There is a common and established image and understanding about the spread of Islam in the world. Several people including intellectuals who write on the issue assume that Islam is a militant religion. Samuel P. Huntington, for example, in his so called thesis of “clash of Civilizations”, described Islam as a militant religion starting from its origin. However, one can find Ethiopia, the first country, which allowed the migrants of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) to exercise their faith peacefully. His Eminency Dr. M. N Alam 43rd direct dissecent of the Prophet of Islam, president of the world spiritual assembly New York USA, UN Head Quarter Permanent representative of the UNECA, Addis Ababa since 1985 and 2004 visited this country. He has been here for the great respect of king Nejash and his contribution for the Prophet of Islam. I am lucky that I got to know him and took several life changing knowledge and experience. While I was trying to grasp knowledge of Islamic thought, His Eminency told me that, Ethiopia is a shelter for the good people as well as for the bad people. This shows that this country is an umbrella for those who were following the doctrine of Islam and for those who couldn’t find a place in their home place. During that time the king who ruled Abyssinia was a Christian king. This paper deals with biography of this great king Nejash. He was the contemporary of Prophet Mohammed. It was during his time that Arabian society including near and dear relatives of the Prophet Mohammed refused to accept Islam, which was introduced for the first time then by the last prophet of Islam and mankind. Because of this, the Prophet of Islam sent his people to Abyssinia. The king received them and asked about their faith, they answered that it is a monotheistic belief by refering some versions of the Holy Quran. His Eminency Dr. Alam’s opinion is that “human being is a crown creation of God. Descendents of Abraham, the Jewish, Christian and Muslim are cousin brothers”. The king was convinced by Islamic teaching in accordance of the holy Quran and allowed them to practice their religion in the Abyssinian territory. So that today, in Ethiopia there are approximately 50% Muslim population while there are 20% Muslims in the African region. Since then Islam has been practiced peacefully in all parts of Ethiopia. Till now there is a 100% freedom of the practice of Islam due to the current government’s effort of religious freedom in the country. In the later days, the king himself was convinced by Islam and became a believer of the faith
“The first Muslims in Ethiopia were refugees from Mecca, persecuted by the new leading tribe, the reactionary Quraysh. They were honerly received by the ruler of Ethiopia, whom Arabic tradition was named Ashama ibn Abjar, and he settled them in Negash. Located in the northern Tigray province, Negash is the historical center of Islam in Ethiopia and parts of East Africa” Berry (1991).
Due to this, The Prophet of Islam ordered all Muslims not to declare Jihad on Ethiopia. What makes Islam peculiar in Ethiopia, unlike from the rest of the world, is that, in the first place it was preached, spread and accepted peacefully throughout the whole territory of Ethiopia. Secondly, Islam always co-existed in peace with other religions. That is why that one can find family members in Ethiopia who exercise different religions in the same roof. I will try to say more on Islam and Ethiopia in the near future. This paper assess the background of the introduction of Islam to Ethiopia (the then Abyssinia). For this reason the lion’s share of the story gives emphasis on King Nejash.
Statement of the Problem
For centuries, the then Abyssinia, Ethiopia had been remembered as an Orthodox Christian state. There was no separation of state and religion, secularism. This makes the perception towards this state is that; Ethiopia is a state of Christians. It is true that several brutal rulers of the kingdom slaughtered Muslims. It is also true that Muslims were considered as secondary citizens. In addition, forceful conversion of their belief to Christianity was evident particularly during the reign of King Yohannes 4th.
This kind of system and perception towards the system does not only have domestic consequences. In addition, the perception and understanding of the international community towards Ethiopians Muslims has been blurred. People know Ethiopia by its Christian kingdom and Christian kings. Due to lack of the separation of state and religion, the history of this country was recorded by the church.
However, Islam and Ethiopia have known each other since the birth of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. Ethiopians were among the first Muslims. This true history has not been recorded and properly handled. Therefore, it is the obligation of every citizen to search for the true history of Ethiopia. This essay is just the beginning of the search for this history. It concentrates on the beginning of Islam in Ethiopia. The pioneer to introduce Islam to Ethiopia is the then, powerful Christian king Nejash. The biography of this powerful king, his connections to early years of the spread of Islam, his influence on the rest of Africa to spread Islam is the concern of this research.
Since Ethiopians evacuated from Yemen, the relationship with the Arabian Peninsula was interrupted. According to several Arabian authentic history and resourceful record, between the years 575-630 G.C, there were two attention-seeking kings in Ethiopia. The first king was ruling the state of Abissinya or the Habesha peole before the Holy Koran came in to existence as a guiding document of human beings. The second one lived during the era of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). The former one was known by the name Abhar while the latter’s name is Ashama Ibn Abhar. Ashama had a friendly relationship with the Arab world.
After a successful coup detats on the throne of king Abhar, he was assassinated. Architects of the coup brought his brother to the throne (who was the uncle to Ashama). Due to the fear of revenge from Ashama for his father’s death, they excluded him from rivalry to power.
According to Abubakar Bin Abdurahuman, Prophet Mohammed’s beloved wife Aisha (RA) said, “Except Nejash (Ashama), Abhar had no child at all. But his uncle who became a king had twelve sons and daughters. They were all members of the Habesha Royal family. The coups d’état and assassination was also based on this calculation of lack of children except one Nejash”. The young Nejashi was obliged to live with his uncle. During his childhood, he was smart and able to attract the attention of his uncle. This success and attention seeking created insecurity within the coup makers. They demanded his uncle to avoid him or warned that they will kill Nejash. The king (his uncle) refused the plan of the assassination. And he suggested them to make Nejashi far away from the territory of their state. They took him to the market and sold him as a slave for 6 dihram and send him by boat to abroad. During the same night, the king was dead by a wave while he was praying in order to get a rainfall. All the sons of the king were unfit to the Palace. There were demands to appoint Al-Nejash as a king. Most people agreed on the suitability of his ability to become the king’s successor. “The responsibility of the kingship can only be accomplished by the boy who was sold this morning. If you are concerned for the Habesha people, bring him back.” Suggestions were strong like this.
By hardship they somehow found Prince Nejash and bring him back to the capital city. They gave him the throne. And he stayed as a king of Habesa until he passed away by the 9th year of the Hijira (Muslim calendar), as Prophet Mohammed migrated from Mecca to Medina. There are several names that are sited in different historical documents. For example Pankhurst and Hancock call him Armah. Tadesse identified him as AL-Asmaha, son of Abdjar and father of Arma. Munnro Hay refers to him as Asmaha Ibn Abjar. And others called him as Ashama, the Kings local name. His Eminency Dr. Alam 43rd direct decendent of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) acknowledged the information from the Hadis and several references of Islamic scholars quoted as the king Nejash as a great King of Abissynia became a Muslim in the beginning of the 7th Century from the Prophet Mohammed influence. After the king received Islam, the Prophet Mohammed put his name as Ahmed Al- Negash. His family members also accept Islam. And he was died after 15 years he left his kingdom of Aksum to Wukro which is found 60 kilo meters north of Mekele. He established spiritual kingdom with Negash’s new vision of Islam to preach Islam around the Abyssinian territories and across the African countries of Algeria, morocco, South Africa, Mauritania, Cameroon, Zambia, Nigeria, and other African territories. King Nejash died in 630 AD in his spiritual kingdom of Negash town and he was lay down in front of the Negash mosque with Prophet Mohammed’s important suhabis. They were trying to cross to Mecca but due to their old ages they are sick by the undesirable mysterious diseases. So that he couldn’t attend Haji (pilgrimage) and had no chance to meet the Prophet Mohammed directly. But his near and dear children and relatives succeeded to meet the Prophet in Medina, 630kms from the Holy city of Mecca. When the Prophet received the messages of the death of King Ahmed Al-Negash Prophet with his Caliphs and followers celebrate the prayer Gavai of Jenaza in holy Medina mosque. We feel proud the powerful orthodox Christian king become a Muslim caliph for African region. He preached Islam about 15 years in the African territories including Abyssinia. So that today 55% Muslim in Ethiopia. 95% in Cameroon, 65% in Nigeria, 80% in Sudan, 25% in Kenya are believed to be Muslim citizens.
R. Rudol Unf (western scholar who studied the Arabian and Ethiopian History), in his book, 2nd edition page 249: stated that “Historians agreed that, there was a king during the Era of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) in Ethiopia by the Name Asmaha (Armaha II). There are archiological findings of coins minted by his name. The text on the coins reads as ‘king Armaha, the kind and peaceful one.’ Asmaha (Armaha II) is another name of King Nejash. The administration of the king prevailed justice and peace in the territories.
The First March to Ethiopia
In the book written on the biography of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), Ibn Eshaq said the following:
“The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) realized that he could not protect his followers form the attacks, and said ‘go to the Habesha, there is a Christian king there. There is justice in his kingdom. Habesha is the land of truth. Therefore, go there until we achieve victory with the help of Allah’ ”.
Amu Aymen, an Ethiopian woman, had influenced the psychology of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). She was the slave of Abdalah Bin Abdul Mutolib. She was there when Abdalah married the prophet’s mother, Amina. In addition, Amu Aymen was behind Amina when she gave birth to the Prophet. While Amina went to visit her relatives in Medina, Amu Aymen feed her breast to the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Amina could not come back to Mecca, rather passed away while she was in the middle of her journey. Since then, Amu Aymen along with Arabian mother Halima, became the second mother of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). She nourished the Prophet while he was living with his grandfather Abdel Mutolib and his uncle Abu Tualib. The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) witnessed this after he became matured by saying “she has been my second mother”.
This historical attachment made the Prophet to love and to have a positive attitude towards Habeshians. Therefore, Islam was introduced to Ethiopia before the majority sections of the quraysh societies in Mecca accepted it. The Prophet sent his relatives and intimate friends to Ethiopia (Habesha) due to the above-mentioned strong attachments that created confidence to him on the king and his people. By the leadership of Osman Bin Afwan, third Kalif of Islam and son in law of Prophet Mohammed along the Prophet’s daughter 120 people among them 26 are women, left Mecca to Abissynia.
Habesha became the first Diaspora for Islam. It was not a simple incident; rather there was prior trade and economic ties between the Habeshans and the Arab world.
The first march (Hijira) in 615 AD had a group of eleven men and four women. The list of the Sahhbas who migrated to Ethiopia in the first march includes the following.
Osman Bin Affan
Rukya Bint Resul (Mohammed)-The wife of Osman
Abu Huzeyfa Bin Outba
Shelet Bin seid-wife of Abu Huzeyfa
Zubeyr Bin Al-Awam
Musab Bin Oumr
Abdurahman Bin Awuf
Abu Selemah Bin Abdel Ased
Amu Selemah- wife of Abu Selmah
Ousman Bin Mezun
Amir Abin Rebiah-Leader of the group
Layla Bint Abi Asmah –Wife of Amir
In the second hijirra to Al-Nejash there were 83 men and 11 women who started their life in Ethiopia.
How Nejash Treated the Immigrants?
The Quraysh Messengers
Fearing the spread and preach of Islam in Ethiopia, the Kureish people send delegates to Ethiopia (Al-Nejash). Two persons were selected.
Abdalah Bin Abi Rebiah
Amr Ibnel As
They also came up with lots of gift to Al-Nejash and the priests. During this time Abu Tualib was disturbed because his son Jafer was in Ethiopia. Therefore, Abu Tualib (the Prophet’s grandfather) sent a message to Al-Nejash in a form of poem, which demanded the safe living of the Muslims in Ethiopia or return back them.
Abdellah and Amr demanded Nejash not to accept those Muslims who betrayed their society and their traditional belief. And the priests supported them because of the gifts that they brought in. The king (Nejash) sent delegates to the Muslims who were living in Ethiopia and Jafer (the spoken person of the Muslims) answered the questions by going in presence to the king.
“We were ignorant, we believed in the gods, we ate dead animals those which are not halal), we performed adultery, we commonly had conflict with our relatives, abuse women, we didn’t like our neighbors. But Allah (SW) sent us the messenger and made us one under the umbrella of Islam and the Glorious Holy Quran” said Jafar. The king asked Jafer if he has any document, which is given from Almighty God to Mohammed (PBUH).
He said, “YES” and read them “Suretul Meryem”, the chapter of description of Jesus Christ and his Holy virgin mother. King Nejash cried and the Priests also cried and Nejash said, “This has similar source with the message that was brought by Jesus Christ. My religion and your religion Islam are almost same. I am very glad to say that to my council of Ministers, the prophet Mohammed followers and relatives may stay in Abyssinia in peace as long as they want. God Bless them”. The Holywood film, “the Message, the Story of Islam” in a CD.
Then, Nejash refused the demands of Amr and Abdelah Bin Rabiah and expel them immediately from Abyssinia. According to sources the king said to them “If you have given a mountain of gold, I would not give up these people who have taken asylum with me”. Then, King Nejash cut of the relation with Abu Sufian who was the Kuraysh leader and king of Saudi Arabia. Considering the actions of that king at that point in time, we can say that, King Nejash is the one who introduced political asylum, care for refugee, human rights protection and care for the human nature irrespective of any prejudice or bias.
Their Relation after Islam achieved Victory
The relationship between Nejash and Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) created a very tight friendly and peaceful relationship between the Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia.
According to several sources the Holy Quran also acknowledged the actions of Nejash. And the prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said that: “In the Quran, we found the positive contributions of Christians. It is concerned with king Nejash and his colleagues”.
The Letter Exchanges between King Nejash and the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)
The relation between King Nejash and the Prophet Mohammed has dated back to the early years of the expansion of Islam. Through time there was exchange of messages between the two. Their relation became stronger due to the influence of Amu Aymen and Bilal Al-Habesh on the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). One of the letters of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) reads as follows.
“In the name of Allah the most merciful the most beneficent, from Mohammed the Prophet of Allah to Alnegashi the king of Al-Habesha (Abyssinia), greetings I thank Allah the Almighty the all dominating and I witness and testify that Issa (Jesus) is the Spirit of Allah and his word which He gave to Maryam (Mary) the virtuous, and created him from his spirit. And I am inviting you very honestly to accept Islam and become a good Muslim. And rule in peace and prosperity to the Habesh-Abyssinia with peace and believe in Allah the Almighty only without any partner to obey him and follow me and what was revealed to me for I become the messenger and Prophet of Allah. I have sent my cousin designated as a special envoy Jaffer and my beloved Muslims. When they come to you, receive them well and stay away from arrogance and call you and your solders to believe in Allah. And I have given my message and may Allah’s blessings fall on those who follow the snail path”.
It is necessary to ask why the Prophet had chosen Abyssinia. There can be two main explanations. The first reason is the influence of Amu Aymen, a slave Habesha (Abyssinian) woman who shaped and nourished the Prophet during his childhood. According to several sources Amu Aymen is the most important figure to the Prophet of Islam. The second reason is what we can call the “Bilal effect”, who was another slave from the same origin and a slave bought by the Arabian king Umeyah and crown prince Abu Sufian and Princes Hindia, the cruel and unmerciful women at that time. They tried to destroy the kingdom of Islam, Prophet Mohammed and his beloved followers. The Great Bilal is the first person to make the prayer call (Azan) for Muslims. He upgraded himself from being an ordinary slave to become commander in chief for the Muslim world. He was very strong, obedient, brave, and innocent person. He made history and dedicated all of his life to the Allah. His works are waking up calls for all the Habeshan people. According to His Eminency Dr. Alam direct descendant of the Prophet of Islam, in the visit of the grave of King Nejash on the 11th of January 2009, “the Great Bilal is now rest in Damasks, the capital of Syria”.
Therefore, these two personalities played their own role to influence the Prophet’s perception towards the Habesha (Abyssinian) land. The Prophet Mohammed directed his followers to left Mecca immediately towards to Abyssinia. The Prophet cousin, the Great Hamza supported this journey which was led by Jafer Bin Abutualib along with Hazrat Osman Bin Afuan and Prophet Daughter Rukya and other 121 most influential Muslims left from Mecca to Abyssinia, to King Nejash, who was the Great Christian King who has a knowledge, spirituality, capacity and qualified in all testimony of bible which originated by Almighty from Allah to Jesus Christ. There is a prescription and declaration about Prophet Mohammed’s arrival with the glorious Koran. The holy Koran also indicates the human being is a crown creation of God. The Jewish, Christian and Muslim are cousin brothers who are the descendents of Abraham. According to these main religions, Jesus Christ will emerge and co creates heaven on earth with Imam Mehedy (PBUH). King Nejash understood that and in a humble way received the followers of Islam. And with dignity and status and assured them to stay in Abyssinia with peace as long as they want, and he converted to be a Muslim. According to Islamic literatures King Nejash is remembered among the first non-Arab African Muslim next to Bilal and Amu Aymen.
His Eminency advised his spiritual son Dr. Selahadin and Dr. Meskerem Melaku (Meryem) to send official proposal to the UN Secretary General from the World Human Rights Council to record King Nejash’s contribution to world as the first political asylum offer. This was the first political asylum in world history. Unfortunately, the UN does not recognize this history. His Eminency argues that, Nowadays 55% of the Ethiopia people is Muslims. In accordance of His eminency Dr. Alam’s statement the Muslims of Ethiopia are neglected politically, officially and mentally by the Christian rulers for the last 1400 years.
There were several letter exchanges between King Nejash and Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). The letter that was sent to the Prophet from King Nejash stated the following.
“In the name of Allah the most merciful and the most beneficent, to Allah’s Prophet Mohammed (SAW), from Alnegash (Abyssinia) Armaha the son of Abhar the king of Al-Habasha (Abyssinia). A greeting, the Messenger of Allah, there is no true God but Allah who guided me to accept Islam.I have received your letter and what you said about Issa. In the name of the God of the skies and the earth that Issa is exactly what you said he is in your letter. And we have received your cousin Jaffer, chief of the delegation and his companions, I witness that you are Allah’s Prophet and messenger. In the name of Allah, the Almighty I have sent you my son Arha son of Al Asmha the son of Abhar. If you wish I will come to you myself and I give my word that what I said is the truth”.
What we can see from this letter is that King Nejash has an interest to go and visit the Arabia as a Muslim ruler of Abyssinia. The final seat of King Nejash is found in “Negash” town of northern Ethiopia, which is named after the name of the great king. This town is found in the Plateau of the Wukro area which is located 60 kilo meters north of Mekele town, the capital of the Tigray Regional State. His Eminency visited the area with so much hardship by crossing the road from Addis to Negash. He Prayed Selatel Zuhur and Asir in the 12 & 13 of January 2009.
Several historic record and findings suggest that, King Nejash came to the south from his Palace which was situated between “Atsbi” (East of Negash) and Hawzien (west of Negash). Negash town is found in exactly equidistant from Atsbi and Hawzien. There are also arguments that King Nejash’s seat was in Aksum, one of the Ancient civilized areas of the world, before he came to the Negash area. This shows the seat of King Nejash was located in the Northen part of Ethiopia. The marching to the south was to cross to the holy city of Mecca. In his last years King Nejash stopped his political leadership and started to serve the Almighty Allah. And he had a plan of fulfilling one of the pillars of Islam by visiting the Holly City of Mecca for pilgrimage. However, King Nejash found the area of Negash comfortable to live with a suitable weather condition. Local residents and religious leaders witness that King Nejash stayed in that area for 15 years. It is in this location that King Nejash’s soul rest in peace. Even if king Negash could not make the journey to the holy city of Mecca, one of his sons was able to reach and reside there. Another son was dead while he was trying cross the Red Sea.
The settlement of King Nejash in the Negash area was accompanied by the sahbas who came from the Arabia. The grave of those Sahbas is found in there. Total of 15 descendents of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) were dead in Negash town, 10 men and 5 women. 12 of them rest together with King Nejash’s body. King Nejash was dead by 630 AD. Three of the Sahbas rest in the same compound but outside of the house in which King Nejash’s grave is found. The local residents have only the record of the name of those three:
Hazrat Mussa Bin Harris
Alley Bin Nadla
His Eminency Dr. Alam 43rd decedent of the Prophet, as the capacity of the President of the World Spiritual Assembly and chief of the mission of the WHRSC and UNECA Civil Society Representative tried to find out the history of King Nejash. In the month of Muhrem 11th January 2009, after 4 years of search, finally find out the King Nejash’s mosque and grave accompanied by his spiritual son Dr. Selahadin and his secretary Dr. Meskerem Melaku (Meryem), Orthodox Christian, the gift of King Nejash.
One notable Muslim figure with an interesting story is Bilal Ibn Rabah. He was ''a freed slave'' of Ethiopian roots born in Mekkah and one of the early Ethiopian converts to Islam. He became the first muezzin-or chanter of the call to prayer''. Munro-Hay states that Bilal was the bearer of the Prophet's spear, which the Ethiopian king had given to al-Zubayr, the Prophet's cousin. The spear ''was used from 624 AD to point the direction of the prayer''. Bilal is reported to have died in 640 AD.