Arabia has been a place of epic journeys since the dawn of humanity. Recent archaeological discoveries have shown that our distant ancestors entered Arabia from Africa repeatedly for at least 400,000 years.
Throughout antiquity, when Arabia was a source of rare and valuable aromatic resins such as frankincense and myrrh, a complex network of long-distance trade routes connected its ancient civilisations to those of ancient Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Levant.
But as Abdullah Al Rashid, director of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) writes in a new book, Hijrah: In the Footsteps of the Prophet, despite the historical importance of those journeys, one — the Hijrah — continues to resonate above all others.
“The Hijrah has literally defined time and the ages. For over a billion people, the Hijrah marks the calendar and the sequence of the centuries,” Al Rashid says. “It marks a pivotal moment in history when the perception of Islam and nature of the Muslim community changed forever."
Translated variously as the "migration" or "emigration", the Hijrah was a pre-planned but perilous flight from religious persecution made by the Prophet Mohammed and a select band of followers — the muhajirun — in 622.
The Prophet Mohammed’s migration from Makkah, his birthplace, to Medina began when he left his wife Khadijah's house. He headed past the Kaaba to the home of Abu Bakr, his close friend and trusted advisor. Both men then headed south to the foot of Mount Thawr, where they hid for three days in a cave before continuing their journey for eight days through an arid and unforgiving landscape to the safety of Medina, some 450 kilometres to the north.
Soon after their arrival, the Prophet Mohammed established agreements with the local Medinese clans that secured recognition and equity for his followers. In doing so, the Prophet Mohammed established the first Muslim community, or ummah, a community defined by faith rather than family, clan or tribe.
Central to Islam's establishment as both an organised religion and a socio-political institution, the Hijrah also became the official start date of the Hijri calendar in 639 when it was instituted by the second Caliph, Umar I.
For Dr Idries Trevathan, Ithra's curator of Islamic Art and Culture and editor of Hijrah: In the Footsteps of the Prophet, the Hijrah is not only an event of religious importance but also marks a historic step toward the foundation of a new collective identity, a moment, he says, when the "Muslim community went from being a small group of believers, surrounded by enemies who threatened their very existence, to that of an Islamic nation".
Trevathan's book has been published to coincide with the Hijrah’s 1400th anniversary and also accompanies an eponymous exhibition, which he has curated at Ithra in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia — both of which adopt a multi-disciplinary approach to analysing and contextualising the epochal event.
In print, the result is a lavishly illustrated text that features contributions by contemporary artists, photographers, filmmakers and artisans alongside chapters by historians and academics.
These include various attempts to visualise the Hijrah as both a geographical route and a spiritual journey in ways, Trevathan explains, that "go beyond the literal or the prosaic".
The artist Ayesha Amjad has attempted to do just this with her hand-painted Hijrah Memory Map (2021), which renders the Prophet Mohammed's flight in handmade pigments and gold leaf. Inspired by her love of medieval Islamic maps, Amjad, a recent graduate of The Prince's School of Traditional Arts in London, has used roses to symbolise the Prophet Mohammed's footsteps interspersed with miniature vignettes that illustrate each of the key episodes in his flight.
"These magical events colour our memories of this auspicious and historic journey," Amjad writes. "Today, the Hijrah remains an inspirational story of hope where we are reminded that even the gravest quest can end in triumph.”
If Amjad’s response is poetic and aesthetic, the renowned Saudi academic, Abdullah bin Hussein Alkadi, seeks geographical precision. Widely considered as the world’s authority on the Hijrah and among the greatest living biographers of the Prophet Mohammed, Alkadi has dedicated his career to retracing the route of the momentous journey.
For more than four decades Alkadi has pored over historical narratives, considered oral traditions, local stories and place names that refer to topographical features along the Hijrah route in order to discover the likely route taken by the Prophet Mohammed and Abu Bakr after their descent from Mount Thaw.
“This was not a migration that could follow the usual well-trodden caravan route. The Prophet’s life was in danger and in their attempt to avoid detection the very first stage of their journey was to head in a southerly direction to the cave,” Alkadi writes. “From here they needed to find a northward route towards Medina off the main caravan route to avoid detection.”
Since embarking on the first field trip in 2003, the academic has conducted more than 60 expeditions and clocked up more than 100,000 kilometres researching the route of the Hijrah, the equivalent of circumnavigating the globe two-and-a-half times.
“It has been a journey that has occupied me for some 40 years and is one that I hope will continue the rest of my life,” Alkadi writes. “Some refer to this as an obsession, but I prefer to say that I have fallen in love with my quest.”
Beyond its significance for Muslims, Trevathan sees the power of the Hijrah story in its capacity to address "universal human themes: courage, duty, loss, companionship, persecution, migration, community and freedom". He adds: "Indeed, the latter in particular is worth looking into further as Prophet Mohammed's quest for freedom — the freedom to worship — is an essential and core part of the story."
This idea is taken up by the academic Hamza Yusuf Hanson, who among his many posts serves under Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah as a member of the UAE’s highest Fatwa Council. In the book, Hanson considers the Hijrah as part of a long tradition of migratory journeys that recur in scripture from the time of Abraham, through Moses and the Virgin Mary to the Prophet Mohammed.
"As Muslims, we are taught that all wayfarers deserve food, safety, and refuge from harm. The Quran states: “Let them worship the Lord of this House who has satiated their hunger and freed them from fear.”
Like the exhibition the book accompanies, Hijrah: In the Footsteps of the Prophet sets out to rectify a 1400-year-old lacuna in our knowledge of a world-changing event, of which details have remained tantalisingly out of reach. Kaleidoscopic, learned and exquisitely illustrated, the book represents a major step in rectifying this imbalance while shedding new light on an event that continues to be of inspiration and relevance, regardless of one’s background or faith.
Hijrah: In the Footsteps of the Prophet is out now.
Scroll through images of the Ithra's Hijra exhibition below