(A note for non-Muslim readers of this article: In the Muslim understanding, all Prophets of God and their true followers are those who have submitted to God, and are thus considered Muslim. Furthermore, with the passage of time, a number of beliefs and practices have been added to the original message of God that has been revealed to humans through various Prophets which have diluted the original pure message of belief in One God. This understanding serves as a common ground for Muslims and those of other faiths, since there is recognition of the Divine nature of other faiths).
If you say the word "Ansar" (helper) to many Muslims, they will most probably point to the city of Madinah in modern day Saudi Arabia and talk about a group of remarkable individuals of early Islamic history.
They'll tell you about these people of this blessed city who accepted Islam and opened their homes, wealth, families, and most importantly, their hearts, to fellow Muslims in need, the Muhajirs.
Muhajirs were Muslims who had left their homes, livelihoods and in many cases, their families in the city of Makkah, for the sake of Allah and migrated to Madinah after enduring extreme suffering and hardship simply because they had chosen Islam over the polytheism of their ancestors.
The Muhajirs were homeless and more or less penniless in Madinah. They needed help.
Enter the Muslims of Madinah
These Muslims became the Ansars (helpers) of their Muhajir brothers and sisters in faith. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, instituted a system whereby one Muhajir and one Ansari were teamed up. They become brothers and sisters not just in material things, but in their hearts as well.
Allah talks about these Ansar in the Quran:
"And of those who led the way-the first of the Emigrants (Muhajirun) and the Helpers (Ansar), and those who followed them in the best possible manner-Allah is well-pleased with them and they are well-pleased with Allah. He has prepared for them Gardens beneath which rivers flow; therein they will abide for ever. That is the supreme triumph (Quran 9:100).
"Surely Allah has relented towards the Prophet, and towards the Muhajirun (Emigrants) and the Ansar (Helpers) who stood by him in the hour of distress when the hearts of a party of them had well-nigh swerved. (But when they gave up swerving from the right course and followed the Prophet) Allah relented towards them. Surely to them He is Most Tender, Most Merciful" (Quran 9:117).
But the term Ansar is used in the Quran to describe another group of people, who lived hundreds of years before the time of Prophet, but who were also Muslims.
The Ansar of Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him)
"And when Jesus perceived their leaning towards unbelief, he asked: ‘Who will be my helpers in the way of God?' The disciples said: ‘We are the helpers of God. We believe in Allah, and be our witness that we have submitted ourselves exclusively to God. Our Lord! We believe in the commandment You have revealed and we obey the Messenger; make us, then, one of those who bear witness (to the Truth)' (3:52-53).
In his explanation of these two verses of the Quran, Syed Abul Ala Mawdudi notes that the word "Hawari" means almost the same thing as "Ansar" in the Islamic tradition. In the Bible, the usual terms are ‘apostles' and ‘disciples'. Jesus' chosen disciples were called apostles in the sense that they had been entrusted with a mission by him rather than in the sense of having been entrusted with a mission by God.
These Ansar were also Muslims
These earlier Ansar, like the later ones of the Prophet's time, submitted to the Truth: the Oneness of God and obedience to His commands, which has been the message of all Prophets from the time of the first Prophet Adam (peace be upon him) until the last one, Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. By submitting to the Truth, they were witnesses to it. Those who submit to the Truth are also called Muslims.
In fact, God describes these earlier Ansar clearly as Muslims.
"And when I (Allah) put in the hearts of the disciples (of Jesus) to believe in Me and My Messenger, they said: ‘We believe. And bear witness that we are Muslims'" (Quran 5:111).
As followers of the true message of Prophet Jesus, they were, as all the Prophets are, Muslims.
Seeking a strengthening of faith
The Ansar of Jesus, like thousands of individuals of the past and present, wanted proof to strengthen their belief in Allah and the message He had sent through Jesus. Their request was for food (Maidah). This word is the title of the fifth chapter of the Quran, in which this request is discussed.
"(Remember) when the disciples said: ‘O Jesus, son of Mary! Can your Lord send down to us a table spread (with food) from heaven?' Jesus said: ‘Fear Allah, if you are indeed believers.'
They said: ‘We wish to eat thereof and to be stronger in Faith, and to know that you have indeed told us the truth and that we ourselves be its witnesses.'
Jesus, son of Mary, said: ‘O Allah, our Lord! Send us from heaven a table spread (with food) that there may be for us-for the first and the last of us-a festival and a sign from You; and provide us sustenance, for You are the Best of sustainers.'
Allah said: ‘I am going to send it down unto you, but if any of you after that disbelieves, then I will punish him with a torment such as I have not inflicted on anyone among (all) the mankind and Jinns (Quran: 112-115).
Interestingly, these disciples of Prophet Jesus consider him just that: a Messenger, and the son of Mary. They never refer to him as God, or son of God. Nor do they ask him for a miracle. They know that all power is with Allah alone.
Victory without battle
The Ansar at the time of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, fought a number of battles against the disbelieving Makkans, after having endured years of severe persecution and attack. Ultimately, Allah granted them victory over their enemies and they reentered Makkah in a triumph for Truth and Justice.
The earlier Ansar were also granted victory. However, this was done with no formal war on the battlefield. God says in the Quran:
"O you who believe! Be you helpers (in the Cause of) Allah as said Jesus, son of Mary, to the disciples: ‘Who are my helpers (in the Cause of Allah)?' The disciples said: ‘We are Allah's helpers. Then a group of the Children of Israel believed and a group disbelieved. So We gave power to those who believed against their enemies, and they became the uppermost" (61:14).
Lessons from the two Ansars
Faith in the face of difficulties and seeking and supporting the Truth: these are characteristics of both groups of Ansar. These committed individuals took a stand to support of One Message-the Oneness of God and obedience to Him. They also supported the Messengers who brought them the Truth in their times, in spite of the hostility and enmity of their contemporaries. May Allah make our faith strong like that of these blessed Ansar.