It was bitter cold the first time we went to Nawa. I remember wearing layer upon layer of black, gloves, a thick scarf over another, a muffler wrapped around my neck. It was early morning right before Eid, on the Day of Arafah. The trip was unofficially planned by some of the brothers, and word got around, as it somehow always does. Nawa is the home town of Imam Nawawi, a scholar of fiqh from the seventh century after Hijra.
We walked towards the masjid where we were to meet, and waited, and waited. You have to get used to this in Shaam: often, being on time means that you’re early. We watched as the small shops around the masjid began to open, setting up their wares. A man set out croissants on a table in front of his grocery store. An old woman sat in an empty space between two shops, settling a few crates of apples and oranges in front of her to sell to passersby.
It was just after sunrise. We could hear some recitation going on inside the masjid, so I went in to see what was happening. At Abou Nour, the sisters’ prayer area is three floors, overlooking the brothers’ prayer area. I remember when I first visited it, I felt like a princess in one of those elevated balconies at a coliseum, watching a performance going on below.
Looking down I saw a group of about thirty men sitting behind an imam, all with their hands raised, praying for forgiveness… “Ya Allah, we are knocking on Your door, so do not turn us away. Please forgive us on this special day, this day of Arafah, and forgive us thereafter. Ya Allah, do not allow us to leave this masjid without your forgiveness being sent down upon us, and do not allow this day to be complete without forgiving the hujjaj at Mt. Arafah…”
I returned outside, and slowly people began to gather. There are about twenty-five of us, that pile into a small, beat-up old bus. No heat. I take the window seat, and cover my face with my muffler niqab style. It’s so early. I want to sleep. But it’s so cold, and the rumbling and up and down movement of the bus prevents me from rest. I push the curtain away from the window, and watch as we pass through Damascus. Shops are still closed, the streets are empty; it’s all urban sprawl and cement. We exit the city, a long strip of highway ahead of us and empty landscape: rough rocky sand, mountains in the distance, and sometimes nothing at all but the road and morning fog. The sky a bleak gray, the sun somewhere unseen.
We start to see houses, spread far apart, colorful in a dusky way; that faded orange, that miami kind of light green, terra cotta. The houses are small squares, little more than shacks, with colorful clothing hanging on the rooftops, and sometimes a carpet hung half way down to be dried by the sun. They are the only spots of bright color in the otherwise muted surroundings. There are some bedouins, walking with their skinny sheep or goats, red and white checkered cloths tied back from their sun-beaten faces. It reminds me of India.
Nawa is a small town. We see garages, worn down buildings, nothing higher than two stories, chalky styled writing painted on the fronts of buildings instead of proper signs. Slowly everything takes on the name ‘Imam Nawawi’ – whose grave we came to see. ‘Imam Nawawi Bookstore’; ‘Imam Nawawi Groceries’; ‘Imam Nawawi Butcher’. He’s the home-town hero here.
The graveyard where he is buried is small, and at an incline. There are small headstones and plaques marking the other graves, jutting out between a few pieces of wild grass, some encircled by small stones. There’s a path leading upwards, to the top of the hill, where his maqam is: there, there is a squat square building, about the size of a room, with no roof. As you look at it from the entry of the graveyard, you see long, stark branches stretching out from within. At this hour there’s an interesting play of light and shadow and the room actually seemed to have an inner glow.
We enter. There is only a huge tree, expansive at it’s base with high branches reaching out to the sky. There are no leaves. The floor around the tree has been tiled; around the edge of the room is a ledge for people to sit. One wall has a number of plaques, explaining who Imam Nawawi was, his greatness as a scholar and his contributions to Islamic history.
There’s a cloth hung on a branch from the tree; attached to some strings that somehow is able to enclose part of the area for women. I pull the curtain around me and sit. The brothers sit on the other side, and one of them gives a talk on Imam Nawawi’s life. He was a phenomenal scholar, who dedicated his entire life to learning, never marrying for fear that he could not give his wife her proper rights while so immersed in study. He would take something like sixteen classes a day, and he would never ‘go’ to sleep; only when he fell asleep in his books would he take his rest. He like us, came from his hometown to Damascus to study, and he made good use of his time; and we should do the same. Almost every Muslim household in the world has a copy of his famous work, Riyadh as-Saliheen; he is the foremost scholar in the Shafi’i school; and his wide acceptance and his love by the generality of Muslims, of all methodologies and schools of thought, is a good sign, of Allah’s pleasure.
The story of his maqam: Imam Nawawi was a Shafi’i, and the prevalent opinion in the Shafi’i school is that it is not permitted to build structures over graves; and he specifically requested that nothing be built on his grave after he died. After he passed away, people went against his wishes, and built a structure over his grave anyway, including a dome. After some time, it is said that a tree began to grow, until it toppled the dome entirely.
I’m not really into all that ‘heebie-jeebie’ stuff people say they encounter at the graves of righteous people (for lack of a better expression), and having visited a number of graves here in Damascus and in the surrounding area I can say that I know that at least for myself, I am not one who normally has amazing spiritual experiences at them. but, I did feel something at this grave. A calmness, a settling, a disconnection almost from everyday worries and thoughts. I made many resolutions there, of things I wanted to accomplish and do with my time in Damascus. I can’t say if that came from something Allah blessed that place with, or from an internal state.
Some women entered my enclosed area, three Syrian ladies, older in age, who lived nearby. After asking me some questions about where I was from, our group, etc., they gave me some candy and invited me to their house for tea.
On our way back to Damascus, I watched as the sun embraced that same barren landscape and gave it life and color. There is something about these types of experiences that are beautiful and difficult at the same time. They are intense and heavy. It’s something that Allah will ask me about I’m sure: I gave you this experience that moved your soul, even just for a moment. What did you do with it? Where are its fruits in your life?
And it’s also intensely beautiful, because from it I know the grace and kindness of Allah upon me. Who am I, that Allah brought me to this experience, opened my heart to its beauty, and moved me? What did I do to deserve or earn that? It’s not from me, or because of me, but Him, subhanahu wa ta’ala. From His generosity, that He not only teaches us how to get close to Him, but that He helps us get there, step by step.
That God should love me is more wonderful
Than that I so imperfectly love Him.
My reason is mortality, and dim
Senses; His–oh, insupportable–
Is that He sees me. Even when I pull
Dark thoughts about my head, each vein and limb
Delights Him, though remembrance in Him, grim
With my worst crimes, should prove me horrible.
And He has terrors that he can release.
But when He looks He loves me; which is why
I wonder; and my wonder must increase
Till more of it shall slay me. Yet I live,
I live; and He has never ceased to give
This glance at me that sweetens the whole sky.
Mark van Doren