By Hamzah Raza
Verses 97 to 100 of Surah an-Nisāʾ, the fourth chapter of the Qur’ān, refer to one of the most consequential events in Islamic history. The hijrah was an event in which Muslims emigrating from Mecca to Medina, marking the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Verse 97 begins with an interrogative statement: “The [angels] will say, “In what [condition] were you?” They will say “We were oppressed in the land.” The angels will say, ”Was not the earth of Allah spacious [enough] for you to emigrate therein?” For those, their refuge is Hell – and evil it is as a destination”. The way that Islamic scholars have understood this verse has transformed over time. While scholars of the past did not understand this specifically in the context of governmental oppression, modern scholars have shifted towards understanding this in the context of oppression of the modern nation-state. This reveals the myopically political nature through which modern scholars understand such verses. This article will explore the manner in which scholars such as Ibn Hazm (d. 1064 CE), Ibn Katheer (d. 1374), Al-Zamakshari (d. 1144), Abu Alaa Mawdudi (d. 1979), and Albani (d. 1999) have understood this verse.
Both Albani and Mawdudi understand this verse within the context of governmental oppression. In a controversial fatwā, Albani asserted that Palestinians should leave the West Bank and migrate to another land because the Israelis did not allow them to practice their religion there. He cited verse 97 of Surah an-Nisāʾ and stated that the idea of migrating when unable to practice one’s religion is a fixed ruling that is not abrogated. Abu Alaa Mawdudi, in his commentary of the Qur’ān, Tahfim ul Quran, similarly understands this verse within the context of governmental oppression. Mawdudi states that a Muslim can only stay in a land where he is oppressed if he “strives to put an end to the hegemony of the un-Islamic system and to have it replaced by the Islamic system of life, as the Prophets and their early followers did.” His other exception is that the believer is not capable of departing from the land. In Mawdudi’s understanding of this verse, it is the responsibility of a Muslim to either bring about an Islamic revolution in the land he or she is living in, or leave if given the chance. In Albani’s more quietest worldview, it is the imperative of a Muslim to leave the land, without the option of resistance.
Classical Islamic scholars understood these verses in different ways. Ibn Hazm said that this verse was abrogated, and the only exception to this abrogation would be in the case of jihād. Adnan Zulfiqar in a publication titled “Jurisdiction over Jihad: Islamic Law and the Duty to Fight” cites Ibn Hazm’s commentary and states that many anti-colonial Muslims groups resisted colonialism by first making hijrah to a “quasi-state” that they established and sought to fight the invading army out of it. Ibn Katheer wrote in his Qur’ānic commentary about the historical event of the hijrah from Mecca to Medina, and then mentioned a famous ḥadīth of a man who murdered 100 people in a city, and sought to emigrate from that city and make repentance. Ibn Katheer states that his repentance was accepted even though he died at the midpoint of the cities he was journeying to and from. Al-Zamakshari says that these verses refer to any migration made for the sake of God. A Muslim can receive divine reward in the context of any religious purpose such as emigrating for the sake of hajj, asceticism, to study Islam, and to engage in jihād.
In conclusion, the manner in which classical and modern scholars have understood these set of verses has changed vastly over time. While modern scholars such as Mawdudi and Albani understand this as in the context of hijrah made for the sake of escaping solely political oppression just as the Muslims escaped oppression and went from Mecca to Medina, classical scholars have understood these verses applying to a specific historic event, and not being understood specifically within the context of governmental oppression. Many have understood this verse within the context of journeying for the sake of Islamic education, repentance, and jihad. The attempt of modern scholars to use this within the context of governmental oppression represents a break with the classical understanding of these verses.
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 Mawdudi, Syed Abul ʻAla. Tafhīmulqurʼān = Tafheem-Ul-Qur’an. Markazi Maktabah Islāmī, 2015.
 Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Study Quran: a New Translation and Commentary. HarperOne, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2017.