Ethiopia and the Early Islamic Period

Ethiopia Table of Contents

The rise of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula had a significant impact on Aksum during the seventh and eighth centuries. By the time of the Prophet Muhammad's death (A.D. 632), the Arabian Peninsula, and thus the entire opposite shore of the Red Sea, had come under the influence of the new religion. The steady advance of the faith of Muhammad through the next century resulted in Islamic conquest of all of the former Sassanian Empire and most of the former Byzantine dominions.

Despite the spread of Islam by conquest elsewhere, the Islamic state's relations with Aksum were not hostile at first. According to Islamic tradition, some members of Muhammad's family and some of his early converts had taken refuge with the Aksumites during the troubled years preceding the Prophet's rise to power, and Aksum was exempted from the jihad, or holy war, as a result. The Arabs also considered the Aksumite state to be on a par with the Islamic state, the Byzantine Empire, and China as one of the world's greatest kingdoms. Commerce between Aksum and at least some ports on the Red Sea continued, albeit on an increasingly reduced scale.

Problems between Aksum and the new Arab power, however, soon developed. The establishment of Islam in Egypt and the Levant greatly reduced Aksum's relations with the major Christian power, the Byzantine Empire. Although contact with individual Christian churches in Egypt and other lands continued, the Muslim conquests hastened the isolation of the church in Aksum. Limited communication continued, the most significant being with the Coptic Church in Egypt, which supplied a patriarch to the Aksumites, but such contacts were insufficient to counter an ever-growing ecclesiastical isolation. Perhaps more important, Islamic expansion threatened Aksum's maritime contacts, already under siege by Sassanian Persians. Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade, formerly dominated by the Byzantine Empire, Aksum, and Persia, gradually came under the control of Muslim Arabs, who also propagated their faith through commercial activities and other contacts.

Aksum lost its maritime trade routes during and after the mid-seventh century, by which time relations with the Arabs had deteriorated to the point that Aksumite and Muslim fleets raided and skirmished in the Red Sea. This situation led eventually to the Arab occupation of the Dahlak Islands, probably in the early eighth century and, it appears, to an attack on Adulis and the Aksumite fleet. Later, Muslims occupied Sawakin and converted the Beja people of that region to Islam.

By the middle of the ninth century, Islam had spread to the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden and the coast of East Africa, and the foundations were laid for the later extensive conversions of the local populace to Islam in these and adjacent regions. East of the central highlands, a Muslim sultanate, Ifat, was established by the beginning of the twelfth century, and some of the surrounding Cushitic peoples were gradually converted. These conversions of peoples to the south and southeast of the highlands who had previously practiced local religions were generally brought about by the proselytizing efforts of Arab merchants. This population, permanently Islamicized, thereafter contended with the Amhara-Tigray peoples for control of the Horn of Africa.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress