January 21, 2010

Islam in Nineteenth-Century Wallo, Ethiopia (Book Review)

In this impressively published tome from Brill Press, Hussein Ahmed has taken on some of the original assumptions of scholars of Ethiopian Islam such as J.S. Trimingham and tested them against a detailed study of the highland region of Wallo, Ethiopia. Ahmed argues, among other things, that Trimingham's model of conversion, in which converts essentially adopt the outward signs of Islam without practicing it or comprehending its doctrine, is inadequate to account for the diversity of ways in which the Islamic message was propopagated in central Ethiopia. Ahmed also argues for a greater role for the ulama in spreading Islam, working in concert with traders and merchants.

Ahmed does a superb job handling some difficult material, and the book is well written, if at times aimed at the specialist rather than the general reader. Of special interest is Ahmed's biographies of the major Sufi sheikhs of Ethiopia. Accounting for Sufism's popularity and importance, Ahmed emphasizes the account of one of Sheikh Muhammad Taj al-Din, who observed:

"the tariqa teachers, while recognizing the importance of academic excellence, also emphasized the obligation of carrying out one's religious duties as laid down in the Qur'an and the Sunna. They argued that instead of studying exotic and prestigious subjects, a Muslim must recite the dhikr, read the Qur'an and perform the intercessory prayers. A believer must submit his entire body and mind to the rigours of intense reflection and meditation in order to demonstrate his submission to the will of God. They also instilled in the minds of the affiliates a profound sense of brotherhood and communal lifestyle...one of the factors for the success of the mystical orders was the tact and skill with which their local propagators were able to introduce and establish them, and their recognition of the deep roots and persistence of traditional values and customs."

Wallo is unique precisely because it stands at a geographical and political crossroads between faiths and peoples. Wallo became a center of Oromo migration in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. For the Oromo, According to Ahmed, Islam played an important role historically for the Oromo, helping them to shape their identity vis-a-vis Amharic nationalism. However, this point goes largely unexplored.
If I have one critique of the book I felt Dr. Ahmed missed a chance to compare and contrast the impact and development of Christianity and Islam and their attitudes toward each other in theoretical terms.There is some great material in Chapter Six on this point, but it is confined to a discussion of the mid-nineteenth century and the attempts by the Christian emperors Tewodoros II and Yohannes IV to subdue Wallo.

If you are interested in more contemporary issues of Islam in Ethiopia and Muslim Ethiopians, here is a website for Ethiopian Muslims in Europe. If you click through there is a biography of Shaykh Talha bin Ja'afar, one of the principal figures, who waged an armed struggle against the armies of emperor Yohannes and did much to propogate Islam in Wallo.


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