The Hijra

Surah 9 (Al-Tawbah/Repentence): 40

If you do not help him (the Messenger), yet for certain God helped him when those who disbelieve drove him out (of his home during the Hijrah), the second of the two when they were in the cave (with those in pursuit of them having reached the mouth of the cave), and he said to his companion (with utmost trust in God and no worry at all): ‘Do not grieve. God is surely with us.’

Then God sent down His gift of inner peace and reassurance on him, supported him with hosts you cannot see, and brought the word (the cause) of the unbelievers utterly low. And God’s word (His cause) is (always and inherently) supreme.

God is All-Glorious with irresistible might, All-Wise

[‘The Miraculous Qur’an’, 2006, Ali Unal (Turkish author, currently serving a nineteen year prison sentence for his support of Hizmet movement led by Fethullah Gulen)]


Muhammad’s reported ‘hijra’ or migration from Mecca to Yathrib (Medina) is regarded as a pivotal moment in the life of Muhammad. It is by reference to this date, rather than the first or last revelation, that the Islamic al-Hijra (AH) calendar is calculated, and the event is almost universally used in Islamic tradition to divide the Qur’an into Meccan and Medinan surahs 〈8.〉 Ibn Ishaq describes that when Muhammad’s companions went ahead of him to Yathrib, a group of the Quraysh:

…knew that they had settled in a new home and had gained protectors and, they feared that the apostle might join them, since they knew that he had decided to fight them. So they assembled … to take counsel what they should do with regard to the apostle, for they were now in fear of him.


He then describes the first of several plots against Muhammad’s life to feature in Ibn Ishaq’s biography. In each of these plots, Muhammad receives a divine warning and can take appropriate measures prior to reaching the level of an attempt. In this first case, Muhammad’s response is to leave the city by stealth.


Muhammad’s departure from Mecca and his journey to Yathrib is not explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. However, {9.40}, produced above, included in the what is generally thought to have been the last surah to have been announced, is traditionally understood as describing Muhammad and Abu Bakr hiding in a cave from Meccan pursuers in fear for their lives. The two are said to have remained in the cave for three days, after which time Abu Bakr’s family brought them two camels enabling them to set out upon the long trek to Yathrib. A hadith that was first recorded by Ahmad bin Hanbal in the ninth century, weaves two further evocative details onto the story: that a spider spun a web across the mouth of the cave and a dove laid eggs in a nest close by, so that a group of pursuing Meccans were tricked into thinking that Muhammad could not be within. The spider’s web, however, is a detail lifted from a Jewish exegetical expansion of 1 Samuel 24.3 in which David was similarly concealed by a spider’s web whilst hiding in a cave from King Saul.
The word ‘hijra’ (literally ‘to depart’) is used in the Qur’an in many settings and with a range of meanings. In some instances, it carries the meaning of ’dissociation’, so that, for example:

  • Abraham 〈21.〉 is berated by his father with the words: ‘Do you reject my gods O Abraham? If you cease not I shall surely stone you. Take leave of me (make ‘hijra’) for a long time’, {19.46},


  • believers are urged to respond to mockery by ‘bearing patiently that which they say and take leave (hijra) of them in a beautiful manner’, {73.10}, see 〈83.〉, and


  • in {4.34} making ‘hijra’ from one’s wife is a man’s penultimate sanction before resorting to violence 〈59.〉


The word is more frequently used as part of an encouragement to the Qur’an’s audience to ‘set out’. Sometimes, this refers to setting out upon a journey, real metaphorical, imbued with spiritual significance perhaps similar to the idea of a pilgrimage or Jesus’ frequent instructions to his disciples to follow him, or (Matthew 16.24 ) ‘Take up their cross and follow (him)’:

  • {4.100}  ‘Whoever migrates in the way of God will find upon the earth many a refuge and abundance, and whosoever forsakes his home, emigrating (making ‘hijra’) unto God and His Messenger and death overtakes him his reward will fall upon God. And God is Forgiving,’


  • {16.41}And those who emigrate (make ‘hijra’) for the sake of God, after having been wronged, We shall surely settle them in a good place in this world – and the reward of the Hereafter is the greater if they but knew.’


See also {9.20} and {22.58-59}. In {4.97} it is said that of those who do not emigrate, and then rely upon their oppression as an excuse for not complying with God’s word, ‘(The angels) will say: ‘Was not God’s earth vast enough that you might have migrated therein?’ These shall have refuge in Hell.’


However, in common with Ibn Ishaq’s account of Muhammad giving the instruction to migrate immediately after having declared the permission to fight, see 〈36.〉 preceding, there are other verses of the Qur’an where making the hijra is synonymous with taking up arms, closer to a crusade than a pilgrimage.

{3.195}So those who emigrated (made ‘hijra’) and were expelled from their homes, and were hurt in My way, and fought and were slain – I shall absolve them of their evil deeds…,

(see 〈95.〉 and 〈97.〉 below)


{16.110} Then indeed, thy Lord, for those who emigrated after being oppressed, then strove and were patient, surely thy Lord thereafter is Forgiving, Merciful.


In three almost consecutive verses, {8.72 & 74-75}, the phrase ‘those who believe and migrate (‘muhājirūn’, those who make hijra’) and strive (wage ‘jihad’) with their wealth and their selves in the in the way of God’ is used three times in a clearly military context (similarly, {2.218}). In {24.22}The men of bounty and means’ amongst the believers are urged not to forget sharing their wealth amongst ‘kinsfolk and the indigent and those who emigrated in the way of God…


In Hagarism, the Making of the Islamic World, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook observe that the Syriac Christian community in the time of Muhammad used the term ‘mahgre’ or ‘mahgraye‘, the equivalent of the Arabic ‘muhājirūn‘ as a generic way of describing Arabs. These were often depicted as emerging from the desert to raid or colonise the former lands of the shrinking Byzantine empire, and this fitted the Quranic idea of the ‘muhājirūn‘ as migrants. However these Syriac terms were more commonly understood as a reference to the Ishmaelites’ reputed descent from Hagar, Sarah’s servant and Ishmael’s mother 〈21.〉  Crone and Crook wonder whether ‘the mahgraye may thus be seen as Hagarene participants in a ‘hijra’ to the Promised Land’ and speculate that ‘in this pun lies the earliest identity of the faith that would in the fullness of time to become Islam’.