Bilalul Habeshi Museum Relishing Ethiopia’s Islamic Heritage

Unveiling Ethiopia’s rich tapestry of Islamic history, the Bilalul Habeshi Museum in Addis Ababa is a testament to the nation’s enduring spiritual connection with the Islamic faith. This pioneering institution transcends the Museum’s role, transforming it into a repository of invaluable relics, manuscripts, and artefacts. Visitors encounter treasures like the revered letter attributed to Prophet Muhammad addressed to King Nejashi, a symbol of the historical bond between Ethiopia and early Islam. Beyond such singular pieces, the Museum boasts a diverse collection of ancient manuscripts and a captivating array of Ethiopian Islamic cultural artefacts. The Bilalul Habeshi Museum sheds light on the long-standing relationship between Ethiopia’s unique cultural identity and the Islamic world through these objects. EBR’s Abiy Hailu visited the Museum and reflects on its significance in preserving and promoting Ethiopia’s deep-rooted connection with Islam.

Ethiopia’s deep-rooted connection with Islam stretches back to the religion’s very inception in the 7th century. From the historical encounter during the first Hijra to the enduring presence of ancient Islamic artefacts, Ethiopia is a repository of invaluable treasures from Islamic history. The Bilalul Habeshi Museum stands as a testament to this rich heritage, serving as a custodian of precious relics, including age-old manuscripts such as the revered letter from Prophet Muhammad to King Nejashi, the ruler of the Kingdom of Aksum in the 7th century.

Ethiopia’s Islamic heritage is a treasure trove stemming from its unique bond with Islam, the pivotal contributions of Habasha Sahabas to its global expansion, and a nuanced history marked by ups and downs and countless historical episodes.

Nejashi sheltered the Prophet’s companions fleeing persecution. This historic gesture paved the way for arguably Africa’s first mosque, the Al Nejashi Mosque, in Tigray, northern Ethiopia. During the medieval era, Ethiopia saw the rise of multiple Muslim sultanates, further enriching its Islamic heritage. Notably, steeped in Islamic history, Harar in eastern Ethiopia ranks among Africa’s most sacred Islamic centres. This enduring connection puts Harar as Islam’s purported fourth holiest city and its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Despite Ethiopia’s wealth of Islamic history, a centralised effort to collect and preserve its heritage is missing. Recognising this gap, concerned individuals took the initiative to establish the Bilalul Habeshi Museum under the Bilalul Habeshi Center.

Established in 2018, this Museum is one of the rare Islamic heritage destinations in Addis Ababa. It showcases diverse Ethiopian Islamic relics, manuscripts, and cultural treasures. According to Adem Mohamed, a museum expert at Bilalul Habeshi, the journey to establish this pioneering Islamic Museum began in early 2016. It was marked by dedicated efforts to collect and preserve Islamic heritages and manuscripts.

Adem adds, “Several scholars and board members of the Bilalul Habeshi Centre, along with its founder and caretaker, Ustaz Mohamed Jemal Gonafer, played pivotal roles in collecting relics and spearheading the establishment of the museum.”

Since its establishment, the museum officials have diligently curated a collection of artefacts and manuscripts of both local and international historical significance, drawing visits from various sections of society, including senior government officials such as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. At the entrance of the Museum is a historic letter from Prophet Muhammad to King Nejashi, proudly displayed for everyone to see and witness how and when the connection between Ethiopia and Islam starts. Adem remarks, “This letter holds immense global significance, being sent by Prophet Muhammad to King Nejashi, the Emperor of Ethiopia during the Axumite Empire. It symbolises pride for our nation and is revered worldwide.”

The Prophet’s letter, inscribed on parchment and bearing the Prophet’s stamp at its conclusion, played a pivotal role in spreading the faith within Ethiopia. This historic communication catalysed the spread of Islam in the region, with Ethiopian Ulamas (Islamic Scholars) adopting the same writing style on parchment to disseminate the faith across the country.

In Ethiopia, ancient religious leaders of all faiths traditionally used parchment to document manuscripts. However, livestock scarcity and limited parchment production, and writing practices evolved with the introduction of papyrus paper from Egypt, Italy, and Greece.

This change has enabled Islamic scholars in Ethiopia to reproduce the Holy Quran and other manuscripts on Islamic law, grammar, and astronomy. They utilise various plants to create diverse colours for their writings.

“The Museum also features manuscripts where Quranic verses are accompanied by interpretations in different colours, showcasing the tradition of Ethiopian Sheiks using various plant-based dyes to distinguish between the verse and the interpretation,” Adem noted, gesturing towards one such manuscript.

Each manuscript typically includes the writers’ names, the writings’ topics, and other details on the first and final pages or the back pages. However, some fathers chose not to include their names, believing they sought acknowledgement solely from the creator and not from men as a form of reverence towards God.

The Museum doesn’t only house Islamic manuscripts but also Christian books, like the St. Mary prayers in Arabic. Originating from Egypt and dating back to the 16th century, it also included fasting blessings and was gifted to Abune TekleHaimanot, a notable figure in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Additionally, there are ancient manuscripts, over 300 years old, covering various legal topics, such as inheritance law, preserved within the Museum’s collection.

The Bilalul Habeshi features a photo gallery showcasing ancient Islamic sites, mosques, and relics, notably the Al-Nejashi Mosque, believed to be one of Africa’s first mosques and hosting the first Muslims who migrated to the Kingdom of Akesum under Prophet Muhammad’s guidance. Additionally, the gallery exhibits images of mosques from various regions across Ethiopia, such as Argoba and Kemisse, which were built during the Sultanate of Ifat era.

The Museum proudly displays photographs of various regions where religious scholars and sheikhs, renowned for teaching Islamic principles, originated. These individuals have become internationally recognised Islamic scholars, spreading their knowledge across Africa and Asia.

Another section of the Museum is where esteemed Muslim leaders and officials in Ethiopia are honourably represented, showcasing their dual roles in religious teaching and government service. It features their publications, Arabic biographies, and discussions on Ethiopian-Arab trade and spiritual interactions.

There is also another section in the Museum that highlights notable figures like Hajji Mohamed Raffi, esteemed for teaching in Mecca and influencing current Imams at the Kaaba. It also showcases prominent Muslim Ethiopians, including founders of the Majlis (an Arabic term meaning “council”, used to describe various types of special gatherings among common interest groups, be it administrative, social or religious in countries with linguistic or cultural connections to Islamic countries), Quran translators, political activists, Islamic philosophers who discussed the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, and language scholars.

The Bilalul Habeshi features a section dedicated to influential Islamic political leaders from the late 19th century, including Jimma Aba Jifar (Established around 1830, the Kingdom of Jimma Abba Jifar was the largest and most powerful of the five monarchies formed by the Oromo in the Gibe region of southwestern Ethiopia); and Sheikh Khojali al-Hasan, a ruler with a complex legacy in Ethiopian history Governed Bela Shangul, now part of the Beni Shangul-Gumuz State in western Ethiopia during the early 20th century; and had ruled with a degree of autonomy during the reigns of Emperor Menelik II, Lij Iyasu, and Ras Tafari (later Emperor Haile Selassie). The images of the palace of the compounds of the Sheikh are displayed.

The Centre also highlights Muslim leaders like Dejazemach Umer Semeter, who was honoured for his contributions to Adwa’s victory and had a school named after him in Addis Ababa.

The Museum’s documentation also extends to recent history. It houses a collection of meeting minutes, founding documents, and other records dating back to the establishment of the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Council in 1975. It includes documentation of visits by various world leaders to the Council during their official visits to Addis Ababa.

After the peaceful protests and activism of the 1974 revolution, Ethiopian Muslims united to establish the “Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council,” also known as the Majlis, on April 6, 1975. The Council’s historical documents tell that their goal was to unify and serve the Muslim community, consolidating their aims and ideals from that period.

The Museum chronicles efforts to make Arafa, Eid, and Mawlid national holidays, as well as other community concerns like cemetery services and land allocation for mosque construction, dating back to the time of the last Emperor.

Rahemet Melese Mohamed, who was visiting the Museum for the second time while EBR visited the Centre last March says, “Returning to the Museum for my second visit, I find myself captivated once again by its heritages. My initial experience left a huge impact, reshaping my understanding of Ethiopia’s Islamic history. The wealth of Islamic heritage and manuscripts housed here surpassed my expectations, truly broadening my perspective.”

“Another aspect that continues to fascinate me about the Museum is the remarkable progress I’ve witnessed since my initial visit. I’ve seen new manuscripts and treasures being added, a testament to the museum officials’ dedication to increasing its contributions. It’s truly inspiring to learn about the efforts of devoted Muslims and citizens who diligently preserved these treasures over the years, culminating in their rightful place in this pioneering Islamic Museum in Ethiopia,” she adds.

“I believe that both the Muslim community and fellow Ethiopians alike should visit and support this Museum. Its significance extends far beyond religious or cultural boundaries; it holds treasures of international importance, making it a source of pride for all Ethiopians. By embracing and celebrating our shared heritage, we not only enrich our understanding but also contribute to preserving these invaluable heritages for generations.”

Rahemet recounts her efforts in inspiring others to explore the Museum: “Following my initial visit, I made it a personal task to encourage my friends and family to visit this Museum. I’m particularly happy to share that my sister, a teacher, brought her entire class to visit the Museum.”

However, according to Rahemet, the responsibility to support such endeavours extends beyond individual efforts. “It’s incumbent upon the Muslim community, followers of other faith in Ethiopia, and the government to recognise the importance of preserving and promoting such heritages. We can ensure the continued enrichment and accessibility of institutions like this Museum through collective action.”

Adem highlights extensive investments in museum construction and heritage collection, including donations and purchases. Efforts to raise awareness were significant. Some individuals grant manuscripts to the Museum entitled it as a custodian, while most are acquired from collectors. Conscious citizens also donate heritage items. Adem emphasises the customary practice of bringing such treasures to museums.

Sertsefre Sebehat, Deputy Head of Addis Ababa Tourism, Culture, and Arts Bureau, strongly commends the Museum’s efforts and supports its expansion. He states, “We believe that the Museum needs a more spacious place as they have gathered very valuable heritage items. We can provide a supporting hand towards this even though we can’t directly channel them budgetary support. But we can help, for example, by writing a letter to the Federal Housing Corporation supporting that the Museum needs a more spacious place at an affordable rate. They can lease a historic edifice for the Museum if they want.”

Sertsefre further emphasises his Bureau’s willingness to assist the Museum in any way possible. He mentions, “Though we have a very excellent relationship with them, we haven’t been contacted by them directly or formally regarding any specific support they seek. In any case, we are willing to assist because we appreciate and value their contributions.”

Since its establishment, the Bilalul Habeshi Museum has seen working to create community awareness using various platforms. Accordingly, it has been collaborating with the Addis Ababa Tourism Bureau to enhance its activities. They participate in various exhibitions to raise awareness and promote their activities. However, according to Adem, there is still much to be done.

“The Center, involved in charitable activities, allocated this area to the Museum. Like many others, this Museum doesn’t generate substantial income to cover its operating expenses. Therefore, the government and city administration need to facilitate the establishment of a larger permanent museum in a more visitor-friendly location,” he concludes EBR

12th Year • April 2024 • No. 128

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