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F. E. Peters
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


In pre-Islamic times called Yathrib, Medina (Madīnah) became Muḥammad 's home after the Hijrah. An oasis 275 miles north of Mecca, it was originally an agricultural settlement, with widely scattered palm groves and armed farmsteads; among its inhabitants were both Arabs and Jews. The two groups lived in a complex political association, which began to unravel late in the sixth century CE, resulting in a grave civil war throughout the oasis. This condition led to Muḥammad 's invitation to leave his native Mecca and migrate to Yathrib, where it was thought by some that this charismatic holy man might successfully arbitrate the woes of the oasis. The migration (Hijrah) took place in 622 CE and marks the beginning of the Muslim era.

Once settled in Yathrib, thereafter called “the City of the Prophet” (Madīnat al-Nabī), or simply Medina, Muḥammad began to set the subsequent course of Islam as a religious and political society. The courtyard of his residence served as the first mosque for the Muslims. Early on, he had a falling out with the Jews and, consequently, changed his direction of prayer from Jerusalem to the Kaʿbah in Mecca and modified his fasting practice, which had been based on a Jewish model.

Muḥammad first regulated the political problems of Medina by gaining assent to a document (the “Constitution of Medina”) knitting all the inhabitants into a single polity. Soon, however, a more peremptory solution presented itself. In 624 Muḥammad and his Muslims successfully attacked a Meccan trade caravan at nearby Badr Wells. The results disheartened the Meccans and emboldened the rest of the Medinans to declare openly for their new leader and his prophetic claims. Other successes followed that of Badr Wells, and it became increasingly clear to the Medinans, and eventually to the Meccans as well, that Muḥammad and his message were a force to be reckoned with in western Arabia. By the time of Muḥammad 's death in 632, the movement called Islam had not only won Arabia but stood poised to conquer the great but enfeebled superpowers of Byzantium and Iran.

Muḥammad 's first four successors chose to remain in Medina, and so the oasis settlement became the capital of the new Islamic empire. The city remained, for all that, a simple place not much changed from the Prophet 's own days there. During the next hundred-odd years the Muslim armies were on the march across North Africa and Iran; when they finally came to rest, and the booty of empire began to be invested in the adornment of its capital, that capital had moved elsewhere. Medina was not to be the seat of sovereignty, its rulers decided. Nor did sovereignty ever return to Medina, though eventually, under the Ottomans, it gained the ascendancy over its political rival Mecca.

The two cities also became rivals in sanctity. Muḥammad himself had constituted Medina a “sacred area” (ḥaram) like Mecca, though probably for commercial purposes since it had no shrine. But with the Prophet 's death, Medina possessed its shrine. Muḥammad was buried in the apartment of one of his wives in Medina, right off the courtyard that served as the first mosque in Islam. Later rulers began to invest in the expansion and beautification not only of the mosque but of the Prophet 's own tomb. Other celebrated Muslims were buried nearby: his daughter Fāṭimah, Abū Bakr and ʿUmar (who lay next to the Prophet), and ʿUthmān as well. Their tombs also received secondary embellishment, but it was the Prophet 's own sarcophagus, invisible inside a draped, grilled enclosure within the enlarged mosque, that began to attract Muslims to Medina. The ḥajj might be made only to Mecca, but a ziyārah or pious visit to the Prophet 's tomb at Medina was on the itinerary of every Muslim pilgrim to the Hejaz (Ḥijāz).

Thus Medina and Mecca became known as the Ḥaramān, the “Twin Sanctuaries,” and the distant caliphs and sultans who ruled the Holy Cities of Arabia rejoiced in the title “Servant of the Ḥaramān.” It was an expensive honor. The ruler was responsible for the caravans that set forth from within his domains on their long and dangerous journey to the Hejaz. They carried with them the annual allocations from the imperial budget and from private sources for the support of the personnel of the Ḥaramān, everyone from the grand sharīf who ruled them to the lowliest sweeper at the Prophet 's mosque in Medina.

In medieval times Medina enjoyed little political importance. The sharīf lived in Mecca by preference, and the Egyptian or Ottoman governor usually chose to live in Jiddah on the coast. What indirectly changed the political fortunes of the city was the British establishment of themselves in Egypt, thus channeling the direct communication from Istanbul to the Hejaz overland through Syria, thence south through Medina to Mecca. The Turks, to strengthen the link, constructed a telegraph line to Medina and, in 1908, completed the Hejaz Railway, which was for political reasons extended no further than Medina. Medina thus became the chief communication center of Ottoman Arabia, and so its chief garrison town as well.

When Sharīf Ḥusayn ibn ʿAlī announced his revolt against the Turks in 1916, Mecca fell quickly; but Medina, with its garrison of regular Ottoman troops under the command of the redoubtable Fakhrî Pasha, held out against the sharīf  's forces until January 1919. With the end of the war, Medina formed part of Sharīf Ḥusayn 's short-lived Kingdom of the Hejaz. Ḥusayn 's bitter rival Ibn Saʿūd took the city without much difficulty in December 1925; it was absorbed with the rest of the Hejaz into the newly enlarged Saudi kingdom. There were misgivings at the time that the Wahhābī Saudis might extend their severe disapproval of the cult of the dead to the Prophet 's own tomb in Medina, but the fears were groundless. The Saudis destroyed some minor shrines, but the Prophet 's mosque and tomb they eventually made larger and more ornate than before. Medina today is a large modern city with few physical traces of its pre-Islamic or even medieval past.

See also HUSAYN IBN ʿALI (C. 1853–1931); MECCA; and SAʿūD, ʿABD AL-ʿAZīZ IBN ʿABD AL-RAHMāN ĀL.


  • Burckhardt, John L.Travels in Arabia (1829). Reprint. London, 1968. A sharp-eyed and judicious anglicized Swiss visitor to the holy cities early in the nineteenth century.
  • Burton, Richard F.A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al-Madinah and Meccah (1855). 3d. ed. Reprint. New York, 1964. Celebrated British soldier-adventurer makes the pilgrimage in disguise in the mid-nineteenth century.
  • Farāhānī, Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ḥusaynī. A Shiʿite Pilgrimage to Mecca, 1885–1886: The Safarnāmeh of Mirzā Moḥammad Ḥosayn Farāhānī. Edited, translated, and annotated by Hafez Farmayan and Elton L. Daniel. Austin, Tex., 1990. Mecca and the Medina through Shīʿī eyes in the late nineteenth century.
  • Nomachi, Ali Kazuyoshi, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Mecca the Blessed, Medina the Radiant: The Holiest Cities of Islam. New York, 1997. Historical essay on the Holy Cities with numerous color photographs.
  • Ochsenwald, William. Religion, Society, and the State in Arabia: The Hijaz under Ottoman Control, 1840–1908. Columbus, Ohio, 1984. Detailed analysis of nineteenth-century Ottoman rule of the Holy Cities and the Hejaz.
  • Peters, F. E.Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places. Princeton, N.J., 1994. Collection and analysis of the narrative sources on visits to Mecca and Medina from the earliest times to 1925.
  • Peters, F. E.Mecca: A Literary History of the Muslim Holy Land. Princeton, N.J., 1994. Collection and analysis of the narrative sources dealing with Mecca and Medina from the earliest times to World War I.
  • Rutter, Eldon. The Holy Cities of Arabia. 2 vols. London and New York, 1928. Eyewitness account of Mecca and Medina during the first years of Saudi sovereignty.
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