In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Islam in Ethiopia and Eritrea

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Collections of Articles
  • Journals and Series
  • History
  • Primary Arabic Sources
  • Islamization Processes
  • History until the End of the 16th Century
  • History of the 17–20th Centuries
  • History: Latest Developments and Trends (including Salafism) in Ethiopian and Eritrean Islam
  • Sufism and Cult of the Saints
  • Education
  • Literature
  • Music
  • Women
  • Muslim-Christian Relations

Islamic Studies Islam in Ethiopia and Eritrea
Alessandro Gori
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0253


According to the official figures of the national census conducted in 2007, there were about twenty-five million followers of Islam in Ethiopia, representing 33.9 percent of the total population. More updated data are not available. Geographically, Muslims are the majority in the southern and eastern parts of the country, and in the southwest, while they remain a tiny minority in northern Ethiopia. As for Eritrea (independent since 1993), in the absence of official state data and of a universally accepted estimation, it is realistically surmised that around half of the Eritreans are Muslim, or about three million people. Most of the Eritrean Muslims live in the lowlands and in the coastal areas. Practiced by nomadic and semi-nomadic groups, merchants and peasants, businessmen and employees, residents of big cities and inhabitants of small villages, and both old faithful believers and new converts, Islam in Ethiopia and Eritrea is multifaceted and linguistically, culturally, and historically differentiated. The Islamic tradition maintains that the new message preached by Muhammad entered the Ethio-Eritrean region at its very inception, when in 615 the Prophet invited a group of his first followers to seek refuge at the court of the Ethiopian king (al-Naǧāšī; Ethiopic: Nəgus) Ashama from the mistreatment by the polytheists in Mecca. Islam eventually became widespread and deeply rooted in the landscape of the whole Horn of Africa, thanks to the conversion of many different local peoples. The diffusion of Islam was promoted and fostered especially by merchants and scholars (often, but not always, combined in the same persons) who reached almost every spot in the Ethio-Eritrean hinterland by following ancient or newly opened trade routes from the shores of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The control of the whole coastal strip from Suakin in Sudan to Zeila (and later Berbera) in Somalia allowed Muslims to act as a living and dynamic trait d’union between the Ethiopian Christian kingdom, based in the highlands, and the wider world. The import and export of natural goods, artifacts, slaves, precious stones, textiles, and, in more recent times, weaponry has been traditionally the main activity on which Muslims have managed to build up not only the prosperity of their own communities, but also the networks of economic, political, and cultural connections that have given them power and prestige on a regional and transregional level. The formation of territorially limited and often short-lived Muslim potentates during the Middle Ages surely helped the spread of Islam, but it did not play the most crucial role in the processes of Islamization. Also, the expansionist movement led by Imam Ahmad b. Ibrahim (1529–1543) did not trigger any long-lasting further diffusion of the Islamic religion. Closely connected to the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, but also to India and Southeast Asia, Ethiopian and Eritrean Islam has managed through centuries to shape its own peculiar features, which include a widely spread performance of the religious and legal obligations (daily prayers, zakat distribution, Ramadan fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca, division of the inheritance); a mystically oriented daily practice (not necessarily linked to an organized brotherhood) reflected in the local pious visits (ziyarat) to the holy shrines and in popular devotional practices; a widely diffused but still tightly bound network of centers of teaching and transmission of knowledge; and a steady attention toward all the main branches of traditional Islamic learning (Arabic grammar, fiqh, theology), reflected in the literature circulating among the common faithful as well as the intellectual elite. Forcibly included into the modern Ethiopian monarchy by the expansionist and unifying politics of Emperor Menelik II (Mənilək, b. 1889–d. 1913), Ethiopian and Eritrean Islam passed through many difficulties under the rule of Haile Selassie (Ḫaylä Səllase, d. 1975), but it managed to blossom after the fall of the Socialist regime (the so-called Därg) in 1991. Muslims of the region then became more and more connected to and influenced by the wider Islamic world, thanks in part to the spread of the World Wide Web and other mass communication tools. Interpretational schools and streams of thought generally labeled as Wahhabism/Salafism spread quickly and strongly among Muslims in Ethiopia and Eritrea, fostering a general tendency toward a more uniform practice of the faith and a refusal of a more “traditional” way of living Islam. The response of the representatives of the “traditionalists” only partially managed to contain this drift, which continues today.

General Overviews

Until the middle of the 1990s, Islam in Ethiopia and Eritrea had long been a neglected topic. With a few remarkable exceptions (e.g., the Italian Orientalist and colonial administrator Enrico Cerulli [b. 1898–d. 1988] and the German Arabist Ewald Wagner), scholars of Ethiopian studies traditionally devoted their attention and research activities almost exclusively to Ethiopian Christian culture, literature, and history. Scholars of Islamic studies disregarded the Ethiopian-Eritrean region (and the Horn of Africa as a whole), probably considering it a mere appendix to the Arabian Peninsula and thus unworthy of a specific attention. Scholars of African studies did not show much interest in Ethiopian and Eritrean Islam, as they probably perceived it as not sufficiently “African,” exactly because of its tight connections to the “central” Muslim lands. Despite this generalized neglect in academia (a critical review of the available bibliographies can be found in Hussein Ahmed 1992 and Hussein Ahmed 2009), some useful introductory and comprehensive descriptions of the historical trajectory (see Trimingham 1952, Cerulli 1962, Cerulli 1969, Cerulli 1971, Tubiana 1981, and Kapteijns 2000), and of the most relevant and characterizing cultural and social features of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Islamic communities (e.g., Abbink 1998, Hussein Ahmed and Gori 2007), were nevertheless produced, especially from the end of the 1990s onward.

  • Abbink, Jon. “An Historical-Anthropological Approach to Islam in Ethiopia: Issues of Identity and Politics.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 11.2 (1998): 109–124.

    DOI: 10.1080/13696819808717830

    Introductory essay analyzing the Islamic presence in Ethiopia from the perspective of one of the most outstanding anthropologists working on this country.

  • Cerulli, Enrico. “L’Islam en Ethiopie: Sa signification historique et ses methods.” In Colloque sur la sociologie musulmane: Actes, 11–14 septembre 1961. Correspondance d’Orient 5. 317–329. Brussels: Publications du Centre pour l’Étude des Problèmes du Monde Musulman Contemporain, 1962.

    Brief historical excursus on the Islamic presence in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and a description of some of the most important manifestations of the Muslim culture in the region. The author was an Italian Orientalist and a high-ranking colonial officer in Ethiopia, persona non grata in that country after World War II.

  • Cerulli, Enrico. “Islam in East Africa.” In Religion in the Middle East: Three Religions in Concord and Conflict. Vol. 3. Edited by Arthur John Arberry, 203–219. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

    A short overview of the relationships of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Muslim communities with the Central Ethiopian Christian kingdom.

  • Cerulli, Enrico. “L’Islam etiopico.” In L’Islam di ieri e di oggi. Pubblicazioni dell’Istituto per l’Oriente 64. By Enrico Cerulli, 113–133. Rome: Istituto per l’Oriente, 1971.

    Short but rich excursus on the main historical events of the Muslim communities in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and on their most remarkable cultural and social features.

  • Hussein Ahmed. “The Historiography of Islam in Ethiopia.” Journal of Islamic Studies 3 (1992): 15–46.

    A quick but comprehensive critical review of the main primary and secondary literature on Islam in Ethiopia, written by one of the most outstanding Ethiopian scholars of the field, prematurely deceased in 2009. The article catalyzed research in the field.

  • Hussein Ahmed. “The Coming of Age of Islamic Studies in Ethiopia: The Present State of Research and Publication.” In Proceedings of the 16th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies. Vol. 2. Edited by Svein Ege, Harald Aspen, Birhanu Teferra, and Shiferaw Bekele, 449–456. Trondheim: Norwegian University of Science and Technology, 2009.

    List and critical assessment of the main relevant studies and contributions on Islam in Ethiopia published in the late 1990s and at the beginning of the new millennium, along with a description of the perspectives on and tasks of further research in the field.

  • Hussein Ahmed, and Alessandro Gori. “Islam.” In Encyclopaedia Aethiopica. Vol. 3. Edited by Siegbert Uhlig, 198–202. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 2007.

    Encyclopedia article on the geographical distribution of Islam in Ethiopia and Eritrea; the processes of Islamization of the region; and the main cultural, religious, and social characteristics of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Muslim communities.

  • Kapteijns, Lidwien. “Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.” In The History of Islam in Africa. Edited by Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L. Pouwels, 227–250. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000.

    Useful description of the main cultural and social features of the Muslim communities in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and of the most relevant historical events that marked their development.

  • Trimingham, John Spencer. Islam in Ethiopia. London: Frank Cass, 1952.

    A “classical” comprehensive introductory book on the history, the culture, and the society of the Muslims of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and, partially, Somalia. Despite its date of publication, the volume is still recommended for a first approach to the topic.

  • Tubiana, Joseph. “L’Islam en Ethiopie.” In Societes africaines, monde arabe et culture islamique. Mémoires du CERMAA 1. Edited by Guy Nicolas, 235–250. Paris: Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, 1981.

    Sketchy description of the main features of the Islamic civilization in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and of its historical developments, penned by one of the most distinguished anthropologist working in the country.

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