The Makkan Phase of Sirah: A Study from the Standpoint of Pluralism
Parvaze Ahmad Bhat
The Sīrah of Prophet Muhammad is the fountain head of guidance in every aspect of human life under all circumstances. However some of its dimensions become more relevant than the other as per the contingencies of time and space. One of the most dominant phenomenons of contemporary global scenario is globalization and eventually the emergence of the pluralistic and diverse societies. So the perception of completely uniform society is becoming utopian. People of different religious, ethnic, racial and other denominations are living side by side in various countries. This coming closer of different people is becoming a matter of major concern for human conscience in that whether this process will enrich the human civilization or shook its very foundation. Muslims are also facing this challenge mostly as minorities in different non-Muslim governed countries. In this paper, therefore, a humble effort is made to relate the lessons drawn from the Makkan phase of Sīrah to the contemporary challenge of pluralism.
Globalization is one of the basic characterizing features of the contemporary world. Every person now virtually belongs to an all-encompassing global village rather than a distinct geographical area and some scholars, thus, speak of the “end of geography”. The notion of completely homogeneous and monolithic society is becoming alien to the modern psyche. Most of the contemporary societies in Asia and Africa or in Europe and America are plural and multicultural in composition. Therefore, today throughout the entire face of earth, one can find people of different origins with varied outlooks living side by side in the same locality. It has become very essential amid such a dizzying diversity to tolerate and respect the views of the other, even though one is not in agreement with them, to have a peaceful coexistence and to avoid unnecessary conflict.
Muslims are in no way an exception to the above mentioned contemporary global scenario. More than 1.5 billion Muslims, no doubt, live within some fifty seven Muslim majority countries; nevertheless these are inhabited by other religious minorities. At the same time, Muslims constitute significant minorities throughout the non-Muslim world. India is inhabited by the second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, but still a minority. Other Asian and African countries also have sizable Muslim communities. In Europe (where some twenty million Muslims make Islam second largest religion) and America (where eight million Muslims make it the third largest religion) Muslims also constitute significant minorities.
In this global scenario, Muslim scholars around the world are grappling with the modern challenge of pluralism. Even though, it is not a new experience to the Islam and Muslims, but is a problem of deep concern in the contemporary times and, therefore, needs immediate response. As the Sīrah of the Prophet is the best guide for Muslims in every aspect of life, it also provides a role model for Muslims living in plural society. In particular, by thorough study of Makkan phase of the Sīrah, a role model can be gained for the Muslim minorities in the face of the challenge of pluralism.
1. Beginning of the Message
It was in the year 610 CE the month of Ramadan that Muhammad as per his routine was meditating in a cave, Hira in the Mount of Light (Jabl-i-Nūr) hardly a kilometer from his residence that an extraordinary event took place which changed the course of human history. He was expecting nothing unusual but was caught all of a sudden by some unprecedented experience. The archangel Jibrā’īl appeared before him and asked him to recite. Muhammad replied that being unlettered he could not recite. Finally the words were inspired into his mouth and he recited some verses—thus commenced the Revelation that was destined to be revealed for next twenty three years and compiled as The Word of God—the Qur’ān. Allah has chosen Muhammad as His Messenger to convey to humanity The Reality—al-Haq. The fateful event is reported by Imām Bukhārī in his Sahīh as:
Narrated Aisha: He used to go in seclusion in the cave of Hira where he used to worship continuously for many days before his desire to see his family. He used to take with him the journey food for the stay and then come back to Khadija to take his food likewise again till suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the cave of Hira. The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet replied, “I do not know how to read”. The Prophet added, “The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read’ Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read?’ Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said, “Read in the name of your Lord, who has created, has created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous.”
So Muhammad b. Abullāh (son of Abullāh) became Muhammad Rasūlullah (messenger of Allah) and was the first Muslim in the gruesome darkness of Jāhiliyyah. Islam, and thereby Muslim community, took its first step with a single person amid the society with different customs, faiths, values, and rituals; and by way of consummation different worldview. Therefore, according to Amir Hussain, “Historical Islam began as a minority tradition in a non-Muslim setting.” Prof. Muhammad Yasin Mazhar Siddiqi puts it as: “By the quirk of fate the true faith of Islam always had its beginning and progress in a polity dominated by non-Muslims. Muslims were always in minority in their own. It helped establish their identity in a multi-faith, pluralistic society.” So by studying Makkan phase of Sīrah from the vantage point of a minority and thereby pluralism, according to Prof. Siddiqi “a role model can be gained for the Muslim minorities, scattered in all parts of the world. It might serve as a mirror for them and for deriving guidance from the Prophet’s example, which would enable them maintain their identity as Muslims.”
Prophet Muhammad, according to Prof. Siddiqi, “embraced Islam in preference to the Quraysh’s ancestral faith, the Qur’ān branded him as the first of believers and Muslims. It is worth reiterating that Muslims did not exist then. Yet in view of the vast potentials the Qur’ān conferred upon him the above honour.” Then he deduces a plausible principle as he continues by saying, “His acceptance of Islam established the principle that everyone is free to choose his faith. The Qur’ān, other Scriptures and traditions of all communities recognise this basic right.” He perceives, thus, the principle of freedom of religion in the event of conferment of prophethood on Prophet Muhammad and his acceptance of Islam. The very principle of freedom to choose one’s religion is the cornerstone of pluralism. So the commencement of the prophetic mission is also the harbinger of freedom of conscience and religion.
The Prophet after the first experience of revelation and seeing angel was shivering and sweating with fear. The situation is mentioned in the other part of the same Hadīth mentioned above. Imām Bukhārī reports:
Then Allah’s Apostle returned with the Inspiration and with his heart beating severely. Then he went to Khadija bint Khuwailid and said, “Cover me! Cover me!” They covered him till his fear was over and after that he told her everything that had happened and said, “I fear that something may happen to me.” Khadija replied, “Never! By Allah, Allah will never disgrace you. You keep good relations with your Kith and kin, help the poor and the destitute, serve your guests generously and assist the deserving calamity – afflicted ones.” Khadija then accompanied him to her cousin Waraqa bin Naufal bin Asad bin ‘Abdul ‘Uzza, who, during the pre Islamic Period became a Christian and used to write the writing with Hebrew letters. He would write from the Gospel in Hebrew as much as Allah wished him to write. He was an old man and had lost his eyesight. Khadija said to Waraqa, “Listen to the story of your nephew, O my cousin!” Waraqa asked, “O my nephew! What have you seen?” Allah’s Apostle described whatever he had seen. Waraqa said, “This is the same one who keeps the secrets (angel Gabriel) whom Allah had sent to Moses. I wish I were young and could live up to the time when your people would turn you out. Allah’s Apostle asked, “Will they drive me out?” Waraqa replied in the affirmative and said, “Anyone who came with something similar to what you have brought was treated with hostility; and if I should remain Alive till the day when you will be turned out then I would support you strongly. But after a few days Waraqa died.
It is clear from the report that Prophet Muhammad was not sure about the first revelation. He was frightened by the event of the cave and thus rushed home. It was at home that his wife, Khadija assured him that all will be right. The most important point is that she took him to her cousin, a learned Christian, Waraqa bin Naufal whoWaraqa who reassured the Prophet that what he experienced was similar to what had happened to Moses and was a divine revelation, thereby, confirmed his prophethood and also promised his help in the coming hard times.
So the first person to confirm the prophethood of Muhammad was a Christian. This was the Prophet’s first meeting as a prophet with the adherent of other faith which was cordial by all means. The Prophet accepted his testimony and also held him in a great regard. At another time, according to Karen Armstrong, “Waraqah met Muhammad in the Haram, he kissed him on the forehead and warned him that his task would not be easy. Waraqah was an old man and not likely to live much longer, but he wished he could be alive to help Muhammad when the Quraysh expelled him from the city.”
Farooq Hassan cites the event of the Prophet’s consultation of Waraqa b. Naufal as an early example of amiable relations of Muslims and Christians. Mahmood Mustafa Ayoub, in the same vein observes that “Muslim-Christian dialogue is as old as Islam itself. It began when the Prophet Muhammad sought confirmation of the authenticity of his message in the witness of a Christian savant Waraqah b. Nawfal, the cousin of his wife Khadijah, who may have herself been a Christian.” Therefore the Prophet’s early engagement with the religious other remained hospitable.
Prof. Yasin Mazhar Siddiqi while describing the Prophet’s prayers and performance of rituals in the beginning and its implication for the Muslim minorities living in a plural society observes:
The Prophet offered Zuhr prayer in congregation. Another rite was the fast of 10th of Muharram. The same may be said of Hajj rituals. Hajj was the annual worship of not only Makkan Qurayshbut all Arabas. Under the Prophet’s guidance and leadership Muslims performed pilgrimage according to their capacity. In so doing, however, they observed the dictates of morality and nature and shunned the innovations committed by the Quraysh. They avoided going around the Ka‘bah in a naked state or not staying at ‘Arafāt, and returning to Makkah without going there or entering their houses by the back door etc. they shunned these unethical practices as a matter of principle. This establishes the principle that in a multi-faith society the Muslim minority may join festivals and rituals of other faith, provided these do not impair morals.
But at the same time, he cautions that “on the important issue of social interaction and praying together the Prophet laid down the basic principle that Muslims must avoid polytheism and its manifestations.”
The Prophet, by way of discharging his duty assigned to him, began, initially, to call only his close friends and relatives towards the worship of only one God—Allah. Among the first converters to Islam are the most near ones of the Prophet like Khadija (wife), Abū Bakr (friend), Ali (cousin), Zaid b. Haritha (adopted son) etc. As they know him closely and, therefore trusted him at once when he claimed to be the messenger of Allah. For about three years the message was delivered secretly and at individual level in order to eschew the conflict with; and wrath of the Makkans in the initial stage.
But the divine message could not remain in isolation for a long time. It has come to be heard by everyone. Therefore, Amir Hussain while mentioning the necessity for any ideology, of discussion and engagement with the adherents of other views, in order to flourish says, “As with any new religious tradition, Islam would not have developed had it not been for interfaith dialogue.” Then he speaks of the application of the same principle in the early phase of Makkan period of Sīrah as, “After Muhammad received his revelations, he began to speak about them publicly, first to his own family and then to other people. Slowly, people began to convert from other faiths to the religion of the one true God that Muhammad was preaching. Muhammad, then, from the beginning of his first revelations to the end of his life was actively engaged in interfaith dialogue.”
We therefore find the antecedents of interfaith dialogue, an important dimension of pluralism, in the Prophetic mission right from its very commencement and is held throughout as will became clear in the subsequent pages.
2. Makkan Persecution and the Prophet’s Attitude
After some time the Prophet is required to make a public address and invite people openly to Islam. He judiciously makes use of an Arab tradition to covey his message. When somebody in Makkah had to communicate something important he used to mount on afā (a hillock near K‘abah) and shout loudly, the people could understand its importance and gather immediately.
So the Prophet climbed Mount afā and started to call the tribes one by one: “O Banī Fahr, O Banī ‘Adi (two sects of Quraysh).” Thinking he had an urgent or important announcement to make, they gathered at the foot of the hill to listen to him and those who couldn’t send somebody to report to them. Abū Lahab, the Prophet’s uncle was also present. The Prophet said: “See, if I were to tell you that there were some horsemen in the valley planning to raid you, will you believe me?” They answered, almost with one voice: “Certainly-you are trustworthy and we have never heard you tell lies!” The Prophet then went on: “Well, I am here to forewarn you of violent torments! God has ordered me to admonish my nearest kinsmen. I have no power to protect you from anything in this life, nor to grant you blessings in the life to come, unless you believe in the Oneness of God.” He added: “My position is like that of he who sees the enemy and runs to his people to warn them before they are taken by surprise, shouting as he runs: “Beware! Beware!”
His uncle, Abu promptly replied: “Woe to you (taban laka)!Is this why you have gathered us?” and turned away instantly, taking the assembled chiefs with him?” thus, to the disappointment of the Prophet ruined the whole effort; still the message reached the general masses and became the topic of every discussion in Makkah.
Two main points follow from the event. First, the Muslims in general and as a minority in particular should fully exploit the modern means of communication technology both for the dissemination of Islamic message and to remove the misconceptions, created or otherwise, about Islam from the minds of their compatriots belonging to other religions. This will definitely contribute to their mutual understanding and harmonious coexistence.
Second, although the Makkans did not accept the message of Islam at that time but still they had no other option than to accept the candour and sublime character of the Prophet. Therefore, the character and morality of the Muslims should be so high that their non-Muslim neighbours or compatriots should see in it the noble teachings of Islam.
Anyway after this event the opposition from Makkans started; initially with abusing and gradually, they took recourse to physical assault and according to Mohammad Husayn Haykal, “In fact, ever since Muhammad made public cause of his revelations, Quraysh knew no peace, and the tranquillity of earlier days vanished. Instigated by the Quraysh, every clan and tribe began to attack its Muslim members to dissuade them from their faith.” There are many heart moving instances of persecution on the Prophet and his companions by their countrymen.
One unbeliever threw his Abyssinian slave, Bilāl, onto the sand under the burning sun, laid a heavy stone on his chest and left him there to die, for no reason except his insistence upon Islam. One woman, Umm-i-Ammāra is known to have been tortured to death because of her attachment to Islam and her refusal to return to the old faith. Khabbab bin al-Arrat kept on coals so long that the coals were reduced to ashes. Muslims of pure Arab blood were beaten and subjected to all sorts of maltreatment and contemptuous humiliation. Even Muhammad could not escape, despite the protection of Banū Hāshim and Banū al-Muttalib. Umm-i-Jamīl, Abū Lahab’s wife, used to throw the refuse from her house onto Muhammad’s door. All the Prophet could do was simply to remove it. One day while Prophet Muhammad was praying near the Kabah, Abū Lahab threw on him the entrails of a goat sacrificed to one of the gods; and Muhammad could only go to his daughter Fatimah for her to clean him and wash the dirt off his clothes. This abuse was all in addition to the terrible vituperation and vile calumnies the unbelievers directed against the Muslims on every occasion and in every quarter.
Haykal mentions the patience and tolerance on part of the Prophet and his companions in face of the Makkan persecution without recourse to any retaliatory action as:
This period of Muhammad’s life is one of the noblest and greatest pages of human history. Neither he nor his followers sought wealth or reputation, power or sovereignty. Rather, they were seekers after the truth and believers therein. To those who did harm him, Muhammad prayed for guidance, for liberation from the yoke of vile paganism and from its immorality and villainy. It was for this noble spiritual objective that Muhammad suffered persecution. The poets insulted him; the tribe plotted against him, threw stones at his house, threatened his folks and followers, and came close to killing him near the K‘abah. The more they persecuted, the more patience and resolve Muhammad showed in his mission. The believers repeated and were encouraged by Muhammad’s pledge that he would not abjure this cause even if given both sun and moon. Great sacrifices became small, and death itself became a welcome alternative.
Patience, endurance, peace etc. are the hallmarks of the Makkan phase of Sirāh. “In a time, when it came under oppression from Arab tribes and those of other Faiths, it resisted its persecution with non‐violence. The Prophet Mohammad faced immense ostracism and persecution along with his followers but he conquered with patience. People submitted to Islam willingly and peacefully without coercion.” According to Prof. Siddiqui, “The Prophet set a glowing example during his Makkan phase on how to live in a non-Muslim majority society while adhering to Islam and its shar‘īah and observing all Islamic commands related to its moral, religious and legal system. Muslims are entitled to profess their faith notwithstanding the opposition and hostility against them.”
In spite of persecution and impolite behaviour of Makkan polytheists the Prophet, says Prof. Siddiqi, “never resorted to boycotting non-Muslims. He maintained normal social relations even with his enemies, sharing their sorrow and happiness and had trade links with them. He would pay them courtesy visits.” Muslims followed the example of their Prophet and “had excellent social relations with their non-Muslim neighbours, relatives and residents of the town. They even had matrimonial ties with then until the Qur’ān prohibited it.” After the Muslim migration to Abyssinia, which will be dealt with in the next section, the Quraysh felt that they had been tactically outmanoeuvred so “they escalated their attacks upon the Prophet and the Muslims remaining in Mecca. They organized a boycott against the Prophet’s clan, prohibiting marriage with its members and all commercial dealings. The boycott continued for two or three years until it collapsed under the protests of some disenchanted Quraysh.”
It becomes clear that in the face of severe persecution when one is tempted to take revenge, the norms of pluralism like peace, patience, tolerance etc. are strictly followed by the disciplined group of early Muslims under the guidance of the Prophet. “The Makkan period was characterized by passive, peaceful resistance on part of the Muslims. They bore the abuse and persecution of the Quraysh with the patience and forbearance. They never ventured to fight back.”
3. Muslim Minority in Abyssinia
The event of the migration of some Muslims from Makkah to Abyssinia, an African country away from Makkah across Red Sea under a Christian ruler in 615 CE, and their subsequent habitation there, in a non-Muslim society, is discussed rigorously by some contemporary scholars in the context of pluralism and diversity. It is also an important event in the Makkan phase of Sīrah with far reaching implications for the Muslims living as a minority in pluralistic societies. Prof. Siddiqi considers, rightly, the presence of Muslims in Abyssinia as the extension of the Makkan phase.
After the emigration to Abyssinia, the construction of a Muslim community in a non-Muslim dominated country was the next inevitable phase. It was not something new. For in its own homeland, Makkah, the Muslim community had been a minority in the polity ruled by the Quraysh. At most, the stay of Muslims in Abyssinia may be regarded as the extension of the experience which the Makkan Muslim minority had. The only major difference was that some Muslims from now onwards lived in the midst of non-Muslims of a place other than Makkah. With all their social, cultural and religious distinctions they were placed in a non-Muslim society. It was something akin to the Muslim presence in the Quraysh society.
Therefore the Muslim community in Abyssinia and their experiences are aptly subsumed under the Makkan phase of Sīrah.
3.1 The Event and the Causes
The historical account of the migration to Abyssinia is recorded by almost all Islamic historians and Sīrah writers. Almost two years have completed since the Prophet’s preaching of Islam publicly. Islam was gaining grounds day by day. The number of Muslims was increasing continuously though slowly. So the wrath of Makkan’s got further infuriated and they began to persecute not only weak and poor Muslims but the Muslims whose status have until protected them like Abū Bakr and ‘Uthmān. The situation was becoming tougher for Muslims and the persecutions were out of one’s stamina. Under such circumstances the Prophet was much concerned about his sincere followers but was not in a position to help them. Although protected from physical assault by the protection of his uncle Abū Tālib, the Prophet himself was still the butt of jeers and ridicule.
The Prophet seeing that the situation in Makkah was getting worse, suggested to his oppressed followers: “If you went to the land of the Abyssinians, you would find there a king under whose command nobody suffers injustice. It is a land of sincerity in religion. You would remain there until God delivered you from what you suffer at present”. Commenting on the Prophet’s statement regarding Negus, Seif I. teig al-Din writes that the Prophet’s “keen humanism was most notably reflected in his deep respect to king Najāshi (Negus), the Christian king of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) who has been renowned for his justice-loving and caring attitude towards his own people.” Therefore Muslims on the advice of the Prophet migrated to Abyssinia in the year 615 CE, five years after the beginning of Revelation and two years after the beginning of the public call.
Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah mentions that the Prophet already knew Negus and send a letter to him in the hands of J‘afar b. Abī Tālib, which is still preserved, to give hospitality to J‘afar and his companions. The text of the letter is:
From Muhammad, The Messenger of God, to an-Najashi, the king of the Abyssinians.
I am addressing you the praise of God, besides whom there is no other God, the Sovereign, the Holy, the Protector, the Saviour. And I bear witness that Jesus, son of Mary, is the spirit of God and His word, which He sent unto Mary, the virtuous, the pure and the chaste, who had (i.e. Jesus) borne him through the effect of His Spirit and His breathing, just as He created Adam with His own hand.
Where after I call you towards the unique God, who has no partner, and towards the mutual assistance for obeying Him, and that you follow me and believe in what has come to me, for I am messenger of God. And I call you and your troupe to God, the Powerful, the Majestic. I have delivered (the messages) and advised: up to you all to accept my advice.
I am sending to you my paternal cousin, J‘afar, together with a small group of Muslims; when he will reach your place, receive him with hospitality, leaving aside all improper pride.
Peace be on whoever follows the right path.
It is clear from the letter the Prophet, although presenting the message of Islam in clear terms, pays due consideration to the religious sentiments of Negus.
The main reason behind the migration of Muslims to Abyssinia was the ruthless persecution meted out by the Makkans. The selection of Abyssinia as a land of migration is clear from the words of the Prophet. The king of Abyssinia was just, though non-Muslim and there was freedom to practice one’s faith. According to Sohail H. Hashmi:
The Prophet himself was in no position to protect these vulnerable converts. He and other prominent Muslims escaped the worst physical abuse because of the fear of violating their clans’ guarantees of security. But their position was hardly secure, and the Prophet’s own uncle, Abu Lahab, had refused to join others in the Prophet’s clan to protect him. Realizing the precariousness of his followers’ condition, Muhammad directed them to seek refuge in Abyssinia, ‘for the king will not tolerate injustice and it is a friendly country, until such time as Allah shall relieve you from your distress’.
Prof. Siddiqi makes its comprehensive account as: “The Makkan society discriminated against them in social, political and cultural matters whereas in Abyssinia, they had relatively more peace.”
Some Western scholars, however, seek some mundane motives behind the emigration. Karen Armstrong mentions some of their propositions. “Muhammad may have been trying to establish an independent trade route to the south for those Muslims who were suffering from Abu Jahl’s trade sanctions.” But we did not find any historical evidence to it. The other proposition that “the list of emigrants shows that there might have been some disagreement in the Muslim community. Some of the emigrants like Uthman ibn Ma’zum and Ubayddallah ibn Jahsh had made their own way to monotheism may have been jealous of the influence that a relative newcomer like Abu Bakr had with Muhammad” is rebutted subsequently by her by writing that “Uthman returned to Mecca as soon as it was safe to do so and continued to be loyal to Muhammad and Abu Bakr.”
The migration to Abyssinia took place in two phases, the first in 615 CE comprising fourteen Muslims including ‘Uthmān ibn ‘Affān and his wife Ruqayyah, the Prophet’s daughter; and the second in 616 CE of eighty Muslims including J‘afar b. Abī Tālib, the Prophet’s cousin. So the Muslim community in Abyssinia comprised of almost hundred Muslims.
The Makkan enemies could not tolerate the prospect of a secure haven available for the Muslims in Abyssinia. They sent two delegates—‘Amar bin al-Ā‘s and ‘Abdullah bin Abī Rabī‘ah having high diplomatic skills and with valuable gifts to the Negus for the extradition of Muslims. But the king refused the deportation of Muslims without listening them and summoned the Muslims to the court and asked them to explain the teachings of their new religion. J‘afar bin Abī Tālib acted as a representative on the Muslim side. He described eloquently the evils, vices, moral and religious degradation in which they had fallen before Islam and how their lives have changed by the new faith. Negus was very much impressed by these words and asked him to recite some of the Revelation of Allah. J‘afar recited the opening verses of Sūrah Maryam. Negus recognised that it comes from the same source as that of Injīl and said to the delegates, “I am afraid, I cannot give you back these refugees. They are free to live and worship in my realm as they please.”
On another day the delegates came before the king with the allegation that the Muslims blasphemed Jesus Christ. Again J‘afar proved these allegations false and explained the high and respectable status of Jesus in Islam to the king. He agreed to the views of J‘afar completely and then assured the Muslims of full protection. He also returned to the Makkan delegates, the gifts they had brought with them and expelled them from his country.
3.2 Guidelines for Muslim Minorities
Rachid al-Ghannuchi, cites the event of migration to Abyssinia in support of his power-sharing concept in a non-Islamic government from the Makkan phase of the Prophetic Sīrah among other examples. He Observes:
The second example is that of the Negus (the Emperor of Ethiopia) who lived during the early years of Islam. The prophet advised some of his companions who were being severely persecuted to migrate to Abyssinia describing the Negus as “the king in whose country no one is wronged.” The presence of the small Muslim community in Abyssinia resulted in the Negus embracing Islam, although he did not affect any amendments to his government in the direction of implementing the shari’ah, as such an attempt could have threatened his kingship and endangered the lives of his guests. The story of that noble king has been documented in Islamic history and continues to be narrated to this day. The Prophet instructed his followers to perform a prayer for the king’s soul when the news of his death reached them.
Negus in spite of embracing Islam was not able to govern his subjects according to Islamic law. This did not stop the prophet to accept his sincerity in faith and to pray for him in absentia on his death. Also the noble king continues to be held in high regard by Muslims. Gannuchi while quoting Ibn-i-Taymiyah says: “We know definitely that he could not implement the law of the Qur’an in his community because his people would not have permitted him to. Despite that, the Negus and all those who are similar to him found their way to the pleasure of Allah in eternity although they could not abide by the laws of Islam, and could only rule using that which could be implemented in the given circumstances.”
Some Islamic scholars insist that the alliances of Islamic individuals and groups in contemporary times within a non-Islamic framework should not be pursued. But Ghannuchi defends such endeavors in order to prevent evil or in order to serve the community and held it permissible and lawful from the Islamic perspective. Also such measures would equip the Muslims with the ability to react positively in the situations that can be very difficult indeed to.
Ghannuchi describes the plight of Muslim minorities throughout the world and after discussing many solutions suggested by different scholars concludes that “the best option for such minorities is to enter into alliances with secular democratic groups. They can work for the establishment of a secular democratic government which will respect human rights, ensuring security and freedom of expression and belief—essential requirements of mankind that Islam has come to fulfill.”
Prof. Siddiqi, first of all brings out the universal dimension of the event of migration to Abyssinia. He writes, “This important step served as an experiment for the Prophet’s universal mission and for the global Muslim community. It conveyed the message loud and clear that the Muslim community is universal, open fully to non-Arabs.” Islam is free from any nationalistic or racial prejudices. It embraces all humans on the same footing without any discrimination. It is not bound to any particular region or country but considers whole earth but whole universe as its abode.
The Muslim community in Abyssinia interacted fully with the host society and progressed through give and take dynamics in the cultural sphere. Prof. Siddiqi observes:
It is a truism that an interaction between two cultures or peoples of different socio-religious affiliations results in exchange and influence on each other’s languages, way of life dress, food customs and other cultural manifestations. They borrow from each other even in social life. Ibn Khaldūn recokns Islamic culture as universal. During their stay in Abyssinia these Muslim emigrants adopted many items of Abyssinian culture and influenced, in an equal measure, Abyssinians.
Sayyid Jalāl al-Din ‘Umarī, has dealt with the event of the migration to Abyssinia thoroughly in his scholarly article Hijrat-i-Habashah (migration to Abyssinia), published in the Oct—Dec 2000 issue of one of the reputed Urdu Quarterly, Tehqīqāt-i-Islāmī. He has given its detailed historical account and also highlighted some of its important implications from pluralistic point of view.
The Muslims are permitted to migrate from a country only under extraordinary conditions. Unless and until the atmosphere of a place is not too hostile for Muslims and they are not denied of the basic religious freedom they should not emigrate. As “the companions were permitted [by the Prophet] to emigrate when the conditions in Makkah became too tough and it became difficult to behold ones faith and the ways of calling people unto Allah got virtually closed.”
If Muslims are severely persecuted in their country and there is no other Islamic Country (Dār al-Islām) to take refuge, then it is permissible for them to migrate to a non-Islamic country where one is free to practice and preach his religion. As “Abyssinia was an un-Islamic and Christian state but the Muslims were free to practice and preach their religion there, therefore it was abode of peace (Dār al-Aman) for them.”
Muslims should be intellectually sound and equipped with knowledge in order to respond the emerging issues positively and also should be able to put Islamic teachings in tangible and plausible way before the adherents of other faiths. “In Abyssinia Muslims were confronted with a new situation. It was a Christian country but sūrah Maryam had been revealed in Makkah which discussed the relevant issues in detail. So the emigrants were fully prepared to face the new situation.”
Muslims even as minority should have courage and determination to put forward Islamic teachings uncompromisingly. They should not conceal the truth of fear. “In the court of Negaus, J‘afar ibn-i-Abī Tālib, the representative of Muslims demonstrated courage and explained the concepts of Oneness of God (tawhīd), Prophethood (risālat) and Hereafter (ākhirat) without hesitation.” Although Christians believe in the divinity of Christ, J‘afar mentioned him as a messenger and servant of Allah according to the Qur’ānic teachings.
According to Dr. Obaidullah Fahad, “The points raised here by an expert of theology and Islamic Jurisprudence are more important in the context of pluralism and diversity especially as he is leading nowadays the Jamā‘at-i-Islāmī of India and is confronted with the living issues of Indian Muslims” in a multi-faith pluralistic society.
Tariq Ramadan also works out the above principle from the courageous stand of J‘afar in front of Negus. He observes:
As for J‘afar and his community, they had found a predominantly Christian country where, although they were exiles and did not share the population’s faith, they were received, protected, and tolerated. They had decided to say the truth: at the most hazardous moment of the encounter with the Negus, they had neither tried to evade the question nor lied about what the Prophet Muhammad said of Jesus, son of Mary. They indeed risked being sent back and extradited, but they were not in the same situation as Ammar, who under torture had verbally denied his faith to save his life. In this case, then, in spite of the dangers involved, there was no way out: the Muslims kept to their beliefs, which they expressed with sincerity and honesty. They had no other choice but to say the truth, and so they did.
Tariq Ramadan infers another important principle from the event which is of great value for good understanding between Muslim and the adherents of other faiths. J‘afar first mentioned of the similarities between Islam and Christianity. He first highlighted the common beliefs which made the audience able to hear the further teachings of Islam. They were not alienated at the very outset. This strategy contributed to the success of J‘afar in his presentation. According to Tariq Ramadan:
Besides, it should be noted that J‘afar had at first set forth the similarities between the two Revelations. The first verses he had recited clearly showed that the source of the message was the same and that Muslims, when accepting me new Revelation, worshiped the same God as Christians and recognized their prophet. It was the Meccan emissaries who had tried to point out the differences in order to make trouble, but Jafar was just as quick to staunchly explain the message of his faith with its distinctions and differences.
The presence of the Muslims in Abyssinia also sent the Christians another message: “that the Muslims had recognized in the Negus a man of principle and justice” so the Negus treated the Muslims in the same way. It implies that Muslims should recognise and approve publically the qualities of a person irrespective of his religious denomination, it is both desirable as a principle and for its pragmatic value. As in the case of under discussion “the king heard and welcomed those believers of another faith.”
Sultān Ahmad Islāhī while theorizing and discussing the legitimacy of power-sharing within non-Islamic framework, in order to make foundations of a just system, has quoted Ibn-i-Taymiyyah’s justification of the Abyssinian king, Negus of not implementing shari’h instead of being a Muslim. He writes, “In the contemporary times what should be the role of Muslim minorities? In this issue we have guidance in the example of the King of Abyssinia. For that we will rely on the exhortations of Ibn-i-Taymiyyah.”
Islāhī after discussing many principles deduced by Ibn-i-Taymiyyah from the Qur’ānic verses; 12:55, 12:56, 2:286, 65:7, 64:16 and 40:34 in the context of pluralistic societies with Muslim minorities, narrates the limitations of the king as:
He was not practising a number of rather most of the Shari‘ah ordinances because it was impossible for him. He neither migrated (to Madinah), nor waged Jihad, nor performed Hajj. Instead, it is reported, he was not; punctual of five prayers, fasting the month of Ramadan; giving alms according to Islamic Shari‘ah. Because these acts would not remain hidden from his people, which they did not like and also he was not in a position to afford it. We also know that it was not possible for him to judge between his people according to the Qur’ān.
Then Ibn-i-Taymiyyah infers the following principle from the example of the king of Abyssinia.
It was impossible for Negus to continue as a king if he had implemented the rulings of the Qur’ān. In the same vein sometimes a Muslim accepts the post of a qadī or an imām of the Muslims from the Tatars and he is not able to adhere to justice in spite of his yearning for it. Verily Allah doesn’t burden someone beyond his capacity.
Ibn-i-Taymiyyah makes an analogy between the situation of Negus and the conditions of Muslims of early Makkan phase and maintains for them the same principle. He observes, “It is the same case as with a group of Makkan Muslims who concealed their faith as they were not in a position to migrate…as they were not in a position to establish their religion so were free the duties thereof.”
By way of concluding the whole discussion, Ibn-i-Taymiyyah observes that “The Muslims are unanimous in that if a man living in a non-Islamic country (Dār al-kufr) embraces Islam and is not in a position to emigrate, is not obliged to the ordinances of Shari’ah beyond his capacity. Instead he is only obliged according to his capacity.”
According to Islāhī, the argument is clear and needs no further explanation. However it does not imply from the example of the king of Abyssinia that today some Muslim minorities may unnecessarily narrow the circle of Islamic jurisdiction and free themselves from five prayers and zakat. It facilitates however that a Muslim minority practicing the Shari’ah according to their capacity and making efforts to extend the jurisdiction of Shari’ah to the maximum in the given situation, is not accountable to Allah in the spheres of Islamic punishments, polity and state in which he is incapable. The second aspect of the discussion is more important that it is not necessary for Muslim minority to part away from un-Islamic system and its administration unless the whole system becomes according to Islam. Rather it is desirable and under certain circumstances obligatory to participate actively for the broad interests of the Ummah.
Seif I. Teig al-Din raises the questions why the Prophet did not call upon Negus to abandon his kingdom and take part in the battles of jihād? Or why he was not even required to disclose his Islamic faith to his Christian people? He then himself answers these questions by observing that “a possible response to this question could be that Najāshi observed a highly considered Islamic Value with his people even though they were non-Muslims and not belonging to the Madina. That was a sufficient cause to ensure the Prophet’s satisfaction and respect.”
Tāhā Jābir Alwānī while inferring a legal ruling from the event of migration to Abyssinia for the Muslim minorities in the West today says, “Just as the Muslims in the time of the Prophet were allowed to stay in Abyssinia because they were treated well by the king al-Najashi (the Negus), the Muslims who live in the West are allowed to remain there because they are treated well.”
4. The Prophet in Tāif
The year of 619 CE witnessed two tragedies on after the other which had a profound impact on the Prophet’s position in Makkan society. First, Khadīja, in whom the Prophet would find solace in the face of rejection and opposition, died few months after the social boycott ended. Second Abū Tālib, who always stood along with the Prophet like a rock, died leaving him to the open persecution of the Makkan polytheists. According to Tariq Ramadan:
In the space of a few months, the Prophet seemed to have become doubly vulnerable: he had lost the person who had offered him love and the person who had granted him protection. In spite of his grief, he needed to react quickly and find the means to protect the community of Muslims who had remained in Mecca. Muhammad decided to seek support outside the city.
Therefore these incidents rendered the Prophet vulnerable, and the Makkans availed them of that opportunity to give free rein to their hatred and highhandedness and to translate them in terms of oppression and physical tortures. Once an impolite Qurayshi intercepted him and sprinkled sand on his head. When he arrived home, his daughter washed the sand away and wept. The Prophet reconciled her and said, “Do not weep, my daughter. Allāh will verily protect your father.” Rapid succession of misfortunes, led the Prophet to call that year ‘Ām al-Huzn (the year of sorrow).
Now the Prophet was searching some other place where his message could be accepted. For the purpose, he undertook a trip to Tā’if, a prosperous and agricultural city to the north of Makkah, where he seek the support of a strong tribe of Ta’īf. The tribe not only rejected the Prophet’s message but invoked some vulgar boys to insult him; throw stones on him and throw him out of the city. The Prophet’s shoes filled with blood and he could not stand or walk. The beastly stone throwers would make him to stand by force and repeated the same treatment. Finally, he ran away from them and took shelter near a wall which belonged to ‘Utbah and Shaybah, sons of Rabi’ah. There, he sat under a vine pondering his defeat, within sight of the sons of Rabi’ah. He raised his hands to heaven and prayed with noticeable pain O God, please consider my weakness, my shortage of means, and the little esteem that people have of me. Oh, most Merciful God, You are the Lord of the oppressed, and You are my Lord. To whom would You leave my fate? To a stranger who insults me? Or to an enemy who dominates me? Would I that You have no wrath against me! Your pleasure alone is my objective. Under the light of Your faith which illuminates all darkness and on which this world and the other depend, I take my refuge. I pray that I may not become the object of Your wrath and anger. To You alone belongs the right to blame and to chastise until Your pleasure is met. There is neither power nor strength except in You.
The every word of the Prophet’s supplication is a living testimony of the measure of ill-treatment done with him and his deep and firm trust in his God. After this incidence, Allah sent the angel of mountains to the Prophet who sought his permission to destroy the whole city by merging its surrounding mountains—al-Akhshabain. But the response of the Prophet is worthy of the Prophet of Mercy. He didn’t permit the angel that the people couldn’t recognise him and maybe their progeny become Muslims.
Another event which took place in Tā’if is also important. ‘Utbah and Shaybah after watching the Prophet for sometime the feeling of compassion and sympathy moved them. They sent their servant, ‘Addās—a Christian with a bunch of grapes. Before the Prophet start to eat the grapes, he said: “In the name of God.” ‘Addās was astonished and asked, “That is not what the natives of this country usually say.” Muhammad then asked him about his religion and his country of origin, and when he learned that he was a Christian from Nineveh, he said, “Are you then from the City of the Righteous Yunus, son of Matta? “Still more surprised, ‘Addas asked, “What do you know about Yunus, son of Matta?”
The Prophet answered, “That was my brother; he was a true prophet and so am I.” Moved with emotion, ‘Addās kissed the Prophet.
Here we see a Christian recognises the Prophet, kisses his feet, held him in high regard and provided him food and assistance when he was in its dire need. This is the last event recorded in the Makkan phase of Sīrah of the Prophet’s engagement with an adherent of Christianity which is by all means compassionate and cooperative. According to Tariq Ramadan, “Twice already, in sorrow and isolation, Muhammad had encountered on his path Christians who offered him trust, respect, and shelter: a king welcomed Muslims and granted them security, a slave served their Prophet when everybody else had rejected him and his message.”
The prophet after the negative response and maltreatment by the people of Tā’if turned his face towards Makkah. Before entering Makkah he sent a man to some Quraysh leaders like Akhnas b. Shuraiq, Suhail b. ‘Amr etc. to seek their protection, but to no avail. At last a notable Makkan, Mut‘im b. ‘Adi, provided asylum to the Prophet and then he could enter Makkan securely. The Prophet remembered Mut‘im’s favour and said in regard to the prisoners of the battle of Badr, “If Mutim bin ‘Adi were living and had asked me for the release of these rotten people, then I would have given them to him.”
The persons whom the Prophet approached for asylum and the one whose shelter he afforded to enter the Makkah were all non-Muslims. Their faith could not stop the Prophet from asking their help on humanitarian grounds. As per the principle of reciprocity the works for the welfare of humanity and providing help for the oppressed should be carried out irrespective of the denominational considerations like race, ethnicity, religion etc.
Commenting on the general nature of the Prophetic message and strategy its Makkan phase, Asma Afsaruddin observes: “In the roughly twelve years of the Prophet’s Meccan phase, resistance to the Meccan establishment and defence against Meccan persecution was conducted through non-violent means: through peaceful propagation of the message of Islam, the manumission of slaves and other acts of charity, and emigration at first to Abyssinia for some and then to Medina.” There were many occasions in Makkah at that time which could have become the subject of clash and confrontation. But, the Prophet skilfully avoided all such issues and strictly limited his sphere, as per divine guidance to peaceful propagation of Islam. This peaceful strategy furnished rich dividends and provided a solid core which remained a source of strength in the coming periods.
Sohail H. Hashmi while describing the implications of jihad (struggle in the way of Allah) in the Makkan period and the patience manifested by the Prophet and his devout followers observes:
Beginning in the middle to late Meccan period, the Qur’an employs the term jihad to describe the Muslims’ struggle against their opponents (25:52; 29:6, 69). Throughout the Meccan period, this struggle was confined entirely to non-violent action. The Prophet prevented his followers from resort to violence against their persecutors, because, in the traditional Muslim view, God had not commanded them to fight. It is important to note, however, that neither had the Qur’an proscribed in principle the resort to force in self-defence.
Dr. Obaidullah Fahad summarises the conclusions construed by Prof. Siddiqi by careful examination of the pluralistic nature of Makkan society and the evolution of Muslim minority in it and in Abyssinia alike in his book ‘The Prophet Muhammad: A Role Model For Muslim Minorities’ superbly. But here I am quoting only those points which are relevant in the context of pluralism.
- Islam in Makkah was not determined to extirpate fully the Jāhiliyyah, Arab culture and civilization. It was not after demolishing each and everything. Rather it opted for the middle way by way of reforming, adapting, restoring and reconstructing the existing order.
- For maintaining their identity and for preaching faith among the majority community it is essential for the Muslims to set up local centres of education and training for making the call to faith this was the Prophet’s glorious practice in Makkan phase.
- Another principle of the Makkan phase was that wherever a Muslim minority was unsafe, in terms of its faith, life and property, it was asked to join another Muslim group or to move to a safer place. This is known as hijrah (emigration).
- The Prophet utilized fully the prevailing Arab social security system both for himself and other Muslims. He lived under the protection extended to him by Banū Hāshim. When this cover was violated by the reproachable conduct of the head of family, he secured protection from another Quraysh family, Banū Nawfal. Other Muslim individuals too, availed themselves of the protection offered by their respective families and on losing it they took others’ help. It is therefore, essential for the Muslim minorities today that they should be familiar with their constitutional rights and be able to benefit from these as a minority.
- Like any minority, Makkan Muslims had to defend their faith, their community members and their entire community. This defence was both ideological and physical. Under the Prophet’s leadership the Makkan Muslim minority successfully managed to discharge this duty.
- For the survival and growth of the Muslim minority it is important to have educational excellence, religious superiority, collectivity, strong economy and sound financial conditions. Rather, it is their religious duty to achieve all this.
- Identity is a crucial issue for a community especially for minorities. The identity of Muslims is central to their survival and an integral part of their social life, fraternity and unity. For they are deluged by the cultural invasions. The Prophet’s role model for Muslim minorities is that they should preserve their identity at any cost. This alone is the way to fight against evil forces.
- There is the issue of social relations which the Muslim minority should have with the majority community. Let this be realized at the outset that Islam does not approve total separation from the non-Muslim society. Muslims have to prove that they are the best community, devoted to the cause of protecting against suffering and blessing everyone with happiness, regardless of caste, colour or creed. This position is of the best community and their duty is to serve mankind.
- Muslims, be they in majority or minority stand obliged to adhere to their faith and devote them fully to Allah regardless of the directive for them to draw upon material resources.
The Makkan phase of Sīrah, in particular, is a model for the Muslim minorities living in a plural society and polity dominated by non-Muslims. The Prophet’s relationship with the adherents of other faiths was hospitable. In the face of Makkan persecution, the prophet displayed endurance and did not resort to any retaliatory and violent means. Instead he asked his followers to emigrate in order to eschew the clash and conflict. The land of emigration—Abyssinia, was a country under Christian ruler, whom the Prophet described as a ‘just king’. The Muslims co-existed there with Christians for some time peacefully. The Prophet’s response to the heart moving event of Tā’if is a glaring example of high morality and character. In Makkah the Muslims displayed the principles of pluralism.
Amir Hussain, Islam, Pluralism and Interfaith Dialogue, Progressive Muslims: On Justice, gender and Pluralism, Ed., Omid Safi, England, One World Publications, 2008, p. 252
Prof. Muhammad Yasin Mazhar Siddiqi, The Prophet Muhammad: A Role Model For Muslim Minorities, UK, The Islamic Foundation, 2006, p. 24
See, Farooq Hassan, Acceptance of Pluralism in Islam (A Myth or Truth), European Journal of Scientific Research, Vol. 69, No.3, 2012, p. 475
Mahmood Mustafa Ayoub, A Muslim View of Christianity, Ed. Irfan Ahmad Omar, New Delhi, Logos Press, 2010, p. 1
Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based On The Earliest Sources, New Delhi, Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., 1983, pp. 50-51
Tariq Ramadan, In The Footsteps of The Prophet: Lessons From the life of The Prophet, New York, OUP, 2007, pp. 38-39
Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, Tr. Ismāīl Raji al-Farūqī, Delhi, New Crescent Publishing Co., 2007, p. 90
See, Allama Shibli Numānī, Sirat-un-Nabi, Tr. T.B. Badayuni, New Delhi, Kitab Bhawan, 2004, Vol. I, pp. 154-158
Kishwar Sultana, http:// www.ihmsaw.org
Sohail H. Hashmi, The Qur’an and Tolerance: An Interpretive Essay on Verse 5:48, Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 2, No. 1, March 2003, p. 85
Seif I. Tag El-Din, “Islamic Ethics of Religious Pluralism”, The Islamic Quarterly, 2003, Vol. xlvii, No. 2, p. 146
See, Muhammad Hamidullah, The Life and Work of the Prophet of Islam, New Delhi, Adam Publishers and Distributors, 2004, p. 87
Rachid Ghannouchi, Participation in Non-Islamic Government, Liberal Islam: A Source Book, Ed., Charles Kurzman, New York, OUP, 1998, p. 92
Dr. Obaidullah Fahad, Tracing Pluralistic Trends in Sīrah Literature, Islamic Studies, Vol. 50, No. 2, Summer 2011, p. 232
Sulttān Ahmad Islāhī, Musalmān Aqalliyyatoon kā Maqlūbah Kirdār, UP (India), Fikr-o-Āgahī, 2002, p. 139
Ibn-i-Taymiyyah, Minhaj al-Sunnah al-Nabawiyyah, Quoted by, Sultān Ahmad Islāhī, Op. Cit., pp. 143-144
Tāhā Jābir Alwānī, Quoted By, Shammai Fishman, Fiqh Al-Aqalliyyat: A Legal Theory For Muslim Minorities, Washington, Hudson Institute, 2006, P. 16
Parvaze Ahmad Bhat is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Islamic Studies, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Aligarh, India. Email : email@example.com