Short Answer: After 13 years of persecution in Makkah, the Prophet in obedience to the Divine command decided to migrate with his followers to Madinah. So the Hijrah marked the Muslims’ act of breaking free from the narrow confines of a religion to a comprehensive way of life, a perfect universal religion. And for Muslims who are subjected to oppression beyond toleration, Hijrah to a land where they can live in freedom and practice their religion is a valid option.
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The Meaning of Hijrah
The word Hijrah is derived from “hajara” meaning, “to emigrate, to dissociate, to leave.”
And in Islamic history, the Hijrah is used chiefly to refer to the Emigration of the Prophet and his followers from Makkah to Madinah in 622 C.E
Hijrah was a deliberate choice of the Prophet under Divine Guidance to leave the land of persecution seeking freedom, peace, and security.
Throughout history we can see migration playing a crucial role in the history of all religions, and most specifically of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
All these were responses of faith in God and obedience to His commands, though their spiritual significance and temporal consequences may vary in the respective religious traditions.
Without massive movements of populations, wars of conquest, and missionary enterprises, the three Abrahamic religions would not have been what they are today.
The Prophet’s Hijrah to Madinah
In Makkah, the Prophet’s impassioned call to the tribes resulted in several people embracing the Message of Guidance he brought to them.
This provoked the ruling Quraysh to conspire against him, with a view to getting rid of him once for all.
After a harrowing period of severe trial that lasted thirteen years, the Prophet in obedience to the Divine command decided to migrate with his followers to Madinah.
Allah Almighty says in the Noble Quran:
Those who believe, and migrate and strive in Allah’s cause, with their goods and their persons, have the highest rank in the sight of Allah: they are indeed the successful people. Their Lord does give them glad tidings of a Mercy from Himself, of His good pleasure, and of Gardens where enduring pleasure will be theirs: They will dwell therein forever. Verily in Allah’s presence is a reward, the greatest (of all). (Quran 9:20-22)
For the Sake of Allah’s Mercy
The foregoing means that the Hijrah was not a flight from persecution, pain or perseverance; but it was a dedicated struggle to attain the Mercy of Allah Himself.
Ultimately, the emigrants attained the pleasure of God, along with the Gardens of eternal happiness prepared for them by Allah, the All-Merciful.
So for the Prophet and the early Muslims, the Hijrah signified a transition from a position of weakness to a position of power.
It was, for them, the abandonment of a life of complacent subordination to a decadent tribal system dominated by the crudest type of idolatry, to a progressive and dynamic socio-political order based on the Submission to the One True God of the universe.
That is to say, the Hijrah marked the Muslims’ act of breaking free from the narrow confines of a religion in the narrow sense, to a comprehensive way of life, a perfect universal religion.
Hijrah a Crucial Milestone in Islamic History
It is significant that the people of Madinah did not look upon Muhammad (peace be upon him) as a refugee; in fact they welcomed him as their own leader.
And soon after reaching there, he laid the foundations for a strong society based on the universal principles of the Quran.
The movement he started overwhelmed the mighty empires of the day; and today, despite all the turmoil in the Muslim world, Islam continues to shine.
Thus we can see that in the variegated history of Islam, the Hijrah became a crucial event and a watershed that led to the establishment of the glorious Islamic civilization.
And for this reason, Khalifah ‘Umar made the inspired decision (in approximately 638 C.E) to declare the Hijrah as the focal point to mark the beginning of a new era, a new civilization and a new history for mankind.
The Hijrah: What We Can Learn Today
We should realize that the Hijrah was not just a physical journey of the Prophet and companions from Makkah to Madinah; it was at the same time a spiritual journey too.
It was in effect a spiritual breaking away from persecution to freedom; from selfishness to charity; from fear to courage; and from violence to peace; from defiance and resistance to complete reliance on God.
The Hijrah is most emphatically an emigration from lawlessness and defiance to peaceful obedience and wholehearted submission to the laws and commandments of Allah Almighty.
This is the lesson for all Muslims, no matter in what land or in what age they live.
For Muslims who are subjected to oppression beyond toleration, Hijrah to a land where they can live in freedom and practice their religion is an option, as Allah Almighty says in His Noble Quran:
NOW as for those who forsake the domain of evil in the cause of God, after having suffered wrong [on account of their faith] – We shall most certainly grant them a station of good fortune in this world: but their reward in the life to come will be far greater yet. If they [who deny the truth] could but understand. (Quran 16:41)
Exile for the Sake of Allah
Regarding those who cannot make such a physical journey, Dr. Tariq Ramadan writes:
What remains, and is open to everyone through the ages and for eternity, is the experience of spiritual exile which brings the individual back to himself and frees him from the illusions of self and of the world.
Exile for the sake of God is in essence a series of questions which God asks each conscience: who are you? What is the meaning of your life? Where are you going?
Accepting the risk of such an exile, trusting the One, is to answer: through You, I return to myself and I am free.
I hope this answers your question.
(From Ask About Islam archives)