Abyssinia Before The Birth of Islam

Following the study of the close neighbours of Arabia, namely Iran and Egypt, our discussion turns to Abyssinia which has an important role in the history of Islam in comparison with other neighbours.

a) General Conditions

Geographically there has been only a minor variation between the Abyssinia of the past and the present; it included the Eritrean coast on the Red Sea as well as British Sumalia and French Sumalia which have now become independent, a well as a part of the Sudan.

Abyssinia of that time was an extensive realm with an old history, but its civilisation did not even equal the level of the other neighbours of Arabia, and was at par with Yemen. The rulers and people of Abyssinia belonged to a race south and west of the Red Sea, who were called the 'Habish' and 'Habash'.

In early Islam the word 'Habish' was applied to those who came to Mecca from this region, and from that word the word Abyssinia is derived, a word which is closer to its root than Ethiopia which is now used for that country in European languages and papers and other publications. It was applied to those who migrated from the shores of the Red Sea to this land, and settled there.

Abyssinia itself is an extensive land having various natural divisions. A considerable part of it is desert with little agriculture and parse population; the other part has high mountains and mountainous land with abundant water and trees, with gold, silver and copper mines and flourishing agriculture. About one thousand years B.C. Abyssinia had a central government.

I mention this point to show that all the neighbours of Arabia including Hira and Ghassan had a central government, while Hejaz, the birthplace of Islam, lacked an organised government and was socially well behind all the countries surrounding it.

Yet it made a sudden leap forward to establish a central government and its own special quality of democracy and freedom. What I would like to do is to see how did all this take place in such a short span of time, and what caused this quick change? And to what extent does it influence our life today?

In Abyssinia numerous races existed in a scattered way, with their local governments. At the same time Abyssinia had central monarchy which was strong and powerful enough to be obeyed by the neighbouring rulers, and here and there also existed autonomous governments. Yaqubi, in his book of history which was written in the third century Hijri has recorded that there were many independent governments existing, while the central government of the Najashies (Neguses) exercised some control over them, and received tributes from these small local governments.[59]

The present population of Abyssinia is about 21,000,000[60] according to the last (1960) statistics, of which 12.5 million are Muslims and the rest are either Christians or idolaters, but in the present situation the government is in the hands of the Christians.[61] This population consists of different branches to one of which belongs the Najashi group who ruled as emperors. They have emigrated from Yemen.

The lineage of the emperors of Abyssinia reached Prophet Solomon (a.s.) through his marriage with the Queen of Shiba. Thus this family regarded themselves as descendants of Prophet Solomon, the son of Prophet Dawood (David). In the constitution of 1932 of Abyssinia it is stated that kingship belongs permanently to this family, each branch of which possesses a different name.

However, it is not clear to what extent this claim is a fable or based on historical fact. My study of the Abyssinian history did not confirm the correctness of this claim, even a detailed source uses the phrase "It is said", showing that the writer is doubtful about its authenticity. I must narrate an hlistorical account which is quite interesting and also disturbing.

Until the fourth century A.D. Abyssinia was a land of idolatry and idolaters, having some local jungle beliefs, and the Jews, too, seem to have asserted some influence, though this matter is never publicly admitted or discussed in detail.

In those days a good deal of traffic existed between Yemen and Abyssinia and some kind of historical relations, showing that Judaism had been more or less recognised there, though the number of its followers had been rather small.[62] However, the common religion of the Abyssinians was idolatry In the fourth century, namely in 340 A.D. a Bishop of Syria - a Syrian was dispatched from the church of Alexandria to Abyssinia as a missionary.[63] This industrious bishop succeeded in converting a group to Christianity in the 4th century A.D., about 240 or 250 years before the birth of Islam.

Thus it would show that in Abyssinia did not have a precedence of more than two and a half centuries before the rise of Islam. Churches were built there, and thus Abyssinia became a Christian base. According to the description by one bishop of the church, Abyssinia is an island of Christianity in a sea of polytheism, since at that time no other religion existed there.

The influence of Christianity spread so far that the emperor himself embraced that faith, and Negus who was a contemporary of the prophet of Islam was a Christian. According to one European writer, with the rise of Islam the connection between Abyssinia and the Christian world was severed, and this separation continued for nine centuries so that the Christian world knew nothing of Abyssinia and of their being Christians.

b) Re-discovery of Abyssinia

When we say that the Christian world knew nothing about a place called Abyssinia, it is due to the fact that it is so recorded in a document that in 1520 A.D. John II,[64] Emperor of Portugal, heard that on the other side of the world there existed a country with Christian religion and a wealthy emperor. The Portuguese emperor was overcome with a desire to find out who this Christian emperor was on the other side of the world, without being aware of his geographical whereabouts. He ordered a number of adventurers and seafarers to proceed to discover that land for him.

Eventually two navigators departed for that country, and found it and sent a report to the emperor. In Abyssinia the ruler welcomed these envoys of Portugal and told them about his helplessness in confronting the Muslims there, and asked the king of Portugal to dispatch some troops to aid him against the Muslims.

Thus the first military negotiations took place between the two countries, and the emperor of Portugal sent a fleet in aid of the Abyssinians. This fleet reached Abyssinia and remained there for six years.

Another present from the Portuguese emperor was a religious mission that organised a base in Abyssinia and engaged in religious propagation. The head of this mission was a priest and a writer who wrote a long book about Abyssinia which, according to current European writers, is the most valuable source of information.[65] This mission returned, and once again after some years the Abyssinian emperor asked for further military assistance.

A large Portuguese fleet based in India was dispatched to help the Abyssinians. This fleet had 450 riflemen, a significant force at that time. It also had several old guns.

With their aid, the Abyssinians attacked their Muslim neighbours and vanquished them in battle then drove them back to the waste lands near the seashores. From this time on other European countries, too, began to regard Abyssinia with interest thus the way was opened for relations between England and Abyssinia, and then between Italy and Abyssinia.

An agreement was reached first that a port on the Red Sea coast should be given by Abyssinia to England to be used as a base like Aden in latter years, for dispatching naval forces to India.[66] By the beginning of the 19th century colonialism found its way into Abyssinia, and during 19th century several wars occurred between Abyssinia and England and sometimes with Portugal. Later, Italy, formally declared Abyssinia its own colony, and this condition lasted until recent times when Abyssinia found its independence.

The Abyssinian language has a Sabaean root which is mingled with local dialects. Today seventy languages are spoken in Abyssinia, and this number reaches 200 if local dialects are included. But the official state language which is the tongue of the family of the emperors, is Amharic.[67] c) Abyssinia Before the Birth of Islam,

About one century before the birth of Islam, Abyssinia played a significant role in the region of Arabia, more influencing than that of the other neighbours. Two centuries before Islam, namely at the end of the fourth century A.D., the king of Yemen embraced Judaism, and thereby Judaism became the state religion of that land.

Then a man named Dhunuvas in Yemen decided to put pressure upon everyone who did not follow the Jewish faith. Then reports reached him that in Najran, a city in neighbouring Hejaz Christianity was spreading. Dhunuvas launched a campaign against Najran, and started persecuting and killing people. He had trenches filled with fire and cast the Christians of Najran into those.

One of the Christians of Najran fled to the court of the Roman emperor, and said to him "You call yourself the emperor of Christians, see what are they doing to us Christians there." The Emperor answered that he was too far from that land, but "We have a coreligionist in the Emperor of Abyssinia to whom I will write to come to your assistance."

This incident has been recorded in Islamic as well as European sources in an identical manner. The Emperor of Abyssinia dispatched an army to Yemen under a commander named Eryat. among whose officers was a man called Abraha. The army entered Yemen and Dhunuvas was defeated, who in his flight jumped into the sea with his horse and met his end. In this way Yemen became a colony of Abyssinia, and Eryat. its governor. They tried to propagate Christianity in Yemen which led to an incident between Eryat. and Abraha which we will proceed to recount in the following.

d) The Story of Abraha

Abraha was a competent officer in Eryat's army who did not think much of his commander, and so he decided to wrest power from him, and with the aid of his subordinates rose against Eryat.

The Abyssinians got divided into two groups: one group supported Abraha, while the other favourcd Eryat, and got ready to fight. On the day of battle Abraha sent a message for Eryat, saying that it was futile for the Abyssinians to kill each other, and added: "As the dispute is between you and me, let the two of us have a man-to-man fight, and let the victor take the command of the army " Eryat w agreed and in the fight he was killed and Abraha took the reins of power in his hands.

Negus, emperor of Abyssinia, was enraged on hearing that the second in command has killed his appointed supreme commander, and swore that he would not rest until he had trampled upon the soil of Yemen and pulled off the hairs of Abraha.

The report reached Abraha that the Emperor was greatly annoyed with him. He filled a box with the soil of Yemen and ordered the hair of his head be shaved off and sent it to the Emperor along with a number of gifts and presents. He sent an accompanying message that he was sorry that the Emperor had become annoyed with him whereas he remained his loyal servant. He added that two of the Emperor's officers had a fight and one overcame the other and that the honour of the Emperor was in no way involved.

He appealed that in order to honour the Emperor's oath, he was sending both his hairs and Yemeni soil for. the Emperor to trample on. The emperor was so pleased at this cleverness that he confrrmed him in his appointment as commander in Yemen, and Abraha proceeded to impose Christianity upon the people.[68]

He decided to spread Christianity in Yemen and uproot Judaism and every other faith in the land. Abraha's close associates told him that all his efforts were just confined to Yemen whereas the people of the Arabian peninsula were devoted to another place, namely the Kaaba in Mecca, owing to its age old standing and high prestige and that he should take steps in that direction.

Incidentally Abraha had built a very fine church in the capital of Yemen and has adorned it with the most beautiful stones, including the stones remaining from the ancient palace of the Queen of Shiba. But when he noticed that his beautiful church had little attraction for the people against the simple stone structure in Mecca, he decided to do whatever possible to end the influence of the Ka'aba.

e) The Event of Aam-ul-Feel

Meanwhile a rumour spread among the people that Abraha had decided to demolish the Ka'aba. This caused a commotion among certain Arab people, and one Arab, hearing of Abraha's intention, went to Yemen, entered the church at night and polluted it with- his urine. This incident enraged Abraha and the Christians.

They told him that, that was how much the Arabs respected his Church! Abraha asked what was the reason for that? They replied because they were devoted to Ka'aba in their heart of hearts and the news that you intended to destroy the Ka'aba had reached them. Abraha said that if that was the way it was, when it was no more than a rumour, then he was decided to destroy Ka'aba. He mobilised his forces and proceeded towards Mecca, and on his way vanquished all the Arab tribes that offered any resistance. On approaching Mecca he sent a messenger to find out whoever was the chief of Mecca and to summon him.

He was informed that the chief of Mecca was an old man named Abdul-Mutallib. But before he could be contacted, Abraha's soldiers plundered all the sheep, cows and camels around Mecca including two hundred camels belonging to Abdul-Mutallib. After consulting his friends Abdul-Mut.allib decided to pay a visit to Abraha. The latter arranged a formal audience, sitting upon a throne and surrounded by his officers.

It is said that when Abdul-Mutallib entered, Abraha was so impressed by his dignity and bearing that he descended from his throne, sat down on a mattress and asked Abdul-Mutallib to sit beside him. This dignified carriage is what the historians call the radiance of prophethood in the bodies of the prophet's ancestors.

Abraha said to him: "I have no issue with the people of Mecca. I have only come to destroy the Ka'aba, and if you do not confront me, I will carry out this task and turn back, without shedding any blood." Abdul-Mutallib advised him against his intention, but he refused to change his mind. Abdul-Mutallib then asked him why had he been summoned there, Abraha said that he had come to see him, did he want anything of him. He had thought that Abdul-Mut.allib might come up with some bargaining to save Ka'aba. Abdul-Mutallib said that he had no request to make except to demand the return of his two hundred camels which had been seized.

Abraha expressed surprise at this trifling request, and said that he had expected him to intercede for the city and its people and Ka'aba. Abdul-Mutallib answered the reason why he did not intercede for the Ka'aba was that he realised that the people of Mecca had no power to resist Abraha's forces, and Ka'aba had its owner who is Allah and He would take care of His own house. Abraha was moved at these words, but he felt that he had come to carry out a mission.

So he ordered the return of Abdul-Mutallib's camels to him, and warned the people of Mecca to evacuate the city and take refuge in the neighbouring hills. The people evacuated the city at once to prevent the loss of life, and Abraha prepared to demolish the Ka'aba with the aid of his army and the elephants which he had brought with him.

This story has been narrated differently by Arab and European historians. The Greek and European version is that an epidemic of typhoid and smallpox at that time so annihilated Abraha's army that they could not carry out the attack. But the Islamic historian's version which is based on the Qur'an and what eye-witnesses had reported, is, according to the Arab captives in Abraha's army,

that a vast flock of small birds like swallows, carrying pebbles in their beaks darkened the sky and pelted them down upon the heads of Abraha's army causing deep puncture-like wounds killing many It is also said that at the same time for the first time in Arabia, the diseases of typhoid and smallpox appeared in Arabia affecting the whole army. Abraha himself suffered from smallpox, and remained alive only until he reached Yemen and died there. This is the theme mentioned in the holy Qur'an, Chapter 105 'Feel' (Elephant) as follows:

"Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with the possessors of the elephant? Did He not cause their war to end in confusion, and send down (to prey) upon them birds in flocks, casting stones of baked clay, so He rendered them like straw eaten up?"

There is a perfect harmony between what the Greek historian who is the original source of European version, and Islamic historians who have narrated this episode except that the Greek historian makes no mention of the birds. It needs no emphasis however, that the report of eye-witnesses would be far more reliable than the narration of a historian sitting hundreds of miles away from the scene of occurrence and above all the text of the holy Qur'an itself leaves no room for doubt.

Anyhow, Abraha and his Abyssinian army returned to Yemen, and this part of Arabia, namely Mecca and Medina, remained as before.[69] But despite the strained relations between the Abyssinian government and the people of Mecca and Medina, trade relations continued between them until the birth of Islam.

f) Migration to Abyssinia

In the fifth or sixth year of the Prophethood, pressure upon the Muslims of Mecca intensified. The Prophet said to the Muslims: "Now that the enemies of Islam have begun to torture you all. They are sparing me and my family on account of Abu-Talib's (Prophets' Uncle) support, I deem it advisable for you to migrate to Abyssinia." This emigration of early Muslims to Abyssinia is a very important event in the history of Islam, and although the prophet's migration to Medina was adopted as the commencement of the Islamic calendar, yet the Muslim emigration to Abyssinia had an extraordinary result.

The prophet remained in Mecca actively propagating Islam. He sent twelve Muslims to Abyssinia, not to seek assistance, since history makes no such mention. As he spoke to them: "I have hear.d that the Emperor of Abyssinia is a liberal man.

You should go there to find temporary refuge as defenceless Muslims and live in peace and above all preserve your faith". Thus the Prophet sent them there to relieve them from the pressure in the center of Islamic faith, namely Mecca, to live in the Christian land of Abyssinia. With just twelve refugees there was never a question of starting a movement with this step.

The next time when the pressure upon the Muslims increased, the Prophet ordered a larger emigration, and it is said that the time there were seventy men together with their wives and children. In the second emigration about two-thirds of the emigrants belonged to the Prophet family who went to Abyssinia. In view of the manner adopted by the Prophet to direct the Islamic movement, the second emigration may seem to have been an attempt to find a quarter other than Medina as a base for Islam.

The first emigration was a simple change of home, but the second emigration included persons such as the sister of Mu'awiah, daughter of Abu Sufyan (Umm-e-Habiba) who had embraced Islam and was a very devout Muslim, and was later to become a consort of the Prophet. Also Uthman bin Affan and Ja'far bin-Abi Talib went among the emigrants. So this emigration seemed to have been based on a plan, especially since the Prophet's trip to Ta'if proved of no avail for the founding of an Islamic center, and in Mecca, too, he was faced with failure, and he did not entertain much hope about Medina as such a center.

The spread of Islam in Medina is related to a hater time, subsequent to the Abyssinian emigration. The Prophet had also contacted a number of tribes for a place of refuge to propagate his faith, but no positive response was g given to him. Thus when those twelve of the first group of emigrants found Abyssinia a suitable place to live in and keep their faith there, a few of them returned to Mecca and described the favourable situation to the Prophet.

They encouraged him to order a larger emigration. The Prophet, appreciating the dangers in Hejaz and the probability of a closed door there, saw little hope for Islam, and considered the second emigration a necessary step. As we see this decision had far-reaching effects on the progress of Islam.

This migration of the Muslims so demoralised the enemies of Islam that they became anxious that the emigrants may not gather strength and return to cause serious trouble. They worried that, since the emigrants were like Abraha's horde but Meccans like themselves, they might overcome them.

Therefore they took immediate steps to check them. Thus the infidels of Mecca dispatched 'Amru, As with another bearing numerous presents for the Emperor of Abyssinia to request him to extradite the Muslim refugees by force. These envoys reached Abyssinia, presented themselves in the court of Negus, and levelled many charges against the Muslims. Ja'far bin Abi-Talib acquitted himself magnificently during this audience and successfully countered their charges, and the envoys returned to Mecca disappointed.

The Muslims remained there for a number of years in peace and security. The prophet did not allow them to return until some years after his own migration to Medina and setting down there. These events reveal what a significant roll was played by this neibour, otherwise weaker of the great neighbours of Arabia, in the history of Islam.

g) Questions and Answers

concerning the outbreak of epidemic of smallpox as narrated in the episode of Abraha, has any mention been made about the Arab inhabitants of Mecca and its suburbs?


This statement of Arab historians about the first appearance of smallpox in Mecca seemed somewhat dubious to me, too. But at that time, no Meccan died of small pox. And there is sufficient historical evidence to show that signs of typhoid and smallpox occurred only in the dead of the Abyssinian invaders. Even the Greek historians have made no mention of an epidemic in Mecca itself even though it is affirmed that in that hot weather the invaders came so close to Mecca that they stole the camels of Abdul-Mutallib from the pastures of Mecca.


Were that group of refugees who had emigrated from Mecca to Abyssinia, able to establish a center there?


No. The migration to Abyssinia is an interesting event which took place in peculiar conditions. When the prophet dispatched individuals to Medina, he would tell them to propagate Islam, but in the case of Abyssinia, there is no evidence of propagation. It seems that the purpose of this migration had been solely to seek a refuge so that if Islam lost all its strongholds in Hejaz, at least one shelter would remain. But the manner of using that refuge was a matter that would be seen to later on. Basically, they had been expected to go and live there and continue to practice their faith and that was all.


During those years of the Muslims' stay in Abyssinia did they convert anyone to Islam? Is there any mention of this in history?


The possibility is there, that some might have become Muslims but I do not recall it. However, this is quite different from having a religious mission. The absence of religious mission is interesting in view of the fact that the Prophet calculated everything as a leader, and here I am opposed to the idea that all the progress made by Islam was due only to a divine design of the prophet.

Of course there is not the slightest doubt according to explicit verses of the holy Qur'an that the Prophet and Muslims enjoyed divine support, as without any doubt he was the Prophet of God. But a great deal of the progress was due to his wisdom and prudence, an asset that even now the Muslims can utilise.

The concept of migration to Abyssinia had been a very beneficial measure, since in view of the danger which existed for the Muslims and even for the Prophet and his household, despite Abu-Talib's protection, the Prophet wished to do something to enable his group of helpless Muslims to gain some social security and to have a place as a refuge. In this respect the prophet 's action was very wise and effective indeed.


As the Ka'aba at that time was the home of idols and totally defiled by their presence, would it not have been better to let Abraha destroy that house? What reason existed that that bastion of polytheism be preserved?


Yes, but who should have destroyed it? Should it have been destroyed by Abraha? Or should it have remained till a man come and revive its original sanctity cleansing it of desecration. This is a matter of historical importance. The house could be rebuilt, but what would be the implication of Abraha' s victory over Mecca?

It would have meant the victory of impurity over purity, a mixing with impurity. It is true that he was a Christian, but his faith was polytheistic Christianity, a Christianity which Islam was to combat to cleanse it of polytheism. What would be the good of letting one form of polytheism replace another form of polytheism?

It may be said that had Abraha demolished that place, one base of idolatry would have been eliminated but what would have been its consequences in the minds of the people of that time? What we are talking about is ideas and beliefs; otherwise a house itself could not be guilty of an offence to justify it destruction. The general effect would have been that evil had been replaced with evil. But as it happened, after this event the house of Ka'aba suffered ruin in an accident, and it was in the time of the Prophet himself that it was rebuilt.

The demolishing of the Ka'aba was not important. What was of consequence was by whose hands and to what purpose. The way adopted by Abdul-Mutallib in dealing with Abraha is significant, as he said: "Since we have not the power to protect the Ka'aba, we will evacuate Mecca." Thus he set aside the question of idols, and said that the house belonged to the One God.

In a branch of the Arabs, monotheism was still in vogue and the family of Hashem followed this belief and Abdul-Mutallib and some others were indifferent to the idols. Muslims and even Sunni historians narrate that when the people had evacuated Mecca, Abdul-Mutallib and a few others stood beside the Ka'aba, he raised his hands in prayer, saying: "O God: Here is your House and there be Your enemies. If we had the force, we would have protected it, but You are aware of their numbers and of ours.

We leave the House to you, and beg You to defend it in such a way that no falsehood would ever vanquish the truth in people's minds." Historians have also narrated poetry recited by Abdul-Mutallib.[70] However it is not my concern whether this is true or not, what is significant is that in the intellectual milieu of those days what mattered was what stood against what? Abraha, the overly ambitious, wanted to spread Christianity by force in Yemen.

It is true, the Ka'aba suffered a ruin some years later as a result of a natural disaster. But its forcible destruction at the hands of Abraha would be a different matter. If it were to be destroyed as a bastion of idolatry by someone who was against idolatry, it would make it logical. But there would have been no logic in a destruction at the hands of a despot who for the sake of protecting his church wished to raze it to ground.


Why was the Ka'aba built originally in Mecca?


No special reason can be given for it, since it could have been built any where in the world for a given reason. But according to our traditions, and even in the Nahjul Balagha[71] it is stated that this House was built in a land which would offer no pleasure and amusement for anyone to visit it, but only for the sake of spiritual beliefs.

It was built in a land that was poor and waterless and lacked all recreational attractions so that it would draw people of the faith as the foremost factor. Even now a pilgrimage to this land as compared to other recreational and tourist places is quite different from the viewpoint of expense and endurance of hardships.