Tigray in History: A Pioneer of Religious Coexistence

Tigray in History: A Pioneer of Religious Coexistence

Like many parts of Africa, Tigray is far from a religious monolith. Despite the historical identification of Ethiopia with Orthodox Christianity, the presence of Islam in Ethiopia is as old as the religion itself. The most recent Ethiopian census, collected in 2007, estimates that Muslims make up 34% of the rapidly growing national population. Although the percentage of Muslims in Tigray is only 5 to 10%, it has historically been Islam’s doorway to the region and to Africa at large.

Islam first arrived in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray in 615 A.D. This occured w hen the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his followers were unwelcome in their homeland around Mecca, so the Prophet advised his followers to migrate across the Red Sea to the Axumite Empire (present-day Tigray and Eritrea), where a “righteous Christian king,” Nejashi, would offer much needed protection. In Islamic history, this event is known as the First Hijrah, or first migration.

In this history, it is said that the Sahaba and Nejashi developed a profound relationship based on mutual religious acceptance. When the King asked the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Ja’far, for any revelation that the prophet had from God, he recited a verse in the Quran relating to Mary and the story of Jesus. After hearing this verse, King Nejashi vowed that Muslims would be able to seek refuge in Axum for as long as needed and with the freedom to practice their faith peacefully. When the rulers of Mecca attempted to bribe King Nejashi with lavish gifts and delegates in exchange for the expulsion and return of the Muslims, the King once more declared that, “even if you have given a mountain of gold, I would not give up these people who have taken asylum with me.”

The King’s commitment to protecting the Muslims in a time when the powerful groups of Arabia were determined to continue campaigns of oppression against them earned him distinction and respect among the Muslims of his time. Upon Nejashi’s death, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Sahaba collectively mourned his death. It is widely acknowledged that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) led his followers in a janazah (funeral) prayer in Mecca, despite this typically being reserved for Muslims and rarely occurring in the absence of the deceased.

The respect and distinction extended to Nejashi in Islam is also extended to the land he ruled over, the Axumite Kingdom , as it was the site of the first recorded example of peaceful religious co-existence in Muslim history. To this day, the region is regarded as a symbol of peace and reverence in Islamic history. Because of ancient Axumites’ unique religious tolerance, Tigray is home to one of the first mosques in the world, amply named Al-Nejashi Mosque, holding revered significance to the people of East Africa and Muslims across the globe. 

Tragically, within the first two months of the war on Tigray, the historic mosque was struck by heavy artillery and later looted by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, shattering long-held norms protecting religious sites in times of war. The military attack left the mosque’s dome and minaret, as well as the tombs of 15 companions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) damaged. Several historical artifacts are believed to have been stolen, including 13th century manuscripts, as well as books and letters dating as far back as the 7th century. Eighty Tigrayans, of Muslim and Christian faith, were killed while protecting the sacred site from invading forces. The atrocities currently being committed against the people of Tigray, as well as the campaigns to destroy heritage sites and places of worship (that are dear to all Ethiopian Muslims) are hallmarks of genocide.

“Eighty Tigrayans, of Muslim and Christian faith, were killed while protecting the sacred site from invading forces.” #TigrayGenocide

After this unprecedented attack on the mosque, Hajj Siraj Mohammed, the manager of Al Nejashi Mosque commented that, “Not only us, but Muslims all over the world are shocked that this happened.” Throughout time and history, Muslim and Christian Tigrayans have lived together, celebrating a shared Axumite history representing peace, refuge, and religious tolerance.

It is time that we recognize the extent of the damage of the genocidal war in Tigray. Far more than just physical destruction, it has destroyed a vital symbol of both Tigrayan and Islamic history, with complete disregard for the traditions and heritage of Muslims in Tigray.

At this stage, urgent action is needed. The international community must demand an immediate end to all hostilities, including the withdrawal of any remaining invading forces in Tigray, to ensure the safety of all sacred sites, places of worship, and integrity of our shared history. A ceasefire is not enough to repair the damage caused by a genocidal war; these are merely first steps. We must continue to advocate for lasting peace and justice, beginning with:

  • The immediate cessation of all hostilities and attacks;
  • The immediate, verifiable withdrawal of not only federal Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, but also all other invading forces from pre-war Tigray territories;
  • The return of stolen sacred artifacts;
  • Official recognition of the genocide committed against Tigrayans by Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces;
  • UN-led, independent and impartial investigations on all crimes and atrocities committed against Tigrayans in the region and across the country;
  • Unfettered access of humanitarian aid into all areas of Tigray; and
  • An all-inclusive national dialogue with all stakeholders across Ethiopia, including the democratically elected Tigrayan government. 

Omna Tigray Contributor, July 2021