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The Islamic State’s Perversion of Hijra

LONDON – In recent decades, the Arabic word jihad – once used to describe the duty of all Muslims to act according to their faith – has become overwhelmingly associated with the waging of violent war against non-believers. With the rise of the Islamic State, another term has been refashioned for inclusion in the lexicon of extremist violence: hijra.

As with jihad, this is no mere semantic hijacking. The real-world implications are all too alarming. By militarizing the concept of hijra, which traditionally referred to Muslims’ peaceful migration to lands where they would be free from persecution, they have created a powerful tool for radicalizing and recruiting Muslims far and wide, including in the United States and Europe.

Hijra’s association with Islam has its origins in the Prophet Mohammed’s escape from Mecca to Medina in 622, to avoid assassination and preserve his community. He and his followers knew that as long as they remained in Mecca, they would be despised by non-Muslims; their very lives were in danger. And so, in an act of hijra – or migration – the prophet left the city of his birth. Islam would have a stable base, because Muslims in Medina would be free to worship according to the dictates of their faith.

Mohammed’s hijra is not narrated in the Koran, but the sacred book is structured around the event, divided into revelations he received in Mecca and those he received in Medina. The year of Mohammed’s hijra also became the first year of the Islamic calendar. And, as the faith spread, the word came to describe not only Mohammed’s departure for Medina, but also a general obligation by all Muslims to migrate to lands under Muslim rule when it will serve their faith.