Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Often overlooked because of its proximity to the great shrines of Mecca, the Cave of Hira is nevertheless one of the great if underappreciated holy sites of Saudi Arabia. It was in this tiny cave, barely more than a niche on the side of Jabal An-Nur, that the Prophet spent much of his time during his early adult years; and it was here that he received his earliest divine revelations that would ultimately lead to the founding of the Islamic faith. Although a stop at the Cave of Hira is not a mandatory part of the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca, a climb up Jabal An-Nur and a peek into the Prophet’s mountainside retreat is nevertheless a very popular detour for visitors to the Holy City. The cave is often visited in preparation for the final, climactic trek to the Masjid Al-Haram.
The life of the Prophet Muhammad is inextricably tied to the history of Mecca and the Holy Kaaba. However, according to most histories and traditions associated with his life, it is likely that he spent a significant amount of time away from Mecca itself. As a teenager and young adult, he traveled the lands of the Near East as a merchant in the employ of his uncle. In his later years he spent much time in exile from Mecca, either as a refugee in nearby Medina or leading his followers in military expeditions throughout Arabia.
It seems that, other than during his youth and a few short years just prior to his death, Muhammad’s only really significant period of residence in Mecca seems to have been in his thirties. It was at this time that the Prophet began to heed his divine calling. It was also during this period that Muhammad began to live at least a partially cloistered life, often retreating to the seclusion of his cave refuge on the Jabal an-Nur, a mountain just outside of Mecca and in sight of the Holy Kaaba.
Around the time he reached the age of forty, on or near the year 610 AD, Muhammad was in residence in the cave on Jabal An-Nur when he received a vision of the angel Gabriel. Gabriel instructed Muhammad to proclaim the word of God, verses that would subsequently be included in the Qu’ran. The words of Gabriel as they are written may be the oldest verses in the Qu’ran. He then informed Muhammad that he will be a Messenger and Prophet of God. In the wake of this miraculous event, Muhammad went on to study and pray for the next three years. These activities formed the basis of the majority of the Qu’ran’s writings.
For most of the next decade, the Prophet remained in Mecca, though it is uncertain whether or not he spent much time in the Cave of Hira on Jabal An-Nur after his initial revelations. He probably made periodic visits for a time, before his following grew too large, which made staying in the cave on a regular basis too impractical. The tradition of the Cave of Hira lived on long after the Prophet’s death. Strangely, the local Muslim population never constructed a mosque at the site, possibly because such a shrine seemed superfluous next door to the Masjid Al-Haram. This lack of a major shrine at the site does not seem to deter the hundreds of thousands of devotees who climb Jabal An-Nur every year in search of this unique and stirring pilgrimage experience.
The Cave of Hira is located close to the peak of the Jabal An-Nur, a rocky, bare mountain overlooking Mecca. Rough-hewn stairs carved into the mountainside afford pilgrims relatively easy access to the top, though the climb can be arduous and is not for everyone. A large open area at the mountain top is a popular place for the recitation of prayers.
The main destination on Jabal An-Nur is the Cave of Hira. Less than eighty square feet in size, the Cave of Hira would be all-but unnoticeable amidst the jumble of boulders on the mountains peak if it were not for the small crowds of white-clad pilgrims usually clustered around the entrance. A sign painted on the rock just above the entrance makes it easier to find. The lack of a mosque at the site, or a shrine of any sort, makes the Cave of Hira one of the most pristine Islamic holy sites in the world.
Although not a mandatory stop on the Hadj, the Cave of Hira is on the Meccan pilgrimage circuit, just a couple of miles away from the Masjid Al-Hasan. It is accessible on foot from Mecca as well as nearby Mira and Mount Arafat where most pilgrims stay during their visit. Like the rest of the sites of Mecca, the Cave of Hira is off-limits to non-Muslims. It is otherwise an open site. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.mecca.net/jabal-nour-cave-hira-thawr (official website).
The main site in Mecca, of course, is the Masjid Al-Haram. However, there are a lot of other things to see in Mecca, several of which are mandatory stops on the Hajj. These include the Hill of Arafat and the Tent City of Mina, as well as the Plain of Muzdalifah, where pilgrims acquire pebbles for the stoning of the pillars. Another non-mandatory site that most visitors to Mecca go and see is the Jannatul Mualla Cemetery. Just outside of Mecca is the city of Taif and the Masjid Abdullah ibn Abbas. One of the Prophet’s cousins, and one of his earliest converts, is buried there.