By Jon Abbink
From its very inception, Islam has been a trans-continental religion, in this case, helped by thé proximity of thé African Red Sea Coast to thé Arabian heartland where it first emerged. In fact, thé first converts to thé new religion – outside thé close circle of thé Prophet Muhammad – are assumed to have been Ethiopians. In thé year 615, so tradition goes, thé first Hijra occurred: a group of Arab followers of Islam in danger of persécution by thé dominant Quraysh authorities in Arabia (Mecca) was advised by Muhammad himself to seek refuge across thé sea, in thé empire of Aksum, where a ‘… righteous king would give them protection.’l These refugees were indeed well-received in Aksum and could practice their faith freely. Requests from thé Meccan authorities to deliver them back were refused.
The tolérant attitude of thé Ethiopians gave rise to a whole new genre of Arab literature extolling the virtues of ‘the Ethiopians.’ The practical effect was that on the authority of the Prophet himself Ethiopia was not to be seen as a target for jihad. Undoubtedly there is an economic side to the story: Aksum was in décline, and the trade from and to the empire was not as attractive as that in the Middle East, to which the attention of the Islamic conquerors was directed. In the decades following the death of Muhammad, however, there were variously armed clashes between Ethiopians and Arabs and raids by both sides (see Cuoq 1981: 36-38), also related to the control of the Red Sea trade. The new faith did not, however, attract many followers in Ethiopia, certainly not in the highland Christian areas.
Its expansion was very gradual and mainly took place in the lowland coastal areas inhabited by pastoral nomads, spreading later (eleventh-twelfth Century) to the Somali areas in the south-east. While Ethiopia was thus one of the first countries to receive Islam (later developing centers of Islamic learning in Harar, Massawa, Zeyla, later Jimma), it has also seen a notable tendency towards inward orientation, displaying the kind of seclusion and self-sufficiency that was equally characteristic of Ethiopian Christianity. In addition to the geographical reasons for this, linguistic and cultural factors probably also played a part. Arabic never was and never became an indigenous spoken language.
15-4. The Najashi Ashama ibn Abjar
For any ideas about the political situation in Ethiopia at the end of the Aksumite period, we rely on very tenuous information. One of the chief sources for the history of Ethiopia between 615-6 and 630AD are the recorded traditions about the life of Muhammad and his followers, the hadith. A note of caution must be sounded before accepting these tales, but Muslim historians were themselves very conscious that the hadith were sometimes suspect, and insisted as well as they could on accepting only those with an impeccable isnad or chain of reliable sources right back to the original teller of the story.
Umm Salama’s tale (see below) about a revolt in Abyssinia passed through two informants before it was written down by Ibn Ishaq. If the compilers of the hadith are to be believed, the ruling Najashi at the time of the prophet was a man of justice and equity, called Ashama ibn Abjar. Abu Talib composed a verse (Guillaume 1955) for this Najashi to encourage his support for the Muslims against the Quraysh, who were preparing bribes for the king and his commanders (Shums).
`Does the Negus still treat Ja`afar and his companions kindly,
Or has the mischief-maker prevented him?
Thou art noble and generous, mayst thou escape calamity;
No refugees are unhappy with thee.
Know that God has increased thy happiness
And all prosperity cleaves to thee.
Thou art a river whose banks overflow with bounty
Which reaches both friend and foe’.
The Najashi Ashama ibn Abjar died in 630 AD and was, according to Ethiopian tradition, buried at Weqro, about 65 miles to the southeast of Aksum (Taddesse Tamrat 1972: 34- 5). If we can accept this tradition, the royal cemetery at Aksum may have been out of use by that date. Interestingly, but of uncertain significance, what seems to be a late tomb of someone of very high rank was found by Anfray and Annequin at Matara (1965; Tertre D). Both Ethiopian and Arab traditions mention the shift of the capital away from Aksum, assigning it to various reigns or periods (Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972: 203; Taddesse Tamrat 1972: 35ff).
The Najashi Ashama, again according to the reports of the Arab writers (Guillaume 1955: 153) purportedly from the mouth of Umm Salama, one of the wives of Muhammad, had to face two revolts in his own country, which help to confirm the general feeling of unrest at this period also expressed by the coinage mottoes. The story, related by Ibn Ishaq, who died in the late 760s, is that Ashama had to fight a rebel leader across the Nile. This must have occurred sometime after the second Hijrah to Abyssinia in 615-6 (Muir 1923: 86), and before 628, when the exiles returned, since Umm Salama said that it happened while they were in the country. The Nile lay between the two parties, and the battle was fought apparently on the west side of the river, since the Muslim messenger, al-Zubayr, had to swim across on a water-skin to find out the outcome.
The Najashi was victorious, but later had to deal with another attempt at revolt, this time to do with his religion — perhaps, in reality, this episode is a piece of Muslim propaganda; (Guillaume 1955: 154- 5). These stories, after that detailing the difficulties in the succession (Guillaume 1955: 153-4) indicate that the Najashi’s reign was not an easy one. In 630 there was military activity against Abyssinians who had combined with the people of Jidda against the Muslims. Muir (1923: 436) noted that the nature of this combination was not clear, but suggested that the Najashi might have been by now disappointed to find that Muhammad no longer supported Christianity; this is not likely, in view of the fact that the prophet is said to have prayed for the Najashi after his death in 630, and presumably this incident, if of any official nature, is to be attributed to his successor in that year.