The Prophet Muhammad (saw) had a very large family. Many of his family members embraced Islam, while others did not. Jafar ibn Abi Talib was one of the cousins of the Prophet (saw) who embraced Islam very early on. Jafar (ra) was also the brother of Ali (ra), the fourth Khalifah of Islam. Being such an early convert, Jafar (ra) experienced the persecution in Makkah firsthand. As a result of all the persecution and Islamophobic sentiments, he took advantage of the opportunity to migrate to Abyssinia, which is modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea. He was accompanied by his wife, and a small band of Muslims.
Once they arrived in Abyssinia they settled down and were living under the protection of the Negus, or Najashi in Arabic. He was known throughout the world as a righteous and tolerant ruler. Abyssinia at the time was a fortress of Christianity. For the first time since they became Muslims, they savored the taste of freedom and security and enjoyed the sweetness of worship undisturbed.
When the pagan Makkans learned of the departure of these Muslims, they made plans to secure their return. The pagan Makkans sent two of their most admirable and respected men, Amr ibn al-Aas and Abdullah ibn Abi Rabiah to bring back the Muslims. The Makkans were very clever and took gifts and treasures in order to bribe the Najashi and his advisors. Amr and Abdullah went to the Najashi personally and presented him with the gifts which he was greatly thankful for. They said to him, “O King, there is a group of evil persons from among our youth who have escaped to your kingdom. They practice a religion which neither we nor you know. They have forsaken our religion and have not entered into your religion. The respected leaders of their people – from among their own parents and uncles and from their own clans – have sent us to you to request you to return them. They know best what trouble they have caused.” The Najashi then looked towards his bishops who said, “They speak the truth, O King. Their own people know them better and are better acquainted with what they have done. Send them back so that they themselves might judge them.”
The Najashi was not satisfied with this suggestion of sending Jafar (ra) and his group back and immediately said, ““No. By God, I won’t surrender them to anyone until I myself call them and question them about what they have been accused. If what these two men have said is true, then I will hand them over to you. If however it is not so, then I shall protect them so long as they desire to remain under my protection.” The Najashi then summoned the Muslims to meet him. The spokesperson for the Muslims was Jafar ibn Abi Talib. Upon arriving in the palace, the Najashi asked Jafar ibn Abi Talib, who was the unofficial spokesperson for the Muslims, “What is this religion which you have taken for yourselves and which has served to cut you off from the religion of your people? You also did not enter my religion or the religion of any other community.” At that point, Jafar ibn Abi Talib then made a speech that to this day is one of the most eloquent and moving descriptions of Islam. He said,
“O King, we were a people in a state of ignorance and immorality, worshipping idols and eating the flesh of dead animals, committing all sorts of abomination and shameful deeds, breaking the ties of kinship, treating guests badly, and the strong among us exploited the weak. We remained in this state until God sent us a Prophet, one of our own people whose lineage, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and integrity were well-known to us. He called us to worship God alone and to renounce the stones and the idols which we and our ancestors used to worship besides God. He commanded us to speak the truth, to honor our promises, to be kind to our relations, to be helpful to our neighbors; to cease all forbidden acts, to abstain from bloodshed, to avoid obscenities and false witness; to not appropriate an orphan’s property nor slander chaste women. He ordered us to worship God alone and not to associate anything with Him, to uphold prayer, to give charity and to fast in the month of Ramadan. We believed in him and what he brought to us from God and we follow him in what he has asked us to do and we keep away from what he forbade us from doing. Thereupon, O King, our people attacked us, visited the severest punishment on us to make us renounce our religion and take us back to the old immorality and the worship of idols. They oppressed us, made life intolerable for us and obstructed us from observing our religion. So we left for your country, choosing you before anyone else, desiring your protection and hoping to live in Justice and peace in your midst.”
The Najashi was impressed and was eager to hear more. He asked Jafar, “Do you have with you something of what your Prophet brought concerning God?” Jafar replied that he did. “Then read it to me,” requested the Najashi. In his rich, melodious voice, Jafar recited the first portion of the Quranic chapter titled Maryam, which deals with the story of Jesus and his mother Maryam. On hearing the words of the Qur’an, the Najashi was moved to tears. To the Muslims, he said, “The message of your Prophet and that of Jesus came from the same source…” To Amr and his companion, he said, “Go. For, by God, I will never surrender them to you.”
That was however not the end of this ordeal. The resolute Amr made up his mind to go to the Najashi the following day “to mention something about the Muslims’ belief which will certainly fill his heart with anger and make him detest them.” The next day, Amr went to the Najashi and said, “O King, these people to whom you have given refuge and whom you protect say something terrible about Jesus the son of Maryam. Send for them and ask them what they say about him.” The Najashi summoned the Muslims and Jafar acted as their spokesman once more.
The Najashi asked, “What do you say about Jesus, the son of Maryam?” Jafar replied, “Regarding him, we only say what has been revealed to our Prophet.” “And what is that?” enquired the Najashi. “Our Prophet says that Jesus is the servant of God and His Prophet, His spirit and His word which He cast into Maryam the Virgin.” The Najashi exclaimed, “By God, Jesus the son of Maryam was exactly as your Prophet has described him.”
The Najashi had at this point realized that the Muslims were no threat and that they were a peaceful group of people. He instructed the Muslims to live in security and told his bishops to return the gifts the Makkans had brought. The Makkans had failed miserably. The Najashi was one of the most generous rulers. Jafar (ra) and his wife Asma (ra) stayed in Abyssinia for about 10 years before migrating to Madinah with their 3 children.
Jafar ibn Abi Talib will always be remembered for the eloquent and moving description of Islam he presented to the King of Abyssinia. He expressed the strongest of faith and a clarity of understanding that persuaded the emperor of the Muslims’ sincerity and depth of religious devotion. That passion and conviction stand as a beautiful model for Muslims for all time.