Ethiopia: The Forgotten Refuge of Islam

Eid Al Adha Prayer in Addis Ababa

Long before Yathrib became known as the Prophet’s city, a worn and threatened community of Muslims sought the shelter of a Christian king in an African land.  About a dozen migrants escaped swiftly under the cloak of night, embarking on trade vessels heading to Abyssinia for half a dinar.  Leaving behind the hostile pursuit of the Meccan idolaters, they held firmly to the advice of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and believed his counsel: “If you travel to Ethiopia, it will be very profitable for you, because, on account of a mighty and just ruler”.  Even when delegates demanded their return to Mecca, the King of Aksum, Ashama ibn Abjar, vowed to protect the followers of Islam and saw them as kindred souls, brethren in faith.

In the iconic scene from the film The Message, the Abyssinia ruler was reported to have said “The words of their Prophet and that which Prophet Jesus brought have emanated from one and the same source of light “.  That very scene left an indelible imprint in my mind and captured the essence of the only two faiths I’ve ever intimately known, Christianity and Islam.  In between those two religious peaks, I stumbled through the valleys of Judaism and Rastafarianism but always felt this strong connection to Abyssinia.  Embedded in my Jamaican heritage was this consciousness of Ethiopia as the homeland but more recently I’ve rediscovered her as Islam’s first abode of peace.

Peering from the plane window, the aerial view of Ethiopia is mountainous and green with etched paths winding along the terrain.  At a closer look, the fertile countryside seems more populated with livestock than people, some of which still reside in thatch-roofed huts, stone-brick homes, and zinc-roofed shacks.  While cathedrals tower over the towns and island monasteries attract international visitors, an occasional minaret pierces the landscape with its star and crescent, atop green and white painted mosques.  Like stars in a constellation, these small houses of worship point to the Ethiopia’s past and present history of Islam.

Ethiopia’s very first mosque sits atop a mountain in Negash, about an hour north of Makele in Tigray.  From the bus depot in Makele, you see the Tigrinnya women distinctively draped in shawls with a crown of fine cornrow braids pulled back towards a bushel of full, wavy hair.  Packed tightly into the mini-bus, we are later joined by Afar pastoralists who travel with walking staffs, flashing their broad smiles of glistening white teeth.  Climbing northward into the cooler altitude, I wondered when we would reach Negash and how would we find the mosque.  A kind woman beside me indicated our arrival and just beyond the marketplace where produce and wares are delicately laid on shawls beside livestock for sale, stood the mosque.  After entering the courtyard, a kind man directed us to the prayer halls, in which we prayed, and later introduced us to Imam Muhammad, a kind soul who guided our visit with pristine classical Arabic learned in Medina many years prior.

A short walk behind the mosque took us to the cemetery where some of the early Meccan settlers were buried, alongside prominent Ethiopian scholars from the region.  A further structure housed the grave of the former king, an-Najaashi, who according to Islamic tradition, embraced Islam and died as a Muslim evidenced by Prophet Muhammad’s (saws) funeral prayer in absentia on his behalf.  The mausoleum is draped in a green cloth bearing Arabic calligraphy and a prayer for the deceased king.  An elder caretaker of the mosque mumbled prayers and recited verses of the Qur’an while moving the tour fluidly through tales about the Companions and scholars buried there.  After parting with our guides, we tiptoed through the marketplace once again, over chickens and potatoes, between goats and garlic, thinking about how the early Muslims braved the rugged terrain of northern Ethiopia: a new language, culture, and land to navigate for the sake and security of their faith.

The Ethiopia of today is much more than the subject of charity infomercials.  She is stretching upward and outward. Alongside the commercial and economic development is a Muslim community that is seen, felt, and demanding to be heard.  The early seeds of a few sincere refugees from Mecca have taken hold and are flourishing from urban centers to rural towns with Muslims accounting for nearly half of the population. At least seven Islamic dynasties have been documented in Ethiopian history. One of which is Harar, a recognized UNESCO World Heritage city since 2006.  Much like the Ethiopian nursemaid, Umm Ayman, who nurtured Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) after the passing of his blessed mother, Ethiopia cared for the early Muslims when their motherland of Mecca abandoned them.  In spite of the tumultuous times the country has faced, Islam has found a lasting abode in Ethiopia and hopefully will continue to thrive in the fertile and faithful land.

This article was originally published in Got Wudu magazine, Spring 2013 issue.

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