The Qur’anic Perspective on Immigrants: Prophet Muhammad’s Migration and Its Implications in Our Modern Society

Zeki Saritoprak
John Carroll University

This paper presents the Islamic contribution to the concept of migration through the early practices of the Prophet and Muslims as well as primary Islamic sources. The term for migration in Islam is hijra. The active participle of the word is muhajir. The Islamic tradition contains two related terms as well. They are: ghurba and gharib. Both terms have a connotation of being strange in a certain place. The difference between hijra and ghurba is that hijra involves permanent relocation while ghurba can be either permanent or temporary. There is a very famous Arabic statement in this regard, “The stranger is blind even if he has eyes,” which indicates the vulnerability of the stranger and suggests that the stranger needs help and guidance.

The Qur’an speaks of the migration experiences of many prophets prior to Islam, such as Adam, Abraham, Lot, Jonah, Jacob, and Moses. Since Adam, the father of humanity, migrated from heaven to earth, the tradition of Islam considers all human beings as immigrants. Therefore, the primordial fatherland of humanity is heaven, while the earth is a place for temporary relocation. This view seems to be dominant in the sayings of the Prophet as well. He likens himself to a traveler who stays for a short time to rest under the shade of a tree and then continues on his journey. [1]

Migration can take place for many reasons: economic, religious, or simply for relocation. Islam has witnessed various waves of migration. The Qur’an speaks of oppressed and weak people on earth and suggests that they could migrate from their oppressed positions to another land of God. The verse says, “Was not the earth of God spacious enough for you to flee for refuge?” (4:97). The verse indirectly suggests that those who have authority should take care of refugees, since it speaks of God as the owner of the land. Therefore, the worldly owners and authorities should feel closeness and openness to those who are destitute and oppressed and therefore open the doors of their borders for them. The verse continues, “as for the helpless men, women and children who have neither the strength nor the means to escape, God may pardon them. Surely God pardons and forgives. Those who migrate for the sake of God shall find many places for refuge in the land in great abundance” (4:99-100). Therefore, according to Islamic teaching, every part of the earth is God’s land. Although today we have put up borders in order to divide nations and stop the flow of emigration and immigration from one land to another, in the teaching of Islam all lands belong to God and all people are servants of God. A similar statement which indicates that the entire land belongs to God is found in one of the sayings of the Prophet: “God has made the entire face of the earth as a Mosque for me and its soil as pure.” [2]

Today, we have Muslim immigrants in many parts of the world, in the United States of America as well as Europe. Most of these migrations are for economic reasons, and few of them are for religious freedom. Similarly, there are many Islamic countries that receive immigrants from different parts of the world. The most interesting and well-known journeys of migration in the history of Islam are the three famous occurrences that happened in early Islam. These early migrations were religiously oriented. In other words, Muslims migrated for religious reasons. In the city of Mecca, Prophet Muhammad and his followers were persecuted by his opponents for their new religion. In order to have a safe place, they needed to migrate. Two of their three migrations were small-scale migrations. One of them was the Prophet’s migration to the city of Taif, seeking refuge from the hostile reaction and persecution of Meccan idol worshipers. In fact, this might not even be called a full migration, since the Prophet wanted to convince the people of the city to accept him and his followers for their full-scale migration. Instead of giving him help, the people of this city encouraged their children and slaves to attack the Prophet and his companions and even to stone them. His foot was wounded and bled. This event became one of the worst events in the life of the Prophet. According to the tradition, the Prophet did not ask God to punish them for their bad behavior against him in the hope that there might be some good generations to come out of the offspring of this people.

The second migration came when new converts, particularly a marginalized social class who converted to Islam, faced severe persecution. Slaves and women were at great risk. By torturing them, the Meccan elite believed that they would discourage the weaker people. In fact, the opposite became true, because the persecution increased their loyalty to the Prophet and to their faith. Realizing their painful situation, the Prophet asked them to migrate to Abyssinia. Therefore, this migration was made at the request of the Prophet Muhammad, although he himself did not participate in it. This particular event is also considered one of the early encounters between Muslims and Christians, when Muslims received support and encouragement from the Christian king. Abyssinia was a Christian kingdom which Muhammad thought would be a safe refuge for his followers. In approximately 617 C.E., the sixth year of the Prophet’s prophethood, about eighty-three members of Muhammad’s community, male and female, under the leadership of the Prophet’s cousin Ja’far bin Abu Talib, left the city of Mecca for Abyssinia, including some prominent figures who would later be caliphs in Islam, such as Uthman bin Affan and his wife. [3] Although they were followed by the idol worshippers and through diplomacy they were asked to return, after several conversations with them, the Abyssinian King Negus and his religious advisors, convinced of the immigrants’ innocence, refused to return them to the Meccans. This honest and kind behavior of the king and his monks received praise in the Qur’an and was the occasion of certain Qur’anic verses. The king’s good behavior toward immigrants became an important reference for later Muslim-Christian relations.

The largest and the most important migration in the history of Islam is the migration of the Prophet from the city of Mecca to the city of Medina, 280 miles north of Mecca. Because of the significance of this migration, it marked the beginning of the Islamic calendar. The Prophet did love his hometown, Mecca. When he needed to leave, he turned back to the city of Mecca and said, “O Mecca! I know you are the most blessed (khayr) of the land of God. If your people did not force me to leave I would never have left you.” [4] It is also narrated that the Prophet prayed the following prayer while he migrated: “Lord, you have taken me from the most blessed city. Please, take me to another blessed city.” Prior to the migration, the Prophet and Muslims were all singled out by the elite in the city of Mecca. The wealthy merchants of Mecca imposed a severe economic boycott against the Prophet and his followers for three years. It is believed that out of this economic boycott came starvation, and the Prophet’s wife, Khadija, died. The Prophet called this “the year of grief (huzn).”

One of the important aspects of this migration was the request that came from the people of Medina. They wanted the Prophet to migrate to their town in order to stop the ongoing tribal warfare. Muhammad’s peace-making skill prompted the people of this city to go to him with such a request. Therefore, the Prophet asked his companions to migrate one by one. Eventually he and his close friend, Abu Bakr, who would later be the first caliph in Islam, migrated under a great risk of being attacked or killed. A man had been offered one hundred camels if he could find Muhammad and his friend and kill them before they migrated. The Prophet successfully finished his painful migration, a long journey made on the back of a camel. After arriving at the city of Medina, which was a multicultural and multi-religious city, the first thing he did was to establish foundations for an interconnected society where people could live peacefully with one another. Muslims made up only fifteen percent of Medina’s population when Prophet Muhammad migrated to the city. The population was otherwise made up of Arab idol worshippers, members of Jewish tribes, and a few others. Successfully, he brought a peaceful life to the conflicting tribes through an important document that he developed, the Constitution of Medina or the Medina Charter, in which equality between all members of society, regardless of religion, was established.

There is no doubt that the Muslims who migrated from Mecca were financially weak because they had to leave everything behind in Mecca. They were unable to carry their possessions with them. Their poverty and weakness was to be solved through the wisdom of the Prophet. Because there were Muslim citizens in Medina prior to the immigrants’ arrival, the immigrants were called muhajir (pl. muhajirun). In order to integrate immigrants with the local Muslims, the Prophet declared brotherhood between every immigrant and local Muslim, and he asked the local Muslims to help the immigrants. This historical brotherhood in Islam is called mu’kh’t. Such a unique event created two important groups in the history of Islam who became the subjects of praise in the Qur’an: Muhajirun (immigrants) and Ansar (helpers). Speaking of these people, the Qur’an says:

The men who stayed in their own city (Medina) and embraced Islam before them loved those who have sought refuge with them. They do not covet what they are given but rather prefer [their brothers and sisters] above themselves although they are in need. Those who preserve themselves from their own greed shall surely prosper. (59:9)

According to the tradition, the Prophet named one Ansar and one Muhajirun, and he declared them brothers and sisters. Ansar shared their money and their farms with their brothers to the extent that the immigrant Muslims received legal rights from the inheritance of their Ansar brothers. When one of the Ansars died, his Muhajirun brother would be his heir. Some of the immigrants were very honorable and did not want to ask for help. Instead of asking for assistance they would say, “show me the way of the marketplace.” [5] It is believed that one of the prominent companions of the Prophet, Abd al-Rahman bin ‘Awf, who asked his brother, Sa’d bin al-Rabi, to show him the way of the market, became among the wealthiest in the city of Medina. [6]

The brotherhood the Prophet declared brought prosperity and solidarity to the community. It was not only a material cooperation, but a spiritual one as well. For example, the brotherhood would listen to the Prophet in turn. When one of them needed to go to work, he would ask his brother or sister to wait for the Prophet’s companionship in order to receive what the Prophet had said, so that the one who was not working could share the Prophet’s words with the one who was working. The Prophet’s brotherhood also helped to create a warm environment for immigrants and to strengthen society. The Prophet achieved a full inclusion of immigrants: for example, Africans and women were folded into the hierarchical society. The declaration of brotherhood between members of these two communities was not random. The Prophet looked at their characteristics, their spiritual compatibilities, and even their tastes, and he declared brotherhood and sisterhood between these two segments of society. It took five months for the Prophet to get to know them well. The Qur’an refers to their earlier situation when it says, “Remember when you were enemies. God has united your hearts and through his grace you have become brothers” (3:103).

Considering the modern-day needs of immigrants, through this declaration of brotherhood, the Prophet successfully solved two major problems that immigrants face: housing and food. He asked Ansar to share their houses with their brothers, and they did: they would divide their houses in half and give the second part to their brothers and sisters. Also, they shared their food. This helped immigrants to stand on their own feet. The most interesting part of this brotherhood is that it was not bound by force but by conviction. When the helpers shared their houses and food with the immigrants, they were doing it from their own will and from the depth of their hearts, without being forced. Until the Qur’anic revelation came and put new legal regulations on inheritance, the tradition of being each others’ heirs remained. This tradition became an example of generosity throughout the history of Islam. One of the collectors of the sayings of the Prophet, Muslim bin Hajjaj (d. 874 C.E.), mentions in his Sahih these stories of the generosity of the companions of the Prophet, the immigrants and the helpers, under the title of “The Merits of Companions.”

Just to show how strong the generosity and sacrifice were, one can think of the following example. In the interpretation of the above-mentioned Qur’anic verse, “And they prefer [their brothers and sisters] over themselves even if they are in need,” the famous Qur’anic commentator al-Tabari (d. 923 C.E) narrates the following story. A hungry man among immigrants came to the Prophet to be his guest. The Prophet didn’t have any food to provide. Therefore, he asked if anyone could host him. One of the helpers, Abu Talha, took the men to his home. He advised his wife to honor the Prophet’s guest, yet they were also not very rich. Their food was enough only for one person. So, the helper dimmed the lights and put his children to bed. He talked to his wife and decided that they would pretend to eat, so that there would be food for this hungry immigrant. The Qur’anic verse praises their generosity and sacrifice. [7]

The tradition of brotherhood that the Prophet established prevented several possible conflicts. It prevented animosity based on tribalism and racism. It also prevented arrogance based on wealth. A compassion and respect developed between immigrants and helpers. One can argue that this declaration of brotherhood can be considered one of the most important and exemplary practices of integrating disparate fragments of society in human history.

At this juncture, it is important to elaborate on the implications of this tradition in our modern-day context. Today, we witness a great number of immigrants around the world. America itself is an immigrant society. However, these examples almost seem irrelevant as far as worldwide immigrant situations are concerned. We don’t have any such financial and spiritual help for immigrants. If we have a chance to listen to stories of early immigrants in the U.S., for example, they will tell us of the hardships they faced at the time of their migration. Although naturally American society is open to immigrants, we still have not solved racism. Slavery was abolished, but there are immigrants who work for wages far lower than the wages of non-immigrants. The Prophet of Islam asks employers to pay the wage of employees before their “sweat is cold.” (cite?) That is to say, do not delay their pay. Despite their sacrifices, most immigrants face big challenges in stabilizing their lives after migration. To my knowledge, in the United States there is no specific governmental encouragement for citizens to help immigrants. [8] As far as their financial situation is concerned, our banking system is based on personal credit history. If an immigrant does not have a good history, they cannot get a loan. The result is a vicious cycle. In order to have a good history, they have to survive and get credit. In order to get credit, they have to have a good history. Immigrants cannot create a good history in one month. It takes a long time to develop it and, consequently, this makes the lives of immigrants miserable. Therefore, immigrants are unlikely to get financial support from banking systems.

Particularly, in recent years, immigration laws have become much more severe. What one can see and learn from historical events in Islam is that administrators can provide a warm and good environment for immigrants in order to integrate them with the regular citizens, as the Prophet did in the city of Medina. It is very important for the future of the world and in particular for the future of the United States to strengthen the relationships between citizens, who were also early immigrants, and newer immigrants, as well as between immigrants as employees and their employers. The power of the country comes from the vivid enthusiasm of hardworking immigrants. If this good environment is created, one can be sure that the enthusiasm and the potential power of immigrants will be dramatically strengthened and the economy and social harmony will boom as a result.

In conclusion, the practice of the Prophet with regard to immigrants in the early history of Islam can be taken as an example for our modern-day approach to migration and immigrants. The teaching of Islam has very important foundations for providing mutual help among immigrants and citizens. The Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet contain many examples of peaceful societies made of immigrants as well as regular citizens. The Prophet says, “You cannot be a real believer unless you want for your brother what you want for yourself.” [9]


[1] The story of this saying of the Prophet is narrated by one of his companions, Ibn Abbas. According to the story, Umar visited the Prophet while he was sitting on a mat, and he said to the Prophet that the Prophet should have a wonderful bed instead of sleeping on a mat. The Prophet responded in the following way: “I don’t have anything to do with this world. My story is like a rider in a desert who takes shade under a tree for a certain moment and then departs from there.” (Ahmad bin Hanbal. Al-Musnad Volume 6 p. 40. These page numbers are based on the electronic version of the text which is available at: Accessed on 4/8/2007.)
[2] This saying of the Prophet suggests that the Prophet and his community were privileged with three things. First, that the whole face of the earth was made pure and available as a place of worship or as a mosque. Second, that our rows in prayer became similar to the rows of angels when they had their prayer. The final verses of the second chapter of the Qur’an were given to him as a gift. (Ibn Hibban. Electronic Version: Accessed on: 4/7/2007.)
[3] The entire story mentions that when they went to Abyssinia and met with King Negus, the King listened to them, and at the end he said, “You are welcome and the one from whom you came is also welcome. I believe that he is God’s messenger. He is the one that I found in the Gospel. Jesus gave good news of him. Live in Abyssinia wherever you want. If I was not the King, I would be willing to carry the sandals of the Prophet.” When he died, the Prophet was in Medina, and he said to his companions, “Your brother Ashama (Negus) died in Abyssinia,” and he asked them to have a funeral prayer for him. (Ismail bin Kathir. al-Syrah al-Nabawiyyah. Volume 2, p. 9-10. The pages are based on the electronic version of the text which is available at Accessed on 4/8/2007.)
[4] Ibn Kathir. Ibid. Volume 2 p. 285.
[5] The particular questions might include: Show me what the local buying and selling customs are? Show me where the marketplace is? This implies that one’s skills in the marketplace would not have been easily transferable from one town to the next.
[6] Ibn Kathir. Ibid. Volume 2, p. 224.
[7] See the commentary of Muhammad bin Jarir al-Tabari on chapter 59, verse 9, in his Jamial-Bayan (Beirut: Muassasat al-Risalah, 2000).
[10] In fact, in some cases it is illegal to offer aid; see:
[11] al-Buhari. Iman. Hadith no. 12. (in his al-Sahih, Vol. 1, p. 20 in the electronic version which is available at Accessed on 4/7/08.)