Muslims Owe Christians a Debt of Gratitude
By: Salam Al-Marayati, MPAC President
Muslims owe a debt of gratitude to an African Christian leader in the 7th Century, a king who saved them from persecution and offered them refuge as they developed their emerging faith. The Muslims were protected in their early and formidable years not by Arab chiefs but by an African king named Nejashi of the Abyssinian empire, which now comprises modern day Ethiopia and parts of Eritrea. The Muslim refugees fled Mecca that was ruled by the Quraish tribe at that time.
Muhammad told this group of migrants:
“If you were to go to Abyssinia (it would be better for you), for the king will not tolerate injustice and it is a friendly country, until such time as God shall relieve you from your distress.” This development is regarded as the first Hijra (exodus) in Islam, followed by the major exodus by a group named Muhajiroon (migrants) who fled Mecca for a town named Yathrib, which is now named Medina. There, they formed a community with Jews, Christians and other Arab tribes.
The Quraish tried to run interference with the King, a form of a travel ban order. They told him that the Muslims were his archenemies and were not to be trusted. They argued that Muslims did not accept Jesus the way Christians do. So the King summoned the Muslims and inquired about their faith and its relationship to Christianity. The Muslims recited the chapter in the Quran dedicated to Mary the Mother of Jesus. That Quranic chapter (sura) is entitled Surat Maryam. In it, Muslims are taught that Jesus was from a virgin birth, that he was the word and spirit of God, and that he came as a blessing, not a curse, to the Jewish people. After hearing this message, the King of Abyssinia said, “verily, this and what Jesus brought (Gospel) has come from the same source of light.”
The African king’s interfaith approach to faith underscores the key characteristics of all monotheism — building on common ground and not fighting over theological differences, being a protector and not a persecutor, focusing on ethics and not dogma, and welcoming refugees, not abandoning them, as a manifestation of faith.
Africa also played a critical role in Islamic civilization, an intellectual haven for Muslims, and the contributions of Islam to civilization includes African advancements, such as Timbuktu and Darfur. Mali was known for its safety of passage. “Neither traveler there nor dweller has anything to fear from thief or usurper,” commented the famous Muslim explorer, Ibn Batuta.
As Muslims and Christians, we are bound by a covenant, along with Jews and all people of faith, to serve God and to be one another’s protector. But more importantly, due to our privileged lives, we are responsible for the less privileged. We are told in the Quran “to each of you we have made a different way and a different law” and “we have created you into different nations and tribes.” So respecting, honoring, celebrating diversity is not merely a blessing of God. It is the way to worship God.
The migrant is blessed in the New Testament: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers and sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” [19:29] A similar message is mentioned in the Quran as well: “Verily, they who have attained to faith, and they who have forsaken [their homeland] and are striving hard in God’s cause — these it is who may look forward to God’s grace: for God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.” [2:218 ]
So in this time of celebration, let us add an element of service in worshiping God, to take care of the refugee, to speak out for the less privileged, and at the very least, hate that which has engulfed our city in this crisis of homelessness and work towards protecting our fellow Angelinos who need shelter. We invite all (virtually for now) to church, synagogue, mosque, and temple to reconnect with this spirit and to walk out from houses of worship with more purpose in helping the helpless. If we cannot achieve that sense of worth and work, then all these religious celebrations, from Ramadan to Christmas to Yom Kippur, are merely exercises in futility and our worship will not be worth the words we utter in God’s name. On this holy of holy days, we wish all Christians a Merry Christmas..