Islam & immigration are no strangers to one another
I live in the UK. I am an immigrant. My father also was an immigrant and my mother’s parents were immigrants as well. Immigration is very much part of my personal story. I would like to share with you how we find migration and immigration at the very roots of Islam.
As you would know, Muhammad, peace be upon Him, God’s messenger, began His preaching in Makkah, which is Saudi Arabia. His community and his society were idol worshippers. The idea of worshiping just one God seemed very strange and totally unacceptable to his people. As a result, they felt that this person should not be allowed to live with them; otherwise he will begin to move people from the worship of idols to the worship of the one true God. However, with every passing day, Muhammad was able to convince a growing number of people that there is only one being that is worthy of worship and that is God and all these idols are man made objects that cannot be God. As a result of a growing number of his community the Makkan people decided that enough was enough and Muhammad had to be stopped from what he was preaching. So they tried to limit and stop his activities. They carried out a social boycott of Muhammad and his family and followers; intimidation, discrimination and even physical attacks on his community.
When the pressure became unbearable, Muhammad decided that he would send a selected core group of Muslims to a distant country where they would become immigrants and (in modern term) asylum seekers. He was aware of a Christian country, Abyssinia, modern day Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. There was a very kind and just Christian king, who was always helpful to the persecuted people, people who needed refuge and safety. In that knowledge, the first group of Muslims left Arabia and migrated to Abyssinia. This was one of the turning points in the history of Islam when a small number of Muslims was now safe from persecution and from certain death. However, not everyone was able to go. Once this delegation arrived to Abyssinia, they were warmly received, welcomed and were given a home.
I find a wonderful connection here in the story of migration of the first Muslim immigrants and that of Christians in a Christian country of being hosts to these immigrants. And that clearly demonstrates to me that every single religion believes and teaches the offering of refuge and safety to the oppressed and the troubled people. I can say with every confidence that every single religion in this world believes that people who are oppressed must be cared for, must be supported.
This Christian king demonstrated the beautiful teachings of Jesus, peace be upon him, of caring for the homeless, caring for the poor and the oppressed and loving your neighbours.
Subsequently, those who were left behind began to suffer more, until the time came when Muhammad himself, peace be upon him, had to flee from Makkah. He became an immigrant, a refugee; left Makkah and went to Madinah. This is what we the Hijrah. It is a very significant event in the history of Islam. So significant that we mark our year and our calendar from this event! Not from the birth of Muhammad, as Christians do with Jesus, but from this migration from Makkah to Madinah. It was the turning point in the history of Islam, because from that day onwards Islam simply grew in strength.
Over a very short period of time (within 10 years) Muhammad was able to return to Makkah and liberate it. But His story about becoming an immigrant and reaching what was then known as Yathrib, today known as Madinah, was an incredible experience. In Yathrib He was welcomed with open arms by the people who were living there. They were willing to be hospitable and give him refuge and sanctity. In fact, there is a beautiful song that the little children sang to welcome him into Madinah. When they saw him come over the horizon, the children ran out and sang this beautiful song.
Islam and immigration are no strangers to one another. It goes to the very heart of Muslim presence in the world today. Not only that. Even as early as the last century, before the industrialisation of the world, desert lifestyles revolved around migrating and immigration. At least seasonal immigration was very much a part of their lives. The Quran describes the travelling of the Arab tribes, looking for pasture for their herds, referring it to the journeys of the summer and of the winter. They were moving from one part of the Arabian peninsula to another looking for greener pastures for their flock. But then things changed dramatically. After the industrial revolution it was no longer about migrating patterns being on the back of agriculture or rearing of cattle. It became more to do with economic and financial well- being, with the more developed countries of the world began to attract people from less developed parts of the world. Indeed, the history of colonisation of many parts of the world by European powers created a relationship between Europe and the poorer part of the world, which did not cease even after those countries gained independence, because then there was a flow of populations from those colonised countries into the colonising countries themselves.
My personal history of being an immigrant comes from that background where Britain had colonised Eastern and Central Africa where I was born. And so it happened that I then decided to move to the UK and settle in the UK.
There have also been immigration and migration because of religious reasons, where a particular religious community was not allowed to practise its religion and so they had to leave and move elsewhere. Perhaps a glimpse of that we saw in Makkah with Muhammad and the early Muslims. We also saw a huge movement of Jewish populations from parts of Europe where they were not welcomed, moving into Muslim populated countries where they become one society and community, strengthening each other, making advancements both in terms of industry, education, culture and other aspects of life, including religious.
Where there is the true spirit of religious teaching, which is practised and implemented, societies flourish. Immigrants there also flourish along with the hosts – sometimes as well as the hosts. But when religion and the teachings of religion are not implemented and the spirit of those teachings is ignored, then we find that immigrants can have a very tough time. This is one of the sad eras within Christendom where Christian communities in some parts of Europe failed to be hospitable, particularly to Jewish communities. But all our religions have got these “dark spots”.
From time to time religious people have failed to practise the teachings of their religions and because of that have created boundaries, especially for outsiders, newcomers, people who are different. Either different in religion, or culture, or skin colour. When we are unable to respect people of different religions, we create barriers and boundaries. When we are prejudiced, we want to deny others what we want for ourselves because of the different colour or religion. There is a deep rooted hatred for anything and anyone who is different. When religious people fail to embrace the teachings of religion that all humans are equal, then we find racism taking root.
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