Ethiopia is a country that
most of us know very little about. You might recognize the name but do you
know that it is one of the countries in the region known as the Horn of Africa?
It is the second most populous nation in Africa and frequently in the grip of
severe famine. The region that we now call Ethiopia was once, in English, and most
commonly outside Ethiopia, known as Abyssinia. It was also previously known as
the Kingdom of Axum, and named by Mani (216–276 CE)
as one of the four great powers of his time along with Persia, Rome, and China.
Axum remained a strong empire and trading power until the rise of Islam in the
7th century. However, unlike the relations between the Islamic powers and
Christian Europe, Axum was on good terms with its Islamic neighbours. For
Muslims, Ethiopia is synonymous with freedom from persecution and fear.
In the early years of Islam the Muslims were persecuted
and tortured by the ruling families of Mecca. There were even instances of
people mistreating members of their own families. Among the new converts to Islam
were the poor and weak who were unable to put up with pain and hunger they were
forced to endure. In order to protect them and their new found religion
Prophet Muhammad, may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him, sent approx
80 people, including one of his own daughters, to Ethiopia. This event is
known as the first Hijrah (migration).
The King of Ethiopia, sometimes known as the Negus and
possibly one of the last rulers of the Axum Empire was known as a just and
truthful man. He was a Christian with deep religious convictions. Prophet
Muhammad believed that his followers would be well looked after if they migrated
to a country whose religion was Christianity-a scriptural religion whose
Prophet was Jesus son of Mary. The migrants set off on their hazardous journey
carrying with them a letter of introduction for the King. What follows is a
translation of that letter.
I begin with the Name of God,
the Most Merciful, Most Gracious, From Muhammad, the Messenger of God to the
Negus Al-Asham, king of Abyssinia (Ethiopia).
Peace be upon you, I praise
God and I bear witness that Jesus, son of Mary, is the slave of God. He was
created by the command of God and Mary the virgin, the good, the pure,
conceived Jesus. As God created Adam, He created Jesus. I call you to God, the
Unique without partner, and to His obedience, and to follow me and believe in
that which came to me, for I am the Messenger of God.
I send to you my cousin Jafar
with a number of Muslims, and when they come, I ask you to entertain and
receive them. Peace be upon all those who follow True Guidance.
When the rulers of Mecca heard about the migration they
hastened to send their own emissaries to the Ethiopian court. It was their
fear that if such a ruler welcomed the Muslims it would give credence to the
new religion and legitimize their beliefs. They planned to convince the King
to expel the Muslims by giving him gifts, and by spreading gossip and slander
about the new religion and the immigrants. However the King was a wise, noble
and just man and was prepared to meet and hear both groups.
The two Meccan delegates reiterated their accusations. They
said, “Your Majesty, you well know that a group of fools have turned renegade
and have taken asylum in your country. They did not embrace your religion, but
rather invented their own religion that neither of us knows. We are people of
high rank who are related to their fathers, uncles, and tribes, and ask that
you would surrender these wretched renegades to us”.
The King then asked the group of Muslims why they had
chosen this new religion rather than adhere to the religion of their
forefathers or embrace the established religion of Christianity. Jafar, the
son of Abu Talib and thus Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, rose to speak on behalf of
the immigrants and Islam. He said:
O your Majesty, we used to be
a people of ignorance. We worshipped idols, ate dead animals, committed great
sins, severed family relations, and the strong among us abused the weak. We
were like that until God sent from among us a Prophet who was known for his
noble descent, honesty, trustworthiness, and decency. He invited us to worship
God alone and abstain from worshipping stones and idols. He ordered us to
speak nothing but the truth and to render back our trusts to those to whom they
are due. Moreover, he ordered us to keep our ties of kinship intact, be good
to our neighbours, and abstain from what is forbidden. He also ordered us not
to commit evil, nor to say false statements, nor to eat up the property of
orphans, nor to accuse chaste women of wrong-doing without proof or witness. He
has commanded us to worship God alone and not to associate anything with Him
and to pray, give Zakat and fast.
Hence, we believed in him and
in God's message to him. We worshipped God alone. We rejected that which we
used to associate with Him as His partners. We consider unlawful what he has
told us is unlawful and lawful what he has told us is lawful. For this reason
alone our people have attacked us, tortured us and forced us from our religion.
They intend to make us revert to the worship of idols instead of praising God.
They want us to consider lawful the evil actions which we used to do in the
past. When they tortured us and hemmed us in, and came between us and our
religion, we left for your kingdom, choosing you because we need your
protection. We hope that we would be treated fairly while we are with you, O
The King listened to this exchange with patience and
attention, when both the Meccans and the Muslims had spoken he turned to Jafar
and said, “Do you have with you anything sent down from God to your Prophet?”
What happened next caused both the King and his bishops to weep until their
beards were soaked with tears, and we will learn about what this was in part 2.