Featured, History

Migration to Abyssinia: Fleeing persecution or searching for a base for Islam?

This has been reproduced from Dr As-Sallabi’s seerah book The Noble life of the Prophet ﷺ.

Scholars have mentioned various reasons that prompted the Prophet’s ﷺ Companions to migrate to Abyssinia. One reason was that they felt it necessary to flee with their religion, fearing that constant torture might tempt them to apostatize. Ibn Ishaaq said, “At that point in time, some Muslims from the Prophet’s ﷺ Companions went to Abyssinia, fearing temptation and fleeing towards Allah M with their religion.”[1]

Sayyid Qutub offers a different explanation, arguing that the main purpose of the migration was to spread Islam outside of Makkah, and not simply to flee from persecution. In Fee Dhilaal Al-Qur’an (In the Shade of the Qur’an), he wrote, “The Messenger of Allah ﷺ was searching for a stronghold outside of Makkah, a stronghold that could protect the beliefs of Islam and guarantee the freedom to openly practice Islam. In my estimation, this was the foremost reason that prompted the migration (to Abyssinia). The view which states that the Prophet’s ﷺ Companions migrated only to save themselves is not corroborated by strong evidence. Had they migrated only to save themselves (from torture and temptation to leave the fold of Islam), those Muslims who were weakest – in status, strength, and protection – would have migrated as well, but the fact is that slaves and weak Muslims, who bore the major grunt of persecution and torture, did not migrate. Only men who had strong tribal ties – ties that protected them from torture and temptation – migrated to Abyssinia. In fact, the majority of those who migrated were members of the Quraish (as opposed to imported slaves or weak Muslims who lived in Makkah but were not from the Quraish, such as the family of Yasir.)”[2]

Showing agreement with Sayyid Qutub’s assessment of the matter, Al-Ghadbaan wrote, “This poignant observation from Sayyid (may Allah have mercy on him) is supported by events in the Seer ah (the Prophet’s biography). In my view, the strongest evidence of that is the overall result of their migration to Abyssinia. From what we know (i.e., from what is related in historical narrations), the Messenger of Allah didn’t send for those who migrated to Al-Habashah until after (the Prophet’s) migration to Yathrib (i.e., Al-Madeenah), Badr, Uhud, Khandaq, and Al-Hudaybiyyah. For a total of five years (after the Prophet’s migration), Yathrib was vulnerable to complete destruction at the hands of the Quraish. The last of Quraish’ s attacks and attempts of destroying (the Muslims in Al-Madeenah) occurred during (the Battle of) Al-Khandaq. After this battle, when the Messenger of Allah ﷺ felt certain that Al-Madeenah was a safe stronghold for Muslims – there being no more danger of an impending attack from the polytheists – he ﷺ summoned those who had migrated to Abyssinia. There was no longer any need to keep a precautionary base in Abyssinia, where the Prophet ﷺ would have possibly been able to seek refuge had Yathrib fallen into the hands of the enemy.”[3]

Professor Duroozah expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “It certainly occurs to the mind that one of the reasons why the Christian land of Abyssinia was chosen, was the hope of spreading Da’wah (the message of Islam) there. And the appointment of Ja’far (as leader of the Muslims in Abyssinia) had a great deal to do with that hope.”

Another scholar who shares the same view is Dr. Sulaiman ibn Hamd Al-‘Audah, who said, “The fact that An-Najashi (the king of Abyssinia) and others from the people of Abyssinia embraced Islam supports the view that spreading Islam in Abyssinia was one of the reasons and goals behind the migration to that land. Furthermore, it was with the Prophet’s guidance that Muslims both migrated to Abyssinia and then remained there until after the conquest of Khaibar. It is related in Saheeh Bukhari [sic] that, when the Ash’ariyyeen[4] met him in Abyssinia, Ja’far said to them, ‘Verily, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ sent us here, and he ordered us to reside here, so reside here with us.’[5] This means that they went to Abyssinia with a specific mission in mind – and there is no mission that is more honourable than that of spreading the religion of Allah. The mission came to an end when those who migrated were instructed to return (to Al-Madeenah).”[6]

This does not mean that it was the only reason why they migrated to Abyssinia. To be sure, the Prophet’s ﷺ Companions needed to go where they could freely and safely practice their religion. That they went seeking safety and freedom from persecution is indicated by the saying of the Prophet ﷺ, “For in it (i.e., Abyssinia) dwells a king in whose presence no one is wronged.” Safety and freedom is what the Prophet’s Companions found in Abyssinia.

Umm Salamah said, “When we stopped to reside in the land of Abyssinia, we lived alongside the best of neighbours, An-Najashi. We safely practiced our religion, and we worshipped Allah without consequently being harmed.”[7]

Why the Prophet ﷺ chose Abyssinia  

There are a number of reasons why the Messenger of Allah ﷺ chose Abyssinia over other lands. First, An-Najashi, the king of Abyssinia, was a just king, a fact that the Prophet ﷺ pointed out when he ﷺ said, “For in it dwells a king in whose presence no one is wronged.” This proved to be true, for An-Najashi protected his Muslim guests and refused to hand them over to the Quraish. Furthermore, An-Najashi was a righteous man. When he became overwhelmed with emotion upon hearing Ja’far recite the Qur’an, An-Najashi showed that his beliefs regarding ‘Isa (Jesus) were correct. Years later, the Prophet praised An-Najashi when he ﷺ said, “Indeed, today a righteous man from Abyssinia has died, so come and pray over him.”[8]

Second, at the time, Abyssinia was a land of prosperity; it was a trading center to which the Quraish traveled. While discussing the reasons for the migration to Abyssinia, At-Tabari wrote, “The Quraish would go to Abyssinia to do business. There, they would find abundant sustenance, safety, and good business.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Quraish had no authority in Abyssinia. The Prophet’s ﷺ Companions could not migrate to any place within the Arabian Peninsula, since for the most part, and on most occasions, Arab tribes within the Peninsula obeyed the Quraish. They humbled themselves before the Quraish because they needed their help during the Hajj season, and they relied on them for trade. Moreover, they too opposed the Prophet’s Da’wah, and so they were natural allies of the Quraish. Therefore, there was no safe haven for the Muslims within Arabia. Abyssinia, on the other hand, was an ideal place for the Prophet’s Companions to seek sanctuary. Unlike the tribes of Arabia, the people of Abyssinia did not revere or fear the Quraish; the people of Abyssinia did not even adhere to the same religion as the Quraish, for they were Christians. In short, the Quraish had practically no influence on the political affairs of Abyssinia.

Finally, the Prophet knew Abyssinia and loved it. In a Hadeeth that is related by Az-Zuhri, it is mentioned that Abyssinia was the land to which the Messenger of Allah ﷺ most loved to migrate. That love was perhaps founded upon many reasons:

  1. An-Najashi was a just ruler.
  2. Abyssinians were Christians, and so they were closer to Islam than the polytheists of Arabia. That is why the believers became overjoyed when the Christians defeated the Magian polytheists of Persia, during a battle which occurred in the year 8 of Prophethood, while the Prophet ﷺ was still in Makkah.
  3. The Prophet ﷺ had knowledge about life in Abyssinia. His nursemaid was Umm Aiman who, according to established reports in Saheeh Muslim and other Hadeeth compilations, was Abyssinian. It is related by Ibn Shihaab, as well as in Sunan Ibn Maajah, that Umm Aiman once prepared a dish that the Prophet ﷺ had not seen before. He asked her, “What is this?” She said, “It is food that we make in our land, and I wanted to make a loaf of it for you.” Given that Umm Aiman was the Prophet’s nursemaid, which means that she spent a lot of time with him during his childhood, it is not unlikely that she spoke to the Prophet ﷺ about her homeland, its society, and its rulers.

The Secrecy of their Departure

Those of the Prophet’s ﷺ Companions who went to Abyssinia on the first of the two famous migrations to that land departed from Makkah in Rajab, five years after the beginning of the Prophet’s mission. The travelling party consisted of ten men and four women – though it has been said that there were five women. As is indicated in the narration of Al-Waqidi, they left secretly. Once the Quraish found out about their departure, they gave chase, but by the time they reached the sea, the Prophet’s Companions &, had already set sail, and were safely on their way towards Abyssinia.

Upon the Companions’ arrival in Abyssinia, An-Najashi gave them a warm and hospitable welcome. For the first time since they embraced Islam, they felt safe and free. Umm Salamah one of the Prophet’s ﷺ wives, said, “When we stopped to reside in the land of Abyssinia, we lived alongside the best of neighbours, An-Najashi. We safely practiced our religion, and we worshipped Allah without consequently being harmed. And we did not hear anything that we disliked.”[9]

The Names of Those Who Migrated to Abyssinia on the First of the Two Famous Migrations to that Land

The following is a list of the men who made the journey:

  1. ‘Uthmaan ibn Affaan ibn Abi Al-‘Aas ibn Umayyah ibn ‘Abd-Shams
  2. ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Auf ibn ‘Auf ibn ‘Abd ibn Al-Haarith ibn Zuhrah
  3. Az-Zubair ibn Al-‘Awaam ibn Khuwailid ibn Asad
  4. Abu Hudhaifah ibn ‘Utbah ibn Rabee’ah ibn ‘Abd-Shams
  5. Mus’ab ibn ‘Umair ibn Haashim ibn ‘Abd-Manaaf ibn ‘Abdud-Daar
  6. Abu Salamah ibn ‘Abdul-Asad ibn Hilaal ibn ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar ibn Makhzoom
  7. ‘Uthmaan ibn Madh’oon ibn Habeeb ibn Wahb ibn Hudhaafah ibn Jumh
  8. Aamir ibn Rabee’ah, who was from the tribe of Anz ibn Waail, and who was allied to the family of Al-Khattaab
  9. Suhail ibn Baidaa, whose full name is Suhail ibn Wahb ibn Rabee’ah ibn Hilaal ibn Uhaib ibn Dabbah ibn Al- Haarith
  10. Abu Sabrah ibn Abee Ruhm ibn “Abdul-‘Uzzah ibn Abee Qais “Abd-Wudd ibn Nadr ibn Maalik ibn Hisl ibn Aamir

These are the Female Members of the Travelling Party

  1. Ruqayyah daughter of the Prophet ﷺ
  2. Sahlah bint (daughter of) Suhail ibn ‘Amr one of the children of Aamir ibn Luai Sahlah was travelling with her husband, Abu Hudhaifah while in Abyssinia, she gave birth to his son, Muhammad ibn Abu Hudhaifah
  3. Umm Salamah bint Abu Umayyah ibn Al-Mugheerah ibn Abdullah ibn Umar ibn Makhzoom. She was travelling with her husband, Abu Salamah
  4. Lailah bint Abu Hathahmah ibn Hudhaafah ibn Ghaanim (ibn Aamir) ibn Abdullah ibn Auf ibn Ubaid ibn Uwaij ibn Adee ibn Ka’ab. She was travelling with her husband, Aamir ibn Rabee’ah
  5. Umm Kulthoom bint Sahl ibn Amr ibn Abd-Shams. She was travelling with her husband, Abu Sabrah ibn Abu Ruhm.[10]

It seems that they did not travel as one group, for it is related that Uthmaan ibn Affaan and his wife, Ruqayyah (daughter of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ) were the first among them to migrate. Ya’qoob ibn Sufyaan related that, “After (Prophet) Lut, Uthmaan was the first to perform migration with his family.”[11]

It is interesting to note that not a single one of the migrants was a slave, even though it was the slaves – such as Bilaal Khabbaab, and ‘Aamir – who were tortured more severely than anyone else. In fact, most of those who migrated were from the noble classes of Quraish society; true, they were persecuted for their beliefs, but no one was persecuted more severely than slaves. Therefore, had fleeing from harm been the only reason for the migration, Muslim slaves would have been the first to migrate once the opportunity presented itself to them. Ibn Ishaaq and other historians discussed in great detail Quraish’s persecution of Muslim slaves, but not a single one of them mentioned the name of any Muslim slave among the list of those who migrated to Abyssinia.

Hence the migration was prompted by reasons other than that of fleeing from hardship. It is important to note that those who went weren’t from a single clan; rather, every, or at least almost every, clan of the Quraish had at least one member who migrated to Abyssinia. This reality might have served to protect them, had the Quraish been able to convince An-Najashi to extradite his Muslim guests, since every clan would have it in their best interests to protect the life of one of their members. Another benefit of them being from various clans was that their departure gave pause for thought to every member of the Quraish, in that it was their severe treatment that forced their relatives to leave their homeland. It is related that, years later, Umar ibn Al-Khattaab’s heart softened towards Muslims when he met outside of Makkah a female Muslim who was migrating to Al-Madeenah.

Finally, as Sayyid Qutub mentioned in Adh-Dhilaal, Muslims were intent on spreading the message of Islam outside of Makkah as well; perhaps, they surely felt, their Da’wah efforts would reap more blessed fruits in Abyssinia than they did in Makkah.


[1] As-Seerah An-Nabawiyyah by Ibn Hishaam (1/398)

[2] Sayyid Qutb, Fee Dhilaal Al-Qur’an (1/29)

[3] Al-Manhaj Al-Harakee Lis-Seerah (1/67, 68)

[4] The tribe of Abu Musa Al-‘Ashari who left Yemen and ended up in Abyssinia with Ja’far ibn Abi Talib and the other companions.

[5] Sahih Muslim 2502, 2503, https://sunnah.com/muslim/44/241

[6] Refer to Al-Hijrah Al-Oolah Fil-Islam by Dr. Salmaan Al-‘Audah, pg. 34

[7] As-Seerah An-Nabawiyyah by Ibn Hishaam, with the commentary of Hammaam Abu Sa’leek (1/413)

[8] Sahih al-Bukhari 1320, https://sunnah.com/bukhari:1320

[9] Refer to Musnad Al-Imam Ahmad (1/201, 202)

[10] Al-Bidaayah Wan-Nihaayah (3/ 96, 97), Seerah Ibn Hishaam (1/344-352), and Al- Hijrah Fil Qur’an (pgs. 292-294)

[11] As-Sunnah by Ibn ‘Aasim, pg. 592, and Al-Bidaayah Wan-Nihaayah (3/ 67). Also, refer to Fathul-Baaree, in the explanation of Hadeeth number: 3872