WHEN I first visited Madinah nearly thirty years ago, an askari – a tomb guard – slapped my hands when I raised them in supplication facing the Prophet’s grave. “Shirk!” he hissed sanctimoniously, telling me I must face the Qiblah wall instead.
My blood boiling at his insinuation that I was about to commit polytheism by greeting the Prophet (SAW), my first thought was to give this self-righteous moron a beating. It was the 1980’s and I was an angry young man.
Thankfully, whilst I realised that the Companion Sayiddina ‘Umar (ra) buried next to Muhammad (SAW) would probably also have wanted to thrash this boorish askari, I remembered that the Prophet (SAW) would definitely have steered the issue into calm waters.
I moved on, and whilst the askari berated a group of Turks who were ignoring him, I quietly raised my hands again. I remembered the words of Imam Malik (ra), who’d told the second Abbasid Caliph, Abu Ja’fr al-Mansur, over 1,000 years ago to face the Prophet (SAW) when he greeted him.
This etiquette speaks to the attributed Prophetic Tradition that whilst all prophets taste mortal death they are alive in the barzakh – the inter-space between earthly death and the final after-life. I would, therefore, not be passing salutations upon a lifeless pile of bones as so many literalists would have us believe.
The great 11th century scholar, Al-Baihaqi, explains that prophets’ souls are returned to them after death so they are ‘alive in their Lord’s presence’ like the martyrs. This explains why the Prophet (SAW) has been able to explain in such detail the physical appearance of prophets such as Musa, Jesus and Ibrahim (as).
A sound Tradition, quoted by Abu Hurairah, has the Prophet (SAW) saying that in his grave no-one would greet him from near or afar without Allah, the Highest, returning his soul to him so he could return that greeting – and so that Allah could bless that person ten times.
In the barzakh the Prophet (SAW) possesses a supra-consciousness. He himself said that no-one would invoke blessing on him until the Day of Resurrection without a special angel informing him of the person’s name and lineage.
This is further re-inforced by the writings of Sayyid Muhammad Alawi al-Maliki, one of the modern era’s most authoritative scholars, saying that as a community we are shown to the Prophet (SAW) morning and evening and that he cares deeply about us and prays constantly for our welfare.
Or, as Anas ibn Malik reported the Prophet (SAW) saying: ‘…my intercession (or prayers to Allah on your behalf) is assured for all those who visit me’.
In the angelic realm, it is said that the Prophet’s (SAW) tomb – the most scared spot on our planet – is abuzz with heavenly beings, unimaginable colour and unearthly light. Each dawn, some 70, 000 angels who’ve just made devotions around the Ka’bah in Makkah, come to bestow salutations upon him.
These angels have been described as a ‘river of intense energy and light’. They only greet the Prophet (SAW) once and will re-appear on the Final Day in a dazzling and uncountable array.
However, for those who may still not accept that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) is ‘alive’, there is plentiful evidence that he is, at the very least, highly aware of us. He (SAW), of course, can appear in dreams, and he did say that the Shaitan – the Devil – would not be able to shape-shift his form.
The first account, a few decades after the death of the Prophet (SAW), is attributed to Sa’id ibn al-Musaib being the only person present in the Prophet’s (SAW) mosque after Harra, a battle in which Yazid ibn Mu’awiyya had sacked Madinah, killing 10,000 Companions.
For three days there was no adhan, but each prayer time Ibn al-Musaib would hear the call to prayer coming from the Prophet’s (SAW) grave. Muhammad ibn Hibban, the 10th century Hadith master, reports Ibrahim ibn Shaiban greeting the prophet, who audibly replied to his salams.
And if that isn’t enough, there are many who will claim that the ‘presence’ of the Prophet (SAW) comforted them. Martin Lings, the author of Muhammad, told me before his passing in 2005 that when he had difficulties with the book, he felt the gentle hand of the Prophet (SAW).
There was also an incident in Madinah when a young boy, sent into the Prophet’s (SAW) burial chamber to retrieve a dead pigeon, came out with an apple. Shaikh Ahmad Tijani, the Algerian founder of the Tijani Sufi Order, had seen the Prophet (SAW) in a wakeful state, and had conversed with him.
But the most famous incident proving the Prophet’s (SAW) state occurred in the 12th century when Sayyid Ahmad Rifai’i, a descendant of the Blessed House, visited the tomb of his forefather.
A man of modesty, Sayyid Rifai’i had not dressed himself in the travelling garb that Prophetic descendants did in those days. So when he requested permission to enter the chamber – a privilege allowed to the Sayyids – the guard had stopped him, asking him for proof of his lineage.
Disappointed, Sayyid Rifai’i had cried out: “As-salamu ‘alaikum, ya jaddi.” (Peace on you, my grandfather).
To everybody’s amazement, the Prophet (SAW) had answered: “wa ‘alaikum salam, ya walidi.” (And peace on you, my son). Then the Prophet (SAW) had extended his hand out from the grave and Sayyid Rifai’i had kissed it.
For those literalists who would like to write this off as a Sufi fairy story, Sayyid Rifai’i’s kissing of the Prophet’s noble hand was witnessed by hundreds. It caused states of ecstasy and set off a frenzy – so much so that people slashed and stabbed themselves with their swords and daggers.
When they came round there were many injured and Sayyid Rifai’i was forced to pray for their healing, which the Creator permitted, the wisdom being that had the incident of the Prophet (SAW) proffering his hand to Sayyid Rifai’i been unpleasing to Allah, he would not have granted His Mercy.