A leap of faith

Early Muslims looked beseechingly to Ethiopia and sought refuge in its territory from their persecutors, the polytheist Arabians. But the Christian kingdom, besieged for 15 centuries by Islamic states that formed a formidable ring around it, refused to succumb to the new religion. Gamal Nkrumah explores the often contentious connection between Ethiopia and Islam

Since time immemorial Ethiopia has retained her supercilious air. Throughout the centuries, the rugged Nile Basin country, bound to Islam from the religion's inception, has attracted scant attention compared to Egypt. Ethiopia's seclusion, however, did nothing to dispel its mystique. Ethiopia's ambiguous identity fascinated those outsiders who cared to take a closer look. Black, but not black enough. Christian, but only partially so. At once both primitive and civilised.

Numerous Arab and Muslim chroniclers have lavished praise on the only land beyond Arabia's borders that Prophet Mohamed turned to in his hour of need -- the only country that responded positively to his call for assistance. Perhaps the most important Arab treatise celebrating the special role Ethiopia played in early Islam was Jalal Al-Din Al-Suyuti's seminal work Raf' Sha'n Al- Hubshan (The Raising of the Status of the Ethiopians), written in the late 15th century. It was an earnest plea to reaffirm the equality of the races in Islam.

Ahmed Bin Ali Al-Maqrizi, who in 1435-36 wrote Kitab Al-Ilmam bi Akhbar man bi-Al- Habasha min Muluk Al-Islam (The Book of True Knowledge of the History of the Muslim Kings of Abyssinia), focussed on the mediaeval Muslim sultanates in the Horn of Africa, including those within the country today known as Ethiopia.

Jamal Al-Din Abu Farraj Ibn Al-Jawzi's The Lightening of the Darkness: On the Merits of the Blacks and the Ethiopians, written in the late 12th century AD, was another mediaeval treatise emphasising the non-racist principles of Islam. Others were far less charitable, suspiciously eyeing Ethiopia as an enemy of Islam. Indeed, Ethiopia has long been mistaken for a Christian country.

"Although the medieval legend of the Kingdom of Prester John, Europe's Christian ally beyond Islam, had been applied to various regions of Asia and Africa, Ethiopia as an exotic, remote mountain and Christian kingdom was an admirable candidate," explained Martin Bernal in Black Athena: The Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation.

Interestingly enough, because Ethiopia is widely seen as an isolated bastion of the monotheistic religions in Africa -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- the ancient religious, linguistic, cultural and commercial ties that bind the country to ancient Arabia, Egypt and Nubia have often been overlooked.

"Furthermore, Ethiopia could very plausibly be linked to Ancient Egypt. It should, however, be made clear that the name Abyssinia was used precisely to avoid Ethiopia, with its indelible associations with blackness," Bernal notes. Indeed, many scholars believe that some of the pre- Christian religious practices in Ethiopia were influenced by those of Ancient Egypt.

Geographical proximity and linguistic affinity ensured that Ethiopia's history and culture were intertwined with that of Arabia since ancient times. Ethiopia emerged as a country of special symbolic significance at the dawn of Islam. "For Muslims, Ethiopia is synonymous with freedom from persecution and emancipation from fear," wrote a former president of the Washington, DC- based Federation of Ethiopian Muslims in North America.

Furthermore, the rich heritage of Islam can be found among the Ethiopian people who speak the Semitic and Cushitic Afro-Asiatic languages, which includes Arabic. Among the Cushitic speaking peoples of Ethiopia who embrace Islam are the Afar of the desolate Danakil depression, the Somali, the Oromo -- the most populous ethnic group in Ethiopia today, and the Sidamo. The Semitic speaking people of Harar are also Muslim.

The centuries-long legacy of Muslim arts is apparent all around the country, but especially in historical cities such as Harar. The people of Harar are culturally distinct from other Ethiopians -- both Muslim and Christian. They speak Adari, a Semitic language closely related to Arabic and Amharic, and have been staunch Muslims for the past 500 years. Adari, derived from the Arabic word hadar, meaning urbanite or urbane, emerged as the language of scholarship and trade in a huge swathe of eastern Ethiopia. Today it is largely confined to Harar and the Ahmar (Red) mountain range surrounding the city.

Click to view caption
Mosque in Shek Husen; Bale, southeastern Ethiopia; one of the surviving ancient gates of Harar; a mosque in Negash
northern Ethiopia the first mosque built in the country. Clockwise: An ethnic Afar beauty; an Oromo basket seller and Harari houses

Islam has deep roots in the land now known as Ethiopia, and which in the past was better known as Abyssinia. Baraka Umm Ayman, Prophet Mohamed's nurse who raised him after the death of his mother, was Ethiopian. She remained his lifelong friend and loyal confidante.

Pre-Islamic cultural and commercial links between Abyssinia and Arabia go back a long way as attested in the Holy Qur'an. The Qur'an's Sura of the Elephant recalls the pre- Islamic Ethiopian General Abraha's attempt to capture Mecca and demolish the Ka'aba that was diverted by mysterious birds that filled the sky and pelted the Ethiopian army with stones. Those among the mighty elephant-mounted Ethiopian force not crushed to death quickly dispersed. Mecca and the Ka'aba were miraculously saved.

Pagan Arabians, clansmen of the Prophet's own Qureish tribe, vehemently opposed the new religion revealed to their kinsman. They viciously and systematically persecuted his followers.

Among the oppressed was an Ethiopian slave, Bilal Al-Habashi, or Bilal the Abyssinian, who believed in the Prophet's message. He was tortured by his master Omaya Ibn Khalaf for his beliefs. The Ethiopian had a beautiful and resonate voice and he became the first muezzin, or caller to prayer, in the history of Islam.

When the Prophet Mohamed instructed a small band of his early followers to flee Mecca and cross the Red Sea in 615 AD, he knew that they would find safe haven in the neighbouring Ethiopian Christian kingdom.

First 10 then 40 others crossed the Red Sea for the court of the goodly king known in Arab tradition as Ashama Ibn Abjar, or Al-Nagashi Ashama. The party included such notables as the third Caliph Othman Ibn Affan and his wife Ruqayya Bint Rasulillah, the prophet's daughter. Among those given asylum in Ethiopia were two future wives of Prophet Mohamed -- Ramla Bint Abi Sufyan, better known as Umm Habiba, and Sawda Bint Zama'a. Some Ethiopian Muslim traditions claim that the Ethiopian king bestowed a golden dowry on Umm Habiba when she became betrothed to the Prophet Mohamed. Islamic chroniclers maintain that the Prophet Mohamed corresponded with the Ethiopian monarch and that when the king died, the Prophet performed the Salat Al-Gha'eb, or prayer in absentia -- the first such prayer recorded in Islamic history.

Interestingly enough, there is no explicit reference in the records of the Ethiopian Church corroborating the first hijra, or exodus, of early Muslims to Ethiopia. It is not entirely clear exactly where the early Muslims settled, but it is often assumed that they stayed in the vicinity of the ancient Ethiopian capital Axum. Neither the Ethiopian Church records nor king lists mention a king called Ashama, even though some Ethiopian sources traditionally name a Negus Adriaz as the righteous king in question.

Muslim tradition has it that the Ethiopian king converted to Islam and adopted the name of Ahmed, much to the consternation of his subjects, the court and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Prophet Mohamed, as a token of his gratitude to the deceased king, urged his followers to especially revere the Ethiopians and treat them kindly. "Utruku Al-Habasha wa tarakukum," Prophet Mohamed is said to have admonished his followers -- "Leave the Abyssinians alone, so long as they do not take the offensive."

The question arises as to why Ethiopia? The Prophet could have chosen a safe haven for his followers in any of Arabia's other neighbours: modern-day Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iraq or Iran. Instead he chose Ethiopia, largely, it is said, because of the righteous reputation of Ethiopia's king, the Negus or Al-Najashi. "Go to Ethiopia, there is a king there that is just," Prophet Mohamed told his followers. His counsel proved to be wise.

Iran, then known as Persia, was a pagan country and the far-flung provinces of the Byzantine Empire -- Egypt and Syria -- were teetering on the verge of rebellion. The Copts of Egypt asked the Prophet to intervene on their behalf and overthrow Byzantine rule.

Ethiopia, in sharp contrast, was a free and pietistic land ruled by a magnanimous monarch.

Ethiopia was also a black African kingdom. Europeans conceived it as such. For the Arabs, however, Ethiopia was a multi-racial land and hence they named it Al-Habasha, the Land of the Mixed Race People. Abyssinia, a term derived from the Arabic Al-Habasha, was a curious geographic construct. It was neither full- fledgedly black African nor was it thoroughly Arabised. It stood apart and always at the crossroads. It was an ancient Christian kingdom that had ruled huge swathes of the Arabian Peninsula. As such it had strong cultural and economic links with the people of Arabia, and especially those of Al-Hejaz (the region which includes Islam's holiest cities Mecca and Medina) and Yemen.

Islam's hold on Ethiopia was never absolute. Still, Ethiopia has the third largest Muslim population in Africa after Nigeria and Egypt. The country has between 30-40 million Muslims, although estimates vary considerably. Still there is a sizable Muslim community in Ethiopia, more numerous than the entire population of countries like Iraq, Algeria or Morocco. It is also a community that has long cherished its special bond with the Muslims of Egypt and Arabia.

In spite of the peaceful and idyllic characterisation of the country by the early Muslim exiles, Ethiopia at the time of the first hijra was a kingdom on the verge of dissolution. Its kings frequently had to go to war to reassert their authority in the outlying provinces, regain lost territory and meet the challenge posed by provincial rulers.

Ethiopia had just lost Yemen, which fell into Persian hands. This loss forced the Ethiopian armies to retreat to their mountain strongholds in northern Ethiopia.

With the spread of Islam, the old Christian kingdom of Axum in northern Ethiopia began a long process of decline. Not only were Axum's fortunes reduced, but the kingdom's territory diminished because tributary states and outlying regions seceded.

The Muslim world, following Prophet Mohamed's injunction, largely left Christian Abyssinia to its own devices.

The first hijra to Ethiopia is considered by some scholars as Islam's first true overseas adventure. A number of Muslim Ethiopian scholars claim that many words in Ge'ez are found in the Holy Qur'an. Both Ge'ez -- the classical Semitic tongue of Ethiopia -- and Arabic do share a strong and ancient linguistic affinity.

Today, in the remote northern Ethiopian hamlet of Nagash in eastern Tigray, a unique but unassuming mosque is said to stand on the exact location that was first settled by the early Muslim exiles to Ethiopia. Other parts of the country, however, contain important Muslim sanctuaries and holy shrines. In the town of Shek Husen in the old province of Bale, Muslim pilgrims from all over the Horn of Africa come in search of religious knowledge and blessings. The eastern Ethiopian federal city-state of Harar is another town considered sacred to Ethiopian Muslims.


The ancient Christian kingdom of Abyssinia kept itself aloof from the Muslim world that engulfed it. The early eighth century, however, saw the mushrooming of Muslim communities which sprang up in different parts of present-day Ethiopia. These communities were not necessarily linked through politics or trade with Christian Abyssinia. Islam spread especially quickly among the nomadic peoples who inhabited the arid and far-flung corners of the country.

Arabian nomads lived similarly to the peoples of the Horn of Africa such as the Afar and the Somali peoples of the lowlands to the east and south of the Ethiopian highlands where the Christian kingdom flourished. Among the Oromo, another nomadic people whose language is related to those of the Afar and Somali people, Islam spread gradually. The Oromo shared the highlands with Christian Abyssinia, but the Oromo were predominant in the western, southern and eastern parts of the highlands, while the Christians were traditionally concentrated in the northeastern highlands.

The spread of Islam, as such, had no direct correlation with Axum's demise. But all of Ethiopia's neighbours -- save Nubia for a few centuries -- embraced the new religion.

Muslim traders monopolised the spice trade between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Even though Ethiopia was located at the crossroads of the spice trade, it isolated itself and was largely excluded from the lucrative trade. The Christian Ethiopian Zagwe dynasty (mid-12th to mid-14th centuries AD) and the successive Solomonic dynasty (mid-14th century to 1974) virtually cut off the country from its neighbours. Egypt, however, maintained its connections with Christian Ethiopia and thus somewhat moderated the country's insularity.

Generally though, Christian Ethiopia in mediaeval times was a landlocked and largely self- engrossed kingdom. The Muslim sultanates of Ethiopia, however, were heavily involved in the spice trade. By the mid-16th century, there were 15 different Muslim sultanates in what is today Ethiopia. These Muslim states prospered tremendously because of their trading in coffee and spices. The most powerful and influential of these sultanates were Iffat (an Oromo sultanate in Shoa) and Adal (Afar). Other important kingdoms included Kefa, which was founded by the Sidamo people around 1400, and Jimma in southwestern Ethiopia. These latter two sultanates are reputed to be the original homeland of coffee.

The Arabic-speaking ports of Berbera, Massawa and Zeila on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden were springboards from which the new religion spread into remoter parts of the region. The spread of Islam among the peoples of the Horn of Africa took place over several centuries. Islam was quickly adopted by the Somalis, the Afar, the Sidamo and many Oromo -- ethnic groups that are to this day predominantly Muslim. Ifat and Zeila became important Muslim sultanates, as did the Jimma and the Sidamo peoples, who had important commercial ties to Arabia and the Muslim countries bordering the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Tradition maintains that the mediaeval maltreatment of Copts in Egypt was reciprocated in Ethiopia by the persecution of the country's Muslims. The Mamluke Sultan Jaqmaq's (1438- 1453) correspondence with Emperor Zar'a Ya'qub showed how important the treatment of Muslim Abyssinians was to the rulers of Muslim states in the Middle East and North Africa, especially Egypt. Likewise, the treatment of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority by the Muslim rulers of the country was taken very seriously by the Ethiopians.

A letter written in 1290 by Ethiopia's Emperor Yibga Zion (1285-1294) to the Mamluke Sultan Mansur Al-Qalawun of Egypt (1279-1290) was typical of the mediaeval correspondence between Egyptian and Ethiopian rulers. "I shall protect the Muslims throughout my kingdom and His Highness will do the same with the Christians of Egypt; so let us unite in mutual understanding and common action, and let us go on corresponding."

The further strengthening of cultural ties between Egypt and Ethiopia during this period had a direct impact on the Muslim community in Ethiopia. During the reign of Emperor Dawit David (1380-1412), the translations made by Coptic monks from Arabic to Ge'ez made many Arabic texts readily available to the Ethiopians.

However, the co-existence of Islam, Christianity, Judaism and traditional African religions has not historically been an easy one. Sectarian tensions continued down the centuries, often erupting into deadly conflicts and devastating wars which marred the legacy of early Muslims in Ethiopia.


The legacy of the 1528-1560 Muslim-Christian wars that ripped Ethiopia apart was a mistrust between Christians and Muslims that never completely abated. Successive regimes have tried to gloss over the deep-rooted differences and have tried to foster a sense of national unity but the outcome of the wars continued to breed hostility.

At the heart of the jihad was the Muslim city of Harar, perched high in the Ahmar Mountains of eastern Ethiopia and long-regarded as the beacon of Islam and the holiest Islamic city in the country.

Harar became a Muslim power under Sultan Abu Bakr Mohamed in 1520. Its rise to prominence, however, was bloody and battle-ridden. Abu Bakr Mohamed was quickly toppled and killed by the religious zealot and military strongman Ahmed ibn Ibrahim, better known as Ahmed Gragn or Ahmed the Left-Handed.

The latter soon emerged as the scourge of Christian Ethiopia.

Ahmed Gragn's ultimate aim was to unite the Muslims of the Horn of Africa by establishing an Islamic state in the region. To accomplish this aim, he launched a holy war or jihad against Christian Ethiopia. Gragn at first appeared to be invincible. His armies overran Shoa in 1529, Amhara in 1531 and finally Tigray in 1535. The ancient Christian kingdom of Ethiopia appeared to be mortally wounded. Only a miracle or divine intervention could save Christianity in the country. According to Ethiopian Church records, nine out of every 10 Ethiopian Christians were forced to convert to Islam as a direct result of Ahmed Gragn's campaigns. His goal was the complete Islamisation of the country.

Relations between the Christians of northeastern Ethiopia and the thriving Islamic sultanates of eastern, central and southwestern Ethiopia were traditionally characterised by a tense co-existence. With Ahmed Gragn's campaigns, open hostilities and conflict became the norm. At stake was the destiny of Ethiopia and the entire Horn of Africa, as well as the cultural orientation of an ancient multi-linguistic and multi-religious land.

Ironically, it was the timely intervention of Portugal -- a Roman Catholic European power -- that saved Orthodox Christian Ethiopia. Lebna Dengel, the reigning Christian emperor at the time, sent urgent dispatches to the Portuguese requesting their aid. In 1540, some 400 Portuguese troops arrived to train and arm the Christian Ethiopian army. For the first time in Ethiopian history, guns were used on the battlefield. The tables were turned and the Muslim forces fled. The introduction of firearms determined the course of battle and the future of the country. The Muslim armies, however, were still able to exile Dengel to the impregnable Monastery of Debra Damo in Tigray where he later died in 1543. His son Galawdewos ascended the Solomonian throne and died in 1559 during his siege of Harar, after which his head was paraded around the city on a stake.

The arrival of the Portuguese represented a reversal of fortunes for the Muslims of the Horn of Africa. They never fully recovered from their defeat at the hands of the Ethiopian Christians and their Portuguese allies. Despite the attempts of Gragn's widow, Bati Del Wambara, to carry on his jihad, the Muslim Sultanate of Adal was finally destroyed by Christian Ethiopia in 1577. For centuries, Muslims were forced to play second fiddle to Christians.

Muslim traders and scholars from Harar, however, continued to have a tremendous influence on the Islamisation of other parts of Ethiopia and different ethnic groups of the country.

In 1647 Emir Ali Ibn Dawoud ruled Harar with an iron fist, and in a determined effort to Islamise the non-Muslim Oromo tribes surrounding the city, he embarked on a series of jihads. Today the bulk of Ethiopia's Muslims are Oromo, but many of the country's Muslims regard Harar as their spiritual centre and the guardian of Islamic culture and scholarship in the Horn of Africa.

Harar had its own currency and established diplomatic relations with a number of Muslim states in the region, but its autonomy was abruptly ended when Khedive Ismail of Egypt dispatched forces that occupied the city, and executed its emir. The Egyptian occupation of Harar was short-lived. In 1885 Emir Abdullah of Harar led a resistance movement that ended the Egyptian occupation.

Egyptian interest in the Nile Basin countries intensified after Mohamed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt, set his sights on the Sudan. In 1820-1821 Mohamed Ali's armies conquered the entire Sudan and proceeded to expand into central Africa and the Red Sea Basin, thereby encroaching on territory under the control of the Christian Abyssinian kingdom. The Pasha's expansion included clashes with Muslim sultanates in the Horn of Africa.

Mohamed Ali's successors advanced even further into the African continent. The Pasha's house greedily embraced the worst aspects of Western colonialism. The entire Nile Basin, with the notable exception of the Christian Abyssinian kingdom, was now in Egyptian hands. Certain kingdoms in the African Great Lakes region, like Buganda, also remained outside the Egyptian domain. The Egyptians soon adopted the European approach of condescendingly looking down on African cultural traditions and arrogating a civilising mission for themselves.

Khedieve Ismail's designs on an African empire were checked by Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV in the events leading up to the Battle of Gura. Britain and other European powers were determined to check Egypt's southward expansion. They wanted to make sure that Khedieve Ismail's grandiose designs to create an pan-Nilotic empire were crushed. The Europeans saw Ethiopia as a key ally in a plot to dash Ismail's plans.

The Egyptians were headquartered in the Red Sea port of Massawa, today the chief port of Eritrea. The stage was set for a showdown.

Khedieve Ismail deployed American mercenaries at the head of his 15,000-strong army. The Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV mustered some 60,000 crudely-armed warriors. After a series of battles, an estimated 8,500 Egyptian troops perished and beat a hasty retreat to Massawa. While Ismail retained control of Massawa and the Red Sea coastal strip, he pledged never to re-enter the Ethiopian highlands.

The Ethiopian victory at Gura in 1876 was the forerunner to the even more impressive and far- reaching Ethiopian defeat of the Italians at Adwa in March 1896. The Battle of Adwa was the first major victory of an African army over a European power. Egypt's overwhelming loss paved the way for British occupation of Egypt in 1882.

The great powers of Europe, and especially Britain, took a keen interest in the Horn of Africa and the Nile Basin. Ethiopia too was fast changing and the Christian Solomonian rulers of the highlands were expanding their domain into lands towards the south and east -- predominantly Muslim territories. In 1887, Harar lost its independence as an ancient Muslim sultanate when Menelik, the Prince of Shoa who would later become the founder of modern Ethiopia, defeated Emir Abdullah at the Battle of Chelenko. Menelik appointed Ras Makonen, the father of the future Emperor Haile Selassie, as ruler of the city. A new administration was set up which incorporated members of the deposed emir's family.

As Harar was the birthplace of Ras Tafari, who was later to assume the imperial title Haile Selassie, the city developed a special symbolic importance. The respectful treatment of the city's predominantly Muslim population by the new Christian rulers became a focus of Arab scrutiny and a catalyst for Muslim-Christian relations in Ethiopia.


The first Ethiopians to embrace Islam did so during Prophet Mohamed's own lifetime. Their descendants were historically known as the Jabarti or the Muslims of the Ethiopian highlands. The Jabartis lived relatively peaceably among their Christian and Jewish compatriots until an Ethiopian imperial decree was issued in 1668 which ordained that Jabartis (Muslims) and Felashas (Jews) would have to reside in separate quarters from the Christians. This effectively created a state of religious segregation.

The decree was no doubt inspired by the Portuguese, who began to meddle in the affairs of the country around that time. Portuguese mercenaries settled in the regions adjacent to Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, during the reign of Emperor Susneyos (1607-1632). Gradually gaining influence over the Ethiopian throne, the Portuguese in 1622 announced the official conversion of Emperor Susneyos to Roman Catholicism, much to the chagrin of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Solomonian aristocracy. Susneyos went on to persecute his Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish subjects. Thousands were butchered in massacres that were inspired by the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions.

Susneyos surrounded himself with a protective ring of Portuguese mercenaries who soon came to dominate his court. His people, however, rebelled and in 1632 Susneyos was forced to abdicate and his son Crown Prince Fasilidos became Emperor.

This tragic episode in Ethiopian history had far-reaching repercussions. First, it galvanised the people of the Ethiopian heartlands around the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the ruling elites officially adopted Orthodox Christianity as the state religion. Europeans were viewed suspiciously and the country deliberately shunned outside influences. Roman Catholics, Muslims and Jews were precluded from ascending the imperial throne which became the exclusive prerogative of Orthodox Christians.

The Solomonic tradition continued well into modern times.


After the death of Menelik II in 1913, Lij Iyasu ascended Ethiopia's Solomonian throne. Lij Iyasu, the grandson and designated heir of Menelik II, was viewed suspiciously by the imperial court and the Christian Orthodox aristocracy. He was regarded as overly friendly towards Muslims. Indeed, even though officially an Orthodox Christian, many of his courtiers suspected his secret conversion to Islam. Several of Lij Iyasu's wives were Muslim and while his admirers saw these marriages as important political alliances that cemented ties with the far-flung and newly conquered Muslim regions of the empire, his critics felt that the country was in danger of becoming a Muslim dominated state. The Orthodox clergy and nobility conspired to remove Iyasu.

In 1916, Iyasu was ousted and he fled to the inhospitable and predominantly Muslim lowland region inhabited by the warlike Afar. Princess Zewditu, Menelik II's daughter, was hastily crowned Empress of Ethiopia. Iyasu was captured by imperial forces five years later and was incarcerated in Fiche, northern Shoa. It was not the first time that an Ethiopian monarch suspected of being sympathetic to Muslims was politically sidelined. It simply reinforced a long- standing tradition.

Strangely enough, it is held that certain members of the Solomonian royal family were Ashraf -- that is they claimed descent from the Prophet Mohamed. A relatively recent example was the Empress Menen, consort of Emperor Haile Selassie, who claimed she was descended from the Prophet Mohamed through her mother Sehin, daughter of Negus Mikael (alias Mohamed Ali) of the old province of Wollo.


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