Masjid al-Dir’ (مسجد الدرع) in Madinah

By Spahic Omer

(The contents: The meaning of masjid al-Dir’; Masjid al-Dir’ as a “transit” and the Prophet’s wearing of his armours twice; Masjid al-Dir’ and its other names, then and now; The security advantages of the mosque and its surroundings; The simple, yet profound, architecture of the mosque.)

The meaning of masjid al-Dir’

Masjid al-Dir’ is another small mosque linked to the battle of Uhud. It lies between the Prophet’s mosque and the Uhud battlefield, though slightly tilting towards northwest of the city of Madinah. The mosque is thus called (al-dir’ means “armour or coat of mail”) because, as part of his preparations for the battle, the Prophet is said to have worn his armour (dir’) right there. 

However, some historians, such as Ibrahim Rif’at Pasha in his book “Mir’ah al-Haramayn” and Ibrahim al-‘Ayyashi in his book “al-Madinah bayn al-Madi wa al-Hadir”, objected to this claim, reminding that it is well-established that the Prophet had worn his armour at home in the house of his wife ‘A’ishah before setting out for the battle. 

Faced by this quandary, Muhammad Ilyas ‘Abd al-Ghani tried to patch things by drawing attention to the verity that the Prophet, as a matter of fact, had put on two coats of mail during the battle of Uhud as a double protection. Thus, it could be that the Prophet had donned one armour at home and another one in the mentioned mosque, due to which the mosque got its name: masjid al-Dir’.

Even so, the reasoning of Muhammad Ilyas ‘Abd al-Ghani does not hold true. It is sensible to assume that the Prophet had both armours worn while at home. However, historians looked at the subject differently. 

For example, whereas Ibn Hisham in his biography of the Prophet stated that the Prophet had put on his armour at home, Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri was explicit in his own biography “the Sealed Nectar” that at that initial juncture the Prophet had put on not just “his armour”, but “both of his armours”.

Nevertheless, the two authors, it seems, meant the same thing. For Ibn Hisham the implication of “his armour” was a set of two armours. What Ibn Hisham wanted to say was that the Prophet was under full military readiness and was prepared for the battle, which included his wearing of his two armours as a set. Ibn Hisham mentioned one armour, but the object was a general description that entailed only the type of the Prophet’s protective covering, not the details of the readiness including the quantity of armour. It stands to reason that the Prophet’s two armours were not specifically stated, but were implied.

Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri, on the other hand, spoke of the two armours because his account was more comprehensive and more details-oriented. Since one of his main references was Ibn Hisham and his biography of the Prophet (al-sirah al-nabawiyyah), as if the narrative of Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri stood for a commentary of that of his mentor.

Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri reported that the eve of the Uhud battle was Friday. The Prophet led the Jumu’ah prayer in his mosque with crowds of people. “Then he entered his house accompanied by his two friends Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. They helped him dress and wear his head-cloth. He armed himself and wore two armours one over the other. He wore his sword and went out to meet people. People were waiting for him impatiently.” It was then that the people felt inclined to change their minds and to revert to the Prophet’s original suggestion that the enemy should be confronted within the city of Madinah, rather than outside in the open. To that, the Prophet replied: “It is not fit for a Prophet, when he puts on his armour, to take it off until he fights.”

Masjid al-Dir’ as a “transit” and the Prophet’s wearing of his armours twice

When exactly and under what circumstances the mosque started to be called masjid al-Dir’ is difficult to say, but it is feasible that the designation pertained to the Prophet’s armours. The Prophet arrived at the place on Friday after the Jumu’ah prayer. He spent the night there and the following day he departed to the site of the Uhud battle. That means that the Prophet had performed the ‘asr (afternoon), maghrib (sunset), ‘isha (night) and fajr (dawn) prayers in the mosque. 

The mosque and its surrounding areas corresponded to the Prophet’s temporary military camp in which he for the duration of his stay performed a number of activities, some of which were military and others social and religious in character. One of the key activities conducted at the place was parading the army. Those who were considered to be unsuitable, disabled and too young to stand the fight, were asked to return. 

Obviously, the location of the mosque and the time spent there was a kind of a recess for a changeover. It was a point where a transition from Madinah proper to a conflict zone, and from a civil to a warlike aura, came to pass. The range of the mosque signified a temporary military base of the Muslims. It was moreover a scene of some of the most critical decision-making, and an incubator of some of the most extraordinary at once individual and collective sentiments. Heroes were made and cowards exposed. In their own right, they all inscribed indelible pages of history.

For that reason did the Prophet just there ask the persons younger than fourteen years to return to Madinah. What was to follow thenceforward was beyond their physical and mental capacities. It was likewise there or thereabouts that the Prophet refused to admit a well-armed battalion of Madinah Jews – who had wished to contribute to the fight against the Makkan idolaters – telling them “that he would not seek the assistance of disbelievers against the idolaters.” 

Furthermore, at the same place and at the end of the night just before it was daybreak – that is, shortly before leaving the “transit” and heading for the combat – a sizable group of hypocrites rebelled against the Prophet and withdrew to Madinah. Initially, those people made up about one-third of the Muslim army, so the mutiny was every bit of a disappointment. Finally, partly shaken by the actions of the hypocrites, more Muslims were about to follow their example, were it not for a divine intervention: “When two parties among you were about to lose courage, but Allah was their ally; and upon Allah the believers should rely” (Alu ‘Imran, 122).

Owing to all this, it is a fair guess that during the transit that lasted more than half a day, the Prophet had taken off his two armours he had originally worn at home. Then, when he was about to lead the Muslim army directly to the arena of the Uhud fight, he should have worn those armours again. The Prophet putting (again) on his armours, galvanizing his soldiers and implanting the spirit of bravery into their hearts, must have been a sight to behold and an experience to savour, as a result of which the mosque which was the epicentre of these historic events, was later called masjid al-Dir’ (the mosque of al-Dir’, or the mosque of the Prophet’s armour or coat of mail).

That there were two instances of the Prophet putting on his two armours, one at home and the other just ahead of the battle, testify the reports of Safi-ur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri who, having already referred to the first instance, also said in connection with the final preparations for the battle: “The Messenger of Allah forbade the Muslims to start the fight without having an order from him. He, then, wore two armours – a front armour and a back one. He urged his companions to fight and spurred them to show stamina and steadfastness at fight.”

Masjid al-Dir’ and its other names, then and now

At any rate, masjid al-Dir’ or the mosque of al-Dir’ is only one of several names of the mosque in question. There are at least three other names: masjid al-Shaykhayn, masjid al-Badai’ and masjid al-‘Udwah. The first name – masjid al-Shaykhayn – appears to be most common overall. Conversely, the name masjid al-Dir’ appears to be most common at the present time, whereas the same was not the case especially in the early and medieval history. That being the case, most contemporary works speak about the mosque as masjid al-Dir’ first and foremost. Examples of such works are “Irshad al-Qasid lima Buniya ‘ala ‘Ahd al-Nubuwwah min al-Masajid” by al-Sayyid Dhiya’ bin Muhammad ‘Attar and “”Ma’alim Makkah wa al-Madinah bayn al-Madi wa al-Hadir” by Yusuf Ragda al-‘Amili.

Ali b. Musa al-Afandi hinted at the crux of the mosque’s semantics when he said in 1885 that about halfway between Uhud and the city of Madinah there was a mosque on a slope (hence one of its names: masjid al-‘Udwah or the mosque of a slope or a hillock) which was customarily known as “masjid al-Shaykhayn, but which is now (in 1885) called masjid al-Dir’.” Yet, to further compound the matter, Muhammad Ilyas ‘Abd al-Ghani said that in 1997 he came across a noticeboard affixed on the door of the mosque which stated that the mosque’s name was masjid al-Khayr. That name, nonetheless, is unfounded and could be a fabrication. No historical source refers to the mosque with that name.

The mosque’s principal name al-Shaykhayn, which means “two elders or chieftains”, was so termed because at that particular location there were two forts, or lofty buildings (utum), that belonged to some Jews and which were called “al-Shaykhayn”. Near them, within their yard, there was a mosque which assumed the name of the two forts. 

Al-Samahudi said that the al-Shaykhayn name was given based on a tradition according to which a shaykh (an elderly man) and shaykhah (an elderly woman) used to converse at the place. He also said that the original name of the entire locality was “thaniyyah shaykhan” (the valley, or mountain path, of the two elders), owing to which the two Jewish forts (utum), as the locality’s landmarks, and consequently the mosque situated in the vicinity of the latter, were called thus by dint of the original designation of the locality.

Parenthetically, the city of Madinah abounded with utum structures. They were characteristic of the uniqueness of the city’s built environment, so much so that the Prophet – as per a weak hadith (tradition) – once said that the atam (plural of utum) added up to the adornment of Madinah and so, should be maintained as much as a legacy as an essential. 

Moreover, it should be highlighted that the mosques of Madinah during the Prophet’s time were extremely simple structures. Patterning themselves after the Prophet’s mosque, they were either unpaved and roofless enclosures, or simply earmarked open spaces with some unpretentious indicators that suggested the places’ function. The sites were mosques more with respect to function than form. Without doubt, the mosque of al-Shaykhayn, or al-Dir’, conformed to the same standard, as the words “(the mosque being) within the yard of the two utum” clearly imply.

The earliest reference to this mosque is made by Muhammad bin Zabalah (d. 199 AH/814 AC), who was the first historian of Madinah. In his seminal history of Madinah “Akhbar al-Madinah” the author merely said that on the way to Uhud the Prophet prayed in the mosque that was located in the yard of the two utum named al-Shaykhayn. At first, people used to refer to the mosque as “a mosque near or at al-Shaykhayn”, which shortly afterwards adopted the name of the place and its two utum. 

Less than a century later, in his book “Tarikh al-Madinah al-Munawwarah” Umar b. Shibbah al-Basri (d. 262 AH/876 AC) reported that the mosque was near al-Shaykhayn, and also near al-Bada’i (wonders or marvels) which in turn were at al-Shaykhayn. He also narrated that during the night which the Prophet had spent in the area and in its mosque on the eve of the Uhud battle, Ummu Salamah came with some grilled food from which the Prophet ate. According to the narration, this happened in masjid al-Bada’i (the mosque of al-Bada’i), rather than masjid al-Shaykhayn.

This denotes that the mosque was first called masjid al-Shaykhayn, then masjid al-Bada’i, then masjid al-‘Udwah, and finally in latter times masjid al-Dir’. The first three names are featured in al-Samahudi’s “Wafa’ al-Wafa.” The absence of the last name (masjid al-Dir’) points towards the possibility that the name was given – or became widespread – after al-Samahudi, who lived and died during the final years of the Mamluk dynasty in 1505.

The security advantages of the mosque and its surroundings 

By the way, the Prophet might have chosen this particular place and its mosque to spend the night and to finalize preparations for the battle of Uhud the following day, on account of the location’s security advantages. The location was slightly elevated and in part protected by the inherent defence qualities of the two Jewish forts (utum). That was crucial, indeed, for the Uhud battlefield was not far away. Though still far apart, the two armies were effectively in sight of each other. The night was long and nobody could tell what the unholy plots and designs of the Makkan polytheists had been. 

Therefore, the Prophet was vigilant. His tactical genius never departed him. He appointed fifty soldiers, headed by a companion Muhammad bin Maslamah, to patrol and guard the Muslim camp throughout the night. The chosen site afforded the Prophet a vantage point wherefrom the neighbouring areas could be kept an eye on. Hence, anything untoward from the Makkan side – individually or jointly – could be perceived and on time pre-empted. 

The place and its mosque were thus turned into an interim fortress. They yet became comparable to an armour (dir’). Like so, the mosque could possibly be called masjid al-Dir’ allegorically, because of the highest security standards that had been adopted in advance of the Uhud fight.

The simple, yet profound, architecture of the mosque 

Just like in the case of masjid al-Fash and the majority of Madinah mosques, masjid al-Dir’, too, should have been (re)built as a permanent and architecturally sound structure by Madinah’s Umayyad governor ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz prior to his appointment as Caliph. Bearing comparison to other mosques, this mosque also had its own structural, as well as functional, historical highs and lows.

Ali b. Musa al-Afandi wrote in 1885 that the mosque during his time was a roofless configuration. Shortly after that it was either renovated or reconstructed completely. This can be corroborated by the fact that Ibrahim Rif’at Pasha merely 16 years later, in 1901, stated that the mosque had two domes.

Generally speaking, the mosque had two sections: the southern and northern ones. The former was covered with two identical domes and the latter was converted into an open courtyard. This is validated by a report of Ibrahim al-‘Ayyashi in 1972, who as well added that the mosque was plastered superbly – i.e. was well-built – from the beginning.

Today the mosque retained the above-reported shape, except that it has been slightly modified and polished up. When it comes to roofing, the mosque still has two parts. The first southern one is with two domes, surmounting two bays parallel to the qiblah wall. The other northern part is not uncovered and so, does not constitute a courtyard, anymore. Instead, it has been ceiled with a flat timber roof.

The latter part of the roof is executed in such a way that a series of wooden planks have been arranged parallel to the qiblah wall, resting on wooden beams or joists placed at intervals perpendicular to the qiblah. This roof system is as much beautiful as meaningful, for the reason that it is reminiscent of a core principle of the traditional architecture of Madinah. Inasmuch as that principle, as well as the city’s vernacular building style in general, are virtually gone, taking a step such as the one relating to masjid al-Dir’ is truly a breath of fresh air to the surrounding built environment. Muhammad Ilyas ‘Abd al-Ghani disclosed that a person named Ali Babtin was responsible for the complete latest restoration of the mosque.

The two domes rest directly on the walls and on three arches that spring from a massive column placed in the middle of the mosque. Two arches extend right and left towards the western and eastern walls respectively, and one arch towards the qiblah wall. The arches, which are semi-circular, thus bridge the spaces in three directions between the central column and the walls. 

The lower end of each arch is additionally spanned by a metal beam. There are three beams corresponding to the number of arches. The beams are thrust into the arches’ springers so as to create a grid and therewith enhance firmness and stability.   

Naturally, the circular bases of the domes do not match the plan of the supporting walls beneath them, hence pendentives as triangular segments of a sphere were employed, tapering or thinning down to points at the bottom and spreading at the top to establish the continuous circular or elliptical base needed for a dome.

Since the domes do not have drums as bases, there was no space for piercing windows for ventilation and lighting purposes. This was offset by the presence of the courtyard, which was more than sufficient because the mosque was small and the courtyard comprised half the mosque’s volume. Later when the courtyard was also roofed, those issues must have posed a challenge. However, the problem was overcome by perforating a number of good-sized windows along the upper parts of the eastern, western and northern walls (the courtyard’s range). As a result, the mosque is well lit and looks very fresh and soothing. In addition, it is kept well maintained, tidy and clean. It is fully operational, hence, paying a visit to it with the aim of performing a voluntary prayer, meditating, or simply having a rest while going to or from Uhud, is a worthwhile experience.

In addition, considering that the mosque was meant to be primarily a commemorative mosque and a home of daily prayers locally, it has no minbar (pulpit), which is a sign, as well as facility, of huge congregational or Friday mosques. The mosque likewise features a small and shallow mihrab or prayer niche, appearing as though symbolic rather than functional. It is placed under the springer or the bottom-most element of the arch, which represents the lowest point where, via the intermediary of pendentives, the ends of the two domes converge.

The mosque has two water-spouts (mizabs) projecting from the roof on the southern qiblah side, enabling rainwater to pour to the ground below. There are also two additional inner spaces on the western side of the mosque’s prayer hall. They are next to each other. The first one serves as a large vestibule and the second one as restrooms and a place for ablution. However, the vestibule is so large that it extends along the entire western wall of the mosque, partly functioning, in consequence, as an auxiliary prayer hall. The two extra inner spaces have been constructed recently, as part of the latest Saudi restoration programs, and are intended to augment facilities and improve functionality. 

It should be admitted that the new additions were painstakingly conceived and carried out, honouring in the process the mosque’s original architectural character, yet further enriching it within the context of the exigencies of modern times. The mosque’s main entrance is from the southern side. One enters the vestibule first, whence through the western wall one moves into the main prayer hall.

For obvious reasons the mosque never had a minaret. However, today above the south-western corner there is a metal shaft that is about two meters and a half tall and half a meter in diameter. With two loudspeakers fastened to its highpoint, the shaft functions as an improvised minaret. Quite honestly, the “minaret” is the only element of the mosque that is incongruous and out of place. It was literally superimposed on the harmonious contour of the structure, upsetting its visual rhythm and its silhouette against the permanently blue sky of Madinah and the permanently ethereal, as well as imposing, presence of the Uhud Mountain in the distance. 

Perhaps the only other downside of the mosque is its surrounding area, which is neither landscaped nor kept orderly and clean continuously. It would be a great advantage if the neighbouring milieus are duly attended to, so that a visitor’s transition from the outside to the inside of the mosque, and from one emotional-cum-spiritual realm to another, is not only made smoother and more hassle-free, but also more profoundly impactful.

The mosque is built of the city’s famed dark lava stone. The stone units, which are of different sizes and shapes, are joined with mortar. The mortar is of a bone or desert sand colour, and as such, complements well with the greyish hue of the structure’s overall framework. The domes are plastered and whitewashed, both internally and externally. However, the rest of the interior and exterior is neither plastered nor whitewashed, revealing the naturalness of the building materials and the structural authenticity of the mosque. 

But then again, as per a photograph inside the book “Irshad al-Qasid lima Buniya ‘ala ‘Ahd al-Nubuwwah min al-Masajid” composed by al-Sayyid Dhiya’ bin Muhammad ‘Attar, not long ago the mosque’s interior was immaculately both plastered and whitewashed. It looked current somewhat and hence, different. Which means that just a few years ago for certain reasons the mosque was occasioned archetypical, plain and “organic.” Doing so is believed to have been part of the most up-to-date refurbishment and conservation undertakings coming about across the city of Madinah, which is to be commended.

The lava rock as the mosque’s main building material strikes a chord with Madinah’s geological disposition dominated by vast lava fields. Even the Prophet, when he declared that Madinah was a sacred territory, called to mind this environmental feature of the city. He said: “(Prophet) Ibrahim declared Makkah as sacred and I declare sacred the area between its (Madinah’s) two stony grounds (lava lands).” By saying that Madinah is a haram (sanctuary) between the two stony grounds (lava lands), the Prophet meant the city’s eastern and western boundaries known as al-harrah al-gharbiyyah (the western lava land) and al-harrah al-sharqiyyah (the eastern lava land).

Besides the darkish colour of the lava stone units, the mortar’s and the domes’ desert sand and white colours respectively round off the full range of the geographical tones of Madinah and its immediate surroundings. Thus, the three major colours, coalesced with the effects of the abundant natural, coupled with artificial, light and the rest of shades and tinges generated through a variety of other functional and decorative components of the mosque – such as the timber roof, mud bricks used for the filling or intrados of the mihrab, carpets, wooden shelves, etc. – render the ambiance of the mosque nothing short of spectacular. The ambiance stands for the quintessence of Madinah’s attractions and boons. It corresponds to a time capsule, so to speak.

The mosque, on the whole, is as much a traditional and historical as architectural gem. It stands proudly, defending a legacy it represents and, at the same time, defying the onslaughts of modernism and postmodernism that keep pressing forward ubiquitously and remorselessly, destroying everything in their wake. The mosque is one of a few left in Madinah that successfully combine the classical time-honoured form and contemporary function. It is refreshingly different, and an asset capable of transporting a person to different epochs and higher emotional states. The mosque is an endangered type. Its conservation and function offer hope for a better future. ***

(Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer is an academic in Department of History and Civilisation, AbdulHamid AbuSulayman Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences. The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of IIUMToday.)