I went to Saudi Arabia over the winter holidays for umrah. But I was only in Makkah briefly. The group of friends I was travelling with spent most of our time in Medina, visiting with the Prophet (sallallahu allaihi wa sallam) — a long-awaited dream for me.
In Arabic, the official name is Al-Madinah Al-Munawwarah, which means Medina the Luminous, or Medina the Radiant. Medina has a special quality of light: pearly and suffused at all times of day, from dawn to sunset. That, however, is only an outward expression of Medina’s luminosity. After a day or so of being there, I noticed that the members of our group were glowing from within. Everyone’s eyes seemed to be open wider, and the features of their faces had relaxed and softened. We were all smiling.
For me, it was a taste of radiyyah, a state of being in Sufism called “the contented self”. It is the opposite of the conventional experience of life, where you are always dissatisfied and disappointed to some degree, pushed and pulled between attraction and aversion. No matter what's going on, even if you’re getting a lovely massage, you still want it to be different (a little to the left please). Whereas when you are spiritually content, everything is simply ok.
In Medina, I felt there was nothing I needed, or even particularly wanted, other than to stay there, with the Prophet. I felt like I had finally come home after being in exile for 50 years.
This feeling of deep contentment is not like the high-stimulus emotions that consumer culture tries to pass off as happiness. Rather, it is a feeling of grounded simplicity: nothing is a problem. As an example, I contracted COVID while in Saudi Arabia, but only developed symptoms a few days later when I had travelled on to Turkey. It was my third time with COVID, and this time I had far worse acute symptoms than before: a fever that lasted several days, along with joint pain, a severe sore throat, cough and upper respiratory congestion, plus losing my sense of smell and taste. I was really sick! And yet: I didn’t mind. I was just like: ok, so now how do I manage - how to treat the symptoms and how do I continue the rest of the trip in Turkey so I can still visit Konya with my friend who came all the way from London? There was none of the self-pity or resentment that's cropped up when I've been ill before.
It actually makes me grateful to have gotten COVID again (not something I thought I would ever say). To experience spiritual contentment is a gift in itself, and then to be taken into a space of physical challenge so you are able to understand the difference between circumstantial difficulties vs the suffering you cause yourself on top of it, was such a clear teaching for me.
And in that sense it was also a little taste of paradise; the reward promised to people of faith who, in at least one translation of the Qur'an, are called “the companions of the garden:”
Truly, the companions of the garden shall on that Day (Judgement Day) be wholly immersed in joy;
in shady groves they and their spouses will rest on couches;
fruits will be there for them, and theirs shall be all that they could ask for;
“Peace!” -- a word from a Most Merciful Sustainer.*
I gained a new appreciation for the garden of Jannah as it is described in the Qu'ran, through visiting Saudi Arabia. Although the desert around Medina is not the flat, blowing-sand-dune variety of desert, it is a dry and austere landscape, with dark volcanic soil, jagged hills and many rock formations. At the same time, there are little creeks with bushes and trees that dot the land with green.
One afternoon, we visited a date plantation just outside of the city. According to our guide, the area is known to have special energies, and people have been coming to pray here for a long time. It certainly felt different than anywhere else we went. For one, it was cool and shaded and a little mysterious: with its groves of densely planted trees, it seemed we were entering a forest rather than a farm. But the other thing I noticed was the feeling of being close to the ground. Everything else in Medina is oriented upward, toward the sky, from the high-rise hotels to the arching sunshades of the Prophet’s Mosque. Visiting the date plantation was like coming back down to earth, but in the most gentle way. For me, this grounded and earth-bound vision of paradise is more comforting than the cloud-heaven of popular culture. Somehow it also feels more real.
*Qur'an 36:55-58 (Surah Yasin) - translation taken from the Mevlevi Wird, p. 19