“Birds Began It All”

 Journal Notes on Islam in Ethiopia

By Barnaby Rogerson, UK

I looked across the room. It was much easier to concentrate on youth. They were all so positively post-famine. Anybody my age in Ethiopia looked either a saint or a cynic, and had seen far, far too much to remain beautiful. It began with the secret famines of the 70’s which inexorably led to the fall of the old Emperor Haile Selassie, to the first jubilant years of land reform and free schooling, followed by enforced collectivisation and the new villages, the bloody and chaotic border war of Ogaden, then the government’s Red Terror and the civil war it unleashed and the second great – but this time internationalized – famine of the 80’s.

A victim of Ethiopia's famine in the 1980's.

It was the freedom fighters from Tigre province that ultimately brought down the economically and morally bankrupt Communist Derg regime. Its leader Colonel Mengistu fled to the only man who would take him – Mugabe of Zimbabwe – but left just a critical 24 hours before he could cash the 36 million dollar cheque that Israel had just handed over after their ‘rescue’ of Ethiopia’s Falasha Jews. In the background, alternatively raging, then smouldering, is the long war in Eritrea, which despite the grant of full independence burst alive again as a border war.

Apart from the odd wrecked tank, or half-truck with a tree growing through the windscreen, the wars and tribulations of Ethiopia now seem a whole generation away. Like some rare breed of bird which has had its nest disturbed by building work, the travellers are now returning back to this hospitable land.

The Bird Began It All

It was a bird that began it all. King Solomon was on his throne reviewing his human army, the battalions of Jinn and the winds that were also under his command. He also had the power to understand the language of animals and smiled as he over heard the ant heralds warn their brethren to “Enter you dwellings lest Solomon and his armies crush you.” Then he turned to review his squadrons of the birds. He noticed that the bird of the crest and striped wings was missing and demanded, “How is it that I see not the hoopoe? I will give him hard punishment or I will slay him unless he bring me a plain excuse!” But the hoopoe was not long in coming and had good reason for his delay. He had found a great southern kingdom (which united all of the Yemen with Abyssinia) ruled by a woman, Queen Sheba, and “she has been given an abundance of all things and hers is a mighty throne.”

Solomon sent the hoopoe back to this land with an invitation for Queen Sheba to visit his court. In the meanwhile he commanded his most powerful Jinn to briefly stop work on the Great Temple at Jerusalem and construct a crystal palace for her entertainment. The visit was a success, and though Solomon set her up with all sorts of tests (conjuring up her throne from her homeland, tricking her with a solid crystal swimming bath and refusing to accept any of the bountiful treasures she brought from her homeland) the Queen also had her agenda. She sipped from his glass and so made certain that Solomon became besotted. That night after the banquet they knew each other as ‘Adam and Eve did’. When the Queen returned to her own land of Abyssinia she gave birth to Solomon’s son, Menelik I.

Emperor Hallie Selassie

Emperor Haile Selassie (1892 - 1975)

Thus was established the true line of Ethiopia’s rulers, the Solomonic dynasty. The late Emperor Hallie Selassie was the last of this millennial dynasty to hold the throne. There is now something cruelly fateful in the way that he was saluted as a Christ-like figure during his life by Afro-Americans dreaming of returning to an African Eden. Now his body lies in its rightful mausoleum though for many years it lay buried under concrete in the basement of the palace where he had been strangled on the orders of Colonel Mengistu. Rastafarians take their name from the Emperors youthful identity as Ras (literally Duke) Tafari. For Hallie Selassie was never a crown prince. He started his career as just one amongst a whole generation of royal cousins who were appointed a ‘Duke’, a governor, of one of the provinces of Ethiopia. He rose to power through his abilities, appointed Regent by the nobles after they deposed the mad young Lysu, the co-ruler and then heir to old Emperor Menelik II’s daughter before achieving the throne. Politically astute and a mild, moderate, modernising and merciful sovereign during his prime, his principal failure was that of longevity. If he had died or retired to a monastery in the 60’s he would now be saluted throughout the world (and not just by the Rastafarians) as a saintly genius.

The Abyssinian Migration of Muslims

Muhammad was armed with the fortitude that came from his own direct experience of the divine. Though even he could at times be driven to fury by the petty savageness of the attacks. One neighbour in particular, whose wife used to bury thorns along the sandy paths that she knew the Prophet would walk along in bare feet, won himself the only known personal denouncement in the Qu’ran. Other equally malicious attacks rained down upon his followers. Muhammad, who could do nothing to aleviate the suffering of his small embattled community of believers, was appalled at the privations that they were forced to endure. At last he advised some of his followers to leave sacred Mecca and take refuge elsewhere. The refuge he chose for them was Abyssinia. This in itself speaks volumes about the politics of the time. Nowhere in Arabia, not the Yemen, not the Syrian frontier, was thought to be safely out of the reach of the Quraysh, while it is interesting to reflect that Muhammad was obviously familiar enough with the external powers beyond Arabia to choose the most likely secure refuge. In the words of a much repeated tradition he said to them, “If you were to go to Abyssinia, it would be better for you until such time as God shall relieve you from your distress, for the king there will not tolerate injustice and it is a friendly country.” It is a proud testimony to Ethiopian hospitality but he is not alone in this high opinion. Homer in the Iliad speaks of the “blameless Ethiopians” while Diodurus has it that even the gods were “awed by their piety.” They also get good press from the Psalms (not normally very forward in the praise of any nation neighbouring Judea) which in verse 68, line 31 sings that “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.”

Early Muslim Migrations including the migration to Axum (now Ethiopia)

The first group of Muslims, 12 men and 5 women (including the Prophet’s daughter Rakiya and her husband Uthman) rode west out of Mecca to the shore from where they took passage on a boat heading south down the Red Sea and through the coral reefs and hundred rock shores of the murderous coastline of the Dahlak archipelago to reach the safe harbour of the Ethiopian port of Adulis. This was no blind shot into the dark of another continent. No Livingstone-like heroic adventure into an unknown world. Adulis (just 30km south from the modern port of Massawa) was a sophisticated entrepot that had been trading with Egypt for two thousands years. It also lay astride the main trade route to India and the crossing to Yemen as well as operating as The Port of Africa and harbour of the Empire of Axsum. A babble of tongues was spoken here by traders acquiring such primary products as ivory, gold, incense and tortoise-shell (the plastic of the ancient world due to the multiplicity of objects that can be carved from it) though the bottom had by this period now dropped out of the once thriving trade in shipping out live elephants (the tanks of the ancient world). In exchange bolts of worked clothe and wrought metals were imported. Deals were easy to calculate as the Axsum coinage neatly dove-tailed with the Roman weights in gold, silver and bronze. In terms of being a trading centre and a cosmopolitan meeting pot of cultures Axsum rather out Mecca-ed Mecca. Of spoken languages, there were too many to count (even now in our humdrum multi-cultural age, Ethiopia embraces 80 languages) whilst amongst the written languages of the ancient world the Empire of Axsum was effectively trilingual (Sabean, Ge’ez and Greek). It was also a determinedly Christian land that for the last century had effectively dominated the political life of southern Arabia through its governors, viceroys, military expeditions and garrisons. Of more immediate importance to the story of Muhammad was the resident colony of Ethiopian Christian traders and artisans long-established at Mecca. Tradition recalls that Muhammed’s revered old grandfather, Abdul Muttalib, had been closely involved with this community and the Ethiopian trade. Another tradition recalls that Muammed’s nurse was Ethiopian. Although this would at first seem to contradict the many tales that link him with his bedouin foster-mother it may in fact co-exit and refer to another part of his childhood, perhaps that time when the young orphan lodged with his grandfather.

A Meeting with the Emperor and Muhammad’s Message

Whatever the references the small party were able to travel-with, they were well received as members of the great mercantile city of Mecca. They travelled inland, up from the familiar hot and dry climate of the coast (modern Eritrea) and up, up into the comparatively well watered high mountain plateaux of Ethiopia. It would have taken at least a week, perhaps two, to climb up through the mountain passes, journeying past the great conical mountains capped with monastery churches and hermits caves, before they reached the capital of Axsum in 616 AD. They sent back favourable reports and the next year another group of refugees left Mecca to join them, led by a cousin of the Prophet. This Muslim community in exile grew further to eventually number some 83 families. The Quraysh of Mecca rather than celebrate their departure grew irritated by this development. They despatched a delegation to the ruler of Axsum. The Arab traditions recall the ruler as Ashama ibn Abjar, perhaps Armah of the Axsum king lists who also gloried under the throne name of Emperor Ella Sahem. The traditional tale is that the Quraysh delegation planned to slander the new faith in the eyes of a Christian king, and so expedite their expulsion. There may have been an additional trade agenda to speed them of their way. For it may be that Muhammad and the embattled and increasingly impoverished Muslims hoped to recover their losses by taking over the Axum trade.

Persian miniature depicting Bilal giving a call to prayer. Wikipedia.

The delegation of the Quraysh petitioned for an audience with the Emperor. Axum was vast but it had little in common with our assumptions of a city of the classical period. It was a stone encampment of a city, a vast but disparate capital, composed of dozens of magnificent walled palaces each associated with an even more magnificent tomb complex. These vast royal and noble tombs, composed of massive monolithic blocks of granite  can only be compared to the achievements of the Inca’s. In between these great complexes, fixed like so many stars in the sky, there were bare meadows which in season filled up with the ephemeral tents and hut cities of the tribes drawn to the city by the great markets and festivals. The hundred great stelae of Axum – though much depleted by age ( and the theft of Mussolini) – still dominate the modern town. How much more must these stone columns, which include the world’s largest single quarried stone, have dominated the past. On the edge of Aksum you can visit the so-called ‘palace of Sheba’. This seventh century complex is a warren of courts, chambers, offices and halls though all this gives way to the raised central building where three flights of stairs command the approaches from three different courtyards. In just such a building must the delegation of the Quraysh have brought forth their tribute of presents to the Negus, the Emperor of Abyssinia, and have been given permission to speak. They accused the Muslims of wrecking the unity of their city, of blaspheming against the ancestral gods but most tellingly of denying the divinity of Christ. The Negus surrounded by his court of monk-bishops and clerics was clearly appalled that he should be harbouring these dangerous schismatics in his land and commanded the Muslims to explain themselves. Ja’afar, son of the Prophet’s uncle and protector, Abu Talib, stepped forward and answered:

“We were folk immersed in ignorance, worshipping idols, eating carrion, given to lewdness, severing the ties of kinship, bad neighbours, the strong among us preying on the weak; thus were we till God sent to us a messenger of our own, whose lineage, honesty, trustworthiness and chastity we knew. He called us to God that we should acknowledge his Unity and worship Him and turn away from the stones and idols that we and our fathers used to worship beside Him…And when persecuted and oppressed, we came forth to thy land, and chose thee above all others, and sought thy protection, and hoped we should not be troubled in thy land, O King!”

The Negus thought awhile and then asked for an example of Muhammad’s message. Ja’afar chose well when he chanted  from Sura XIX (Verses 17 – 27) with its beautiful revelation of the immaculate conception:

19:17 Then We sent unto her Our Spirit and it assumed for her the likeness of a perfect man.

19:18 She said: Lo! I seek refuge in the Beneficent One from thee, if thou art God- fearing.

19:19 He said: I am only a messenger of thy Lord, that I may bestow on thee a faultless son.

19:20 She said: How can I have a son when no mortal hath touched me, neither have I been unchaste ?

19:21 He said: So (it will be). Thy Lord saith: It is easy for Me. And (it will be) that We may make of him a revelation for mankind and a mercy from Us, and it is a thing ordained.

19:22 And she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a far place.

19:23 And the pangs of childbirth drove her unto the trunk of the palm-tree. She said: Oh, would that I had died ere this and had become a thing of naught, forgotten!

[Mary complains to a palm tree about the pains of childbirth. The tree tells her to shake its trunk and ripe dates will fall.]

19:24 Then (one) cried unto her from below her, saying: Grieve not! Thy Lord hath placed a rivulet beneath thee,

19:25 And shake the trunk of the palm-tree toward thee, thou wilt cause ripe dates to fall upon thee.

19:26 So eat and drink and be consoled. And if thou meetest any mortal, say: Lo! I have vowed a fast unto the Beneficent, and may not speak this day to any mortal.

19:27 Then she brought him to her own folk, carrying him. They said: O Mary! Thou hast come with an amazing thing.

It is said that when Ja’far had finished that the Negus and his entire court were in tears. They were the first Christian court to hear how the Qu’ran so greatly honours the Virgin, which indeed it does in considerably greater detail than any of the Gospels. The Negus turned to the delegation of the Qur’aysh, “If you were to offer me a mountain of gold, I would not give up these people who have taken refuge with me.”

A decade or so later, when the Prophet was securely established at Medina, he called his followers back to Arabia. The Negus provided two ships for their safe passage. The Prophet would subsequently marry two of these Muslim exiles in Abyssinia, Umm Habiba and Umm Salma. In both instances the Negus despatched a dowry to Medina as a wedding gift. For their part they revealed an invincible affection for Abyssinia, singing the praises of the Church of St Mary of Seyon at Axsum and continued to revere an icon of the Virgin. This icon, once shielded by the hand of the Prophet from the sun, was exempted from the general ban against idolatrous imagery. The Prophet is also said to have prayed for the soul of the Negus after his death in 630. Of much greater standing in his stern injunction on his followers to “ leave the Abyssinians in peace – as long as they do not take the offensive”. This injunction has echoed down the centuries and with one or two exceptions (like the fearsome Muslim left handed warrior Gragn and the Gordon-killing Mahdi of Khartoum fame) has helped preserve the Christian faith of the Negus to this day.

Bilal – the first muezzin

This is not the end of the curiously harmonious relationship between early Islam and Ethiopia. Bilal ibn Rabah, the freed slave of Abu Bakr, and first muezzin of the Islamic world was of Ethiopian origin and was hailed by the Prophet as “the first fruit of Abyssinia”. The second fruit can still be found at the Ethiopian town of Negash, for some of the original Muslim refugees never made it back across the Red Sea and founded Africa’s oldest Muslim community. There is another even deeper and profound connection. In 1939, the linguist A. Jeffrey identified 200 words in the Qur’an that appear to be derived from Ge’ez. A contemporary Muslim scholar publishing the same assertion today would bring himself dangerously close to a charge of heresy, for it has become dangerous to analyse the Qu’ran in any manner that brings divine revelation down to the level of an ordinary literary text. However as both Ge’ez and the Qu’ran are sacred angel dictated languages the link may safely be considered to belong to the sphere of the divine.

Date posted: September 28, 2011

Copyright: Barnaby Rogerson. Published with the author’s permission.


Barnaby Rogerson

About the writer: Mr. Barnaby Rogerson was born in Dunfermline, Scotland. Travel was a vital aspect of a childhood, which followed in the wake of his father’s career in the Royal Navy. A degree in History at St Andrews University led to writing guidebooks to first Morocco, then Tunisia, Cyprus and Istanbul followed by a string of narrative histories. A History of North Africa was followed by The Prophet Muhammad, a biography, and then The Heirs of the Prophet, in which Rogerson transports the reader back to the 7th-century in  a gripping tale surrounding the division of Islam into Shia and Sunni factions. His latest work is The Last Crusaders, a story of the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Last Crusader Kings of Christendom.  Over the last fifteen years Barnaby has contributed travel articles, book reviews and historical essays on various North African and Islamic themes to several magazines and newspapers including  Conde Nast Traveller, Geographical, The Guardian, Independent, Vanity Fair, Harpers & Queen and the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). He has set up www.barnabyrogerson.com as a store house of travel stories and historical anecdotes brought back from numerous Middle Eastern and African countries. Mr. Rogerson also works at Eland Books, www.travelbooks.co.uk,  which is home to over a hundred different classic travel books.

Please also read the author’s A Christian Envoy at the Ghadir Khumm Campsite, contributed for this Website’s series I Wish I’d Been There.


1. Images shown within the body of the essay are from Wikipedia, and are not part of the original article.

2. Ge’ez is an ancient South Semitic language that developed in the northern region of Ethiopia and southern Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. It later became the official language of the Kingdom of Aksum and Ethiopian imperial court.


Share this article with others via the share option below. Please visit the Simerg Home page for links to articles posted most recently. For links to articles posted on this Web site since its launch in March 2009, please click What’s New. Sign-up for blog subscription at top right of this page.

We welcome feedback/letters from our readers. Please use the LEAVE A REPLY box which appears at the bottom of this page. Your feedback may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters.

One thought on ““Birds Began It All”

  1. Brilliant article! Thanks Simerg for this article by Barnaby Rogerson and the ones on Prophets Muhammad (s.a.s) and Jesus (a.s) by Michael Wolfe.

    Rashida Kanji,

    Toronto, Ontario

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s