Published online by Cambridge University Press: 25 October 2006
Islam is a universal religion and culture. Scholars who tend to focus on Islam in specific societies may overlook connections that, over the centuries, were important in shaping various Islamic intercultural dialogs. One case in point is the role of Ethiopia in the history of Islam. Although situated next door to the cradle of Islam, Ethiopia conveniently has been perceived by many Western historians of the Arab Middle East as an African “Christian island,” and as largely irrelevant. In practice, however, the Christian-dominated empire has remained meaningful to all Muslims from Islam's inception. It has also been the home of Islamic communities that maintained constant contact with the Middle East. Indeed, one of the side aspects of the resurgence of political Islam since the 1970s is the emergence in Lebanon of the “The Association of Islamic Philanthropic Projects” (Jamעiyyat al-Mashariע al-Khayriyya al-Islamiyya), better known as “The Ethiopians,” al-Ahbash. Its leader came to Beirut from Ethiopia with a rather flexible interpretation of Islam, which revolved around political coexistence with Christians. Al-Ahbash of Lebanon expanded to become arguably the leading factor in the local Sunni community. They opened branches on all continents and spread their interpretation of Islam to many Islamic as well as non-Islamic countries. This article is an attempt to relate some of the Middle Eastern–Ethiopian Islamic history as the background to an analysis of a significant issue on today's all-Islamic agenda. It aims to present the Ahbash history, beliefs, and rivalry with the Wahhabiyya beginning in the mid-1980s. It does so by addressing conceptual, political, and theological aspects, which had been developed against the background of Ethiopia as a land of Islamic–Christian dialogue, and their collision with respective aspects developed in the Wahhabi kingdom of the Saudis. The contemporary inner-Islamic, Ahbash-Wahhabiyya conceptual rivalry turned in the 1990s into a verbal war conducted in traditional ways, as well as by means of modern channels of Internet exchanges and polemics. Their debate goes to the heart of Islam's major dilemmas as it attracts attention and draws active participation from all over the world.
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