Migration has a special place in the historiography of the world’s great religions. The early histories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are replete with tales of persecution against the early believers. Oppressive powers spared no means to exact their deadly vengeance on those who subscribed to the ‘new faith’ in order to pre-emptively deter others, and to ultimately quash the nascent religion. In the face of such torment, devout followers were left with little option but to hide their faith, face torture and worse, or to emigrate to distant lands in the hope that they could practise their faith more freely. In the religious context therefore, the concept of migration emerges as a drastic step compelled by circumstance. It is the exercise of a desperate option whereby one chooses to forsake his/her homeland, people and belongings for the sake of something deemed superior, namely one’s faith. It represents the reaffirmation of one’s inherent freedom, dignity and identity within a social context that openly stands against these values. According to the late scholar Murtadha Mutahhari, the concept of hijrah (migration) signifies ‘leaving one’s home, people and homeland for a new place of abode, with a view to saving one’s faith’. In the view of other scholars, the applicability of this concept is timeless and can have a wider context than simply saving one’s faith. Perhaps it can be applied to any migrant who leaves his residence for God’s sake. In numerous verses of the Holy Qur’an, there is mention of hijrah and promise of great reward for those who migrate for the sake of God. Such is the significance and status of ‘migrants’ in Islam that even though migration is contingent upon circumstance, a Muslim is duty-bound to maintain a true and sincere intention to embark on such a duty should circumstances change. Migration thus takes on an ethical dimension denoting a constant state of preparedness motivated by strong belief and faith. Indeed, one of the definitions of migration put forward by the scholars of Islamic ethics and spirituality entails abandoning one’s sins, or migrating from one’s lower carnal and animalistic self to the higher human self. In addition to this classical definition of migration under circumstances of duress, Islam also encourages its followers to explore the signs of God in the universe. Numerous verses of the Qur’an invite readers to reflect and ponder over the wonders of nature such as the alternation of night and day, the ocean tides, the stars and planetary objects in the heavens and so on. In addition, the Qur’an also makes mention of past nations and historic civilisations in several verses, and invites readers to ‘travel across the Earth’ in order to learn and take heed from the lessons of history.
The inclusive paradigm by which Islam views peoples of different cultures and nations further encouraged Muslims to travel outwards and interact with those of other cultures and civilisations.
One of the beautiful pieces of advice is by Ali Ibn Abi-Talib(a) to his son Al-Hasan(a), in which he counsels: “My dear son! Though the span of my life is not as that of some other people who have passed away before me, yet I took great care to study their lives; assiduously I went through their activities, I contemplated over their deliberations and deeds, I studied their remains, relics and ruins. I pondered over their lives so deeply that I felt as if I have lived and worked with them from early ages of history down to our times, and I know what did them good and what brought harm to them.”
This approach, which is distinctly influenced by the teachings of the Qur’an, encourages human beings to be inquisitive and indeed scientific. Arguably one of the more renowned Prophetic sayings also refers to this attribute. The Final Messenger is famously known to have said: ‘Go in search of knowledge even if you have to journey to China’. The inclusive paradigm by which Islam views peoples of different cultures and nations further encouraged Muslims to travel outwards and interact with other cultures and civilisations. The Holy Qur’an stresses the ethical precept: ‘so that you know one another’, when pointing to the secret of the diversity that exists between human beings. (49:13) Finally, the concept of da’wah (calling to the way of God) features strongly in the Islamic faith. Islam renders it both an individual and collective obligation to spread its teachings. Muslims are urged to invite others to follow the Godly path through wisdom and good conduct. All these elements can be viewed as ‘push’ factors for Muslims to embark on migration from a purely religious point of view. Obviously, the traditional socio-economic factors such as war, persecution, natural disasters, economic hardship and the like are examples of situations in which migration from one’s homeland takes on a more urgent and compulsive character. In the Islamic tradition, there are historically two significant migrations that coincide with the early beginnings of the Prophetic mission. Approximately five years after the Proclamation of the Divine message by the Holy Prophet Muhammad(s), the first wave of Muslim migrants secretly fled to Abyssinia. Renowned companions such as Bilal, the Abyssinian slave, and Ammar ibn Yaser derive some of their iconic status due to their integrity, steadfastness and sacrifices during this period of history. During the thirteenth year after the Proclamation, the Holy Prophet(s) and the Muslims of Makkah emigrated to Madina, which consequently became the cradle of the Islamic civilisation. According to exegetes, the following verse from the Holy Qur’an was revealed as an instruction to the believers to embark upon this migration: ‘Those who migrate for the sake of God after they have been wronged, We will surely settle them in a good place in the world, and the reward of the Hereafter is surely greater, had they known. Those who are patient and put their trust in their Lord’. (16:41-42) The above verse sets out the basis for migration according to Islam. Like similar verses that highlight this concept, this verse specifies the criterion of migrating for the sake of God. This condition not only outlines the objective of migration but contains within it the ethical cornerstones and values that should be part and parcel of this process. Due to this association, there is a deep-rooted precept in Islamic jurisprudence referred to as al-ta’arrub ba’d al-hijrah, which broadly refers to ‘losing or weakening of one’s faith after migration’. In several narrations it is regarded as among the major sins for a Muslim, thus serving as a clear warning about the priorities that one should have when migrating to a foreign land. This precept underscores the invaluable status of faith above other considerations, whilst also stressing the need for Muslims to preserve their Islamic values and identity at all times and in all places. In modern times, migration has taken on an altogether staggering magnitude on the global stage.
Muslims are confronted with unique challenges relating to how they experience, practise and project their faith in the modern era. These are challenges that emerge as a result of the natural progression of individuals and communities when introduced to alternate social contexts.
According to the United Nations, ‘more people than ever are living abroad’ with a phenomenal 232 million international migrants in 2013; a sizeable increase from 175 million in 2000. Muslims are not an exception to this general trend. Today, there are close to 2.7million Muslims living in the UK with the majority being born into second or third generation migrant families.
Faceless statistics such as the above admittedly overlook the broad diversity that exists. The human face of migration can only be seen in the unique story, experience and culture of each individual. Likewise, the Muslim community is far from monolithic, coming from all the four corners of the globe and contributing to the wider diversity of modern day Britain. Naturally, questions surrounding culture, identity, integration, cohesion and assimilation have arisen. The more sensationalist news stories, principally driven by the political climate and narrative of the last decade, have expectedly waned with the passage of time. These negative discourses largely contributed to an unsavoury climate and exaggerated the ‘identity-crisis’. As with all faith denominations that have a multicultural followership, Muslims are confronted with unique challenges relating to how they experience, practise and project their faith in the modern era. These are challenges that emerge as a result of the natural progression of individuals and communities when introduced to alternate social contexts. From an Islamic perspective however, the foremost obligations remain safeguarding one’s faith, becoming good ambassadors for its lofty teachings and principles, and working for the betterment of wider society. The Prophetic example, which best illustrates the ethics of migration according to Islam, provides an important reference for modern Muslim communities to tackle some of their contemporary challenges in this regard. •
All information were correct at the time of publication…. January 2014
Ali Jawad is a human rights activist and political analyst with a keen interest in international diplomacy.