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Emigration to Abyssinia

4742 2008/06/09 2024/02/24

makkan persecution of the muslims increased in intensity. many muslims now became so subject to torture and murder that muhammad instructed them to disperse throughout the world. when they asked where they should go, he advised them to escape to abyssinia, the christian kingdom-where "a king rules without injustice, a land of truthfulness-until god leads us to a way out of our difficulty." fearful of makkan persecution and desirous of worshipping god in peace and freedom, a number of muslims emigrated to abyssinia at muhammad's advice. the first group to emigrate included eleven men and four women. after secretly leaving makkah, they arrived in abyssinia where they lived under the protection of the negus until they heard that the muslims in makkah had become secure against quraysh's attacks, as we shall see a little later. when upon return they found the quraysh's persecution stronger than it ever was before, they emigrated once more to abyssinia, this time about eighty men strong, not counting women and children. this larger group, of muslims lived in abyssinia until after the prophet's emigration to yathrib. their emigration to abyssinia is usually referred to as "the first emigration in islam."


quraysh's delegation to the negus

it is perfectly appropriate for the biographer of muhammad to ask whether the purpose of this emigration undertaken by the muslims at the advice and command of muhammad was merely to escape from the pagans of makkah and their persecution and harm. or was it dictated by an islamic political strategy by which muhammad sought to realize a higher objective? these questions are indeed proper when we consider that the whole history of the arab prophet confirms ever more clearly that he was a profound and farsighted statesman in addition to being the carrier of the divine message and a man of unrivaled discipline and magnanimity. what makes this matter especially questionable is the report that the makkans were so upset at this exodus of the muslims to abyssinia that they immediately sent a delegation to the negus carrying precious gifts in order to bring about the emigrants' extradition and return to makkah. abyssinia, as well as its negus, were all christians and, therefore, there was no fear that they might follow the religion of muhammad. did the makkans then fear that the negus' protecion of the muslims might provide support for the cause of muhammad's religion within arabia? or did they think that the muslim emigrants would one day return greater in numbers, wealth, and power in order to wage a retaliatory war against them?

the two ambassadors, `amr ibn al `as and `abdullah ibn abu rabi'ah, presented to the negus and his patriarch their precious gifts and asked for permission to have the muslim emigrants extradited and sent back to makkah. they said to the negus, "o king! a number of ignoble plebeians from makkah have taken refuge in your county. they have apostasized from the religion of their people and have not joined your religion. they follow a new religion, known neither to us nor to you, which they created. the leading noblemen of makkah, who are their parents, uncles, and relatives, have sent us to you to ask for their return. their elders at home are better judges of the differences between them" the two ambassadors had already obtained the approval of the patriarch for extradition without prior reference of the matter to the negus. apparently, the makkan gifts to the patriarch were instrumental in obtaining this summary decision.. the negus, however, refused to concur in the judgment of his patriarch until he had had a chance to hear the refugees plead their own case. he sent after them and asked, "what is this new religion which caused you to separate yourselves from your people, a religion which is different from mine as well as from any other of the known religions?"


the muslims' answer to the ambassadors' claims

ja'far ibn abu talib rose and said in answer, "o king! we were in a state of ignorance and immorality, worshipping idols, eating carrion, committing all sorts of iniquity. we honored no relative and assisted no neighbor. the strong among us exploited the weak. then god sent us a prophet, one of our own people, whose lineage, truthfulness, loyalty, and purity were well known to us. he called us to worship god alone and to repudiate all the stones and idols which we and our ancestors used to worship. he commanded us always to tell the truth, to remain true to trust and promise, to assist the relative, to be good neighbors, to abstain from blood and things forbidden, and to avoid fornication, perjury, and false witness. he commanded us not to rob the wealth of the orphan or falsely to accuse the married woman. he ordered us to worship god alone and never to associate any other being with him, to hold prayers, to fast, and to pay the zakat (the five pillars of islam were here enumerated and explained). we believed in him and what he brought to us from god and followed him in what he enjoined and forbade. our people, however, tried to sway us away from our religion and persecuted us and inflicted upon us great suffering that we might re-enter into the immoral practices of old. as they vanquished and berated us unjustly and made life intolerable for us in makkah, we chose you and your country and came thither to live under your protection in justice and peace." thereupon the negus asked, "will you show me some of the revelation which your prophet claims to have come to him from god?" ja'far answered, "yes!" and recited to the negus the surah of mary from its beginning until the following verses

"mary, therefore, pointed to the child as her only answer. her people asked, `how can we inquire of an infant in the cradle?' at this, jesus spoke, `i am the servant of god to whom he has given the book and whom he has blessed and commissioned with prophethood; whom he has enjoined with holding the prayer and giving the zakat as long as he lives. my mother is innocent and i am neither unjust nor evil. peace be upon me on the day i was born, on the day i shall die, and on the day i shall be resurrected." [qur'an, 19:29-33]


answers of the negus and the patriarchs

when the patriarchs heard this statement confirming as it did the message of the evangel, they were pleasantly surprised and said: "these words must have sprung from the same fountainhead from which the words of our master jesus christ have sprung." the negus then said, "what you have just recited and that which was revealed to moses must have both issued from the same source. go forth into my kingdom; i shall not extradite you at all." on the following day, `amr ibn al `as returned to the negus and pleaded, "there is another side to the muslims' new religion in which they judge jesus, son of mary, in totally different but condemnable terms." the negus sent after the muslims, brought them back into his presence and asked them to tell him more about jesus. the same ja'far ibn abu talib answered for them, "our judgment of jesus is exactly the same as that which was revealed to our prophet; namely, that jesus is the servant of god, his prophet, his spirit, his command given unto mary, the innocent virgin." the negus drew a line on the floor with his cane and said with great joy, "between your religion and ours there is really no more difference than this line." thus the negus was convinced, after hearing the two parties, that the muslims not only acknowledged jesus and christianity as true religion but worshipped the same god as well. the muslims found under his protection the peace and tranquility they sought, and lived in his country until they found cause to return while muhammad was still in makkah. apparently they had been misinformed that quraysh's antagonism to the muslims had subsided. when they discovered that the makkans were still persecuting muhammad and his followers, they returned to abyssinia, this time eighty strong besides women and children. the question remains, however, whether these two emigrations were merely for escape from injury or were, at least in the foresight of muhammad alone, devised for a political motive which the historian ought to investigate and clarify.


the muslims and abyssinian christianity

the historian may certainly ask why muhammad trusted that his companions and followers would go to a country whose religion was christianity, a scriptural religion, and whose prophet was jesus, whom islam acknowledged as prophet and in whose message it concurred, without fearing that they might be exposed to abjuring their faith even though in favor of one different from that of quraysh. how did he trust that his followers would remain faithful and loyal when abyssinia was a far more fertile and affluent country than that of quraysh? one of the muslims that emigrated to abyssinia did, in fact convert to christianity, thus establishing that the danger was real. it was natural for muhammad to have felt such fears, especially since muhammad, himself, was still weak and his old followers were still in great doubt as to his ability to protect them or to come to their rescue. assuming, therefore, muhammad's great intelligence and foresight, -his charity, kindness and compassion, it is most likely that such fears must have stirred within his soul. but he felt absolutely secure in this regard. islam was on that day, as it was to remain throughout the prophet's life, absolutely pure and unspoiled by internal doubts, divisions, and deviations. on the other hand, abyssinian christianity, like the christianity of najran, al hirah, and al sham, was mixed up with devious doctrines brought into the faith by the apotheosizers of mary, the apotheosizers of jesus, and the opponents of both. the muslims, drawing directly from the pure fountainhead of prophetic revelation, could not possibly stand in any danger of being swayed by any such confusion.


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