The Housing Area Surrounding the Prophet’s Mosque

{jcomments on}Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia

During the Prophet’s time, the housing area surrounding his mosque, in the end, emerged nearly in the shape of a circle, though it was anything but evenly formed. Some houses were so close to the mosque proper that the Prophet (pbuh) one day ordered that the direction of the houses facing the mosque be turned away from the mosque lest a menstruating woman or a sexually defiled person should come in or pass through.[1] The doors of some houses even opened into the mosque. The Prophet (pbuh) ordered all the doors to be walled except Ali’s, since the latter had no other exit from his house. The companions replaced the doors with small apertures through which they could still enter the mosque from their houses. Later on, the Prophet (pbuh) ordered these apertures closed except that of Abu Bakr’s.[2] That many houses were near the mosque, yet were adjoining it, could be easily fathomed from the events which accompanied the caliph Umar b. al-Khattab’s decision to enlarge the mosque. The mosque was extended about twenty meters inlength and about ten meters in width. But of the problems that the caliph had to solve first, before the actual job could start, was purchasing the adjoining houses in a manner that would satisfy their owners. One of such houses belonged to al-Abbas b. Abd al-Mutallib, the Prophet’s uncle.

The number of houses encircling the mosque at the peak of the Prophet’s urbanization scheme might have varied between 250 and 350. Our approximate estimation is based on the following reasons:



The total number of houses in Madinah, inclusive of its suburbs, at the time of the Prophet’s death is estimated by some researchers to have been roughly between 2000 and 2500.[3]

As advised by the Prophet (pbuh), most of the settlements of the Helpers did not move closer to the mosque, remaining in the same positions as before the Hijrah. While the houses of many a Migrant were mainly clustering around the mosque, quite a number of them, for different reasons, settled elsewhere, some near and some far, especially after the first waves of the Hijrah abated and after the expulsion of the Jews. So, the above estimated number of the houses surrounding the Prophet’s mosque – between 250 and 350 – is unlikely to exceed the actual figure, or fall far below it, by a big margin.

Moreover, the width of the residential area surrounding the principal mosque did not exceed a few hundred meters from the mosque towards each direction, given that its natural – albeit not strictly permanent – perimeters on the western, northwest and southeast sides appeared to be the musalla, the market which extended up to the Sal’ hill, and al-Baqi’, the first Muslim cemetery, respectively. While the nearest points of each of the market and the musalla stood approximately at a distance of six hundred and four hundred meters respectively from the mosque,[4] al-Baqi’ was located barely about two hundred meters or so, away. It was maybe on account of this position of the musalla, as the virtual perimeter of Madinah on the western side, vis-à-vis the core of the city, that al-Sayyid Sabiq referred to it as having been lying in the outskirts of the city, despite its actual nearness.[5]

As for the proximity of al-Baqi’ to the mosque, it is sufficient to say that the companion Abu Sa’id al-Khudri, when once asked about the nature of the prayer of the Prophet (pbuh), reported that the noon prayer (Zuhr) would start and one would go to a place near al-Baqi’ and, having relieved himself, would come to his home, then perform ablution and go to the mosque, only to find the Prophet (pbuh) still in the first rak’ah or unit of the prayer.[6] The companion Abdullah b. Umar is even said to have heard one day the iqamah, i.e., second call to prayer, being pronounced in the mosque while he was in al-Baqi’, so he increased his walking pace to the mosque.[7] Also, the Prophet (pbuh) did not find it hard towards the end of the night to go out to al-Baqi’, spending a long time meditating and praying for the dead. He did this more than once, and his wife A’ishah once secretly followed him.[8] However, because it was located at the edge of the central residential area which surrounded the mosque, al-Baqi’ – just like the musalla – is often referred to as having been lying near, or outside, Madinah, notwithstanding its actual closeness. It is written in the Arabic World Encyclopedia (al-Mawsu’ah al-‘Arabiyyah al-‘Alamiyyah) that al-Baqi’ stood outside the city’s everyday life (‘umran), but nowadays after the rapid expansion of the ‘umran, al-Baqi’ became absorbed by it, making it an integral part of the city.[9]

Indeed, one of the reasons for having a burial ground in close proximity to residential areas was that the people could easily frequent it, pray for the dead, and reflect on that which inevitably awaits them, i.e., death and ultimate return to God. Between the mosque and al-Baqi’, adjacent to the mosque’s eastern side, there was a place for performing funerary prayers (al-Jana’iz).[10] Al-Baqi’ did not function as a burial ground before the arrival of the Prophet (pbuh) in Madinah. The first Migrant to be buried therein was Uthman b. Maz’un, while the first Helper was As’ad b. Zurarah.[11]

Besides, the central residential area was not so densely inhabited all over. There existed several open spaces, including privately owned gardens and estates within that residential area. One of such gardens was called Bairuha and it belonged to a Helper Abu Talhah. The garden stood in the vicinity of the mosque. The Prophet (pbuh) was very much fond of taking a walk in it to relax and drink of its clean and fresh water. When the verse: “By no means shall ye attain righteousness unless ye give (freely) of that which ye love: and whatever ye give, Allah knoweth it well.” (Alu ‘Imran 92), was revealed, Abu Talhah got up and said to the Prophet (pbuh) that his garden, Bairuha, was the most beloved property to him, so he wanted to give it freely as a charitable gift in Allah’s cause, hoping to attain Allah’s satisfaction in return. At this, the Prophet (pbuh) said: “Bravo! That is a fruitful property! That is a fruitful property! I have heard what you had said and I think that you should distribute the garden amongst your relatives.” So, Abu Talhah did as advised by the Prophet (pbuh).[12]

Shortly after the conquest of Khaybar in the seventh year, the Prophet’s mosque became no longer able to accommodate the ever-growing number of worshipers. Thus, it had to be enlarged. At the side towards which the enlargement was planned, there was a piece of land owned by a Madinah native (a Helper). The man refused to donate the plot in trade for a house in Paradise (Jannah), whereupon the companion Uthman b. ‘Affan hastened to purchase it for ten thousand Dirhams, donating it then to the Prophet (pbuh) for the same reward, i.e., a house in Jannah.[13]

Thus, if the Prophet’s mosque was an enclosure at first about 60X70 cubits[14] and after the said extension, about 100X100 cubits (50X50 meters), and if the immediate residential areas around it extended irregularly a few hundred meters towards each direction from the mosque, then the size of the same residential areas could be estimated to have been, more or less, 100, 000 square meters. Now, if the houses, together with their stables for some domestic animals and all the other facilities needed for a household, are realistically estimated to have occupied between 150 and 350 square meters each — in addition to the existence of open spaces, including some gardens around the mosque and the place for the funerary prayers (al-Jana’iz) — then again, the estimation that the number of houses surrounding the Prophet’s mosque at the peak of the Prophet’s urbanization scheme varied between 250 and 350, could be very much plausible.




Our assessment that the number of houses surrounding the Prophet’s mosque at the peak of the Prophet’s urbanization scheme stood between 250 and 350, could be corroborated by the following as well.

It appears as if the mosque’s western and northwest sides, where the musalla and market respectively stood, were less developed, and the houses built there were scarcer than elsewhere around the mosque. According to a hadith transmitted by the companion Anas b. Malik, a man entered the Prophet’s mosque on Friday and addressed the Prophet (pbuh) who was standing on the minbar delivering his sermon: “O Allah’s Messenger, livestock are dying and the roads are cut off; please pray to Allah for rain.” The Prophet (pbuh) raised both his hands and did as implored. Anas b. Malik added: “By Allah, there were no clouds in the sky and there was no house or building between us and the Sal’ hill. Then a big cloud like a shield appeared from behind it (Sal’) and when it came in the middle of the sky, it spread and then rained. By Allah, we could not see the sun for a week.”[15]

The Sal’ hill stands at the northwest side of the mosque and is about one mile away from it. On it, some people used to graze some of their livestock.[16] Since the Sal’ hill practically marked the natural boundary of the Madinah populated sectors in general, not many houses were erected behind it. Yet, several clans – one of them the Banu Salamah clan – for various reasons still lived on the other sides of the hill. We have seen earlier that Banu Salamah wanted to move closer to the Prophet’s mosque, but the Prophet (pbuh) was not in support of the idea.

If the cited hadith proves one thing than it is the verity that the houses and other forms of buildings between the mosque and the Sal’ hill were so scarce that the latter could be easily seen right from the mosque. However, to understand the hadith in literal terms, i.e., to believe that there were no houses or other building types at all between the mosque and Sal’, would be quite inappropriate because no sooner had the Prophet (pbuh) completed building his mosque than he set out to mark plots for houses for the homeless Migrants around it. On both the west and northwest sides of the mosque, some plots had been given and on them, in no time, the houses were erected.[17]

Besides, in view of the fact that the summit of the Sal’ hill could easily and clearly be seen from the mosque (such is true even today from certain spots), it could be that the hadith in question, in fact, implied that there were no big and high-rise houses, or other building types, in the said direction, which could get in the way of a clear view of Sal’. Thus, simple and low-rise buildings – the two chief characteristics of most Madinah houses – which must have existed between the mosque and the Sal’ hill, and which could hardly disturb one’s view of the hill, may not have been even taken into account by the narrator of the hadith, Anas b. Malik. Only lofty and elevated buildings, it could be reasoned, were meant as non-existent between the mosque and Sal’.

Why there was less development towards the Sal’ direction is difficult to say. Nevertheless, the existence of the stony Sal’ hill might have played a role in making some of its environs less fertile and less habitation friendly. The presence of the city market, as well as of the musalla, close at hand might have also been part of the cause, as those two public institutions, needing trouble-free access from all directions, obviously affected the decisions in relation to providing spaces for housing projects close to that particular sector.

The existence of the valley or watercourse of Batahan near the Sal’ hill – possibly on its eastern side – traversing the Madinah oasis from south to north and passing through that zone, should not be overlooked either. There are several watercourses which crisscross the landscape of Madinah and its suburbs. The valley of al-‘Aqiq, one of the most important valleys in Madinah, also traverses the Madinah area from south to north passing by the Sal’ hill, by the latter’s western flank. Eventually the Batahan and al-‘Aqiq valleys join their waters in one stream that ends in al-Ghabah (the Forest) near the Uhud mountain. Though these waterways normally contain water only after rain, they maintain a fairly high water table, so that there are many wells and springs.[18] In addition, a number of floods were regularly recorded at different locations adjoining those watercourses, a fact that might have, to some extent, influenced some development schemes specifically towards Sal’. It goes without saying that the existence of those valleys made the land better, and provided rich soil and irrigation water.[19] Thus, developing farms and orchards was the core interest of the people of those areas, making them — as yet another factor — less densely populated.

What exactly we mean here can be further elucidated by recalling the excuse of a Helper when he asked the Prophet’s permission to pray when it rained in his house and not in the mosque of his people. He told the Prophet (pbuh): “I have weak eyesight and I lead my people in prayers. When it rains the water flows in the valley between me and my people so I cannot go to their mosque to lead them in prayer. O Allah’s Messenger! I wish you would come to my house and pray in it so that I could take that place as a musalla (praying place).” The Prophet (pbuh) consented, and then next day with Abu Bakr, he visited the man and together they prayed in his house.[20]

When did the incident of the man entering the Prophet’s mosque and begging for rain, occur is equally difficult to ascertain because the cited hadith contains no clear-cut clues about that. What we can be sure of, however, is that the incident could not happen shortly after the Hijrah and after the Prophet’s mosque had been constructed. This is because when the man entered, the Prophet (pbuh) was standing on the minbar which was introduced quite sometime subsequent to the completion of the mosque. Before that while delivering sermons, the Prophet (pbuh) used to stand against either a tree absorbed by building, or just a palm-trunk fixed in the ground for the purpose.

[1] Abu Dawud, Sunan Abi Dawud, Kitab al-Taharah, Hadith No. 232.

[2] Hamid Khalid Muhammad, Ma’alim al-Masjid al-Nabawi al-Sharif, (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’mun li al-Turath, 2003), p. 111.

[3] Badr ‘Abd al-Basit, al-Tarikh al-Shamil li al-Madinah al-Munawwarah, (Madinah, n.pp, 1993), vol. 1 p. 251.

[4] The market was approximately five hundred meters long and more than one hundred meters wide.

[5] Sabiq al-Sayyid, Fiqh al-Sunnah (Kitab al-‘Ibadat), translated into English by Muhammad Sa’id Dabas and Jamal al-Din M. Zarabozo, (Washington: American Trust Publications, 1991), vol. 2 p. 148.

[6] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Salah, Hadith No. 917.

[7] Malik b. Anas, al-Muwatta’, Book 3, No. 3.1.10.

[8] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Salah, Hadith No. 2126-2127.

[9] Al-Mawsu’ah al-‘Arabiyyah al-‘Alamiyyah, (Riyadh: Mu’assasah A’mal al-Mawsu’ah li al-Nashr wa al-Tawzi’, 1996), vol. 23 p. 52.

[10] Al-Samahudi, Wafa al-Wafa, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1997), vol. 3 p. 783.

[11] Ibid., vol. 1 p. 270.

[12] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab Tafsir al-Qur’an, Hadith No. 76.

[13] Al-Samahudi, Wafa al-Wafa, vol. 1 p. 338.

[14] One cubit or dhira’ is equivalent to about 50 cm.

[15] Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Istisqa’, Hadith No. 127.

The door through which the man entered the mosque and addressed the Prophet (pbuh) is called today Bab al-Rahmah, the Mercy Door.

[16] Ibid., Kitab al-Dhaba’ih wa al-Sayd, Hadith No. 409, 410.

[17] For the names of some such houses, see: Abd al-Ghani Muhammad Ilyas, Buyut al-Sahabah hawla al-Masjid al-Nabawi al-Sharif, (Madinah: Matabi’ al-Rashid, 1999), p. 125-151.

[18] Encyclopedia of Islam, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986), vol. 5 p. 994.

[19] Ka’ki Abd al-‘Aziz, al-Majmu’ah al-Musawwarah li Ashhur Ma’alim al-Madinah al-Munawwarah, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1999), vol. 1 p. 99.

[20]Al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Salah, Hadith No. 417.

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