Rethinking the Hijrah

By Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib

Today (2 October, 2016/ 1 Muharram 1438) marks the beginning of the new year in the Muslim calendar, known as the Hijrah (هِجْرَة‎‎).

Hijrah means ‘migration’ and it denotes a new Muslim era in history where Muslims were conscious of their ‘process of becoming’ as a community destined to carve a new and autonomous socio-political order based on God’s calling to establish peace and justice on earth.

The hijrah itself was incidental, borne out of the need to escape the increasing persecution by the ruling tribe of Quraysh in Mecca, and to seek shelter in Yathrib (later on known as Medina) upon the invitation of the people of Yathrib. It occurred twelve years into Muhammad’s prophethood, circa 622 CE, and ten years before his passing.

The significance of the hijrah must not be understated. Apart from being an event that formed the first day of the Muslim calendar, Muslim scholars of the past and present continue to invest meaning upon the hijrah as a concept, speculating on the continuous significance of this important event in Muslim historical self-understanding.

While one can argue for a more spiritual state of self-transformation – i.e., a migration from bad to good or from evil to goodness in the individual – the hijrah underlies a more material aspect that is located within a physical movement from a place to another, as how the actual event of migration from Mecca to Medina signified in history.

Hijrah as a Political Concept

It is thus not surprising that several prominent medieval Muslim scholars (such as al-Qudama, d. 1223, Ibn Taymiyyah, d. 1328 and al-Wansharisi, d.1508) had developed a more political concept of hijrah to call for permanent migration from the abode of unbelief (dar al-kufr) to the abode of Islam (dar al-Islam). Khaled Abou El-Fadl, a contemporary jurist and scholar on Islamic Law, summarised this medieval position as such:

“It has often been argued that a just life is possible only if lived under the guidance of the Shari’a which, in turn, is possible only if there is an Islamic polity dedicated to the application of the Shari’a. That is to say, a just life is possible for a Muslim only if lived in an Islamic polity that dutifully applies the Shari’a. Consequently, a certain dichotomy results. On the one hand there is the abode of Islam (dar al-Islam) where it is possible to live an ethical life under the guidance of the Shari’a. On the other hand, there is the abode of unbelief (dar al-kufr, dar al-harb or dar al-shirk) where the Shari’a is not applied and Islamic justice does not prevail.” (“Islamic Law and Muslim Minorities” in Islamic Law and Society, Vol. 1 No. 2, August 1994)

Some Muslim scholars today who continue to draw upon such medieval rulings would back up the argument for a permanent state of migration (from non-Muslim territory to Muslim territory) by further citing verses 4:97-100 and 8:72 of the Qur’an.

In the former set of verses, the angels castigated Muslims for not migrating when they found themselves in a state of sin and oppression: “Was not God’s earth vast enough for you to migrate within it?” The latter verse was more explicit in recommending hijrah: “Those who believed and migrated and struggled in the path of God with their property and their souls and those who sheltered and supported them, are friends and supporters of one another. Those who believed and did not migrate, you have no duty of protection towards them until they migrate.

In commenting on the verses of Q.4:97-100, exegete Syed Qutb (d. 1966) who has often been implicated as the ideologue of modern-day Islamist extremism, wrote:

“This ruling [i.e. hijrah] remains valid until the end of time, transcending that particular case which the text addresses in a particular time and environment. It remains a general ruling incumbent upon all Muslims subject to pressure and persecution in any land aimed at turning them away from their faith, and yet who stay where they are in order to look after their possessions and interests or to be with their relatives and friends or because of their unwillingness to undertake the hardships of migration. Once there is a place on earth, any place, which belongs to Islam and where one can feel secure declaring one’s faith and fulfilling one’s religious duties, then one must migrate in order to live under the banner of Islam and enjoy the sublime standard of life Islam affords.” (Fi Zilal al-Qur’an)

Coupled with several Prophetic report – e.g. “I am innocent of [i.e. I disown] any Muslim who lives with the polytheists, for you will not be able to tell the two apart.” (al-Nasa’i); “Do not live with and associate with the polytheists. Whosoever lives with them and associates with them is like them.” (Abu Dawud); and “The enemy will not come to an end as long as the enemy is fought.” (Ibn Hanbal) – the political concept of hijrah had been the sole argument used by extremist groups like ISIS to recruit foreign fighters from all over the world. According to intelligence The Soufan Group Report released in December 2015, some 27,000 to 31,000 people had traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State and other violent extremist groups from at least 86 countries.

Factors for the willingness to travel to Iraq and Syria to engage in violence may vary, but one of them is certainly the success of extremist groups to latch onto the concept of hijrah for Muslims who had been drummed with the idea that (1) the totality of Islam can only be achieved through establishing a territorial rule where Muslims are in-charge and Islamic Law is applied; and (2) it is an obligation of Muslims to support the struggle to establish such a territory, not to co-operate with non-Muslim or wayward Muslim rule in an unIslamic state, or to migrate to a territory where the state of Islam or a caliphate has been declared or in the midst of being implemented by a Muslim ruler (khalifa) or a commander of the faithful (amir al-mukminin).

It is not a surprise then that the political concept of hijrah remains a key element in the recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters. In a video released in 2014, Abu Muhammad al-Indonesiy used the concept of hijrah to call upon Muslims in the Malay-Indonesian world to join ranks and pledged allegiance to ISIS leader, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi.

The First Migration

What is interesting is that the hijrah that was made by the early Muslims was not the first. The first hijrah was to the Christian kingdom of Aksumite in Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia), circa 613-615 CE.

The king, known in Muslim sources as Negus (a title) Ashama ibn Abjar (or King Abshar), gave the Muslims protection after learning that the Muslims had a close affinity to the Abrahamic and Christian faith, that includes the belief in Jesus as the Messiah. A second migration to Abyssinia ensued, two years after the first.

When the Quraysh demanded the return of the Muslim exiles, the leader of the self-exiled Muslims, Ja’far bin Abi Talib (the brother of ‘Ali, who would become the fourth Caliph later on), made a powerful plea, as narrated by the 8th century biographer, Ibn Ishaq:

“O King, we were plunged into the depth of ignorance and barbarism; we adored idols; we lived in debauchery; we ate dead animals and we spoke abominations; we disregarded every feeling of humanity, abhorred hospitality and ill-treated our neighbours; we knew no law but that of the strong. Then God raised among us a man whose birth, truthfulness, honesty and purity everyone vouched for. He asked us to believe in the unity of God, and taught us not to associate anyone with Him. He forbade us the worship of idols and enjoined us to speak the truth, to be faithful and merciful, and to respect the rights of our neighbours. He forbade us to speak evil of women, or to defraud the properties of orphans. He ordered to abstain from evil, to offer prayers, to render alms, to observe fast. We have believed in Him, we have accepted His teachings and injunctions. For this reason, our people have risen against us, persecuted us and asked us to forgo the worship of God and to return to the worship of idols of wood and stone and other abominations. They have tortured us and injured us, until, finding no safety among them, we have come to your country; we hope you will protect us from their oppression.” (cited, Rafiq Zakaria, Muhammad and the Qur’an, 1991)

The fact that Muhammad had ordered his followers to seek protection from a Christian ruler was in itself a significant and remarkable marker of the early Muslim identification of Islam being of the same family stock as the Jews and the Christians, i.e. of The People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitab). Fazlur Rahman in his Major Themes of the Qur’an (1989), remarked that “the Qur’an now [under the term People of the Book] recognises in some fashion the validity of the Jewish and the Christian communities.” Hence, it was not unthinkable that the first protection that the early Muslims sought were from the Christians.

Given the powerful plea of Ja’far bin Abi Talib and the Muslims’ professed affinity to the Christians, King Abshar refused to accede to the Quraysh envoy’s demand for the return of the refugees, and conveyed that the Muslims shall receive protection under his Christian kingdom and free to practice their religion.

This incident must not be forgotten and need to be evaluated together with the third and most significant migration – the actual hijrah made by Muhammad himself from Mecca to Medina that forms the beginning of the Muslim calendar.

What lessons, if any, can we draw from this first migration to Abyssinia that has almost been forgotten by Muslims when discussing the concept of hijrah?

First, the condition for migration is the active presence of persecution.

This need not be tied to Muslim or non-Muslim rule, as developed in later medieval formulation. Any situation in which safety and livelihood are at risk demands an action to seek shelter and protection. It is human to demand peace and justice in treatment, hence, the imperative to migrate if the situation demands so.

The Syrian refugee crisis today is an example where Muslims are fleeing from persecution and destruction wrought by a sectarian war driven by Muslims themselves, as victims sought shelter and protection from their neighboring European states that are secular and under non-Muslim rule – just as Abyssinia was when the early Muslims sought protection from them for the persecution in the hands of fellow Quraysh tribe that Muhammad himself belonged to.

Second, the condition for migration is seek peace and stability, and the ability to practice religion in the condition of freedom – not to somehow establish an Islamic rule. The call for hijrah by groups like ISIS, therefore, does not meet this requirement.

In fact, Muslims who make migration to Syria to fight the raging civil war and persecute fellow Muslims (those who are deemed ‘heretical’) and those who belong to minority groups like the Kurdish Yezidis, are abetting to a crime that Islam sanctions against. This has been highlighted in an instructive book by Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, Refuting ISIS (2016) in which the caliphate that ISIS declared is invalid from the standpoint of Muslim traditional fiqh (jurisprudence), and that it is instead an obligation for Muslims to resist the call of ISIS.

Given the propaganda of extremist groups that resurrect medieval rulings on the hijrah (as a political concept) and hoisting it upon Muslims today without regard for a historical context of a long-gone political milieu of inter-civilisational rivalry (of the Christian and Muslim world), the first hijrah to Abyssinia may hold extremely important lessons.

Unfortunately, there has been little attempt to dig into this period of pre-Medinan history and to reformulate the concept of hijrah beyond the medieval formulation that was locked into the political context of that time, and reading it into the third migration of Prophet Muhammad as a means to establish Muslim rule – which, was not the original intent other than to escape persecution in Mecca.

Hijrah to Citizenship

When reading into this political concept of hijrah as formulated by medieval scholars, Andrew March in his splendid study titled Islam and Liberal Citizenship (2009) noted that the debate among Muslim scholars had not gone beyond discussing whether hijrah continues to be an obligation or a mere recommendation.

Several contemporary Muslim scholars, chiefly, Shaykh Faysal al-Mawlawi of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, as discussed by Tariq Ramadan in his book, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (2005), tried to dismiss the obligation for hijrah by introducing the term dar al-dawa, or abode of witness/propagation.

It is, as summarised by Tariq Ramadan, a position where Muslims in non-Muslim lands need not migrate to Muslim lands, but “positive and sure of themselves, they must remind the people around them of God and spirituality, and when it comes to social issues, they must be actively involved in supporting values and morality, justice and solidarity. They should not submit to their environment, but, on the contrary, once their position is secure, they should be a positive influence within it.”

Noble, though this formulation might be, it may not be satisfactory as it is still driven by a motive that includes the expansion of the ‘sphere of Islam’ as an exceptional identity that may be seen as ‘superior’ to the others. One could argue then, to what end? Is dar al-dawa then about bringing society to embrace Islam and hence, leading to an eventual acknowledgment of Muslim supremacy and rule?

Perhaps, what is needed is for Muslim scholars to think afresh and to start from the present reality where the concept of nation-state had entirely replaced the medieval configurations over territorial rule. It also demands taking into account the new globalised condition where plurality and new consciousness over equality as a demand for justice has been thoroughly established. In other words, Muslims must now think in terms of equal citizenship.

Hence, hijrah as a political concept is no longer applicable but subjected to the same human conditions (escaping oppression and desiring freedom, peace and justice) of early migration. It does not involve the later formulation of dar al-Islam and dar al-kufr or as a means to establish Muslim rule. It is not surprising, therefore, that many Muslims living under oppressive Muslim regimes would rather migrate to countries under non-Muslim rule.

Ironically, these are the very countries that guarantee freedom of religion and protection of minorities in varying degrees under the law that adopts a secular system that has often been vilified by those who continue to peddle the need for hijrah as a political concept of establishing Islamic rule on earth as found in the early and medieval period of Islamic history.

Perhaps, if there is one hijrah that Muslims must make today, it lies in the hijrah of the mind. And this hijrah demands abandoning archaic formulations and thinking afresh of the Muslim conditions today in order to formulate conceptual tools that can best propel the community forward.

And this may well be a move to embrace the notion of equal citizenship in our deeply plural world and to work for freedom, peace and justice for the entire humanity, Muslim or non-Muslim, regardless of the country they are in, and without aspiring to dominate and reign supreme over the Other as the only path to salvation on earth and in the hereafter.

 

Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib is an interfaith activist and a member of The Reading Group, Singapore. He writes on issues of religion and society.