As the tactics of torture and humiliation from the Quraish continued, the prophet suggested that some sahabi emigrate to the neighbouring land of Abyssinia. And he said of the king there, ‘That king is a just king, and he will let you worship without trouble.’
And yet despite this, the migration to Abyssinia was incredibly tough for the Muslims who went. Firstly they could not take their wealth and properties with them, so even the sahaba who were formerly rich became poor. As well as that they were moving away from their city, which was something unheard at the time of as it was a tribal era and so the only law and protection that people had were that of their relations. And so for them to move to another place where they knew no-one meant that they would be completely unprotected and at the mercy of those around them, and would have been considered 2nd class citizens no matter what their status had been back in Mecca. On top of that, they weren’t even living in Arabia anymore, but instead moving to Africa where the culture and language were no longer Arabic. And so the migration was a radical change for the 15 who partook in it, leaving behind everything they knew so that they could practice Islam without oppression.
Now this happened on the 5th year of the dawah, and only about 1.5 years after the dawah even went public. So the fact that the persecution had gotten so bad that the prophet was advising them to go through the arduous process of migration shows how oppressive the Quraish had been. And in fact, only the Muslims who were of the noblemen were able to migrate as they were the only ones free to do so, and so the slaves who were actually physically tortured and oppressed and needed the migration the most were the ones unable to go. And this was the sad reality that the prophet could do nothing about.
It is unclear whether the migration was secret or not. Some sources say that it was secret, but some claim that news reached the Quraish. One report that suggests that it was public involves Umar ibn Khattab (RA), who was not a Muslim at this time. Aamir ibn Rabiya and his wife Laila were one of the 4 couples migrating, and when Laila was loading her camel for the journey Umar (RA) passed her by and asked where she was travelling to. And understandably Laila was extremely stressed and irritated, and so she snapped, ‘This all because of you and your terrorising of us, just because we want to worship Allah. Because of your persecution we have to go somewhere else.’ Now at this time Umar (RA) was in vehement opposition to the Muslims, however instead of getting angry he actually seemed to show compassion for the first time and asked, ‘Has the matter reached that level? May Allah be with you,’ and then he proceeded on his way. Now Laila was completely flabbergasted – she had just seen a side of Umar that they had never seen before – so when her husband returned she told him excitedly of what had occurred. Aamir snorted in contempt and declared, ‘Do you really think he’s going to be merciful to us and accept Islam? By Allah, the donkeys of his father’s house will accept Islam before he does.’
Of course, this was quite ironic as within 2 years Umar ibn Khattab had become a Muslim, and so this incident shows us a few things: First of all we should never condemn people to hell – it is not in our place to do so – and Allah will guide whom he wills. None of the companions expected Umar (RA) to become a Muslim, and yet subhanallah he becomes one of the most famous sahabi and even the Khalifah. And secondly it shows us something of the character of Umar, as we see from this that although he had an outer hardness about him, inside he was a very soft man. And so because of this sincerity Allah guided him to Islam.
So why was Abyssinia chosen to be the refuge for the Muslim immigrants?
Their Najashi, the King, was just and allowed freedom of worship
Abyssinia had traded with Mecca and so was somewhat familiar
It was an easy passage – The journey took about 2 days; first a walk to Jeddah and then a ship ride to Abyssinia.
The people of Abyssinia were Christians – And the Christians were more merciful to the Muslims than the pagans. In fact, Allah even says this in the Quran, and indeed historically they have been more tolerant to us than any other group.
So Umme Salma said, ‘We began to live in a good land. And we were safe with regards to our worship and did not fear any persecution.’ Now this shows us some things, and provides us with a model that has current day applications as well. The Muslims who lived in Abyssinia lived as a minority in a majority non-Muslim land, with the only intention being to worship. And their king – whom the prophet called just – allowed this, and in fact they even stayed for 7 years after the Hijra had taken place, even though there was a centre of Islam in Yathrib. And they obeyed the laws and respected the people and had no intention to overthrow the government, and is this not the exact same situation we find ourselves in today living in Western countries? And so this shows us that as citizens we have a duty to remain responsible and respectful, and we are not exempt from laws simply because we are Muslims. And this also shows us another thing, and that is that the ideal Muslim leadership or government has no right to ban other religions, and that the freedom of worship must be sustained for there to be justice. And indeed, when the Muslims began conquering the other empires they allowed them to keep their faith, and thus maintained the freedom of religion setting us a major example we must all take wisdom from.
Dr.Yasir Qadhi’s Seerah of The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) 015