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From Saviours To Refugees

Almost 1,500 years ago, a small group of people found themselves persecuted for their beliefs and driven out of their homes. When the threat to their lives became too great, they fled to a safe haven across the sea where they were welcomed, granted asylum, and protected from harm.

A tiny community in trouble

The persecuted people were the early Muslims who first formed a community in 7th century Arabia. Although there were only a handful of them, their belief in equality and justice for all people was seen as a threat to the traditional tribal powers around them. Despite their calls for peace, anyone who declared themselves to be a Muslim suffered terrible abuse at the hands of tribal chiefs, slave-owners, and other powerful men. Among those who chose to migrate were Ruqayyah the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam), Ja’far the Prophet’s cousin, and several other very close Companions from the early Muslim community.

The welcome of kind strangers

These Muslims fled the ancient city of Makkah in what is now Saudi Arabia. It was a dangerous and frightening escape that saw these people constantly hiding from people who were chasing them down and trying to capture them. After a perilous journey across Arabia, they boarded a ship (either at a port that is now in modern-day Saudi Arabia or Yemen) to make the crossing to Africa. They arrived in the Kingdom of Abyssinia, a vast and prosperous empire ruled by a kind and just king.

Abyssinia, as it was known then, incorporated various parts of East Africa, including areas of modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan. The people of Abyssinia were known to be extremely prosperous, advanced, and welcoming. Their kingdom spanned a vast area, and their protection was extremely valuable to the persecuted communities.

King Negus (Al-Najāshi) of Abyssinia not only pledged to protect the Arabian refugees, he also listened keenly to their accounts and responded with great kindness. His words of reassurance were put into action when he resisted all attempts to repatriate them to Makkah. Instead, he declared that these refugees could live in Abyssinia for as long as they wished, and that they would never be sent back if they did not want to go.

Within a short time, news of the king’s kindness spread. Another bigger group of migrants made the journey from Makkah and were welcomed to Abyssinia in the same way.

The migrations of these groups of early Muslims became known as the first and second Hijra, and they hold a very special place in Islamic history to this day. The mixing of the migrant community with the people of Abyssinia led to many adopting Islam as their faith, including King Negus himself. He came to be known as Al-Najāshi, and he holds a position of high esteem in Islamic tradition.

Where is Abyssinia now?

The world has changed significantly since these historical events. The kingdom of Abyssinia no longer exists, and the empire it governed has long been fragmented and changed forever. Even the migrants’ crossing point, which according to some reports is in modern-day Yemen, is now engulfed in war.

Some things, however, do remain: the incredible legacy of kindness to the stranger that is remembered to this day, and of course the descendants of those great people who still live in those lands.

Sadly, the current plight of the descendants of those early saviours could not be further from their prosperity in the past. In the present day, their lives have been affected by numerous difficulties such as conflict, famine, drought, natural disasters, and severe poverty. Many of the descendants of the great Abyssinian civilisation have been living for generations as refugees themselves, in East Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia without hope of respite or aid. The world has not heard about their illustrious history, nor about their present situation.

Who will help them now?

Ethar Relief cares about refugees. Ethar Relief was established more than a decade ago by former refugees who are all descendants of the people of Abyssinia. We know what it’s like to feel suffering and persecution. Many of our Ethar Family, who now work with us, have fled conflict and feared for their lives. We never want anyone to suffer from this ever again.

The history of this region is tied closely with Islamic history and heritage. Consequently, there is a huge portion of Islamic history that contributes to Black history and warrants celebration and further study. Part of the work at Ethar Relief in raising awareness of important issues includes the efforts to help our staff, supporters, and beneficiaries understand the importance of their history and cultural heritage, and cherish it for many generations to come.

We commit, with every ounce of our determination and effort, to do whatever is in our power to help refugees in East Africa and Yemen.

Please help these forgotten people to stand up strong and live dignified and stable lives.

Become a sponsor of an orphan refugee through Ethar Relief’s Orphan Sponsorship programme. To find out more, click here or call +44 121 309 0230 to discuss what your sponsorship pays for.

History Fact File

Year 613-615 AD
Distance to safety Around 800km, possibly 1000km depending on the exact route
Number of people Approximately 15 in the first migration, and up to 90 in the second.
Key characters Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam), who stayed in Makkah.

King Ashama, Negus of Aksum, known by the Arabs as Al-Najāshi.

Ruqayyah, the Prophet’s daughter.

Ja’far, the Prophet’s cousin.

Uthmān, husband of Ruqayyah and later a Caliph of Islam.

Other info The Abyssinian Empire at the time was known as the Kingdom of Aksum.

The Tribe of Quraish were the main group torturing and persecuting the early Muslim community. A few years later, they accepted the faith and adopted it themselves.

Sources and suggested further reading:

  1. Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity, Stuart Munro-Hay (1991)
  2. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, Martin Lings (1983)
  3. The Sealed Nectar: Biography of the Noble Prophet, Safī al-Raḥmān Mubārakfūrī (2002)


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