THE SPREAD OF ISLAM AMONG THE CHRISTIAN
NATIONS OF AFRICA
A History of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith
T.W. Arnold Ma. C.I.F
Professor Of Arabic, University Of London, University College. Written in 1896, revised in 1913
Rearranged by Dr. A.S. Hashim
Let us now pass to the history of Islam among the Abyssinians, who had received Christianity two centuries
before the Nubians, and like them belonged to the Jacobite Church.
The tide of Arab emigration does not seem to have set across the Red Sea, the western shores of which formed
part of the Abyssinian kingdom, until many centuries after Arabia had accepted the faith of the Prophet.
Up to the tenth century only a few Muslim families were to be found
residing in the coast towns of Abyssinia, but at the end of the twelfth century the foundation of an Arab dynasty alienated some of the coast-lands from the Abyssinian kingdom.
In 1300 a missionary, named Abu Abd Allah Muhammad, made his way into Abyssinia, calling on the people to embrace Islam, and in the following year, having collected around him
200,000 men, he attacked the ruler of Amhara in several engagements.
King Saifa Arad (1342-1370) took energetic measures against the Muslims in his kingdom, putting to death or driving into exile all those who refused to embrace Christianity.
At the close of the same century the disturbed state of the country, owing to the civil wars that distracted it, made it possible for the various Arab settlements along the
coast to make themselves masters of the entire seaboard and drive the Abyssinians into the interior, and the king, Baeda Maryam (1468-1478), is said to have spent the greater
part of his reign in fighting against the Muslims on the eastern border of his kingdom.
In the early part of the sixteenth century, while the powerful Muslim kingdom of Adal, between Abyssinia and the southern extremity of the Red Sea, and some others were bitterly
hostile to the Christian power, there were others again that formed peaceful tributaries of " Prester John "; e.g. in Massowah there were Arabs who kept the flocks of the
Abyssinian seigniors, wandering about in bands of thirty or forty with their wives and children, each band having its Christian "captain."
Some Muslims are also mentioned as being in the service of the king and being entrusted by him with important posts;
while some of these remained faithful to Islam, others embraced the prevailing religion of the country.
What was implied in the fact of these Muslim communities being
tributaries of the king of Abyssinia, it is difficult to determine. The Muslims of Ḥadya had along with other tribute to give up every year to the king a maiden who had to
become a Christian; this custom was in accordance with an ancient treaty, which the king of Abyssinia has always made them observe, " because he was the stronger ";
this, they were forbidden to carry arms or put on war-apparel, and, if they rode, their horses were not to be saddled; " these orders," they said, "we have always obeyed, so
that the king may not put us to death and destroy our mosques. When the king sends his people to fetch the maiden and the tribute, we put her on a bed, wash her and cover her
with a cloth, and recite the prayers for the dead over her and give her up to the people of the king; and thus did our fathers and our grandfathers before us."
These Muslim tributaries were chiefly to be found in the low-lying countries that formed the northern boundary
of Abyssinia, from the Red Sea westward to Sennaar,
and on the south and the south-east of the kingdom.
What influence these Muslims had on the Christian populations with which they were intermingled, and whether they made converts to Islam as in the present century, is matter
only of conjecture.
Certain it is, however, that when the independent Muslim ruler of Adal, Aḥmad Gran—himself said to have been the son of a Christian priest of Aijjo, who had
left his own country and adopted Islam in that of the Adals—invaded
Abyssinia from 1528 to 1543, many Abyssinian chiefs with their followers joined his victorious army and became Muslims, and though the Christian populations of some districts
preferred to pay jizyah,
others embraced the religion of the conqueror.
But the contemporary Muslim historian himself tells us that in some cases this conversion was the result of fear, and that suspicions were entertained of the genuineness of the
allegiance of the new converts.
But such apparently was not universally the case, and the widespread character of the conversions in several districts give the impression of a popular movement. The Christian
chiefs who went over to Islam made use of their personal influence in inducing their troops to follow their example. They were, as we are told, in some cases very ignorant of
their own religion,
and thus the change of faith was a less difficult matter.
Particularly instrumental in conversions of this kind were those Muslim chiefs who had previously entered the service
of the king of Abyssinia, and those renegades who took the opportunity of the invasion of the country by a conquering Muslim army to throw off their allegiance at once to
Christianity and the Christian king and declare themselves Muslims once more.
One of these in 1531 wrote the following letter to Ahmad Gran :
" I was formerly a Muslim and the son of a Muslim, was taken prisoner by the polytheists and made a Christian
but in my heart I have always clung to the true faith and now I seek the protection of God and of His Prophet
and of thee.
If thou wilt accept my repentance and punish me not for what I have done, I will return in penitence to God;
and I will devise means whereby the troops of the king, that are with me, may join thee and become Muslims; "
and in fact the greater part of his army elected to follow their general; including the women and children
their numbers are said to have amounted to 20,000 souls.
But with the help of the Portuguese, the Abyssinians succeeded in shaking off the yoke of their Muslim
conquerors and Aḥmad Grañ himself was slain in 1543.
Islam had, however, gained a footing in the country, which the troublsome condition of affairs during the remainder of the
sixteenth and the following century enabled it to retain, the rival Christian Churches being too busily engaged in contending with one another, to devote much attention to their
For the successful proselytizing of the Jesuits and other Roman Catholic missionaries and the active interference of the Portuguese in all civil and political
matters, excited violent opposition in the mass of the Abyssinian Christians;—indeed so bitter was this feeling that some of the chiefs openly declared that they would rather
submit to a Muslim ruler than continue their alliance with the Portuguese;—
and the semi-religious, semi-patriotic movement set on foot thereby, rapidly assumed such vast proportions as
to lead (about 1632) to the expulsion of the Portuguese and the exclusion of all foreign Christians from the country.
The condition of Abyssinia then speedily became one of terrible confusion and anarchy, of which some tribes of
the Galla race took advantage, to thrust their way right into the very centre of the country, where their settlements remain to the present day.
The progress achieved by Islam during this period may be estimated from the testimony of a traveler of the
seventeenth century, who tells us that in his time the adherents of this faith were scattered throughout the whole of Abyssinia and formed a third of the entire population.
During the following century the faith of the Prophet seems steadily to have increased by means of the conversion of isolated individuals here and there.
The absence of any
strong central government in the country favored the rise of petty independent chieftains, many of whom had strong Muslim sympathies, though (in accordance with a fundamental
law of the state) all the Abyssinian princes had to belong to the Christian faith; the Muslims, too, aspiring to the dignity of the Abyssinian aristocracy, abjured the faith in
which they had been born and pretended conversion to Christianity in order to get themselves enrolled in the order of the nobles, and as governors of Christian provinces made
use of all their influence towards the spread of Islam.
One of the chief reasons of the success of Islam seems to have been the moral
superiority of the Muslims as compared with that of the Christian population of Abyssinia.
Rüppell says that he frequently noticed in the course of his travels in Abyssinia that
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 Muslim.
In comparison with the Christians, he says that the Muslims were more active and
energetic; that every Muslim 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 Muslims of Abyssinia over the Christian population goes
far to explain the continuous though slow progress made by Islam during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries;
the degradation and apathy of the Abyssinian clergy and the interminable feuds of the Abyssinian chiefs, have
left Muslim influences free to work undisturbed.
Mr. Plowden, who was English consul in Abyssinia from 1844 to 1860, speaking of the Habab, three Tigrē tribes dwelling between 16° and 17° 30 lat., to the
north-west of Massowah, says that they have become Muslim "within the last 100 years, and all, save the latest generation, bear Christian names. They have changed their faith,
through the constant influence of the Muslims 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 neighbors."
They have a tradition that one of their chiefs named Jawej rejected Christianity for Islam, in the belief that the latter faith brought good luck and long life; he then said to
his priest, "Break in pieces the Tabōt" ;
the priest answered, "I dare not break in pieces the Tabōt of Mary "; so Jawej seized the Tabōt with his own hands and cut it in pieces with an axe; the Christian priests then
adopted Islam, and all their descendants are sheikhs of the tribe to the present day.
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
Muslims here are 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 nineteenth century is given by other travelers,
who found numbers of Christians to be continually passing over to that faith. The Muslims were especially favored by Ras Ali, 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.
Such deep roots had this faith now struck in Abyssinia that its followers had in their hands all the commerce as well as all the petty trade of the country, enjoyed vast
possessions, were masters of large towns and central markets, and had a firm hold upon the mass of the people. Indeed, a Christian missionary who lived for thirty-five years in
this country, rated the success and the zeal of the Muslim propagandists so high as to say that were another Aḥmad Grañ to arise and unfurl the banner of the Prophet, the whole
of Abyssinia would become Muslim.
Embroilments with the Egyptian government
(with which Abyssinia was at war from 1875 to 1882) brought about a revulsion of feeling against Muslimism:
hatred of the foreign Muslim foe reacted upon their co-religionists within the border.
In 1878, King John summoned a Convocation of the Abyssinian clergy, who proclaimed him supreme arbiter in
matters of faith and ordained that there should be but one religion throughout the whole kingdom.
Christians of all sects other than the Jacobite were given two years in which to become reconciled to the
national Church; the Muslims were to submit within three, and the heathen within five, years.
A few days later the king promulgated an edict that
showed how little worth was the three years grace allowed to the Muslims; for not only did he order them to build Christian churches wherever they were needed and to pay tithes
to the priests resident in their respective districts, but also gave three months notice to all Muslim officials to either receive baptism or resign their posts.
conversion (consisting as it did merely of the rite of baptism and the payment of tithes) was naturally of the most ineffectual character, and while outwardly conforming, the
Muslims in secret protested their loyalty to their old faith. Massaja saw some such go straight from the church in which they had been baptized to the mosque, in order to have
this enforced baptism wiped off by some holy man of their own faith.
These mass conversions were rendered the more ineffectual by being confined to the men, for as the royal edict had made no mention of the women they were in no way molested,—a
circumstance that probably proved to be of considerable significance in the future history of Islam in Abyssinia, as Massaja bears striking testimony to the important part the
Muslim women have played in the diffusion of their faith in this country.
By 1880 King John is said to have compelled about 50,000 Muslims to be baptized, as well as 20,000 members of one of the pagan tribes and half a million of Gallas,
but as their conversion went no further than baptism and the payment of tithes, it is not surprising to learn that the only result of these violent measures was to increase the
hatred and hostility of both the Muslim and the heathen Abyssinians towards the Christian faith.
The king of the petty state of Kafa (which had almost always acknowledged the supremacy of Abyssinia),—Sawo-Teheno,—took advantage of the embarrassment of King John, who was
threatened at once by the Italians and the followers of the Mahdi, to assert his independence, and became Muslims, in order to do so more effectively. He successfully resisted
all attacks until 1897, when his state was reconquered and he himself taken prisoner by the Emperor Menelik, the former king of Shoa, who had established his authority over the
whole of Abyssinia after the death of King John in 1889.
But these violent measures taken in the interests of the Christian faith have failed to arrest the growing power of Islam during the nineteenth century. Whole tribes that were
once Christian and still bear Christian names, such as Taklēs ("Plant of Jesus"), Hebtēs ("Gift of Jesus") and Temaryam ("Gift of Mary"), have become Muslim. The two Mänsa
tribes which were entirely Christian about the middle of the nineteenth century had become Muslim, for the most part, at the beginning of the twentieth century; the propagandist
efforts of the Muslims who converted them appear to have been facilitated through the ignorance of the Christian clergy. A similar Muslimising process has been going on for some
time among other tribes also.
Maqrīzī (2), tome ii. 2me partie, p. 183.
Alvarez. (Ramusio, tom. i. pp. 218, 242, 249.)
‘Arabfaqīh, pp. 321, 335, 343.
‘Arabfaqīh, pp. 34-5, 120-1, 182-3, 244, 327.
‘Arabfaqīh, pp. 181-2, 186.
Iobi Ludolfi ad suam Historiam Æthiopicam Commentarius, p. 474. Frankfurt a. M., 1691.)
Histoire de la Haute Ethiopie, par le R. P. Manoel d'Almeïda, p. 7. (Thevenot, vol. ii.)
Massaja, vol. ii. pp. 205-6. " Ognuno comprende che movente di queste conversioni essendo la sete di regnare, nel fatto non si riducevano che ad una
formalità esterna, restando poi i nuovi convertiti veri mussulmani nei cuori e nei costumi. E perciò accadeva che, elevati alla dignità di Râs, si circondavano di
mussulmani, dando ad essi la maggior parte degli impieghi e colmandoli di titoli, ricchezze e favori : e così 1'Abissinia cristiana invasa e popolata da questa pessima
razza, passò coll' andar del tempo sotto il giogo dell' islamismo." (Id. p. 206.)
Rüppell, vol. i. pp. 328, 366.
Tābōt, the ark of the covenant.
Beke, pp. 51-2. Isenberg, p. 36.
Reclus, vol. x. p. 247. Massaja, vol. xi. p. 125.
Massaja, vol. xi. p. 124.
Massaja, vol. xi. pp. 77—8.
Oppel, p. 307. Reclus, tome x. p. 247.
Massaja, vol. xi. pp. 79, 81.
Littmann, pp. 68-70. K. Cederquist: Islam and Christianity in Abyssinia, p. 154 (The Moslem World, vol. ii.).