During the first hijra, a group of Muslims led by Jaʿfar b. Abī Ṭālib, the brother of ʿAlī, fled persecution from the Hejaz to the realm of the negus of Abyssinia, seeking refuge from persecution and possible annihilation. The negus (the Christian king of Ethiopia) offered them refuge, and all proceeded well. [in response to emissaries of the hostile Quraysh who persuaded the negus to withdraw his protection, accusing the Muslims of having committed a variety of enormities and crimes against their community, their tradition, their kinsmen, and their religion], The negus summoned Jaʿfar to his court to question him about these accusations. Jaʿfar’s response was eloquent and persuasive. The negus sent the Qurayshis away empty-handed and frustrated. More important in the present context is the image of the Prophet that emerges from Jaʿfar’s speech, and the way in which the purpose of Islam itself is delineated in his words:

When [the Muslims] came into the royal presence they found that the king had summoned his bishops with their sacred books [opened] around him. He asked them what the religion (al-dīn) was for which they had forsaken their people, without entering into his religion or any other. Jaʿfar b. Abī Ṭālib answered, “O King, we were an uncivilized people, worshipping idols, eating corpses, committing abominations, violating natural ties, treating guests badly, and our strong devoured our weak. Thus we were until God sent us an apostle.”

At the center of this discourse is the idea of transformation through recognition and education—recognition of the spiritual and intellectual impoverishment represented by the status quo, and recognition of the apostle who will guide them away from that state. In fact, Muhammad’s heroism is most celebrated because of the way it transformed his society from one of barbarous and savage violence and conflict ( jahl) to one in which the virtues of civilization (frequently overlapping with the names and attributes of God in the Quran) set the tone of individual and communal life. It is astounding that Muhammad’s great achievements as an educator are not more widely known and celebrated beyond the Islamic world. Persistent ignorance here represents a failure both moral and intellectual.

Lawson, Todd. “Muhammad as Educator, Islam as Enlightenment, and the Quran as Sacred Epic.” Knowledge and Education in Classical Islam: Religious Learning between Continuity and Change (2 vols). Brill, 2020. 81-97.