THE ARTICULATION OF RELIGIOUS IDENTITIES

Author : PATRICK DESPLAT

Year : 2009

Religious difference in Islam: case studies from Harar
Harar is a town in the eastern region of Ethiopia. It is located near
the border of what is now Somaliland and has approximately 100,000
inhabitants who belong to different ethnic groups, mainly Hararis,
Oromo, Amhara and Somalis. In this section I concentrate mainly on
the Harari people who are the descendents of local groups and Arab
immigrants and thus claim to be the founders of the city. Despite being
a minority—they represent only seven percent of the town’s population—
they enjoy an elevated status among their ethnic neighbours based
on their economic power as traders and their religious knowledge. Since
the reorganization of administrative structures by the state since 1991,
Harar has become the smallest administrative unit in Ethiopia. This
development guarantees special legal rights for the Hararis and underlines
the importance of their current political role. Despite the fact that
Harar has relinquished its status as the most influential Islamic centre
in the Horn of Africa, it has retained its symbolic capital. This is
reflected in local terms such as madìnat al-awliyàh, the city of saints, and
its label as the fourth holiest city in Islam. While the latter undoubtedly
involves the reinvention of a weak local tradition by today’s tourism
sector, the former term is actually legitimate as the town contains hundreds
of saintly places inside its old walls and many Islamic shrines
in the countryside beyond. Historically, the town attracted many religious
scholars and students and thus became a centre of religious learning.
It was also an important trade centre linking the Red Sea with
the interior of Ethiopia, and this role lends it its special importance.
Harar was established in the thirteenth century and later emerged as
the capital of the Sultanate of Adal. In the sixteenth century, Imàm
A˙med Ibràhìm, a Muslim scholar from the region of Harar, nicknamed
‘Grañ’, the left-handed, succeeded in uniting different quarrelling
488 Patrick Desplat
The Articulation of Religious Identities and their Boundaries in Ethiopia 489 factions of Muslims and conquered extensive parts of Ethiopia during
a djihàd (1529-1543) against the Christians. With the defeat of Imam
A˙med (1543) and the later migration of the Oromo, Harar became
a city-state governed by an emirate. It was captured in 1875 by Egypt
and in 1887 the then emperor Menelik II incorporated Harar into
the wider empire of Ethiopia, imposing a Christian rule for the first
time.

Contributer…Zaki Sheriff

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