TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. April 2010

Sektion 5.3. Sharing in / out Culture(s)
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Vladimir Biti (Faculty of Philosophy, University of Zagreb)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

The Culture of Accommodation and Tolerance:
Christianity and Islam in Ethiopia

Wondwosen Teshome B. [BIO] and Jerusalem Negash W. [BIO] (Vienna, Austria)

E-mail: and



Ethiopia’s history has been marked by mutual respect and tolerance between Christianity and Islam, except a brief, but major conflict in the 16th century, and other minor incidents in the past ten years. The two main religions in Ethiopia, Orthodox Christianity and Islam have co-existed since the time of Prophet Mohammed. Christianity became the official religion of Ethiopia in the 4th Century A.D., and Islam had come to Ethiopia at the beginning of the 7th Century A.D., when a group of persecuted Muslims fled to northern Ethiopia from Arabia. The persecuted Muslims got a safe-haven in Christian Ethiopia and remained there until their country became peaceful enough to make their return possible. In the latter years, Ethiopia maintained its direct contact with the Muslim world through trade. Through time, many Muslim settlements emerged in Ethiopia, mainly along the trade routes. At present, Ethiopia’s population is almost equally divided between Christians and Muslims. Moreover, one of the holiest cities of Muslims, Harrar, is founded in the eastern part of Ethiopia.

The successive governments of Ethiopia was promoting this accommodation and resisted the politicization of religion in the country, contributing for the survival of the nation despite its poverty and the presence of more than 80 ethnic groups with different languages and various ethnic clashes. For many centuries, the primary focus of both Christian and Muslim Ethiopians was to maintain the nation’s independence and territorial integrity.

The paper tries to investigate how Christianity and Islam were introduced into Ethiopia and examines their past and present relations in the context of the current situation in the world.

In this paper, some examples of both aspects of the relations (peaceful coexistence and conflicts) will be examined critically. The paper suggests that a broad and thorough investigation has to be conducted in order to understand fully the core of this tolerant culture and the contributions of the mainly peaceful, Christianity–Islamic relation in Ethiopia, so that it could serve as an example for the rest of the world, which is threatened by so-called “clash of civilizations” at present, particularly after the incident of Sep. 11, 2001. 


1. Introduction

According to Levine (2007), Ethiopia’s religious traditions have at least three distinguishing features: first, Ethiopia received three great Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) at a very early point. It adopted Judaism at the earliest period, and still has an indigenous Judaic community. Then, it adopted Christianity in the 4th century A.D. and made it the official religion of the Axumite Kingdom. This makes Ethiopia the home of one of the oldest Christian communities like Armenia, Egypt, and Syria. Ethiopia was also the first country who made early contacts with Islam and gave shelter to first Muslim converts who came from Mecca. Second, the three Semitic religions grew side by side, intertwined in many ways, and existed in a very tolerant atmosphere. Third, these three Semitic religions in Ethiopia have had a relation with pagan beliefs in the country based on tolerance and accommodation. In fact, there were various attempts of religious crusades, but all of them were conducted, relatively speaking, in a peaceful manner, without forceful conversions.

Christianity has been present in Ethiopia for the past 1,700 years and Islam for about 1,400 years. Therefore, the two religions have co-existed for the past 1,400 years(1) (Al-Hashimi 2003).


2. Christianity in Ethiopia

There are many written sources about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The major works include: Ayyalew (1970), Brake (1977), Bairu (1972), Chaillot (2002), Cowley (1970), Ephraim (1967, 1971, 1972), Getachew (1986, 1985, 1985, 1980), Getnet (1998), Ghali (1999), Haberland (1979), Haile (1987), Hyatt (1928), Kaplan (1984), Mara (1972), Nagaso and Crummey (1972), Meinardus (1967), Sindima (1991), Tadesse (1972), and Wondmagegnehu (1970). Documentary and archaeological evidences show that Christianity was introduced to Ethiopia in the 4th century, during the reign of king Ezana of Axum (320-350 AD)(2) (Bahru 1998: 34). At first, Christianity was confined only to the ruling class, but gradually it became the state religion. Orthodox Christianity remained the official religion until the eruption of the Socialist revolution in 1974 (Dea 2005: 7). Christianity was introduced into Ethiopia by two Syrian monks, Adesius and Frumentius (Teferra 1997: 2). Frementius came from Tyre (Syria) and was a slave at the royal Axum court. Eventually, Frementius was promoted to be an adviser to the royal court. It is reported that after some time Frementius was allowed to return home. But he went and stayed in Alexandria. When he came back to Axum, he was a Bishop, appointed by the Alexandrian Church of Egypt (Bahru 1998: 34; Negash 2007). One of the landmarks of the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the arrival of Nine Saints from Syria in the 5th century.(3) The nine monks were responsible for the establishment of many monasteries in the country. The expansion of Christianity continued after the fall of the Axumite Empire. The Axumite Empire ended in the 9th century and a new strong empire, the Zagwe kingdom, came to power and ruled the country up to the 13th century. In this period, many churches including the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela (built in the 12th century), the monasteries of Hayq (in Wollo) and Debrelibanos (in Shewa, founded by St. Teklehaymanot and St. Ewstatewos) (Bahru 1998: 35-36). In the second half of the 13th century, a new dynasty (the Solomonic dynasty) came to political power and ruled Ethiopia until 1769, with the support of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church established its own theological college in 1944 (Getnet 1998: 92). The consecration of native Ethiopian Patriarchs started in 1959 (Getnet 1998: 96), when Ethiopia stopped the practice of receiving a Coptic bishop from Alexandria and appointed Abuna Basilios as the first Patriarch of Ethiopia (Bahru 1998: 36).

The leading body of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the Holy Synod (Kiddus Sinodos), that comprises archbishops and bishops, and it is chaired by the Patriarch. The highest post in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church hierarchy is the Abun (Patriarch) (Getnet 1998: 96).

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church embodies Judaic and other pre-Christian (indigenous) traditions. The Judaic elements embodied in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church include: (1) The tabot (the ark of covenant); (2) Hospitality to strangers; (3) Circumcision of baby boys eight days after birth; (4) Priestly dances with drums; (5) The concept of clean and unclean meat (i.e. not eating meat slaughtered by non-Christians, not eating pork); (6) Giving Old Testament names to Christian boys; (7) Worshipping Saturday as Sabbath (mainly in the country side); etc. (Assefa 1992: 4-5; Getnet 1998: 103; Raffaele 2007; Wondwosen 2006: 31).

As Nkrumah (2007) noted, all through 1974, “Christianity in Ethiopia was a state religion, closely affiliated with the monarchy and the court.” Therefore, “The monarchy used the Church,” says Teferra (1997: 2), “to legitimate its rule and the Church employed the power and influence of the monarchy to spread Christianity.” For centuries, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was the dominant religion and it heavily influenced the country’s education, painting, music, etc., until 1974. Theoretically, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was the owner of one-third of the land in the country. The Marxist Derg (1974-1991), however, confiscated the Church’s extensive tract of land in 1975 (Aleme 1982: 21).

The political rulers of Ethiopia were always interfering and dictated the Orthodox Church. For instance, when the Derg ruled Ethiopia, it imprisoned and executed Abba Tewoflos, the Patriarch, accusing him of being a close associate of the deposed emperor, Haile Selassie (1930-1974). During the Derg’s time, first Abba Tekle Haymanot was appointed as head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and after him Abba Merkorios. When the Derg was militarily toppled, the new EPRDF government (1991-present) appointed the current patriarch, Abba Paulos (Nkruman 2007). Patriarch Merkorios fled to America and claimed that he is still the rightful Patriarch of Ethiopia and still has many followers in the USA, in particular among the Diaspora Ethiopians (Nkrumah 2007). The current Patriarch is also suspected of being an ardent supporter of the ruling EPRDF’s government. The government is also accused of interfering and controlling the church affairs which the Patriarch denies, “Yes, there are those who grumble and complain deriding us as an instrument of state control. They claim that we are an appendage of the state. But we are not. We are completely free,” he said (Nkrumah 2007). According to Abba Paulos (the Ethiopian Patriarch), at present there are 50,000 churches, 45,000,000 followers of Orthodox Church(4), two million priests, monks and deacons, 54 bishops and 44 dioceses (Nkrumah 2007).

To sum up, as Abbink (2003) notes, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church “is a unique African Church, deeply rooted in Ethiopian history, social life and ethics.” Despite its close relations with the Coptic Church of Egypt, it has developed its own educational system for clergy and laymen, liturgy, religious music, and monastic tradition. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been the most dominant faith in the highland Ethiopia, and has been embraced by the Amhara and Tigre population groups. In the last century, the Orthodox Christianity also spread to other regions in the country and still has many non-Amhara and non-Tigre followers.


3. Islam in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has the largest Muslim population in Africa(5), after Nigeria and Egypt (Nkrumah 2003).

3.1. Early History of Islam in Ethiopia

According to Negash (2007), “Islam in Ethiopia is as old as Islam itself.” Despite its long time presence in Ethiopia, only few scholars examined the history of Islam in the country and its long tradition of co-existence with the Orthodox Christianity. The most important works include: Abbink (1998), Braukämper (2002), Hassan (2000), Kabha (2006) and Trimingham (1952). Ethiopia was the first country in the world who received first Muslim refugees. According to Muslim traditions and sources, before his flight from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D., Prophet Mohammed told his early followers in 615 A.D. to flee to Axum (Bahiru 1998: 37; Erlich 2006: 2). Therefore, a group of more than seventy Muslim converts(6) fled to Axum, the capital of Christian Abyssinia (Ethiopia), to escape religious persecution in the hands of the Quraish tribe. Learning about this flight, the pagan chiefs of Mecca appealed to the Christian king of Ethiopia to handover the Muslim refugees, which the Christian King immediately refused. In Islamic history, the flight of first followers of the Prophet to Ethiopia is known as the first Hijira.(7) Again, in 628 A.D., as already well established in Medina, the Prophet sent letters to eight rulers, including the Kings of Persia, Constantinople, Egypt, Syria, the Arab Peninsula and to his friend, the king of Ethiopia (Axum), urging them to adopt Islam (Erlich 2006: 2).(8) According to Islamic sources, the Ethiopian king (Ella Saham), who sheltered the first Muslim refugees, changed his religion in favor of Islam and became a Muslim king, changing his name to Al-Nagashi Ashama (Erlich 2006). In Islamic sources, he is also known as Ashama Ibn Abjar.

When Mohammed victoriously returned to Mecca in 630 A.D., after staying eight years in Media, the Muslims who took shelter in Ethiopia returned to Mecca, though we still do not know whether all of them went back to Mecca or not. According to some sources, some Muslims remained in Ethiopia after their compatriots left for Mecca (Samatar 2005). When the persecution was over, in order to show his appreciation and to thank the Ethiopian King for his human act of sheltering the Muslims, Muhammad told his followers in the Qur’an, “Abyssinia is a land of justice in which nobody is oppressed,” and thus obviously spared Ethiopia from Jihad.

As archaeological and written findings indicate, the first Muslim communities in Ethiopia emerged as early as in the 9th century. Small Muslim Sultanates also emerged in the 10th and 11th century in Southern and Eastern parts of the county. The first was the Shewa Sultanate(9). It was followed by the Sultanates of Adal, Yifat, Dawaro, Hadiya and Fatagar in the 13th century (Bahru 1998: 38). These Muslim states were required to pay tributes to the Christian state in the highland. Moreover, there were trade contacts between the Christian state and the Muslim states. Also, almost all caravan routes from the Christian kingdom to the cost passed through some of the Muslim states, and the maintenance of peaceful relations between the Christians and the Muslims was of great importance for both groups. But at some periods, there were conflicts between the Christian State and the Muslim States. The cause of the conflicts was mainly economic, while religion played a very minor role there.

3.2. Islam in Medieval Ethiopia (13th – 16th Century)

In the medieval period, the Orthodox Christians inhabited and dominated the northern and central highlands, while the Muslims lived in the lowland areas of South-East, East, and North-East Ethiopia (Al-Hashimi 2003). In the 14th century, Christian Ethiopian kings led many military campaigns against the Muslim Sultanates, because of some political and economic reasons. For instance, King Amdetsion (1313-1344) carried out a series of successful military campaigns to subdue the Muslim Sultanates and control the trade routes that stretched from the central highlands to the coastal areas of the Red Sea. The king forced the Muslim Sultanates that were founded along these lucrative trade routes to pay regular tributes and taxes to the central Christian government. As long as the Sultanates paid their tributes, the central government did not interfere in their beliefs.

Until the 16th century, the relationship between the Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia remained amiable. However, in the first half of the 16th century, the Muslim leader from the Eastern part of Ethiopia, known as Ahmed ibn Ibrahim al Ghazi (1506-1543), launched an attack against the Christian ruler of Ethiopia, King Libne Dengel (1508-1537), largely because of politico-economic reasons. Gragn was assisted by the Ottoman Turks who were very active in the Red Sea area, and able to defeat the Christian king in 1528, and destroyed many churches and church literatures. In 1543, however, Gragn was defeated by the highland Christians led by the son of King Libnedengel, Gelawdewos (1540-1559). The young king was supported by the Portuguese who came to assist the Christian rulers against the Turks and the Gragn forces (Shinn 2002: 1; Teferra 1997: 9-10). In 1559, however, Gelawdewos lost his life, fighting to subdue the remnants of the Islamic forces in Eastern Ethiopia (Nkrumah 2003).

The Gragn invasion had brought a large destruction to the Christian forces, as it is noted by Tadesse (1972: 301): “The Muslim occupation of the Christian highland under Gragn lasted for a little more than ten years, between 1531-43. But the amount of destruction brought in the years can only be estimated in terms of centuries.”

In this period, besides these internal Christian-Islamic conflicts, the Ethiopian Christian rulers had also to fight against various invaders from the neighboring countries, and other Islamic countries. They fought against the Turks, the Egyptians, and against the Sudanese invaders, in different periods. But in all these wars against the external invaders, Ethiopian Muslims were never collaborates of the invading Islamic countries. As Shinn (2002:1) said, “This....reflects Christian-Muslim competition for control over the Ethiopian highlands rather than an early effort to impose Islamic fundamentalist rule.”

2.3. Islam in Ethiopia (17th-21st Century)

During the reign of Emperor Yohannes (1872-1889), there was an attempt to convert the Muslims (particularly in Wollo province) to Orthodox Christianity by force and persuasion. According to Bahru (2002: 48) and Al-Hashimi (2003), in his Borumeda Edict, Emperor Yohannes ordered the Wollo Muslims to renounce their faith and accept Christianity or face punishments: confiscation of their property including land. The Muslim political leaders in Wollo, including Mohammad Ali and Abba Wataw, agreed to accept Christianity, and then changed names to Mikael(10) and Hayla-Maryam. Because of this persecution, as Bahru (2002: 48) pointed out, the common people “conformed outwardly, praying to the Christian God in the daytime and to the Muslim Allah at night- thereby reinforcing the unique juxtaposition of Islam and Christianity that we find to this day in Wollo.” The majority of the Wollo Muslims, however, resisted under the leadership of Sheik Talha of Argobba, and many others fled to other provinces.

During the Derg’s rule (1974-1991), Ethiopia was declared a secular state, and both Orthodox Christianity and Islam had no political influence. The land was controlled by the government; the socialist government didn’t support the expansion of churches and mosques. The government’s Marxist ideology made very difficult even to get land to construct churches and mosques. However, the Derg respected the Muslim festivals(11) along with Orthodox festivals, and made them public holidays in its proclamation of 21 December 1974 (Aleme 1982: 21).


4. Discussion

According to Islamic traditions and sources, Ethiopia has a special place in Islam because:

  1. Prophet Mohamed’s nurse, Baraka Umm Ayman, was Ethiopian: she raised him after the death of his mother.
  2. The first muezzin (caller to prayer) in the history of Islam, Bilal Al-Habashi (“Bilal the Abyssinian”), was an Ethiopian.
  3. The first followers of prophet Muhammed found a shelter in Ethiopia (“the First Hijira”).
  4. The Prophet performed the Salat Al-Gga’eb (prayer in Absentia) when he heard about the death of the Ethiopian king who sheltered the first Muslim refugees, the first such prayer which is recorded in Islamic history (Nkrumah 2003).

Unfortunately, there is no direct reference supporting the story of the first Hijira in the Christian sources in Ethiopia. Moreover, neither the Ethiopian Orthodox Church nor other Ethiopian historical documents confirm the existence of the Ethiopian king who gave a sanctuary to the first Muslim refugees (Nkrumah 2003).

Various international and local sources have confirmed the peaceful co-existence and the cordial relations between the Orthodox Christians and the Muslims in Ethiopia which has lasted for centuries. For instance, for Nkrumah of Al-Ahram newspaper (16-22 August 2007), “Christians in Ethiopia have long learned to co-exist (peacefully or otherwise) with their non-Christian compatriots.” Washington Post (13 May 2007) also said, “It is a kind of coexistence that has endured despite the fact that Orthodox Christians have historically had the upper hand in Ethiopia, politically and economically.” In a similar manner, the International Herald Tribune (5 October 2006) remarked that “Ethiopia’s 77 million people are almost evenly split between Muslims and Christians, but clashes between the two religious groups are rare.”

Marquardt (2005: 3) also noted that “Despite being religiously split between Christian and Muslim, historically there has been little animosity between the two major religious factions.”

As we have seen above, historically, there has been insignificant hostility between Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia. “But”, says Marquardt (2005: 4), “because the country contains a large community of poor and illiterate Muslims, it has the potential to become a prime breeding ground for Islamist militant groups.” McCrummen (2007) has also voiced a similar opinion:

“Since the sep. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, concern about Islamic extremism has been rising across the Horn of Africa, and notably in Ethiopia, a country where Orthodox Christianity is often associated with national identity but whose population is nearly half Muslim.”

In the 1990s, particularly after the coming to power of the EPRDF’s government, radical Islam (Wahhabism) showed a very high advance in Ethiopia. This has led to sporadic Islamic-Christian skirmishes in the country. In fact, according to Henock (2002), the policy of the new EPRDF’s government (1991-present) has created favorable situations for the rapid expansion of Islam (Political Islam) in the country. These include:

  1. The religious and political freedoms(12) that were granted by the new government.
  2. The new government’s ethnic policy and regionalization has allowed the Muslims to control various key political and economic positions in many regions.
  3. The EPRDF’s very relaxed policy has allowed many Islamic NGOs a free movement and activities in the country financed by the rich Middle East countries.

Before describing the Wahhabist(13) movement in Ethiopia, it would be useful to examine the Wahhabi movement in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is a region where one fifth of the world’s Muslims reside.(14) Islam spread to Africa (to a large extent peacefully) through trade. Islam in Africa has incorporated local traditions, and it is characterized by Sufi practices involving tolerance and moderation (McCormack 2005: 2). In the last few decades, radical Islam (Wahhabism) started to spread in Africa pushing and replacing the Sufi order in many African countries. Wahhabism got favorable grounds in Africa for its rapid spread: corrupt governments, weak economies, porous borders, obscure financial systems and the widespread illegal arms trading. Therefore, in recent decades, Wahhabism started to replace secular traditions and moderate Islam in Africa (McCormack 2005: 2). In fact, Wahhabism’s contact with Africa was insignificant in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. From 18th to 20th centuries, Wahhabism was marginalized in the Muslim World because of “its narrow focus, its intolerance of any views other than its won, and an often thinly veiled lack of respect for many of the great scholars and activists in Islam” (Al-Hashimi 2004).Even in the 1950s, Whahhabism did not have any influence in Africa. African Muslims were traveling to Saudi Arabia for hajj, but this pilgrimage and contact left no substantial mark on the African Muslims. At a later point, the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia and its subsequent riches facilitated the expansion of Wahhabism to Africa in various ways: through financial assistance to the construction of mosques, Islamic centers, madrassas, and other humanitarian and charity works (McCormack 2005: 5). The most important push to the spread of Wahhabi practices in Africa came from an “NGO” called the Muslim World League (MWL) which was created by the Saudi Government in 1962 (McCormack 2005: 5-6). At present, Wahhabism is rapidly expanding in many East African countries including Ethiopia. As Dickson (2005: 1) said, “The impact of Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism on the radicalization of Muslims in the Horn of Africa has been mixed. Its potential impact is most acute in Ethiopia, while the radicalization of Islam in Sudan has followed its own independent path.” In Ethiopia, Wahhabism showed rapid advances in the 1990s. At present, Wahhabist agitation causes a growing tendency for the Ethiopian Muslims to ally themselves with other Muslim countries, sometimes in a direct contrast with the stand of the Ethiopia’s government. We can cite examples:

(1) In the 1991 Gulf war, there was an attempt to stage pro-Sadam Hussein demonstrations condemning the US and its allies.

(2) In 2003, a few hundred Ethiopian Muslims wanted to demonstrate in support of the Sadam Hussein’s government, in sharp contrast to the decision of the Ethiopian government to support the Coalition of the Willing (Shinn 2004: 5-6).

Moreover, in the 1990s and at the turn of the century, small scale religious conflicts have occurred in Ethiopia, such as: some conflicts between the Orthodox Christians and the Protestant Christians, between Wahhabists and Sufists, and between Wahhabists and the Orthodox Christians. The most important religious conflicts that have become increasingly visible are the conflicts between the Orthodox Christians and the Wahhbists.(15) In the next section we will briefly present the following incidents as case studies in order to examine the various Islamic-Christian conflicts that indicate the growing radicalization of Islam in Ethiopia since the 1990s:

  1. Conflict in Harrar (2001)
    In 2001, there were religious conflicts between Muslims and Christians in Harar, East Ethiopia (Marquardt 2005: 3).
  2. Conflict in Henno (July 2006)
    On July 20, 2006, radical Muslims attacked evangelists (non-Orthodox Christians) at Henno, in the district of Kokosa, Oromia Region, 404 kms South of Addis Ababa (AINA 2006).
  3. Conflict in Dembi (September-October 2006)
    According to the report of the IHT (5 October 2006), in one of the rarest clashes between the Orthodox Christians and Muslims, five people were killed and a number of people were injured. The clash occurred in September-October 2006, in Dembi Town, in Oromia region, 440 Kilometers (273 miles) west of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. According to the report of the Middle East Times (6 October 2006), “about nine Muslims have been killed in clashes with Christians.” As Elias Redman, vice-president of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council exposed, Dembi’s Muslim residents are adherents of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism or Salafism (Middle East Times, 6 October 2006).
  4. Conflict in Jimma (September 2006, October 2007)
    In September 2006, Muslim extremists torched two churches and many homes owned by Christians in Jimma town, Oromia region displacing around 2000 Christians. The attackers “belonged to the Wahabbi brand of Islam, an extremist sect imported from Saudi Arabia.” According to the Christian News Wire (29 March 2007), this incident was the result of the Saudi Wahhabi influence: “It is clear that the Christians in Ethiopia are feeling Saudi Arabia’s influence, particularly in Jimma, a Muslim dominated area where local authorities are almost exclusively Muslim.” In another incident, in mid-October 2007, in the town of Jima 19 people were killed and five churches and 600 houses were destroyed. The mid October 2007 violence was caused because of the conversion to Christianity of many Muslims through Protestant evangelists. This is confirmed by the ICC (10-31-07). “The radical Muslims,” said the ICC (Ibid) “are infuriated due to a large number of conversion of Muslims to Christianity and are reacting violently as seen recently in Buyo locality in Jimma.” In the area, around 1,100 Muslims were converted to Christianity.
  5. Conflict in Beshasha (October 2006) In the mid October 2006 at Bashasha, Agaro province, six Christians were killed by radical Muslims (Mackay 2006).
    In addition to instigating Islamic-Christian conflicts, Wahhabists are also suspected of mosque burnings in Ethiopia and initiating intra-Islamic divisions (Dickson 2005: 5). The Wahhabists were also blamed for trying to control religious offices through manipulation. For instance, the attempt of Wahhabists to influence the election for “YeEthiopia YeIslimmna Gudayoch Teklalla Miker Bet” (“National Ethiopian Majlis for Islamic Affairs”) in Ethiopia was exposed by two officials of the Islamic Affairs. One of them was the ex-chairman for Haj and Umra services, and the other was the ex-Secretary General of the National Ethiopian Majlis for Islamic Affairs, Mr. Abdul Rezzaq (Hibret 2004). The two former officials appealed to the Ethiopian prime minister(16), exposing how the Wahhabists were using four million Saudi Riyals received from Saudi Arabia to influence and manipulate the election for the National Ethiopian Majlis(17) for Islamic Affairs(18) (Hibret 2004).


5. Conclusion

According to Alem (2003), “Since there is religious tolerance in the country, Ethiopians have managed to escape destructive religious conflicts, which have become prevalent in many parts of the world.” Christianity and Islam peacefully co-existed in Ethiopia for more than 1400 years. We can give three main reasons for this very long peaceful co-existence:

First and foremost, both religions, Orthodox Christianity and Islam in Ethiopia are not radical. The Ethiopian Muslims belong to the more tolerant Sufi order of Sunni Islam. Both religions have incorporated pre-Christian, pre-Islamic, non-Christian and non-Islamic cultural elements. Secondly, according to some scholars, the people in Ethiopia usually identify themselves with their ethnic origin and nationality rather than with their religion. This is confirmed by Marquardt (2005: 3): “Muslims in Ethiopia tend to identify more strongly with their ethnic and tribal roots than Islam.” The United State Institute of Peace (USIP) has also re-affirmed this theory:

“Ethiopian Muslims have not been receptive to Islamic fundamentalism and they lack centralized power. They tend to identify first with their ethnic kin. Muslims and Christians are geographically intermixed throughout most of the country. Islam in Ethiopia has been benign during the past century. But the potential for conflict is present” (USIP 2004: 1).

In addition, Erlich (2006: 1-2) argues that in Ethiopia religious issues (Islamic-Christian) did not get importance or priority, but “Ethnic, linguistic, and regional identities often turned out to be more vibrant factors in internal politics.” Ethiopia, as Erlich (2006: 1) pointed out, had enjoyed a “long tradition of relative religious tolerance.” He added that “over the centuries, the Ethiopian common denominator has often proved stronger than her religious differences.”

Thirdly, to a certain extent, Prophet Muhammad’s instruction not to attack Ethiopia has a pacifying effect on Muslims. The prophet had instructed his followers, “Leave the Ethiopians alone as long as they leave you alone” (Erlich 2006: 3). In this case, the Muslims were instructed to leave Ethiopia alone as long as Ethiopians did not mistreat Muslims. Therefore, the earliest Ethiopian model for Muslims was the acceptance of a non-Islamic regime and living in peace under the Christian government. This is still a model respected by moderate Muslims (Erlich 2006: 3).

However, as West (2005: 14) forewarned, at present there is a looming danger in Ethiopia because of gradual shifts in religious affiliation which tend to challenge this status quo. As it is said, Ethiopia lies “on a religious fault line.” Washington Post (12 May 2007) also reported that “Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, concern about Islamic extremism has been rising across the Horn of Africa, and notably in Ethiopia, a country where Orthodox Christianity is often associated with national identity but whose population is nearly half Muslim”

At present, the Muslim population in Ethiopia is growing rapidly, because of the high birth rate and increasing conversion of many people to the Muslim faith. Moreover, “Islam in Ethiopia has traditionally been Sufi, but Wahhabism has begun to compete as Ethiopian Muslim scholars leave the country for Wahhabi educations and return with Wahhabi ideas and funding for new mosques and madrassas” (West 2005: 15).

According to Erlich (2006: 4),

“Saudi money is behind much of the current Islamic revival in Ethiopia, the construction of hundreds of new mosques and quranic schools, the establishment of welfare associations and orphanages, the spread of the Arabic language and translated literature, the expansion of the hajj, the organization of conferences of preachers, the monthly subsidies for the newly converted, the spread of the contention that Muslims are already an overwhelming majority in the country, and more.”

Despite the early signs of the growing Wahhabist threat in Ethiopia in the 1990s and after, Earlich (2006: 2) argues that it is too early to tell the direction of this situation. Also, we still do not know whether the rise of Islam herald a religious conflict and paves a way for political hegemony in the country. However, in considering the country’s tradition of Islamic-Christian peaceful coexistence and tolerance, we hope that the impetus Islam gathered in the post-1991 Ethiopia would not lead the country into religious conflicts and political instability. Perhaps, if there had been no foreign interference, the rise of Islam in the post-1991 Ethiopia would have been accomplished peacefully, without any religious or political conflicts. At present though, there is a high probability of foreign interference that might bring along some negative consequences as to rejuvenation of Islam in the post-1991 Ethiopia. As Erlich (2006: 2) said, the “determinant question is the nature of Middle Eastern involvement in the current Ethiopian process”





End Notes:

1 Both religions can be considered as fully indigenous by taking their long time existence in the country (Al-Hashimi 2004).
2 Two types of Axumite coins of this period are unearthed bearing both cross signs and pre-Christian symbols.
3 Perhaps they came to Ethiopia fleeing from the Byzantine Empire after opposing the Chalcedonian declaration. It has become a tradition for Ethiopian monks to trace their genealogy from these Nine Saints. The Nine Saints also translated the Bible and other religious books in to Geez.
4 According to the 1994 Census, out of the total 53, 130, 782 Ethiopian population there were 60.8% (Orthodox 50.6%), Muslims 32.8 %, traditional 4.6 %, and other 1.8 %.
5 For Dickson (2005: 3-5), the fastest-growing religion in sub-Saharan Africa is Islam. In recent years there are many controversies regarding the number of Muslims in Ethiopia. The major cause of this controversy is the various yearly estimations given by different foreign sources such as the CIA World Fact Book.
For instance, according to the CIA World Fact Book (2004), as cited by Dickson (2005: 3), out of the total 67,851,281 population of Ethiopia, between 30,000,000 and 33,000,000 (45-50%) were Muslims, 35-40% were Orthodox Christians, 12 % animists and other religions represented 3-8 %. The IHT (5 October 2006) claims that “Ethiopia’s 77 million people are almost evenly split between Muslims and Christians.” Shinn (2004: 5-6) also notes that at least 45 percent of Ethiopia’s 67 million people are Muslim. The 2007 CIA World Fact Book (perhaps to rectify the previous mistakes) cited only the 1994 census.
6 The refugees include prominent personalities such as Othman ibn Affan (the third Caliph), and his wife Rugayya Bint Rasulillah (the daughter of prophet Mohamed).
7 Therefore, it would not be a mistake if we claim that Islam came to Ethiopia before it flourished in the Middle East.
8 According to Muslim tradition, the Ethiopian king became Muslim after accepting the Prophet’s invitation. However, he was betrayed by his people and followers and died alone. Hence, Ethiopia also represented Islam’s first failure and “Christian Ethiopia prevented Islam from spreading into Africa and continued to oppress its own Muslims.” Therefore, for Islamic radicals, Ethiopia should be converted to Islam and Muslim ruler should be installed (Erlich 2006: 3).
9 In March 2007, French archaeologists had uncovered the remains of three towns (Asbara, Masai and Nora) of the Muslim Sultanate of Shewa. The remains include mosques adorned with Arabic inscriptions, residential areas, walls, buildings, a tomb emblazoned with stars and Arabic inscriptions, roads, and tools made of obsidian (AFP 27 March 2007).
10 Later on, Mikael married the daughter of Emperor Menelik. After the death of Emperor Menelik, the son of Mikael and the grand son of Menelik, Iyasu II was crowned king of Ethiopia.
11 Before 1974, Muslim holidays (Eid Alfater, Eid Al Adha etc.) were not celebrated at the national level.
12 By exploiting the new political freedom, even very radical and terrorist Muslim organizations like al-Ittihad al-Islaamiyya (AIAI) were legally registered in Ethiopia as some of ethnic-parties and thus were allowed to use media, freedom of assembly and press in the Somali region (Region 5) of Ethiopia (ICG 2005: 8). Al-Ittihad was formed in the 1980s, and reached its peak in 1992, and came to an end or obscurity in 2005. Other than the various sporadic terrorist activities in Ethiopia, it boldly tried to assassinate Ethiopia’s Minister of Transport and Communications, Dr. Abdulmejid Hussein, an ethnic Somali.
13Wahhabism was created in the 18th century by Mohammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab (1703-92) at Najd, Saudi Arabia (Sandi 2004: 2). Wahhabism is a form of Salafi interpretation, advocating for more puritanical interpretation of Islam, i.e. adhering to the interpretation of the early followers of Islam (Azzam 2003: 1-2). Wahhabism opposes popular Islamic practices like saint veneration, the celebration of the prophet’s <
14 Roughly, there are 250 million Muslims in Africa
15 There is a suspicion that the recent religious conflicts in the country were ignited by some political groups who wanted to use religion to cover their political activity (McCrummen 2007).
16 In fact, due to the limited nature of the Islam-Christian conflicts and not to politicize these religious conflicts, the Ethiopian government has played it down.
17 For Shinn (2004: 5-6), one of the ways to prevent the Ethiopian Muslims from the influence of Islamic terrorist organizations and Islamic fundamentalism is that the Ethiopian government should improve its relation with the Muslim community by sharing state resources equitably among different religious groups.
18 For further details, see The Reporter, 12/29/03 (Tahsas 19, 1996 EC.).

5.3. Sharing in / out Culture(s)

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups| Groupes de sections

TRANS   Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  17 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Wondwosen Teshome B. and Jerusalem Negash W.: The Culture of Accommodation and Tolerance: Christianity and Islam in Ethiopia - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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