The first Muslims came to Ethiopia for the protection of the Christian king (Aksumite title “Negus”) of Axum at the beginning of the 7th century. They were fleeing Mecca and persecution by the Quraysh tribe. In 615 AD, the Prophet Mohammed told a group of 70 converts to find safe haven in northern Ethiopia, Abyssinia, where they would “find a king there who does not wrong anyone.” It was the first hijra (migration) in Islam history.
The king may be King Sahama, known from coinage, or it may have been King Armah or his father or son. He is known as Ashama ibn Abjar in Arabic tradition, according to Wikipedia. He settled the exiles in Negash in the Tigray region and the Quraysh sent an emissary, Amr ibn al-Aas who was friend of Sahama, to bring them back.
Considered response based on study
According to another Wikipedia account: “Sahama did not act in a hurry but showed patience and demanded the holy scripture of Muslims to be read. At this, Ja`far ibn Abi Talib recited some verses from the Quran from the chapter of Maryam (Mary). According to Ibn Hisham, al-Najashi and the Ethiopian Orthodox priests in his court were greatly affected by the touching verses that they began to shed tears. And so, Sahama firmly denied Amr’s request to be handed the Muslim refugees.”
The account continues: “The very next day, Amr tried to play a trick, in order to sow dissension between Sahama and the Muslim refugees. Amr was greatly distressed, and promised Ja`far and other Muslims that he’s going to cause a great schism between them and King Sahama. Amr arrived the next day at the court of Sahama, and demanded in his presence that the Muslims make known their creed about Jesus. This was a difficult situation because Jesus is not considered as the son of God in the Qur’an, which was expected to greatly enrage a devout Christian like Emperor Sahama. To this, he explained that Jesus is considered in Islam to be a messenger of God, the word of God, and the miraculously born son of the Virgin Mary.”
According to the article: “In reply to this statement, King Sahama made a line on the sand with his mace and said, “By God, Jesus is not more than what you have described him. By God, I will never give you up to anyone.” He then declared that Muslims could live in Axum for as long as they wished for. According to Muslim tradition, it is during this situation that King Sahama converted to Islam.” Other traditions do not support this and say he is buried at Wukro.
Muslims respect Christians
The Prophet instructed his followers who came to the Axumite empire, to respect and protect Axum as well as live in peace with the native Christians. Even after the exiles returned to settle the city of Medina, north of Mecca, many remained on in Negash, as shown by a 7th-century cemetery excavated inside the boundaries of Negash.
According to the paper mentioned earlier and other accounts, the Prophet had instructed his followers: “Leave the Ethiopians alone as long as they leave you alone”. The earliest Ethiopian model for Muslims was the acceptance of a non-Islamic regime and living in peace under the Christian government, a model still respected by Muslims. They were also able to flourish. Harar in Eastern Ethiopia has 82 mosques, 3 of which date from the 10th century, as well as 102 shrines. It is a key centre of Islamic culture, learning and propagation and classed by UNESCO as the fourth holiest Muslim site. Trade routes were able to pass through the different religious areas.
The term “People of the Book” features in several religions, according to a Wikipedia article, but in the Qur’an “Ahl al-Kitāb” refers to followers of monotheistic Abrahamic religions that are older than Islam including Christians, all Children of Israel (including Jews, Karaites and Samaritans), Sabians and in some places Zoroastrians. They share many similar views
Does this tolerance exist today?
Ethiopia started in the Jewish tradition and converted to Christianity in the 4th century AD. The three religions grew side by side and existed in a tolerant atmosphere, according to one paper. Successive Ethiopian governments have continued tolerance and accommodation since those days. However, I have heard Ethiopians say that pressures from foreign fundamentalists on both sides are seeking to push the religions apart.
According to a facebook discussion by Abebe H Woin “Ahl al-Kitāb” refers to those who are possessors of divine books (i.e., the Torah, the Gospel, and the Avesta), as distinguished from those whose religions are not based on divine revelations. He argues: “We Ethiopians, Christians and Moslems need to understand and respect each other. Respect comes from knowledge. Ignorance leads to hatred, misunderstandings and worse. Tolerance is the result of knowing and not guessing.
“The Prophet Muhammad gave many privileges to Ahl al-Kitāb that are not to be extended to heathens. Ahl al-Kitāb are granted freedom of worship; thus, during the early Muslim conquests, Jews and Christians were not forced to convert to Islam and had only to pay a special tax (jizya) for their exemption from military service.
“Muslim authorities are responsible for the protection and well-being of Ahl al-Kitāb, for, according to a saying of the Prophet, “He who wrongs a Jew or a Christian will have myself [the Prophet] as his indicter on the Day of Judgment.” After Muhammad’s death, his successors sent strict instructions to their generals and provincial governors not to interfere with Ahl al-Kitāb in their worship and to treat them with full respect.”
Abebe asks: “Do you think this was respected in our history as well as exemption of Abyssinia from jihad by the prophet Mohammed? Are these concepts taught to Ethiopian Muslims in the Mosques and madrasahs?”