A Journey to the real meaning of Hijrah – Muharram

A Journey to the real meaning of Hijrah

The Hijri Calendar
The Hijri calendar was established by the second rightly guided Caliph and the Prophet’s close Companion, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, in 637/638 AD. According to al-Jabarti, the great chronicler of the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, Abu Musa al-Ash’ari wrote to the then Caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab saying, “Letters have reached us from the Commander of the Faithful, but we do not know which to obey. We read a document dated [the month of] Sha’ban, but we do not know which of the Sha’bans is meant: is it the month that has passed, or that which is to come?” After consulting the Prophet’s Companions, Umar Ibn al-Khattab established the year of the Prophet’s migration as the beginning of the Islamic calendar since it was the single most important event in the Islamic world at that time. The Islamic calendar is usually abbreviated in Western languages from the Latin Anno Hegirae “the year of the Hijrah”.

The Islamic calendar consists of 12 lunar months. They are (1) Muharram, (2) Safar, (3) Rabi al-Awwal, (4) Rabi al-Thani, (5) Jumada al-Awwal, (6) Jumada al-Thani, (7) Rajab, (8) Sha’ban, (9) Ramadan, (10) Shawwal, (11) Dhul-Qi’dah, (12) Dhul-Hijjah.

Lexical meaning of Hijrah
The word Hijrah comes from the root h/j/r. These letters in Arabic indicate movement and locomotion. In whatever order, the letters convey sound audibility. And because sound causes movement in air and moves from one place to another, from the mouth of the speaker to the ears of the hearer, the root letters also connote transport and movement. Hijrah from one place to another involves movement and transport.

In Hans Wehrs Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, the meanings listed for the noun “Hijrah” include: departure, exit, emigration, exodus and immigration while the meanings listed for the verb “hajara” include: to emigrate; to dissociate, separate, part, secede, keep away (from), part company (with); to give up, renounce, forgo, avoid ; to abandon, surrender, leave, give up, vacate (s.th. in favor of s.o.); to desert one another, part company, separate, break up.

In the Islamic tradition, the word “Hijrah” is used to describe the emigration of Muslims from Mecca to either Abysinnia (modern day Ethiopia) or it is most commonly used to refer to the Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD.

Kinds of Hijrah
There are two kinds of Hijrah; physical and moral.

Physical Hijrah
Physical migration can be defined as a process of moving, either across an international border, or within a state. Encompassing any kind of movement of people, whatever its length, composition and causes; it includes refugees, displaced persons, uprooted people, and economic migrants.

Religious persecution and the quest for religious freedom have played an important role in migration, forcing people to flee for their lives. The connection between religion and migration is a cross-cutting issue throughout the history of major religions such as Christianity (e.g. the spread of Catholicism by Portuguese and Spanish during the 11th and 12th centuries), Islam (e.g. the first and second migration during the Prophet Muhammad’s time), and Judaism (e.g. the migration from Eastern to Western Europe and overseas, and to the United States of America during the 19th).

The relentless persecution of the early Muslims prompted the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) to allow those who lacked power and protection to flee to Abyssinia. Muhammad Ibn Ishaq stated, “When the Messenger of God witnessed the trials descending upon his Companions, he compared this with his own good state derived from his own status with God the Almighty and from his uncle Abu Talib, and, recognizing that he was unable to prevent the evil befalling them, he told them, ‘I wish you would go forth into the land of Abyssinia, for there is a king in whose realm no one is harmed and where truth prevails. Stay there until God the Almighty gives you relief from your plight.’” This migration to Abyssinia took place seven years before the Prophet’s own Hijrah to Medina and was followed by a second one to Abyssinia a few years later.

The Prophet’s Hijrah to Medina
While in Mecca, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) continued to invite the Arab tribes that flocked to Mecca to God the Almighty, presenting himself to them and the message of guidance and the mercy that he brought.

When the Quraysh could not endure the Prophet Muhammad anymore, they decided to get rid of him once and for all. They consulted among themselves on how best to do this and Abu Jahl said, “I think we should select one young man from each tribe, and someone who is strong, of excellent lineage and reputation as a leader. We should give each one a sharp sword and they would go to him and use the swords to strike him in unison. They would kill him and we would then be rid of him. If they do this, his blood will be spread over all tribes. And the Banu Abd Manaf will not be able to do battle against them all. Therefore, they will accept blood money which we can pay them.”

Gabriel came to the Messenger of God (peace and blessings be upon him) and commanded him not to sleep in his bed that night. The Prophet asked Ali Ibn Abu Talib to sleep in his bed instead of him, promising that no harm would come to him. Taking a handful of dirt and sprinkling it at those who gathered outside his door to kill him, the Prophet slipped away unseen after he had recited the following verses, “Ya Sin. By the Qur’an, full of Wisdom,-Thou art indeed one of the apostles, On a Straight Way. It is a Revelation sent down by (Him), the Exalted in Might, Most Merciful. In order that thou mayest admonish a people, whose fathers had received no admonition, and who therefore remain heedless (of the Signs of God …The Word is proved true against the greater part of them: for they do not believe. We have put yokes round their necks right up to their chins, so that their heads are forced up (and they cannot see). And We have put a bar in front of them and a bar behind them, and further, We have covered them up; so that they cannot see” (Quran 36: 1-9).

He then made his way to Abu Bakr who had made preparations for the journey.

And so God the Almighty gave His permission to His Prophet to migrate. The event marks the beginning of the Islamic era as was agreed upon by the Companions during Umar’s rule.

Moral Hijrah
The term “Hijrah” has important subtle meanings associated with it other than physical movement from one place to another. In addition to its physical sense, it also means to abandon something and neglect it. This meaning finds support in some Prophetic traditions such as the one narrated by Abdullah Ibn Umar in which the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The muhajir (emigrant) is the one who abandons what God has forbidden” (Bukhari and Muslim).

The idea of a metaphorical Hijrah has numerous references to the life of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Just as the Prophet’s Hijrah to Medina was a transitional line between two states, a state of weakness to a state of security, the Hijrah of the soul is likewise a transitional line between the human weakness for sin to a position of security from sin, a state of disobedience to one of obedience. The Prophet’s departure from Mecca was a flight from the polytheists and from a hostile unbelieving environment, with the aim of finding security in another secure place and forming a new community based on piety; it was a move to a better situation conducive to production for the sake of God. In a similar vein, a person undertaking a moral Hijrah migrates from everything God has forbidden without falling prey to his earthly desires. It is a flight for the sake of moral refuge from all forms of evils and corruption. It is a spiritual leave-taking from oppression to justice; from cruelty, harshness, and pitilessness to mercy, compassion and grace; from intolerance to forbearance; from indulgence to moderation; from miserliness to generosity and munificence; from malignity to benevolence; from selfishness to charity and altruism; from hard-heartedness to sympathy; from hostility to goodwill and friendliness; from conflict and strife to peace and amity; from ignorance to knowledge; from pride to humility; from sins to repentance; and from defiance and resistance to God’s commands to complete submission to him. It is most of all a return to man’s natural disposition of good. Perhaps the spiritual Hijrah is best expressed by the words of our Prophet Ibrahim who said, “I will flee to my Lord: He is the Almighty, the All-Wise” (Quran 29:26).

Also God’s command to our Prophet Muhammad, “Say, Indeed, my prayer, my rites of sacrifice, my living and my dying are for God, Lord of the worlds. No partner has He. And this I have been commanded, and I am the first (among you) of the Muslims (Quran 6:162-163).

The metaphoric content of the journey is evoked every time a person decides to emigrate from prohibitions and disobedience. Like the Prophet’s journey from Mecca to Medina, the flight to moral excellence and obedience is not without difficulties. Man’s existence on earth is not a promenade through life. His path is fraught with hurdles and fears, but with being mindful of God and following the guidance of our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) it makes the journey in life light and easier. Sometimes the journey often means forsaking what one desires for what God desires. Because man has been ordered to strive for the life prescribed by God the Almighty, he cannot succumb to harsh conditions or to his weakness and desires. He must rely on God and cannot blame circumstances that are forced upon him or the temptations he meets along his way, taking in mind that God intends us ease and not to place a burden upon us. He also cannot give in or rely solely on God to live the virtuous and pious life required of him. He has to exert effort to attain the glory of God’s pleasure. On returning from a battle, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) once said, “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” This tradition clearly demonstrates man’s part in struggling against his own weakness and inclination for wrongdoing.

The secret nature of the Prophet’s Hijrah and the precautions he took all demonstrate his human insecurities. He ordered Ali to sleep in his bed in his place, chose an unconventional route to Medina, took measures to wipe out their footsteps, and sheltered with his companion Abu Bakr in a cave to hide from the pursuing enemy. All of this reveals his reliance on God but at the same time, his employment of every human endeavor to achieve his goal. In a similar fashion, we are instructed to employ every measure possible to achieve our goal. i.e. obedience to God and the attainment of His pleasure both of which will ultimately secure for us God’s promise of an eternal life in paradise in the hereafter. This promise alone is a motivating force to do better, to shun disobedience and to strive for God’s pleasure.

The end of the Prophet’s journey and the triumphant welcome he received in Medina foretell our own triumph at the end of our journey on earth and our entry into paradise. The Prophet’s flight from Mecca to Medina, from a land of hostility to a land of security should serve as a moral compass for us. By all scales, the Prophet’s journey to security was not easy and neither is our own. The conscious decision to migrate from both major and minor transgressions is indeed of great magnitude and the difficulties that may ensue in its wake should not deter us from embarking on it. In essence, the Prophet’s migration was about fulfilling his mission on earth. Our moral migration, in turn, must also be about fulfilling our mission on earth for God says, “I created jinn and man only to worship Me” (Quran 51:56). It should determine our departure from the various realms of sin to a desire to attain Divine propinquity and secure our place in the hereafter. Although oftentimes difficult, a perpetual moral migration is the mark of a life lived along the lines of righteousness and success.

Although all kinds of Hijrah involve entering unchartered territory and therefore evoke a sense of fear in pledging to withstand the tribulations ensuing from the decision to stay on the path of truth, it is important to remember that God the Almighty is always the best Companion on the road to righteousness. We should always keep in mind the Prophet’s words of reassurance to Abu Bakr when, on their way to Medina, the Quraysh search party that was after them came dangerously close to the mouth of the cave where they were hiding. When Abu Bakr expressed his alarm, the Prophet told him, “Have no fear for God is with us.”

As the beginning of the Islamic New Year draws close, we would do well to reflect on the many lessons we can derive from the momentous journey on which the beginning of the Islamic calendar is based. We should not be content to celebrate the new Islamic year without drawing moral and psychological parallels from the Prophet’s journey from Mecca to Medina to our own context and lives.


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