Migration to Abyssinia

The Migration to Abyssinia (الهجرة إلى الحبشة‎, al-hijra ʾilā al-habaša), also known as the First Hegira (هِجْرَة‎ hijrah), was an episode in the early history of Islam, where Prophet Muhammad’s first followers (the Sahabah) fled from the persecution of the ruling Quraysh tribe of Mecca. They sought refuge in the Christian Kingdom of Aksum, present-day Eritrea and Ethiopia (formerly referred to as Abyssinia, an ancient name whose origin is debated),[1] in 9 BH (613 CE) or 7 BH (615 CE). The Aksumite monarch who received them is known in Islamic sources as the Negus (نجاشي‎ najāšīAshama ibn Abjar. Modern historians have alternatively identified him with King Armah and Ella Tsaham.[2] Some of the exiles returned to Mecca and made the hijra to Medina with Muhammad, while others remained in Abyssinia until they came to Medina in 628.[3]

14th century illustration showing the king of Aksum declining a Meccan request to yield up the Muslims.


According to the traditional view, members of the early Muslim community in Mecca faced persecution, which prompted Muhammad to advise them to seek refuge in Abyssinia. The earliest extant account is given in Ibn Ishaq’s sira:[4][5]

When the apostle saw the affliction of his companions, […] he said to them: “If you were to go Abyssinia (it would be better for you), for the king will not tolerate injustice and it is a friendly country, until such time as Allah shall relieve you from your distress.” Thereupon his companions went to Abyssinia, being afraid of apostasy and fleeing to God with their religion. This was the first hijra in Islam.

Another view, grounded in the political developments of the time, suggests that following the Sassanid capture of Jerusalem in 614 many believers saw a potential danger to the community as they were not the partisans of the Persians who both practiced Zoroastrianismand had earlier supported the Arabian Jews of Himyar. The acceptance of these Muslims into the Kingdom of Axum at precisely a moment of Persian triumph in the Levant recalls the Ethiopian foreign policy of the previous century which saw Axum and Persia compete for influence in the Arabian Peninsula.[6]

The migration(s)

According to Muslims historians, there were two migrations, although there are differences of opinion with respect to the dates. [7][5][8][9]

The first group of emigrants, comprising twelve men and four women, was granted asylum in the year 7 BH (615 CE) (9 BH (613 CE) according to other sources)[8] under Ashama ibn-Abjar, the ruler of the Kingdom of Aksum. This group included Uthman ibn Affan, who later became the third caliph. Mohammed chose Uthman bin Maz’oon, one of his most important companions, as the leader of this group. After a year the exiles heard rumors that the Quraysh had accepted Islam, which prompted them to return to Mecca. Confronted with the reality, they set out to Abyssinia again in 6 BH (616 CE) (7 BH (615 CE) according to other sources),[9] this time accompanied by others, 83 men and 18 women in all.[7] S. M. Darsh argues that the decision to return was motivated by a change of Meccan strategy toward Muslims, which temporarily created a more favorable environment for them in Mecca, as well as by a rebellion against the Abyssinian king.[10]

Western historians, such as Leone Caetani and Montgomery Watt have questioned the account of two migrations.[5] Although Ibn Ishaq provides two partially overlapping lists of migrants, he does not mention that the first group returned and went back a second time.[5]Watt argues that the word used by Ibn Ishaq (tatāba‘a – lit. followed one after another) and the order of the names on the lists suggests that the migration may have taken place in a number of smaller groups rather than two large parties, while the appearance of the two lists reflected the controversies surrounding assignment of priority on official registers during the reign of the second caliph Umar.[5]

In Abyssinia

Events that took place after the emigration are reported by Ibn Ishaq.[11][12]

When the Quraysh learned that Muhammad’s companions could safely practice their religion in Abyssinia, they decided to send an embassy to the Negus to demand return of the fugitives. They selected two envoys, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As and Abdullah bin Rabiah, and gave them gifts for the king and his generals. The gifts were made up of leather prepared by fine skin, Abyssinians were fond of leather goods so it was a bribe for them.[11][12] (baṭāriqa). The Meccans appealed to the generals, arguing that the emigrants were “foolish youths” who invented a new religion the likes of which neither the Meccans nor the Abyssinians had heard of and that their relatives were asking for their return. The king granted them audience, but he refused to hand over people who had sought his protection until he heard their side of the story.[11][12]

The Muslims were brought in front of the Negus (or “al-Najashi” in Arabic) and his bishops. Ja‘far ibn Abī Tālib, who acted as the leader of the exiles, spoke in their defense. He described to the king how they lived before Islam, Muhammad’s prophetic mission, and what he had taught them. He also spoke of the persecution they had faced at the hands of the Quraysh. The king asked if they had with them anything which had come from God. When Ja‘far confirmed, the king commanded him to read it. Ja‘far then recited a passage from the Surah of Mary. When the king heard it, he wept and exclaimed: “verily, this and what Jesus brought (Gospel) has come from the same source of light (miškāt)”. He then affirmed that he would never give up the Muslims.[11][12]

However, one of the envoys, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, thought of another tactic. On the following day he returned to the king and told him that the Muslims had said a dreadful thing about Jesus. When the Muslims heard that the king summoned them again to question them about their view of Jesus, they tried to find a diplomatic answer, but finally decided to speak according to the revelation they had received. When the king addressed Ja‘far, he replied that they held Jesus to be “God’s servant, His prophet, His spirit, and His word which He cast upon the virgin Mary”. Muslim account states that upon hearing these words, the Negus declared that Jesus was indeed no more than what he had said. He turned to the Muslims and told them: “go, for you are safe in my country.” He then returned the gifts to the envoys and dismissed them.[11][12] Based on the timeframe of the hijra, it is presumed that the Negus was King Armah.

End of exile

Many of the Abyssinian exiles returned to Mecca in 622 and made the hijra to Medina with Muhammad, while a second wave in came to Medina in 628, about 6 years later.[3][13]

First migration list

The first list of emigrants reported by Ibn Ishaq included the following eleven men and four women:[4]

  • 1. Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas[14]
  • 2. Jahsh ibn Riyab[15]
  • 3. Abd-Allah ibn Jahsh
  • 4. Ja’far ibn Abi Talib leader of the group
  • 5. Ruqayyah bint Muhammad, the wife of Uthman and daughter of Muhammad.
  • 6. Abu Hudhayfa ibn ‘Utba
  • 7. Sahla bint Suhail, wife of Abu Hudhayfa
  • 8. Zubayr ibn al-Awwam
  • 9. Mus’ab ibn Umair
  • 10. Abdur Rahman bin Awf
  • 11. Abu Salama Abd Allah ibn Abd al-Asad
  • 12. Umm Salama, wife of Abu Salama
  • 13. Uthman bin Maz’oon
  • 14. Amir bin Rabiah,
  • 15. Layla bint Abi Asmah – wife of Amir[16]


  1.  E. A. Wallis Budge (Aug 1, 2014). A History of Ethiopia: Volume I: Nubia and Abyssinia. Routledge. pp. vii.
  2.  M. Elfasi, Ivan Hrbek (1988). Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century. UNESCO. p. 560.
  3.   William Montgomery Watt (1961). Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman. Oxford University Press. p. 66.
  4.   Ibn Ishāq (2004). Sīratu Rasūlillāh (tr. Alfred Guillaume). Oxford University Press. p. 146.
  5.   W. Montgomery Watt (1980). Muhammad at Mecca. Oxford University Press. pp. 110–111.
  6.  Bowersock, G.W (Dr). The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam. Oxford University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-19-973932-5
  7.   “The Two Migrations of Muslims to Abyssinia”Ahlul Bayt Digital Islamic Library Project. Retrieved 18 December2015.
  8.   John L. Esposito (ed.) (2003). The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Oxford University Press. p. 351.
  9.   Rafiq Zakaria, 1991, Muhammad and The Quran, New Delhi: Penguin Books, pp. 403-4. ISBN 0-14-014423-4
  10.  S.M. Darsh, “Those Are The High Flying Cranes”Bismika Allahuma.
  11.   Ibn Ishāq (2004). Sīratu Rasūlillāh (tr. Alfred Guillaume). Oxford University Press. pp. 150–153.
  12.   Martin Lings (2006). Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Inner Traditions. pp. 81–84.
  13.  Timothy Power (2012). The Red Sea from Byzantium to the Caliphate: AD 500 – 1000I.B. Tauris. p. 87. ISBN 9781617973505.
  14.  He is traced to be the religious ancestor of Muslims in Manipur and China- see Muslims of Manipur– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  15.  He is father of Zainab and a father-in-law of Muhammad. In some accounts relating to Sahabahs in China, he (Jahsh) is noted as Geys. Muslims of Chams (Cambodiya) trace ancestry to a father-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, who is none other than Jahsh (Geys)- see T.W. Arnold, The Preaching of Islam,p.294 nt.8
  16.  “Authentic History of King Negash of Abyssinia (Currently Ethiopia)”tripod.com.

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