Umar Stambuli – Cii News | 17 Safar 1437/30 November 2015
The minarets spiraling towards the sky at the Prophet SAW’s mosque in Madina have been one of the transcendent features characterising the masjid.
Embroidered shades that open and close automatically to swathe the pilgrims and congregants from heat and rain, beautify the outside of the masjid that accommodate over a million worshippers at a given time.
The site of the Prophet’s pulpit is another iconic facet until this day that remains an outstanding vestige.
For all those who have visited this masjid, which its holiness is next to Masjidul Haraam in Makkah, visiting the Prophet’s grave is a sacrament not to be neglected.
Taking care of this masjid has been a great deal of sacrifice, particularly on the fringes of the pulpit and the grave which are always inundated by people.
But there’s a group of men from Abyssinia (presently Ethiopia) who have dedicated their entire lives looking after the Prophet’s grave and pulpit.
Not only have they remained its custodians, but are the only people that possess the keys to the Prophet’s burial chamber and pulpit.
It will be short of justice to tell the history of Prophet’s masjid, without citing the role of the eunuchs.
The eunuch servants or Guardians of the mosque have a long and illustrious history, dating back to the mid-12thcentury.
This group of Guardians also known as the Aghwats has held an outstanding service to the Prophet’s masjid.
Since 12th century, their numbers have swelled over five hundred but over time they have dwindled.
Who are the Aghwat?
The Guardian’s contribution and their moderate lifestyle hit the headlines when a recent exhibition was held in London in honour of their work.
Adel Al Quraishi, a photographer from Saudi Arabia has used his camera to profile and tell a story about the illustrious men.
For Quraishi, photographing the Guardians was part of historical documentation, which has been seldom written on Islamic literature.
“Photographing the Guardians was not just an artistic practice but a historical documentation also. Three of the Guardians have passed away since the photographs were taken in 2013 and others are all quite elderly. That makes these portraits quite unique and made me realise that I had to capture them correctly to do them justice,” he said.
They are the last of the Guardians — there will be no others after them. At one time the Guardians numbered in the thousands, there are now only five remaining, who live in recluse and spend their days in a small room connected to the burial chamber itself.
According to Quraishi, the Guardians have an 800 year history, their existence is ephemeral, they drink their coffee in paper cups and break their fast with a piece of bread, not leaving marks or keeping belongings there, remaining transient in their role as keepers of the chamber.
Though they are glad to meet and connect with anyone who visits them, they live modestly and quietly, and without many dealings in the outside world.
The governor of Medina in 2013 commissioned Quraishi to photograph the remaining Guardians, and historic documentation of their final generation for the 2014 exhibition, ‘Letters and Illumination’ in Medina.
Quraishi was the only man to have ever been permitted to photograph them.
The photographs hold enormous historical significance as documentation of their final generation, the oldest of whom is over 110 years of age.
“I was aware of them as a kid”, Quraishi recalls, “In particular of the great authority in their dress. I was not aware they still existed, there was no coverage of them in the media, and we thought they were extinct. I think the reclusive nature of their community was a conscious decision made by the Guardians themselves. It is part of their character. Because the order of my portraits came from the government to their Sheikh, got dressed, sat for the photographs, and left.
“The surprising thing was that they were not interested in documenting their story at all. They only agreed because they were asked. It was clear the Sheikh who received the request was the alpha male of the group and as they take their responsibilities and duties very seriously, he took this order from the government as a professional obligation.”
Rare sight of the Guardians
From Quraishi interaction with the eunuchs, they have witnessed a radical transformation in Madina, and still evoke a time before electricity when the entire mosque was lit with one lamp.
During the holy month of Ramadan, they recollect two lines of men present for prayers, today crowds spill past the expansions.
With these vast changes and in their old age, they have taken on fewer responsibilities, they open the burial chamber for visits, from heads of states and dignitaries, but chief among their tasks, they maintain the burial chamber, and with greatest care take their time to wash its floors with rosewater.
In future, it will be left to the religious community to decide who the next custodians of the key and chamber will be.
The Guardians can still be seen roaming the prayer halls of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina but it is an increasingly rare sight.
Fortunate ones met the Guardians
For many Muslims, a chance encounter with one of the elderly Guardians is a momentous occasion, remembered by children and grandchildren.
But some people who visited the Prophet’s mosque still have vivid memories on their encounter with Guardians on the courtyards of the masjid.
Hana Zaveri promptly remembered how as a child, she would run to greet them when they went about their daily routines.
“As a child I would always see them entering the women’s area at ten in the haraam of Madina to evacuate the women. I remember running around in circles with friends to greet them, shake their hands, absorb the musk in their hands into ours, and if we were lucky they would give us a candy on rare occasions,” she said.
For some like Ghazala Khan, still reminisce seeing the Guardians near Prophet’s grave and narrate what she heard of them before.
“I remember them, they were special, being eunuchs were allowed in the women’s area, I was always fascinated by them, I was told they came from a special tribe, and were brought in to serve in Madina mosque, they used to sit on the platform near the Rowdha of the Prophet,” said Khan describing the traditional robes they wore.
“They were dressed in decorative robes. Those were the days when movement in the mosque was not as restricted as now.”
Because of the way they conducted the lives and routine, some Muslim who saw the Guardians were perplexed and had to stare at them in admiration.
“We have seen them during our stay in KSA and visits to Madina Munawara, but never had the guts to ever approach them. Sorry to hear that they have been retired. I pray and hope their services will always be remembered and given credit for,” said Salma Rashad.