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Transformations of Islam and Communal Relations in Wallo, Ethiopia – Professor Jan Abbink

February 28, 2013

Chapter 3: Transformations of Islam and Communal Relations in Wallo, Ethiopia

Jan Abbink

Ethiopia holds a special place in the history of Muslim–Christian relations in Africa. Islam has a very long history in the country, going back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad (Cuoq 1981, 28). Despite a history of tension and occasional violence over the past five to six hundred years, the relationship between religious communities in Ethiopia, especially since the era of Emperor Menelik II (r. 1889–1913), has predominantly been one of accommodation and compromise, not of antagonism and strife. Muslims in Ethiopia are of diverse ethnolinguistic backgrounds, and Islam has acquired a strong indigenous character.

This chapter looks at possible transformations of Muslim life in Wallo, Ethiopia, a region with one of the oldest and largest Muslim populations in the country, and assesses how these might affect both local communal relations and national politics. The background is one of increasing globalization and political liberalization, which in Ethiopia has meant a devolution or decentralization of state power to the regional level and a measure of local autonomy. A closer study of the Wallo region is both interesting (because of the mixed and tolerant nature of Christian–Muslim relations) and relevant (because recent developments may upset the balance and could have
political repercussions).

Ethiopia, and the Horn of Africa in general, has received renewed attention in the current context of the global hegemony of international powers,1 transnational religious linkages, tension between Christian and Muslim communities in Africa and the Middle East, and so-called Islamist terrorism, which some see as a real security threat in Northeast and East Africa (Marchesin 2003; McCormack 2005; Shinn
2004a, 2004b; West 2005; Pan 2003). This latter concern, however, tends to cloud views of Muslim culture and society in Northeast Africa, and can lead to erroneous conceptions of the politics of identity and the political implications of Islam in the region.

To properly assess Islam and its relations with Christianity and the state in the
Horn of Africa, it is essential to understand it as a long-established way of life and a system of meaning for large groups of people rather than only as a potential source of a radical, politicized worldview. I will demonstrate this in an exploratory account of the Wallo region in northern Ethiopia, a remarkable instance of religious intermingling (Abbink 1999; Berhanu 1998, forthcoming; Ficquet, forthcoming). I do not intend to emphasize the exceptional nature of this region but only to demonstrate the variety and richness possible in intercommunal relations in an African setting. The Wallo region, with a population of some four million, exemplifies sociocultural hybridity, pragmatic tolerance, and the accommodation of diversity. Also relevant
here are social-science discussions of identity politics and of cultural hybridity (Kapchan and Strong 1999; Anthias 2001), that is, the combination of elements from differing cultural traditions into new wholes.

In the following, I describe the historical roots of Wallo religious culture, the sociocultural context of local society, and give a sketch of crucial changes in the past decade or so. It has to be noted that there is considerable diversity within the Muslim communities of Ethiopia, as well as debate as to the future of their religious practices and identity, their place in the wider society, and their relations to the Muslim world outside Ethiopia. There are also notable regional divergences: the situation and experiences of Muslims outside of Wallo—e.g., in Harär, Arsi, Jimma, ‘Afar, or the Somali region—can be quite different. But all Ethiopian Muslims must confront reformist–revivalist (often referred to as “Wahhabist”) currents (i.e., purist and strictly scripture-based forms of Islam), originating mostly in Saudi Arabia and inimical to much of the Muslim ethos in Northeast Africa. During interviews in late 2004 with Wallo informants, both Muslim and Christian, this subject always came up.2

I also address the question of religious accommodation or tolerance in Wallo— whether it is durable or whether it has always been a temporary and vulnerable outcome of contingent historical processes, with tensions under the surface. In other words, was the “compromise” or cooperation between Christian and Muslim populations only a precarious balance, or was it based on a shared way of life and recognized—for example, by community leaders—as a solution to the challenges of religious diversity? The question is relevant in view of both the current revivalist movement and the fact that a major jihad devastated this region in the sixteenth century and is still a tacit reference point in current perceptions and attitudes. I will argue that the particular combination of politics, state power, and religious identity in Wallo enabled a constellation of hybrid and negotiated communal relations to emerge, but that this balance is vulnerable, first, to changes in the political system and the state’s attitude toward religion in the public sphere, and, second, to a decline
in Wallo’s social infrastructure of religious coexistence and civility. Such shifts might set the stage for antagonistic religious politics and exclusionism in both Muslim and Christian communities that will have major political repercussions on the national level (cf. Abbink 1998).

Wallo’s pattern of communal accommodation is quite unusual in Ethiopia,
although the extent of religious intermingling and coexistence should not be idealized. Despite the popular Ethiopian image of the “Walloye” (people of Wallo) as relaxed or “superficial” in their religious practices, there has been a constant, though muted, undercurrent of tension and rivalry between religious communities in Wallo since the sixteenth century.

An underlying socioeconomic constraint in Wallo society is the grinding poverty and insecurity (see Little et al. 2004). Wallo became notorious during the dramatic Ethiopian famines of 1973–74 and 1984–85. This poverty and insecurity drives people to make choices, look for new survival options, and try to secure other sources of income. Issues of access to land, to cash, to healers or spiritual guides, or to anything else that may improve their lives have an effect on religious adherence, because under certain circumstances they can create new social bonds and networks of mutual support. Both Christians and Muslims in Wallo—and in Ethiopia in general—are to a large extent nonliterate and depend on oral and ritual transmission of the faith.
Paradoxically, their shared poverty and desperation may have contributed to local coexistence and mutual sociability.

Islam in Wallo: A Historical View
Islam in Ethiopia dates from the seventh century, when the Prophet Muhammad, faced with Quraysh persecution, sent a number of his followers to Orthodox Christian Ethiopia to seek refuge. The Christian king in Aksum received them and treated them well. The asylum seekers later returned to Arabia, though some remained and converted to Christianity. Muslim tradition (the hadith recorded by al-Tabari) claims that some years later (in AD 628), the Ethiopian king (or negus) converted to Islam, but corroboration of this claim cannot be found.3 In Muslim tradition, Ethiopia was neutral, dar al-hiyad, and exempt from jihad (also see Erlich 2003).

Islam began to gain adherents in the coastal areas of Ethiopia in the ninth century, and expanded gradually through Sufi orders and itinerant teachers, saints, and traders. The main Sufi orders were the Khatmiyya, Sammaniyya, Tijaniyya, Shadhiliyya, and Qadiriyya. The latter arrived in the sixteenth century, the others in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; but the Qadiriyya order remained dominant and was especially widespread in Harär and Wallo (Hussein 2001, 69–70).

Muslims in Ethiopia are Sunnis, mostly of the Shafi’i rite (some are Hanafi).
Knowledge of Arabic is limited. In Ethiopia, Muslims constitute an estimated 35 to 40 percent of the population (extrapolating from the 1994 national census) and live dispersed across the country, but predominantly in the east, in parts of the center, and in the southeast. The Christian heartlands of Ethiopia—Gondar, Tigray, western Shewa, and Gojjam—have always had Muslim minorities, illustrating the fact that Islam is virtually indigenous in Ethiopia.

The religion has long been established in South Wallo, probably since the tenth century.4 The region was located on important trade routes to the coast, along which Muslim traders and travelers entered the country. The area of western Wallo was then known as the “Bete Amhara” (domain of the Amhara) and was historically a core region of the Christian empire. Ulama from the sultanate of Ifat in eastern Ethiopia came to missionize the area in the fourteenth century, but Islamization commenced in full force in the jihad (in the years 1529–43) of Ahmed ibn Ibrahim “Gragn,” a militant Muslim imam from Harär.5 Scores of Amharic-speaking Christians were forcibly converted. This episode of devastating war almost led to the demise of the Christian Ethiopian kingdom and created a “trauma” in Ethiopia, instilling enmity and fear of violent Muslim expansion in highlanders. An influx of Oromo people
from the south late in the century temporarily halted the expansion of Islam. In the seventeenth century, however, the Oromo in Wallo largely converted to Islam and in the process also adopted the local Amharic language. Present-day Wallo is an ethnic amalgam of Amhara, Argobba, Agaw, Oromo, and ‘Afar peoples. A strong local Muslim dynasty emerged in the early eighteenth century (Hussein 2001, 27). These “Mammadoch” later became affiliated with the imperial government. Imperial authority in Ethiopia from the late seventeenth to the late nineteenth century was in large part dependent on control of Wallo.

Islam in Wallo is marked by a preponderance of, and great respect for, “saints”
(walis), shrines (tombs), mystics, and panegyrists.6 All contemporary Muslim shrines (ziyyara) in Wallo were founded by saints from the Qadiriyya Sufi order, with the exception of Geta, which is Tijaniyya-founded. In the early centuries of Muslim expansion in eastern Ethiopia, groups of Yemeni and Arab teachers and traders settled in the country, intermingling with local people. The number of Arabs was not large, however, and Arabic did not become a common language. The local Argobba people became an important intermediary for spreading Islam. The Muslim founding fathers started religious institutions and centers of learning and gave rise to dynasties of local rulers, and after their deaths their graves became shrines. For instance, the
shrine of Abbaye Shonké,7 a noted Wallo Muslim leader or saint, is still located in Boqoqé village in the Argobba area. Saints are appealed to for help in illness, infertility, business ventures, disputes, and so on; and the advice and prayers of their living descendants, the incumbent wali line, are sought as well. The Sufi saints of Wallo are linked by filiation and teacher–student bonds, and ranked in a hierarchy of prestige. The main shrine in South Wallo is in Annâ (in the Rayya area); then others follow, like Dägär, Dâna, Gaddo, Jamma-Negus, Geta, Worewayyu, and Châli. They are places of Muslim learning, and religious students will visit a number of them to learn the branches of religious knowledge in which they specialize, such as tawhid or fiqh. Such centers were often established in a neutral area, on the border between various ethnic or local groups. The shrine of Châli, for instance, lies in a no man’s land between the ‘Afar and Amhara areas in eastern Wallo.

Local chiefs in Wallo were economically powerful, and some were contenders for the throne. In general, Wallo was a very fractious territory with many internal rivalries. In the late nineteenth century the incumbent Mammadoch leader Mohammed ‘Ali allied himself with two Christian Ethiopian emperors, first Yohannes and later Menelik II, and converted to Christianity, an act that often indicated a change in political allegiance. Mohammed ‘Ali was baptized Mikael and given the title Ras, and his allies supported him against his rivals in Wallo. He became a sponsor of Christianity, founding several churches. In 1909 his son Iyasu was designated heir to the throne by Emperor Menelik II himself, although he reigned only three years (1913–16) before being deposed by force.

In the twentieth century Wallo lost its former political and economic importance, as the political center of Ethiopia shifted south. However, Emperor Haile Sellassie I (r. 1930–74) aligned himself with the Wallo nobility by marrying the granddaughter of Ras Mikael. He also conducted a number of campaigns to quell unrest in Wallo. During the Italian occupation (1936–41) the Muslim community in Ethiopia was supported by the Italians, who wanted to break the power and institutional role of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, which they identified with Ethiopian nationalism and which they thought was not strong among Muslims. The Italians promoted the building of mosques (Trimingham 1952, 137; Borusso 2001) and in general furthered the interests of Muslims in public life to “balance” the two faiths. This led to the resurfacing of old rivalries in some areas of Wallo, notably in the west (such as the isolated and staunchly Christian region of Amara Sayint), but not to actual clashes.
After Emperor Haile Sellassie was restored to the throne in 1941, Wallo tended to be relatively neglected in national development policy, perhaps because locals had been less than enthusiastic in supporting resistance to Italian rule. In modern times the Walloye have prided themselves on their tolerance and flexibility in religious matters, which may be partly explained by their ethnically mixed nature. They often use the Amharic phrase mecacal abro mänor, “living together so that we accommodate, reach consensus.”

Islam, Society, and Politics in Ethiopia, 1878–1991
The dominant religion of the Ethiopian empire had been Orthodox Christianity
since the fourth century, but, in the centuries after the jihad of Ahmed Gragn, religious relations stabilized. The imperial order was largely able to prevent violent confrontations between the religious communities. Socioeconomic processes and cultural similarities worked toward the accommodation of differences. But tensions remained under the surface. The last dramatic, violent confrontation between Muslims and Christians in Wallo was in 1878–82, after Emperor Yohannes proclaimed an edict demanding religious unity in the empire and conversion of the Muslims. This coercive policy was a return to the conflict of medieval times, but it was ultimately unsuccessful because of the protests it generated among local Muslims and even among Christians, who resented the disturbances it caused. Local Muslim leaders (such as Shaykh Talha b. Ja’far, Mohammed Qanqe, Amädé Tsadiq, and Hussein Jibril) organized armed resistance, demonstrating that a strong undercurrent of Muslim identity and revivalism was native to the country, not merely “imported” from elsewhere.8 This resonated with attitudes elsewhere whereby Muslims need not be second-class citizens. At that time, many Sufi leaders had already received religious education in Arab countries, such as Yemen, Sudan, or Egypt (cf. Hussein 2001). Their revolts were defeated, and scores of Muslims did convert, but in the time of Emperor Menelik II (r. 1889–1913) many reverted again to Islam. The emperor stated that he respected the wish of people to “adhere to the religion of their fathers.”

During the imperial conquest of southern territories at the end of the nineteenth century, Christianity was usually seen as part of the politics of the conquering emperor, and the banner of Islam was used in various regions to resist the conquest and forge a kind of ideology of resistance (see Abbas 1999; Hassen 1994); among the conquered peoples, many adherents of traditional religions converted to Islam.9 After the establishment of Menelik’s empire in the 1890s, however, which resulted in the subjugation and economic exploitation of the southerners, in practice a “live and let live” policy developed here as well, with neither Christians nor Muslims allowed to
mount conversion campaigns. Ethiopian Christians showed no fervent urge to conversion, being satisfied with establishing the presence of the church in the new areas, especially the towns.10

Emperor Haile Sellassie maintained the predominance of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) in Ethiopia and discouraged or banned the participation of Muslims in high government functions. Muslims’ demands for land and for recognition of their religious holidays were not honored. On the other hand, the 1944 Muhammadan Courts Act legally recognized Muslim jurisprudence and sharia for personal, family, and inheritance law. The emperor also had the Qur’an translated into Amharic (published in 1958). The emperor’s religious policy was inspired by a famous dictum ascribed to him: “The country is a public, religion a private matter” (in Amharic, Hagär yägara näw, haimanot yegil näw). Although Islam in Ethiopia maintained relations
with Muslim centers outside the country—sending community leaders and
teachers to Egypt, Lebanon, or Iraq for religious education, for example—it largely turned inward.

The Ethiopian revolution of 1974 led to changes. On April 20, a few months after the revolution had broken out, almost a hundred thousand Muslims demonstrated in Addis Ababa for equality and recognition under the law. Many Christians joined the event. The committee of revolutionary officers or Derg that led the revolution soon declared the equality of religions, recognized Islamic holidays, permitted more mosques and educational establishments to be built, and increased the number of people allowed to go on the hajj. It also recruited people of Muslim background into the political apparatus and tried giving them their due recognition in the country. This also had the effect of balancing if not weakening the powerful Ethiopian Orthodox Church. However, when the revolutionary regime adopted a stronger
Marxist ideology after 1977, an antireligious—and also anti-Muslim—policy
emerged that forced Ethiopian Muslims to be more circumspect about expressing their religious identity and that led to a slackening of their international connections. The inward turn was thus reinforced.

Army leaders and regional administrators under the Derg often violently repressed both religious people and political opponents. They made no distinction between people of Muslim and Christian background. ‘Ali Musa, the militia commander in Wallo’s capital, Dessé, was known for his brutal policies.11 The political violence of the Derg thus affected Wallo inhabitants of both religions equally, furthering solidarity and joint tactics of subversion. The unsuccessful economic policies of the Derg, which resulted in impoverishment and social decline, contributed to this cooperation.

In 1991 the Derg regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam was ousted by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an alliance of four groups including the northern Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is still in power in 2007. The EPRDF committed itself to a democratic, ethnofederal Ethiopia and opened up space for ethnicity-based politics and cultural and religious revival. The past fifteen years have seen a remarkable broadening of horizons, new opportunities for travel and exchange for religious leaders, and an influx of NGOs and missionary organizations in the country that is transforming Ethiopian Muslim communities as well.12 The process of globalization has tended to decenter localized forms of belief and allowed pressure from well-funded transnational forms of religion to increase, such as Evangelical-Pentecostal Christianity and revivalist Islam, notably
Wahhabism from nearby Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism is a significant phenomenon—a massive, well-financed movement to remold what is usually called popular or “folk” Islam in Africa into new, “stricter,” or what the Wahhabis consider “proper” shape. It is, however, difficult to investigate, because its workings are informal and unregistered. The movement and its aims are contested and controversial, but it considers itself the center of the Islamic faith.13

Muslim and Christian Culture in Wallo
These new forms of religion are at variance with local Christianity and Islam and pose a serious social, ideological, and political challenge to the pattern of coexistence and accommodation. In this section, I briefly describe this traditional pattern as it exists today, with a focus on Islam.

Islam in Wallo has a “popular,” local aspect; the Walloye maintain a rich variety of practices and beliefs which are not derived from the scriptural tradition but reflect a variety of older cultural beliefs, though adapted to the Muslim worldview.14 Islam in Wallo is distinguished from Islamic practice in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Indonesia not only by veneration of saints, who are mediators between God and humans, and by reverence of and pilgrimages to their tombs (ziyyara), but also by other customs, like elaborate celebrations of mawlid (the birthday of the Prophet), communal ritual prayer gatherings called wadajja (see Berhanu, forthcoming), and devotion to Sufi mystics and panegyrists, who for didactical purposes perform and lead religious songs
of praise (dhikr) and rituals for ordinary believers (Berhanu 1998). Wallo Muslims also honor the dead in postburial remembrance rituals called sedaqa (equivalent to the Christian täzkar) and join in ceremonies praying for rain. Muslim shaykhs also treat people touched by spirit possession. An important function is served by the abagar (“father of the land”), a Muslim mediator in the countryside who reconciles people in the name of divine authority (God) but not on the basis of sharia. Both Christians and Muslims may appeal to an abagar.

Most Muslims, especially in rural Ethiopia, are committed to this “popular” and spiritually versatile form of Islam, cherishing it as their way of life and religious identity. It has to be noted that illiteracy was always common among ordinary people, and ignorance of Arabic still more so, necessitating oral and ritual transmission of the faith. Indeed, oral Muslim culture (in Amharic) has undergone a remarkable development in Wallo. Moreover, in conditions of poverty, frequent disease, and general insecurity, religious rituals and beliefs are tested on their pragmatic merits and maintained according to the satisfaction they provide in the daily struggle for survival. Reformists’ claims that most of these practices are “un-Islamic” miss the fact that ordinary people have invested so-called non-Islamic ritual practices with Islamic meaning. The emerging tension between Sufi understandings of Islam and reformist–revivalist Islam has often been seen in Africa, but in Wallo the situation is different because of the age-old pattern of reciprocal conversions, the underlying cultural and linguistic similarities across religions, and the intertwining of religion (Islam and Christianity) and politics in Ethiopia, in which Wallo has featured prominently.

When faced with such examples of “un-Islamic” religious expression, non-
Wolloye outsiders often suggest that Muslims in Wallo are “lax and weak” in their adherence to the faith, and that they “do not perform the rituals properly,” are “ignorant,” and too easily convert to Christianity and back to Islam. These charges deny ordinary Muslims religious agency and spiritual commitment, but there is no doubt a grain of truth in them. Some of the characteristics of the Walloye, however, are seen as positive. In this mixed setting of Christians and Muslims, both indigenous to the area and sharing many customs, a pattern of open borders and accommodative social
practices developed. Muslims and Christians frequently intermarry, socialize, attend each other’s festivities, and undertake joint activities. Sometimes Muslims accept the mediation efforts of Christian priests and the healing power of Christian priests and saints, to whom there are also some shrines in the area. On the other hand, many Christians visit the tombs of Muslim shaykhs (for instance, at mawlid) and consult the shaykhs’ living descendants in cases of personal problems, illness, and other affliction. Most remarkably, there are also many cases of people converting to the other faith and then returning to the first. Such successive conversions result in mixed personal names, such as “Indris Mekonnen” or “Teferra Yimam.”

This is a pattern of what I earlier called “religious oscillation” (Abbink 1998). This pattern characterizes not only the lives of individuals but also the course of community relations, in which Christians sometimes help Muslims in their religious duties and vice versa. Kalklachew (1997, 83–85) has provided quite remarkable examples of this, including Christian neighbors helping Muslims to build a mosque and Muslims campaigning for the preservation of a Christian village church in danger of being closed down. Muslims and Christians are also joint members in burial societies (qire) and savings clubs. One might see all this as evidence of a pragmatic ethics of tolerance in conditions of poverty and insecurity, as well as an expression of commitment to mutual support and social cohesion among the adherents of the two religions. It has not kept Muslim and Christian communities and their leaders from being selfconscious,
and some have been known for strong, and at times fanatic, adherence to
the faith. Examples include the nineteenth-century Muslims Shaykh Hussein Jibril,15 Liben Amedé, Shaykh Mohammed Qanqé, Haji Bushra Mohammed, and Shaykh Talha bin Ja’far, the latter an orthodox Muslim who opposed the conversion campaigns of Emperor Yohannes IV. Wallo has also produced a notable number of Islamic scholars (see Hussein, O’Fahey, and Wagner 2003).

There was not any doubt of the differences between the two faiths: in religious law and rituals, in conceptions of God/Allah and the mortal or divine nature of Jesus Christ, in burial customs, in prayer formulas, and in dietary rules. In particular, the taboo on eating the meat of an animal slaughtered by someone of the other faith was strictly observed; indeed, it became the unambiguous dividing line.16 The bans on the stimulant leaf khat (Catha edulis Forsk., chewed by Muslims, banned by Christians) and on alcohol (drunk by Christians, banned by Muslims) were less strictly observed. Overall, the combination of historical factors and the religious demography of Wallo—which has approximately equal numbers of Muslims and Christians17 living together intermingled—made social interaction and mutual help inevitable. Joking and playful references to religious difference were common, given a situation that might be described as institutionalized ambiguity.

The core values of Islam, as expressed by its adherents in Wallo, are a pious and just life in the eyes of God; nonviolence; a striving for ethical conduct and justice; knowledge of the Qur’an and Islamic law; religious education and awareness; respect for knowledgeable and charismatic religious leaders (saints, mystics, panegyrists), healers, and mediators; material progress; and the accommodation of differences with others. In Wallo the situation of Muslims was also relatively good because of their dominance in trade and their social integration—they were never banned from owning land, like Muslims elsewhere in the country. In short, Wallo provides us with a model of Islam that was not antagonistic nor nationally divisive, the effectiveness of
which depended on its indigenous character and its historical interactions with Christianity, on economic integration, on tolerance or at least creative integration of preexisting ethnocultural characteristics into a Muslim way of life, and on a structural rejection of exclusivist identities.

Religion and Community in the Political Space of Post-1991 Ethiopia
The new political space created since 1991 by the EPRDF regime, which issued from an ethnoregional insurgent movement, has allowed the resurgence of organized religion, long suppressed by the Derg. Although it had abolished the privileged status of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, nationalized all church property, and eliminated all state subventions and had formally recognized the equality of Islam and allowed the public celebration of its holidays, the Marxist-oriented Derg government was hostile to religion in general, and both the Christian and Muslim faiths were seen as undesirable historical heritages.

The current regime has welcomed investments of all kinds, including those by
religious organizations. Ties with Muslim countries have been reinforced, and Islamic NGOs have mushroomed. Salih (2004, 156) claims that in 2000 there were 13 Islamic NGOs in Ethiopia (of a total of 150), compared with none in 1980. Little is known about their activities, but they seem to be almost exclusively focused on religious affairs and on assisting Muslims. Islam has thus become more prominent on the national level. Its prominence is also seen in the media, with new Amharic-language Muslim weeklies such as Salafiyya, Hijira, and Quddis.18 Many Muslim books and didactic publications, as well as cassettes and videotapes of prayers and sermons, are on sale, especially in the area around the Anwar or Grand Mosque of Addis Ababa.
New bookshops were opened in urban centers, with notably more Arabic-language Islamic publications on sale than in the past.

Globalization has intensified notably in the religious domain during the last fifteen years. After 1991, the Muslim community of Ethiopia reconnected with developments in Islam worldwide through travel, study abroad, the activities of Islamic NGOs in Ethiopia, and international trade and business.19 As a result, reports of Islamic resurgence in Ethiopia are frequent. Some observers see the shift as “Socialism out [after the fall of the Derg] and Islamism in” (Jab3oñska 2004). Massive financial support from mostly informal, private circles in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states is funding Islamic revivalism and expansion in Ethiopia (Erlich 2003, 3; Ficquet, forthcoming). I saw new mosques in about twenty towns and villages in Wallo, and local islam and people always told me the same story: an NGO member or a local Muslim (usually a migrant worker or a religious student or teacher) had gone to Saudi Arabia or another Arab country, established contact with a private religious financier or organization, and brought back the funds to start a mosque or a madrasa.

On the national level, it seems that the Ethiopian government, which guarantees religious freedom, has not paid much attention to the creeping impact of reformist–Wahhabist Islam in the past fifteen years, or to internal strife among the Muslim population, except for trying to keep public activism under control. There is, however, heavy competition in the Muslim councils (local representative groups recognized by the state) between mainstream adherents and reformists, and the latter are reputed to use all means available, including bribing voters. For example, in December 2004 two competing candidates reported in the press that Saudi Arabian sources had allocated 4 million riyals (ca. €750,000) to get their candidates voted onto the Muslim councils and thus become the dominant voice of organized Islam in Ethiopia.20

But certain social processes in Ethiopia contribute to the growth of the reformist current. The young generation in urban centers—facing high unemployment, poverty, a health crisis, and often desperate prospects—are taking up the message of Islamic revivalism, and in some instances Islamism, for political reasons. Thwarted in the socioeconomic and political spheres—which are still undemocratic, with a lack of respect for rights and for local autonomy—urban youth turn to Islam to develop a counterdiscourse and to belong to a community.21 Conflicts between members of the Christian and Muslim faiths, and between adherents of Sufi understandings of Islam and revivalist Islam, are more frequent than in the pre-1991 period.22 Government action and legal measures are usually not sufficient to either prevent or handle such incidents.

The Changing Balance? Local Muslims, Reformists, and Christians and the Shift of Identities in Wallo
Transformations of Islam and local communal relations in Ethiopia are clearly set in a globalized discourse concerning a transnational Islam as well as Christianity. As in many other African countries, there is a public debate among Ethiopians, sometimes quite polemical, about both religions, and especially Wahhabism (Alem 2003; Johannes 2004; Hibret 2004). This is the general term under which diverse forms of revivalist, “fundamentalist,” and reformist Islam are grouped, though there are also movements, teachers, and NGOs that have connections with Iran, the Gulf states, or Pakistani Muslim circles.23 The Saudi factor in Islamic revivalism, however, is most prominent. Wahhabism rejects so-called popular Islam as practiced in Ethiopia, and
aims at Muslim disengagement from allegedly “non-Islamic” institutions and
peoples. It considers the locally inflected forms of Islamic belief and practice to be “contaminated” with bid’a—so-called unlawful innovations or accretions by “ignorant” people that have to be excised. Such neoorthodox versions of the faith aim to “deculturalize” and recast Islam. The paradox is that the popular Sufi understandings of Islam are characterized by great devotion, calls for moral behavior, and spiritual wealth, which elsewhere were the main reasons for Islam’s appeal and success in winning adherents over the past centuries.

Are Wallo Muslims moving to adopt the Islamic reformist message, based on strict scriptural interpretation (Desplat 2002), and redefine their Muslim identity? We can answer the question only by analyzing the processes of social interaction between Christians and Muslims and the reproduction of local society: community relations; patterns of conversion; mutual help; intermarriage; respect for Sufi mystics, mediators, shaykhs, and shrines; and the practice of popular Islamic rituals. I can only give a modest answer to it here.

From field research it appears that the Wallo rural population is so far not greatly attracted to this reformist message. Elites in towns and villages may plead for a stricter, “better” practice of Islam, but even they do not approve of social disengagement from the secular state and from Christians. But the steady increase of reformist–Wahhabist influence and other stricter versions of Islam in Wallo lead to changes. On the basis of surveys and interviews I carried out in Dessé and in rural South Wallo, the following tendencies can be confirmed:
● Mosques were (re)built in virtually every town and rural center in Wallo in the past fourteen years (many Christian churches were also built or renovated).
● Interfaith marriages are slowly declining, but mainly in the towns.
● Reformist Islamic teachers and religious leaders are established in many towns, in madrasas and in local NGO operations.
● The shaykhs at the rural shrines are aware of the reformist Muslims’ challenge to their practices on the grounds of strict scriptural interpretation and respond by emphasizing literacy in Amharic and Arabic and the study of the Qur’an, the hadith, and didactic books on Islam. But they reject what they call fanatics and “Wahhabis.”
● Mixed-faith burial societies (qire) in the towns are declining (especially in
Dessé, the capital of Wallo): Muslims leave them and set up their own (although Christians do not).
● Many Muslim youth in the towns are attracted to reformist Islam and are less inclined to develop friendships with Christians or to intermarry. They ignore and shun non-Muslims, including former friends.
● Both the number of Muslim madrasas and regular schools and the number of
students attending them have increased, and more people are studying Arabic.
● In Wallo, and in Ethiopia in general, people evidence greater interest in Muslim history and in the future role of Muslims and Islam. This occasionally leads to an interpretive “rewriting” of history, which can be seen in stories of Wallo history, especially those told by community or religious leaders.
● Expatriate Wallo Muslims (and to a lesser extent Christians) have an increasing impact; they send home remittances and donations for religious causes and may come to see Wallo through the filter of their new, more monolithic, diaspora religious identity.

These changes signify a rethinking of communal relations and an openness to revivalism. Wallo Muslim elites reemphasize or reinvent their Muslim identity in the new political and religious context of federal Ethiopia, taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the post-1991 era of liberalization. They do not openly politicize Muslim identity; they only work toward its social consolidation and dominance in local conditions. But this reflects the different constituencies and populations: young, urban, and newly trained religious teachers, leaders, and activists have a political agenda to be realized in due course, whereas ordinary people, living in conditions of mutual dependence and socioeconomic interaction, continue to support the hybrid culture and communal contacts characteristic of Wallo society. Indeed, core elements of Islam in Wallo, while contested in the emerging debates with reformists in the urban centers and the Islamic NGOs, remain in place and inspire continuing
commitment: reverence for saints and shrines, admiration of popular Muslim panegyrists and poets, Muslim folk healers and dispute mediators (abagars), the practice of wadajja, and life cycle rituals like sedaqa. Most ordinary people continue to cultivate accommodative relationships with Christians as a matter of principle. However, the representatives of “popular” Islam may not have good (doctrinal) answers to the religious–scriptural challenges issued by the newly emerging elite of the often orthodox or even radical revivalists.

A core point of difference between Wahhabist understandings of Islam and the
local Sufi understandings is that the former emphasize the sole authority of the basic Muslim scriptures (the Qur’an and hadith), sober ritual form, and doctrinal “purity” (in an almost physical sense). The latter stress spiritual experience and adherence to the basic organizing ideas and ethics of the Muslim faith, flexibly interpreted. People acknowledge the formal Islamic knowledge and aims of Wahhabist-inspired teachers, educators, and imams. But they do not see why they should abandon Muslim practices that gave spiritual meaning to their identity, or why they should turn their backs on Christian neighbors and friends. Some informants in Dessé and villages in the
Wallo countryside asked why they should stop going to the saints’ shrines, or stop mawlid celebrations, or hate the Christians with whom they have lived for so long and who have helped them many times. As one farmer in the Tänta area said, “Knowing the Qur’an and sharia is good, but is the new teaching meant to refuse our friends and to repudiate our shaykhs? Who said we are not Muslims?”24 People like him tend to reject what they call “fanatics” (Amharic, akrariwoch, sing. akrari). Wallo informants generally also spoke with shock and incomprehension about the situation in the Jimma area in southern Ethiopia, where in the past couple of years more than one hundred Sufi mosques had been burned down, allegedly by Wahhabist-inspired religious zealots. They also reject the destruction of Muslim tombstones, which are
banned by Wahhabis. Wahhabism also draws great skepticism in Ethiopia because it rejects female political and legal equality and public roles for women. In rural Ethiopia, women are considered perhaps not equal to men but certainly as strong and independent-minded, and, in many regions, they have strong customary rights to property and are vital in economic and family life. The veiling of women is also unpopular. One Muslim informant in Kemise town said, “Why the veil? It says nowhere in the Qur’an that women have to go veiled. We don’t like it.”25 This statement was widely echoed in Wallo.

Wahhabism is not the only reformist–revivalist trend in Muslim Ethiopia, but it is certainly one of the more wealthy and powerful ones, because of its foreign connections and resources, which attract potential converts.26 Evangelical churches also offer access to resources, such as scholarships and community aid. The challenge from Wahhabist-leaning movements in Ethiopia is quite important and is seen as having a direct impact on social peace and the public order. Wahhabis’ underlying attitude that Muslims who are not like them are “unbelievers” (i.e., their practice of takfir) is rejected by other Muslims, in rural Wallo in particular. As David Shinn, a regional expert and former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, has noted in one of his analyses of the politics of Islam in Northeast Africa, “it is an inescapable fact that Wahhabi
proselytism has contributed to religious tension in Ethiopia” (2004b, 2).
After the sudden opening up of political space in the early 1990s, religious
activists from both Muslim and Christian reformist movements eagerly increased their activities. But they made many mistakes in their fierce campaigning and met with skepticism and rejection. Now they work more patiently and less publicly and have adapted their message. More recently, Ethiopian state security has kept a closer lid on Muslim activities, arresting “troublemakers,” forbidding certain public events, and bringing Muslim schools under stricter control by the national Education Ministry, which supervises curricula and teaching.

A full study of the changing religious balance must also include an analysis of the response of the established Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Here I can only note that increased mosque building and the expansion of Muslim schools and NGOs have evoked a somewhat similar response from the EOC: churches have been built, youth organizations reinvigorated, and public processions held. The locations of some new mosques have been contested. Obviously, the third factor in the equation is the Pentecostal-Evangelical movement, which is growing fast and recruits youths mainly from among the Orthodox constituency, where it evokes a negative response. As one EOC member in Dessé said, “The Pentecostals [or ‘Pent’es’ in local parlance] are ‘our
Wahhabis’: they are fanatical, unjust, cheating and they work under false pretenses. We oppose their separatism and anti-EOC behavior.”

This religious competition in both the Muslim and the Christian communities
extends into other domains, such as the struggle for converts, community aid projects for the poor and for HIV-AIDS victims and orphans, and efforts to pressure and lobby the authorities.

Conclusion: A New Politics under the Surface?
In a perceptive paper of 1980, Haggai Erlich noted the tendency toward the politicization of Islam and the depoliticization of Christianity in Ethiopia. Globalization processes of the past two decades have reinforced this trend. Islam in Ethiopia benefits strongly from transnational contacts with more wealthy and powerful Muslim countries, but the EOC has no comparable transnational links, because foreign Christian groups prefer to work with the fast-growing Pentecostal and Evangelical churches (whose adherents now constitute about 10 percent of the population). As I have said, the current government does not interfere much in religious life, conversion campaigns, or foreign missionary activity, except to neutralize any overt political
expression and keep the religious elites pro-government. It has “co-opted” local religious leadership, such as the EOC Patriarchate (dominated by regime supporters) and the Supreme Islamic Affairs Council in Addis Ababa (seen by many Muslims as virtually a government body). Both institutions have therefore drawn skepticism and even disdain from believers. Since 1991, Muslim institutions and councils have become an arena of competition between elites bent on establishing their version of Islam. An essentialization of faith and doctrine is the result, which works against pluriformity. On the national level, religious identity is becoming more important to the Muslim community than nationality (Østebø 1998, 445–50). This is occurring
especially among Muslims because they are much more strongly oriented toward international Muslim centers of learning and of funds than are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians to church organizations elsewhere in the world.27

In Wallo, interreligious relations are still nonconflictual and accommodative. In fact, relations between Christians and Muslims over the past century have been almost an exemplary model, because of the explicit recognition of differences and their enactment in a setting of cultural relatedness. Wallo inhabitants are inclined to present their history this way, and they are proud of it. Wallo’s current position as a secondary, and comparatively marginalized, political unit within Ethiopia has perhaps increased local solidarity.

Wallo society is not static, isolated, or immune to change, and revivalism has been an undercurrent at least since the late nineteenth century. However, the current challenge to local Islam comes primarily not from within Wallo society but from outside. Islamic organizations and individuals from well-endowed countries like Saudi Arabia have an increasing impact, providing both resources and an insistent but controversial version of Islam, thus sowing the seed of revivalism and reformism. In addition, members of the top body of Ethiopian Muslims, the Supreme Islamic Affairs Council in Addis Ababa, although not sharing a Wahhabist version of Islam, have stated that
“Wallo Muslims, because of their mixture of all kinds of cultural and non-Islamic elements, are basically not real Muslims. They are mostly illiterate and lack proper religious knowledge.”28 Such views suggest that the Muslim establishment as well as the reformist movements will not let Wallo retain its own form of Islam and will work for change. It is therefore by no means sure that the patterns of tolerance and accommodation, and the ambivalence of religious identification in Wallo, can be maintained. This society, which local people see as a historical achievement in toleration of difference, is in danger of decline. If this occurs, we can expect an increase in religiously fueled tensions, if not conflict (both within Muslim communities and between Muslims and Christians), and the undermining of a rather unique way of life
marked by historically evolved compromises that recognize religious diversity and symbiosis. “Reformed” Muslims deemphasize elements of folk Islam, defining Muslim identity exclusively on the basis of faithfulness to the holy scriptures, and promote transnational, “deculturalized” ideals of Muslim identity. This will certainly have political repercussions: on the regional level, on Ethiopia’s secular political system, and on the activities of Islamist groups who seem to actively recruit in the Horn of Africa (United States Institute of Peace 2004). If the hardening of communal relations continues, it will affect Ethiopia’s relations with the international donor community and the Muslim world.

Both the Ethiopian state and the international community can further the evolution of Wallo society—and interreligious relations in Ethiopia in general—by their commitment to a nonsectarian development agenda. Wallo, like most rural areas in Ethiopia, suffers from entrenched poverty and insecurity, problems that are foremost in the minds of people of any religious persuasion. Policies that improve the local economy and living conditions will garner goodwill. Conversely, approaching people primarily as Muslims or as Christians, instead of in their social and economic roles (as farmers, traders, workers, mothers, wives, or heads of families, etc.), thus forcing them to put their religious identity first even when it is only a situational or partial
identity, is not helpful.

The Ethiopian state will probably continue its commitment to secularism in the legal and public sphere, while recognizing religious law and institutions in personal status matters where they do not infringe on the public sphere. Indeed, because of its entrenched diversity, the public sphere can only be secular or “neutral.” The international community, and the donor countries and their projects, would be well advised not to let themselves be identified with religious or sectarian aid or development agendas but to concentrate on issue-directed, pan-religious projects geared to initiatives arising from local society.

This chapter is based on fieldwork in Ethiopia in October–November 2004. I am grateful to many people in Addis Ababa, Dessé, and the South Wallo countryside for their willingness to talk about religious relations in Ethiopia and share their stories and reflections. Particular thanks are owed to Shaykh Indris Mohammed, Shaykh Sayyid Mohammed, Ato Mohammed ‘Ali, Qes Tayye Tsägga, Shaykh Adem Hussein, and Ato Siraj Mohammed. I am also deeply grateful to my main field assistant, Ato Hassän Mohammed, and to Ato Berhanu Gebeyehu of Addis Ababa University. I thank the Institute of Ethiopian Studies of Addis Ababa University, especially its director, Ms. Elisabet Wolde-Giorgis, for facilitating my research.
1. These powers include not only the U.S. and the EU but also Saudi Arabia, China, and some other countries.

2. Saudi Arabians are not popular in Ethiopia and do not have a good reputation. Many Ethiopians of various faiths spoke of their “arrogance,” their “womanizing,” and their often degrading treatment of the many thousands of Ethiopian migrant workers and female domestic servants in Saudi Arabia.

3. The Ethiopian king at the time (Armah) had coins minted bearing the symbol of the cross (Sergew 1972, 190), so the story is quite unlikely. No Ethiopian or other source mentions a conversion. See also Cuoq 1981, 33–34.

4. An essential study of the history of Islam in Wallo is found in Hussein 2001. See also Trimingham 1952.

5. See the eyewitness account of the first phase of this war, written by a pro-Ahmed contemporary (‘Arabfaqrh 2003). With its contentious views on the religious value of destruction (of non-Muslim holy places) and making war on “infidels,” it almost reads like a modernday Islamist tract.

6. Panegyrists (madih) are local oral performers who recite epics, didactic poems, and religious texts in the vernacular (and sometimes in Arabic) relating to saints, scholars, and other important Muslim figures in local history.

7. Abbaye Shonké is the popular name of Shaykh Jawhar b. Haydar b. ‘Ali (c. 1837–1937). See Hussein 2005 for a sketch of his life.

8. It is most likely, however, that Shaykh Talha b. Ja’far allied himself politically to the Sudanese Mahdists, who invaded Ethiopia in the 1880s and sacked the city of Gondar (Hussein 1989, 21).

9. I will not attempt to define “conversion,” as distinguished from “adhesion” or “affiliation” to a new faith. There is a continuum of religious commitment and practice.

10. As A. B. Wylde, a British vice consul, noted in 1901, “The Abyssinian does not push his religion like the European. . . . My experience of the Abyssinian clergy has been that they want to be left alone and to pray in peace” (142).

11. He later became a governor of the Gamu-Gofa and Bale regions. Incidentally, ‘Ali Musa was also a scion of the formerly ruling Muslim dynasty in Wärä Himano. He committed suicide in 1991 when the Derg fell.

12. An excellent survey of Islamic NGO activities in Ethiopia and the Horn is found in Salih 2004.

13. According to Alex Alexiev’s testimony in June 2003 before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Homeland Security, citing the Saudi government newspaper Ain al-Yaqin, Saudi Arabia alone has invested tens of billions of dollars in Africa in the past twenty years in “overseas aid”: building mosques and religious schools, distributing copies of the Qur’an, and training Islamic teachers and missionaries (http://judiciary. This happened largely under the aegis of the Muslim World League (Rabita al-‘Alam al-Islami), founded in 1962.

14. In using the term “popular Islam,” I do not mean to suggest that there is an “African Islam” that is in essence different from other forms of Islam but only that the faith is differently articulated. Local culture and society have to some extent shaped the Muslim experience in Africa, gearing it more toward conditions of diversity. See also Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, vol. 9, pp. 922–23 (section on “folk Islam”). Recent contributions on this issue include Lewis 1998, De Munck 2005, Vahed 2003, and De Waal 2004, 2–3.

15. See Bogalä 2001, a book of Hussein Jibril’s prophecies, recorded from oral traditions in Wallo.

16. At mixed holiday celebrations and weddings, Christians and Muslims eat only meat slaughtered according to their own religious tradition. The host provides for both groups, and the system still works perfectly well.

17. However, according to the 1994 Ethiopian census, the population of the South Wallo zone is about 70 percent Muslim and 30 percent Christian. The eastern parts of South Wallo, like Riqqe, Qallu, Worebabo, and Tehulädere, are 90–95 percent Muslim.

18. Some earlier ones, like Bilal, which was published partly in Amharic and partly in Arabic, no longer exist. Salafiyya ceased publication in 2005.

19. Mohammed Al-Amoudi, the richest man in Ethiopia, is often seen as one example of “Muslim revival,” though not in a spiritual or religious sense. No doubt this successful Saudi-Ethiopian mega-entrepreneur—he is the owner of, among other things, the Addis Ababa Sheraton, one of the most lavish Sheratons in the world—has stimulated Muslim resurgence through, for instance, funding the building of Muslim schools and mosques in many places. But he also supports Christian and general Ethiopian causes through his
charity foundations. He has a pan-Ethiopian vision that recognizes the multiplicity of religious identities. It may come as no surprise that he is a native of Wallo.

20. The Reporter [Amharic], December 29, 2003.

21. An additional factor in the “religious turn” may be the constant disappointment or disillusion people feel with politics, as seen recently after the highly controversial parliamentary elections of May 2005, which were followed by repressive violence and a massive clampdown on the emerging democratic culture.

22. In 2004 and 2005, for example, local Muslims agitated against the remaining Christians in the town of Alaba: see ttp:// and http:// These are missionary websites perhaps prone to some exaggeration, but much of the information is confirmed locally.

23. For critical responses to Wahhabism, see Pasha 2004 and Kabha and Erlich 2004.

24. Interview, October 28, 2004.

25. Interview with Siraj Mohammed, October 16, 2004.

26. Several informants alleged that Muslim NGOs offer money to people who convert (up to €300–400 per person).

27. The online mobilization of identities also strongly contributes to this. Websites of ethnic, political, and religious communities create self-contained spaces of discourse that glorify their own tradition. The self-presentation of these sites and the way they promote identity formation deserve study. In 2006–7 there were at least twelve websites about and for Ethiopian Muslims that give clear evidence of a transnational orientation, deemphasizing
Ethiopian history, collegiality, and culture in favor of a wider and often stricter Islamic identity. See the website of the Network of Ethiopian Muslims in Europe at (and the other websites to which it links, many of them quite polemic, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, and dogmatically religious).

28. Interview with the secretary of the council, October 13, 2004, Addis Ababa.

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This article was first published in ed. Benjamin F. Soares and Rene Otayek, Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, pp. 65 – 83.

The link to the original publication is:

One Comment
  1. إبن محمّد permalink

    The Traitor Council thinks they can comment on who’s a true Muslim and who’s not?

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