Year by year, month by month, the number of Muslims gradually grew in Makkah. The pressures and the hardships imposed on them by the Makkans did not make the converts to Islam forgo their consciences, and the Makkans were unable to stem the tide of people, both men and women, coming to Islam.
The ever-increasing advances, as well as the absence of despair, and the care and attention Muslims paid towards Islam, meant that they would never renounce their religion. This increased the anger of Quraysh, and it concerned them to such an extent that they intensified their torture and persecution of Muslims.
The Muslims were in a precarious position, but remained patient. To temporarily alleviate the oppression from Quraysh, the Holy Prophet (S) proposed to the Muslims to leave Makkah and migrate to Abyssinia. He (S) said, “Since the present ruler of Abyssinia is a righteous and just man, you can live in his territory for some time, until the Almighty Allah provides you with relief.”
A great number of Muslims migrated to Abyssinia. They lived there in peace, comfort, and perfect liberty, performing their religious duties, which they were unable to do freely in Makkah at all.
As soon as Quraysh came to know of the Muslims departure to Abyssinia and their peaceful lives there, they feared that Abyssinia might become a new center for Muslims. They discussed the matter amongst themselves and devised a plan to bring the Muslims back to Makkah and subjugate them as before. They selected among themselves two persons well-known for their cunning and deceit and sent them bearing a multitude of gifts for Negus, the King of Abyssinia. They had also brought many other gifts for Negus’ relatives, the nobility of Abyssinia, and for anyone who had influence upon the King.
After their arrival in Abyssinia, they had both been instructed to meet the leaders and Negus' relatives in advance and offer them gifts, and say the following words, “A group of our ignorant and naive young men have recently derided our religion as well as yours. At present they are in your country. Our elders and chiefs have sent us to you so that we could earnestly request you to expel them from your country and return them to us. When the matter is brought before Negus, we ask of you to support our case.”
The Quraysh deputies met the nobility, and presented each one with a gift and took a pledge to support their case before the King. They also went before Negus, presented him their valuable gifts, and put forward their request.
In accordance with their earlier agreement, all the members of the court and the audience who were seated around the Royal throne, were in favour of the envoys of Quraysh, and suggested to the King to issue a decree to promptly expel the Muslims and to return them to the envoys.
Negus did not accept this point of view, and said, “These people have taken refuge in my country from their own land for a reason. It cannot be just to judge by default and to issue a decree to expel them without proper investigation or consideration of their case. It is essential that I summon them and listen to their statements, and after that, I will decide what to do.”
When Negus uttered these words, the Quraysh envoys’ faces turned pale and their hearts began to throb. They feared that Negus would meet the Muslims face to face. They preferred that Muslims to stay in Abyssinia, rather than meet Negus.
Whatever this new religion offers, is it not its words and eloquence? Whoever becomes attracted to it, is it not a series of words which Muhammad (S) says have been revealed from Allah? Is there not a captivating attraction to these words? Who knows what could happen if the Muslims come and repeat these words by heart in this assembly, and make the same impression on them that they did on the people of Makkah? What to do? It is too late? Negus has already given orders to bring the group before him, who had taken refuge in Abyssinia.
The Muslims were quite aware of the Quraysh envoys’ arrival in Abyssinia, their offer of gifts, their meeting with the dignitaries and members of Negus’ court, and the purpose of their arrival. They were undoubtedly quite afraid that the envoys’ plan might work, and that they would be compelled to return to Makkah.
As they received Negus’ summons to his palace, they realised the imminent danger of the situation. They gathered together and agreed on what to say in the assembly. Unanimously, they were of the opinion not to say anything but the truth; to first explain their lives during the Age of Ignorance (Jahiliyah), and then explain the reality and rules of Islam, as well as the spirit of Islamic teachings; nothing should be hidden and nothing should be said that was contrary to the truth. They arrived at the assembly with this decision and intention.
On the other hand, since it was a matter of discussion about a new religion, Negus ordered a number of his officials and clergymen, who were Christians, to attend the assembly. A number of bishops participated in this event, each one having a Holy book before him. The authorities, ministers and clergymen, sat at their designated places. The Royal protocol, coupled with the religious personalities, gave the assembly a majestic and unique distinction.
As for Negus, he sat in the seat of honour, and the other dignitaries each took their seats in accordance with their rank. The audience could not help but be in awe of the grandeur of the function.
Negus personally took over the responsibility of their interrogation. He asked, “What is this new religion of yours which does not resemble your previous religion, nor that of ours?”
The Muslims entrusted Ja’far ibn Abi Talib, the elder brother of the Commander of the Faithful, Ali (‘a), to be their spokesman. As was agreed, he would answer questions and provide explanations.
Ja’far replied, “We were ignorant people, worshipping idols. We did not shun eating dead bodies. We committed adultery. We cut off relations with our kindred. We did evil acts against our neighbours. The strongest amongst us oppressed the weakest. We had spent a long time in this manner until Allah raised a Prophet among us.
We know his ancestry and his pure past. He invited us to monotheism and the worship of One God, prohibiting us from worshipping idols, stone and wood. He also ordered us to return things entrusted to us by others. To always tell the truth; to strengthen kinship, and to have respect for our neighbours and others. He prohibited us from committing fornication, giving false witness, usurpation of orphans’ property and imputing evil deeds to chaste women.
He ordered us not to associate anything with Allah nor to abandon prayer, alms-giving, and fasting. We have believed and attested to this, and we have obeyed the commandments that I have mentioned.
However, our people have behaved cruelly with us; ordered us to reject these commandments and return to the same ways in which we were before. They also ordered us to revert to idolatry and to those vices in which we indulged. Since we disobeyed them, they tortured us and subjected us to persecution. This was the reason that we took refuge in your country. We hope that we will be safe here.”
As the words of Ja’far reached them, Negus asked him, “Do you know any of the words by heart which your Prophet said were revealed to him, coming from the other world?”
Ja’far said, “Yes.”
Negus said, “Recite some!”
Keeping in mind that the members of the assembly, as well as the King, were Christians, and the fact that the bishops had the Holy Bible before them and the whole assembly resonated with the Christian sentiments, Ja’far began reciting firmly and calmly the Chapter of Maryam, relating the story Maryam, Isa, Yahya and Zakaria. The verses with their short phrases and their endings that rhymed generated a particular harmony.
By reciting these verses, Ja’far wanted to convey the moderate and just logic of the Holy Qur’an regarding Isa and Maryam and make them understand that the Qur’an, while sanctifying Isa and Maryam, distances them from the Sanctuary of Divinity.
The assembly was in an extraordinary state. Tears rolled down their cheeks. Negus said, “By God, the verity of what Isa said is the same. These words have emanated from one and the same source.”
Then he turned to the Quraysh envoys and said, “Leave, and mind your own business!”
Then he returned their gifts to them. Afterwards, Negus officially became a Muslim and passed away in the ninth year of Hijrah. The Holy Prophet (S) performed his funeral prayers from a far distance.1
- 1. Sirat ibn Hisham, v. 1, p. 321.