Ethiopia: Local Character of Belief and Practice

Posted: March 6, 2008 in History
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Local Character of Belief and Practice

Ethiopian Muslims are adherents of the dominant Sunni, or orthodox, branch of Islam. Shia are not represented in Ethiopia. The beliefs and practices of Ethiopian Muslims are embodied in a more or less integrated amalgam of three elements: the Islam of the Quran and the sharia, the worship of saints and the rituals and organization of religious orders, and the still-important remnant of pre-Islamic patterns. Islam in the traditional sense is dominant only on the Eritrean coast among Arab and Arab-influenced populations and in Harer and a few other towns.

In general, the most important practices of the Islamic faith, particularly regular prayer and fasting during the month of Ramadan, are observed in urban centers rather than in the smaller towns and villages and more among settled peoples than among nomads. Records of the pilgrimage to Mecca by Ethiopian Muslims are scarce.

Under Haile Selassie, Muslim communities could bring matters of personal and family law and inheritance before Islamic courts; many did so and probably continued to do so under the revolutionary regime. However, many Muslims dealt with such matters in terms of customary law. For example, the Somali and other pastoralists tended not to follow the requirement that daughters inherit half as much property as sons, particularly when livestock was at issue. In parts of Eritrea, the tendency to treat land as the corporate property of a descent group (lineage or clan) precluded following the Islamic principle of division of property among one’s heirs.

In Ethiopia’s Muslim communities, as in neighboring Sudan and Somalia, the faithful are associated with, but not necessarily members of, specific orders. Nevertheless, although formal and informal attachment to Sufi orders is widespread, the emphasis is less on contemplative and disciplined mysticism than on the powers of the founders and other leaders of local branches of the orders. Most believe that these persons possess extraordinary powers to intercede with God and have the ability to promote the fertility of women and cure illness. In many cases, these individuals are recognized as saints. People visit their tombs to pray for their help or their intercession with God.

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