How was the life of the Prophet’s Companions in Abyssinia?
The Muslims’ migration to Abyssinia set a great example of coexistence with non-Muslims. This model was a full realization of the concept of citizenship and delineated the social responsibility of each citizen. Muslims observed their responsibility as Abyssinian citizens and, in return, they enjoyed the protection of their full rights.
From the historic speech of Abdullah Ibn Jaafar (may God be pleased with him) before Negus and his refutation of the claims and defamations spread by the Quraysh, we are learn how Muslims ought to act. Muslims, in every time and place, need to learn how to deal with and communicate with non-Muslims in an inviting manner, one that encourages others to learn more about Islam and respect Muslims. In contrast to this, the zealots of extremism in our modern time who take refuge in non-Muslim states and gain the protection they seek, insist on defaming the citizens of the countries in which they reside. This and the extremist speech they direct at the people of other faiths, triggers feelings of hatred and bigotry against Islam and Muslims.
Muslims who follow this behavior violate the teachings of Islam. Among these basic teachings is gratitude and appreciation especially to those who live in peace with Muslims. Unfortunately, the behavior of Muslim fanatics tarnishes the image of Islam and Muslims worldwide and gives the world an erroneous and ugly image of Islam. These Muslims furnish enemies of Islam worldwide with every reason to be hostile to Islam and Muslims.
When they migrated to Abyssinia, Muslims offered to fight alongside Negus and his army against his cousin who was seeking to usurp his throne, but he refused. When he won the war, they were overjoyed at his victory. But when the fighting erupted once more against Negus and his people, the Muslims insisted on joining his army and aid his cause. This they did willingly even though they were fighting alongside a non-Muslim army and for a non-Muslim leader. But it was their sense of responsibility towards the country they were living in that compelled them to join the army of Negus and fight for him.
The Muslims’ stay in Abyssinia under the leadership of Negus was peaceful, harmonious and respectful. The Prophet’s Companions were honest and gracious, and Muslims in general paid great respect to the people of Abyssinia. They were grateful to them for their hospitality and never interfered in the internal affairs of their nation except to offer help, aid, and support. They never denied the gratitude which was due to their hosts.
The Prophet’s Companions who migrated to Abyssinia lived under the guardianship and authority of Negus. He observed their lifestyle, religious practices and dealings with others, all of which proved to him the truth of the religion they followed and their loyalty to it. This proves that a Muslim’s behavior should reflect his beliefs.
Muslims can be the best representatives of their religion if they but practice it to the best of their ability and hold fast to its teachings as conveyed through the Holy Quran and by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Gracious treatment of peaceful non-Muslims can be one effective channel of da’wah [religious preaching] whereas hostility and bigotry repel people from Islam and give an erroneous image of this noble religion.
This example is suitable and convenient for modern day application especially with nations who are at peace with us. Muslims living in a non-Muslim majority can follow the example of the early Muslims who migrated to Abyssinia as this would allow for much needed harmonious coexistence and assimilation and create an environment where Muslims can contribute effectively in Western societies.
Moral lessons derived from the Muslims’ stay in Abyssinia
We can learn may lessons and values from the early Muslims’ stay in Abyssinia which can be applied in our present time. These include:
1-The diverse socio-economic and political conditions during the production of scholarly books on many Islamic disciplines were instrumental in preferring one model of coexistence over another. This gave rise to a biased and even a reductionist reading of the Sirah.
2-The Islamic civilization was at the peak of its glory and strength in its early stages. At this phase, Muslim jurists and mujtahids by necessity focused on the issues prevalent at their times. They are not to be blamed for this, for every era and time requires the ijtihad [independent reasoning] of Muslim scholars on unprecedented matters provided they do not violate the general framework of the Islamic law as outlined in the Quran and applied by the Noble Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).
3-Looking into the model of Abyssinia, a non-Muslim country to which the small Muslim community was forced to migrate as a result of their persecution in their homeland and where they enjoyed freedom, peace and much required protection, one finds that it may have seemed a farfetched model in the 2nd or the 3rd century AH. This may explain why Muslim scholars of that age refrained from applying or promoting the model of Abyssinia and did not give it due attention. They did not see it a possible reality. They did not foresee that a time will come when Muslims will feel the need to resort to such a model for effective coexistence with the other. Muslim scholars did not see the need to extract legal rulings on living under a foreign power because Muslims at that time were at the height of their power and authority.
But this reality changed and so has the status quo of the Muslim community. Consequently, it was necessary to consider this model and study its application from the noble life of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and the life of his Companions. Muslims now need to peacefully coexist with the other in the same way the early Muslims did when they settled in in Abyssinia. They need to follow the Prophet’s example in fostering good relations and creating harmony with non-Muslims without compromising the basic principles and fundamentals of Islam.
4- Muslim jurists were generally inclined towards the model of Medina, that state in which the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) left his Companions and the Rightly Guided Caliphs before he died. It was precisely because of this that scholars preferred it over others as it represented a model of a powerful state and nation.
5-What this treatise seeks to prove is that all four models of coexistence laid down by the noble Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) are valid and universal. None should supersede the other, yet each is suitable to certain circumstances, to serve certain needs and deal with a certain reality. The reality of a particular time is a deciding factor for which model to choose and consequently allow Muslims attain harmonious and effective coexistence with non-Muslims in a manner conducive to much needed world peace.
6-Contemporary Muslim mujtahids should consider these four models and try to better understand their implications to discover and extract as much moral lessons and benefits as possible. They should exert the necessary effort to derive rulings that serve the welfare of Muslim individuals and communities alike, grant them their due rights, freedoms as well as safety and protection. Expounding new legal rulings based on these models of coexistence will help Muslims strike the required balance between meeting their life needs and fulfilling their religious obligations. It will allow them to coexist in peace with non-Muslims and avoid much unwanted strife and rifts.
7-Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) never wasted an opportunity to advice and teach Muslims even at times of war and calamities. He advised Muslims to avoid war instead of pursuing it and to ask God the Almighty to protect them instead of engaging in conflict with non-Muslims. He once said: “Do not wish for an encounter with the enemy, but if you must, exercise patient i.e. stand firm against them.” Muslim scholars should not be reluctant to exert the required effort to expound new Islamic rulings and depend instead on the edicts or rulings of the scholars who preceded them, those who efficiently fulfilled their mission and did their best to extract accurate Islamic rulings needed for the age they lived in.
The gap Muslims face nowadays between the Islamic legal rulings and the reality of the times they live in and their welfare continues to widen and unless scholars intervene, Muslims are at the risk of falling into a succession of intolerable challenges.
8-Lastly, the model of Abyssinia, a refined and strong example of coexistence with non-Muslims, invites us to follow the teachings of our noble Prophet, our role model, and our teacher (peace and blessings be upon him) for they are indeed universal.
This is the best, and perhaps the most trusted way for Muslims to effectively integrate with and contribute toward the societies they live in. Achieving this end would certainly help Muslims achieve their religious obligations and establish their Islamic rites, contrary to what others may mistakenly believe that it would make Muslims dissolve into non-Muslim societies and compromise their religious principles and fundamentals.
A good Muslim should not fear change. He should expose himself to global communities to impact and contribute richly to them, without fearing for the purity of his faith. Islam is a stable and firm religion; it is capable of spreading and reaching far and wide, to influence without being influenced. Muslims should make sure they do not stand as an obstacle hindering the spread of Islam. Unfortunately, the attitudes of some Muslims nowadays sometimes gives a wrong impression about Islam and might at times discourage others from learning about this noble religion.
Muslims therefore need to reconsider their behavior and try to hold fast to the refined and tolerant teachings of Islam, lest they be a reason for spreading an erroneous image and repel people from it. Returning to the path of God the Almighty and pure Islam is what can best serve the image of this religion.