually threatened by the lower elements of our nature.
Speaking to us at the foot of a different peak — the fateful hill abandoned by Muslim archers during the Battle of Uhud — Shiekh Dawood Yasin called to this idea “divine monotony.” Just as an archer perfects his posture and his angles and his aim with the mind-numbing repetition of target practice, so too does the believer scale greater heights of spiritual purification through the ceaseless repetition of minute devotional acts. This is the secret to piety. There is nothing particularly exciting about transcendence. It is mundane. It is boring. It does not occur in one climactic moment of unbridled ecstasy, does not manifest as a cosmic vision beyond reality and does not spontaneously reveal itself to the chosen gurus and saints and mystics. Transcendence is more democratic. It is the sum total of thousands of apparently inconsequential decisions every day, the accumulation of unthinking inclinations and proclivities and eventual habits. Will you rise for Fajr today? Will you fast this Thursday? Will you check in on your parents? Will you donate a dollar to this charity? Will you read a chapter of the Quran? Will you walk to the mosque? If you’ve attained tawfeeq, the answer will always be the same. Or rather, you attain tawfeeq by always giving the same answer. For all of their precision, archers cannot distinguish one memory of a practice session from the thousands like it. Our eternity is decided in the moments we can’t recall.
The fundamental roteness of the rawdah reflects the reality of spiritual transformation. The path to paradise does not twist through the dense wilderness of esotericism. It passes through the uneven terrain of the excruciatingly ordinary. I don’t remember any of the individual steps I took to reach the summit of Jabal An-Noor, yet I couldn’t have reached the summit without every one. The climb was nothing if not monotonous — the same steps and the same stairs, the ache in the legs mirroring the ache in the back, the drumming of the heart as dull as that in the ears. The steps were unremarkable, but the result, a first-hand view of the site of Revelation, lies beyond the realm of description. There, atop the Mountain of Light, I laid my eyes on the cave of Hira for the first and only time in my life. The bustling sounds of Mecca faded into the silence of nature, punctured only by the scampering of monkeys and the murmurs of the faithful. My eyes drank in the panorama of Mecca’s arid, flavescent mountains. The expanse of ceaseless desert enveloped me, and I trembled at my smallness. Tranquility descended upon me, soothing my body and mollifying my heart and nursing my soul. Verily, with every hardship comes ease.
There at the summit of the mountain, mere meters from the cave of Hira, Shiekh Dawood Yasin warned us against thinking that the profundity of our spiritual experience in Mecca and Medina — the surge in our iman, the heightened awareness of the ahkira, the conviction that we do possess the will to transcend ourselves — is geographically restricted. We can experience this tranquility anywhere. We are experiencing it here, now, because we have chosen to prioritize our deen over the dunya. That’s it. This tranquility, so visceral at the original site of Revelation, can be accessed from the spiritually cold realms of downtown New Haven, in the chambers of Shake Shack and the courtyards of Branford College. We need not despair at our departure from the Haramayn, because we can carry them with us wherever we are, so long as we realize the reality of divine monotony.
In the rawdah that morning, despite my best efforts, I was eventually uprooted. I stood and searched for a different plot, one where I would be able to complete my worship and pray the Fajr prayer in congregation right here in the rawdah, but I couldn’t find it. For an hour before Fajr, I stood by a pillar, patiently hoping for a miracle. No spots opened. Still I stood. Five minutes before the iqamah, the start of prayers, a brown-shirted police officer began to walk through the beds of hunched bodies, weeding out the other believers who also believed they might salvage a spot in the Fajr congregation. I watched them leave one by one. I knew I would be among them. I knew the slim brown-shirted man would approach me long before he did, and, yet, still I hoped. Our eyes met, and silently I pleaded with him. “Yalla ya Hajji,” he said, as I knew he would. “There’s no space.” That too I knew. I expected to feel rage, anger, perhaps even betrayal, that I had come to God seeking his pleasure and He had turned me away. But I felt nothing but acceptance, even a slight amusement at my situation. The flames of hostility, of anguish and angst, did not flicker even once, too thoroughly doused by a warm blanket of utter tranquility.
I stumbled over the hunched bodies as I navigated my way out. For a moment I stood almost directly in front of the spot where the Imam would lead the prayers, and then I was gone, my feet kissing the scented green carpet of the rawdah one last time. I found myself in the hallway through which the men pass to perform the ziyara. Before me were the golden grills that marked the Prophet’s grave. Unlike the previous two times I had been here, though, not a single soul blocked my view. Gone were the crowds. Gone were the brown-shirts. The entrance to the hall had been sealed in advance of the Fajr prayer. It was completely empty. For a precious few seconds, I saw something denied to almost every pilgrim who had traversed these hallowed grounds. The arrow had found its target. Verily with hardship comes ease.