By Barnaby Rogerson
Special to Simerg*
Muhammad was armed with the fortitude that came from his own direct experience of the divine. Though even he could at times be driven to fury by the petty savageness of the attacks. One neighbour in particular, whose wife used to bury thorns along the sandy paths that she knew the Prophet would walk along in bare feet, won himself the only known personal denouncement in the Qur’an. Other equally malicious attacks rained down upon his followers.
Muhammad, who could do nothing to alleviate the suffering of his small embattled community of believers, was appalled at the privations that they were forced to endure. At last he advised some of his followers to leave sacred Mecca and take refuge elsewhere. The refuge he chose for them was Abyssinia…Nowhere in Arabia, not the Yemen, not the Syrian frontier, was thought to be safely out of the reach of the Quraysh, while it is interesting to reflect that Muhammad was obviously familiar enough with the external powers beyond Arabia to choose the most likely secure refuge. In the words of a much repeated tradition he said to them:
“If you were to go to Abyssinia, it would be better for you until such time as God shall relieve you from your distress, for the king there will not tolerate injustice and it is a friendly country.”
The first group of Muslims, 12 men and 5 women (including the Prophet’s daughter Rakiya) rode west out of Mecca to the shore from where they took passage on a boat heading south down the Red Sea and through the coral reefs and hundred rock shores of the murderous coastline of the Dahlak archipelago to reach the safe harbour of the Ethiopian port of Adulis. This was no blind shot into the dark of another continent. No Livingstone-like heroic adventure into an unknown world. Adulis (just 30km south from the modern port of Massawa) was a sophisticated entrepot that had been trading with Egypt for two thousands years. It was also a determinedly Christian land that for the last century had effectively dominated the political life of southern Arabia through its governors, viceroys, military expeditions and garrisons.
Whatever the references the small party were able to travel with, they were well received as members of the great mercantile city of Mecca. They travelled inland, up from the familiar hot and dry climate of the coast (modern Eritrea) and up, up into the comparatively well watered high mountain plateaux of Ethiopia….journeying past the great conical mountains capped with monastery churches and hermits caves, before they reached the capital of Axsum in 616 AD. They sent back favourable reports and the next year another group of refugees left Mecca to join them, led by a cousin of the Prophet. This Muslim community in exile grew further to eventually number some 83 families.
The Quraysh of Mecca, rather than celebrate their departure, grew irritated by this development. They dispatched a delegation to the ruler of Axsum. The Arab traditions recall the ruler as Ashama ibn Abjar. The traditional tale is that the Quraysh delegation planned to slander the new faith in the eyes of a Christian king, and so expedite their expulsion.
The delegation of the Quraysh petitioned for an audience with the Emperor….On the edge of Aksum you can visit the so-called ‘palace of Sheba’. This seventh century complex is a warren of courts, chambers, offices and halls though all this gives way to the raised central building where three flights of stairs command the approaches from three different courtyards. In just such a building must the delegation of the Quraysh have brought forth their tribute of presents to the Negus, the Emperor of Abyssinia, and have been given permission to speak.
They accused the Muslims of wrecking the unity of their city, of blasphemies against the ancestral gods but most tellingly of denying the divinity of Christ. The Negus surrounded by his court of monk-bishops and clerics was clearly appalled that he should be harbouring these dangerous schismatics in his land and commanded the Muslims to explain themselves. Ja’afar, son of the Prophet’s uncle and protector, Abu Talib, stepped forward and answered:
“We were folk immersed in ignorance, worshipping idols, eating carrion, given to lewdness, severing the ties of kinship, bad neighbours, the strong among us preying on the weak; thus were we till God sent to us a messenger of our own, whose lineage, honesty, trustworthiness and chastity we knew. He called us to God that we should acknowledge His Unity and worship Him and turn away from the stones and idols that we and our fathers used to worship beside Him…And when persecuted and oppressed, we came forth to thy land, and chose thee above all others, and sought thy protection, and hoped we should not be troubled in thy land, O King!”
The Negus thought awhile and then asked for an example of Muhammad’s message. Ja’afar chose well when he chanted from Sura XIX (Verses 17 – 27) with its beautiful revelation of the immaculate conception:
19:17 Then We sent unto her Our Spirit and it assumed for her the likeness of a perfect man.
19:18 She said: Lo! I seek refuge in the Beneficent One from thee, if thou art God-fearing.
19:19 He said: I am only a messenger of thy Lord, that I may bestow on thee a faultless son.
19:20 She said: How can I have a son when no mortal hath touched me, neither have I been unchaste?
19:21 He said: So (it will be). Thy Lord saith: It is easy for Me. And (it will be) that We may make of him a revelation for mankind and a mercy from Us, and it is a thing ordained.
19:22 And she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a far place.
19:23 And the pangs of childbirth drove her unto the trunk of the palm-tree. She said: Oh, would that I had died ere this and had become a thing of naught, forgotten!
[Mary complains to a palm tree about the pains of childbirth. The tree tells her to shake its trunk and ripe dates will fall.]
19:24 Then (one) cried unto her from below her, saying: Grieve not! Thy Lord hath placed a rivulet beneath thee,
19:25 And shake the trunk of the palm-tree toward thee, thou wilt cause ripe dates to fall upon thee.
19:26 So eat and drink and be consoled. And if thou meetest any mortal, say: Lo! I have vowed a fast unto the Beneficent, and may not speak this day to any mortal.
19:27 Then she brought him to her own folk, carrying him. They said: O Mary! Thou hast come with an amazing thing.
It is said that when Ja’far had finished that the Negus and his entire court were in tears. They were the first Christian court to hear how the Qur’an so greatly honours the Virgin, which indeed it does in considerably greater detail than any of the Gospels. The Negus turned to the delegation of the Qur’aysh:
“If you were to offer me a mountain of gold, I would not give up these people who have taken refuge with me.”
A decade or so later, when the Prophet was securely established at Medina, he called his followers back to Arabia. The Negus provided two ships for their safe passage. The Prophet would subsequently marry two of these Muslim exiles in Abyssinia, Umm Habiba and Umm Salma. In both instances the Negus despatched a dowry to Medina as a wedding gift. For their part they revealed an invincible affection for Abyssinia, singing the praises of the Church of St. Mary of Seyon at Axsum and continued to revere an icon of the Virgin. This icon, once shielded by the hand of the Prophet from the sun, was exempted from the general ban against idolatrous imagery. The Prophet is also said to have prayed for the soul of the Negus after his death in 630. Of much greater standing in his stern injunction on his followers to “leave the Abyssinians in peace – as long as they do not take the offensive”. This injunction has echoed down the centuries and with one or two exceptions has helped preserve the Christian faith of the Negus to this day.
Date posted: December 23, 2012.
Copyright: Barnaby Rogerson. Published with the author’s permission.
*The above piece is excerpted from “Birds Began It All”, specially contributed by the author for this website.
About the writer: Mr. Barnaby Rogerson was born in Dunfermline, Scotland. Travel was a vital aspect of a childhood, which followed in the wake of his father’s career in the Royal Navy. A degree in History at St Andrews University led to writing guidebooks to first Morocco, then Tunisia, Cyprus and Istanbul followed by a string of narrative histories. A History of North Africa was followed by The Prophet Muhammad, a biography, and then The Heirs of the Prophet, in which Rogerson transports the reader back to the 7th-century in a gripping tale surrounding the division of Islam into Shia and Sunni factions. His latest work is The Last Crusaders, a story of the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Last Crusader Kings of Christendom. Over the last fifteen years Barnaby has contributed travel articles, book reviews and historical essays on various North African and Islamic themes to several renowned magazines and newspapers. He has set up www.barnabyrogerson.com as a store house of travel stories and historical anecdotes brought back from numerous Middle Eastern and African countries. Mr. Rogerson also works at Eland Books, www.travelbooks.co.uk, which is home to over a hundred different classic travel books.
Other fine essays by Rogerson on Simerg:
An Englishman Reflects on the Nature of Imam Ali
Hazrat Hasan: Ahead of His Time and Perhaps Would Be If He Were With Us Today
A Christian Envoy at the Ghadir Khumm Campsite (part of Simerg’s special series I Wish I’d Been There)
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