By AbdulWahid Hamid
Jafar ibn Abi Talib was a cousin of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and brother of Ali, the fourth caliph of Islam. He was among the first people to convert to Islam and experienced firsthand the persecution that the pagan Meccans doled out to the tiny community of Muslims.
Hence, when the opportunity arose to migrate to Abyssinia, present-day Ethiopia, he accompanied his wife and a small band of believers. Soon they settled down in the new land under the care and protection of the Negus, the just and righteous ruler of Abyssinia. For the first time since they became Muslims, they savored the taste of freedom and security and enjoyed the sweetness of worship undisturbed.
Meccans Seek Extradition of Muslims
When their fellow Meccans learned of the departure of these Muslims, they made plans to secure their return. They sent two of their most formidable men, Amr ibn al-Aas and Abdullah ibn Abi Rabiah, to accomplish this task and provided them with valuable gifts for the Negus and his bishops. In Abyssinia, the two Meccan emissaries first presented their gifts to the bishops and asked for their support when they approach the King.
Amr and Abdullah then went to the Negus himself and presented him with gifts which he greatly admired. They said to him, “O King, there is a group of evil persons from among our youth who have escaped to your kingdom. They practice a religion which neither we nor you know. They have forsaken our religion and have not entered into your religion. The respected leaders of their people – from among their own parents and uncles and from their own clans – have sent us to you to request you to return them. They know best what trouble they have caused.” The Negus looked towards his bishops who said, “They speak the truth, O King. Their own people know them better and are better acquainted with what they have done. Send them back so that they themselves might judge them.”
The Interfaith Dialogue with the Negus
The Negus was not pleased with this suggestion and said, “No. By God, I won’t surrender them to anyone until I myself call them and question them about what they have been accused. If what these two men have said is true, then I will hand them over to you. If however it is not so, then I shall protect them so long as they desire to remain under my protection.” The Negus then summoned the Muslims to meet him. Before going, they consulted with one another as a group and agreed that Jafar ibn Abi Talib will speak on their behalf.
In the court, the Negus turned to them and asked, “What is this religion which you have taken for yourselves and which has served to cut you off from the religion of your people? You also did not enter my religion or the religion of any other community.”
Jafar ibn Abi Talib then advanced and made a speech that was moving and eloquent and which is still one of the most compelling descriptions of Islam, the appeal of the noble Prophet, and the depravity of Meccan society at the time. He said, “O King, we were a people in a state of ignorance and immorality, worshipping idols and eating the flesh of dead animals, committing all sorts of abomination and shameful deeds, breaking the ties of kinship, treating guests badly, and the strong among us exploited the weak. We remained in this state until God sent us a Prophet, one of our own people whose lineage, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and integrity were well-known to us. He called us to worship God alone and to renounce the stones and the idols which we and our ancestors used to worship besides God.”
Jafar continued, “He commanded us to speak the truth, to honor our promises, to be kind to our relations, to be helpful to our neighbors; to cease all forbidden acts, to abstain from bloodshed, to avoid obscenities and false witness; to not appropriate an orphan’s property nor slander chaste women. He ordered us to worship God alone and not to associate anything with Him, to uphold prayer, to give charity and to fast in the month of Ramadan. We believed in him and what he brought to us from God and we follow him in what he has asked us to do and we keep away from what he forbade us from doing. Thereupon, O King, our people attacked us, visited the severest punishment on us to make us renounce our religion and take us back to the old immorality and the worship of idols. They oppressed us, made life intolerable for us and obstructed us from observing our religion. So we left for your country, choosing you before anyone else, desiring your protection and hoping to live in Justice and peace in your midst.”
(Click here to find out more about Prophet Muhammad.)
The Negus was impressed and was eager to hear more. He asked Jafar, “Do you have with you something of what your Prophet brought concerning God?” Jafar replied that he did. “Then read it to me,” requested the Negus. In his rich, melodious voice, Jafar recited the first portion of the Quranic chapter titled Mary, which deals with the story of Jesus and his mother Mary. On hearing the words of the Quran, the Negus was moved to tears. To the Muslims, he said, “The message of your Prophet and that of Jesus came from the same source…” To Amr and his companion, he said, “Go. For, by God, I will never surrender them to you.” (Read more: Mary, the Mother of Jesus)
The Meccans Incite Animosity
That, however, was not the end of the matter. The wily Amr made up his mind to go to the King the following day “to mention something about the Muslims’ belief which will certainly fill his heart with anger and make him detest them.” The next day, Amr went to the Negus and said, “O King, these people to whom you have given refuge and whom you protect say something terrible about Jesus the son of Mary. Send for them and ask them what they say about him.” The Negus summoned the Muslims and Jafar acted as their spokesman once more.
The Negus asked, “What do you say about Jesus, the son of Mary?” Jafar replied, “Regarding him, we only say what has been revealed to our Prophet.” “And what is that?” enquired the Negus. “Our Prophet says that Jesus is the servant of God and His Prophet, His spirit and His word which He cast into Mary the Virgin.” The Negus exclaimed, “By God, Jesus the son of Mary was exactly as your Prophet has described him.”
(Learn more: Jesus in Islam)
The Negus told the Muslims to continue to live in security and instructed his attendants to return the gifts the Meccans had brought, who then departed, having failed in their mission.
The Muslims stayed on in the land of the Negus who proved to be most generous and kind to his guests. Jafar and his wife Asma spent about ten years in Abyssinia before migrating to Medina with their three children, where Prophet Muhammad and his community of Muslims had found a safe haven.
Jafar ibn Abi Talib will always be remembered for the eloquent and moving description of Islam he presented to the emperor of Abyssinia. He expressed the strongest of faith and a clarity of understanding that persuaded the emperor of the Muslims’ sincerity and depth of religious devotion. That passion and conviction stand as a beautiful model for Muslims for all time.
Excerpted and edited from “Companions of the Prophet” by AbdulWahid Hamid.