Ethiopian Christian tolerance, Ethiopian Islamic jihad
Last month, VFR reader KPA, a citizen of Canada who comes originally from Ethiopia, told us something of the fascinating history of Christian-Muslim relations in Ethiopia between the 14th and 16th century, when tolerance by the Christian Kingdom toward its Muslim minority eventually enabled the Muslims to launch a jihad. In an article written for VFR, she now expands on this theme.
I am trying to put forth the thesis that the Ethiopian Christian Kingdom, prior to the great Muslim devastation from 1527 to 1543, was essentially a non-imperialistic nation, with a tolerant attitude toward its non-Christian subjects and regions. This tolerance, in its many forms as I will discuss below, allowed Islam to flourish during moments of weakness within the Ethiopian Kingdom, and eventually allowed the Muslims to mobilize into a destructive jihad in the mid-sixteenth century.
Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi (1506-1543) known as Grañ or the Left-Handed by the Christian Ethiopians, spearheaded Ethiopia’s devastation by the Muslims from 1527 to his death on the battlefield in 1543. Grañ was from the southeastern Muslim tributary of Adal. He monopolized the acute jihadist mood of the Muslims of the time, sparked by constant defeats by Christian Ethiopia, and set out to lead this jihad himself. Having killed the sultan of Adal, he proclaiming himself both leader and Imam, and started his campaign by refusing to pay tributes to the Ethiopian Emperor. During his scourge, he managed to ravage the Christian Ethiopian Kingdom of much of its churches, monasteries, religious art and sacred texts, and embarked on the total Islamization of the country. At his death, his movement disintegrated, and Ethiopians were able to rebuild their lost Kingdom.
The Ethiopian Kingdom, prior to Grañ’s uprising, was essentially a heterogeneous region, with Muslims, Pagans, northerners and southerners living under the dominant Christian Amhara civilization. This tolerant attitude was also practiced in the peripheral tributaries where the only expectation the Christian Ethiopians had of these regions was that they pay periodic taxes and tributes. These regions were left alone for the most part to practice their own religions and customs. Muslim tributaries also played an important role in trade routes and as intermediary traders.
Ethiopian Christians were not really interested in leaving their highland Kingdom behind to live in the less appealing lowlands. On a deeper level, their Christian and “neighborly” preference was to leave their tributaries as they were without interfering too much. Certainly there were elements of proselytization, especially with the important monastic culture of the Ethiopian Church, but there was too much to integrate within the Church itself—between Church and State, between the various Orthodox factions, between Egypt’s Copts and appointed Patriarchs, etc.
But wherever there was interaction between Ethiopian monarchs and their Muslim tributaries, Muslims were not treated any differently than the other non-Muslims of the Kingdom. They may have received even more tolerance in view of their importance as trade middlemen, and also their strong and cohesive culture and system.
Yet, at the great moment of destruction, the Muslims had a completely different strategy, of annihilation in fact, of the Christian elements, despite the friendly beginnings between Ethiopia and the Muslims at the early stages of Islam’s history.
Here is a summary of how I came to these conclusions.
Earliest contacts with Muslims describe the refuge the Ethiopian (by now Christian) Aksum Kingdom gave to Muslims fleeing persecution, around 615 AD, including Mohammed’s son-in-law. This exempted Ethiopia from the jihad which started to take place in nearby regions. Later on, when the Muslims had control over Jerusalem, Ethiopian pilgrims were allowed to travel there, and even maintain holy sites in the city.
Ethiopia depended on the Egyptian Copts to send the Abunes or Patriarchs from time to time. This led to conflicts and skirmishes with Muslim Egypt. At times, Ethiopian Christians even spoke out against mistreatment of Copts, often with beneficial results
Perhaps the most significant contact Ethiopia had directly with Muslims and the Muslim world was through trade. Important trade caravans traveled from the interior of Ethiopia to the coastal outlets to the Red Sea and out to Egypt, Yemen, even as far out as India and Southern Europe. The caravans were controlled by Muslims from across the Red Sea, and also involved Ethiopian Muslims from within the Kingdom. These caravans eventually resulted with important Muslim settlements in the peripheries of the Christian Kingdom,
Ethiopian Muslims lived peacefully and affluently in Ethiopia proper through their privileged role in trade, and received most of the benefits of Ethiopian citizenry. The peripheral Muslim regions were expected to pay tributes to maintain their inland routes with their trade caravans. As these Muslim settlements grew, they started to push for expansion inland, but were curtailed and some were put under some type of Ethiopian rule. This aggression, though, was initiated by the Muslims.
Emperor Amda Siyon I (1313-1344) was really continuing with the strategy of bringing these trade routes under Ethiopian control (to reduce the Muslims’ aggression and to optimize the Ethiopian economy) when he began his ambitious expansionist scheme. It was more politico-economic rather than religiously motivated. Such Muslim lands that Amda Siyon and his predecessors put under Ethiopian control were expected to pay taxes and tributes, like any other non-Muslim regions. But they were generally left alone to pursue their own cultures and religions. They were, in effect, semi-autonomous regions, with their own rulers, religions and cultures.
One important characteristic of the Ethiopians was their reluctance, as a group, to venture out of their beloved highlands into the “colonies.” Mostly this was a “laissez-faire,” tolerant attitude. Also, it was a lack of desire to live with heathen peoples, in inhospitable and climatically difficult areas.
Another aspect is the heterogeneity of the Kingdom itself, with Ethiopian Muslims, Pagans, and other ethnicities from tributary regions living within the Kingdom, albeit all under the umbrella of the dominant Amhara Christian culture of the Ethiopians.
Although the Ethiopians were expanding their Kingdom initially as a reaction to Muslim aggression, Amda Siyon’s “I am the Emperor of all the Muslims in the land of Ethiopia” was really said in a spirit of inclusion, not aggression. This is shown by his tolerance of the Muslims’ beliefs and way of life, and by his continuing his precedessors’ policy of allowing the Muslims to live in semi-autonomous peripheral regions practicing their religion freely within their own ethnic, social and cultural structures.
While peripheral Muslim regions showed signs of submission, paying taxes and deferring to the Emperor of the time, they still used any opportunity to advance aggressively into Ethiopia, or to subvert what they believed to be a weak ruler. This invariably resulted with regional wars, from which the Ethiopians always returned victorious.
These conflicts continued after Amda Siyon’s death, causing another Emperor, Zara Yaqob (1399-1468), to use more stringent methods such as forced conversions, which even got him admonishment from the clergy who criticized his mistreatment of Muslims through “futile deaths of men, arrests and beatings.”
The regularly defeated and bitter Muslims finally declared jihad on Ethiopia. This was a far cry from the jihad-free promise they gave Ethiopians at the time persecuted Muslims were given refuge by the Aksumite Kingdom in early Islamic history.
A number of factors contributed the Muslim leader Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi’s (Grañ’s) success.
- Help from other Muslims, namely the Ottomans, who provided firearms to the Muslims, weapons which the Ethiopians did not have until later via the Portuguese.
- Weakened religious and social structures within the Kingdom itself, due to the now heterogeneous society, intermarriage with Muslims and other non-Christians, conversions from Christianity, and other social factors.
- Rivalries between feudal Ethiopian lords and lack of allegiance to the Emperor and the Kingdom, often with a weak Emperor at the realm.
- Compromises and leniency toward the peripheral Muslim settlements—especially during uprisings and rebellions—by later Emperors, unlike Amda Siyon’s and Zara Yaqob’s stringent reactions.
- Fear of Catholicism by an important ally, the Portuguese, whose assistance was sought later rather than sooner.
Grañ was thus able to exploit these internal weaknesses, and set to destroy all of Christian Ethiopia and supplant her with a purely Muslim state. Quite different from the tolerant Ethiopian Emperors which allowed Muslims to sustain their beliefs, cultures and religions.
Thus, my conclusion is that the Ethiopian Kingdom never set out to be an invasive, imperialistic presence. It tolerated semi-autonomous Muslim regions which it brought under control to monopolize trade routes and curtail Muslim aggression. Muslims lived peaceably in “greater” Ethiopia until they felt they could take advantage of the situation, and attacked, although they were continually defeated.
But Grañ finally came with all the circumstances on his side.
Ethiopians never endeavored mass, forced, conversions, never tried to coerce different ethnicities to change their cultures and societies, and for the most part left the Muslim regions apart from Ethiopia proper as semi-autonomous tributaries. And the Ethiopian Muslims (who were citizens of the Kingdom and not part or the regional settlements) lived affluent and privileged lives as traders, and to some extent as ambassadors to foreign lands where they took their caravans.
The degree of intolerance set by Grañ during his five years of destruction with his aim of a “Futuh” or a complete conquest of Ethiopia was spectacular. All references to Christianity, churches, monasteries, religious art, sacred books, etc. were destroyed. And the Ethiopians were to live as a completely subjugated people.
But, with the help of the Portuguese, and more astute leaders—Libna Dingel (1508-1540) and his son Gelawdewos (1540-1559)—the Muslims were finally driven out, and Ethiopia retrieved lost lands.
It is hard to say how the Ethiopians should have dealt with these problematic Muslim tributaries. They could have been more diligent with their proselytization, or they could have depended less on Muslim traders and trade routes and consolidated this economy solely under Christian Ethiopians. Nonetheless, their non-interventionist style allowed Islam to flourish over the years, to devastating effect.
My small readings about other Christian lands, their treatment of Muslims, the treatment by Muslims of Christians and other ethnic and religious groups, indicate to me that Muslims are generally and consistently intolerant of other ethnic and religious groups, and this trend continues today.
The United States, Canada and Europe, it seems to me, are in a very similar situation in which Ethiopia found herself those many centuries ago. These tolerant, heterogeneous societies, giving equal or even priviliged treatment to Muslims, may all one day dissipate when internal weaknesses and external forces give Muslims—both within and without the West—the strength to carry out their destruction.
I strongly believe that Muslims are not to be underestimated in any manner whatsoever.