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Richard A. Lobban
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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The history of Eritrea is deeply integrated with that of its neighbors Ethiopia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. The Semitic Habashat people probably reached the southwest side of the Red Sea or modern Eritrea as early as 1000 B.C.E. Eritrea has long known monotheism including Falasha Jews who arrived as early as the fourth century B.C.E. as diasporic refugees from the Babylonian dispersal. Likewise Monophysite Christians put their missionary roots into the Ethiopian highlands by the fourth century CE at Aksum. Thus, the Semitic roots of regional monotheism were founded in the Horn of Africa well before the time of Islam. At first Islam trickled across the Red Sea from Arabia with the arrival of ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān in 615CE, but Islam was largely confined to the coast. Islam entered Egypt in 638CE under ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀs and seeped southward on the Nile and Red Sea under the tenth century Fāṭimids, but did not penetrate Nubia or Ethiopia until the fourteenth century CE because of the Christian capitals at Dongola in Sudan and Aksum in Ethiopia.

Islam spread slowly by Muslim merchants and teachers. It took two more centuries to complete this process with the fall of the last Christian kingdom of Alwa in 1504. Then the Funj Sultanate at Sennar became the first Muslim state in the Sudan, neighboring Eritrea. The Funj attracted holy men from Arabia, Nubia, and Egypt to introduce Sunnī Islamic theology and religious practices, and Mālikī jurisprudence to the central Sudan that spread across the Eritrean border with the Beja, Beni-Amer, and Hadendowa people. While some of the earliest Muslims entered Eritrea from the maritime east, it was from the Funj that Islam took a deeper hold on western Eritrea.

This history accounts for the fact that the Eritrean population of today is about half Muslim and half Christian. However, in Massawa and along the eastern coastal panhandle among the Danakil people and in the western lowlands, Beja Muslims are the majority. Muslims are minorities in the Christian highlands of Āsmarā, Adi Ugri, and Adi Caieh. Non-Muslim, non-Christian populations such as the Kunama, Baria, and Shangalla are found southwest of Eritrea.

The Colonial Epochs.

The next major epoch in the arrival of Islam in Eritrea began with the 1517 arrival of the Ottoman Turks who were interested in regional maritime trade in ivory, gold, slaves, and incense. They failed to penetrate the Christian interior of Ethiopia, but could only establish a toehold on the coast at Massawa, Suakin, and in the Dahlak Archipelago which had long been ruled by Aksumites. It was a Somali Muslim, Aḥmad al-Gran ibn Ibrāhīm al-Ghāzī who launched warfare against his Christian Ethiopian rivals from about 1530 to 1542. He brought major numbers of converts to Islam. Only with a last ditch rescue by the Portuguese was his plan limited. The Turco-Egyptians ruled Sudan from 1821 to 1885 when their harsh and exploitative colonial administration was toppled by the Sudanese Mahdī in 1885. Nonetheless, these Muslim states added further recruits to Islam in the region exactly at a time that European powers were initiating the colonial partition of the African continent.

In response to Turkish imperial Islam, Eritreans and Sudanese experienced the growth of an epoch of militant Islam that percolated across the western and northern borders between Sudan and Eritrea. The Turkish soldiers and the Beja-related peoples had endless cross-border raids and attacks. Despite the defeat of King Theodore at Magdala in 1868 by the British, the Turks were defeated in 1875 at the battles of Gundet and Gura, thereby opening an opportunity for Italian colonial ambitions in the wake of the Berlin conference. Meanwhile, the Sudanese were pressing their own military and political gains with the defeat of the Turks in Khartoum in 1885 and the rise of the Sudanese Mahdī.

While the Mahdī soon died, Sudanese ambitions in Ethiopia were pursued in 1888, with the sack of Gondar and at the 1889 battle of Gallabat. Militant Islam was knocking at the western frontiers of Eritrea. Despite another Sudanese raid in 1892 and the endless tug of war on the western lowland over Kassala, Sabdarat, Agordat, and Tessenei, the Mahdist forces never made permanent gains and the Italians were also given a humiliating defeat at the 1896 battle of Adowa. As this colonial era concluded, the Italians had to content themselves with Eritrea; the British had destroyed the Mahdist state to resume their colonial ambitions in the Nile valley. Amidst this tumult, under the important influence of Aḥmad ibn Idrīs, various Muslim Ṣūfī sainthoods and mystical brotherhoods (turuq) such as the Sanūsīyah, Tijānīyah, Qādirīyah, and Khatmīyah (led by the Sharīfīyah Mīrghānī family), and later by the Sammānīyah Mahdist Anṣār, all deepened Islamic influences in eastern Sudan and western Eritrea, while the coastal populations steadily mixed Islam with their own folk traditions.

Under Italian colonialism from 1890 to 1941, the highly respected Ibrāhīm Mukhtār was appointed the first muftī (religious juridical leader) of Eritrea. He persisted through the fascist period (1936–1941). After being defeated by the British, the Italians were sent packing but British colonial thoughts were to partition Eritrea. The western Islamic parts would go to Sudan, the Christian center going to Ethiopia to give them access to the sea. No consultations with the resident populations were solicited, nor was this plan ever executed.

Independence Movements.

While the British did provide sovereignty for Eritrea, it was unilaterally abrogated by the Ethiopian king, and this provoked a resistance movement. In 1961 Ḥamīd Idrīs Awate (d. 1962), a Beni-Amer Muslim from Tessenei, started the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) as a separatist movement for independence from Ethiopia. While not focusing on Islam in particular, it was backed by secular Arab regimes especially Sudan and Syria. But when the 1967 Six-Day War unfolded, the Eritrean separatist movement took on a greater role in a wider struggle against the West and Israel. Increasingly the goals of Arabization and Islamization became telescoped in this struggle for Eritrea. Pressures mounted in Ethiopia, whose charismatic ruler Haile Sellasie (d. 1975) was toppled in 1974 amidst further bloodshed, revolution, and turmoil in Ethiopia. Thirty years later, in 1991, the independence of Eritrea was achieved. But the ELF had been eclipsed by the Eritrean Popular Liberation Front (EPLF) that was, in turn, transcended by the sole and militant secularist party of now President Isaias Afewerki of the Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). Afewerki complained that Sudan (under the National Islamic Front) was backing the Eritrean jihād forces, including a renewed ELF led by Abdullah Idrīs and the Eritrean Islamic Jihād Movement (or the Islamic Salvation Movement). Afewerki was also backing the Sudanese opposition forces of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Sudan Popular Liberation Army (SPLA) up until 2005. By 2006 these Sudano-Eritrean differences had largely been resolved out of mutual interests.

Modern Issues.

Recent issues in Eritrea have unfolded after the intense Eritrean-Ethiopian war 1998–1999 over the border town of Badime and the poorly observed cease-fires in 2000. Investigations in England of the 2005 subway attack in London by an al-Qaʿida faction have now alleged that Muktār Saʿīd Ibrāhīm from Eritrea is a member of the Eritrean Islamic Jihād and was involved. As of 2006, the United Nations said that Eritrea has violated the peace accord and in 2007, Eritrea is alleged to have sent supplies, arms, and troops to the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Somalia.

The United States, based in Djibouti and with an offshore naval presence, backed the Ethiopian incursion into Badioa and Mogadishu, against strong resistance. There are conflicting allegations and denials about U.S. and Eritrean military backing their respective proxy powers in Somalia. The United States believes that the ICU is in league with al-Qaʿida, while Eritrea contends that the Somali Transitional Federal Government is an agent of Ethiopia and the United States. Certainly, all parties in Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and the United States are deeply interested in the strategic outcome of events in Somalia. Eritrea and the ICU are hostile to the United States and Ethiopia, and the feeling is clearly mutual. In April 2007, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a Muslim group from greater Somalia, killed 9 Chinese and 65 Ethiopian oil workers at Abole. There is a possiblity that Eritrea and Ethiopia could even resume open warfare. This context of high political polarization certainly has its historical precedents, but so does the spirit of peaceful and syncretic Islam.

See also ETHIOPIA.


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  • Erlich, Haggai. The Struggle Over Eritrea, 1962–1978. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1983.
  • Humnasa, Gemeda. “Somalia: Eritrea Might Invade Ethiopia Again.”American Chronicle, April 19, 2007.
  • Lobban, Richard A.“Eritrean Liberation Front: A Close Up View.”Munger Africana Library Notes13.Pasadena, Calif.: California Institute of Technology. 1972.
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  • Reader, John. Africa: a Biography of the Continent. Vintage, 1999.
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