Preaching and Persecution
The leaders of Mecca were not pleased with Muhammad's message. He was commanding the people to reject the tribal idols that were the financial mainstay of the city. He encouraged people to be charitable and to free their slaves. He condemned the traditionally held beliefs and practices of the most powerful tribes in the city. He preached the Oneness of God in Mecca, the main center of idolatry.
Muslims look kindly upon devout Christians and praise the Christian king who gave refuge to the early Muslims. As the Qur'an reminds, “nearest among them in love to the believers will you find those who say, ‘We are Christians.’ Because among these are men devoted to learning, and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant” (Qur'an 5:82).
Those who were firmly committed to their ancestral beliefs put up great resistance to Muhammad and his growing group of believers. Most of the early believers belonged to the lowest classes of society: those without tribal protection, who were attracted to the equality and justice of Muhammad's message. The more powerful groups persecuted and tortured them with impunity. Among other horrific acts of cruelty, the first Muslims were dragged through the streets by ropes, crushed with large stones, and tied up in the burning heat of the desert sun.
Flight to Abyssinia
After months of worsening abuse and murders, the Muslims began to look outside Mecca for refuge. Muhammad knew that the Christian king of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) was rumored to be a just and fair man. In the fifth year of his mission, Muhammad sent a small group of followers to the safety of Abyssinia.
In the subsequent months, a larger number of Muslims from Mecca migrated to Abyssinia. The Meccan leaders were outraged that the Muslims had found a safe haven. Two Meccan envoys were sent to the Abyssinian king to plead their case and demand extradition of the Muslims back to Mecca.
The Abyssinian king, Negus, being a just and fair man, heard their case. The Meccans explained that this group of people had abandoned the faith of their forefathers, and were preaching a faith as strange to them as to Negus himself. The king called for the Muslims to appear before him and respond.
The spokesperson of the Muslims was Ja'far, the Prophet Muhammad's cousin. He spoke very eloquently about the Prophet Muhammad's teachings of faith, dignity, and truthfulness. At the king's request, Ja'far also recited some verses of the Qur'an, regarding the birth and piety of the Prophet Jesus. The king was moved to tears and declared the Muslims were “free to live and worship in my realm as they please.” The Meccan envoys had to return empty-handed.
The first person to be murdered for choosing Islam was a woman, Sumaiyah bint Khabbab. Her husband and son were also Muslims, and the entire family was repeatedly tortured and pressured to renounce their faith. Sumaiyah was stabbed to death by a powerful pagan leader, Abu Jahl.
Those Muslims who did not emigrate faced the increased wrath of the Meccan opposition. The angry pagan leaders organized a boycott of the Muslims, forbidding all communication, commercial relations, and marriage contracts with them. This social boycott lasted three long years; during that time, the small Muslim community suffered from severe poverty and hunger.
The Year of Sadness
Shortly after the boycott was lifted in 619
Muslim tradition holds that during one night, Muhammad traveled to the far holy city of Jerusalem and from there ascended up to the heavens. During the ascension, Muhammad was welcomed by the previous prophets and was commanded by God to implement the five daily prayers. In Arabic, these two experiences are known as the Isra' (the travel) and Mi'raj (the ascension).
Most Muslims consider this experience to have been a true physical journey, a miracle, rather than simply a dream or vision. Upon returning from this Night Journey, Muhammad felt strengthened and uplifted. The people of Mecca, however, found the idea absurd and used it as fodder to ridicule Muhammad and his followers.