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October 6, 2020

Black History Month

This month we have put together a series of blogs, that will focus on and celebrate, the rich Islamic history and culture of some of the countries Islamic Relief works in.

In this blog, we will explore the history and culture of Ethiopia, Islamic Relief has been working in Ethiopia since 2000.


Established: 980 BC
Population: 109 million (2018)
Religion: Orthodox Christianity, Sunni Islam
Official Languages: Amharic

Islamic History

Ethiopia is an ancient country located in the horn of Africa, it is the only country on the continent not to have ever been colonised. The earliest mention of Islam in the country came during the first Hijra (migration). The first migration is a period in which early Muslims fled the persecution of the Quraysh tribe in the Arabian Peninsula into Abyssinia, modern-day Ethiopia, and Eritrea. The ruler of Abyssinia at the time, Amra Najashi, is credited with giving shelter to the early Muslims who had fled persecution. This gesture allowed the Muslims to practice their religion freely and peacefully in what was then called The Kingdom of Axum.

The oldest mosque in Africa Masjid As- Sahaba which translates to (Mosque of the companions) can be found in Massawa, modern-day Eritrea. The mosque is considered to be the second oldest mosque in the world after Masjid Quba. The mosque also features two mihrabs: one oriented to the north toward Mecca, and the other faced to the northwest toward Jerusalem. The Ka’bah in the holy city of Mecca is now used by millions of Muslims around the world as the qibla. This was ordained by God in several verses of the Qu’ran revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) in the second Hijri year. Prior to this revelation, the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) and his followers in Medina faced Jerusalem for prayers.

One of the most influential cities in Ethiopia is Harar, the city was founded over a thousand years ago. Initially part of the Coptic Christian Kingdom of Axum, the area gradually adopted Islam as the main religion. It is believed to be one of the first cities early Muslims migrated to after fleeing the Arabian Peninsula. Harar grew into a crossroads for commerce between Africa, India, and the Middle East and was a gateway for the spread of Islam into the Horn of Africa. It is a Muslim city buried deep in the largely Orthodox Christian highlands of Ethiopia.

The walled city has 110 mosques and 102 shrines in an area of about 0.48 square kilometers, the largest concentration of mosques per square km in the world, which makes it a truly unique city. Harar became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006. It is often referred to as the fourth-holiest Islam and known in Arabic as Madeenat-ul-Awliya (the City of Saints). One tradition that still continues to this day is the annual town painting which happens before the holy month of Ramadan, the locals gather to repaint the walls of the old town’s alleyways in vibrant colours.

Notable Islamic Figures

Bilal ibn Rabah

Bilal ibn Rabah was one of the most trusted and loyal Sahabah of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), he was an emancipated Abyssinian slave who became one of the closest and most trusted companions of the Prophet. Bilal is was the first muezzin (caller to prayer) in Islam, a call that is now herd five times a day in mosques around the world. During the time of the Prophet, he was appointed to the important position of the custodian of the treasury (bayt al-māl). He participated in most of the Prophet’s expeditions and battles and proved his dedication to the Islamic cause on numerous occasions. Following the death of the Prophet, he was among the most important partisans of ‘Alī b. Abī Tālib and supported his claims to the caliphate. He died in Syria around 640 and is buried in Damascus. 


An-Najashi was the leader of the Aksum Empire after Abraha, whose army had conquered Yemen and Oman to be later driven out of the Arabian Peninsula. Allah (SWT) makes reference to the defeat of Abraha’s army in Surah Al-Fil. An-Najashi as well as the men and women of the Aksum Empire were Christians at the time of the first revelation coming to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ).

When the early companions were being tortured in Makkah, the Prophet sent two different groups of Muslims to migrate to Abyssinia where they would find protection from the just An-Najashi. The Prophet (SAWS) had also written An-Najashi a letter telling him that he was a Messenger of Allah (SWT) and to treat his cousin Ja’far respectfully. An-Najashi later replied to the letter declaring his belief in Islam. He also sent gifts to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) along with the letter.

After the companions left Abyssinia for Al-Madinah, An-Najashi passed away. When the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) heard the news of his passing, he performed Janazah prayer in his absence.


Ethiopia – the second most populous country in Africa – is a one-party state with a planned economy. More than 70% of Ethiopia’s population is still employed in the agricultural sector, but services have surpassed agriculture as the principal source of GDP. Despite this, the east and north of the country are largely nomadic populations. Ethiopia is where coffee was first discovered – they say that in the 8th or 9th century a goat herder named Kaldi discovered coffee after noticing his goats getting very frisky from nibbling red berries off some wild shrubs. He chewed some himself and enjoyed the buzz. Next someone (possibly monks) tossed some coffee berries in a fire and loved the scent. Slowly coffee as we know it today began to be drunk. Arab traders took the beans home and by the 15th century, coffee had made its way to Europe, and cafe society was born. Coffee production in Ethiopia is a longstanding tradition that dates back dozens of centuries. Ethiopia is where Coffea arabica, the coffee plant, originates. The plant is now grown in various parts of the world; Ethiopia itself accounts for around 3% of the global coffee market. Coffee now accounts for about half of Ethiopia’s exports and employs about a quarter of the population, directly or indirectly.


The “coffee ceremony” is core to Ethiopian culture and hospitality, it is unclear how or when it originated, but the coffee ceremony is a strong cultural tradition throughout Ethiopia. Important events are opened with a coffee ceremony. As well, people traditionally gather together over coffee to just enjoy conversation on a regular basis. Cafes will have an ongoing ceremony where one can enjoy a small cup at any time.

Ethiopia’s cuisine is also very unique to the country, the main staple is called injera which is a sort of sourdough flatbread. Injera is not a dish itself, but the vehicle for almost every single meal in Ethiopia, The flatbread’s main ingredient is teff is an ancient grain that was first cultivated in Ethiopia, it’s incredibly high in protein, calcium, and iron and also naturally gluten-free. Injera is be eaten with meat stews, vegetables, and Zigni (a spicy curry).

Ethiopia is also one of the few countries in the continent that use their own ancient writing system known as the Ge’ez script and is believed to be among the oldest scripts in the world. The script is used for several languages of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. It originated as an abjad (consonant-only alphabet) and was first used to write Geʽez, now the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and Beta Israel, the Jewish community in Ethiopia. In Amharic and Tigrinya, the script is often called fidäl (ፊደል), meaning “script” or “letter.”

The Ethiopian capital hosts the headquarters of the African Union, this is largely due to the foresight of Ethiopia’s former leader Haile Selassie brought together African heads of state from around the continent. When the OAU had its first meeting of the in Addis Ababa in 1963 many African countries had recently become independent. Ethiopia being the only country on the continent to have never been colonised became somewhat of a leader. In fact, many other African countries used the same colours used in Ethiopia’s flag when they gained independence.

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