- 06 Dec 2020
History of Al-Masjid an-Nabawi
Dome of Peace - By Shabina
Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, the Prophetﷺ’s Mosque was established and originally built by the Prophet Muhammadﷺ. It is in the city of Medina in Saudi Arabia. Al-Masjid an-Nabawi was the third mosque built in the history of Islam and is now one of the largest mosques in the world. It is the second-holiest site in Islam, after Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.
Understanding the history of expansion of Masjid al-Nabawi and how the Green Dome over the Prophetﷺ’s tomb was erected will enable Muslims to understand its true significance.
The first sight of the green dome in al-Masjid al-Nabawi fills a Muslim’s heart with love and affection. No eye remains dry upon approaching so close to the final resting place of the noble Messengerﷺ.
The city, whose original name was Yathrib, was renamed Madinah al-Nabi (the City of the Prophet) after He migrated from Makkah and settled there. While it is called Madinah for short, Muslims who are aware of its importance refer to it with great reverence as al-Madinah al-Munawwarah (the radiant city).
Soon after arriving in Madinah, the noble Messengerﷺ and his companions embarked on building the masjid. It was a modest structure and measured no more than 98 ft x 115 ft, having mud walls raised over stone foundations. The roof was made of trunks and branches of date palm trees. Only a portion of the masjid had a roof to protect attendees and participants from the Sun.
The Prophetﷺ personally took part in its construction. On the south side there was also a bench that served as the place for Ahl al-Suffah (literally, people of the bench), the poorest of the poor companions who had no homes, and were supported by the Prophet.
Al Masjid An Nabawi - By Shabina
There were three doors to the rectangular enclosure: Bab al-Rahmah (The Door of Mercy) to the south; Bab Jibril (Door of Gabriel) to the west, called thus because the Prophetﷺ had received revelation near it, and Bab al-Nisa (Door of the Women) to the east. Initially, the qiblah was toward Jerusalem (facing north) but when the qiblah direction was changed to face the Ka‘bah in Makkah, which is due south, the masjid was also re-oriented accordingly.
The simple masjid has undergone many phases of expansion, the first being seven years after its construction. Its height was increased to 11 feet, facilitating better ventilation in the oppressive heat of Arabia. Major expansions occurred during the khilafahs of ‘Umar and ‘Uthman (R.A.), the latter building an arcade of stone and plaster and making the columns of stone instead of tree trunk.
The Umayyad and ‘Abbasid rulers also carried out expansion work. In the year 707CE, the Umayyad ruler al-Walid ibn ‘Abd al-Malik demolished the old structure entirely and built a new larger one in its place incorporating the tomb of the noble Messenger into the masjid. The hujarat (dwellings) of the Prophetﷺ’s family that were right next to the masjid were also incorporated into the masjid. The place between the Prophetﷺ’s tomb and his minbar is referred to as Riyad al-Jannah (Garden of Paradise) and according to a hadith of the noble Messengerﷺ, any du‘a’ made there is never rejected.
It must be borne in mind that the Umayyad ruler al-Walid also built the Dome of the Rock in al-Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem that some Muslims confuse with al-Masjid al-Aqsa (the two are very different buildings).
During the ‘Abbasid period, the ruler al-Mahdi (775–785CE) also enlarged al-Masjid al-Nabawi by extending it further to the north, adding 20 additional doors. Eight each were added to the east and west walls while four were added to the north wall.
During the rule of the Mamluk Sultans, al-Mansur Qalawun built a dome over the tomb of the Prophet ﷺ in 1279ce. This was the first time that a dome was erected. It was made of wood and was colorless. Later it was painted white and blue. In fact for a while, the dark blue color predominated, a favorite of the Arabs. Al-Mansur also built an ablution fountain outside of Bab al-Salam (Door of Peace). Another Mamluk Sultan, al-Nasir Muhammad, rebuilt the fourth minaret that had been destroyed earlier.
More than 200 years later (in the year 1481CE), a massive fire destroyed much of the masjid as well as the wooden dome over the Prophet’s grave. Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qa’itbay, the Sultan of Egypt (1468–1496CE), a great patron of architectural buildings, rebuilt the east, west and qiblah (south) walls. He sponsored not only the rebuilding of al-Masjid al-Nabawi but also of al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah and al-Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem in addition to building huge projects in Damascus, Aleppo, Alexandria and Cairo. A huge citadel is named after him in Alexandria that stands to this day.
Sultan Qa’itbay also replaced most of the wooden base of the dome with brick structure to prevent its collapse in the future. Then he used plates of lead to cover the new wooden dome. Qa’itbay also undertook extensive renovation of the tomb of the Prophet ﷺ.
The Mamluk sultans to whom Qa’itbay belonged were followed by the Ottomans who took control of the Arabian Peninsula, especially the Hijaz with its two holy cities of Makkah and al-Madinah. Their domain extended to Palestine, then a province of al-Sham (Syria) encompassing present-day Lebanon and Jordan. The Ottomans administered the Hijaz through their governors (the sharifs) from 1517 until the end of the Fist World War (1918), when the Ottoman Empire disintegrated and British took control of the region effectively falling into the hands of the British.
The Ottoman Sultans had great reverence for the stature and moral pre-eminence of the noble Messenger ﷺ. They approached al-Masjid al-Nabawi, especially the Prophetﷺ’s tomb with the utmost respect. Even while undertaking expansion work in the masjid, they did it with great respect and care always cognizant of the fact that the last Messenger of Allah is buried there and nothing should be done that would appear even remotely indicative of any disrespect to Him.
It was the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II who in 1818 built the green dome that covers the Prophetﷺ’s grave. It was built on top of the existing dome that was built by Qa’itbay in 1481. The green painted dome distinguishes the Prophetﷺ’s tomb from other domes that are silver in colour. The green paint was first applied to the Prophet’s dome in 1837. It has remained this way ever since to distinguish it from the multiple silver domes that can be seen atop al-Masjid al-Nabawi.
Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–1566ce) rebuilt the western walls of al-Masjid al-Nabawi and built the north-eastern minaret known as al-Suleymaniyyah. He also added a new mihrab (al-Ahnaf) next to the Prophetﷺ’s mihrab (al-Shafi‘iyyah), and placed a new dome covered in lead sheets above the tomb or Rawdah of the Prophet ﷺ referred to as al-Rawdah al-Mutahharah.
Sultan ‘Abd al-Majid (1839–1861) remodelled the entire masjid, enlarging it extensively. He did not, however, touch the tomb of the Prophet ﷺ . the three mihrabs, the minbar and the Suleiymaniyyah minaret. The prayer hall to the south was doubled in width and covered with small equal sized domes. The only exceptions were the domes that cover the mihrab area, Bab al-Salam and the tomb of the noble Messenger ﷺ. Sultan ‘Abd al-Majid was so careful in the work he undertook that he had an entire generation of huffaz prepared from a very young age and trained by the best of craftsmen in the Islamic realm.
He had the craftsmen prepare paint from trees cut from those forests that had never been touched by human activity. Under his instructions, an entire city was built outside Madinah where stones and other material were cut and trimmed to be used in al-Masjid al-Nabawi. He also gave orders that the craftsmen, all huffaz, must be in wudu’ all the time and must be reciting the noble Qur’an while at work in the masjid.
The domes were decorated with Qur’anic verses and lines from Qasidah al-Burdah (Poem of the Prophet’s Mantle) composed by the famous Moroccan Sufi poet, Muhammad ibn Sa‘id ibn Mallak al-Sanhaji better known as Shaykh al-Busiri (he descended from the Berber Sanhaja tribe). He is reported to have composed the poem after the Prophet ﷺ appeared to him in a dream and covered him with his mantle. Al-Busiri, who was paralyzed was cured. When he woke up and saw his totally changed condition, Shaykh al-Busiri composed the qasidah whose actual title is al-Kawakib al-Durriyah fi Madh Khayr al-Bariyah (The Celestial Lights in Praise of the Best of Creation).
Sultan ‘Abd al-Majid also had the qiblah (south) wall covered with glazed tiles that carried Qur’anic calligraphy. The floors of the prayer hall and the courtyard were paved with marble and red stones and a fifth minaret (al-Majidiyyah), was built to the west of the enclosure.
Interesting Facts About The Prophetﷺ’s Mosque
- The first place in the Arabian Peninsula to have electricity. When the Ottomans introduced electricity to the Arabian Peninsula, the first place to be lit up was the mosque of the Prophet ﷺ
- The current mosque is larger than the old city. It is more than 100 times the size of the original building. This means that the current mosque covers almost the entire area of the old city itself. This is evident from the fact that whereas Jannat Al-Baqi cemetery was on the outskirts of the city during the time of the Prophet ﷺ. It now borders the precincts of the current mosque grounds.
- There is an empty grave in the Prophetﷺ’s room, next to where the Prophetﷺ, Abu Bakr R.A. and Umar R.A are buried. This was confirmed when the individuals who went in to change the coverings in the hujrah. The hujrah is not the actual burial chamber/original room of Aisha R.A. (This is enclosed in a pentagonal structure with no doors or windows and has not been visible for centuries). The area meant is the entire grilled area encompassing the chamber and area. This area is said to be reserved for Prophet Isa A.S.
- The mosque has 3 mihrabs. Most mosques only have one mihrab, but the Prophetﷺ’s mosque has three. The current mihrab is the one used nowadays for the imam to lead prayers. The next mihrab is set back and is called the Suleymaniye or Ahnaf mihrab. It was made on the orders of the Sultan Suleyman the magnificent for the Hanafi Imam to lead prayers whilst the Maliki Imam lead prayers from the Prophetic mihrab. The Prophetic mihrab completely covers the area that the Prophet ﷺ used to lead prayers from except where he placed his feet.
- Items belonging to the Prophet ﷺ - Many items were housed in the room of Fatima R.A. When Medina was under siege during World War I, the Ottoman commander had many priceless artifacts evacuated to Istanbul for safety. They can now be seen in the Topkapi Palace. However, intriguingly, some items remain but are undocumented.
- The mosque is full of secret signs. The mosque of the Prophet ﷺ is covered with so many subtle signs and secrets that it makes the DaVinci Code look like a cheap puzzle for pre-schoolers. Each pillar, each dome, each window carries a story and indicates the location of events that carry historical and spiritual significance. The people who constructed the Prophet ﷺ’s Mosque realized that it would be impossible to put up signs everywhere as it would distract from the main purpose of prayers. Therefore, they came up with an ingenious way of indicating a location of importance through minor changes in the design of surrounding objects.
The mosque of the Prophet ﷺ was never just a mosque. It was the centre of the first Islamic community and nation. It was the scene of our greatest triumphs and tragedies. It was a community centre, homeless refuge, university and mosque all rolled into one.
Like the Muslim community, it has grown over the years and become more modern with each passing generation. But despite the exponential growth and changes from the simple Hijazi date palm trunk interior to the marble and gold clad structure we have today – the inner core remains the same. Perhaps there’s a lesson in there for us all.