more than persecution
the emigration of the prophet's companions to abyssinia was a highly significant event, which can be accurately described as the first major political move taken by the prophet. although people often give more prominence to the prophet's desire to spare his companions the persecution inflicted by the quraysh.
if one analyses the emigration and the whole situation that prevailed in makkah at that time, one is bound to realize that there were other, far more important reasons, which made this emigration a shrewd strategic move on the part of the prophet.
a close examination of the list of people who travelled to abyssinia shows that hardly any of the weak and vulnerable elements who were subjected to unbearable torture joined the travellers. one finds that the list of travellers includes names of many prominent people who belonged to famous clans which were able to afford them protection.
why the rich?
one need only look at these names to realize that the emigrants belonged to most, if not all, the clans of the quraysh, and many of them belonged to highly placed families in makkah. in the tribal set-up of arabia, such people could not be subjected to physical torture and persecution in the same way as the slaves, the allies and other vulnerable people.perhaps the most that such people had to endure was verbal abuse or on occasion they might be drawn into a slanging match or met with derision and ridicule. this may hurt people immensely but its total effect is different from that of physical torture, which the tyrannical chiefs of the quraysh inflicted on the weaker muslims.
such verbal abuse maybe painful, but it does not call for a break of ties with one's own clan and crossing the sea by desert people in order to live in a distant land among total strangers.
a point to be mentioned here is that abu bakr, the closest to the prophet of all his companions, also embarked on this journey and travelled from makkah. however, he was met some distance away from the city by malik ibn al-dughunnah, who found it unacceptable that a man of the calibre of abu bakr should leave makkah.
malik persuaded him to return and extended his protection to him so that abu bakr would not be abused. it is impossible to imagine that abu bakr was subjected to any physical torture when hew was the one who bought seven muslim slaves to save them from physical persecution.
why would he travel when bilal, a former slave whom he had set free, did not find it necessary to do so? there cannot be a satisfactory answer to such a question unless we say that there is a much wider perspective to this emigration by the prophet's companions than the mere escape of persecuted people.
realignment of loyalties
in order to do that, one must take a fresh look at the situation in makkah just before the prophet's decision to encourage his companions to go to abyssinia. in the intervening period between the prophet's proclamation of his message and this emigration, almost two years, there was such turmoil in makkah, with the quraysh putting up strong opposition to the new message.
the quraysh were fundamentally shaken by the call to accept islam. all attempts to contain it were futile. but if hard-liners were to escalate the pressure, where would it lead them?
perhaps it was necessary to answer this question before it was put, so that the quraysh could contemplate the consequences of any decision. the emigration to abyssinia made that clear.the emigrants included one man, jaafar ibn abi talib and one woman, ruqayyah, daughter of the prophet from the hashimite clan, one man from the clan of abd qusayy, one man from nawfal and two from abd shams, two from taym, four from asad, five from adiy, seven each from ummayah, zuhrah, abd al-dar and amir, eight from makhzum and a similar number from al-harith ibn hisham, twelve from jumah and four from sahm.
this meant that an all-out confrontation would involve every clan of the quraysh turning against some of its own people. that was totally unacceptable in that particular place at that particular time.
as the quraysh watched all those muslims suddenly move out, across tribal lines, and join an exodus to seek a safer place where they could worship god, the quraysh realized that their rejection of tribal values was irrevocable and allegiance to the new faith was total.
full strike means full unanimity
moreover, the quraysh realized that islam was able to gain ground in all sectors of society. hence, any move to mount a full strike against the muslims must win support throughout all the clans, because there were a number of muslims in each and every clan.
to unite them all in a determined confrontation with muslims was impracticable because several clans had not given up hope of the possibility of working out a certain kind of understanding which would be satisfactory to both sides.
it was not possible at that time to persuade the chiefs of some of these clans that they must fight some of their dearest sons, particularly when a good number of them belonged to the most prominent families.
however, to those hard-liners who were in the forefront of the confrontation with islam, the collapse of tribal affiliation and blind loyalty to clan and tribe in the minds of muslims was very clear. hence they sought to forestall a move which was bound to emphasize their new allegiance to their faith.
faith above all else
the prophet was keen to emphasize the very concept which the quraysh wanted to block. he wanted his followers to realize that belonging to islam meant that they no longer belonged to hashim, umayyah, sahm, adiy or any other clan. their only tie of allegiance was to their faith.
they were simply muslims. as long as they were in makkah, where hostile forces tried hard to play on feelings of tribal loyalty, this particular task was going to be difficult. those companions of the prophet also valued their tribal ties very highly until the moment they became muslims.
living among their on people, where they needed tribal protection, would make it inevitable that they would have to seek some sort of modus vivendi with their own tribes who were still predominantly pagan. all that was needed was a tacit understanding of the relationship between a muslim individual and his idolatrous tribe.
two birds with one stone
leaving makkah for a far away place like abyssinia achieved the dual benefit of removing all social pressures which could be brought to bear on the muslims and strengthening their own mutual ties, so that they could be moulded into a single, well-knit community.
those hundred or so muslim emigrants belonged to no fewer than 15 clans of the quraysh. before islam, these lines of separation could be very prominent. when they went out on their long trip to abyssinia, ever single one of them had in his mind only one tie of allegiance, which required him to give all his loyalty to the nation of islam. when they faced the threat of extradition, their unity was complete.
these same ties of allegiance were also strengthened among those muslims who remained in makkah. now that their number had been much reduced, they were even more keenly aware of their weakness. they were concerned for the safety of their brethren who went on their hazardous journey and they were worried about their own safety.
they trusted to the wisdom of the prophet in encouraging his companions to leave for abyssinia. they were now weaker than ever before, and it was only natural that their weakness brought them closer together. thus the emigration to abyssinia made the feelings of unity among muslims even stronger, whether they were among the emigrants or those who stayed behind.
establishing a new muslim community
when the first emigrants started on their journey to abyssinia, the prophet had been preaching the message of islam in makkah for five years, three of which were characterized by the secret approach. although the new message went public with the proclamation made by the prophet as he stood on the top of the hill of al-safa, islam was still largely confined to makkah, almost unknown to people outside.
only those arab individuals who went to makkah for pilgrimage or to visit the kabah, came to know about it. in the overwhelming majority of cases, such people could not take a decision without first referring to their own tribes. moreover, those who heard of islam did not pay much attention to it considering it an internal matter which concerned only the quraysh tribe.
it was necessary, therefore, for islam to break out of this imposed confinement and broaden the scope of its efforts of advocacy.
crossing boundaries with the call
the emigration to abyssinia gave the adherents to the new faith a chance to carry their message further afield. the muslims in abyssinia were able to establish a close community which conducted its affairs on the basis of islamic teachings which they had learnt from the prophet.
its life was the best advertisement for islam on the world stage. the keen sense of unity among its members gave that muslim community a real sense of confidence and reassured it that it followed the truth.
the muslim community in abyssinia did not entertain any thoughts of establishing a separate entity in its new place of abode. no group of muslims could establish such an entity when god's messenger lived with another group of muslims in a different city. enjoying their life of freedom and ease, the muslims in abyssinia were all the time thinking of their brethren in makkah and of the prophet, who continued his struggle and never despaired of winning the quraysh people over islam.
a sustainable islam
moreover, it became abundantly clear to muslims of that generation and of all subsequent generations, that it was possible to establish a muslim society which implemented islam without the presence of god's messenger to supervise that society and conduct its affairs.
when the prophet completed his mission and conveyed his message in full, establishing the model muslim state which made submission to god its own foundation, his life on earth was over.
his companions followed his guidance and continued along the road he mapped out. none of them ever entertained any thought that the absence of the prophet could rule out the implementation of islam, as is sometimes claimed by ignorant people or by tyrants who happens to rule over parts of the muslim world.
the prophet's companions provided a practical example of what human life could be like when islam was implemented, and of the magnitude of the blessings that are enjoyed by mankind when they adopt islam as a code of living.
the emigration to abyssinia provided practical training during the prophet's lifetime for the establishment of a muslim society in which the prophet does not live.
perhaps some leaders of the quraysh could see some of the benefits which this emigration to abyssinia could bring to islam. at least they realized that the emigration was bound to make islam well known to people far beyond the boundaries of arabia