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Three separate suicide bomber attacks in Saudi Arabia
01:42 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Haroon Moghul is a senior fellow and director of development at the Center for Global Policy. His next book, “How to be a Muslim,” will be out in 2017. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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Haroon Moghul: The Muslim community is in shock after the Medina bombing

The attack on the sacred city is an attack on Islam, he says

CNN  — 

Medina is a city eclipsed only by Mecca in the Muslim’s sacred imagination.

Every year, millions of pilgrims descend on Medina’s Great Mosque, usually before or after the hajj pilgrimage, or during the last ten nights of Ramadan, keen to visit the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed, to pray in his mosque, to sit where he once sat, in this holiest time of year.

Haroon Moghul

That very same mosque was attacked by a suicide bomber in these last nights of Ramadan.

Though there is yet no claim of responsibility, it seems hard to imagine that anyone but ISIS was behind the attack. Al Qaeda is vile, but Al Qaeda also rejected the forerunner of ISIS for being too violent. There’s no doubt that this was an unprecedented assault on the world’s Muslims, many of whom come from all corners of the world to Medina. But it was also an assault on Islam itself.

The Muslim Big Three

The Islamic faith holds three cities most sacred. The third is Jerusalem, our first direction of prayer, the site of the Dome of the Rock, an octagonal building from which Mohammed ascended to heaven to be received before God.

In Jerusalem, Mohammed also led all the prophets in prayer, an appropriate choice of venue. Moses and Joshua tried to reach the city. David ruled it, and his son Solomon after him. Jesus and John the Baptist lived in the shadow of Jerusalem.

Mecca is the most sacred. It’s our current direction of prayer.

We believe Mecca was founded where, ages ago, Adam and Eve reunited after their exile from the garden. They built the first mosque, or place to worship God, where the Ka’ba is today, a cubical structure – it literally means”cube” – the original form of which we date to Abraham. With his son Ishmael, who was also a prophet, Abraham erected a simple stone structure, the first House of God, and called humanity to come worship the Divine.

It is that call that Muslims honor with the hajj pilgrimage. Traveling in the millions – thanks to jet aircraft and the rise of middle classes worldwide – to circle the Ka’ba and follow in the footsteps of our spiritual ancestors. Besides making the hajj pilgrimage, many Muslims make it a point to visit Medina, which is Islam’s second sacred city.

The exile

Mohammed began preaching the religion of Islam in the year 610, in his native Mecca. He was descended from Abraham, and taught that he followed in Jesus’ footsteps. In him, the children of Ishmael and Isaac were reunited.

But though he earned followers, like the first Caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar, their numbers were few. Early Muslims were often quite far down on the social hierarchy of the time – many former or current slaves, women (treated especially poorly during that time), or they did not belong to tribes, all of which meant they had few protectors. At first, these early Muslims were mocked for their faith, but soon they found themselves humiliated, and eventually some of them were tortured and even killed.

Mohammed’s own tribe was driven out of Mecca and placed under boycott. The stress placed on his family was fatal: In the year 619, his wife and uncle died, unable to bear the persecution any longer. Soon after, though, an unexpected opportunity presented itself. Leaders from the city of Yathrib, some 250 miles north, wanted to become Muslim, and invited Mohammed to rule their city, which had been bitterly divided by tribal infighting.

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How Saudi Arabia attacks failed
02:08 - Source: CNN

Mecca’s tiny Muslim community fled under cover of night; Islam’s exodus was so critical to the religion that our calendar begins with that year of exodus to Yathrib. That city was eventually renamed Medina, which just means “city” – as in “city of the Prophet.” (Arabic should win points for just getting to the point.) Mohammed lived out nearly the rest of his life in Medina, which became his beloved new home, his safe haven.

When Mohammed died, he was buried in his home, which had been attached to the city’s Spartan mosque.

His successors ruled from Medina. The first grand Muslim dynasties moved the capital away, but built ever more elaborate tombs over his grave, expanding his original humble mosque until it has become the massive Great Mosque we see today, an impossibly lavish, expensive and enormous set of columned arcades, huge chambers from inside which hundreds of thousands can comfortably fit, sheltered from the fierce heat without.

But the heart of Medina and the Mosque is still the southernmost end, where behind three grills lie the tombs of Mohammed, and the first caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar. Some Muslims claim there is a fourth grave, awaiting Jesus, Islam’s messiah, who upon his return to the world will live out a normal lifespan and die as all people eventually do. Medina is our past, you see. But also our future.

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The spectacle of savagery

There’s a Muslim tradition that says that, before Jesus descends, the Antichrist will have free reign over the earth, filling it with injustice and evil. But he won’t be allowed to enter Mecca or Medina. Perhaps it’s this conviction that explains why so many Muslims I am talking to right now simply cannot believe what has just happened.

A suicide bombing in Medina?

It’s true that ISIS practices a vicious violence with a cold, cruel political logic, seeking to exploit and aggravate existing social tensions: They call it “the management of savagery.” Elsewhere it means “the elimination of the gray zone,” forcing people to choose sides. Going to war with pluralism, tolerance, democracy.

But if Muslims believe their sacred cities are off-limits, they’re in for a rude awakening.

Earlier Saudi leaders even attacked the two sacred cities they now govern, as did Muslim dynasts as far back as the 7th century, not decades after Mohammed’s death. Jerusalem, of course, is under Israeli control, and not infrequently the site of terrible violence.

In the late 1960s, in fact, an Australian Christian tried to set fire to the Dome of the Rock, an incident that encouraged the formation of what we now know as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the world’s second-largest intergovernmental body, which brings together 57 mostly Muslim nations to cooperate on issues of shared concern.

After Monday’s attack, which targeted one of Islam’s holiest sites – revered by Sunni and Shia alike – in the last nights of Ramadan, a man blowing himself up not very far from worshipers come to pay their respects to Islam’s last prophet, I am met first by a feeling of numbness. Sadness. Despair.

These attacks were most likely very coordinated. Istanbul to Dhaka, Baghdad to Medina. It’s a global jihadist counterattack, violence across the heartland of the Muslim world, more and more innocents dying. Maybe it’s because ISIS is losing territory.

They want the region to know that defeating them will have consequences.

But I am also outraged. And in that anger, I find a glimmer of hope, a promise of a better future to come, though not without great pain, suffering and sacrifice first. What do Dhaka and Baghdad really have in common, except that radical groups have exploited years of failed governance, religious extremism and economic stagnation to establish a foothold?

Because the extremists don’t see anything but us – mainstream Islam – and them.

They’ve picked their sides, and they have their vision. Can the incomparably greater number of Muslims in the world who are so rightly horrified today come together with their own vision – which includes stamping out the extremists who seem to hate Islam, and Muslims, and the Prophet Mohammed, more than anyone else?

The Muslim world will have to work together in ways that seem hard to imagine right now. It’s true that, right now, we don’t have the institutions, the leaders, the visions, to make this happen. But we will have them. Because there is no opting out. The contest is existential.

Some Muslims shrug and say they’ve got nothing to do with it. But it – extremism – has something to do with them. Extremism wants to kill us. To incinerate our mosques, erase our traditions, murder our artists, even attack our Mohammed, “habib Allah”–the beloved of God. Some anger is wrong. Some anger is righteous.

Some Muslims got irresponsibly angry, and a few turned to terrible, unacceptable violence, when the Prophet Mohammed was but mocked by a cartoonist and a satirist.

I’ve got to wonder how Muslims will react now that someone tried to blow up his mosque.