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And hold fast, all together, by the rope which God (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves. (Q003:103) The Believers are but a single Brotherhood: So make peace and reconciliation between your two (contending) brothers; and fear God, that ye may receive Mercy. (Q49:010)

THE LIFE AND CAREER OF SHAYKH TALHA B. JAFAR
(C. 1853-1936)
Hussien Ahmad

"He [Shaykh Talha] acquired the spirit of devotion and piety from his religious training, while his later militancy was a response to the hardship and persecution to which the Muslim community in Wallo was being subjected in the 1880s.

"The most notable consequence of his intensive training as a religious scholar and his most enduring legacy – was his effective use of Amharic in the teaching of the fundamentals of Islam and in the composition of several manuals on theology and other related fields."


[Introduction]

[…]

Islam in the nineteenth century Wallo was in a state of ferment. With or without the patronage of Muslim dynasty, it was reasserting itself after a long period of quiescence. The principal exponent of Islamic reform and revival were a number of militant scholars whose reputation for intellectual resourcefulness, piety and religious devotion went beyond the confines of their own localities. The earliest of these reforming pioneers was Shaykh Muhammad Shati b. Muhammad (fl. c. 1743 – 1806) of Albukko in Qallu […]. The second prominent figure in the revival of Islam in Wallo was al-Haj Bushra Ay Muhammad of Gata (d. 1863) (13) whose lifelong struggle against nominal Islam earned him widespread recognition as an uncompromising defender of Orthodoxy. (14)

The immediate predecessors and contemporaries of Shaykh Talha from whom he drew much inspiration included Shaykh Husayn Jibril (d. 1915) (15) of Warra Himano in whose poetry and claim to clairvoyance he found a weapon for waging a passive resistance to Yohannes’s policy of mass conversion of the Wallo Muslims, and Shaykh Ali Adam who fought some local detachments of Yahannes’s army in one of which he lost his life (16). Further afield, in northwestern Shawa and in Hadiya, Hasen Wadajo of Darra and Hasen Injamo of Qabbenna instigated in 1878 major revolts using Islam as a rallying point (17).

Family and Educational Back Ground

[…]

Oral informants and the editor of the published religious manual composed by Shaykh Talha believes that Talha was born at the village of Arera Fura in Argobba in eastern Qallu (22). He acquired the spirit of devotion and piety from his religious training, while his later militancy was a response to the hardship and persecution to which the Muslim community in Wallo was being subjected in the 1880s. There is a tradition that Aba Asiyya [his illustrious and saintly grandfather, Shaykh Yusuf Qanqe alias Aba Asiyya, d. 1835/36] made a prophecy about the birth of Talha and his struggle for the cause of Islam. The same tradition asserts that although Aba Asiyya had other sons older than Jafar, Talha’s father, he arranged for the marriage in order to fulfil the prophecy (23).

Shaykh Talha received his early Islamic education in various parts of Wallo (24). Although he is believed to have been taught by several clerics, only one is remembered by name: al-Haj Bashir of C’anno [ch'eno] who instructed him in Quran exegesis at the village of Arraf Lebbe (25).

The most notable consequence of his intensive training as a religious scholar and his most enduring legacy – was his effective use of Amharic in the teaching of the fundamentals of Islam (26) and in the composition of several manuals on theology and other related fields.

Shaykh Talha’s only published work, Tawhid enna Fiqh (Theology and Law), clearly reveals his ardent desire to disseminate the basic doctrines of Islam among ordinary Amharic-speaking Muslims through the medium of simple but coherent Amharic poetry […]. The Shaykh’s attempt at bridging the vast gulf between the scholarly erudition of the local ulama’a (28) and the apparently superficial knowledge that Muslim commoners had about their religion, constitutes a significant contribution to the cultivation and development of Islam (29).

The work – originally entitled Hadiyyat al-Subyan (Gift to the Youth) or Tuhfat al-Ikhwan (Gift to the Brethren) – is divided into various sections which include the “Six Pillars of Faith” (Arkan al-Iman), the “Five Pillars of Islam”, ritual cleanliness, the obligatory and voluntary prayers, alms-giving, fasting, pilgrimage and penitence. These topics are discussed in a dramatic and forceful manner. This handy and useful religious manual introduces the reader to Islam as an integral system of belief and practice in a way that a formal oral preaching in a mosque or instruction at school cannot. The description of doctrine and rituals is lucid and incisive (30).

A related contribution of Shaykh Talha, especially in the literary field, is his use of the Arabic script in writing of his works in Amharic. Such a literary genre is styled locally ‘Ajami (lit. = non-Arabic) and is widespread throughout Muslim Wallo (31). It is possible that such type of local literature flourished because of lack of access to Amharic writing literature and its identification with Christian culture (32).

Perhaps the most monumental of Talha’s work is the Prophet Muhammad’s [pbuh] biography in four volumes of manuscript. This work deals with the Prophet’s life and career until his death. It was written, as usual, in Amharic with Arabic characters, and in verse (33). A full-fledged Amharic transformation of the Quran is also attributed to Shaykh Talha (34).

[…]

Shaykh Talha’s strict adherence to the precept of Islamic orthodoxy is reflected both in his teachings and writings. An informant who knew him in C’arc’r [ch'erch'er] relates that one of the reasons why the Shaykh preferred to spend the rest of his life in eastern Ethiopia, among people who know little about him, was his indignation against his becoming an object of popular veneration while he was in Wallo, and the fear that after his death, his tomb would be turned into a shrine and a place of ritual sacrifice (37). The following couplets epitomize his condemnation of all manifestations of popular belief and transgression of the divine law:

Here, Shaykh Talha is denouncing the traditional practice of slaying animals during burial ceremonies or even in the name of the Prophets Isa and Muhammad [pbut], other than for the One God.

Shaykh Talha also urged those around him to relate to their children accounts the glory and life of the Prophet [pbuh] and his pious and heroic companions in order to instil in their minds a sense of confidence and pride in their faith, and to inculcate courage and perseverance (39).

The Period of Struggle

The most eventful period on the life and career of Shaykh Talha spans the reigns of Emperor Yohannes and Menilek II (r. 1889 - 1913). Following the Council of Boru Meda in May/June 1878, Yohannes sent in October Christian clerics and troops to implement the policy of conversion of the Wallo Muslims by compelling them to build churches, pay tithes to the Church (40) and quarter imperial troops. (41)

According to local and foreign sources, Shaykh Talha organized his first major revolt in mid-1884 (42). However, […], his reconciliation with Menilek took place after the Battle of Adwa (43), by which time Shaykh Talha had waged an armed struggle for seventeen years, on which there is consensus among all informants (44). Hence, his first rebellion can be dated between 1879 and 1880.

Shaykh Talha is believed to have escaped from the massacre of a large number of Muslims in the hands of the forces of Yohannes at Bakke in Qallu in 1298 A. H. /1880-81 A.D (45). These Muslims had preferred death to abjuration of their faith. Shaykh Talha then established his base in his home district of Argobba in eastern Qallu (46), from where he declared an all-out Jihad (47). That the Wallo Muslims revolted was neither an isolated phenomenon nor thte earliest uprising can be seen if one keeps in mind the fact that from April to June 1878, a revolt under the leadership of Hasan Wadajo was raging in Darra. Yohannes led an unsuccessful campaign against Hasen although he obtained considerable booty. In June 1878 Hasen succeeded in defeating the forces send by Yohannes and Menilek led, respectively, by Mika'el and Masasa (48).

The principal cause for the armed insurrections which engulfed eastern Wallo in the early 1880s were, firstly, the attempt of Yohannes and his vassals to impose the Christian faith on the Muslim population of Wallo, secondly, the heavy economic burden which local Muslims were made to bear by maintaining a Christian clerical, administrative and military class through their labour and tribute; and, thirdly, the severity and ruthlessness with which the policy of conversion was carried out - all of which sparked off a spontaneous and widespread popular revulsion and reaction. This was articulated and channelled into a religious-political opposition led by the local Muslim religious notables and political leaders. Islam was thus not merely a rallying point of such uprising; it was itself the motive force behind them.

The period from 1880-81 to 1884 was one of organisation of the movement led by Shaykh Talha and of recruitment of follower. In order to consolidate his power before proclaiming the 1884 revolt, Shaykh Talha employed three strategies: firstly, appealing to the religious sentiment of the ordinary people, mainly of eastern Qallu; secondly, established contact with disgruntled elements of the local aristocracy; and thirdly, mobilising support for his cause among the 'ulama'a and balabbat of Albukko, Qallu and Reqqe who are believed to have sworn oath of allegiance to him (49). It is perhaps after this development that he established his earliest relation with, and sought assistance from, the Mahadists (50), although his collusion with them came later. Shaykh Talha was able, through his organising skill and power of persuasion, to build a small but formidable striking force which operated in the lowlands of Qallu and Garfa. This prompted Yohannes and Menilek to launch an expedition from Tahuladare towards the frontier of Adal in March 1880 (51). A year later, another joint campaign was organised and led by the two potentates (52) to suppress a religiously inspired uprising. The revolts in Wallo continued throughout the next two years. According to Gabra Sellase, Menilek's chronicler:

"… since the Wallo Muslim had taken refuge in Qallu, Argobba and Garfa, they [Yohannes and Menilek] issued a proclamation of mobilization of the army for a campaign aimed at annihilating al the Muslims. On 19th Hedar [28 October, 1882], they left Boru Meda on an expedition to Argobba and Qallu and having destroyed the Muslims as far as Dawwe, they returned to Boru Meda on 19th Terr [26 January 1883]." (53)

This is confirmed by a local tradition: on 24 Muharram 1330 (5 December 1882), an expedition to south-eastern Qallu in order to put down a Muslim uprising led to the death of a number of 'ulema'a, including Shaykh Abboye, Shaykh Talha's paternal uncle (54).

Although the role of Shaykh Talha in these uprisings cannot be clearly established, he was certainly the leading figure in the revolt which broke out in Argobba in 1884. the chronicler relates that because the Argobba Muslims, under the leadership of Shaykh Talha - whom he disparagingly calls a fuqra (sorcerer) - had refused to pay tributes, Yohannes launched a campaign to, and ravaged, the area although the rebels could not be apprehended (55).

The early followers of Shaykh Talha, after the Bekke massacre, were the Muslim peasants and semi-nomads of the peripheral districts of eastern Wallo (56). Later on, he recruited the Rayya and Azabo. This occurred after his escape from a Christian punitive expedition which had inflicted a heavy defeat on the Muslim forces at Manakuse in Qallu in 1884 (57).

Both oral and written sources emphasize the diversity of the Shaykh's followers. They included people from Argobba, Callaqa, Gedem, and Ifat (58), the Danakil of Awsa and the Azebo Oromo (59).

[…]

A major revolt was proclaimed by Shaykh Talha in June 1884 (66). His base of military operation was Garfa from where he made known his intention of waging a Jihad against the Christian forces. In November, Menilek left Boru Meda on a punitive campaign but Talha fled to the lowlands. Menilek returned to his camp having ravaged Qallu, Garfa, and Warra Babbo. Although the uprising coincided with the absence of Ras Mika'el who had gone to the north to attend the signing of the Hewett Treaty at Adawa (67), Talha could not face Meniliek's superior force and risk defeat and capture. Such a recurrent retreat and elusiveness was characteristic of Talha's tactics throughout the period of his armed struggle.

The second major Muslim revolt in Wallo took place in November 1885 in which two representatives of the Warra Himano ruling class - Mastayat [Mestawot ?] and Abba Jabal - took part (68). It is most probable that Shaykh Talha was also an active leader of this revolt, although some writers say that he had fled to the Sudan in 1885 (69). The Italian commissioner at Assab for 1895/96, Giannini, wrote that when in late 1885 Yohannes ravaged Garfa and the surrounding districts in Awsa, Talha intercepted some columns and inflicted heavy losses on them (70), for which the Sultan of Awsa was grateful. Talha's response to the Yohannes-Menilek offensive was not always a retreat to the eastern lowlands. He also launched offensive operations by burning down churches which the local Muslims had been compelled to build and by harassing the Christian priests who had been sent to instruct the new converts (71). He led destructive raids against Yohannes's commanders of the local regiments. During one such raid he scored a decisive victory over the column led by a certain Bajarwand Nawte. The following poem portrays the outcome of the battle fought at Kilkillo in Dawway and highlights the role of Shaykh Talha:

 

So serious was the revolt of 1885/86 that both Yohannes and Menilek ravaged Reqqe, Argobba, and Garfa (73). The joint punitive campaign lasted three months until January (74) and was accompanied by unprecedented destruction of life and property (75).

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Prof. Hussein AhmedPh.D. (1985) in Islamic History, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, is Associate Professor at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. He has published numerous articles both on historical and contemporary Islam in Ethiopia including The Historiography of Islam in Ethiopia, (Journal of Islamic Studies, 3,1, (1992), Aksum in Muslim Historical Traditions, (Journal of Ethiopian Studies, XXIX,2, 1997), and Islamic Literature and Religious Revival in Ethiopia (1991-1994, (Islam et Sociétés au sud du Sahara, 12, 1998).

Source: Journal of Ethiopian Studies, vol. XXII, Novermber 1989

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