Ramadan Night Prayers at the Koutoubia Mosque

I’m in a pre-mourning phase for Ramadan.  Today is likely to be the last day here in Morocco.  This evening we look for the moon, again.  If we see it, tomorrow will be Eid, a celebration.

Ramadan has made the transition back to Morocco, after two months in the states, very kind.  Most people are being the best they can be.  Those who generally “know better”, in Ramadan actually “do better”.  When I walk by, I can recognize the young men who might, if they weren’t fasting, make boorish cat-calls to me and any other female.  But because it’s Ramadan, they just lower their gaze (and I don’t need to puke, thank you very much).  Fasting and prayer are having a calming, pacifying effect on the whole country, and I’m so thankful for that.

One of the Islamic teachings about Ramadan is that “demons are chained up, and the gates of heaven are thrown open”.  It does seem that people are freed from their demons, because when you give up food, smoking, sex, drinking and drugs, for 14 hours a day, what demons are left?  In addition to these things, people voluntarily give up other vices, such as back-biting, lying and cheating.  I mean, who even has the energy for sin, when you are fasting in this heat?

So, substitute all that with prayer, reading of the holy book, increased devotion, increased charity, and really the gates of heaven ARE open.  This is God’s mercy,  the rahma, and we can get a taste of it even now.

One of the highlights of this Ramadan was going to pray at the Koutoubia mosque.  I don’t get much chance to pray in mosques, what with the kids and all, but when I do, I enjoy every minute.

I drove through the empty streets of Marrakesh, and really that was a treat in itself.  There is no other time when the driving is that pleasant.  The Koutoubia is easy to spot from afar.  The French colonials had the good sense to oriente several major avenues towards the Koutoubia, so it is, in a sense, the town center.

The Koutoubia mosque was built some 1000 years ago (ok, I’m a little loose with dates), by the founders of Marrakesh, the Almoravids.  It was then partially destroyed and rebuilt by the Almohads around 1150 C.E.  It stands at an impressive 69 m (221 ft) which was quite an architectural feat for its time.  Tonight, the towering minaret is all ablaze with lights.  Atop the minaret are 4 decorative golden balls, tour guides will often perpetuate the urban myth that highest ball was donated by the wife of Sultan Yaqoub el Mansour, who melted down all her gold jewelry, as penance for breaking her fast.  (I find this Arabian nights-esque tale rather implausible, as there are 3 ways of atoning for a fast that is broken for no reason: either freeing a slave, or if that’s not possible, then feeding 60 poor people, or fasting 2 months back to back).

The mosque was rebuilt a third time because the original orientation was not quite accurate.  Mosques are meant to face the direction of Mecca, or at least in the cardinal direction that is closest to the direction of Mecca.  However, many old Moroccan mosques faced due South.  This was what the Moroccans of old thought was the direction of Mecca.

The ruins of the old mosque remain, a large esplanade dotted with partially standing columns.  I am happy to find that this year, the ruins are actually being used for prayer space.  The Koutoubia has a capacity of 25,ooo people within its walls, but in Ramadan, even this is not enough.  So two large overflow areas have been designated, each with about 5,000 people.  In Ramadan, ALL the mosques are usually overflowing in this way, with sidewalks, even streets being converted to prayer space.

I join the 5,000 or so women in 1,000 year old ruins of the mosque.  I feel alive already.  I settle in and wait for prayers to begin, looking around at all the faces, young and old, rich and poor, all the colorful jellabas being worn, all the chatter and laughter.

Soon the call to prayer is made, the same call that has unfurled from this minaret, 5 times a day, every day for the last thousand years.  We stand, shoulder to shoulder, in long straight lines.  As the imam, or prayer leader, begins his recitation of quran a wave of joy comes over me.  He has a beautiful voice, which I recognize from quran CDs.  We spend the next hour standing, bowing, prostrating and sitting, sometimes listening to the imam’s melodious chanting, sometimes uttering our own silent prayers, always praising God, thanking Him, beseaching Him for His Mercy, Guidance and Forgiveness.

And lastly, thank you all for your loving, thoughtful, supportive comments.  I appreciate them more than you can imagine.  I am humbled and honored that you take the time to read this.

Peace from Marrakesh,  Nora.


11 thoughts on “Ramadan Night Prayers at the Koutoubia Mosque

  1. Mabrook l’eid!
    when it comes tomorrow.
    I mentally join you in celebration!
    What a lovely thoughtful post as ever.
    I think so often of Morocco and hope to visit in February.
    My love to your mother and the rest of your family

  2. Abdurrahman says:

    And thank you, dear Nora, for sharing your heart, so full of light. May people on both sides of the Atlantic, Muslims or not, be blessed in this Eid with greater understanding, peace, and mutual respect.

    And, yes, the tale of the princess and the “golden” balls (which are actually brass) is surely a myth but what isn’t is that the minaret and the four spheres are a reminder of the infinity above and the heart within the heart within the heart, the infinity within.

    And also (on a practical note, as they say), in days gone by when the people in Morocco traveled by caravan and the air was so much purer, you could see the sun glistening off those globes from miles away and then you would know that you were almost home.


  3. sumayya says:

    Awashir Mabrooka lovely Nora,

    May everyone’s prayer and fasting be accepted. Ameen
    I looked at pictures today of Eid around the world and I wanted so much to be back in AlMaghreb ofcourse.
    We will Eid in the morning here in Chi-town. insha’Allah (chart people and moon spotting people, Alhamdulilah)

    Please take this warm hug from here to there.

    Fi Amaanillah

  4. Heart-tingling descriptions Nora. How I wish I could be there, mythical golden balls or no! It was closed for repairs when we came in December 2006, we only managed a little whirl through the courtyard (and hey, I was on honeymoon, did I take much of it in? Nope.) The sense of that echoing adhan as it resonates over a thousand years to the present…wow. Thanks for taking the time to write such beautiful details.

  5. Nosheen says:

    Masha’Allah. I just came across your blog and though I should be in bed because I need to get up early in the morning to do some work before I go to work (lol), I’m really enjoying reading your posts 🙂

    I went to Marrakech for a week at the end of July last year and left a few days before Ramadaan. I wish I could have spent Ramadaan there in Morocco. I fell in love with Marrakech and didn’t want to come back to the UK. Alhamdulillah, I went to the Koutoubia Masjid and it was an amazing experience. When me and my family got to the masjid, the doors were locked so I went to one of the elders at an Islamic stall outside the masjid to ask when it would open. He didn’t hear me but a man nearby did and he opened the masjid for us. He then asked whether we wanted to pray or do “ziyarah” and Alhamdulillah he let us go up to the top of the minaret. I felt so blessed.

    SubhanAllah, the views were breathtaking and the sunset was beautiful. As Maghrib was fast approaching, we then decided to make our way down the slope of the Minaret and I entered the room where the man was sitting to let him know that we were back down and to thank him. It turned out he was the Mu’addhin! 🙂 We watched and listened to him give the Adhaan for Maghrib and afterwards he made du’a for us all. It was such a beautiful moment that I will never forget Insha’Allah.

    I pray that Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala blesses me with the opportunity to visit Morocco again soon. How I miss it!
    Fi Amanillah,


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