I WAS touched by my Imam Ilyas Anwar’s sermon (sermon) Awal Muharram 1444 on Friday August 5th. Awal means first in Arabic, and Muharram, the first of the twelve months of the Muslim year.
The Prophet Muhammad’s hijrah (migration) to Medina from Mecca was such a pivotal event that the second Caliph (Umar) retrospectively (17 years later) made it the beginning of the Muslim calendar. To be precise, this hijrah was not 1444 years ago, but 1400, because the Muslim moon-based year is shorter than the Gregorian year by 11 days. Also, the hijrah was performed on the 10th day of the third Muslim month (Rabi al Awal), not during Muharram.
Hijrah, the imam reminded us, means to migrate, to leave something and start again. The Prophet undertook it because he was being hunted by his fellow Meccans who intended to kill him, and with that, his divine mission. Islam’s message of justice posed an existential threat to them.
The imam reminded us that the hijrah could be physical or spiritual. As for the physical aspect, Muslims do not have the equivalent Abrahamic burden of being in a permanent state of exile (diaspora), dispersed in foreign territories and returning to the promised land after a messianic intervention. For Muslims, each new country is a promised land, an opportunity for a fresh start.
When the Prophet undertook his hijrah, it was more to preserve and transmit the divine revelations he had received, less for his personal safety. Although the hijrah was the commandment of God, the prophet nevertheless took all the necessary precautions. It was far from an impulsive decision usually associated with ‘escaping’. He was not just dependent on God’s protection.
For example, the Prophet had arranged for a guide, carefully mapped out his route, and paid in advance for the animals that would transport him and his companions. He enlisted the help of non-Muslim shepherds to cover his tracks in the sand.
This last point should disabuse the unfounded distaste of Umno and PAS chauvinists at working with non-Muslims for the good of Malaysia.
For the Prophet, careful planning did not conflict with and was indeed part of tawakkul (what God has granted us). This point, the imam reminded us, is often forgotten by Muslims from time to time. To be a pedestrian, despite predestination, one must always look both ways before crossing a street. It is a necessary and indispensable reminder as well as an antidote to the ingrained fatalism (“Leave it to God!”) among Muslims, and not just among ordinary uneducated villagers.
Leaving Mecca, the Prophet moved from a homogeneous society of his Bedouin tribe to a plural and diverse society in Medina, with its established Christian, Jewish, pagan and polytheistic communities. There he used the touchstone of Islamic justice to rule, not whims, revenge, hatred, or the desire to dominate. He demonstrated as much as he preached this new faith, following the Koranic injunction (Surat Al-Kafirun 109:6): “Your religion, mine mine”.
This simple, pragmatic and peaceful creed is missed today by many, and not only by fanatics.
In Medina, the Prophet emphasized civic engagement and good community relations. One of the first things he did was create markets. As a trader, he knew that trading was the best way to create and increase social connections and interactions. It’s always like that.
As such, I find the current Malay obsession with “buying a Muslim first” an aberration and counterproductive, from a business standpoint as well as a faith standpoint. As a supplier, you would want the widest possible customer base; as a consumer, the best product and price. With the greater profit from the former and the money saved with the latter, you would have much more for zakat.
The Prophet lived the message of Surah Al-Ma’idah (5:8), roughly translated: “Witness justice and do not let hatred for a people lead you to be unjust.” Be fair, for that is closer to reverence and to God.
This inspiration of the hijrah was demonstrated to me by a young refugee from Ethiopia. She recounted her perilous journey of escape from the land of her birth. What led her to cross the arid desert and the stormy Mediterranean was remembering the hijrah of the prophet. As she was harassed by those who were not her own, it reminded her of the more understandable but no less painful situation of the prophet driven out by the members of his own tribe. The pain must have been all the more heartbreaking.
In Surah Al Nisaa (4:97), the angels rebuked those who had wronged themselves using the convenient excuse that they could not escape their fate. “Wasn’t God’s land big enough for you to migrate? This should be the scathing rebuke to those who would use the ready-made reasoning of “They always do it that way here!” to justify their misbehavior.
This is what this Ethiopian student did while migrating. As for those jingoistic Malay nationalists with their endless exhortations of “hujan emas di negeri orang, hujan batu di negri sendiri (there may be golden showers abroad but hailstorms in your homeland)” for To discourage ourselves from our own hijrah, heed the wisdom of Rumi: “Mohammed said, ‘Love of one’s country is part of faith.’ But don’t take it literally! Your real “country” is where you are heading, not where you are. Do not misunderstand this hadith.
Rumi too had done his share of hijrah. By not going where the golden showers are, you deprive yourself of God’s bounty. Worse, you put him down. In this regard, my Minangkabau tradition of merantau (wandering) should be celebrated and emulated.
The Imam’s Awal Muharram sermon was refreshing for yet another reason. As I watch similar sermons elsewhere, I was struck by two sad observations. While my imam urged us to be inspired by the hijrah, most Sunni imams emphasized the ritual aspects of Muharram like the 10th day fast. Meanwhile, Shias were engrossed in reliving the senseless tragedy of Karbala when the Prophet’s grandson was slaughtered and his body desecrated. These ulema have missed or skipped the essence and key lessons of hijrah.
As we enter the Muslim New Year of 1444, let us re-internalize, according to my Imam, the noble values and aspirations of that initial hijrah. Consider our beloved Prophet Muhammad (may God be pleased with him.):
المهاجر من هجر الخطايا و الذنوب المهاجر من هجر ما نهى
We don’t have to physically migrate, but to abandon everything that God has forbidden. – August 15, 2022.
* Mr. Bakri Musa reads The Malaysian Insight.
* This is the opinion of the author or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. The article may be edited for brevity and clarity.