Tragic news just came out of Ethiopia, one of the most populated African countries where Muslims constitute around a third of the country’s total population (PEW Research says 34.6% for 2010, and Muslims have a higher fertility rate, so numbers are probably higher now).
More than 20 people have been killed in an attack on Muslims in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar during the funeral of a Muslim elder, a local Islamic group said on Wednesday.
The Islamic Affairs Council of Amhara, the region where Gondar is located, described Tuesday’s attack at a cemetery as a “massacre” by heavily armed “extremist Christians.”
The attackers “fired a barrage of heavy machine guns and grenades… leaving many dead while others who were injured have been taken to hospital,” the religious body said.
“More than 20 have died due to yesterday’s attack which also saw the looting of Muslim properties,” it added.
Will there be worldwide liberal outrage? Will there be fresh orders from Christian liberals to rewrite the Bible, since it contains genocidal imperatives which can be weaponized against Muslims?
But Islam’s history in what’s now Ethiopia isn’t limited to such recent crimes. Islam has a slight majority among the Oromos, the single largest ethnic group of the country, but also has good representation among another historically dominant ethnicity, the Amharas, while yet other populations, such as the Somalis and the Afars, are virtually all Muslims.
This part of Africa and Southern Arabia were linked since centuries before Islam, as we can see through the Kingdom of Sheba or the Abyssinian-Christian general Abraha’s failed invasion of Mecca in 570 AD, an historical event which is amply described in Surah 105 of the Quran.
With Islam, Ethiopia found a new historical dynamic.
The First Place Of Religious Migration (Hijra)
What makes Ethiopia important to the general Islamic consciousness is that Abyssinia (which also includes neighboring Eritrea) was the place where Muslims first did hijra to escape pagan persecutions.
In his famous book of sira, The Sealed Nectar, Safiur Rahman Mubarakpuri writes in pp. 145-146:
The series of persecutions started late in the fourth year of Prophethood, slowly at first, but steadily accelerated and worsened day by day and month by month.
By the middle of the fifth year, the situation got so grave and intolerable that the Muslims began to think of feasible ways to avert the painful torture meted out to them.
It was in this depressing and desperate period that Allah informed them that His earth was not restricted for them, alluding to migration. He revealed Surat Az-Zumar (Chapter 39 — The Groups) saying in it: “Good is for those who do good in this world, and Allah’s earth is spacious. Only those who are patient shall receive their rewards in full, without reckoning.” [39:10]
The Prophet ﷺ knew that Ashamah, who held the title of Negus, king of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), was a just ruler who would not wrong any of his subjects, so he permitted some of his followers to seek asylum in Abyssinia (Ethiopia).
In Rajab of the fifth year of Prophethood, a group of twelve men and four women left for Abyssinia (Ethiopia).
The pagan Quraysh then delegated some men to bribe the Negus with valuable gifts and push him to stop giving refuge to the Muslims. Interestingly, one of these men was none other than ‘Amr ibn al-As (radyAllahu ‘anhu), who, after his conversion to Islam, will become not less than the conqueror of Egypt himself! Doesn’t that show the power of Islam, that its former harshest enemies become those who spread it?
Even if the Negus resisted the Quraysh attempts at corrupting him, he still was curious, and naturally wanted to know more about the “new” (so he thought) religion. This will be the occasion for Ja’far ibn Abi Talib (radyAllahu ‘anhu) to pronounce a sort of memorable speech which encapsulates the essence of Islam as opposed to the jahiliyyah (ignorance) of the pre-Islamic Arabs.
Mubarakpuri quotes him in p. 149:
O king! We were an ignorant people. We worshipped idols and ate the meat of dead carcasses. We were accustomed to lewd behavior, to severing the ties of kinship, neglecting our neighbors, and the strong among us consumed [the property of] the weak. This is how we were, but then Allah sent a Messenger to us. We were aware of his lineage, his truthfulness, that he was trustworthy, and chaste.
He began inviting us to Allah, that we single Him out and that we worship him. So we left the religion of our forefathers that we had followed previously, we left the worship of stones and idols, of all others besides Allah.
He also commanded us to be truthful in our speech, fulfill trusts, nurture the ties of kinship, be kind to our neighbor, and to refrain from spilling blood unlawfully. He forbade us from lewd behavior, from obscene speech, from consuming the orphan’s wealth, and from slandering chaste women.
He commanded that we worship Allah Alone without associating anything with him, he commanded us to perform the prayer, give charity, and fast” — and he listed the Islamic injunctions.
He continued, “Thus, we trusted him and believed in him, and followed the religion of Allah that he delivered. We began to worship Allah Alone, we would not associate anything with Him, and we began prohibiting what He made unlawful for us, as well as allowing what He had made lawful for us.
At this, our people rose as enemies against us, punishing us, torturing us to get us to leave our religion and return to worshipping idols instead of worshipping Allah, and they expected us to consider all the filthy things lawful as we previously did. So when they overpowered us, oppressed us and restricted us, when they came between us and our religion, then we came to your land, we chose you over others besides you, desiring to be your neighbor, and hoping that you — O king — will not wrong us.”
The Negus was impressed, even more so when the Muslims recited Surah Maryam, which particularly resonated with him as a Christian, who initially thought that these Muslims would bring a message that would deny or even denigrate Jesus (alayhi as’salam).
The Habashi Companions
We have to begin with a sort of anthropological disclaimer: When we hear about the “Black” companions, they’re virtually always Abyssinians or Habashi, and Habasha itself in fact doesn’t even concern the whole of the Ethiopian (and Eritrean) ethnic groups, but the Amharas, the Tigrayans, and the Tigrigna, who make up around 40 million in a combined Ethiopian and Eritrean population of roughly 125 million.
These Habashi are said to be linked to Semitic peoples, more specifically the Arabs of Yemen, which can be demonstrated through their culture, language, and even facial features or overall phenotype.
It’s not that important, obviously, as Islam transcends race through taqwa (piety), but this ethnic precision isn’t that worthless either.
From among such Companions the name which comes directly to mind is that of Bilal ibn Rabah (radyAllahu ‘anhu), half-Abyssinian through his mother, who under Quraysh torture repeatedly shouted “Ahad Ahad (One, One)!” to show his determination to not abandon his faith, the same way Muslims are tortured today for the same reasons. He’s also Islam’s first muazzin (caller to prayer).
Another one is Wahshi ibn Harb (radyAllahu anhu), who’s name literally means “son of war” and who also exemplifies the transformative effects of Islam: He went from being the killer of the Prophet ﷺ’s beloved uncle, and esteemed warrior, Hamza (radyAllahu ‘anhu), during the battle of Uhud, to being the killer of Musaylima, the archetypal figure of the false prophet in early Islam, during the battle of Yamama.
Among the female Companions of Abyssinian or Habashi origins, there was Umm Ayman (radyAllahu ‘anha), the nursemaid of our Prophet ﷺ, who took care of him since his early childhood and he himself eventually considered her a sort of mother-like figure.
We could multiply these examples of both male and female Companions belonging to this group.
The Turbulent Later History
While all of this would give a generally positive picture of Islam in Ethiopia, there are also negative events to consider. The Ethiopian Empire, in the first part of the last millennium, began to wage wars against many Muslim empires and dynasties, inaugurating the long engagement with the Sultanate of Ifat in the 14th century. These were attempts from Ethiopia to subdue, dominate, and exploit its neighbors, mainly what are now Somalia and Eritrea but also, to a lesser degree, Sudan.
A particularly important episode was the war between Ethiopia and the Sultanate of Adal, in the 16th century, led by the Somali imam Ahmad al-Ghazi, who, as Britannica put it:
“At the height of his conquest, he held more than three-quarters of the kingdom [of Ethiopia], and, according to the chronicles, the majority of men in these conquered areas had converted to Islam.”
The Somalis would keep rising against Ethiopia, for instance during the Dervish Wars (1900-1920) under Abdullah Hassan (the so-called Mad Mullah), when the Abyssinians had to ally themselves with the Italian and the British Empires to finish off the Somali resistance, the insurgency ending only with the first large operation of aerial bombing by the British. You can say that the modern use of jets and drones against Muslims began here (they used the tactics in Iraq slightly before but not as a wider, ruthless “counterinsurgency strategy”).
Not all Abyssinians teamed up with the Europeans against the Muslims. Like the Negus, Lij Iyasu, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1913 to 1916, was fond of Islam. In fact, it was because there were very credible reports that he converted to Islam that he was excommunicated by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and basically lost his authority.
The Ethiopian-Somali conflict raged on, with a landmark event being the Ogaden War (1977-1978), during which Somalia was famously betrayed by its “friend” the Soviet Union. Ogaden is a Somali region occupied by Ethiopia (“Somali Region” is now an official administrative unit of Ethiopia, and you can see how large it is on the map). Ethiopian-Somali border clashes and skirmishes, as well as geopolitical manipulations (Ethiopia weaponizing the “War on Terror” to target Somalis), all are still happening.
This is the centuries-old Ethiopian conflict with just one Muslim ethnic group, the Somalis, but we could also mention the Afar people (outside Ethiopia and Eritrea they also make up a substantial part of Djibouti), and many others.