What the hijrah truly means

ISIS has exploited this duty of migration

Since 2015, there have been at least a dozen Singaporeans investigated by the Singapore authorities for harbouring the intention to travel or emigrate to the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Four persons were detained this year.

In September, ISIS militants issued a propaganda video featuring a Singaporean who is known to have gone to Syria. In the 31/2 minute video, Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad calls on Muslims to leave for ISIS-controlled territories or locations where the group's influence is present.

He quotes a hadith or prophetic saying that implicitly affirms that the duty of hijrah will not cease until the final hour (doomsday).

While most people would ignore or reject such a call from a terrorist group, there will be a few who will fall prey to extremists' exploitation of hijrah and other Islamic concepts. To them, answering ISIS' call to relocate fulfils a religious obligation.

THE ORIGIN OF HIJRAH

ISIS' promotion of hijrah calls for a deeper examination of the concept. To begin with, what was the cause of hijrah as reported in Islamic history? Why did Prophet Muhammad encourage Muslims to emigrate? How should Muslims react to calls for hijrah? And why should terrorist propaganda and interpretation draped in scripture be roundly dismissed?

Hijrah is Arabic for emigration. In the early days of Islam, Prophet Muhammad and his followers were ill-treated and harassed by polytheist Meccan Arabs over differences in religious beliefs. They were subjected to economic and social boycott and barred from marriage and trade. When these tactics failed to stop people from converting to Islam, the pagan Quraish clan resorted to physical abuse. This triggered the first hijrah to Ethiopia which was then ruled by a Christian king named Negus.

The Quraish intensified their violence when they learnt that several Muslims secretly sought refuge in Medina. The clan also plotted the assassination of the Prophet.

A Muslim who constantly seeks to upgrade his knowledge so that he could be of service to others is expressing a form of hijrah towards becoming a useful and productive Muslim. Similarly, a Muslim who strives to distance himself from evil is making hijrah towards becoming a better Muslim, one who understands his religion holistically.

These developments led to Prophet Muhammad's emigration to Medina. This marked the second and final hijrah in Islamic history. Viewed in its historical context, hijrah was in effect a means to preserve the basic right to practise one's faith and to protect one's life.

ISIS, however, exploited the concept to build up human capital and resources in the self-declared "caliphate" it established in June 2014. The group's online magazine Dabiq (later known as Rumiyah) and weekly online Arabic newsletter An-Naba', for instance, frame hijrah as a religious obligation, an act of worship that would bring a Muslim close to God, and a manifestation of true faith.

ISIS claims that Islam requires Muslims to live in an Islamic state that practises syariah law over a territory governed by non-Muslims or by Muslims administering man-made laws. In practice, this means that a Muslim should leave his country in order to support the caliphate. Both the hadith and sunnah (prophetic tradition and practice) were distorted to back these arguments. Shahdan's video is a clear example of such distortion.

THE CORRECT UNDERSTANDING OF HIJRAH

ISIS' narrative on hijrah needs to be debunked for its so-called religious justifications.

Contrary to ISIS' claims, hijrah to ISIS territory is not among the best forms of worship and does not make a Muslim closer to God. Many acts of worship bring a Muslim closer to God, including regular prayer, repentance and charitable acts.

Location is not fundamental to getting closer to God.

ISIS also falsely claims that Prophet Muhammad instructed Muslims to sever ties with family and tribe by performing hijrah. The hadith was, in fact, a directive for a newly converted Muslim to detach himself from the religious practices of his people, not blood ties. Maintaining a good relationship with non-Muslim family members is part of Islamic teachings. This is evident in the Prophet's behaviour towards his two pagan paternal uncles. Hence, there is nothing Islamic when a Muslim leaves his family and heads to ISIS territory - like what Shahdan did - with the hope of receiving blessings from God and dying as a martyr.

MIGRATION FROM LITERALISM

Lastly, Prophet Muhammad was reported as saying that hijrah will not cease until repentance is ceased; and repentance will not cease until the sun rises from the west (a major sign of the end of time). Although the hadith is authentic, its reading must be complemented with the understanding of its implicit objective. Hijrah in this hadith does not suggest a physical relocation, but rather a change in mindset and behaviour.

A Muslim who constantly seeks to upgrade his knowledge so that he could be of service to others is expressing a form of hijrah towards becoming a useful and productive Muslim. Similarly, a Muslim who strives to distance himself from evil is making hijrah towards becoming a better Muslim, one who understands his religion holistically. These counter-narratives can be understood from other prophetic sayings such as: "An emigrant is one who ditches mistakes and sins."

The fall of ISIS' de facto capital Raqqa is not likely to lead to a decline in the propagation of literalist, narrow and extremist interpretations of Islamic scriptures. ISIS will decentralise and exploit social media platforms to the fullest to maintain its hold over its followers and to radicalise even more vulnerable segments of society.

It is therefore imperative that action be taken not only to debunk extremist teachings through various means, but also to disseminate moderate and progressive values which will act as a "firewall" against false, deviant and divisive ideas.

• The writer is an associate research fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University. He is also a religious counsellor with the Religious Rehabilitation Group. This article first appeared in RSIS Commentary.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2017, with the headline 'What the hijrah truly means'. Print Edition | Subscribe