Refugees on the Unarmed Road of Flight: A Human Condition
A Muslim Perspective
Every religion has a cosmology, a foundational narrative of how we arrived here. In all three Abrahamic faiths, Islam being the last one, we find the arrival of human life on earth itself to be
a refugee narrative.
Adam and Eve f were expelled from a garden and given refuge for a time here on our planet.
“We said, ‘O Adam, live with your wife in Paradise and eat freely from it anywhere you may wish. Yet do not approach this tree lest you become transgressors.’ But Satan caused them both
to slip from their state, and forced them out. We said, ‘Go down from here enemies one to the other, and on earth you shall find refuge and livelihood for a while’” (Qur’an 2:35-36). Thus, the
human story begins with banishment and a flight from one place to another: our first parents had
Fleeing and migrating as strangers to strange lands—and finding refuge—is a recurring story among the shared Abrahamic prophets. The Prophet Abraham e fled from Nimrod the king to
the “Land of Canaan”; the Prophet Moses e and the Children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt and fled to Sinai; the Virgin Mary fled with Joseph from Jerusalem to Egypt to protect her child
f; the Prophet Muhammad’s community fled the persecution of the Meccans and migrated to Ethiopia, and the Prophet s himself was a refugee, fleeing Mecca to migrate to Medina.
The Qur’an reminds us, “There is no refuge from God except to God” (9:118). The conditions of this earthly abode, it seems, are often divinely orchestrated so the outward physical journey to
seek a safe haven is accompanied by an inward spiritual journey to seek refuge in God. The Prophet Muhammad s was once asked, “Who is the true refugee to God?” He replied, “The one
who opposes his self and flees from sin.” The twelfth century theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali said, “All of humanity are wayfarers moving inexorably toward their Lord.”
In Islam, all wayfarers are deserving of food and safety. The Qur’an states, “Let them worship the Lord of this House who has satiated their hunger and freed them from fear” (106:3–4).
Exegetes state that these two conditions—freedom from hunger and freedom from fear—are prerequisites for worship; interestingly, in Abraham Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs”
pyramid, physiological needs and safety are at the base, as they are the most important basic needs. The Prophet Muhammad s is reported to have said, “The child of Adam has no entitled
rights beyond these: shelter from the elements, clothes to cover his nakedness, and grain and water to nourish him.” In Islam, these are God-given human rights. Hence, those of us who have
are obliged to give to those who have not. This obligation to provide for those in need is manifested in zakat, a poor tax of 2.5 percent of wealth, a percentage of animal stock, and a 5-10
percent grain tax, depending on irrigation techniques.
The etymology of the word “refugee” includes the Latin fugere, which means “to flee.” As for those who flee persecution, whether religious or political, they have another God-given right,
known as ^aqq al-Ïw¥’, “to seek and receive refuge.” Believers are qualified by their service to those in need: “They care for those who have taken refuge with them, and have no desire in their
hearts for what has been given them, preferring them to themselves, even if it means hardship for them; and those who are preserved from their own avarice are the ones who succeed” (Qur’an 59:9).
We are asked to tend to the needs of those burdened with hardships, no matter who they are or what land or nation they fled, because the earth and all that is in it is God’s, and God’s servants have the right to travel in the earth seeking provision: “It is God who made the earth accessible to you, so travel its roads, and eat of what God has provided, but know to God you will return” (Qur’an 67:15).
The fourteenth century poet Hafez famously asked, “How would you act if you realized that all who inhabit the earth are God’s guests; how would you treat them then?” The first prophetic tradition taught to students of Hadith is “Those who show mercy will be shown mercy by the Merciful Himself; have mercy on those in the earth, and the One in Heaven will have mercy on you.” This is a foundational tradition, and scholars are in agreement that “on those in the earth” covers all peoples regardless of color, creed, or country.
Like its sister religions, Islam has a checkered past but also has many glorious examples of the ideals of the faith that call us to serve the Creator by serving His creation: in 1492, the Ottoman
Sultan Bayezid II welcomed over 150,000 Jews fleeing Spanish persecution to Turkey, granting them citizenship and then building beautiful synagogues—many stand to this day—for the newly arrived refugees. In the 1840’s, during the Irish potato famine, Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Majid sent not only money but ships with grain to provide relief for the needy. In 1860, when local Druze attacked the Christian quarter in Damascus, Emir Abdelkader of Algeria saved over four thousand Christians, including the French consul and his staff, by giving them refuge in his compound and defending them with his Algerian troops. During the Nazi occupation of France, Si Kaddour Benghabrit, a Moroccan Imam, risked his own life and hid hundreds of Jews at the Paris mosque and saved many others by issuing certificates that allowed them to hide their Jewish identity and claim they were Algerian Arabs instead.
Refugees have always been a part of life on earth and tending to their needs has always been a part of the Islamic tradition.
It is that noble tradition of service to others that is urgently needed today, as we are overwhelmed with a refugee crisis that the world has not seen since World War II. Our response is a test of our mettle and a reflection of our national character, and it will shape our own future for better or for worse. From a metaphysical perspective, we are in a profoundly precarious situation. Our Prophet s taught us, “There is no leader who closes the door on someone in need or one suffering in poverty except that God closes the gates of the Heavens during his time of need.”
We shall reap what we sow, and now is the time for sowing seeds of solace. In due time, God willing, we might reap the rewards of the righteous.