The Prophet Muhammad (saw)

What the Abyssinian Experience in Islamic History Means Today


When discussing the experience of different beliefs existing together at the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) the Medina Document, which was put into practice in the first years of the Medina period, comes to mind. This document, which was prepared under the initiative of Prophet Muhammad, established the basic rules for Muslims, Jews and the other non-Muslims who were included in the treaty living together. According to this, there were many values that were held in common, most importantly defensive and legal responsibilities. Each group that was party to the treaty formed a union based on respect for each others' life, property, belief, family and other similar values. The treaty was not destined to last for long, as the Jewish tribes that were the main parties to it successively contravened the treaty and after a while the treaty became unworkable.

Without a doubt, this treaty is one of the most important documents in the Islamic historical experience. However, there was another experience that the Muslims had undergone while still in Mecca. The Abyssinian emigration, which consisted of two emigrations to Abyssinia, was different from the Medina experience and is an important reference point for Muslims living today.

According to historical data, the Abyssinian immigration took place between 614 and 615, in the 5th year of the Prophethood. 15 Muslims participated in the first immigration. These Muslims returned some time later; however, one year later, when they were once again exposed to oppression and prosecution in Mecca, they immigrated to Abyssinia once again. This time, the number participating in the immigration was 100. According to accounts, one section of the immigrants returned to Medina before the Hijra(migration from Mecca to Medina) and a larger number joined Prophet Muhammad in the Medina period. Those who immigrated to Abyssinia took the message of Islam with them, and as a result of the activities of the Muslims living there many people in Abyssinia became Muslims, including the king Najashi.

It is interesting that Prophet Muhammad, when faced by intense pressure and violence, chose Abyssinia as the place to immigrate to rather than Syria, the Yemen or other regions. Without a doubt the positive approach of Prophet Muhammad to the political administration in Abyssinia played a role in this choice. Prophet Muhammad said: "If you want and if you can, seek shelter in Abyssinia. There is a ruler there who has never oppressed anyone. It is a country of right and truth. Live and stay there until Allah makes things easier." Prophet Muhammad was aware of the value the Abyssinian administration gave to justice and freedom and was sure that the Muslims who sought protection there would find support. In fact, the Muslims who immigrated to Abyssinia were taken under the protection of the government and they were guaranteed freedom. In response to this the immigrant Muslims made positive contributions to the social-political structure in the new center and they participated in the society.

When we look at the Abyssinian experience from today, it can be said that this experience forms an important example in the multi-cultural/identity social structure of today. This experience, in short, tells us that Muslims, wherever they may live, in whatever era, should show respect to the multicultural society in which they find themselves and defend basic rights and laws; they should make a contribution to the pluralistic structure with social agreements that are connected to freedoms and justice.

The experience of the Muslims who lived in Abyssinia in the era of Prophet Muhammad can tell us much about what the attitude and behavior Muslims living in social structures formed by a majority of non-Muslims should be. Today, Muslims do not only live in countries in which the majority is Muslim; they live all over the world and they are parts of pluralistic social structures. Islam is in the position of being a global power that is spread generally throughout the world. Muslims who live in non-Muslim societies sometimes live as a minority as a result of history, or due to economic or political reasons, they have immigrated or converted to Islam in that society. Whatever the reason, the Muslims occupy a place in the social and political structure of the society in which they find themselves and some refugees or immigrant workers continue their existence as citizens in their new countries.

Muslims living in some countries experience problems to do with the social or political structure or are sometimes subject to policies of assimilation or discrimination. In addition, Muslims who are living in a non-Muslim country continue their existence directly or indirectly within a social contract. This contract, from the Muslim point of view, guarantees them respect for life, belief, property and family and these are taken under protection, and from the point of view of the social structure within which they are living, respect is shown to the socio-cultural values of the Muslim society; therefore, it is necessary for them to make a positive contribution to the functioning of the society.

The Hues of Belief Corner by Sinasi Gunduz, a professor of the history of religions, deals with the attitude of Prophet Muhammad towards other religions and his relationship with their members


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