Islam and Christianity in the Horn of Africa

The title of this blog entry is inspired by a book we recently read: “Islam and Christianity in the Horn of Africa” by Haggai Erlich.

This book expanded the horizons of one of the case studies we dealt with in our exhibition at the Benaki Museum, namely from the relations between Christianity and Islam in the context of Medieval Nubia and modern Sudan to the level of international agendas between the various states in the entire Horn of Africa. Geographically, this region includes the states of Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti. However, Sudan has been often examined as part of the (Greater) Horn of Africa, and this is the case with the present book too.

Another book dealing with Sudan as part of the Horn of Africa is the Greek publication by Georgoulis and Chouliaras, States and Ethnicities in the Horn of Africa (Athens 1995).

For the Greeks in general, Sudan is so closely linked with the rest of the Horn of Africa that the Ambassador in Khartoum is also responsible for representing Greece in the state of Somalia! Although this is far from practical and efficient, it does offer a perspective for study and explains the introductory statements of Georgoulis & Chouliaras: The Horn of Africa does not seem to be a coherent case study due to the diversity of the states and ethnicities involved. However, it is worth examining from closer because the five states of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan, and Somalia are interdependent; because they have similar grave problems, first and foremost of which is the masses of immigrants and refugees; and because the diversity of this section of Africa is like a micrography of the continent and helps extract useful conclusions for the entire African world. (pp. 15-16)

Erlich follows a more problem-focused approach to the region and its characteristics.

He is primarily a specialist on Ethiopia, but has shown a keen interest in studying/analyzing the relations between that land and the rest of Africa as well as the Middle East. This interest explains the inclusion of Sudan in the states under examination in this latest of his writings; for he structures his analyses focusing on the pivotal role of Ethiopia in the region, to which he compares/contrasts the other states. This method is applied through the filter of religious experience in a historical perspective.

Erlich states in page 1 of the book: The dialectics between the mutual historical concepts and images of local Christians and Muslims and the relevance of these to the modern history of relations between Somalis, Ethiopian, and Sudanese are the subject of this book.

In order to achieve this task, he brings forward an interesting dipole: Ethiopia was the land that saw the first pilgrimage by the followers of the Prophet Muhammad who were granted hospitality by the Ethiopian king, the najashi, who legendarily adhered also to Islam. But since the Ethiopians chose to “return” to Christianity, they were the first to commit the sin of “apostasy” (irtad or irtitad or ridda). The Muslim states surrounding Ethiopia had to balance between these two ends, alias to use them for the maximum benefit in ensuing historical circumstances, and this is nowhere else better exemplified than in the diplomatic correspondence, where the title of najashi is never again used by either Sudanese or Somalis! Of course, Ethiopia also followed variable paths in its history, like the epidermic rejection of all things religious during the Mengistu regime, and is still “struggling” to balance with an ever-increasing pressure from the Muslim populations in the South, the political chaos in Somalia, and the perennial threat of droughts and famine, as has also been the case in 2011.

Although the modern history of Sudan is finely fitting in this pattern of approach to the realities of the Horn of Africa, its history is a bit more complicated and its regions very variable. Since the 9th of July, Sudan is split up in two countries, and one of the main characteristics of South Sudan is its adherence to Christianity (as well as animistic religions). Thus, according to the analysis by Erlich it has been used by the Ethiopians as a point of intrusion of their “Christian” policy in “Islamic” Sudan.

On the same token, in (North) Sudan there are regions that do not necessarily adhere to the form of Islamic extremism that has formed the political agendas of the Khartoum governments. Nubians are a good example thereof and this is surely also linked with their strong links to a past that includes the Medieval period, when the people of the Middle Nile Valley were Christian.

We believe that Erlich misses this point in his book and despite the brilliant filter that he uses for his analysis, he fails to incorporate the criteria of the traditional local communities in his discussion. It seems that he is overtaken by the “large picture” and to us it is tempting to link this tendency with perspectives introduced upon the history of the region by others before him, like Martha and Paul Henze (a CIA and National Security Council specialist, who became famous for his provocative book about the Soviet Union’s role in the attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II). Erlich’s book is dedicated to that couple.

The couple of Sudan and Ethiopia, though, is nowadays finding new forms of coexistence and dialogue and despite the dangers that are there in plans about dam building on the Blue Nile, it is strongly welcome what we read about Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt having agreed to a tripartite committee to discuss such issues, something that the Nile Basin Initiative must have had a strong impact and influence on.

Closing this entry and along with it a whole year that the Medieval Sai Project is hosted by wordpress, we wish to remind of the more “sufi” approach to the balance of religions in the Middle Nile Valley as was actually “proposed” in our exhibition “From Nubia to Sudan through the eyes of the Greek-Norwegian Archaeological Mission” and as can be repeated from here as a wish for a Happy New Year 2012:

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