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Mar 24, 2013 - road to damascus series    Comments Off

In mourning for the Damascus I knew

The first time I went to Jamial Iman was probably in late 2001 or early 2002. Damascus was still like it had been for hundreds of years: sleepy, still traditional, a haven for students of knowledge. There was the odd backpacker tourist, the fullbright scholars, the french students, soas came every year; but still no one knew English, no one catered to the ‘ajaanib’ foreigners yet. Being a Quran or Arabic student was still a status of respect. You needed to know someone to come here because Syria was so closed off. A legacy of the stranglehold of dictatorship, there were no foreign businesses, no McDonalds, no KFC, no Body shop. Foreign imports like a snickers bar or pepsi were smuggled in through Jordan and hidden under the counters. It wasn’t unusual to see cars decades old. There were still narrow streets covered with vines of honeysuckle, outdoor cafes, a street full of 15th century madrasas, hidden maqams of righteous scholars of old. Still old covered markets that went back a thousand years that the natives still shopped at. Still fruit and vegetable markets, fresh bread straight from big clay ovens under the stairs for 5 liras. The impact of 9/11 had yet to reach their shores.

Students from all over the world flocked here. They were British, Malaysian, American, African, Australian, Swedish, French. They filled the halls of the University of Damascus, they enrolled in Abou Nour Institute, they hired private tutors and rented old apartments in Rukn ad-Deen with other students of knowledge. They filled the internet cafes and went to the one or two English only darses in town. They ate the local snacks with odd names, ate pizzas made from ketchup from A&M Pizza happily, excitedly tried out their new Arabic in bargaining in the souks. They sought to learn Arabic and Islam in a pure and traditional environment untouched by the outside world. I was one of them.

Our Syrian friends helped us. They helped us get the apartments, they changed our money for us, they invited us for dinner. The Syrian people were just so innocent and generous and kind. You only had to mention to someone at a bus stop you were a foreigner and they would immediately invite you to come to their house right then. The sister shaikhas would come to your house to teach you tajweed and never ask for anything. The hospitality and openess of the Syrian people to us students of knowledge can’t even be put into words. It was a beautiful time and a beautiful place. It is hard to describe and understand all this, it had to be experienced.

It was one of my brother’s friends who took us. He was so happy to bring us to the best, most modern Dars in Damascus. Shaikh Buti had almost a cult like following, but it wasn’t about him, it was about the knowledge. His students were not like ISNA goers or the sisters wearing designer jilbabs to London Islamic events. They were everyday people, young teachers, students going to university, housewives, couples, even taxi drivers, and of course the serious students of knowledge, native and foreign. They loved that he talked about modern things in an Islamic way. The sisters wore their maunteau blue coats with speck free white hijabs. Many we met were also Hafizas, Tajweed experts and evem memorizers of Bukhari. Our friend joked that when someone wanted to get married in Damascus, they would send their mother to the women’s side of this class to find a good girl for him. The sisters had a big upstairs area with closed-circuit tv of the shaikh. On this occasion he was talking about an article about something in a Western newspaper someone had brought him. I only understood maybe 30% of what he was saying at this time, but even as a new student of Arabic I could see he had an amazing way of speaking Fusha. He was not a charismatic speaker as such, but he was one with a lot of knowledge and way of saying things. He was probably in his 70s at this time, a little frail, thin and wiry, but always sitting on the floor with a book in front of him.

After the class we would pray, and then you would see hundreds of people streaming from the Mosque going home. This is how popular this Islamic Dars was, that it was an actual “event” in Damascus every Thursday night.

I can’t look at pictures of the carnage in the Masjid, of blood soaked into the carpets where worshipers had just been putting their heads in prostration, of body parts strewn across the Mosque. I know I, along with every student of knowledge in the world, is in a state of shock and mourning. What can be more sacred in our Deen?? A shaikh giving a lesson in a mosque, with eager worshipers, surrounded by angels. Truly, for them there is no better way to die.

No one has taken responsibility for this heinous act, each side blaming the other, each side, amazingly mourning this great scholar. Yes, he may have been a staunch supporter of the regime, or he may not have been. Yet thousands of miles away on social networks immediately Muslims started calling Shaikh Buti names, saying he had finally been ‘exposed’ and that they hoped he would be in Hell with ‘that dog’ Bashar. Really? How does someone walk into a Mosque with all these beautiful worshipers, with a Shaikh that has spent over 5 decades learning, teaching and doing Dawah for Islam and kill him and them in this way. How can any politics justify this? How can someone do that and claim any amount of faith? It is how I know we are living at the ends of time. Where Fitnah will be so rife, that people will kill and be killed, and neither will know why.

I mourn for the worshipers at Jamial Iman and their Shaikh, I mourn for the people of Damascus and Syria and most of all I mourn for the Damascus I knew.

Road to Damascus 42 (last entry of this series)- Ummayad Mosque

Description of Ummayad Mosque

Ummayad Mosque of Damascus

Ahhh have I saved the best for last?

I could write pages and pages and have in my journal, but I’ll just give you a little history.

The Ummayad Mosque called Jamia Ummawiy is THE most famous Mosque in Damascus. In fact, it IS Damascus. It is the most important Masjid historically after Makkah, Madinah and Jerusalem. There is so much history to this Mosque and yet it retains its absolute ethereal beauty. People come to Damascus solely to see this Masjid. And here I am giving you the grand tour, aren’t you lucky :)

Ibn Jubayr’s wrote an account of visiting Jamia Ummiwiye from the 11th century. He described it as having beautiful golden lanterns everywhere, a spectacular clock system and with walls and pillars that were covered with golden mosaics. His description is stunning and sometimes when you are here you can see it as he saw it.

In the first pictures you can see the entrace to the Mosque is at the end of Souk Hamadiyya. You’ll see some large arch shaped pillars. These actually date back to the time this site was a roman temple for jupiter. It was then a church at one time and when the Muslims took over they made half of it a church and half of it a mosque and everyone used to worship side by side. Then the Khalifah bought out the Christian side and built them four churches in the Old City in exchange.

Once you come to the doorway you have to take off your shoes and leave them there to enter. The whole courtyard is marble with some designs. Not the originals unfortunately, as the whole of Jamia Ummiwiye has survived several fires and destruction.

The square tower you see in the center of many of the pictures is said to be the place where Ghazali wrote his Ihya-uloom-al-deen. There is also another minaret where it is said Isa (as) will descend from at the end of time.

The golden looking structure with pillars underneath at one end of the courtyard is where they used to keep the Muslim treasury. At the other end, the little dome is where there used to be clocks to tell the times of Salah. Also at that end through a door is where they say the head of Hussain was once kept and perhaps buried. Many, many Shia pilgrims come to make pilgrimage to this Mosque for that reason. Most from Iran, but one time while we were here there was a huge group of Shia Pakistani pilgrims from England!

Along the outside walls you’ll see golden designs of plants, gardens and mansions on a river. Some say these are images of Jannah, others say that they are images from Damascus’s past. Still others say that these are images from the Ummayad domain. No one really knows. Take a look at some of the images and let me know what you think ;) BTW, these aren’t paintings or drawings. They are tiny little pieces of stone mosaics that make a whole image. Tiny little golden pieces and colored stones. Look closely and you can see thousands that make up one image. How they actually made those and got them up there must have been incredible workmanship. These golden mosaics used to cover all the walls and you can imagine how incredibly, incredibly stunning and beautiful that must have been.

Inside the Mosque there used to be four different Mihrabs where each school of thought would lead the prayers when it was ‘their time’. Today they just stick with one. The green little building inside is the tomb of Yayha (as). There’s also a little sign that says “Here stood Khidr” and that has its own little story and legend that has to do with a king and a night prayer. There are also different colored glass windows all along the back wall.

The layout is said to be like an eagle. There is a dome in the middle like a head and both sides reach out like wings. That dome is hence called the ‘Dome of the Eagle’.

The Ummayad Mosque is a living breathing entity. People come here to pray on any given day. People come here for Jumah. Special events are held here like big speeches of famous people. VIPs come here. Every tourist comes here. The special rain prayer is always held here. Taraweeh here is always packed. I once saw Sh. Yacoubi randomly walking in. I have so many good memories of sitting in the courtyard watching the sunset or in the moonlight, or in the heat of the day going in to pray on the beautiful carpets.

The one memory of Damascus that I always keep with me is standing in the courtyard of this Mosque on a warm summer evening, watching the kids play and the birds fly up as the walls turned from pale pink to gold in the sunset, and thinking ‘there can be no better peace than this’.

Link to the pictures of Ummayad Mosque


So ends my online descriptions.

India, Hajj, Syria, Damascus. So much beauty. It’s a beauty that is deep. It comes from within. If you just look at it, you can’t see it. You see mountains, old buildings, people. But if you learn and study, you understand the history of what’s there, of what was there, of who was there, then you realize the greatness, the absolute specialness, the uniqueness of what is and what was. You realize that all these things go back to one thing: to Allah and that Allah connects only to one place: your heart.

I thank Allah for allowing me, of all people in the world, to experience what I have these last months. And I thank Allah for allowing me to share this Road to Damascus with you.

Jazakamullahu khairan for reading and looking at the pictures.

All of the credit is due to Allah and only the mistakes have been mine.

Wa alaikum assalaam warahmatullahi wabarakatuhu,

Written in the last days of Ramadan 1427 A.H.
Completed here in the first days of Muharram 1428 A.H.

Road to Damascus 41 – Souk Jumah

Description of Souk Jumah

Veggies & Fruits at the Souk

Souk Jumah is the souk right next to our house. It’s like our friendly-local souk and we go there for most of our groceries almost every day. It actually starts right after our school and is one main street that goes all the way down maybe a mile or two. Much of it is fresh produce, fruits and vegetables, nuts, olives, fresh breadmakers, hummus, even fish!

The area surrounding this souk is called Salihiyya and is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Damascus. Salihiyya was known for its Islamic madrassas throughout history. There was one street here that had 12 or 15 maddrassas just for students learning the Islamic sciences. The guidebook claims Salahuddin’s wife is buried here somewhere but I tried a number of times but could never find it. There are also a number of mosques scattered throughout including the famous Mohiuddin ibn al-Arabi Mosque where the famous Sufi is buried.

I often walked through the souk when I was bored or if it was a nice day, just to soak up the feel of it. It’s always exciting and interesting and just FEELS like this place hasn’t changed in centuries.


Here’s an entry from my journal that talks more about this souk and souks in general if anyone’s interested:

The first days of Spring in Damascus are so beautiful. The sun finally comes out and shines on all the old buildings and monuments, little alleyways and old houses, almost making them new again. You can hear the birds singing everywhere, some wild, some from little birds in wooden cages kept on rooftops, shops and even in public parks. A neighbor across the way must keep a number of birds on their roof. I often hear them tweeting and singing through my open window.

The history of this city is staggering, almost incomprehensible. Just walking through a souk, you pass the place where Salahuddin’s wife is buried, some old madrasas where famous scholars taught, the tomb of Mohiuddin ibn Al Arabi.

Damascus has been famous in history for its beautiful gardens. One report says there were 120,000 gardens in this city, multitudes of mosques and madrasas.

On days like today, you can forget the urban sprawl, pollution and increasing western influence. You only remember that Damascus once had the most advanced hospitals and medical schools of its time. That its scholars and scholarship resonate throughout Islam until our own times. Who hasn’t picked up a book by Imam Nawwai or Ibn al Qayyim or Ghazali. Its arts of glass making, intricate wood inlay, ceramics and textiles are still famous the world over. Ever heard of a Damask tablecloth or seen the beautiful wooden furniture that comes from here and you’ll know.

A Damascus souk is like a place out of time. Winding narrow streets of stone bricks with shops and stalls crammed on both sides. I can easily imagine that these souks have not changed much over hundreds of years. Just like now, the souk must have been lined with vegetable and fruit sellers. A shoe maker, a rug store. Little shops of hijabs, jilbabs, abayahs, household goods. Nowadays you can add a little CD shop, western wear clothes shops and imported products from China or Korea.

The souk near our house is called Souk Jumah. It starts next to the Abu Nour Islamic school with bookstores, stationary supplies, and CD stores of Islamic lectures and nasheed and then continues on into grocery stores, bread shops and vegetable carts, until it turns into the souk proper and then continues all the way down past Sh. Mohiuddin’s Masjid and tomb. I’ve never actually seen the end because either we walked enough to be tired or purchased all the goods we needed. Perhaps this souk winds all the way down across the bottom of Mount Qasiyoun.

There’s always something to see in the souk. Sometimes when I’m bored and want to feel like I’m living in a different place I’ll come here. All manner of people come to go shopping, to buy their week’s groceries, or just walk around checking out all the new goods and latest fashions. There’s little old men and women buying their tangerines or bread. Housewives bargaining with the butchers on the price of chicken parts. School children in their little blue uniforms walking and running in groups, sometimes crowding into a toy stall or candy shop. Mothers carry their babies or push them in carriages. There is a constant buzz of cars, shoppers, storekeepers

Sometimes you’ll see a horse driven cart go through. Although these days you see mostly Suzuki trucks full of apples or bananas or crates of vegetables like tomatoes, carrots and potatoes. These are goods being delivered direct from the farm. Sometimes an apple farm owner will travel down the souk delivering a case of his apples to each stall as he goes. Because of all the traffic, I almost wish they would close it off to cars and suzukis so we could shop freely but I guess there’s no other way to receive deliveries and the alleyways are too narrow to build sidewalks.

Once I saw hundreds of men following a funeral bier through the souk. Each store would ‘close’ by putting something at their entrance or closing their door out of respect. I thought that was a beautiful tradition. You also see many beggars especially near Sh. Mohiuddin. At one particular spot right near the entrance to an ancient madrasa I always see this crippled man. He never asks anyone for money nor does he have a plate or pot. He just sits there and as people walk by, every now and then someone stops to give him something.

Yesterday someone remarked that Syria is in transition from yesterday to tomorrow. It truly is, and I feel that it is almost in a fight with itself trying to figure out which way to go. I would truly be saddened to see Syria turn its back on its traditions and culture and ‘modernize’. To let the souk go by way of huge malls and all the materialism it brings with it! For now at least I can enjoy and feel like what life must have been like hundreds of years ago before this disappears as well.

Link to the pictures of Souk Jumah