Fourteen hundred years ago, two groups of Arabs stood before the Ethiopian Christian king, Negus. Both groups had urgent requests. Although both groups spoke the same language, came from the same city and maybe brothers even, they couldn’t have been more different.
The first group that came to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) was that of mostly young men who believed in a new prophet who proclaimed that he had been sent from one true God, Allah. They called themselves Muslims. Their request: They wanted the king to use his famous justice to allow them to remain in Ethiopia and protect them against the other group. However, the other wanted the exact opposite: they were the (polytheist) chiefs of Mecca who importuned the good king to allow them return home with these deviants – who had blasphemed their gods – so that they could reform them.
However, they conveniently left out the fact that their method of reformation consisted, chiefly, of torture: including spearing a pregnant woman in the stomach.
King Negus patiently listened to both parties but he wanted more. So he asked the Muslim group to explain their religion and to confirm if what their prophet taught was heresy.
So the Muslim told the king that their prophet did not come with anything new, that his message was only a confirmation of what came before from other prophets, like Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them). Ja’afar, the leader of the Muslims said:
“O King, we and our ancestors turned away in ignorance from the faith of the Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him), who with Ishmael (peace be upon him), built the Kabah and worshipped only Allah.
“We did quite unspeakable things, worshipping idols, treating our neighbours unfairly, oppressing the weak and so on. This was our life until Allah sent a Messenger from among us, one of our own relatives, known always to have been honest, innocent and faithful.
“He asked us to worship only Allah, to give up the bad customs of our forefathers, to be truthful and trustworthy, to respect and help our neighbours, to honour our families and look after orphans, and to put an end to misdeeds and fighting.
“He ordered us to slander neither men nor women. He bade us worship none other than Allah, to pray, to give alms and to fast. We believe in him and follow his lead.
“The Makkans began to come between us and our religion, so we left our homes and came to you, hoping to find justice.”
Upon hearing this, King Negus said;
“Tell me some of the revelations which your Prophet claims to have received from God.”
Ja’far then recited chapter 19 which is called the chapter of Maryam (Mary) in the Qur’an in which Mary, the pure and devoted mother of Jesus (peace be upon him), had to face angry and disbelieving family members. She pointed to the Baby Jesus, but they said they could speak to a mere baby. Then Jesus, himself astonished them by uttering words of great wisdom.
Overwhelmed at this, the King exclaimed: “The messages of Jesus and Muhammad come from the same source!” And drawing a line with his cane on the floor, he said joyfully,“between your religion and ours there is really no more difference than this line.” King Negus gave the Muslims permission to live peacefully in his kingdom.
Some months before, Muhammad had told his followers about the Christian king and Ethiopia “a king rules without injustice, a land of truthfulness.”
Tolerance does not fully cover the conduct of the king and the reception he gave the Muslims. One, when the Muslims came, they refused to bow to the king saying “we bow only to Allah” this quite nettled the king’s advisers but the just ruler didn’t mind. Two, the Meccan polytheists came with many gifts to bribe the king with, so that he could give them the Muslims but he repelled them saying they were not used to taking bribes. Third, the Muslims’ stay in Ethiopia was quite prolonged; at point, they heard a rumour that the persecution they suffered in Mecca had abated, they rushed home only to discover that the news was false, some of them returned back to Ethiopia and the king let them into his realm.
The Muslims up until today are grateful for the kindness of the Christian king. A wicked ruler might have taken advantage of the inchoate state of Islam at the time to grant the request of the polytheists so that Christianity wouldn’t have a competition or nib in the bud the rise of a future ruler, but he didn’t. He allowed Islam to blossom and repelled those who persecuted its adherents.
Muhammad never forgot this favour and was forever beholden to Christianity. Because of this gratitude, this migration to Ethiopia is history 101 in Islam. Every Muslim is supposed to know it but we, especially those in Nigeria tend to forget. And it may come as a shock to Nigerian Christians to know that a powerful Christian king once aided, however indirectly, the growth of Islam when he could have easily done the opposite.
But what may shock both Muslims and Christians is the content of the letter that Muhammad (peace be upon him) wrote the Christians.
In 628 C.E. – when Islam was already quite powerful – Prophet Muhammad (s) granted a Charter of Privileges to the monks of St. Catherine Monastery in Mt. Sinai.
Following is a translation of the clauses in that document:
“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.
“Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.
“No compulsion is to be on them.
Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.
No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses.
“Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.
No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight.
“The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.
“Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.
“No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world)”.
Let me repeat the last clause for the sake of emphasis: “No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day”
I urge every Muslim to honestly ask himself “have I knowingly or unknowingly disobeyed this covenant?” And the Christian should ask himself “Am I as large-minded toward the Muslims as the great Christian King Negus?”
Two years later, in 630 CE Muhammad received a Christian delegation from Najran in Medina. Muhammad lodged them in the mosque (yes, in the mosque!). Debate with Christians ensued for some days. Finally, all the kinks were straightened and Muhammad extended the hand of friendship towards them, subsequently, a treaty was signed and both parties left on friendly terms.
Finally, just before Muhammad’s death, another Christian delegation from Iraq by Jesujab II headed towards Medina but Muhammad died before it arrived.
In the sequel to this article, I’ll discuss how the early Muslims after Muhammad were extra careful not to break the covenant with the Christians. Until then, peace.
By: Ibraheem Dooba
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The article was originally published at http://www.TheMiddle-path.info