7th-century Christian Ethiopian king who provided sanctuary to persecuted Muslims
In the early 7th Century, King Negus Ashama ibn Abjar ruled the Kingdom of Axum, a land also known as Abyssinia, part of modern-day Ethiopia.
king but also can serve as a proper name. This king is referred to in different sources both as Negus and as Ashama ibn Abjar. Many aspects of Axum’s history remain mysterious to this day, because few records have survived, but this region of Ethiopia was among the first in the world to embrace Christianity.
Across the Red Sea from Abyssinia, a new religious tradition was unfolding in Arabia. Muhammad had begun receiving revelations and sharing them with a small group of followers. As people responded to Muhammad’s teaching and began practicing this new faith, some of the pagan leaders in Mecca began to persecute Muhammad’s followers. Muslims were mocked and assaulted, others had their businesses boycotted – and some were imprisoned in chains. Several Muslims died. Muhammad himself was protected by his uncle, but he told those who had no protection to flee for refuge to Abyssinia where he had heard of the famed mercy and equity shown by King Negus.
Late one night, the first eleven Muslims crossed over to Abyssinia. After they were given shelter by King Negus, 83 additional Muslim men and women fled for sanctuary. When the Meccans, also known as the Quraysh, found out about their flight from Arabia, they sent representatives to appeal to King Negus for their return, sweetening their appeal with gifts for him.
Though his advisers urged him to hand over the Muslims, King Negus called for all the parties to come before him to state their cases. Hadrat Ja’farradiya Allahu ‘anhu, the spokesperson for the Muslim exiles, eloquently told the story of the refugees’ lives. He described the sad conditions under which they lived before Muhammad began to preach among them. Then, he told about Muhammad’s call for them to worship Allah and to live lives of prayer, integrity and justice. Finally, this spokesperson told about the tortures they had suffered from the Meccans and how they sought refuge.
When it was his turn, however, the Quraysh representative Amr ibn al ‘As raised the issue of differences between the Muslims and Christians regarding the nature of Jesus. The Quraysh spokesman tried to use these differences to convince King Negus to ally with the Meccans in persecuting the Muslims.
But the king was a wise and fair man. Instead, he invited the Muslims to speak again. They responded by quoting from the Qur’an’s extensive verses that describe Jesus and his birth by the Virgin Mary.
Then, Negus picked up a stick and said,
I swear, the difference between what we believe about Jesus, the Son of Mary, and what you have said is not greater than the width of this twig.
He refused to turn over the Muslim refugees and returned the gifts that the Meccans had hoped would sway his judgment. To this day, King Negus’ action in the 7th Century is still a source of pride in both the Christian and Muslim communities in Ethiopia.