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ETHIOPIA. Islam has played a significant and at times central role in the political, socioeconomic, and cultural life of Ethiopia throughout the entire history of Islam itself as well as for the last thirteen centuries in Ethiopia. However, particularly in the modern history of Ethiopia, the roles of Islam have nearly always been deeply intermixed with other political and cultural issues and formations such that the distinctive significance of Islam per se is at best difficult to extract. In this respect Islam’s place in Ethiopian history differs sharply from its situation in many other countries and regions.

The Ethiopian state of the distant past lay roughly within what are today its northwestern regions. Among the oldest of Christian states,Ethiopia’s Coptic Christian political identity was already well established when Islamic rulers made contact with the country in the seventh century. Although these first contacts were characterized by a degree of mutual tolerance,Ethiopia soon became isolated from contact with Europe and the Middle East as a Christian island in an Islamic sea, so rapid was Islam’s spread. Muslim rulers in Egypt were in a position to deny Ethiopia’s Coptic church access to the see of Alexandria, which provided its spiritual leaders until the 1950s. The price to Ethiopia of this religious lifeline was permission to allow the building of mosques within Ethiopia. Similarly, from the fourteenth century onward the spread of Islam in what is today southern and eastern Ethiopia exposed the vulnerability of what Ethiopian rulers considered to be trade links with the world through Red Seaports.

Strong Ethiopia rulers, such as Amda Siyon (1313-1344), were able to secure the highland fastnesses of the Amhara kingdom against Muslim advances, aided by divisions among Muslim communities along linguistic and cultural lines. In 1525, however, Ahmad Gran united Muslims in a nearly successful jihad to conquer a Christian Ethiopia weakened by decades of internal political instability. Portuguese assistance enabled the kingdom to repel the invaders, and this high tide of Muslim incursion into Ethiopia quickly receded with the leader’s death. But the Portuguese subsequently undermined internal Ethiopian political stability through an ultimately futile attempt to convert the Coptic Christian kingdom to Roman Catholicism. Such weakness exposed the kingdom and its dominant Amhara communities to penetration by islamized Oromo peoples from the south and east from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Although sometimes frought with conflict, the intermixing of the Amhara and Oromo was often peaceful. Indeed local Amhara leaders often found in the Oromo useful allies in their internecine rivalries, though the cumulative effect of these rivalries was the near eclipse of central government authority between the late eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries.

After 1855 the exertions of Emperors Tewodros and Johannes restored the authority of the monarchy, though the latter died in a battle to repel the incursions of Mahdist forces attacking fromSudan. As king of Shoa, and after Tewodros as emperor, Menelik II (1889-1913) expanded the boundaries of the empire to its present dimensions. His conquests of what is now southern and eastern Ethiopia subjected predominantly islamized peoples, their lands, and their political orders to the authority of an Amhara-dominated Christian imperial central government. The subtleties of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule (1930-1974) and the disestablishment of the Coptic church and attempted land tenure reforms under the government of Mengistu Haile Mariam (1975-1991) did little to change this underlying relationship.

The importance of Islam in twentieth-century Ethiopiahas been epitomized by census politics. Ethnic divisions do not neatly follow residence, linguistic, or confessional lines, not least because at elite levels many Oromo responded to incentives established by both Menelik and Haile Selassie to accommodate themselves to their Christian, Amhara-based regimes. However, no twentieth-century regime has permitted a census to attempt to establish the relative size ofEthiopia’s religious communities. Verification of best estimates that as many Of 40 percent of the population adheres to Islam, perhaps equaling or exceeding the number of Christians, and that Oromo may equal or outnumber Amhara, would have been awkward for the Christian Amhara monarchy. Neither would such information have been welcomed by a Mengistu regime determined to subordinate ethnic affiliation to socialist ideological orthodoxy. The intentions of Mengistu’s successors were not yet clear in the early 1990s, nor were those of the government in newly independent Eritrea, notwithstanding its correspondingly large Muslim population.

The importance of Islam in contemporary Ethiopia is matched by the complexities of its position in the life of the country. Although heavily concentrated in the eastern half of the country, important communities are found in the southwest around Jimma, near Gondarin the northwest, and along the boundaries with Sudan both in the north and farther south. Notwithstanding Menelik’s conquests, the Italians in both world wars (and the Turks in World War I) failed to destabilize Ethiopia by pitting Islamic peoples against the Christian establishment. A traditional Islamic sultanate based in Awsa in eastern Ethiopia both resisted and collaborated with Haile Selassie’s government. Its historically vaguely defined and shifting sphere of influence in the post-Mengistu era has expanded to encompass Afar peoples in both Eritrea and Ethiopia. The EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) government in Asmara, like its post-Mengistu counterpart in Addis   Ababa, has relatively weaker support in Islamic communities than among followers of other religions, though neither regime rests on confessionally based legitimacy. Although a large 1974 Addis   Ababa demonstration by Muslims in favor of religious freedom was important in demonstrating the bankruptcy of Haile Selassie’s government, Muslims achieved only miniscule representation in Mengistu’s government. For a time, however, northern Ethiopi are sisted what it regarded as the Islamic and Oromo orientations of the Mengistu government. The significance of Islam in Oromo opposition to the Mengistu regime and potentially its successor has been blurred by the emergence of an Islamic Oromo Liberation Front alongside the Oromo Liberation Front. Despite the political hegemony of Christianity, twentieth century emperors permitted Islamic courts to adjudicate certain matters of civil law in accord with Islamic law. Yet within Muslim as well as Christian communities, Islamic thought and practice has been tempered by the retention of conflicting pre-conversion beliefs and practices, such as fear of the “evil eye,” even as a number of Sufi orders labor to advance and spread the faith.


Clapham, Christopher. Transformation and Continuity in Revolutionary Ethiopia.London, 1988. Presents a detailed picture of the structure of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia from its inception in 1974 to its demise in 1991.

Harbeson, John W. The Ethiopian Transformation: The Quest for the Post-ImperialState.Boulder, 1988. Places the Mengistu regime in the context of modern Ethiopian political history.

Jones, A. H. M., and Elizabeth Monroe. A History of Ethiopia.London, 1938. An enduring and standard history of Ethiopia from the earliest times.

Markakis, John.Ethiopia: Anatomy of a Traditional Polity.London1974 The leading work on the political economy of Ethiopiain the Haile Selassie years.

Rubenson, Sven. The Survival of Ethiopian Independence.New York, 1976. The definitive study of Ethiopian domestic and international politics in the early and mid-nineteenth century.

Trimmingham, J. Spencer. Islam in Ethiopia.London, 1952. The standard work on the influence of Islam on Ethiopian political and socioeconomic life.



Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/ethiopia/

  • writerPosted On: November 7, 2012
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