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The Daughter of Medina

by Mohsin Badat   source

Recent events and experiences have caused me to question what it means to be a child of today’s west; to look at what is truly given from on high and true to the fitra, and what is shaped by the climate we live in. The Prophet (s) once described the heart as a mirror, and like all metals mirrors are prone to rust. Unfortunately I cannot say that I am an isolated example when I say that far from having a reflective heart, the rust has indeed set in. There is a damp in the air. Living in a society that is not driven towards the Divine comes with it’s own doubts, least of all those whispering and asking whether you can know truth, whether there is a ‘right’ way, whether or not we’re all the same deep down so why bother with anything? By the grace of Allah there are those on His earth who live in a land not troubled by such problems, who breathe the air clean and free and who remain a beacon of light for those who would cast aside the internal cobwebs and begin the long journey toward Him, majestic and august is He! Such a land is Tarim, and this is where my journey begins.

Tarim, a moderately sized town home to thousands of the faithful is nestled in between the towering cliffs that bound the Hadramawt valley in the south of Yemen; old Arabia Felix. A settlement established before Islam’s rise, Tarim first enters our consciousness at the time of Hadhrat Abu Bakr’s caliphate, may Allah be pleased with him. During the so-called ridda, the wars of apostasy when the Yemenis refused to pay the zakat the city of Tarim remained true and paid in full to the Commander of the Faithful. Their reward? Allah’s pleasure and three duas from the Caliph, “Allah make plentiful it’s water, and make it cultivated till the Day of Judgement, and may the Righteous blossom in its lands as plants blossom from water”. And so to this day Tarim’s environs are lush in the midst of aridity, are teeming with the awliya, hearts attached to dhikr and full of water pure, kind to the bowels of foreign visitors wary of sickness! One of Tarim’s names is ‘The Daughter of Medina’, for reasons that make it uniquely special. This we understand from the Hadith: “Love Allah for the blessings He bestows upon you, Love me for the love of Allah and Love my House for my love” (Al-Tirmidhi). Tarim can claim to be home to those who are loyal to this Hadith every waking and sleeping moment. For the truth is that one in three of the thousands of Tarimis claim descent from al-Imam al-Muhajir Ahmad b. Isa, son of Isa, son of Muhammad an-Naqid, son of Ali Uraydi, son of Ja’far As-Sadiq, son of Muhammad al-Baqir, son of Ali Zayn al-Abideen, son of Sayyidina Hussein the Grandson, son of Sayyida Fatima az-Zahra, wife of Sayyidina Ali (may Allah be pleased with them all!) and daughter of The Messenger Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him eternally. This is the real answer to Abu Bakr’s dua – Tarim was destined by Allah’s grace to overflow with the water that emanates from the caliph’s closest friend, The Beloved of Allah Muhammad (s). 1100 years have passed since Ahmad b. Isa’s arrival and Tarim is mother to thousands of Hadhrat Ali’s descendents, the largest gathering of the Ahl al-Bayt in the world. Their grandfather (s) was al-Habib, and his (s) descendents take his name. From the 12 th century onwards the scholars and saints of Tarim became known the world over as the Habaib.

Al-Muhajir Ahmad b. Isa, the Emigrant was an inhabitant of Iraq in the 3 rd Islamic century, a time of many conflicts that echo those that trouble her today. For the sake of the responsibility that came with being part of the Ahl al-Bayt, the House surely like no other, he decided to emigrate to the land of Yemen. After all Abu Hurayrah related from the Prophet (s) that “The people of Yemen have come to you and they are extremely gentle and soft-hearted. Belief is that of the Yemenis and wisdom is that of the Yemenis.” He arrived to a land hard, a land fiery and hot. Yet as Habib Ali – one of the leading lights of Tarim today – commented to me as we stepped into the oven from the air-conditioned plane: “This heat is like a furnace. It will extract the imperfections of your soul, melt them away and leave you with a heart pure”. It was in this land that Ahmad b. Isa brought the scent of the Prophet (s) through his descendents. The people of Allah have always had a deep reverence to this line. It is narrated that Zayd b. Thabit was the teacher of Abdullah b. Abbas (may Allah be pleased with them both) as well as being his elder. However Zayd made sure he kissed Abdullah’s hand, saying that ‘This is how we were ordered to treat The Family of The Prophet.’ Of course Abdullah b. Abbas was cousin of the Prophet (s), son of his Uncle Abbas, brother of Abu Talib. So when Ahmad b. Isa arrived there were those who rushed to honour him, to kiss his hand. There were others however who were entrenched in their power, not pleased by the arrival the family of the Prophet (s). The accounts tell of how these families and tribes fell within a generation from being respected to having their sons being enticed by worldly trivialities. Today these tribes are a cautionary tale, lost in history’s oblivion like the people who built the abandoned fortresses that dot Hadramawt’s landscape. The non-Sayyid families that remain in Tarim today like those of the clan of Ba-Ubaid and al-Khatib are descendents of the loyal ones who greeted the newly arrived Ahl al-Bayt.

Time went on; the family became established and became the joie de vivre of the land. Ahmad had many illustrious descendents but perhaps the greatest of them was al-Faqih al-Muqaddam (d. 653 AH). There was still conflict in the land despite the barakathat the Prophet’s (s) family had brought with them. Indeed even the scholars held their swords on their laps during their circles should the need to defend themselves arise. It was in such a circle that Imam al-Faqih took his weapon and broke it, signifying the split from the worldly life of strife and a gearing towards something greater. The spreading of his unified message that was in reality a mastery of Islam, Iman and Ihsan, corresponding to law, doctrine and spirituality respectively soon quelled the restlessness that was rife and became a code that was set down and used to this very day. This code comprises of having a sound and firm foundation in knowledge, in the written Islamic sciences. This is then reflected in the spiritual wayfaring that brings one closer to Allah and makes the knowledge relevant. The triumvirate is completed withda’wa, bringing other souls towards Allah. And this is perhaps where the influence of the Habaib has been so striking. At periods in history various awliya set forth from Tarim to spread Islam elsewhere. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands became Muslim in areas as diverse as East Africa, Zanzibar, India and Indonesia. This is reflected in the ethnic diversity seen at Tarim’s institutions, namely the ‘Ribat’ and ‘Dar al Mustafa’. It was into this society, this fountain of wisdom, experience and knowledge that I travelled to, and emerged from one late summer’s day.

They say that one does not travel to a place like Tarim with all of its history, blessing and saints without being invited. It’s perhaps my biggest regret that I didn’t prepare to meet her, and help her to take me towards Allah. As it happened I was drawn towards to Tarim through the influences of Habib Ali and Habib Umar. Within the confines of this article I cannot do justice to them or to any of our blessed teachers. What I can say is that they, like all of the Habaib are firmly Sunni, Husayni in lineage, Shafi’i in fiqh, Ash’ari in Aqida and Ghazalian in behaviour. Habib Umar is special though in having what is called the ‘Golden Chain’. This means that in his blood lies that of his ancestors, every single one of them a hafiz of the Qur’an and a scholar. For the people of Tarim Habib Umar is a father, from whom they take knowledge and support, whom they cling to so that proximity to the Most High may one day be attained. Now in his mid forties, Habib Umar founded the Dar al-Mustafa institute about 15 years ago, which has been a centre for learning the Islamic sciences and spreading Islam for people from all over the world. Habib Ali, younger by about ten years, travels around a lot more and typifies the Tarimi spirit of da’wa, spreading the faith through action and example rather than simple rhetoric. He is known to millions over the Arab world through his television programmes and over the Western world through his lectures and frequent visits. To see him is to keep him in your memory and heart forever.

I have been fortunate by being able to meet Habib Ali a few times in my life, and a happy corpuscle of grace must have been with me when I was waiting for the connecting flight from Sana’a to Sey’oun Lo and behold a familiar turban waited patiently in front of me. As I made salam and kissed his hand – my gesture of respect to him and his great-grandfather (s) – I was surprised to note he recognised me and was treated to his incomparable smile. “How is Shaykh Abdal Hakim? How is the singing group? How are your studies? You must come to Abu Dhabi to sing for us.” I must have muttered a few dumbfounded sentences in Arabic as I tried to think of what levels of adab and kindness this giant must have had to treat a lowly minion like me in this way. When we landed in Tarim he took me with some others in his car, thankfully air-conditioned. Outside the temperature was 45 degrees, prompting Habib’s comment about the furnace that I mentioned previously. We approached Tarim after passing through the majestically austere surroundings of Hadramawt; tall exponentially curved mountain hills all flat-topped at exactly the same level, echoes of ancient seas whispering from the cliffs. The terrain was mostly red and rocky, interspersed with farms and greenery and graves of the awliya, eliciting a heartfelt Fatiha on sight. All the while Habib brought alive the landscape with tales of its inhabitants, aphorisms of wisdom dropped as naturally as the footsteps of those who travelled here centuries ago. As we entered the city crowds flocked to the car, all smiles and open arms for the return of a beloved son. Habib made it in to his house before being mobbed; an auspicious start indeed for our experience there.

I don’t intend to go through every single occurrence. There simply isn’t time or ability in language to convey experience’s nuances and intimacies. So I should talk about thedowra itself. The dowra is a yearly 40 day course – 40 being a special number replete in revelation – covering the basics of fiqh/law as per the Mukhtasar of Imam Quduri, the life of the Prophet (s), how to spread Islam and its beauty, the characteristics of the Prophet (s)/shama’il of Imam Tirmidhi, foundational Hadith, exegesis/tafsir of the Qur’an and the Prophetic Etiquettes and Spiritual wayfaring, looking at the foundational Awarif al-Ma’arif by Imam Suhrawardi. The schedule was rigorous, working in tandem with the heat to purify the soul: we woke at 2.45 am for Tahajjud prayers, followed by fajr at Dar al-Mustafa at 4.20. After reading litanies and Qur’an we went to the Arabic-English language centre, Al-Badr for our 5 am Hadith class held by Ustadh Yahya Rhodus, an American convert and student of Murabit al-Hajj in Mauritania (also teacher of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf) and Habib Ali. This, my favourite class, was followed at 6 to 7 am by Hanafi fiqh by Shaykh Umar Ba-Ubaid. Shaykh Umar, a master of Hanafi as well as Shafi’i and Maliki fiqh was a kindly man; thoroughly Yemeni but reminiscent of the kindly ‘Pak’ uncle at the mosque who always has a quiet smile, giving you the vague feeling you’re related to him somehow. At 7 am we were given a break for breakfast, with a short nap until dhuhr, in the manner of the Prophet (s). We woke again at 11.30 am to pray and then take a class in the Prophetic Etiquettes by Shaykh Umar al-Khatib (who is a descendant of Abu Bakr As-Siddiq), fiery and passionate. Lunch was eaten, followed by a 5 minute bus ride to Dar al-Mustafa for the rowha after 3 pm asr prayers. This was a lecture by Habib Umar for everyone, not just western students, going through Awarif al-Ma’arif. After this finished we were awarded a 45 minute break. (“I’m going to the corner shop, want a mushakkal?! [Incredible mango-vimto mix drink]”) After Maghrib we had a class on the Shama’il or da’wa by Habib Kadhim/Habib Ali respectively. Habib Kadhim is another leading figure in Tarim; lively, quick of speech and instantly likeable. He served every student water when we made the trip to the grave of Prophet Hud, peace be upon him, a few weeks into the course. After an open air lecture on the Sira or Tafsir the night ended with dinner at 9.30 pm, followed by sleep usually at midnight. Perhaps it sounds strenuous but I can say I never felt tired; instead I felt alive inside yet at peace, motion at rest.

Perhaps this is because of the people; this is what sets Tarim apart from any place I have ever been to. The Tarimis live Islam in the way that you always wished people would, every ‘why-can’t-Muslims-stop-being-so-banal?’ dua answered tenfold. Every face had a smile, every single one gently pushing you to better yourself. I never heard a shouted word or the impatient beep of a car horn; both pandemic anywhere else in Asia. When speaking to the locals and students one could keenly feel the difference between life as it is and as it should be. I never heard anyone slander another, any need for any harsh words or angry invocations. Far from being dry and dull the locals were full of laughter and joy, but never at the expense of any one else; purely out ofshukr, gratefulness to the Almighty. They mixed worship and pleasure perfectly; weekly football matches after fajr on Thursday and gatherings of food and song balanced by days of fasting in the intense climate and waking in the depths of every night for standing in worship. Just being in the presence of these people one felt ashamed and humbled, yet hopeful at the same time. I was able to realise my own deep flaws, but proof in those around me that something sweeter is just over the horizon and more importantly, what you had to do to get there. Just by being in the presence of these people. And make no mistake this exchange through human contact was intentional. Habib Umar stressed how things should always be done together. We always ate from the same plate, shared rooms with at least four brothers and always stood, bowed and kneeled in worship in unison. This fostered the intense feeling of brotherhood that every Muslim should feel for one another as exhorted by the Qur’an and Prophet (s) countless times. After understanding this I could see how hundreds and hundreds of people could all weep together whilst making dua, as they did one particular Thursday night for the poor Lebanese who were being violated at that very moment. The duafrom that night; I had never seen anything like it before.

Perhaps it sounds trivial, but little kindnesses such as pushing me every prayer to the front rows of the Masjid or a small gift presented in shyness hinted to me of currents beneath, deep and strong. Why should this be the case? It must be because of the thousands and thousands of the Prophet’s (s) family there. How can one ever dream of slandering or hurting someone whose grandfather is the Prophet (s)? And how can anyone wish to abuse the blessing one has been given by being part of this family? One can be sceptical about people claiming to be sayyids, but if you question any Tarimi about their lineage they will recite it for you link by link all the way to the Messenger (s) and even to his ancestor Adnan and the older Prophets. It all was too much for us students from the west not to feel our hearts becoming filled with admiration and respect for these humble unassuming folk. This special connection to the people was heightened upon reflection upon my travel from Cambridge to Yemen on the day of my graduation.

That morning was a wonderful one, full of tradition and security. I enjoyed walking to senate house, the same route thousands had trod for centuries at possibly the world’s foremost educational institution. But for all this city’s tradition, for all that history, it translated to naught in the behaviour of its denizens. We will always be woken by drunken voices from outside our window, always read periodically about the misdemeanours of this or that tutor or bursar. Contrast with Tarim. This city also has its tradition – thousands of years old – and a proud and rich culture. However this culture is allied with Islam so that they both symbiotically transform countless souls and lift them to Allah. It is seen on the face of the average Tarimi, walking down the street reassured in what has gone before, what is and what will be God willing. This is the fulfilment of the promise of the religious path. Of course proximity to nature must also help sensitise the hearts. In the man-made urban landscape, we think we can manipulate the environment to our will. Tarmac here, brick there; this is our habitat. However in the sacred society like Tarim man lives with not apart from nature. No matter what he does he cannot move that mountain. Fists will not flatten the dunes. And so man’s efforts must be cast not without, but within. Instead of trying to transform the outside world he transforms his inner reality. This is what makes men into mountains, as majestic as the desert.

This unified society therefore makes it easy to fulfil man’s spiritual potential, all done scrupulously according to Allah’s will. I have never seen a people follow the Prophet’s (s) way as strictly as the Tarimis, yet so joyously! They have a saying there; ‘be hard on yourself, easy on others’. They followed the sunnah of visiting the graves every Friday, despite the scorching heat. The Zambal is where the Ahl al-Bayt of Tarim are buried. I first visited it at night, taking my shoes off before I entered the kabristan. Thousands and thousands of the awliya arranged in rows – Allah only knows what their souls have experienced and what is unseen in this graveyard. As I travelled through I cannot convey how I felt when I realised I was walking by the graves of some of the finest human beings that have ever set foot upon this earth. The humbling meaning of the Prophet’s (s) directive to ‘frequent the graves for truly they remind you of the afterlife’ was brought home with clarity. Everywhere one turned, to the whispers of the awliya in the Zambal, the palm trees providing cool shade, the mud buildings organically shaping the market, the mountains clasping the town in their embrace; all seemed to sway in natural harmony with one another. Habib Umar once said something that for whatever reason caught my mind unawares and jolted it into exploring fields unknown. He mentioned that ihsan, tasawwuf, whatever you want to call it is “putting everything in its right place”. With the appropriate reverence for Allah, the Prophet (s) and his (s) family in the right places, for the seeker could be opened the path of sanctity.

This love for the Prophet (s) was shown every Thursday night at the weekly Mawlid (for am evaluation of the Mawlid read Mufti Muhammad b. Adam’s article on daruliftaa.com). At least a thousand people gathered and recited poetry written by Habib Umar about the life of Muhammad Mustafa (s). I cannot say that I have ever felt the same as I did when everybody rose out of respect for the Prophet (s) in the section describing his (s) noble birth. This was the pinnacle of the week, the apex of a summit and a rebirth from stale old ways to fresh new promises:

Allah has manifested the intercessor
The Possessor of the Elevated Station

And his light filled the horizons
It encompassed the entire universe

The Mawlid is the perfect representation of what Tarim and the Ba’Alawi (the family of the Habaib) way is all about; a fulfilment of the Hadith exhorting us to love Allah, His messenger (s) and his (s) family. I wish I could write about all that happened. About all the gems of human beings I met from the East and West, how they put me to shame in their sincerity and generosity, in knowledge and behaviour. I wish I could write about some of Tarim’s other great sons like Imam Haddad, and how it felt to sing his poems at gatherings with Habib Ali, Habib Umar and many others. I wish I could also tell of our visits to the ocean with the wonderful Habib AbdurRahman, or the bare-footed game of football on the beach that tasted the waters of the Indian Ocean. I wish I could reveal to you much more about this beloved city but it is forbidden to disclose the secrets of one’s beloved, and as with all the loves of this world there is a separation; I wish I could tell of the anguish of being apart from this soul’s temporal home. I cannot say all these things but I can finish with something that captures the whole trip for me; that leaves me with haunting echoes of what I felt. Feelings that words cannot encompass. On the last day in Tarim Habib Ali unexpectedly invited me for lunch. He asked me how I’d found my trip. I could see how moved he was when I recounted what happened the previous night: with song and mirth in the air after the dowra-completion ceremony a slim African brother from Ethiopia sidled up to me, grinning, all teeth. He could tell I was from England and he began to talk to me. He asked me how I’d found the dowra, and so I replied with a formulaic answer. When I asked him the same question he paused and then looked into my eyes. “Back at home, we all think we are so good, we pray everything and so we think we know a lot. Then we come to this place, see these people and feel what we feel. That’s when we realise that back then…back then we weren’t even Muslim”.

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  1. May 22nd, 2014 at 09:36 | #1