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Ethiopia - Muslims

Ethiopian Muslims are adherents of the dominant Sunni, or orthodox, branch of Islam. Shia are not represented in Ethiopia. The beliefs and practices of Ethiopian Muslims are embodied in a more or less integrated amalgam of three elements: the Islam of the Quran and the sharia, the worship of saints and the rituals and organization of religious orders, and the still-important remnant of pre-Islamic patterns. Islam in the traditional sense is dominant only on the Eritrean coast among Arab and Arab-influenced populations and in Harer and a few other towns.

One of the chief reasons of the success of this faith seems to have been the moral superiority of the Muslims as compared with that of the Christian population of Abyssinia. When a post had to be filled which required that a thoroughly honest and trustworthy person should be selected, the choice always fell upon a Muhammadan. In comparison with the Christians, they were more active and energetic ; that every Muhammadan had his sons taught to read and write, whereas Christian children were only educated when they were intended for the priesthood. This moral superiority of the Muhammadans of Abyssinia over the Christian population helped explain the continuous though slow progress made by Islam during the 18th and 19th centuries; the degradation and apathy of the Abyssinian clergy and the interminable feuds of the Abyssinian chiefs, left Muhammadan influences free to work undisturbed.

The Hababs, a pastoral tribe to the north-west of Massowah, became Muhammadan in the 18th Century, and by 1850 all, save the latest generation, had Christian names. They changed their faith, through the constant influence of the Muhammadans with whom they trade, and through the gradual and now entire abandonment of the country by the Abyssinian chiefs, too much occupied in ceaseless wars with their neighbours. Other sections of the population of the northern districts of the country were similarly converted to Islam during the same period, because the priests had abandoned these districts and the churches had been suffered to fall into ruins, - apparently entirely through neglect, as the Muhammadans here were said to have been by no means fanatical nor to have borne any particular enmity to Christianity. Similar testimony to the progress of Islam in the early part of the 19th century was given by European travellers who found numbers of Christians to be continually passing over to that faith.

The Muhammadans were especially favoured by Ras Aly, one of the vice-regents of Abyssinia and practically master of the country before the accession of King Theodore in 1853. Though himself a Christian, he distributed posts and even the spoils of the churches among the followers of Islam, and during his reign one half of the population of the central provinces of Abyssinia embraced the faith of the Prophet.

In general, the most important practices of the Islamic faith, particularly regular prayer and fasting during the month of Ramadan, are observed in urban centers rather than in the smaller towns and villages and more among settled peoples than among nomads. Records of the pilgrimage to Mecca by Ethiopian Muslims are scarce.

Under Haile Selassie, Muslim communities could bring matters of personal and family law and inheritance before Islamic courts; many did so and probably continued to do so under the revolutionary regime. However, many Muslims dealt with such matters in terms of customary law. For example, the Somali and other pastoralists tended not to follow the requirement that daughters inherit half as much property as sons, particularly when livestock was at issue. In parts of Eritrea, the tendency to treat land as the corporate property of a descent group (lineage or clan) precluded following the Islamic principle of division of property among one's heirs.

In Ethiopia's Muslim communities, as in neighboring Sudan and Somalia, the faithful are associated with, but not necessarily members of, specific orders. Nevertheless, although formal and informal attachment to Sufi orders is widespread, the emphasis is less on contemplative and disciplined mysticism than on the powers of the founders and other leaders of local branches of the orders. Most believe that these persons possess extraordinary powers to intercede with God and have the ability to promote the fertility of women and cure illness. In many cases, these individuals are recognized as saints. People visit their tombs to pray for their help or their intercession with God.




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