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12 August 2021

The Story of the Blessed City of Ma'rib

Safa Faruqui
The Story of the Blessed City of Ma'rib

The Prophet (saw) said, 'The best of men are the men of Yemen, belief is Yemeni, and I am Yemeni'. [Ahmad]

 It is well-known that the people of Yemen are beloved to Allah (swt) and His Messenger (saw) and that Yemen is one of the 'blessed lands' of Islam. But did you know that the city of Ma'rib, in particular, is not only referred to in the Qur'an, it was also significant to the life of the Prophet (saw)?

 In this article, we will tell the story of Ma'rib, the capital of the Sabaean Kingdom, and how Allah blessed its people with abundance then later scattered them throughout the land, sending a small group of them to the blessed oasis of Yathrib…

  1. Ma'rib, the 'good land' of abundant fruit 

Today, Yemen has become synonymous with famine, poverty and conflict. But in ancient times, it was a rich and fertile place. The Romans called it Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia) as opposed to Arabia Deserta (Deserted Arabia).

Moreover, the name Yemen is actually derived from the words yumn (meaning prosperity and success), yamin (meaning right and being on the right of the Ka‘bah when looking eastward) and maimun (meaning fortunate or blessed).

For an entire millennium, this region flourished because of the Great Dam of Ma'rib, built by the ancient kings of the Sabaean Kingdom.

Ibn Kathir (rh) talks about the Great Dam of Ma'rib in detail. The ancient kings built it between two mountains and then planted trees to get the best fruits that could be harvested. Numerous narrators - including Qatadah (rh) - illustrated the abundance of this land by saying that a woman could walk between the trees with a basket on her head and the fruit would fall into the basket, without her making the effort to pick it, because the fruit was so plentiful.

According to historians, the irrigated area was split between the northern plains and the southern plains, also called the North Oasis and the South Oasis. Perhaps these were the 'two gardens' referred to in the Qur'an, as there were likely gardens and vineyards filling these two areas:

The region was known as the best irrigated and most fruitful place in Yemen. The Great Dam of Ma'rib was an engineering marvel, over 50 feet high and nearly 1,970 feet long, and it fed a complex irrigation system for 1,000 years. During this time, Allah sent messengers to the people of Saba, 'telling them to eat of His provision and give thanks to Him by worshipping Him alone'. [Tafsir Ibn Kathir] 

Ibn Kathir (rh) narrates that the people of Saba 'lived a life of enviable luxury in their land with plentiful provision, crops and fruits'. They were not only blessed with rich natural resources, they also had a strong army and good rulers. Their kings were called Tubba, and among them was Saba (who we will discuss later). They were also ruled by Queen Bilqis for a time, who became Muslim after meeting Prophet Sulaiman (as).

Moreover, the people of Saba were traders who moved easily in the land. The journey from Ma'rib to Sana'a was only three days. Because of the abundance of the land, the people of Saba didn't even need to carry provisions with them when they travelled. 'Wherever they stopped, they would find water and fruits, so they could take their noontime rest in one town and stay overnight in another, according to their needs on the journey'. [Tafsir Ibn Kathir]

Allah specifically mentions that He also made it easy for them to travel outside Yemen to the blessed lands of Shaam:

Ibn Zaid (rh) and others said that 'the towns which We had blessed' refer to places in Shaam, which means that the people of Saba used to travel to blessed Shaam often. Their route included towns which were clearly visible, known to travellers and connected with one another. The journey was easy for travellers and Allah had made it safe to travel at night as well.

In this way, Allah made Yemen 'a good land' through the Great Dam of Ma'rib, connected with other blessed lands and home to a people who were constantly reminded to worship Allah while enjoying His provision.

  1. Saba, the poet who longed to be with the Prophet (saw)

The Sabaean Kingdom is referred to in the Bible as Sheba and in the Qur'an as Saba. There is also a Surah in the Qur'an called Saba, which the Sahabah (ra) asked the Prophet (saw) about:

A man from the people said, 'O Messenger of Allah! Tell us about Saba - what is it, a land or a woman?' He [saw] replied, 'It is neither a land nor a woman - but he is a man to whom ten children of the Arabs were born. Six of them lived in Yemen and four lived in Shaam'. [Abu Dawud]

According to Ibn Ishaq (rh), his full name was Saba Abd-Shams ibn Yashjub ibn Yarub ibn Qahtan. He had ten children, six of whom migrated south in Yemen and four of whom migrated north towards Shaam.

Ibn Dihyah (rh) said that Saba was a Muslim who wrote the following verses predicting the coming of the Messenger of Allah (saw):

SubhanAllah, before the Prophet (saw) was even born, this king sent him salam and commanded his people to become his helpers. The Arabic word he used for helpers was Nasir which will be significant later on…

Besides Saba, there was another Yemeni king, As'ad, who loved the Prophet (saw) so much that he built a house for him in Madinah. This was the house of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari (ra), who hosted the Prophet (saw) following the Hijrah.

As'ad is referred to in the Qur'an by his title, Tubba, where it is mentioned that his people rejected Allah's messengers  [The Noble Qur'an, 44:37]. Yet the king himself was a believer and the Prophet (saw) warned the Sahabah not to curse him: 

'Do not curse Tubba, for indeed he accepted Islam' [Ahmad]. In another narration, he (saw) said, 'He was on the religion of Ibrahim [as]'. [Ahmad]

Tubba also wrote a poem for the Prophet (saw) recorded in The Beginning and the End by Ibn Kathir (rh):

I bear witness that Ahmad is 

A messenger from Allah, the Creator of the breath of life.

If my life reaches his life,

Then I would be a helper for him and his cousin (uncle's son).

I would fight his enemies with (my) sword,

And I would release every sadness from his chest.

Both Saba and Tubba did not have to meet the Prophet (saw) to support him. Before he was even born, they were writing poetry for him, sending him salam and building him a house. No wonder the people of Yemen were beloved to Allah and His Messenger (saw) - their eagerness to help him is truly incredible!

  1. The Flood of the Dam

So what happened to the Great Dam of Ma'rib and the blessed people of Saba?

As mentioned before, Allah sent them messengers, 'telling them to eat of His provision and give thanks to Him by worshipping Him alone' [Tafsir Ibn Kathir]. For a while, the people of Saba worshipped Allah, but then they turned away.

Allah says:

'Indeed, there was a sign for Saba in their dwelling place: two gardens on the right and on the left. (And it was said to them), "Eat from the provision of your Lord and be grateful to Him. (You have) a good land and a Forgiving Lord". But they turned away, so We sent upon them the Flood of the Dam and We replaced their two gardens with gardens of bitter fruit, tamarisks and something of sparse Lote trees. Like this, We requited them because they disbelieved. And We never requite (in this way) except those who are ungrateful'. [The Noble Qur'an, 34:15-17] 

Because the people of Saba eventually rejected what Allah said, He punished them by collapsing the Great Dam of Ma'rib. The entire country was then inundated by floods. The walls which had been built between mountains as well as the canals the Sabaeans had dug were destroyed and the irrigation system fell apart. The vineyards, orchards and fields cultivated for hundreds of years by the people of Saba were completely destroyed.

Ibn Kathir (rh) also mentions stories of Saba being free from flies, mosquitos, fleas and any kind of vermin, due to good weather and the healthy people. Allah took care of them in this way and told them, '(You have) a good land and a Forgiving Lord'. But after they turned away from Him, desert rats came into the land and gnawed the dam until it became weak. 'Then the time of the floods came and the waters hit the structure and it collapsed. The waters rushed through the bottom of the valley and destroyed everything in their path'. 

The beautiful, fruit-bearing trees were destroyed and replaced with fruitless bushes as well as a few Lote trees with huge thorns and little fruit.

Allah further describes the ingratitude of the people of Saba by saying, 'And We placed (many) visible towns between them and the towns which We had blessed. And We made the stages (of the journey) easy between them, (saying), "Travel in them by night or day in safety". But they said, "Our Lord, lengthen the distance between our journeys", and they wronged themselves. [The Noble Qur'an, 34:18]

We mentioned earlier the comfortable travelling of the Sabaean Kingdom. However, they eventually didn't appreciate these blessings. Just like the followers of Musa (as) were given food from Jannah yet asked for onions and lentils to eat, the people of Saba were given safe and easy journeys but they asked for longer journeys. Ibn Abbas (ra) and others said, 'They wanted to travel long distances through empty wilderness where they would need to carry provisions with them and would have to travel through intense heat in a state of fear'. [Tafsir Ibn Kathir]

Like many other nations, the people of Ma'rib were led astray by Iblis (Shaitan), except for a small group of believers. So Allah dispersed them throughout the land and made them tales for people to talk about. After this, when a people were displaced the Arabs would say, 'They have been scattered like Saba'.

We mentioned earlier that Saba had ten sons. Following these floods, four of these tribes went north towards Shaam: Lakhm, Judham, Amilah and Ghassan. The other six tribes went south: Kindah, Al-Ashariyyun, Al-Azd, Madhhij, Himyar and Anmar. [Tirmidhi]

  1. The Ansar and their relationship with the Prophet (saw) 

After the Great Dam of Ma'rib was destroyed, the Ghassan tribe of Yemen travelled north. They were called Ghassan because of the name of the water which they camped beside after they were displaced. Hassan ibn Thabit (ra) said, 'If you ask, then we are the community of the noble descendants: our lineage is Al-Azd and our water is Ghassan'. [Tafisr Ibn Kathir]

Eventually, this group settled in the blessed oasis of Yathrib. Their descendants were the tribes of Aws and Khazraj.

You may remember that, in Saba's poem for the Prophet (saw), he said, 'When he appears, become his helpers'. Saba used the word nasir which is derived from the word nasara meaning ‘to help’ - just like the word Ansar! Just as Saba had commanded, his descendants became the Helpers of the Messenger of Allah (saw).

Following the Year of Sorrow and unbearable persecution in Makkah, the Prophet (saw) commanded his followers to emigrate to the oasis of Yathrib. This journey is known as the Hijrah and the Muslims date their calendar from it. Yathrib was re-named al-Madinah al-Munawwarah (the Illuminated City) and it became home to a community built on the close ties of brotherhood and sisterhood for the sake of Allah. 

The Prophet (saw) never forgot the sincerity of the Ansar and their eagerness to help him. Just as he praised the people of Yemen, he also emphasised his closeness to the Ansar, saying, 'But for the Hijrah (i.e. if I were not an Emigrant), I would have been one of the Ansar. And if the people took their way through a valley or a mountain pass, I would select the valley or mountain pass of the Ansar (i.e. I would stay with them above other people). The Ansar are Shi’ar (inner garments) and the people are Dithar (outer garments)’. [Bukhari]

Ma sha Allah, the people of Yemen were a support to the Prophet (saw) even before the earliest days of Islam and they even welcomed him into their own homes, as the Ansar pledged to protect him and follow him. It is truly amazing that the poem of Saba in the ancient city of Ma'rib became reality in the small oasis of Yathrib, and that the 'Helpers' among his descendants were even mentioned in the Qur'an, with a legacy that will never be forgotten!

  1. Yemen and the Ummah

The people of Yemen flourished in the past and they brought joy to the Prophet (saw) during his lifetime. Ibn Abbas (ra) said, 'While the Prophet (saw) was in Madinah, he suddenly said, "Allah is the Greatest, Allah is the Greatest. The help of Allah has come, the victory has come and the people of Yemen have come. A people whose hearts are pure and their obedience is gentle. Faith is Yemeni, understanding is Yemeni and wisdom is Yemen"'. [Ibn Hibban] 

Yet today, these pure-hearted, gentle and wise people are suffering. It is heart-breaking to see our brothers and sisters experiencing famine, water shortages and displacement as their blessed country is devastated by the ongoing conflict. We urge you to pray for them the way the Prophet (saw) did, 'O Allah, bring their hearts over to Your obedience and relieve them of their burdens!' [Tabarani]

Today, the city that was once known for its amazing water engineering is now known for its water crisis. The Ma'rib Governorate had a population of 300,000 before the six-year conflict; now, it is home to 1.5 million people, as families have fled conflict in other parts of Yemen. As a result, its water infrastructure is completely overwhelmed, with some people reporting they are only receiving water every two weeks. They are being forced to ration water or resort to unsafe water sources - but you can help. 

We are rehabilitating the public water network in Ma'rib to provide water for life to 503,800 people. Our plans include digging new wells, installing new pumping lines and building new storage tanks - you can learn more in our previous article. By setting up a regular donation to the Yemen Water Fund, you will transform the lives of our brothers and sisters in blessed Ma'rib!

Don't miss out on this amazing Sadaqah Jariyah! Give to the Yemen Water Fund today to provide water for life in Ma'rib!

Muslim Hands UK

Established in 1993, Muslim Hands is an aid agency and NGO helping those affected by poverty, conflict and natural disaster in over 20 countries worldwide.