In this important article about influential American Muslim leader Yasir Qadhi, author Andrea Elliott compares him with another young American Muslim with a significant following, Anwar Al Awlaki. She writes that Qadhi sees America as Abyssinia whereas Awlaki views it as Mecca. The difference is worthy of note.
I've often noted that Western non-Muslims have no idea how important events in the Prophet's life are to Muslims. These references to Abyssinia and Mecca refer to the thirteen years Muhammad spent in Mecca before migrating north to Medina with about 100 fellow Muhajirun (immigrants). Muhammad's proposal that the Quraysh of Mecca accept him as a Prophet of God had fallen on deaf ears except for some mostly poor individuals and slaves who responded to his leadership. When the Quraysh turned against them, Muhammad sent 83 of them to Abyssinia, now the Christian country of Ethiopia. Their Christian ruler was the Negus, and he not only welcomed the newcomers with full hospitality but allowed them to practice their faith without opposition.
The Quraysh were not happy that their fellow tribesmen had migrated to Abyssinia, and sent two emissaries to persuade the Negus to repatriate them. Although Islam's oldest historical reference, that of Ibn Ishaq, states that the Quraysh wanted to get them back "so they could seduce them from their religion and get them out of the home in which they were living in peace", it is important to realize this history was written 200 years after the events took place and was based upon generations of undocumented oral history. Mecca was a slave-driven society, and it is probable the Quraysh simply wanted to get back the slaves who had believed Muhammad's promise that by abandoning their former masters and following him they would obtain the wealth of the Persian and the Roman Empires.
The Quraysh emissaries, whose names were Amr and Abdallah, had a careful strategy to ensure the success of their mission. Knowing that fine leather was treasured in Abyssinia, they gave leather skins to each of the Negus' generals asking them to present their petition to their ruler. The generals did so, but the Negus said he would not return exiles who had come to him for protection without questioning them first. When the Muslim immigrants were summoned before the Negus and he asked them to explain their new religion, they replied they had been idolaters before Muhammad persuaded them to worship only one God. When the Negus asked if they had anything written from this God they responded by reciting Surat Maryam from the Quran, the chapter of the Virgin Mary.
They could not have chosen a better chapter. It begins with the miraculous birth of John the Baptist to his aged parents and continues with the equally miraculous birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary, adding a non-Biblical account of Jesus speaking as an infant. The surah goes on to describe the prophetic ministry of Moses and his brother Aaron before the Egyptian ruler Pharaoh, and freely intersperses Muhammad's conviction that he himself was a Prophet not only equal to but superior to all of those.
The Negus was impressed with the reading, and swore again that he would never betray the people who had come to him for protection. Amr and Abdallah, however, were not about to give up, and believing they still held the trump card informed the Negus that Muhammad and his followers did not believe that Jesus was God. The ruler responded by calling the Muslims again to ask them personally what they believed about Jesus.
Now the Muslims were in a quandary. Should they tell the truth and admit they did not believe Jesus was Divine, thus risking being forced back to Mecca? They decided to take another approach and informed the Negus their Prophet had informed them Jesus was "the slave of God, his Apostle, and his Word which he cast into Mary the Blessed Virgin". The Negus was pleased with their response, and reaffirmed his willingness for them to remain in his country as long as they wished. Children were born to the Muslims in Abyssinia, and they lived there in peace until some of them returned to Mecca some time later where soon afterwards they migrated with Muhammad to Medina. Others remained in Abyssinia for years, only returning at Muhammad's orders after he defeated the Jews at the Battle of Khaybar. Still others never returned but became Christians in Abyssinia, including Ubaydullah whose spouse later became one of Muhammad's wives.
How could Yasir Qadhi imagine that America is Abyssinia? In some ways the answer is obvious. America is the majority Christian country that opened its doors to Muslims fleeing oppression and poverty from all over the world. America has allowed them to prosper and practice their faith, and has rejected the call of those who suggest it should send them back. Muslims are indeed living in America today as their spiritual ancestors 1400 years ago lived in Abyssinia.
Anwar Al Awlaki sees it differently. America to him is Mecca, the city where Muhammad warned of the coming judgment of God. America-also-known-as-Mecca is the city that rejected the message of the Prophet, forcing him to flee until he could equip an army that would bring it to its knees. Just as Muhammad conquered Mecca ten years later with an army of ten thousand warriors, Anwar Al Awlaki and his army of Mujahidin are determined to obey the command of their Prophet to fight the Mushrikun and the Kuffar - those who reject the message of Muhammad - until only Allah is worshipped and his Deen established throughout the land (Quran 2:193).
Just as I've noted that we in the West have no idea how important Muhammad is to Muslims, I've also noted that the majority of Muslims follow the Prophet they wish had existed rather than the Muhammad who really did. Salafi leaders such as Yasir Qadhi and Anwar Al Awlaki are different in what they know exactly who Muhammad was and what he did. The position of Qadhi, in my opinion, is much weaker than that of Awlaki.
Muhammad never went to Abyssinia, and there is no indication his followers saw their stay there as anything more than a temporary respite from the troubles of Mecca. Rather than honestly state they did not believe in the divinity of Jesus and take the risk of being repatriated to Mecca, they couched their response to the Negus' questions about Jesus in terms that would satisfy him. There is no evidence that they tried to convert the Abyssinians to Islam, and there is also no indication they adopted the adversarial position to the Christians there that Muhammad later adopted towards the Jews of Medina.
I've written here that after reading Tareq Ramadan's What I Believe I really had no idea what he believes. The same is true of Yasir Qadhi. Even after reading Andrea Elliott's article carefully, not once but twice, I still do not know what he believes. Nor do I believe he would tell me if I asked.
Anwar Al Awlaki is, in more opinion, both more honest and more consistent. His message is short and sweet, "Watch out, America, we're coming to get you!" Although American law enforcement agencies might see Qadhi as their ally if not their friend, and view Awlaki as the enemy, I'm not sure the situation is that black and white.