The Prophet’s Minbar

Last month, I had the opportunity to see a talk given by Dr. Chekhab-Abudaya at the Harvard Museums. what fascinated me the most was her history of the Prophet Muhammad’s minbar, which is a part of this larger calligraphic panel:

Calligraphic panel showing stylized views of Mecca and Medina and Sandals of the Prophet Muhammad. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, The Edwin Binney, 3rd Collection of Turkish Art at the Harvard Art Museums

The minbar is on the bottom center right panel, under the name of Allah, and represents the Prophet’s minbar (the platform from which he gave sermons and speeches) at Medina. Our traditions say it was made of wood and had only three steps, and the Prophet climbed the first two and sat on the third to speak. In Arabic, the word minbar is derived from the Semitic root N-B-R, which means “to raise or elevate”.

the prophet’s minbar at Medina

The design of the Prophet’s minbar, with its three steps, has been replicated in mosques around the world. As the Muslim world grew more powerful, caliphs started to build taller and fancier minbars to address their congregation, but traditionalists have kept to the minimalist three steps. As a member and organizer of my own communities, I’ve been asking myself: why only three steps?

Three steps are enough for the voice of the speaker to carry to everyone in the room, and for the speaker to actually see everyone around them. Which works for say, maybe around 100-150 people. The cognitive limit for maintaining cohesive community has been observed to be about 150 people, after which community stability tends to break down. Traditionally, this was the size of a clan or a village; i.e. a group where we can actually function on a human scale. The level where you can still look deep into the eyes of everyone and register their emotional responses.

What happens to the world when we start organizing on ever-expanding platforms? One of the immediate consequences is that we can no longer see the impacts of our words on the people who are listening . Not deep down, inside their hearts.

I think this is one of the biggest risks that digital organizing and mass media pose to society. They are appealing and can be engaging. Yet in the long run they can also become isolating and alienating. Ultimately, we have to live our lives in community, in communion and empathy. This is best done in the real world, where we naturally keep our circles small and livable, and by keeping our online communities at similar sizes.

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