Sunday 29 September 2019

Ethiopia (Abyssinia): Host to First Ever Muslim Migration

Today in our series of posts on Islam and Life of Muslims in Non Muslim Countries, we take you to Ethiopia, an otherwise less talked about country in the affairs of the world. But the lands that now constitute present day Ethiopia and Eritrea, were the earliest lands in the history of Islam where the first ever Muslim migration took place in the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The narration of events and life of Muslims in present day Ethiopia is followed by a heartwarming video on the fascinating history of Islam in Ethiopia, specially its end part which takes us to Negus, the place where the Muslim migrants came and met the Abyssinian king Negus.

This post should be read in conjunction with one of our earlier posts on the exegesis of Surah Maryam (Mary, mother of Prophet Jesus, may Allah be pleased with her), for when the Muslims who migrated to Abbasinia recited verses from Surah Maryam when presented before the Abyssinian king Negus.

There are about twenty-five million Muslims in Ethiopia (as per 2007 estimates as there are no later estimates available), that make up 33.9 percent of the total population. Muslims are the majority in the southern and eastern parts of the country, and in the southwest, while they remain a tiny minority in northern Ethiopia. As for Eritrea (independent since 1993), in the absence of official state data and of a universally accepted estimation, it is realistically surmised that around half of the Eritreans are Muslim, or about three million people. 

How did Muslims reach this part of the word as early as 615 AD, is a long story. It starts with the advent of Islam in the Arabian peninsula, specially the areas around present day Makkah (Mecca) to which Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) belonged and it was here that at the age of 40 years he was chosen for the prophethood and as the last messenger from Allah.  

When the Prophet of Allah started preaching the religion of Islam, he was severely contested by the disbelievers who found Islam at tangent to the teachings of their forefathers. As more and more disbelievers started to come under the fold of Islam, the more frustrated the pagans of Makkah became and they started persecuting the Muslims, torturing them physically and even did not hesitate to kill some. This situation worsen with every day that went by and it became difficult for Muslims to face hardships and persecution at the hand of polytheists  of the ruling Quraysh tribe of Makkah.

Feeling alarmed at the affliction of his companions, the Prophet of Allah allowed them to migrate and said: "If you were to go to Abyssinia or Habash as then called so in Arabic (it would be better for you), for the king will not tolerate injustice and it is a friendly country, until such time as Allah shall relieve you from your distress." 

Accordingly, at first, eleven men and four women left for Habash. The Quraish pursued them up to the coast but fortunately they got a timely boat for Habash at the sea-port of Shu'aibah, and reached safely in Habash. A after a few months, another larger contingent  of eighty-three men and eleven women of the Quraish and seven non-Quraish migrated to Habash. After this, only forty persons were left with the Holy Prophet at Makkah. 

The sudden exodus of Muslims, most of whom were relatives of the polytheists of Makkah created an alarm in the ranks and file of the Quraysh tribe which was the dominant tribe of Makkah. And decided to send a delegation to Habash and pursue the King for the return of their people. Abdullah bin Abi Rabiy'ah, half brother of Abu Jahl, and Amr bin As were thus despatched to Habash with precious gifts so as to persuade Negus to send the migrants back to Makkah. When they were presented before King Negus, they said, "Some headstrong brats of our city have come to your land and our chiefs have sent us to you with the request that you may kindly send them back. These brats have forsaken our faith and have not embraced your faith either, but have invented a new faith". Since the King was a wise and noble man, he said, "I am not going to give them back without proper inquiry. As these people have put their trust in my country rather than in any other country and have come here to take shelter, I will not betray them. At first I will send for them and investigate into the allegations these people have made against them. Then I will make my final decision". Accordingly, the King sent for the Companions of the Holy Prophet and asked them to come to his court.

When the migrants received the message of the King, they decided to present before the King the teachings of the Holy Prophet without adding anything to or withholding anything from them and left the consequences to Allah. When presented before the king, the King said:"I understand that you have given up the faith of your own people and have neither embraced my faith nor any other existing faith. I would like to know what your new faith is." At this, Jafar bin Abi Talib, on behalf of the migrants, made an extempore speech to this effect: "O King! We were sunk deep in ignorance and had become very corrupt; then Muhammad (Allah's peace be upon him) came to us as a Messenger of God, and did his best to reform us. But the Quraish began to persecute his followers, so we have come to your country in the hope that here we will be free from persecution". After his speech, the King said, "Please recite a piece of the Revelation which has been sent down by God to your Prophet". In response, Hadrat Jafar recited that portion of Surah Maryam which relates the story of Prophets John and Jesus (Allah's peace be upon them). The King listened to it and wept, so much so that his beard became wet with tears. When Hadrat Jafar finished the recital, he said:"Most surely this Revelation and the Message of Jesus have come from the same source. By God I will not give you up into the hands of these people".

But the representative of Makkah were not giving it up that easy. And `Amr bin `As went to Negus and said, "Please send for them again and ask them concerning the creed they hold about Jesus, the son of Mary, for they say a horrible thing about him". The King again sent for the migrants, who had already learned about the scheme of Amr. They again sat together and held consultations in regard to the answer they should give to the King, if he asked about the belief they held about Prophet Jesus. Though this was a very critical situation and all of them were uneasy about it, they decided that they would say the same thing that Allah and His Messenger had taught them. Accordingly, when they went to the court, the King put them the question that had been suggested by Amr bin As. So Jafar bin Abi Talib stood up and answered without the least hesitation: "He was a Servant of Allah and His Messenger. He was a Spirit and a Word of Allah which had been sent to virgin Mary." At this the King picked up a straw from the ground and said, 'By God, Jesus was not worth this straw more than what you have said about him." After this the King returned the gifts sent by the Quraish, saying, "I do not take any bribe". Then he said to the migrants, "You are allowed to stay here in perfect peace." Based on the timeframe of the hijra / migration, it is presumed that the Negus was King Armah.

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is said to have written letters to many rulers and kings of neighbouring countries, inviting them to Islam. These invitations were sent after the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah somewhere in 628 AD [reference al-Tabari's book "History of the Prophets and Kings"]. Besides Heraclius the Caesar of Byzantium, Chosroes II the Khosrau of Persia, Muqawqis the ruler of Egypt, Harith Gassani the governor of Syria, Munzir ibn Sawa and to the ruler of Bahrain, a letter was also written to the Negus of Abyssinia. 

The Arabic text and translation of the letter is as under:

كتاب رسول الإسلام صلى الله عليه وسلم إلى النجاشي

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم من محمد رسول الإسلام إلى النجاشى ملك الحبشة: سلام عليك إنى أحمد الله إليك ،الله الذي لا إله إلا هو الملك القدوس السلام المؤمن المهيمن، وأشهد أن عيسى بن مريم روح الله وكلمته ألقاها إلى مريم البتول الطيبة الحصينة، فحملت بعيسى فخلقه الله من روحه كما خلق آدم بيده، وإنى أدعوك وجنودك إلى الله عز وجل، وقد بلغت ونصحت فاقبلوا نصحى، والسلام على من اتبع الهدى

Letter of the Prophet of Islam, peace be upon him. In the name of God the most beneficial the Merciful. Mohammed the Prophet of Islam to Nagaci king of Abyssinia:

"Peace to you that I thank God for you, God, who there is no god but He, the King, the Holy peace insured dominant, and I bear witness that Jesus son of Mary, the Spirit of God and his speech was delivered to the Virgin Mary the good bunker. God created Jesus from his soul, just as he created Adam with his hand, and I invite you and your soldiers to God Almighty, has reached and advised receive my advice, and peace be upon those who follow guidance."

Many of the Abyssinian exiles returned to Mecca in 622 and made the hegira to Medina with Muhammad, while a second wave went to Medina in 628. But for those who stayed back Habash became a second home to the Muslims and Islam has since then been flourishing in lands that are now called Ethiopia and Eritrea. In fact this historical migration was the turning point in the history of africa as Islam eventually became widespread and deeply rooted in the landscape of the whole Horn of Africa. The diffusion of Islam was promoted and fostered especially by merchants and scholars who reached almost every spot in the Ethio-Eritrean hinterland by following ancient or newly opened trade routes from the shores of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The control of the whole coastal strip from Suakin in Sudan to Zeila (and later Berbera) in Somalia allowed Muslims to act as a living and dynamic trait d’union between the Ethiopian Christian kingdom, based in the highlands, and the wider world.

Al-Nejashi mosque, located in the town of Wukro, 790 kilometers north of Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, is said to be the first mosque in Africa. It is named after Nejashi, who hosted companions of the Prophet who escaped persecution in Makkah. The mosque has recently been renovated in 2018 with the monetary assistance from Turkey [Photo

Although Islam continued to spread, the Ethiopian and Eritrean Islam passed through many difficulties. Specially when forcibly included into the modern Ethiopian monarchy by the expansionist and unifying politics of Emperor Menelik II (Mənilək, b. 1889–d. 1913) and under the rule of Haile Selassie (Ḫaylä Səllase, d. 1975), but it managed to blossom after the fall of the Socialist regime (the so-called Därg) in 1991. 

Until the middle of the 1990s, Islam in Ethiopia and Eritrea had long been a neglected topic. With a few remarkable exceptions (e.g., the Italian Orientalist and colonial administrator Enrico Cerulli [b. 1898–d. 1988] and the German Arabist Ewald Wagner), scholars of Ethiopian studies traditionally devoted their attention and research activities almost exclusively to Ethiopian Christian culture, literature, and history. Scholars of African studies did not show much interest in Ethiopian and Eritrean Islam, as they probably perceived it as not sufficiently “African,” exactly because of its tight connections to the “central” Muslim lands. Despite this generalized neglect Islam still struggled to keep itself firm on ground.

Muslims offering Eid ul Fitr prayer in Addis Ababa - 2019. Sheikh Sultan Aman Ebba, head of the Addis Ababa Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, said on the occasion that compassion and charity were the values that Muslims uphold at all times. [Photo]

The fallout of disturbance in neighbouring Sudan has been felt in Ethiopia too and there have been unrest and militancy crossing borders into Ethiopia. But generally the mix of Christians and Muslims go along well with each other. Muslims celebrate their religious festivals like Eid ul Fitr after the month of Ramadan and masjids in Muslim areas are filled to their capacity. 
A traditional home in Harar with a niche adorned with Islamic calligraphy [Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Source / Author: A Davey]

Ethiopia is home to Harar, a city located on a hilltop in the eastern extension of the Oromia, about five hundred kilometers from the national capital Addis Ababa. According to UNESCO, it is regarded as the fourth holy city of Islam. It has 82 mosques, three of which date from the 10th century, as well as 102 shrines.

While elsewhere Muslims have freedom of worship, it is the city of Aksum where Orthodox Christians do not allow Muslims to build a mosque, though allow them to pray in open or anywhere they feel like. As per Christians belief, Aksum is Mecca to Christians for its the city from where Queen of Sheba travelled to Jerusalem to meet King / Prophet Solomon. And it is the place where their son brought back the Ark of Covenant. The Ark is preserved in Our Lady Mary of Zion Church, though no one is allowed to see it. Repeated efforts by Muslims to build a mosque here have met with stiff resistance. Christian preacher Amsale Sibuh explains: "Religions that do not accept Christ's birth, baptism, crucifixion, death and his second coming cannot exist in a place where there is the Ark of the Covenant. If anybody does anything against this, we will pay with our life." [11]

Please watch a very informative and well researched spiritually motivating heartwarming video narration of the fascinating history on the Islamic Expansion in Ethiopia!:
Author's Note: The data for this post has been collected from the references as given below. If any one differs with the material contained in this post, one may consult the references and their authors.  If someone has more material about the subject, he/she is most welcome to share in the comments box to make the post all encompassing.

Photo | References: | 12 |  3  | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 |
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