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What went wrong with Islam in Ethiopia?

In a frantic attempt to contain Islamist extremism in Ethiopia, the government is getting close to shoot itself in the foot

 Selahadin Eshetu Getahun



Mohammed Mustafa (not his real name) is a third year Computer Science student in Ambo University, 114 kms west of the capital Addis Ababa.  Like any ordinary student he was more interested in the pursuit of his education than anything else, least religion, and has never been bothered about being a Muslim. Six months ago Mohammed’s otherwise calm world towards his religion was turned upside down when a group of government officials came to discuss with the University community the state’s concern about “religious extremism”. The three days discussion mainly focused on how to curb the growing trend of Islamist extremism in Ethiopia. Their agenda included proposals to introduce new dressing codes and ban prayers in the University compound, an issue dear to many Muslim students.But to Mohammed and the majority of the Muslim community in the university, these officials were up to no good and had given them the impression that they were imposing the government’s way against them on how best to practice their religious rituals.

Little did Mohammed know that in just a few months down the line this issue will become a burning issue knocking at the doors of millions of Muslims in contemporary Ethiopia.

Islam and Ethiopia

For the billions of non-Ethiopian Muslims throughout the world, the connection between Islam and Ethiopia is of a minor significance, if at all, and very little is known about it. But the link between Islam and Ethiopia is as grand and old as the religion of Islam itself. For starters, Islam was introduced and exercised in Ethiopia way before Mecca and Medina became the Holy cities and earlier than the emergence of the Hijira (Islamic Calendar). In his 1991 article titled ‘Ethiopia and the Early Islamic Period’, LaVerle Berry, a prominent historian, wrote, “the first Muslims in Ethiopia were refugees from Mecca, persecuted by the new leading tribe, the reactionary Quraysh. They were honerly received by the ruler of Ethiopia, who in Arabic tradition was named Ashama ibn Abjar, and he settled them in Nejash. Located in the northern Tigray province, Nejash is the historical center of Islam in Ethiopia and parts of East Africa.”

Not only did King Ashama Ibn Abhar – otherwise known as king Nejash  – welcome the refugees from Mecca, he was the first to allow them to exercise and spread their faith in his Empire. King Nejash had also refused to hand over these refugees back to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where they ran away from in the first place fearing persecutions. Several Islamic historians also assert that the Last Prophet of Islam, Prophet Mohammed, was breastfed and raised by an Ethiopian Step Mother, affectionately known as Um Aymen, when he lost his mother as a child.

For the coming centuries this deep rooted history would make millions of Muslims to revere Ethiopia and consider it a peaceful land.


By any standard Ethiopian Muslims, whom, according to the Central Statistics Authority, constitute 33% of the country’s 80-million population are considered to be the most passive Muslim communities on earth. There are two outstanding historical and political explanations for that. Historically, like many other countries in the world, Islam was not forcefully introduced to Ethiopia; it has always been a religion of choice. Politically, for centuries, Ethiopian Muslims were considered as secondary citizens in their own country; they went through a very difficult and complicated journey to be considered as equals with Ethiopia’s majority Orthodox Christian population.

However, its political aspect was one of the many trends to witness a dramatic change since the coming into power of the ruling EPRDF in 1991, following which, for the first time in centuries, Ethiopian Muslims started exercising their religion freely. That has resulted in the affectionate relations between Ethiopia’s Muslims and the current government; a significant number of Ethiopian Muslims consider the current government as the guardian of their faith. 2005 bore the best witness in which a majority Ethiopian Muslims firmly stood by the ruling EPRDF when they overwhelmingly voted for it during the troublesome national election.

Change in the air

Paradoxically though gaining the freedom to exercise their religion mean Ethiopian Muslims are now sharply aware of their rights to exercise their faith. The publications of newspapers, magazines and other religious books started mushrooming; Islamic schools popped up in numbers; Awoliya College and Secondary School, a highly regarded Islamic school based in Addis Ababa next to the Grand Anwar Mosque, and which, despite all odds, has been around since the 1940s, has gained an unprecedented momentum in becoming a centre of excellence for Islamic teaching; and the construction of new Mosques throughout the country continued at a rate many outside of the religion regarded with contempt.

That was not it. It becomes common to see Muslim students scoring the highest academic results in secondary schools and Universities.

New terms, new worries and wrong answer  

But it also becomes common to see Muslim women wearing the Hijab and Niqab in public as increasing number of young Muslim men and women started to openly express their qualms against the government. Geographically a good number of Muslims in Ethiopia live in eastern and south eastern part of the country; both predominantly inhabited by the Oromo population and are the ideological strongholds of the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Suspicion against the government in these areas run deep and the government keeps watchful eyes.

Since a decade ago the fast changing dynamics of global Islamic extremism and the presence of a stateless, lawless Somalia next door have also quietly but steadily aggravated the already fragile trend and more and more Muslims began identifying themselves with Wuhhabism.

Since December 2011 the air has thickened with a fresh call for “Wuhhabia” and another counter sect “Al- Ahbash”, two sects in Islamic faith having their own fundamental differences in their teachings.

This was a particularly worrying development for the government of Ethiopia, which is fully aware of its toxic magnitude if left unattended. During various occasions, the Ministry of Federal Affairs urged the people that some elements of the Wuhhabi sect have a vision of creating an Islamic Ethiopian Empire governed by the Sharia law. In the past few months violent religious scuffles in some pockets of the country, particularly Bale and Arsi, located in south eastern Ethiopia, have added salt to the injury.

It was also a troubling progress for the majority of Muslim worshipers who relentlessly pleaded with the government about the spread of extremism within their otherwise peaceful religion.

The government’s answer, as many Muslims believe, was to try to spread Al – Ahbash, a mixed dose of traditional Sufiesm and liberal Islam and was pioneered by Shek Abdullahi Al Harari, an Ethiopian born religious scholar, who first left Ethiopia for Saudi Arabia in the ‘60s after falling out with Emperor Hailesselassie I. But Shek Abdulahi also fell out with the Sunni government in Saudi Arabia. He then fled to Syria and lived in Damascus for the next 20 years. He finally settled in Beirut, Lebanon, where he passed away in 2009 after 40 years of successfully teaching his brainchild, Al- Ahbashism. Since fall 2011, the Ethiopian government, craving to spread his teachings, used the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, the highest Council representing the Ethiopian Muslims – until recently – to help it bring followers of Shek Abdullahi Al Harari (some of them Ethiopians) back to Ethiopia, according to those who are now locked in a bitter argument with the government.

They believe that was the wrong answer.


Many of these Muslims are now aggravated by what they believe is the government’s belligerent attempt to take control of the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council. The Council has begun a frantic attempt to give trainings of the Al-Ahbash teaching to selected “Muslim Scholars”. It even published and distributed a book containing the teachings of Al-Ahbash and the glory of Shek Abdullahi Al Harari and targeted religious educational institutions. In December 2011 it banned 50 Arabic language teachers from Awoliya College and Secondary School and replaced its entire administration by its own nominees. “It was a shock,” says Akmel Negash, a Senior Editor at Yemuslimoch Guday (Muslims’ Affair), a monthly Islamic magazine. According to Akmel a letter dated on 31/12/2011 and signed by the Peace and Security head of the Council, Jemal Mohammed Salah, authorizing the banning of the 50 teachers remained, until today, the source of uproar among the majority of the Muslim community.

What has started as a small gathering of protest by students who lost their teachers on the decision of the Council has now turned into a full blown Friday-after-prayers protest that attracted hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Addis Ababa who come together chanting “Alah Aukbar” at Awoliya College and Secondary School and at the Grand Anwar Mosque.

Meanwhile the Council has begun fighting for its legitimacy in the eyes of the million Muslims (the Umma) it represented unquestioned for decades. Many now regard it as unable to protect their interest and a mere institution which does what it is told to do by the government.

Speaking to this magazine, Abubeker Mohammed Ahmed, Chairperson of a new committee established to represent the Muslim community who oppose the government’s interference, says that “it is not about Wuhhabia or Ahbashism. What we are saying is it is not the government which can give religious solutions to our problems. It is the duty of Religious Scholars to teach, debate or spread their beliefs.” He believes there are two reasons for the uncalled interventions by the government. “The first is the government is misguided by people who do not represent the Muslim community and those who do not have deep understanding regarding Islam in Ethiopia. The second is we believe that there is an indirect hand from foreign powers”.

Where to next?

In his recent appearance before the national Parliament Prime Minister Meles Zenawi asserted that his government strictly follows the principle of non-interventionism in the affairs of religion. But on the other hand, he argued that it was the “Sufist” sect that is relevant to the Ethiopian Muslim Community. His statement was self-contradictory at least, and self-defeating at best.

The Ministry of Federal Affairs said that there will be elections to replace the existing Islamic Affairs Supreme Council Members. But Abubeker feels it is a “fuzzy announcement. There is no definite time of the election and there is no clear procedure on how to conduct it, if at all”. The board members of the Awoliya College and Secondary School remain to be the same people who were met with outright rejections since their appointment.

The committee headed by Abubeker has recently sent 22 pages of protest letter to the Ministry of Federal Affairs but didn’t receive a reply yet. They have also asked for an audience with Prime Minister Meles himself. No reply either. Meanwhile, the Council continued giving the now infamous trainings on the teachings of the ‘Ahbashism’ to selected religious scholars.

The Umma that was little bothered about the issues of neither political representation nor religious rights until the Awoliya incident is now raising more demands for both. Questions of meager political representations by the Muslims are popping up amongst many young Muslims who increasingly believe they have always been deprived of a space in the history of the country’s political game.

The end is anyone’s guess, but the progress is pushing the millions of peaceful Muslims away from the only government they have ever trusted.

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