Growth of Regional Muslim States

Ethiopia Table of Contents

Beginning in the thirteenth century, one of the chief problems confronting the Christian kingdom, then ruled by the Amhara, was the threat of Muslim encirclement. By that time, a variety of peoples east and south of the highlands had embraced Islam, and some had established powerful sultanates (or shaykhdoms). One of these was the sultanate of Ifat in the northeastern Shewan foothills, and another was centered in the Islamic city of Harer farther east. In the lowlands along the Red Sea were two other important Muslim peoples--the Afar and the Somali. As mentioned previously, Ifat posed a major threat to the Christian kingdom, but it was finally defeated by Amda Siyon in the mid-fourteenth century after a protracted struggle. During this conflict, Ifat was supported by other sultanates and by Muslim pastoralists, but for the most part, the Islamicized peoples inhabited small, independent states and were divided by differences in language and culture. Many of them spoke Cushitic languages, unlike the Semitic speakers of Harer. Some were sedentary cultivators and traders, while others were pastoralists. Consequently, unity beyond a single campaign or even the coordination of military activities was difficult to sustain.

Their tendency toward disunity notwithstanding, the Muslim forces continued to pose intermittent threats to the Christian kingdom. By the late fourteenth century, descendants of the ruling family of Ifat had moved east to the area around Harer and had reinvigorated the old Muslim sultanate of Adal, which became the most powerful Muslim entity in the Horn of Africa. Adal came to control the important trading routes from the highlands to the port of Zeila, thus posing a threat to Ethiopia's commerce and, when able, to christian control of the highlands.

Although the Christian state was unable to impose its rule over the Muslim states to the east, it was strong enough to resist Muslim incursions through the fourteenth century and most of the fifteenth. As the long reign of Zara Yakob came to an end, however, the kingdom again experienced succession problems. It was the monarchs' practice to marry several wives, and each sought to forward the cause of her sons in the struggle for the throne. In those cases where the sons of the deceased king were too young to take office, there could also be conflict within the council of advisers at court. In a polity that had been held together primarily by a strong warrior king, one or more generations of dynastic conflict could lead to serious internal and external problems. Only the persistence of internal conflicts among Muslims generally and within the sultanate of Adal in particular prevented a Muslim onslaught. Through the first quarter of the sixteenth century, relations between Christian and Muslim powers took the form of raids and counterraids. Each side sought to claim as many slaves and as much booty as possible, but neither side attempted to bring the other firmly under its rule.

By the second decade of the sixteenth century, however, a young soldier in the Adali army, Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al Ghazi, had begun to acquire a strong following by virtue of his military successes and in time became the de facto leader of Adal. Concurrently, he acquired the status of a religious leader. Ahmad, who came to be called Grań (the "Lefthanded") by his Christian enemies, rallied the ethnically diverse Muslims, including many Afar and Somali, in a jihad intended to break Christian power. In 1525 Grań led his first expedition against a Christian army and over the next two or three years continued to attack Ethiopian territory, burning churches, taking prisoners, and collecting booty. At the Battle of Shimbra Kure in 1529, according to historian Taddesse Tamrat, "Imam Ahmad broke the backbone of Christian resistance against his offensives." The emperor, Lebna Dengel (reigned 1508-40), was unable to organize an effective defense, and in the early 1530s Grań's armies penetrated the heartland of the Ethiopian state--northern Shewa, Amhara, and Tigray, devastating the countryside and thereafter putting much of what had been the Christian kingdom under the rule of Muslim governors.

It was not until 1543 that the emperor Galawdewos (reigned 1540-49), joining with a small number of Portuguese soldiers requested earlier by Lebna Dengel, defeated the Muslim forces and killed Grań. The death of the charismatic Grań destroyed the unity of the Muslim forces that had been created by their leader's successes, skill, and reputation as a warrior and religious figure. Christian armies slowly pushed the Muslims back and regained control of the highlands. Ethiopians had suffered extraordinary material and moral losses during the struggle against Grań, and it would be decades or even centuries before they would recover fully. The memory of the bitter war against Grań remains vivid even today.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress