October 14 was the beginning of a new Hijjra year, 1437. Today is the third day of Muharram. The Hijjra calendar started with the migration of Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, from Makkah to Madinah, in year 622/623 A.D. Early scholars said it was in the month of Rabih Al Awal (the third month of the year).
On Monday, October 12 we also observed Columbus Day, which also has something to do with migration. The discovery of North America by the Spanish led to the coming of European immigrants to this land to start a legacy that ended with the creation of this great nation of ours. I have been thinking about Hijjra the whole week, and about what it means to me.
Traditionally, in Friday khutbahs at the beginning of the Hijjra year, we talk about lessons learned from the migration of Prophet Muhammad from Makkah to Madinah. But I have not been thinking so much about Prophet Muhammad’s hijjra, as about my own. I too have a hijjra story, from which I have learned many lessons. My hijjra was from Egypt to America 30 years ago. I left the land where I grew up and had many memories of childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. As it was hard for Prophet Muhammad to leave Makkah, it was hard for me to leave Egypt. He had to leave, not by choice, but because of hardship, persecution, harassment, and hostility. I too had to leave Egypt due to hardship. I was one of many thousands of Muslim activists in Egypt who suffered after the assassination of Sadat in 1981. Many of us were jailed, lost their jobs, and suffered harassment by state police.
Thirty years ago America became my home, not Egypt any more. Thirty years later, America continues to be my beloved home. Prophet Muhammad was always grateful to the Ansar, the Arab tribes who supported him in Madinah, who welcomed him and his followers when they migrated from Makkah to Madinah. Prophet Muhammad used to say
“If I had not emigrated from Makkah, I would have liked to be one of the Ansar.”
After the conquest of Makkah, the Ansar were afraid that Prophet Muhammad might choose to relocate back to Makkah, his homeland for 53 years. He did not. He told them
“If Al Ansar choose to walk a path, I will choose to walk with them on that path.” He preferred to go back to Madinah to live the last four years of his life there, until he died. He was also buried there, in the house where he lived in Madinah.
After the Arab tribes in Makkah were defeated by the Muslims, some other tribes surrounding Makkah decided to form an alliance to fight the new Makkan Muslims. When the Prophet found out about this, he decided to march towards them in Al Taef. This was the famous battle of Hunein. The Muslims won the battle, and there were abundant spoils of war. Prophet Muhammad decided to give most of the spoils to the Muslims of Makkah who had recently converted to Islam after his conquest of their land. This was a gesture of generosity and to gain their allegiance. The Ansar did not get anything, and they were upset. He gathered them and said, “Do not be upset. Every one of them is going to go home with something from the spoils of war, but you get to take me home with you – so take me home!”
For Prophet Muhammad, Madinah became his home. For me, and many other millions of Muslims, America has become our home. We all came from our countries of origin for all kinds of reasons – political persecution, like myself, better economic opportunities, escape from injustice, etc. For me, and I am sure for many others, America has been a safe haven. As Madinah was good for Prophet Muhammad, America has been good to me.
I visit Egypt every year, and have been for thirty years. Although I have dual citizenship, and still carry an Egyptian passport, every time I travel to Egypt, I enter the country as an American, using my American passport. Why? Because I feel safer this way. It is ironic that I feel safer in the country I adopted than in the country where I grew up. For me, and for millions of other Muslims, America has been our Madinah. And for me, I feel I have been surrounded by my own Ansars – my in-laws, my friends, and my colleagues in this country. My in-laws welcomed me into their family from the first day, in spite of all the differences between me and them, in culture, language and above all faith. They are all Christian, some of them are devout Christians, but they never stopped giving me love and support. When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, I had a talk with my father-in-law. The discussion led to raising children. He, without any hesitation, said “Of course you are going to raise her as a Muslim.” I then asked if that would bother him. He said, “Not at all, because that is what you want her to be. You are going to raise her as a Muslim, and a good one, just like you.” Or my brother-in-law, who asked me to carve the turkey at my first Thanksgiving dinner with the family, saying “Since you are now one of our family, we will give you the honor.”
My Ansar were also all our friends, and not just our Muslim friends. Our Christian, Jewish and Agnostic friends always gave me love and support over the years, although they know I am a devout Muslim. My Ansar were also my mentors during my training, most of whom were Jewish. They still mentor me until now, and have had a significant impact on my professional development. Finally, my Ansar are my colleagues and co-workers, most of whom are non-Muslims. Without their support and trust, my career would have taken a different path.
I go back to what the Prophet said,
“If I had not emigrated from Makkah, I would have liked to be one of the Ansar.” I understand now what he meant. His migration to Madinah had a significant impact on him as a person, as a human being. He meant every word he said. He was trying to assure the Ansar that he had become one of them. He then said something very profound,
“If the Ansar choose to walk a path, I will walk that path with them.” When I reflect on my own hijjra, I can also say, “Where my Ansar go, I will go.” What I mean is that my cultural identity has transformed through the past thirty years. I truly have become an American Muslim, or a Muslim American, depending on the point of reference. But I definitely am NOT just a Muslim in America. This is where home is. This is the place to which my cultural identity has evolved.