October 21, 2011

The Hijra

Then in 619 CE, described by early biographers as Mohammad’s “year of sadness,” both his wife Khadija, the closest and most intimate companion of his life, and Abu Talib, his protector and the chief of the Hashim clan, died. He was not only devastated but found himself in an extremely precarious situation. According to Reza Aslan “The results were immediate. Muhammad was openly abused on the streets of Mecca. He could no longer preach or pray in public. When he tried to do so, one person poured dirt over his head, and another threw a sheep’s uterus at him.”

After his first revelation, Khadija’s elderly cousin Waraqa had warned Mohammad that his task would not be easy and that the Quraysh would eventually expel him from Mecca. Mohammad had been dismayed at hearing this then, but almost seven years later, it looked inevitable. His message was dividing the families of Mecca, appealing above all to the young. The Believers were in essence removing themselves from the traditions of the tribe. Because Mohammad and his followers were seen to be undermining the rituals and values upon which the Quraysh religious and economic foundation depended, a devastating boycott was put upon the whole tribe of Hashim to try to starve the Believers out of Mecca.

The first four verses (ayat) of Al-Alaq, the 96th chapter
(surah) of the Qur’an.
He and his followers now had to take steps unheard of in the Arab world: they had to leave their city, their tribe, their clan, family ties and possessions and go off into the desert. The Hijra, as the migration from Mecca to an area called Yathrib (later Medina) is known, took place at night and was a clandestine operation. Sons and daughters left their family homes for a week-long journey through the barren wilderness. The old man Waraqa’s warning had proved correct.

Upon arrival Mohammad allowed his camel to select a place for the first masjid (place for prostration in prayer to Allah, which would later become a mosque) so as not to give any preference to anyone’s choice. This small group of about 70 Believers became the first of a new kind of community (Ummah), one whose establishment was commemorated many years later by a uniquely Muslim calendar. That year, 622 AD, became known as the year 1 AH (After Hijra) and at that time the oasis of Yathrib then became celebrated as Medinat an-Nabi, “The City of the Prophet” – Medina.

“Unlike Jesus or the Buddha, who seem to have been purely spiritual leaders with no temporal responsibilities whatever, Mohammad found himself now head of state,” author Karen Armstrong points out. “Having transferred the Muslim families from Mecca to Medina, he now had to make sure they could survive there.” Establishing the community in Yadith was not going to be easy and Mohammad and his Believers were pushed into conflict with the Quraysh, when desperation forced some believers to send out a ghazu raid to disrupt and loot Quraysh caravans. Unfortunately, this occured during the sacred month, so it galvanized the Quraysh and resulted in the Battle of Badr in 624 CE. A thousand Quraysh, some on horseback, met the smaller Muslim group, but the latter although poorly equipped, were highly motivated and won.

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