Exile: meaning and teachings
The Prophet and all his companions had had to leave Mecca because of persecutions and adversity from their own brothers and sisters within their respective clans. The situation had become unbearable, women and men had died, others had been tortured, and the Quraysh had finally decided to set upon Muhammad himself and get rid of him. The Emigration, al-Hijrah, is first of all, obviously, the objective reality of believing women and men who were not free to practise and express their faith and who decided to make a clean break for the sake of their beliefs. Because “God’s earth is spacious” , as the Quran recalls, they decided to leave their homeland, to break with their universe and habits and to experience exile for the sake of their faith. Revelation was to praise the courage and determination of those believers who, by taking such a difficult and humanly costly step, expressed their trust in God:
“To those who leave their homes in the cause of God, after suffering oppression, we will assuredly give a goodly home in this world; but truly the reward of the Hereafter will be greater, if they only realised (this)! Those who persevere in patience, and put their trust in their Lord.”
Exile is, then, another trial of trust. All Prophets have, always most intensively, experienced this trial of the heart, as all believers have after them. How far are they prepared to go, how much are they prepared to give, of themselves and of their lives, for the One, His truth and His love? Those are the eternal questions of faith, which accompany every temporal and historical experience of the believing conscience. Hijrah was one of the Muslim community’s answers, at the dawn of its existence.
In effect, exile was also to require that the first Muslims learn to remain faithful to the meaning of Islam’s teachings in spite of the change of place, culture and memory. Medina meant new customs, new types of social relationships, a wholly different role for women (who were socially far more present than in Mecca) and more complex inter-tribe relations, as well as the influential presence of the Jewish and Christian communities, which was something new to Muslims. Very early on, after less than thirteen years, the community of faith, following the Prophet’s example, had to distinguish between what belonged to Islamic principles and what was more particularly related to Meccan culture. They were to remain faithful to the first while learning to adopt a flexible and critical approach to their original culture. They must even try to reform some of their attitudes, which were more cultural than Islamic. `Umar ibn al-Khattâb was to learn this to his cost when, after he had reacted most sharply to his wife answering him back (which was unthinkable in Mecca), she retorted that he must bear with it and accept it just as the Prophet did. This was a difficult experience for him, as it was for others, who might have been tempted to think that their habits and customs were in themselves Islamic: Hijrah, exile, was to reveal that this was not the case and that one must question every single cultural practice in order, first of all, to be faithful to principles, but also to open up to other cultures and to gain from their wealth. For instance, having learned that a wedding was to take place among the Ansâr, the Prophet had two singing maids sent to them, for, he said, the Ansâr enjoyed singing. Not only did he thereby recognise a cultural feature or taste which was not in itself opposed to Islamic principles: he integrated it as a gain and enrichment to his own human experience. Hijrah was also, then, a trial of intelligence, with the need to distinguish between principles and their cultural manifestations; it moreover implied opening up and confidently welcoming new customs, new ways of being and thinking, new tastes. Thus, the universality of principles merged with the necessity to recognise the diversity of ways of life and cultures. Exile was the most immediate and profound experience of this, since it implied cutting away from one’s roots while remaining faithful to the same God, to the same meaning, in different environments.
Half-way between historical teachings and spiritual meditations, Hijrah is also the experience of liberation. Moses had liberated his people from Pharaoh’s oppression and led them towards faith and towards freedom. The essence of Hijrah is of exactly the same nature: persecuted because of their beliefs, the faithful decided to break away from their tormentors and march to freedom. In so doing, they stressed that they could not accept oppression, that they could not accept a victim’s status, and that, basically, the matter was simple: telling of God implied either being free or breaking free. This same message had already been conveyed by the Prophet, then by Abû Bakr, to all the slaves in Mecca: their arrival in Islam meant their liberation, and all the teachings of Islam pointed to the ending of slavery. Henceforth, a broader call was addressed to the Muslim spiritual community as a whole: faith requires freedom and justice and one must be prepared, as was the case with Hijrah, to pay the personal and collective price for it.
The spiritual dimension of those teachings is near at hand; indeed it underlies them and endows them with meaning. From the very first revelations, Muhammad had been invited to exile himself from his persecutors and from evil:
“And have patience with what they say, and leave them [exile yourself from them] with a fair leave-taking.”
“And all abomination [sin, evil] shun.”
Abraham, whose nephew Lot was one of the only persons to believe and recognise him, adopted the same attitude when he addressed his people in the following terms:
“And (Abraham) said: ‘For you, ye have taken (for worship) idols besides God, out of mutual love and regard between yourselves in this life; but on the Day of Judgement ye shall disown each other and curse each other. And your abode will be the Fire, and ye shall have none to help. But Lot believed him. (Abraham) said: I will leave home for the sake of my Lord [innî muhâjirun ilâ Rabbî], for He is exalted in Might, and Wise.”
Hijrah is the exile of conscience and of the heart away from false gods, from alienation of all sorts, from evil and sins. Turning away from the idols of one’s time – from power, money, the cult of appearances, etc. -; emigrating from lies and unethical ways of life; liberating oneself, through the experience of breaking away, from all the appearances of freedom paradoxically reinforced by our habits; such is the spiritual requirement of Hijrah. Later on, questioned by a companion about the best possible hijrah, the Prophet was to answer: “It is to exile yourself [to move] away from evil [abominations, lies, sins].” This requirement of spiritual exile was to be repeated under different forms.
Thus, the Muslims who performed Hijrah – from Mecca to Medina – in effect experienced the cyclical dimension of Islam’s teachings, since they had to achieve a new return to themselves, an emigration of the heart. Their physical journey to Medina was a spiritual exile towards their inner selves; when leaving their city and their roots, they came back to themselves, to their intimacy, to the meaning of their lives beyond historical contingencies.
Physical Hijrah, the founding act and axis of the first Muslim community’s experience, is now over and will not happen again, as Aishah forcefully explained to those who, in Medina, wanted to renew the experience. `Umar ibn al-Khattâb was later to decide that this unique event would mark the beginning of the Islamic era: this begins in 622 and follows lunar cycles. 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.
 Quran, 39:10.
 Quran, 16:41-42.
 This was the name given to Medina Muslims (Helpers) while Mecca-born Muslims were henceforth called the Muhâjirûn (the Exiles).
 Hadîth reported by Ibn Mâjah.
 The Quran makes use of the same word, ha-ja-ra: “uhjurhum” (exile yourself from them) or “fahjur” (therefore, exile yourself).
 Quran, 73:10.
 Quran, 74:5.
 Quran, 29:25-26.
 Hadîth reported by Ahmad.