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I WAS touched by my imam Ilyas Anwar’s Friday (August 5) Awal Muharram 1444 khutbah (sermon). Awal means first in Arabic, and Muharram, the first of the twelve months of the Muslim year.

Prophet Muhammad’s hijrah (migration) to Medina from Mecca was such a pivotal event that the second caliph (Omar) retrospectively made it (17 years later) to be the beginning of the Muslim calendar. To be precise, that hijrah did not take place 1444 years ago, but 1400, as the lunar-based Muslim year is shorter than the Gregorian one by 11 days. Further, hijrah was completed on the 10th day of the third Muslim month (Rabi al Awal), and not during Muharram.

Hijrah, the imam reminded us, means to migrate, to leave something and start anew. The prophet undertook it because he was being hounded by his fellow Meccan tribesmen intent on killing him, and with that, his divine mission. Islam’s message of justice posed an existential threat to them.

The imam reminded us that hijrah could be physical or spiritual. As for the physical aspect, Muslims have no equivalent Abrahamic burden of being in a permanent state of exile (diaspora), dispersed in alien territories and to return to the promised land upon some messianic intervention. To Muslims, every new country is a promised land, an opportunity for a fresh beginning.

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When the prophet undertook his hijrah it was more to preserve and transmit the divine revelations he had received, less so for his personal safety. Although the hijrah was the command of God, nonetheless the prophet took all necessary precautions. It was far from a spur-of-the moment decision typically associated with “escaping”. He did not depend only on God’s protection.

For example, the prophet had arranged for a guide, mapped out his route carefully, and prepaid for the animals that would transport him and his companions. He enlisted the help from non-Muslim shepherds to cover his tracks in the sand.

That last point should disabuse Umno and PAS chauvinists’ unfounded distaste of working with non-Muslims for Malaysia’s good.

To the prophet, careful planning did not conflict with and was indeed part of tawakkul (what God has bestowed upon us). This point, the imam reminded us, is often missed by Muslims, now and then. To be a pedestrian, predestination notwithstanding, one should always look both ways before crossing a street. That is a necessary and much-needed reminder as well as antidote to the entrenched fatalism (“Leave it to God!”) of Muslims, and not just among uneducated simple villagers.

In leaving Mecca, the prophet went from a homogenous society of his Bedouin tribesmen to a plural and diverse one in Medina, with its established Christian, Jewish, pagan, and polytheistic communities. There he used Islam’s touchstone of justice to govern, not whims, revenge, hatred, or desire to dominate. He demonstrated as much as he preached this new faith, following the Quranic injunction (Surah Al-Kafirun 109:6): “Unto you your religion, unto me, mine.”

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