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ISLAM IN WALLO (1850 - 1890):

Yohannes and Islam in Wallo

Prof. Hussein Ahmad **

"The Muslims of Wallo in particular posed not only an obstacle to the establishment of a religiously homogeneous society, but also a direct political problem since "… they constituted practically a foreign state in the midst of the Christian heartland ... not only were they actively engaged in the propagation of Islam but were also persecution and forcibly converting the local Christians"

"In the spring of 1881 both Yohannes and Menilek overrun Wallo. In November 1882 they left Boru Meda on a campaign against the Muslims of Qallu who had fled to the lowlands and, having marched as far as Dawway, they returned to base after two months, i.e., in early 1883. Many 'Ulama' of Dawway were killed in the course of the resistance against imperial campaign. Among them were Shaykh Abbuye, a son of Abba Assiyya, Shaykh Habib, Shaykh Muhammad Bashir and Shaykh Ahmad Din. All these prominent leaders of the local Muslim community died on 24 Muharram 1300 A.H./ 5 December 1882. In early 1886 about 20,000 men and women who had refused to renounce Islam were massacred on the plain of Bakke in Qallu ."

Yohannes IV inherited not only Tewodros's noble objective of national reunification and modernisation through a vigorous foreign policy, but also his commitment to reinforce imperial power with the support of a revival church, to weaken Islam, and to institute a religiously homogeneous society. Since he had fewer internal problems - although faced with threats and several campaigns of invasion by external powers - he carried through the anti-Muslim policy initiated by his predecessor through the wholesale baptism of the Wallo Muslims by official decree. Areas inhabited by those who refused conversion were devastated in the course of several campaigns launched particularly against Wallo and the adjacent regions.


In the discussion of Yohannes's policy towards Wallo, especially the religious aspect, our starting point is the Council of Boru Meda. (May/June 1878). Ostensibly convened by the emperor in order to re-establish orthodoxy, and publicly to expose and condemn the adherents of Christian heretical sects within the Church, the meeting concluded its deliberations by issuing a comprehensive edict which called for conformity to the officially-recognized doctrine and enjoined Ethiopian Muslims to embrace the Christian faith, because, as Bahru noted: "there was no room for Islam in his (Yohannes's) ideological world". [42]

The precise circumstances under which the injunction concerning the Muslims was introduced in the course of the discussions and debated at the synod, and the specific factors which actually prompted Yohannes to issue the proclamation, can not be established as the available sources simply mention it as part of the edict [43]. The wording of the injunction suggests that it had been thought-out well in advance. It contains an explicit reference to a historical fact: the devastation of Christian territory by the Muslim force of Imam Ahmad Gran, and an allegation: that he or his officers had forcibly converted the local Chrisitians to Islam. Hence, a spirit of Christian vengeance can be seen lurking behind the conception of the edict [44]. It also contains a promise to honour the life and property of those who scrupulously met the obligation imposed by the new decree. The edict further enjoined the recalcitrant to leave the land since "Muslims have no country"[45].

According to Ethiopian scholar, the Muslims of Wallo in particular posed not only an obstacle to the establishment of a religiously homogeneous society, but also a direct political problem since "… they constituted practically a foreign state in the midst of the Christian heartland" [46]. He added that not only were they actively engaged in the propagation of Islam but were also persecution and forcibly converting the local Christians [47]. He also made a number of hardly substantiable assertions about indigenous Islam, and offered what can only be described as rationalizations about Yohannes's action. Firstly, "The [Muslim] leaders [of Wallo] who remained, even if they were nominal Christians, were no longer subject to the dictates of the Caliphate"[48]. Secondly, he states: "Although Yohannes's aim was to halt the spread of Islam, he never sought to eradicate it from the Empire" [49]. Thirdly, he concludes: "While these measures [the obligation imposed on the Wallo Muslims to build churches and pay tithes to priests] were strict, they were seldom harsh and never fanatical" [50].

There are four points in Zewde's interpretation which require critical examination because they were advanced to justify Yohannes's policy rather than to present a balanced assessment of the situation. Firstly, the contention that the Muslims of Wallo represented a "foreign state". There is no denying the fact that, […] there were hereditary dynasty centred in Warra Himano whose rulers had assumed the title of imam, and there were also other local Muslim power bases in the region. However, they were not the only ones in existence at the time. There were infact other provincial entities which were far more threatening to the position of Yohannes such as Shawa under Menilek and Gojjam under Takla Haymanot (d. 1910) [51].

Secondly, the notion that the Wallo dynasts had been the vassals of the Caliphate does not have a shred of evidence to support it. Thirdly, as Caulk rightly observed, to the Muslim communities of Wallo who were the victims of Yohannes's policy of religious coercion, it made no difference whether the measures taken were intended to stop the further expansion of Islam or to wipe it out completely, or to facilitate the process of reunification of the country on the basis of a single state religion. The fact remains that they were subjected to arbitrary and humiliating laws and suffered loss of lives and property. Fourthly, the assertion that the measures were not harsh, although strictly enforced, is absurd; both oral traditions and the contemporary written sources clearly show that the Wallo country was ruthlessly devastated and terrorized, and its communities dispersed, as a result of the continuous punitive campaigns undertaken by the emperor and his vassals to implement the edict [52].

Zewde also wrote that since the people inhabiting the peripheral areas had questionable loyalty to the empire, Yohannes was severe towards them [53]. But Wallo, as he himself recognized, occupied a strategic position between the north and west, and the south [54], and although eastern Wallo could well be considered a peripheral region, there was no external threat from that sector. Finally, it would be misleading to suggest that the Wallo Muslims constituted "groups that were contributing to the division of the country and to bargain with foreigners who sought to expropriate parts of the country"[55]. The overwhelming evidence, in fact, points to the hereditary Christian governors on the north flank of Yohannes's realm who were more susceptible to foreign subversion, and actually served the interest of external Muslim powers, such as Egypt [56], than to the Muslim rulers of Wallo, which was geographically far removed from the northern theatre of war with those expansionist foreign powers.

If an unconfirmed report that, on the eve of the Egyptian invasion of 1875, a certain Shaykh Ali had been sent by one Imam Ahmad of Yejju, seeking an alliance with Egypt in order to free himself from Yohannes's domination [57], can be confirmed, it would not be a unique case: Christian rulers such as Wag Shum Kabbada and Ras Waranna alias Walda Sellase of Gondar also did precisely that [58]. Zewde also refers to Mastawot's seeking Egyptian/ Ottoman help against the Shawan threat [59], but that cannot be used to substantiate her alleged lack of patriotism in the face of an external menace. Furthermore, in order to refute the apparently harsh criticism of Yohannes's severity towards the Muslims, made by Cardinal Massaja, head of the Catholic mission in southern Ethiopia, Zewde argues that the missionary's emphasis on the political motives of the emperor's policy was unjustified [60], though Zewde himself had written earlier: "There was a strong political motivation behind Yohannes's religious fervour"[61].

One of the most enigmatic aspects about the motives for Yohannes's coercive measures is the existence of conflicting traditions about the immediate internal factors which prompted him to take those Christian immigrants in Dalanta who resided in Tahuladare had appealed to Yohannes to convert the Muslims who had allegedly mistreated them [62], cannot be taken at its face value. It is unlikely that the emperor would have been so sensitive to the complains of a few Christian families as to formulate and implement a major imperial policy affecting his Muslim subjects. What is more substantiable, though equally intriguing, is the contradictory stand by Yohannes himself as articulated in his official correspondence [63].

In a letter of 1879 addressed to Queen Victoria, he said that he had been approached and entreated by the Muslims of his country to receive baptism, and disclaimed the use of force in enforcing his decree [64]. On the other hand, he suspected his Muslim subject of sharing a common interest with external Muslims [65]. In a subsequent letter to Achille Raffray, the French vice-consul, he spoke of the Wallo as "… des sauvages don't je voulais faire des chretiens …"[66]. In challenging a widely-held view that Yohannes's measures were induced by the danger posed by the renewed aggression of an external Muslim power, Egypt [67], Caulk argued that since the threat had been eliminated through the decisive victories of Yohannes over the Egyptians in 1875 and 1876, one had to look for an internal cause instead: the political necessity of strengthening unification through religious conformity [68]. He pointed out that even before the Egyptian invasion, Yohannes had encouraged political subjugation and evangelization [69]. Nor was he the only one in this respect: Menilek had tried from 1868 to 1876 to establish his suzerainty over Wallo through religious coercion [70]. In September 1876 the Shawan king, having received the submission of the Wallo chiefs at Warra Ilu, spoke these ominous words:

Since (alghough) the people of Wallo are now Muslims, they will become our brothers [in faith] if possible, within a year, if not, in two year, through baptism or communion … I have come not to plunder and destroy the Wallo people, but to treat them with respect and affection, and to teach them, so that they will delight in the joys of this world and enter, by the Grace of Christ, the Kingdom of God" [71].

The second important event after the conclusion of the religious council of Boru Meda was the conversion of the two erstwhile rivals of the Mammadoch dynasty: Muhammad Ali [72] and Amade Liban (Abba Wataw). The former took the baptismal name, Mikael, with Yohannes as his godfather. He was also given the title of ras and the governorship of a substantial part of the central highlands of Wallo, including Warra Himano [73]. Menilek had Abba Wataw converted; he become Hayla Maryam and was appointed as a dajjazmach to rule over Tehuladare, Qallu, Garfa, Albukko and Borana. Elsewhere in Wallo, for example, in Reqqe, Muhammad Qanqe had also reportedly become Christian. So did the ruler of Garfa who took the Christian name of Hayla Mikeal with the title of dajjazmach [74].

This event marked a turning-point in the long history of Wallo resistance against the imperial policy of subjugation which had been led by the hereditary chiefs of the region. From the time of the conversion of the two principal representatives of the Warra Himano ruling family, the opposition was to be primarily led by Muslim militant clerics [75]. As Caulk aptly put it: "The most important aspect of conversion may have been the way it re-inforced the dependency of Mikael and other governors on the Emperor and Menilek through creating filial ties of baptism [76].

Yohannes's earliest campaign to Wallo in order to implement the new edict was in A.H. 1295-96/1878-79 A.d., according to local sources. In that year, in collaboration with Ras Mikael, Yohannes ravaged Yejju and Rayya, and many 'Ulama' and jurists who refused to convert were either killed or had to flee to save their lives. Among those who were forced to leave their home was the celebrated cleric from Anna, Rayya, Faqih Jamal al-Din Muhammad, who died at Korame in Yejju in 1882 [77]. According to an informant, an Ethiopian Muslim named Muhammad Jabril fled to the Sudan and paid his allegiance to Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi. The former advanced in the direction of Kasala and began to call the Christians of the contiguous Ethiopian territories to convert. That is why Yohannes's measure, especially against the Wallo Muslims, grew in intensity after 1885 [78].

Elsewhere in northern Ethiopia, many of the Muslim inhabitants of Gondar, who were compelled to renounce their faith, fled towards Qallabat in the Sudan. They included both clerics and traders [79]. An Ethiopian writer has asserted that those Muslims who had resisted forced conversion, and had consequently been persecuted, fled to the Sudan and other neighbouring countries from where they attempted to incite "enemies" against Yohannes [80].

In A.H. 1298-99/1880-81 A.D. Yohannes ravaged Yejju and Gafra, in Warra Babbo, and marched towards Qallu [81], where his troops committed more atrocities than any other place. The main reason for this severity was that Qallu was renowned as an active centre of Islamic learning and propagation, and as the home of famous Muslim scholars [82]. In 1880 Yohannes founded new churches and ordered the mass baptism of the Wallo and Yejju Muslims [83]. He also instructed his vassals, Ras Adal/Takla Haymanot of Gojjam and Negus Menilek of Shawa, to implement the edict in their respective territories. The latter had Islamic books gathered from all over Shawa and burnt [84]. In the spring of 1881 both Yohannes and Menilek overrun Wallo [85]. In November 1882 they left Boru Meda on a campaign against the Muslims of Qallu who had fled to the lowlands and, having marched as far as Dawway, they returned to base after two months, i.e., in early 1883 [86]. Many 'Ulama' of Dawway were killed in the course of the resistance against imperial campaign. Among them were Shaykh Abbuye, a son of Abba Assiyya, Shaykh Habib, Shaykh Muhammad Bashir and Shaykh Ahmad Din. All these prominent leaders of the local Muslim community died on 24 Muharram 1300 A.H./ 5 December 1882 [87]. In early 1886 about 20,000 men and women who had refused to renounce Islam were massacred on the plain of Bakke in Qallu [88].


The Resistence of the Militant Muslim Clerics

42. Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855 - 1974 (London/Athens/Addis Ababa, 1991), p. 48.

43. Mondon 74, f. 58a.

44. Shaykh Ali also alluded to this factor. See Caulk, op. cit., p. 26, citing a Shawan catholic convert. See Also PRO, FO 1/27B, f. 8: Yohannes to Victoria, Adwa, 10 August 1872.

45. Mondon 74, loc. Cit. Oral traditions have preserved a contemporary saying: "The country of Muslims is Mecca and the house of birds is the oak-tree": informant: Shaykh Muhammad Taj al-Din and others.

46. Zewde, Yohannes IV, pp. 96, 100.

47. Ibid., p. 96.

48. Ibid., p. 97.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid.

51. Ibid., p. 256.

52. Caulk, "Religion and the State," p. 40

53. Zewde, op. cit., pp 94, 98.

54. Ibid., pp. 96, 100

55. Ibid., p. 99

56. Ibid., pp. 40-41, 49, 60, 66-67, 69, 77; Rubenson, Survival, pp. 326-27, 330-31.

57. Zewde, op. cit., p. 66.

58. Ibid.

59. Ibid., p. 85.

60. Ibid., p. 99.

61. Ibid., p. 94.

62. Fekadu, "A Tentative History," p. 42. Also mentioned in Caulk, "Religion and the State," p. 27.

63. It is interesting to note that in one of the published chronicles of Yohannes, there is no reference to the 1878 edict: Bairu Rafla (ed.), A Chronicle of Emperor Yohannes IV (1871 - 89) (Áthiopistische Forschungen 1) (Weisbanden, 1977), p. 151, n. 250; in M. Chaine's "Histoire du regne de Johannes IV roi d'Ethiopie (1868 - 1889)," Revue Sémitque (1913), pp. 178 - 91, the date for the council is wrongly given as 1889-90. See also Paul Verghese, "The Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church" in Arberry (ed.), op. cit., I, p. 469, where the year of the edict is incorrectly given as 1880.

64. The latter is quoted in Caulk, loc. cit. A similar letter to the German emperor, Wilhelm I, is quoted in Bairu Rafla, Ethiopia and Germany: Cultural, Political and Economic Relations, 1871 - 1936 (Äthiopistische Forschungen 5) (Weisbanden, 1981), p. 190 (text), p. 191 (trans.). For the Amharic text and English translation of both letters, see Sven Rubenson (ed.), Internal Rivalries and Foreign Threats, pp. 332-335.

65. Caulk, op. cit., p. 30

66. Cited in Gabriel Simon, Voyage en Abyssinie et cheze les Gallas-Raias, L'Ethiopie, ses moeurs, ses traditions, le negous Iohaanes, les églises monolithes de Lalibela (Paris, 1885), p. 194.

67. This is similar to Tewodros's fear of an alliance between Muslims in Wallo and Egypt which influenced his policy towards the region: Crummey, "Violence of Tewodros," p. 74

68. Caulk, op. cit., pp. 30-33.

69. Ibid., p. 31

70. Ibid. Cf. G.N. Sanderson, "The Nile Basin and the Eastern Horn, 1870-1908" in Roland Oliver and G.N. Sanderson (eds.), Cambridge History of Africa, vol. 6 (Cambridge, 1985), p. 647.

71. Mondon 74, f. 38a-b.

72. According to Shaykh Muhammad Nur, Muhammad Ali had received Islamic education up to and including the commentary of the Quran. Most sources - both written and oral - are unanimous on the political motive for his conversion, contrary to Marcus's assertion: "Having concluded that Wallo was worth a mass, Muhammad Ali led his people to Christianity": Harold G. Marcus, The life and time of Menilek II: Ethiopia 1844-1913 (Oxford, 1975), p. 58.

73. Fekadu, op. cit., p. 43

74. Caulk, op. cit., p. 32, citing Antonelli, the Italian envoy to the Shawan court.

75. Caulk, loc. cit.

77. Informant: Shaykh Muhammad Taj al-Din and Muzaffar.

78. Informant: Shaykh Muhammad Taj al-Din. Citing and account by an Egyptian official in the Sudan, Zewde, Yohannes IV, p. 195, n. 1, also refers to Muhammad Jibril from the "Galla terrirory" and to his visit of the Mahdi shortly before the latter's death in 1885. Yohannes's severity towards the Wallo Muslims is similar to that of Tewodros: Crummey, "Violence of Tewodros,"p. 68.

79. Informant: Shaykh Muhammad Taj al-Din. See also Abdussamad H. Ahmad, "The Godar Muslim Minority in Ethiopia: The story up to 1965," Journal [of the] Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs, 9, 1 (1988), p. 79.

80. Takla Sadiq Makuriya, History of Ethiopia from Ase Tewodros to Hayle Sellase I (in Amharic) (Addis Ababa, 1948/49), p. 51.

81. Chaine, op. cit., p. 186 (trans.), p. 187 (text) ; Mondon 74, f. 63a ; Caulk, op. cit., p. 29 ; Fekadu, op. cit., p. 45.

82. Informant: Shaykh Muhammad Taj al-Din

83. Caulk, loc. cit.

84. Ibid., p. 23.

85. Ibid., p. 30.

86. Mondon 74, f. 78b.

87. Informant: Shaykh Muhammad Taj al-Din

88. Idem.; Carlo Conti Rossini, Italia ed Etiopia dal trattato d'Ucciali alla Battaglia di Adua (Roma, 19350, p. 468; Fekadu, op. cit., p. 47.

Revival, Reform and Reaction
by Hussein Ahmed - Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2001, (Social, economic and political studies of the Middel East & Asia; Vol 74).
ISBN 90-04-11909-4

* This material is published with a written permisson from the publisher. It is thus still under the copyright protection of Brill Academic Publishers.

** Prof. Hussein Ahmed, Ph.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).

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