Housing Lessons from the Life of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): Social Integration and Housing (Part 2)

{jcomments on}Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia
E-mail: spahico@yahoo.com

When the Prophet (pbuh) set out to plan and distribute the land to the people around his mosque,[1] and while he was watching them plan and build their houses — the process in which he himself sometimes actively participated — the Prophet (pbuh) demonstrated that the most decisive factors that shaped the strategies and motives according to which he was discharging his development and urbanization tasks were the ones related to the Islamic spirituality, the total wellbeing of the people, as well as the social integration, justice and unity among all the sectors of society. There might have been some other factors at play as well, but, without doubt, they were secondary in nature and must have been correlated with those major three factors. This assertion of ours can be corroborated by the following.

In order to avoid unwanted crowding in the nerve-center of the city of Madinah, which consisted of the Prophet’s mosque and its surrounding residential areas, as well as to avoid the development of certain areas at the expense of the others in the city, the Prophet (pbuh) prevented the people of the Banu Salamah clan from moving there. The Banu Salamah clan was staying near the Sal’ hill, which was about one mile from the Prophet’s mosque. On hearing that there still were some empty land lots available there, they wanted to shift to the place. The Prophet (pbuh) rejected the idea though by saying: “O Banu Salamah! Don’t you think that for every step of yours (that you take towards the mosque for prayers) there is a reward?”[2]

In other words, the Prophet (pbuh) told Banu Salamah that if they moved closer to the mosque, they would gain nothing in terms of the intensity and extent of their participation in, and benefiting from, the on-going scheme of the development of the city-state of Madinah, because such a scheme was so universally just, integrative and all-inclusive that nobody, wherever he or she stayed, and whoever he or she was, could be left behind and thus become a loser. Everyone, the Prophet (pbuh) further implied, will be given an equal opportunity to express himself, make a contribution and then reap the rewards of his or her efforts. Similarly, everything that could hold back and cancel the realizing of those objectives will be sternly dealt with. Indeed, imprudent, flawed, discriminatory and myopic urbanization and general development systems are one of the causes that not only slow down, but also are very much capable of completely inhibiting the attainment of a society’s noble objectives.

However, in terms of their spiritual benefits, the Banu Salamah clan was told that they would lose a lot by moving closer to the mosque and by building their houses there, owing to the ways Islam generally sees and appreciates people, their lives and efforts, and their participations in and contributions to the intricate society building processes. Certainly, there is much more to a successful social integration than mere slogans, superficial display and ceremonies, and people’s and their houses’ physical proximity and interaction.

The commentators of the Qur’an are of the view that the mentioned incident was behind the revelation of the following verse in the Ya Sin chapter in the Qur’an: “Verily We shall give life to the dead, and We record that which they send before and that which they leave behind, and of all things have We taken account in a clear Book (of evidence).” (Ya Sin, 12) It should be noted, however, that the whole chapter Ya Sin, with the exception of this verse, was revealed in Makkah.[3] The referred to verse alone was revealed in Madinah. A companion Abdullah b. ‘Abbas said that it was not only the clan of Banu Salamah that wanted to move closer to the Prophet’s mosque. There were many more families and clans of the Helpers (Ansar or the natives of Madinah) who wanted to do the same. However, following the revelation of the said verse, they all gave up their plans and stayed where they initially lived.[4]

Surely, it was due to this that many people, though wanted very much, were not disappointed if they were unable to build their houses and live in the immediate vicinity of the Prophet’s mosque and his own houses. They still felt that they and their contributions were very much important, needed and greatly appreciated. They felt that even though they lived somewhat away from the focal point of the Madinah city in terms of the physical closeness to it, yet they stood at the core of its integration, urbanization and general development plans and efforts.

Social integration that the Prophet (pbuh) and Islam were promoting was much more comprehensive, thorough, profound and divine than what a few physical aspects thereof were able to suggest. Just like everything else, social integration in Islam too transcends its mere physical and often shallow and artificial dimensions, embracing and dealing with all the corporal and spiritual tiers of human existence. Social justice, unity and integration are the end at which virtually all Islamic teachings and values point and towards which they all jointly lead.

Hence, if we look at the houses of the early Muslims in Madinah that adjoined, or were positioned in close proximity to the Prophet’s mosque and his houses, we could see that there were many houses which were very close to, and even abutted, each other. However, there were some houses which stood away from each other and were separated by gardens, meadows or by some empty open spaces. Furthermore, some of the greatest companions of the Prophet (pbuh) lived near the Prophet’s mosque and his houses, but there also were some other great companions who lived quite far from the same area. In the same way, there were some relatively unknown companions of the Prophet (pbuh) who were given to build their houses and live near the Prophet’s mosque, although they were not as “distinguished” as some other people.[5]And finally, as mentioned earlier in the case of the Banu Salamah clan, many people were asked to remain relatively far from the Prophet’s mosque at their original locations, without jeopardizing their social standing, participation and commitment, although a sufficient space for their houses, especially during the early stages of the Madinah development enterprise, could somehow have been procured in the much loved and sought after area surrounding the mosque.

The Prophet’s housing scheme which aimed at ensuring a solid social integration between all the residents in Madinah, was beneficial even for those who were the poorest and, hence, were forced to face many difficulties in securing a home. Apart from responding to a great many religious injunctions in Islam meant for ensuring a required minimum wellbeing for the destitute and needy in the community, the Prophet (pbuh) also was much aware that the consequences of neglecting the hardship of that category of people would have been such that they could defeat the whole purpose of his integration efforts. Moreover, the whole process of society building in Madinah would have been badly affected too.

The Prophet (pbuh) and his policies had everyone on record. He knew that the success of the Madinah community depended as much on everyone’s accomplishment of his or her duties and responsibilities as on their enjoyment of their basic human rights. Enjoying the warmth of home and the family Islam sees as one of such basic rights. Islam also preaches that just as no one who possesses a lot is to regard himself as extremely lucky and fortunate, likewise no one who possesses little is to regard himself as extremely unlucky and unfortunate. Indeed, both groups of people have been tested with different tests and have been given dissimilar situations and means either to succeed or fail in their earthly mission. In principle, no one is rich or deprived on merit.

In Islam, the actual owner of everything on earth, including man, is Allah. Allah gives whomever He wants, and takes away from whomever He wants, in line with the dictates of His infinite wisdom, mercy, compassion and justice. One is not to get carried away when he has and when he achieves, and not to feel totally disheartened when he does not have and when he fails to achieve. One is to be pragmatic, come to terms with his own situation and then try to get the best out of it. He must remember that Allah does everything due to a purpose which, sometimes, is beyond our grasp. As His creation, Allah loves us, cares for us and always does only that which is best for us. He knows what is best for us because He knows us better than even us knowing ourselves.

Surely, having a different understanding than this is tantamount to doing injustice to ourselves and to try to undermine our spiritual wellbeing. For example, due to some flawed perceptions concerning the constant and preordained life fluctuations, there are people who succeed when they achieve a lot in life, but fail when they possess and achieve little, as they eventually fall pray to impatience, anxiety, jealousy, resentment, meanness, etc. Also, on the other hand, there are people who make it when they possess and achieve little in life, but fail when they achieve a lot, as they too eventually fall prey to greed, haughtiness, extravagance, ingratitude, rivalry, etc. No condition of man in which Allah as his Creator and Lord places him is the guarantee of man’s ultimate triumph. The guarantee of man’s triumph in both worlds is how he reacts to and copes with whatever condition in which Allah places him. Allah says: “No misfortune can happen on earth or in your souls but is recorded in a decree before We bring it into existence. That is truly easy for Allah, in order that you may not despair over matters that pass you by, nor exult over favors bestowed upon you. For Allah loves not any vainglorious boaster.” (al-Hadid, 22, 23)

It is right here that the Islamic notions of brotherhood and unreserved cooperation between people come into force. The rich help the poor overcome their worldly but in essence temporary setbacks with which they have been tested, relieving them from some potentially dangerous spiritual impediments often associated with destitution. Whereas the poor, on the other hand, help the rich keep their feet on the ground and purify themselves and their in essence temporary prosperity with which they too have been tested, guarding them against some potentially perilous spiritual impediments often associated with wealth and prosperity. In other words, the two parties: the rich and the poor, need and depend on each other in relation to some of the most fundamental matters of this world and the Hereafter. Both of neglecting the poor and giving excessive preferentiality to the rich spells their respective ill-treatment and is a step in a wrong direction. The society needs the active participations of both the rich and poor for its self-realization. No society is successful where the rights and responsibilities of the rich and poor, and the balanced relationships between them, have not been duly attended to. Taking care only of the rich, while overlooking and marginalizing the poor, is not the way. Similarly, taking care only of the poor, while ignoring the requirements and disrespecting the rights of the rich, is not the answer either.

Due to all this, in the process of solving the housing issues in Madinah, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did not neglect those people, an overwhelming majority of whom were Migrants (muhajirs) from Makkah, who have been so poor that they could not afford even their daily sustenance, let alone the shelter. They were called the “People of the suffah” (suffah, meaning a “raised platform or bench”). The Prophet (pbuh) set up for them a shaded structure in a corner of the northern side of his mosque which served as a hostel, so to speak, to them where they used to stay. The suffah could house between seventy and one hundred individuals, and the actual number of tenants was subject to how fast their overall condition was improving. The “People of the suffah” would frequently go out to perform whatever work they could find in order to procure as much of their sustenance as they could. They actively participated in wars against polytheists and some of them died as martyrs on different battlefields. There were actually two suffahs: one for men and the other for women, the former seemingly outnumbering the latter.

Although the “People of the suffah” tried really hard to live on their own, yet they found it impossible to make ends meet. So the community had to help them in the short term by providing necessities almost on a daily basis, and in the long term by providing some permanent work opportunities for them, thus encouraging them to stand on their own feet as soon as it was possible and become the community’s asset. Inviting the suffah dwellers for a meal, or bringing food into the Prophet’s mosque where they stayed and eating with them in groups was a regular occurrence. The number of the suffah’s occupants was always erratic and unstable. There were always those who were leaving it and those who were coming in. However, seldom were these alterations in a commensurate mode, resulting in the place to be sometimes overcrowded and at other times to be to a degree vacant.

Even though the Islamic state was not so affluent financially, in particular for the duration of the first few years after the Hijrah (migration from Makkah to Madinah, the poor and needy of the state were not to worry about it at all. Not only to the housing problem did this rule apply, but also to all the other exigencies needed for living a respectable and normal life. It was for this reason, therefore, that the prescription of Zakah (the alms) and Sadaqah al-fitr (charity of fast-breaking) came about during the earliest Madinah period, aiming at creating the responsible, ethical and caring individuals who, in turn, will make up a sound, principled and caring society. So critical in Islam is the injunction of caring for the less fortunate ones and those tried with destitution that an underlying trait of a real believer is to wish to his fellow believers — whoever and wherever they may be — only that which he wishes to himself. In Islam, charity and kindness to others, as a noble form of virtue, are to be preached, acted upon, encouraged and even commanded if the need arises. According to the Qur’an, one of the chief reasons for which the inhabitants of Hellfire shall undergo such a painful and agonizing chastisement will be their deliberate refusal to feed the indigent. Allah says: “And (ask) of the Sinners: ‘What led you into Hell Fire?’ They will say: ‘We were not of those who prayed; nor were we of those who fed the indigent.” (al-Muddaththir, 41-44)

Placing the poor and homeless “People of the suffah” within the domain of the Prophet’s mosque, a community development center and the nerve-center of the vibrant city-state of Madinah, clearly implied that the Islamic notions of sympathizing, caring and sharing with others have been put into practice in some of the most comprehensive and spirited terms at the hands of the Prophet (pbuh) and the early Muslims. By staying in the mosque, the message disseminated to the “People of the suffah” was that they were still regarded as an integral part of the community, and that their brethren will not have a rest till their testing socio-economic predicament is solved once and for all and they become completely integrated into the community. They were not left alone and their problem was shared by the whole of the community. Their problem was always seen as such, i.e., as a problem that required a solution, and so a solution was constantly pursued. Certainly, this was a powerful source of endless contentment, confidence, hope and loyalty for those affected.

On the contrary, placing – hypothetically — the “People of the suffah” in an isolated place, away from both the developments and concerns of the community, would surely have implied to them the opposite of what has been mentioned earlier, and could only dangerously aggravate their condition and, in the long run, the condition of the whole community. Their problem would not have been viewed as the problem of the community that required the community’s unreserved and joint effort. The problem they would have had no choice but to see as solely theirs, and, as such, a prolonged and virtually unsolvable one. However, not only the misery and relative failure of the “People of the suffah” would such a scenario signify, but also the complete failure and misery of the whole community. Each and every member of the community would then be held responsible. As the Prophet (pbuh) has said – as mentioned earlier – the community of believing men and women are like one body. If one of its limbs is in pain, the whole body is in pain because of restlessness, sleeplessness and fever that it feels till the affected limb is cured.[6]



[1] Al-Samhudi, Wafa’ al-Wafa, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1997), vol. 2 p. 717-734.

[2] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Adhan, Hadith No. 625.                                                    

[3] Jalal al-Din Al-Suyuti, Al-Itqan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1979), vol. 1 p. 16.

[4] Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu al-Sabuni Muhammad ‘Ali, (Beirut: Dar al-Qur’an al-Karim, 1981), vol. 3 p. 157.

[5] Al-Samhudi, Wafa’ al-Wafa, vol. 2 p. 717-734. Muhammad Ilyas Abd al-Ganiyy, Buyut al-Sahabah hawl al-Masjid al-Nabawi al-Sharif, (Madinah: Matabi’ al-Rashid, 2003), p. 61-151.

[6] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Book 032, Hadith No. 6254.


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