The ethics of asylum in early Muslim society | Greenwatch Dhaka | The leading online daily of Bangladesh

The ethics of asylum in early Muslim society


By Sharifah Nazneen Agha
The advent of the Islamic faith was set against such formidable themes as persecution, asylum and migration. The watershed of Muslim history known as the Hijra or migration in 622 AC signifies the passage to safety for the first Muslim refugees or the Al-Muhajirun from religious persecution. The Muslims left the city of Makkahfor protection inthe oasis city of Yathrib, now known as Medina, City of the Prophet. The Hijra event is extraordinary for Muslims as it marks the birth of the Islamic age, the onset of which was made possible only by decisive action of the Muhajirun to mobilize and seek refuge in foreign territory. The act of Hijra was followed by the remarkable integration of Muslim refugees within the asylum city of Medina through a set of innovative
socio-political developments undertaken by the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet assumed multiple roles simultaneously – as political leader, legal architect, social reformer – and in doing so had established a new social order on the basis of a religious community known as the Ummah, or brotherhood-in-faith. The phenomenal realization of the Ummatic credo was outdone only by the Prophet’s second major initiative which was the creation of a political document securing the rights of refugees, referred to as the Medina Constitution, heralded by some commentators as the first written constitution in the world . Significantly, the Constitution built upon the Prophet’s feat of securing harmonious relations among the refugees and the host community in Medina (under the broad social umbrella of the Ummah), by granting civil and political rights for the Makkan refugees within a mutually agreed legal framework. The subsequent governance of the first Muslim community in Medina demonstrated the emergence a new political order known today as the first Islamic state. It is thus at this juncture that we examine Islamic principles related to the standard of treatment accorded to refugees, as practiced by the Prophet, in his capacity as the head of the Islamic state.

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For Muslims, the life-examples relating to the Prophet Muhammad must necessarily stand at the core of their religious knowledge and engagement with humanity; indeed the centrality of the Prophet’s thoughts, deeds and
action in the consciousness of a Muslim function as a moral compass in guiding belief and behaviour, beautifully described in the Quran as a “lamp spreading light” .
Given also the firm belief among Muslims of the universality and timelessness of the Prophet’s message (directed to all mankind), the exercise of drawing parallels between Islamic historical examples and modern asylum practices should hopefully provide a rich contribution to the ongoing discourse on ethical reflections related to forced migration in the 21st century.
The Concept of Persecution in the Quran
The notion of a well-founded fear of persecution forms the key phrase that defines a refugee in modern asylum law, representing the main element of the refugee character found in Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention
relating to the Status of Refugees . It is generally inclusive of situations which give rise to an intolerable predicament , systematic discrimination of a substantially prejudicial nature or any set of circumstances which place unbearable limitations to the unfolding of one’s being, that are linked to the five Convention grounds. The concept of persecution is not defined in the Convention but is considered to include all serious violations of human rights.
In the Quran the concept of persecution is plainly recognized. The words “For persecution is worse than killing” are thrice mentioned in Surah Al-Baqarah , indicating the gravity of crimes related to acts of persecution, and the sanctioning of warfare to the victims of persecution as a legitimate means of resistance:
They question thee (O Muhammad) with regard to warfare in the sacred month. Say: Warfare therein is a great transgression but to turn men from the way of Allah, and to disbelieve in Him and in the Inviolable Place of
Worship, and to expel his people thence, is greater with Allah; for persecution is worse than killing.
The obligation of a Muslim to leave his home as a result of persecution is found in Surah Al-Nisa, which contains a commandment to Muslims to forsake their lands and remove themselves from situations of harm:
When angels take the soul of those who die in sin against their souls, they say: In what plight were ye? They reply: weak and oppressed were we in the earth. They say, was not the earth of Allah spacious enough for you to move yourselves away (from evil?) .
The verse is preceded by the words, “Allah hath granted a grade higher to those who strive and fight with their goods and person than to those who sit (at home) ” which enjoin Muslims to steadfastly resist persecution
through struggle according to individual capacity. However if no capacity exists for such persons to alter their oppressive conditions, it becomes then a matter of personal responsibility and religious duty to seek safety and continue the fight against injustice from a different vantage point. The verse goes so far as to admonish those who do nothing to change their situation, considering them as persons who perpetrate injustice against themselves and accountable to God for their inaction (with exception to those who are genuinely unable to do so). The message contains a powerful directive to take action, a divine order to obtain asylum within the vastness and expanse of God’s earthly kingdom. Reassuringly, the verse in Surah Al-Nisa continues with words of comfort and promise of reward for those who fulfill the commandment, with repeated emphasis on the dimension of earthly space in the pursuit of asylum:
He who forsakes his home in the cause of Allah, finds in the earth many a refuge, wide and spacious: should he die as a refugee from home for God and His Messenger, his reward becomes due and sure with God: and God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
Yet another revelation bolstering the spirits of the Muslims during the oppressive Meccan period can be found in two verses of Surah Al-Nahl :
To those who leave their homes in the cause of God, after suffering oppression, We will assuredly give a goodly home in this world.
But verily thy Lord, to those who leave their homes after trials and persecutions, and who thereafter strive and fight for the faith and patiently persevere, thy Lord after all this is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
Pre-Hijra Events:
Asylum in Abyssinia and the Covenants of Aqabah
Prior to the Hijra, the Prophet had counseled Muslims persecuted by the Quraysh to leave and secure protection under the Christian King Negus in Abyssinia, who ‘was known for his abhorrence of injustice’ . The tribe of Quraysh, who descended from Fihr ibn Malik, were the custodians of the Kaabah, or the Sacred House built by the Prophet Abraham. The Kaabah was used by the Quraysh to hold the pagan Gods of the desert Arabs, and was the focus of yearly religious pilgrimages in the Arabian peninsula. The role of custodianship
secured the clan’s political hegemony and commercial success through the profitable provision of services to pilgrims. The Quraysh thus viewed Muslim monotheism as a serious threat to their prominence and sinister opposition to their established houses. Muslims of low social status were freely tortured by the Quraysh to force a renunciation of the new faith, whilst other persecutory measures were imposed to effect a complete marginalization of the entire Muslim community. The prohibition of trade in essential goods and provisions was
particularly oppressive, and resulted in three-year period of starvation, acute depravation and certain death.
According to Adil Salahi, the first Muslim exiles in Abyssinia comprised twelve men and four women, among whom were Ruqayyah and Uthman ibn Affan, the Prophet’s own daughter and son-in-law . When the ruling Quraysh clan of Makkahlearned of their departure, they made haste to seek the extradition of a group they considered as rebels, or fugitives from justice. The recorded events which followed must be noted in detail, as it strikingly illustrates the modern principle of non-refoulement , or the non-return of persons to conditions of persecution. The Quraysh had appeared in the court of King Negus bearing lavish gifts and petitioned the King to return the Muslims without a hearing, on account of their rebellion against the Meccan religion, and the danger that their new creed posed, with the words ‘they have left their own religion, not for yours, but for one they have invented, one that is unknown to us and to yourselves”. The King firmly refused the extradition request by stating, Nay, by God, they shall not be betrayed – a people that have sought my protection and made my country their abode and chosen me above all others! Give them up I will not, until I have summoned them and questioned them concerning what these men say of them. If it be as they have said, then will I
deliver them unto them, that they may restore them to their own people. But if not, then I will be their good protector, so long as they seek my protection.
Upon assessing the case of the Muslim asylum-seekers, whose claim of religious persecution had theological resonance with the King, he judiciously determined their status as refugees with the words “Go your ways, for ye are safe in my land. Not for mountains of gold would I harm a single man of you.”
Through his actions, the King had exemplified what we would now term the role of the asylum host ‘state’, by acting as intercessor against harm to those seeking its protection.
The conduct of King Negus stands in stark contrast however to the poor reception received by the Prophet at the city of Taif when he ventured out of Makkahfor help. The success of the Muslims in Abyssinia had driven the
Quraysh to exact revenge upon the remaining Muslims in Makkahby a ‘campaign of terror’ , which resulted in the tragic d*eath of the Prophet’s wife Khadijah and his uncle Abu Talib. The Prophet sought aid by traveling south to the city of Taif, ruled by the Thaqef clan of the powerful Hawazin tribe, where his appeal for intervention was brusquely rejected, with its inhabitants pelting the Prophet with stones until he bled.
The deep failure to obtain support at Taif was significant in that it sharply brought into focus the need for a hospitable climate and assurances of safety by a host community before the Prophet could solicit effective
protection for the beleaguered Muslims. This opportunity arose in 620 AC when six men of the Khazraj clan from Yathrib (Medina) appeared in Makkah for their annual pilgrimage, and spoke with the Prophet of the new faith he was propagating. The following year, a group of twelve disciples acknowledged Muhammad as their Prophet, and pledged allegiance to him at Aqabah. The first Pledge of Aqabah was pivotal in facilitating the growth of Islam in Yathrib even before the migration of the Prophet. With the Pledge, emerged a group of
Yathribite converts, who would later be known as the Al-Ansar, or the Helpers.
In the year 622 AC, a secret treaty for political asylum known as the Covenant of Aqabah had come to pass, between the Prophet and the Al-Ansar.
The agreement cemented the terms of asylum and protection to the Prophet in Yathrib and sealed the pledge of allegiance and loyalty from the Muslim Arabs of Yathrib to the Prophet as the Messenger of God. Yathrib was at that point a divided society, and its representatives required the Prophet to undertake the role of an arbiter to resolve the issues of the fractious Arab tribes (see below). The Covenant of Aqabah signaled a vital turning point in Muslim history; it paved the way for the Prophet to access not only territorial safety but
political leadership in Yathrib. With a firm pact secured on favourable terms, the Prophet returned to Makkahand instructed the Muslims to begin their exodus to the promised sanctuary of Medina. The Muslims organized their exit in small, discreet groups so as to not alert the attention of Quraysh leaders, and were duly given refuge at Yathrib as the followers of the Prophet.
The Community at Yathrib
To appreciate the enormity of challenges faced by the Prophet on account of the Hijra, a brief distinction should be drawn between the cities of Makkahand Yathrib. Apart from being the religious epicentre of the Arabian peninsula, Makkahwas also a thriving commercial city which stood at the crossroads of two major caravan routes for the conduct of world trade in the seventh century, which traveled to as far as Syria and Persia. Its inhabitants were mainly pagan Arab tribes who were traders, merchants and money-lenders who practiced usury, and whose affairs were dominated by the formidable Quraysh tribe who had lived in Makkahfor centuries.
Yathrib, in contrast, was an oasis city to the north of Makkahmade up of settlements with a largely agrarian economy without a defined political structure. There were two major Arab tribes of the Aws and Khazraj, who
recognized the authority of the Qurasysh in all matters of religion and social order, while the Jewish tribes were self-governed but ‘paid annual tributes’ to the Arab tribes for security . The Jewish tribes were thought to be the first peoples to populate Yathrib. Some commentators suggest that the Jews came to Yathrib shortly after the death of Moses, following a prophecy of a prophet of God appearing in Arabia, while Adil suggests that they sought shelter after defeat in war against the Byzantines in AD 70 . Depending on which account is accepted, the Jews could be regarded as either voluntary migrants or refugees, according to modern terminology. The Pagan Arab tribes of Aws and Khazraj had appeared in Yathrib after the Jews, originating from the Azd tribes of the Himyari civilization in Yemen, known for its fertile lands and advanced irrigation technologies . The Azd were also forced to migrate following a series of political conflicts and destruction of the Ma’rib dam . Following the forced migration of the Arabs, Yathrib expanded to accommodate their settlements and was geographically divided between the Aws, Khazraj and Jewish tribes of Bani Qaynuqa, al-Nadir and Qurayzah. The Jewish tribes were primarily engaged in matters related to finance, commerce and land ownership, while the Arabs were mainly farmers who also engaged in trade of agrarian produce, albeit on a much smaller scale than their Makkan counterparts. The Aws and Khazraj were generally a discordant community who competed with each other for tribal dominance whilst the Jews chose alliances among the warring Arabs. Yathrib was, therefore, made up chiefly of various refugee and migrant colonies and far more multifaceted in comparison to the somewhat homogenous and ordered environment of Makkah.
The Creation of the Ummah and the Constitution of Medina
Upon reaching Yathrib, the Prophet was deeply aware of the destitution and hardship experienced by the Meccan refugees, who had fled from intolerable conditions to find themselves in alien territory, bereft of income, land and personal belongings. To compound matters, the refugees were not skilled in agricultural activity and were vulnerable to diseases such as malaria which was widely prevalent in Yathrib. Furthermore, given the spread of Islam in Yathrib, the Arab community was further divided into both Muslim and pagan
groups, with rather tenuous relationships being formed among the new Muslim communities who were clouded still by tribal enmity. In response, the Prophet declared that the host community of Muslim Arabs would be known as the Al-Ansar (Helpers), while the Meccan refugees would be known as the Al-Muhajirun (Migrants). The Prophet then set about erecting Yathrib’s first mosque, as a physical centre not only for Muslims to openly perform worship but also, more significantly, as a rallying point for Muslim communion on socio-political matters. The mosque-building task represented the first community project in which the Ansar and the Muhajirun had joined hands and achieved a sense of mutual purpose. What followed was a public snnouncement of a new community called the Ummah, made up of a gathering of ninety men, representing equal numbers of the Muhajirun and Ansar. The Prophet introduced the novel concept of religious kinship in lieu of blood relations or tribal bonds between the refugee and host communities, and in so doing attempted to simultaneously raise the moral stature of the Ansar and living conditions of the Muhajirun through a ‘principle of fraternization’ described below:
The Prophet established a golden rule for the treatment of refugees. He decreed the principle of fraternization between the “ansar” (“helpers, inhabitants of Medina defending the Prophet’s cause) and the “muhajirun” (“emigrants”, refugees from Mecca). According to this pact, each “ansar” should take care of one “muhajir”. This care included food, clothing, shelter and any other assistance needed until the “muhajir” could look after
himself .
The Quran makes specific reference to the exemplary standard of treatment provided to the Muhajirun by the Ansar through the following verse:
But those who, before them, had homes (in Al-Madinah) and had adopted the Faith, show their affection to such as came to them for refuge, and entertain no desire in their hearts for things given to the (latter), but give
them preference over themselves, even though poverty was their (own lot). And those saved from covetousness of their own souls – they are the ones that achieve prosperity.
The creation of the Ummah by the Prophet for all Muslims of Yathrib was instrumental, both in forging a deep consciousness of Muslim identity, and in enabling the Muslim refugees to assimilate their new surroundings. According to Sayyid Qutb, ‘the Helpers were of generous mind, and they rose above the natural avarice which lies in the human soul; they took the Emigrants as brothers in everything that they possessed .’ It is important to note at this point that notions of asylum and protection had already deep roots in the culture of the desert Arabs and ‘formed part of a “moral ideal”.
The feeling which drove them to conform to this ideal was that of honour (muruwah).’
However, the collectivist weltanschauung of the ummatic value system was a landmark development in Arabia, as it succeeded in shifting the allegiances of fiercely tribal peoples to a set of common religious beliefs that would mutually benefit communities beyond the boundaries of individual tribes. Moreover the ummatic concept had greatly tempered the excesses of the harsh tribal code, characterizing centuries-old traditions and mores of the Arab desert-dwellers, described below by Izutsu :
Nothing expresses better and more tersely the deep, irrational nature of this sentiment of tribal connection than a verse of Durayd b. al-Simmah which Nicholson cites: ‘I am of Ghaziyya: if she be in error, then I will err; And of Ghaziyya be guided right, I go right with her!’. This illustrates remarkably well how tribal solidarity dictated the actions of the heathen Arab, and how he had to obey through foul and fair the categorical imperative of tribalism. As R.Dozy remarked, ‘this limitless and unshakable attachment, which is called ‘asabiyyah, that a pagan Arab feels for his fellow-tribesmen, this absolute devotion to the interests, prosperity, glory and honour of the community into which he was born and in which he will die – this is not in any way a sentiment like our patriotism, which would appear to a fiery Bedouin too lukewarm. It is a violent and terrible passion. It is at the same time the first and most sacred duty of all duties; it is the real religion of the desert.
The Muhajirun, for their part, were not merely recipients of charity in perpetuity. Instrumentally, social adaptation through brotherhood-in-faith provided the Muhajirun with agency for economic development, given their deep expertise in trade and commerce. It is narrated that a wealthy Ansar, Sa‘d ibn al-Rabi‘, had generously offered half his property to a Muhajir, Abdul Rahman ibn Awf. In response, Abdul Rahman replied,
“May Allah bless you family and property for you, where is your market? He was then shown to the Qainuqa market, whereupon he returned with profit in the form of dried yoghurt and butter. According to Haykal, it was said the Meccans were so expert at trade that they could change the sands of the desert into gold.
The parallel to draw from the accomplishment of the ummatic concept in Medina for the purpose of modern consideration is the importance of engendering a genuine environment of self-reliance for refugees in their place of asylum. The example of the Prophet in providing refugees with critical coping mechanisms avoided the moral hazard of fostering a situation of endemic dependency on host communities that is so often seen among refugee populations in asylum countries today. The Meccan refugees were assisted to the point of self-sufficiency, whereupon they could utilize their particular trading competencies and effectively diversify the skills of the labour pool in Medina.
The support from the Ansar for the Prophet’s efforts at social reconstruction and unification should be also underscored as it effectively dismantled the barriers which had previously rendered impossible any vision of confederacy between the Arab tribes. In essence, the Muhajirun were provided the ‘durable solution’ of ‘local integration’ , which enabled the new Muslim community to thrive and prosper, and consequently to expand beyond the limits of the Medinan oasis.
Having created a new social order for the Muslims, the Prophet sought to reach a broader consensus between the Muslims, remaining pagan Arabs and Jewish tribes for the establishment of a political structure to resolve the long-standing issues of inter-tribal conflict. The result was the formation of a body politic representative of the ethnic and religious demographic of Yathrib, which agreed jointly to be governed by a written constitution, referred to as the Constitution of Medina. The Constitution has been touted as the first written Constitution in the world, where out of its fifty-two sections the first twenty-three lay down rules affecting the relationship between the Muslims, significantly between the refugees and their host community, whilst the remaining sections discuss the rights and obligations of the Jewish tribes of Madinah . All the groups concerned had stipulated rights and obligations under the Constitution to effect the principle of consensual governance. The Jews were treated as a distinct ummatic entity subject to Judaic laws based on the Torah following the guarantee of religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution. The Constitution also institutionalized duties of protection and defense for both the Muslim and Jewish ummah. The Constitution begins with the following
words, This is a document drawn up by Muhammad the Prophet for the believers and the Muslims from the Quraysh and Yathrib, and whoever joins them and takes part in their struggle for their cause: they are one nation, distinguished from all other people .
For the purposes of analysis from a refugee perspective, the preamble of the Medina Constitution emonstrates how strongly the protection needs of the Meccans were secured by the Prophet through a written legal instrument obtained by joint consensus of signatory parties. This masterstroke allowed for the status, rights and corresponding responsibilities of the Meccan refugees in the new city-state of Medina to be clearly defined and binding upon all members of the Medinan community. The modern parallel of such a legal framework would, arguably, be the creation of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees by the international community, which arose from the need for a legal instrument to define the status of refugees, instead of ad-hoc
agreements adopted in relation to specific refugee situations . Notwithstanding the specific historical context of the Medina Constitution, the processes by which refugee rights were both recognized and guaranteed by the Prophet, using the force of law, is heavily relevant for present-day considerations on the critical need for effective State protection, particularly from Muslim governments.
It is highly evident that fundamental Islamic principles of asylum, drawn from early Muslim history, strongly endorse the full range of rights due to a refugee – from the non-return of persons to persecutory conditions or non-refoulement, asylum covenants, humanitarian assistance to alleviate hardship and destitution, social integration within host communities to the grant of civil and political rights in a legal instrument that ensures
the full development of a refugee’s human potential. There are, undeniably, deep tensions. An aspirational approach to asylum policies based upon ethical precepts and religious history, is bound to conflict with one that takes into account ground realities, which present significant challenges to adequately address the needs of asylum-seekers and refugees. However the very fact that such conflict will arise should not act to undermine the critical need for public policy to be continually guided by an ethical framework. The reconciliation of approaches between ethics and reality, although appreciably strenuous, is ultimately the minimum effort required by those in authority to preserve fundamental human freedoms. Moreover, it is incumbent upon Muslim governments to legitimize their positions by situating State policy and action within Islamic parameters established by the Quran and the example of the Prophet. The refugee occupies a special status in Muslim history; institutions which support their rights should, correspondingly, be carefully safeguarded.
(Sharifah Nazneen Agha is a member of the JUST Executive Committee.The opinions expressed here are of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of GreenWatch Dhaka.)


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