Ethiopian Journal of Languages and Literature Hussein Ahmed

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Ethiopian Journal of Languages and Literature
lslamic Literature in Ethiopia: A Short Overview Hussein Ahmed
The study of the history and culture of Ethiopian Muslims has long been a neglected theme in Ethiopian studies.' It is, therefore, not surprising that the oral and written literature pltlduced by indigenous Muslims has received even less attention in Ethiopian scholarship.2 In the introduction to his book on twentieth-century Amharic literature, Molvaer made no single reference to the existence of an Ethiopian Islamic literature,3 although in an earlier work he did admit this serious lacuna: ''There is little mention of Islam or Muslims in Amharic literature...."4 This gap is also evident in general reviews of Ethiopian and African literatures.~ This paper is only a brief and preliminary introduction to Islamic literature as it developed and flourished through time, and it focuses on its main literary features and themes. • It is intended as a modest contribution towards the enhancement of general public and SCholarly awareness of Islamic literature in Ethiopia and of the need for a sustained ·research on it from the literary, historical and regional perspectives. Objectively, there were a number of unfavourable factors which militated against the development of Islamic creative writing in Ethiopia, especially in the post-Italian period. Firstly, there were strict press censorship imposed on Muslim .literary production and a ban on the ~mportation and circulation of

26 Hussein Ahmed: Islamic Literature in Ethiopia
Islamic/Arabic books and periodicals. Secondly, an articulate and numerically significant modern-~ Ethiopian Muslim elite was slow to emerge because of the concentration of local Muslims on the trading and service sectors of the economy and on the pursuit of traditional Islamic studies. There was also considerable reluctance of Muslim parents to send their children to modern schools for fear that they might be exposed to Christian influences and lose their specifically Muslim identity. All these conditions contributed to the long absence of a vigorous literary tradition among edUCated Ethiopian Muslims.
The introduction and expansion of Islam in Ethiopia, and the subsequent emergence of an Islamic culture among the diverse communities of the country, gave rise to the development and flourishing of an indigenous and distinctive Islamic literature. The gradual spread of Islamic religious education contacts with the neighbouring Muslim world through trade, pilgrimage and travels undertaken for the purpose of acquiring higher Islamic education in Arabia, the Yernen, the Sudan and Egypt, and the emergence of a class ' of indigenous Muslim religious elite's were the main factors which contributed to the development of that literature. However, very little is known about the actual process of its emergence and the amount and diversity of literary output.
Islamic literature in Ethiopia consists of both oral accounts about local and external events and personalities, a large corpus of written works in the form of manuscripts which still await systematic collection and analysis, and a few publications. There is a substantial number of devotional texts, teaching manuals, and commentaries on classical Arabic works dealing with Islamic doctrine, law, grammar, and mysticism. Arabic was the dominant language used for the composition of the vast majority of both unpublished and published WOrks,6 although some were also written in other national languages such as Amharic7 and Harari.

Ethiopian Journal of Languages and Literature 27
Many fragments of Arabic material in the form of inscriptions and local dynastic histories have been discovered in different parts of Ethiopia which uggest the long existence of Muslim literature cQmmunities. Although the chronicle of the sixteenth-century campaigns of 1mBm Ahmad b. Ibrahim (jl. 1506-1543) was written by a Yemeni juriSt,Kit provides valuable information on the economic, political and social conditions of the period:}
An early indigenous literary work is the Kitab al-Fara'id (Book of Obligations), a manua. for the teaching of Islam written by FaqiL Tayyib alWanagi of Harar in the Harari language in Arabic characters. The manuscript was discovered, translated, and edited by the renowned Ifaiian scholar, Enrico Cerulli, in 1936.10
In the second half of the eighteenth century another Harari scholar, Hamid b.Siddiq, wrote three works in Arabic on such diverse themes as the duty of defending one's faith against unbelief, Islamic mysticism and the holy war. I I
In other parts of Ethiopia, such as Wallo and Shawa, various ty~s of literary work mainly dealing with hagiographical, doctrinal and, to a lesser extent, secular themes were produced. They were written in both verse and prose in either Arabic or ArnharicIHarari in Arabic script. The latter, known as 'ajanii,
was a popular genre of indigenous Islamic literature. 12 An important form of oral literature is the type known as ManzUna (panegyrics in verse), recited on
solemn occasions, eulogizing the lives and virtues of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions, and those of indigenous saints.I)
Contrary to the assertion made by some scholars that, after the sixteenth century there was a general decline in the composition of local Islamic literary works which persisted until the present centllry,'4 many of the ~holars/saints of north/central and eastern Ethiopia, notably those of Wallo, Shawa and Harar, who lived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, did produce extensive commentaries on standard Arabic texts on Islamic law and grammar,

28 Hussein Ahmed: Islamic Literature in Ethiopia
and wrote original works on various subjects.'~ Hagiographical works called manJiqw_were also written.lh As rightly noted by Gori, a major stimulus to literary production was the introduction and propagation of the mystical brotherhoods (turuq, sing: tariJa).11 These works and other texts in manuscript form remain, as noted earlier, to be collected and analyzed in depth, as they are important sources not only for the study of indigenous religious and literary history but also for an understanding of other relevant aspects of the social. ~d economic organization of Muslim communities.
Three anonymous hagiographical works in Arabic on the life and miracles of Shaykh Nur Husayn were published early this century.IR Shaykh Talha bJa'far (c.1853-1936) is considered to have been a pioneer in the use of Amharic poetty as a medium for the teaching and dissemination of Islam in Wallo and northern Shawa Although he authored many works, only orie of them was published in the middle of the present century under the title Tawhii enna Fiqh (Theology and Jurisprudence).'Y In 1949 Faqh Hashim b. 'Abd al-'Aziz's Falh ai-Rahmani was published.
Since the late 1940s, a number of Ethiopian Muslim writers have turned to writing on literary and secular themes in Amharic: al-Hfij Yusuf 'Abd alRahman (a Harari) published a collection of proverbs and tales;211 Muhammad 'Uthman authored a short work of fiction dealing with marriage,21 while 'Abd al-Bari Muhammad and Sayid Abagaz (the latter from Wallo) wrote similar works on the theme of social and economic injustice.22 According to one commentator, the publication of the last three works represents a new departure in the development of Islamic ·literature in Amharic as they are exclusively concerned with secular and not, as hitherto, religious themes.2l
Since 1942 al- 'Alam, an Arabic weekly, has been published by the Ministry of lnformation.24

Ethiopian Journal of Languages and Literature 29
The publication of the first official Amharic translation of the Qur'WI, and the earliest history of Islam and the biography of the Prophet Muhammad (the latter written by the late al-H~j Muhammad Thani Habib Bashir) 25also marked a higher stage in the development of Islamic literature in Amharic, as it enabled the Muslim community to enhance its knowledge about the contents of the Holy Book and the life and achievements of the Prophet.
During the period from 1975 to 1991, no major Islamic literary work was published because of the ban, strictly enforced, upon the importation of Islamic texts, including the Qur'.i1, and on local production and circulation of Islamic literature such as books, magazines and newspapers. However, two works of compilation and translation came out during the period under discussion: •Abel al-Wasi' Yusufs Ma1e'ekta &lWn (The Message of IsIanl) in 1988/89, sponsored by the Anwar Mosque Administration, and Muhammad Jamal' Mukhtar's translation into Amharic of al-Mawdudi's MabaJi' aL-IsLWn (Principles of Islam) in 1989/90.26 Onelof the works of Egypt's prominent literary figure, Najib MahfUz, was translated by Amara Mammo; a part of the Arabian Nights, the most popular piece of Arabic literature, by Tafari Gad!mu; a play authored by Tawtiq al-Hakim (d.l987), the Egyptian novelist 'and essayist, by Mangestu Lamma; and Idris Shah's collection of witty tales, also
by Amaia MammO.27 Mammo Wuddenah's translation of Muhammad Hasanyn Haykal's The Road to Ramadm could not be published because of
By contrast, the period from 1991 to 1995 was one of unprecedented growth of Islamic literature in Ethiopia, as it witnessed the foundation of private Islamic publishing houses and the production.. of a large number of literary works in Amharic, Arabic and other languages in the form of books, booklets. newspapers and magazines.211 Many of these works are translations from either Arabic or English. They include the writings of the noted South African Musiim activist, Ahmed Deedat, the Pakistani reformer, al-MawdUdT, and the

30 Hussein Ahmed: Islamic Literature in Ethiopia

French I lamist scholar, M.Bucaille. Two young and prolific translators working for the Huda and Hirii' Publishing houses respectively are
Muhammad Jamal Mukhfu, mentioned earlier, and Awwal Rana Harnza.

A collection of poems atttributed to the Wallo Muslim clairvoyant, Shaykh

Husayn Jibril (d.1915), was published by Boggala Tafari Bazzu in 1991/92.



During the same year Isayyas A1arne Eshate and Adam Muhammad produced

two textbooks on Arabic grammar and usage.

In 1992193 Shaykh Ahmad Awwal Husayn authored a long book (in verse) on
the fundamentals of Islarn, the religious duties of a 'Muslim, peimisslble and reprehensible acts, the Shari 'a, mawlid (the Prophet's birthday anniversary celebrations), and the need to combat superstitions and other social practices incompatible with Islam.

One of the renowned contemporary Ethiopian Muslim scholars, aL-H~j Muhammad Wale Ahmad, wrote an Amharic manual on Islamic doctrine and practices in 1994, while Huda sponsored the translation and publication of Mustafa al-Sioo'i's biography of the Prophet (1994). In the same year Muhammad Jamal translated Mustafa 'Abd al-'Ati's Ta'r! aL-IslI!m (Instruction about Islam), the longest work ever translated from Arabic into Amharic, which mainly deals with the basic tenets of Islam. The Huda Press Ltd. has also launched a project, the first of its kind, on the translation of the Qur'an into Amharic together with a parallel Arabic text, and published an Arabic translation of Shaykh Muhammad Mahmud al-Sawafs book, Ta 'Llin al-SaLat. Hirii'translated Mahmud Shakir's work on the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad's followers to Aksum and 'Abd al-Hamid Muhammad Tahmaz's biography of Khadija, the Prophet's first wife.

The Islamic magazines and newspapers which flourished from 1991 to 1995, when they ceased publication, were very appealing to the Muslim public

Ethiopian Journal of Languages and Literature 31
becau e of their regularity and high circulation. More importantly, they covered local events, reported on foreign news and developments, and di cus ed i sues of interest to the Muslim community.341
BilaL, published by the privately-owned Najashi publishing house, was the e~[Ii~f (If the Islamic magazines. Another was al-Risala printed by the Addis
'B~\~' bn>Ublishing and Advertising Enterprise, while the Ethiopian Muslim n-ganization sponsored an Amharic-Arabie-English magazine called
Q!2Cn22G(Among the major Islamic newspapers were_Najashi and al-Manar, the
COIIGLGq blished by the Ethiopian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs. The P!fiJ1JA !l'eSs published a periodical entitled Adhiit.
I219W!c ]1J couc]te 1996 several private Islamic fortnightly and weekly newspapers
m published: Hikma, Hayiit, al-Kawthar, HiLaL, aL-Hij8b, IkhLas, [hsm lJJrog~ijJtaka. However, about half of these tabloids have ceased publication
In conclusion it should be noted that almost all of the contributors to the Islamic magazines and newspapers were Ethiopian Muslims. In their many
highly informative and enlightening articles and commentaries, they raised and thoroughly discussed a number of issues of historical significance31 and contemporary relevance -- both religious and secular - thereby enhancing the general awareness of the Muslim community about developments taking place in the country and the wider Islamic world. The most recurrent issues included the need for reforming the administrative structure and wodcing procedures of existing Islamic organizations and the defence of Islam against traditional nonIslamic forms of belief and practices, and against prevailing misconceptions about, and the occasional assaults on, the doctrine of Islam and Muslims in general.

32 Hussein Ahmed: Islamic Literature in Ethiopia
Kane has emphasized the role of the development of Islamic literature ·in Amharic in bringing together Ethiopian Muslims of diverse backgrounds and in minimizing the disadvantages arising from lack of proficiency in Arabic.32
It is worth noting that the growth and development of Islamic literature in Ethiopia .sipce 1991 has also been a manifestation of, and response to, the resurgence and reVival of Islam in the Islamic world in general and in Ethiopia and the Hom in particular.33

Ethiopian Journal of Languages and Literature 33
I For a fuller discussion, see the present writer' s "The Historiography of Islam in Ethiopia," Journal of Islamic Studies, Vol.3, No.1. (January 1992), pp.l5-46.
2 Alessandro Gori, '''Some Preliminary Observations on the Texts of Shaykh Husayn's Hagiographies" (an unpublished paper presented to the Eleventh International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, East Lansing, Michigan State University, 5-10 September 1994), p.l.
3 Reidulf K. Molvaer, Black Lions: The Creative Lives of Modem Ethiopia's Literary Giants and Pioneer~ (Lawrenceville, N.J.lAsmara: The Red Sea Press, Inc., 1997). pp.xiii-xix.
4 Idem, Tradition and Change in Ethiopia (Leiden:E.J.Brill. 1980), p.4.
5 The exception is Albert Gerard:s African Language Utemtuff!s (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, Inc.,1981),p.3.
6 A.J. Drewes, Classical Arabic in Central Ethiopia (OosWS Genootschap in Nederland 7) (Leiden:E.J.Brill. 1976); C.A. Ferguson. ''The
Role of Arabic in Ethiopia: A Sociological Perspective'" in 1.F.Pride and Janet
Holmes (eds.), Sociolinguistics (Harmondswroth, 1972), pp.112-124.
7 Thomas L.I{; pp. Intemazionale di Studi Etiopici, I (Roma: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei,
.. 1974), 717-726; idem, Ethiopian Literature in A~ric (Wiesbaden: Otto
Harrassowitz, 1975); Enrico Cerulli. '~anti Amarici dei M\asulm~i di
Abissinia," Rendi~onti della R. Accademia Nationale d'i Une,i, Ser. VI. "II
(1926), pp. 433-437.

34 Hussein Ahmed: Islamic Literature in Ethiopia
8 Shihab ai-Din Ahmad b. 'Abd ai-Qadir b.Salim b. 'Uthman ('Arab Faqih), Futiih al-Habasha Rene Basset under the title Histoire de La Conqutke d'Abyssinie (Paris, 1897-1901). There are less authoritative Italian and German translations. The account was also translated into Harari : 'Abd alKarim Ahmad, Wareg Zaman Futuh al-Habash (Addis Ababa: Commert:ial Printing Press, 1955). An English translation, the first of its kind, is being prepared by Paul F.L. Stenhouse.
9 The extensive, albeit scattered, travel literature on Islam and Ethiopian Muslims, both in Arabic and the major European languages, deserves a separate study. For a preliminary review, see Manfred Kropp, "La Corne Orientale de l'Afrique c;:hez les Geographes Arabes," Bulletin des Etudes Ajricaines d 'Inalco, IX, 17-18 (l992),pp.161-197.
10 Enrico Cerulli, Studi Etiopici I, La Lingua e La Storia di Harar (Roma: Isituto per l'Oriente, 1936).
Ii Robert Brunschvig, "L'Islam enseigne par Hamid b.Siddiq de Harar (XVIIe siecle)" in IV Congresso Internazionale di Studi Etiopici, pp. 443-454.
_ 12 Assefa Mammo, "Some Prominent Features of the Menzuma G. enre in the Wollo Region" (M.A. Thesis in Literature, School of Graduate Studies, AAU; 1987). and Segge Negatu, "Oral Traditions on the Miracles of Shaykh Sayid Bushra and the Celebration of the Mawlid Festival at Gatii (Wollo)" (in ~aric) (B.A. Thesis, Department of Ethiopian Languages and Literature, AAU, 1990). There are also half a dozen of undergradua.v __ :S ·on Islamic religious poetry from Wallo, Bale and Addis Ababa submitted to the Department between 1983184 and 1990/91.

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Ethiopian Journal of Languages and Literature Hussein Ahmed