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Asmara, 1st January 1987 

The paper was published in the ”Journal of The Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs”, Vol. IV, and No. , Pp.203-223


This paper prepared by the young writer, Mohammed Nur, attempts to present a synoptic survey of the long history of the ”Jeberti”- a Muslim population who inhabitant the northern part of the Ethiopian plateau, mainly living in the southern section of the Eritrean highland and in the Tigrai Region. These people who are sometimes referred to as the ’diasporas’ in the sense that they live scattered in many villages of the areas whose population predominantly profess the Christian Orthodox religion, also live in villages of their own, that is, in villages wholly or solely inhabited by them in the ’Anager’ ’Meragus’ and ’Mai Tzada’ districts of Serae Province Eritrea Region and in the provinces of Shire and Adyabo of Tigrai Region. Large conglomerations of the Jeberti population are also found in a number of important urban centres such Asmara, Adi Ugri, Adi Quala, Keren, Decamere, Adi Khayeh and Ghinda. Quite a large number of them also make a prosperous living in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Abeba, mainly located in the ’Kulfe’ quarter.

While the Jeberti of the rural areas are primarily engaged in agricultural and animal husbandry, the town dwellers derive their incomes from commercial and artisan activities. In fact, a large portion of the trades of a considerable number of towns has, for many years, been, and still is, in their hands. Many Jeberti are, as well, successfully engaged in international trades and industrial activities, both at home and abroad. Likewise, in addition to traditional handicraft works as such spinning, weaving, tailoring and, particularly, artistic embroiders as textile works, which have been known for centuries as their traditional and characteristic occupations, numerous Jeberti are active in quite a large number of handicrafts i.e. shoe and saddle making, carpentry, heavy truck-driving, mechanical and electrical works etc. and play significant roles in the expansion and growth of both the national economy and the economies of a remarkable number of localities within the national boundaries.

Unlike the Christians highlanders, the Jeberti, as true votaries followers of Islam, attached great importance to commerce since the early periods of islamization of a considerable population of northern Ethiopia. In contrast with Christianity, Islam approves commerce provided that its practice is consonant to Islamic morality. Islam equally exhorts its believers to regard any kind of work or occupation or employment with respect provided that it can procure to man an honest income for a decent living, namely, a living without in any way depending on charity or becoming a parasite on others.[1] Trade in Christendom, on the other hand, was regarded, especially in the early time of Christianity up to the opening of the Modern Age, as deviating from the grace of God and, as such was highly condemned. The writings of the medieval Scholastic thinkers, which were deeply influenced by Aristotelian philosophy, negative to trade, clearly reveal a vehement opposition to commerce.[2] All these account for the negative outlook particularly the Jeberti, towards commerce.

The social importance of the Jeberti cannot restrict only to their active participation in the economic life of the country referred to above. In the political movement of 1942-1952 regarding the future of the political status of Eritrea, then a colony, the Jeberti played quite significant and active role and demonstrated to possess not only maturity but also good potentiality in politics. They also produced great men in a number of disciplines of human knowledge such as theology and history. Amongst these stands prominent Abdurrahman Al Jeberti, a renowned historian, a contemporary of Napoleon Bonaparte who lived in Egypt. His celebrated book ”History of Modern Egypt” is still consulted as a source by savant and scholars in the Arab World. As recognition of his important intellectual contribution an important street in Cairo bears now his name. As tribute to eminent Jeberti theologians a celebrated ward, called as the ”RUWAK AL JEBERTI”, gives shelters to Ethiopian and Eritrean Muslims who are awarded with scholarship by the renowned Al Azhar University-the oldest learning institution in the world.

The term ”Jeberti” (i.e. a collective noun used to express a single individual or collectively), as amply explained by the author in this paper, was first used to denote the first Muslim converts of Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, who the first fruits of Islamic penetration into the country. In fact, we can safely assert that the first Jeberti was the Nejashi (Negus), King Armac II[3] who remained, ever since, as a celebrated and venerated figure in the annals of Islam not only for the generous hospitality and protection afforded and extended to the first Arab-Muslim refugees who, escaping from the inhuman persecution administered on them by the anti-Islam heathen Arabs, sought and found asylum in his land, but also for being the first proselyte of Islam outside the Arabian Peninsula, nay even outside Mecca, the birth-place of the Prophet Muhammad and the cradle of Islam. King Armac II is probably the kingly appellation of Negus (Nejashi) for we find another name ’Ashima’ mentioned by Ibn Hisham, the celebrated biographer of the great Arabian Teacher. The Negus came also to be named by ”Ahmad” (the Praised) by the Prophet and his followers in token of, and as a manifestation of gratitude for his noble deeds.[4] The term which, afterwards, was extended to embrace all Muslims of Ethiopia, came, gradually, to be limited, first, to the Abyssinian and Agaw ethnic groups of Muslim confession (Amhara, Tigrinyan and Agaw) and, subsequently, to the Tigrinyan-speaking Muslims.

The Tigrinyan-speaking Muslims, or the Jeberti, as rightly described in this monograph, are the outcome, the synthesis of two great cultural evolutions: the Axumite and the splendid Islamic civilizations; solid traits of Axum’s ancient tenants which make the Abyssinian-man unique among Africans and other Orientals for the acuteness of his mind, prudence, polite manners bravery, national pride and his high code of social behaviour are all present in the individual Jeberti, however deeply conditioned by the impact of high Islamic moralities. Islamic mental attitude, value judgements and spiritual outlook of live through centuries, came to mould the psychological set up of the Jeberti thus making human individual of particular characters and unique personality. Islamic and/or Arabic literature, rhetoric, history, theology, philosophy and anecdote, with which the average Jeberti is sufficiently versed, have further exerted pronounced impact upon the behaviour, mental attitude, linguistic expression, sentiment and outlook of the Jeberti-man. In fact, the Jeberti constitute, today, a social group distinct not only from those of the same racial stock, their Christian brethrens, but also from others ethnic groups of the country, Muslim or otherwise. These characteristic features of the Jeberti bestow upon them, ipso facto, a distinct identity, with its own culture, morality, feeling, psychological attitude, code of social behaviour, spiritual heritage, and socio-political outlook of life.

The author has faithfully given a sketchy picture of the sufferings witch the Jeberti had to bear following the relentless persecutions inflicted upon them, in the course of centuries, by Christian populations, chieftains and monarchs and, particularly, by Emperor Yohannes IV. He also demonstrated that, in spite of the cruel and inhuman treatments they continually endured, the Jeberti never defected their patriotic sentiment and loyalty to the Fatherland and proved to be audacious and enthusiastic defender of their country and national interests, though often had to revolt and valiantly fight, in self-defence, against their tyrannical oppressors. The paper also clearly explains how the Jeberti, resented, resisted and strongly opposed the hostile and now defunct Haile Sellasie Regime. The paper further shows how these people heartily accepted the outbreak and success of 1974 popular revolution under the banner of which they hope to live, for the first time in their long-lasting history, in a friendly environment and to enjoy full equality and justice.

The mention made by the author of a 1952 open-letter published in a local newspaper by the representative of Serae’s Jeberti population as a protest against the electoral manipulation practiced against their interests by the British Administration in Eritrea is both curious and interesting. The letter reveals that the British Administration, though temporary and transitory and, as such, had no direct interest of its own, wronged the Serae’s Jeberti by denying them, in connivance with the Haile Sellasie Government, Their right of representation in the Eritrean Legislative Assembly, through outright ’Gerry mannerism’.

Mohammed Nur’s Paper is, as a whole, satisfactory and the author is to be congratulated for undertaking so a tedious task to write en arduous topic and having produced a valuable work in spite of the fact he was, I believe, faced by lack or shortage of bibliographical sources and information’s requires for the subject under discussion and which are not, I reckon, locally available. I hope, however, that the present work will, in future, be amplified- a rather difficult work that can only be realized if he will find an easy access to a number of important libraries abroad and mainly the British Museum Library in London, The Rome, Cairo and other libraries in the Arab World.

Yassin M. Aberra

1Wellhausen, Reich, p1 quoted in ”Istituzioni di Diritto Mussulmano Malichita” by David Santillana, A.R.E., Rome, p.6
2 For detailed information see Yassin Aberra, ”History of economic thought”, Asmara University Press, 1979, pp.8-10
3 Guida Dell’africa Italiana, first edition, Milan: 1938 p.91
For further elucidation see ”Muslim Institutions in Ethiopia: The Asmara Awqaf” paper presented and read at the Muslim International Conference by Yassin M. Aberra, Sherbrook, Quebec, Canada, Fall 1981.

Asmara, 1st January 1987
The paper was published in the ”Journal of The Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs”, Vol. IV, and No. , Pp.203-223


This modest paper is intended to be a first attempt to tackle so arduous work with a view to casting light on a topic, which, though important it is, has, so far, been neglected. Although I am fully aware that the topic is not any easy task to deal with, nevertheless, I have done my best and utmost effort to endeavour the task. I have found it to be a tedious work inasmuch as little has, so far, been written on the topic in question, in the spite of the fact that the subject-matter of the topic, the Jeberti, constitute important element among the various social groups of Ethiopia and Eritrea, because of their positive role in the social and economic growth of the country. The fact that I could not find enough, written information’s from local sources, the difficulty met in composing this paper has been enormous. I have done my best to utilize, as fruitful as possible, whatever little information I could obtain from limited biographical sources, I have come to learn that Arab scholars have amply dealt with the subject in the past and that such their written documents are available in the past and that such their written documents are available in number of libraries of Arab countries and the libraries of some western countries, such as the London Library, and French, German and Italian libraries in their respective capitals.

My present work, I admit, is insufficient but I hope, should an opportunity be presented to me to have an access to the foreign libraries mentioned above, to write more amply on the subject and thus present a more informative and consistent work.

In this paper, I have tried to show, the first and second chapters, how and when Islamic diffusion took place in Abyssinia and, subsequently, I gave a brief description of the Jeberti, of their history and the persecution inflicted, through centuries, upon them. The second and last chapters attempt to demonstrate the social, economic and political importance of the Jeberti and their roles in the socio-economic development of the country. In the last chapter, I have endeavoured to prove that the Jeberti have, for many solid reasons, a distinct identity and unique personality.

Should, by chance, my paper succeed to convey to the reader even a small notion, an idea of what Jeberti are and stand for, I would regard That my humble labour to be amply rewarded.

Mohammed Nur Said
Asmara, December 28, 1986.


”Yonder Leith a country wherein no
is wronged; a land of righteousness.
Depart thither and remain until it
Pleaseth the Lord to open your way
Before you.”
Prophet Muhammad. (P.b.u.h)

The rise of Islam, which was so decisive event for the history of the world as a whole had a most marked effect on development in Ethiopia. The direct attack, the Jihad was of less importance; the indirect results of Islamic expansion, the closure of the traditional sea route, the severance from South Arabia and Egypt, the introduction of foreign culture influences, Greek and Semitic in particular, were much significant in the long-term effects. The cultural trophy brought about not only a pagan practices and the ascendancy of the non-semitized elements, but also it formed the peculiarly Ethiopian translation of an alien Christianity into indigenous term.1

The troubles in south Arabia have caused a shift in the main direction of Axumite overseas contact from the Yemen to Hijaz,2 because before this change the Axumites were in close communication with the land, which produced the Prophet Muhammad. Relations between them and the new faith were at first warm, though the birth of Islam transformed the entire Middle Eastern balance of power and had profound economics consequences.

Ethiopia, as sir William Muir3 emphasizes in his ”Life of Mahomet”, was well known to the Prophet and the Mecca’s as a market for the goods of Arabia, and Axum was the ordinary destination of many of their traders. This explains why Muslim traditions states that when the Arab Muslims were persecuted in Mecca by the Quaraish, the Prophet, pointing to the west said to them (his disciples), ” if you go to Abyssinia, you will find a king under whom none is persecuted. His is a land of righteousness where God will give relief from what you are suffering ”. In 615 A.D., eleven persons set out for Axum, and among the emigrants were Othman, son of Affan, followed by his wife Ruckeya, the Prophet’s daughter. When they reached their destination, they were met with a kind reception from the Axumite Sovereign and the people.4

The coming of this people to the country, even though their number was small, the part they acted was of deep importance in the history of Islam. It showed the Quaraish that the converts could go to any length and endure any loss hardship rather than give up the faith of Islam. A bright of self-denial was exhibited to the whole body of believers who were to regard danger and exile in ” the cause of God ”, as a privilege and distinction.

The first flight (Hegira) to Ethiopia as distinguished from the later and more extensive emigrations, gave birth to the idea of a great ”Hegira”, the emigration to Medina, he, too, might have emigrated to Ethiopia.

The Prophet recommended his followers to take refuge in Abyssinia, especially when the Quaraish started relentless persecution of Muslims.

The Quaraish, dismayed by the defections, sent an ambassador[5] to the Negus (King) to ask the return of the refugees back to Arabia. The Negus summoned the leader of the refugees and when the latter explained to the king the new religion, the Negus found nothing to object to his words. He (the King) returned the gift that was given to him by the messenger of the Quaraish and told the refugees were welcome to stay in his kingdom.

The friendly attitude to the Axumite Monarch verified the Prophet’s belief that Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, was a kingdom where none was persecuted. Is this magnanimous hospitality that made the Muslim refugees to form a good idea and retain a spirit of good will towards Ethiopia, the land that had given them a generous asylum. This brotherly outlook, which was spread among the Muslim Arabs, was thence fore to become a dominant attitude of Muslim leaders towards Abyssinia for many centuries.

Having come to learn about the generous behaviours and magnanimity of the Negus towards the refugees, the Prophet, grateful as he was, recommended his disciples and followers, as a token of a deep gratitude, ”not to molest the Abyssinians and leave them always in peace”.

But despite Muhammad’s assurances that there are should be no holy war against the Abyssinians and the exhortations made by him to his followers to consolidate the friendly outlook that prevailed in their relations with Abyssinia, the rise of Islam had disastrous repercussions on the Axumite Empire due to the dynamic spirit of the new religion which unified and vitalized the Arab peoples and enabled them to create arrival power which, in self-defence, soon began to invade neighbouring countries. Faced by the increased pressure of the nascent new Islamic power and determining to maintain the faith of their fathers, the Christian sovereigns of Abyssinia continued efforts to maintain strong relations with the rest of Christendom-a fact, which gave rise to a new situation decidedly hostile to the new Islamic State and Commonwealth. The king of Abyssinia were not determined to maintain their faith but looked with Christian Kings against Islam.[6]


”To Ethiopia, in this history conception,
The most notable group of Muslim are
Unquestionably the DJABART, for they alone
enter into life of the country”[7]

There are different kinds of Jeberti, some live in Eritrea and others live in Ethiopia in Somalia (the Ismaili) and in Yemen (the Mime Jeberti). But I am concerned only about the Ethiopian and Eritrean Jeberti, who are called the Nejashi Jeberti.

In Ethiopia and Eritrea there are different Muslims, tribes and ethnic groups, and one of them belong the Jeberti. The Jeberti are Eritrean and Ethiopian Muslim who live in the Highlands, and speak Amharic, Agway and Tigrinya as their native tongue.

The Jeberti, in the sense of an Islamic Diaspora to which we are restricting the term, consist of families or groups scattered amongst or mixed up the Christian population of the highlands from whom they cannot physically be distinguished. They cannot even be linguistically differentiated from the others elements with whom they co-exist inasmuch as they speak Amharic, Tigrinya and Agaw depending on the areas they inhabit. They are Ethiopian or Eritrean Muslim who speak the language and preserve the general customs the region in which they live, observing the Sharia law only in matters connected with their religious cult, personal status and family affairs.

The term ”Jeberti” was subsequently also used as the name of a region in the territory of Zeila, the land of the Jabarta. The first settlers of this land came from Hijaz and settled in the land of Jabarta, now called Jeberti, which is part of the Zeila region. They established themselves there and dwelt in the town of lufat (Ifat). The term was, then, extend to all the Muslim kingdoms of the southern Ethiopia and finally to all Ethiopians Muslim. But in the modern usage, the word ”Jeberti” is almost invariably employed in a narrow sense to describe the Muslim nuclei in the Ethiopian plateau and, precisely, in the region of Eritrea, Tigrai, Gondar and Gojam, as well as in Showa.

The term ”Jeberti” which derives from the Arabic word ”Jeberna” was first used to denote the first proselytes of Islam in Abyssinia, the word is supposedly uttered by the holy Prophet Muhammad as an expression of gratitude towards the ”Nejashi” the then king of Abyssinia, who offered a generous hospitality to the first Muslim refugee who, escaping from the inhuman persecution of the heathen Arabs, reached the country in search of asylum. When the news of the friendly and brotherly treatment extended to the refugee by the Abyssinian king reached the Prophet, the latter in great delight is said to have uttered the following statement: ”Akhi Ahmad Jeberna” (”My brother Ahmad (the Nejashi) has obliged me”). Such statement to generation among the Jeberti. Hence, the word ”Jeberti” which in the early history of Ethiopian Muslims, referred to all Ethiopians of Muslim confession, came, later on, to distinguish the Tigrinya, Amharic and Agaw speaking Muslim of Ethiopia. The use of the term ”Jeberti” is now confined to Tigrinya speaking Muslims, a large number of whom trace back their genealogical history to the earliest Muslim of Ethiopia, the contemporary of Nejashi.

The term “Jeberti” has different meanings. According to the new Tigrinya Dictionary, it means brave, helper, healed, believer etc. According to Abyssinian tradition, the word is derived from Ethiopic Agbert ‘Servant of God’. According to the Jeberti, the word means those stand beside the Prophet at the time of need.

Some of the main Jeberti families claim that they are the descendents of Uthman, Ibn Affan, the third caliph and husband of Ruckeya, daughter of the Prophet, who, as amongst the first refugees who reached Abyssinia. Uthman had a son from Ruckeya who remained with his mother in Abyssinia.

According to John Markakis, Islam in the Plateau was associated with trade from the very beginning and Muslims controlled the Red Sea and dominated, as well, the trade in the hinterland. The Muslim traders settled in villages along the trade route also performed missionary work the outcome of which was gradual conversion that produced the first Muslim communities within the Christian state. But what seems to be genuine is the conversion of the Nejashi to Islam[8] Nejashi, whose tomb lies at the top of hill in the vicinity of the village of Negash, near, the town of Wokro in the Tigrai Region was first to espouse Islam in this country. A mosque houses his tomb near which a mausoleum is erected in his memory and which is the target of an annual pilgrimage by a multitude of Muslim from different areas of the country as well as from abroad.

The majority of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Muslims, however, owe their conversion to the rapid spread of Islamic teachings and tenets in the Sultanates of South-East Ethiopia and to the fruitful proselytising activities of a number of Muslim Confraternities such as the Shazilia, Quadiria, Ahmedia, Khatimia etc. which appeared and operated as (messianic) missionaries through centuries in the various region of the country.[9]

According to Ruppel, the reasons for the success of Islam in Christian regions were the moral superiority of the Muslims over the Christians. Ruppel said the Muslim Jeberti were more active and energetic than the Christians. Most of their children rarely received any education at unless they were destined for the priesthood or monastery. He further said if a trustworthy person were needed to fill any post, a Muslim was usually selected. This too, can be one of the reasons for the success of Islam.[10]

The Eritrean Jeberti are mostly in Serae, Akele Guzai and Hamasien and, roughly speaking, their number range between four and five hundred thousands. And a little less than these live scattered abroad, especially in the Arab countries.[11]

These Muslim highlanders, the Islamization of who goes back to the early waves of Islamic penetration, are, though of the same racial stock as the Christians of the plateau, Psychologically quite different. Even though the Jeberti and the Christians belong to the same ethnic group and their relation have been generally good, there had always been discrimination preached and practiced by the latter against the former. These discriminations and segregation were not unknown in the past, particularly when the king of Abyssinia were not determined it maintain their faith, but also were looking for alliance with other Christian kings against Islam. The possibility of a Portuguese-Ethiopian alliance especially alarmed the Ottoman Empire, Which was in overt conflict with the Portuguese, and this alliance between Ethiopia and Portugal forced the Muslim in Massawa and in other parts of the country to have a friendly outlook of, and an amicable relation with the Ottoman Caliphate.[12]

It was around that time, that, a young man by the name of Ahmad Ibrahim Alghazi, known as the Imam Ahmad and nick-named “Gragn” or left-handed (1506-1543), after taking the power from the Sultan of Harar, began what considered his divinely appointed task, the conquest of Christian Ethiopia. The fighting’s began in 1527 when he refused to pay tribute to the king of Ethiopia and lasted 16 years, that is, till a little after 1543, the year which marked the death of Imam Ahmad.[13]

The traditional Ethiopian Christian concept of ‘nationality’ excluded non-Christians from participation in the affair of the state, barred them from holding public office and, in the most cases, deprived them of the right to own land. In other words, they ruthlessly and relentlessly harassed their no –Christians country-men, especially the Muslims. Referring to the powerful and reactionary influence that several monastic communities of monk and nuns exercised on the Coptic populations of the Eritrea highland, a renowned British administrator vividly describes, in the following lines, the inhuman treatments endured by the Jeberti at the hands of their Christians fellowmen:

“This (i.e. the powerful influence of the monks and nuns referred to above) to some extent accounts for the severe intolerance of the Christians for the Moslem minority. With few exception the Jeberti or the ‘elect’, as Moslems are known, are denied any rights in land, are treated as social outcasts, and live as traders and craftsmen. Not surprisingly the great majority have today sought in the less intolerant society of the town”.[14]

In 1667-82, Yohannes I forbade the Muslims living with the Christians and forced them to settle separate villages or separate quarters as the Jews were confined to “ghettos” in Europe. Thus, the inhabitants in Gondar (Jeberti) were compelled to leave the upper town and live in the lower quarter of the town, which they inhabit to this day. The Jeberti, like the Jews, Armenians and others were debarred from owing land and engaging themselves in agriculture. They could survive by becoming proficient in commerce and handicrafts and still have a substantial trade movement throughout the region of the country[15]

As history teach us that the conflicts between the Christians and Jeberti persisted specially during the reign of the Yohannes IV. Persecution and oppression, which reached its zenith during the terrifying realm of Yohannes IV, continued during the Eritrean Administration and Haile Sellasie Regime.

Yohannes IV was the most fanatic Christian Ruler and his reign was characterized by constant hostility and harassing of the Muslims; his main aim was to make Ethiopia a country of one religion, that is, a nation of Christianity. Inspired by bigoted belief and as a counteraction against the rise of Egyptian and Sudanese power during his reign, he issued a decree in 1878 ordering all Muslims in his empire to join the Orthodox Christian Church: non Christian Public Office holders were asked to be converted or resign their posts. The Jeberti were ordered to build churches in their district and to pay tribute to the Christian Clergy. Many Jeberti left the country and whom those who could not escape were forced to abjure allegiance of Jeberti who, hoping in him for the vindication of their faith. Many such conversions however proved to be purely nominal. Christians referred to these new converts as” Christians by day, Muslim by night”.[16]

In spite of the fact that Yohannes IV exercised his bigoted belief and murdered Muslim in the name of Christ, some of his trusted soldiers who fought under his command for sake of the country were Jeberti. One of them, worthy of note, was called Berhanu who, despite his strong disapproval of Yohannes’ anti-Islamic policy, fought, never less, against the Italian invaders, in defence of his country. A quarter of the town of Asmara in now named after his name (Geza Berhanu) as a recognition of his service to the country.

Berhanu was not only the one who can be quoted as an example of valiant patriotism who offered his life for the sake of the Fatherland. Were it not for the lack of space and time I would have quoted a horde of others like him.

From narrations transmitted to posterity by Jeberti, contemporaries of Yohannes IV, we learn that the latter, immediately following his capture of Ethiopia Throne, proved to be a wise king, a just administrator and a patriot. These characteristics won to him the loyalty and their usurped rights, offered and actually extended to him their earnest service and heartily support. In fact, a number of their sage elders volunteered to offer him their earnest advices and financial aids. The Emperor welcomed such altruistic assistances. Yohannes IV, however, falling, afterwards, victim to the ill advices of unwise, shortsighted and bigot members of the Orthodox Clergy changed his political attitude toward Muslim and, subsequently, adopted a disruptive new policy. This policy aimed at the forced conversion of all Ethiopian Muslim into Christianity thus to bring about an alleged ‘national unity’. Ethiopian Muslims, in general, and the Jeberti, in particular, abhorring such insane policy and ill-advised ambition, had to revise their amicable relationship with the Government of Yohannes IV and began to look at it not only with great suspicion but also with hatred. When persecution of Yohannes ‘State reached its apex, the Jeberti decided to organize them with a view to securing the survival of their religion. A small army, under the command of Fitawrary Nuru Waddi Fukra, was organized and a guerrilla fighting was conducted in West Tigrai and Wolkait. Numerous families escaped to reach the western provinces of the Eritrean Region and Massawa and from there to The Sudan and Yemen. Many young men reached the Sudan where they were trained in the military art and, afterwards, joined the Dervishe Army invaded, which invaded Western Ethiopia. Their efforts were crowned with the victory of Metemma were Yohannes IV was not only defeated but also lost his life.

While Yohannes IV was intent to carry on his prosaic and futile work, the Italians army started its occupation of the northern part of Ethiopia piece by piece. The Italian invasion and afterwards the British occupation were of the imperialistic conspiracy against Ethiopia. Their main objective was to rob the people of Abyssinia of their national independence and freedom and put the fetters of brutal colonial slavery on the Abyssinian people. The brutality of human exploitation in the colonies and dependant countries by imperialists brought into being the Abyssinian liberation struggle for freedom and national independence against the colonial oppression. The Jeberti, as true children of Abyssinia, fought for the liberation of their Fatherland and many of them sacrificed their lives for such noble cause; others faced the cruelest injustice by the imperialists.

*Following the end of the British colonization, the Eritrean Autonomous Unit or Administration came into existence. During the British and the Eritrean Administration period, too, many injustices were committed against the Jeberti. Their rights to be elected to the Eritrean Assembly were shrewdly denied by outright gerrymanderistic practices. But, although many people talked, wrote and re-wrote about it, the reaction was a dead ear to their complaints. The complaints against failure to give due representation to the Jeberti in the Eritrean Assembly, at its inception, were raised to the British Chief Secretary. This is evidence by the following letter, which was published in the 1952 in a local newspaper:

“To: The Chief Secretary, B.A.E.,

Asmara (1952),

Though S.D.O. Serae Division.

Subject: Elections

With due respect, we, the notable representative of the Moslem population of the
Serae Division, beg to submit the following petition for your kind consideration and

We have previously submitted similar memorandum as well as had talks the U.N.O.
Commissioner similar the save guarding of our electoral rights as inhabitant of the
Province in question. We were quite sure that we would not be denied of such rights as
We cannot be regarded population of the province.

In accordance with Proclamation No: 121 promulgated by H.E. the Chief
Administrator The Chief Administrator, the electoral procedures contemplate that every
Group of 15,000 people should constitute an electoral constituency and deserve to have
A deputy. We, the Moslems of Serae, our number being over 60,000 people, deserve to
have at least four fundamental rights, that is, for having been deprivation of our right has
been carried out through an artful and shrewd method of dividing into small portions the
Muslim areas and annexing, for electoral purposes, each portion with a majority of
Christian electors.

We, therefore ask for a redress of the wrong committed against us by correcting the
method referred to above and by giving us due representative in the Assembly.’’[17]

This was one of the letters submitted to demonstrate the dissatisfaction of the Jeberti.

After the liberation of Ethiopia and the restoration of the National Government and when Eritrea became, in 1952, an integral part of Ethiopia, Haile Sellasie, following the ancient dictum’ divide et imperia’, introduced a disruptive and segregating policy which made the Muslim to feel alien in their own country. He believed and actually strived to make the world to believe that Ethiopia was the “Christian Island” and actually made the Christian populations of the country as a privileged class while Muslims were utterly neglected. Haile Sellasie, convinced that unless the Church was revitalized and re-enlightened to the point to command the respect and allegiance of the modern intellectual young Ethiopian Christian, there would be a tendency for the church and the state to fall apart. To implement such policy, therefore, he placed himself as the head of both the state and the church, that is, the head of the state and the ‘defender of the Christian faith’.[18] As a result of this policy Eritrean and Ethiopian Muslims were excluded from the service of the ‘Christian State of Ethiopia’[19]

The educational policy[20] of the Haile Sellasie Government caused special problems for the Muslim Communities of Eritrea and Ethiopia, which resented the discrimination practiced by the Government towards the traditional Koranic Schools, which were essential for the preservation of the Islamic faith. The state gave no assistance of any kind. While the Christian church education was indirectly subsidized by granting lands to the church and clergy and by extending tax exemption to church property and income, the state gave no assistance whatsoever to any Islamic educational institutions in the country.

The policy of the ex-Emperor was, in general, to exclude non-Christians from participation in the affairs of state, to bar them from appointment to public offices and from adequate representation of Muslims in the Parliament. The door of military career, as well, was almost closed before them; military career was conditioned, in the most cases, with conversion to Christianity.

The revolution of 1974, however, tried to smash the chain of national oppression, recognized equality of all Ethiopians, abolished the old enmity between Christians and Muslims and tried to clear the way for their all round co-operation for the common good. It equally gave everyone the right to decide on his fate, to dignify his national statehood, to develop the Nation’s economy and culture thus to raise the living standards of all-Ethiopian indiscriminately. The new Ethiopia, which was a land for everyone, however, the1974 Revolution was “hijacked by Mengistu and” (Mengistu) could do so only because the society was still atomized, still (embroiled) in internal rivalries and jealousies not allowing (groups) to cooperate, to enable them to organize in time of crisis. The Mengistu regime continued with old traditional politics-individualistic politics. Mengistu destroyed the Derg and used as a mask the empty framework of the Workers Party for individualistic power. “ Part of Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia, part of the north that was captured by the Italians, the colonialists- had experience the yoke of imperialism, but had the change to undergo the cultural/political revolution that Ethiopia was “spared”. By 1974 as Mengistu was beginning to destroy the first modern political modernization here, Eritrean society was already long having modern political frameworks”. [21]



There are many ethnic groups living scattered in the various regions of Eritrea and Ethiopia. In this discussion we will make a general survey of the various ethnic groups living in the northwest of Ethiopia and the southwest of Eritrea. The other ethnic groups of these two countries such as the Oromos, The Aderies, the Afars, the Tigres, and the Somalis, though they constitute important elements of the countries, are excluded in this survey.

According to Professor Simoons[22] there are nine principal native ethnic groups in the north- west Ethiopia, all of which have folk societies whose members strongly identify them selves with the place in which they live. They differ, however, in language, in religion or other aspects of culture. Their differences are encouraged by the widespread notion that people of other religions, are virtually impure, and that one should not eat the flesh of animals slaughtered by persons belonging to other groups, and sometimes should avoid contact with one another as much as possible.

The first Ethnic group belongs to Amhara, who are politically powerful and predominantly Christians. The others are the Tigrinya-speaking Christians, the Falashas, the Jeberti, (latter two speak the language of the people among whom they live and are set apart on the basis of their religion), the Wayt, who are a small group of Moslem fisherman and live along the shores of lake Tana, and three who are Agaw-speakers, the Kumfel, the Agaw of Sohalla and the Kamant, and the Gumis.

These people are surprisingly similar not only in their physical appearance but also in their culture, even though some of them differ in religion and social life. Their agricultural methods, and cultivated plants are, as well, the same.

Prof. Simoons has stressed on the common traits that prevail among the above-mentioned ethnic groups and made little stress on their dissimilarities. Their differences, which relate to culture, mental attitude, customs and tradition, history and other social aspects, are, in the most cases, sharp. Take, for example, the case of Jeberti. These people, although of the same ethnic group of the Tigrinya-speaking Christian highlanders, differ sharply in culture, psychological set up, mental attitude, socio-political outlook and in the other fields.

Such cultural and other differentiations, which bestow upon the Jeberti a distinguished identity, are attributable to the enrichment of their Axumite culture by solid tenets imparted upon them by the Islamic civilization. Islam, as it were, is not only a religion but also ’a way of life’ and, as such, moulds, to a great extent, the value judgment, the mental attitude and behaviour of a true Muslim. The Islamic legacy which is deeply penetrated into the way of life of the Jeberti and which modified and modelled, to a great degree, their mental attitude and behaviour. There is not exaggeration at all to assert that the Jeberti are the synthesis of two great civilizations: the Axumite and the Islamic cultural and social evolutions. Hence, the Jeberti become different from their Christian brethren in their social political outlooks. The impact of their religion makes them believe in social, economic and political equalities. This religious influence, for example, makes them to venerate work, trade and agriculture; they look at any handicraft and commerce with great respect. As Ethiopian of Axumite culture, with some modification introduced by Islam, possess and follow a code of social behaviour, which is ranked as of high level and desirable. : Their attitude towards, and practices in marriage and funeral ceremonies are quite different from those of their Christians brothers. In marriage ceremonies, no intoxicating beverages are offered nor intermingling of two sexes is permitted. The traditional practices in matrimonial celebrations imparted upon them by Axumite civilization have been modified and simplified in consonance with the Islamic teaching. Likewise, funeral ceremonies are also made totally different from those in vogue among the Christians of their ethnic group: no women is permitted to accompany the rests of the deceased to the cemetery, nor alien women and men intermingle in such and in other occasions. Simplicity, in short, dominates all their social relations. On the other hand, they radically differ from all Muslims of others ethnic groups or social conglomerations by very fact that the Jeberti cultural wealth is unique and quite different from those of the others. Even though the Jeberti mother tongue is Tigrinya and, if needs must be, they can correctly converse through this medium, the language spoken among themselves differ, to a large extent, from that employed by their Christian brethren: because of Islamic training through the study of the Koran and the Holy Prophet’s traditions or sayings, they use quite a number of Arabic words, phraseology and terminology, anecdotes, proverbs and adages in their daily speeches, a Tigrinya speaking Christian would hardly understand or follow a discussion or debate conducted by the Jeberti among themselves.


1 Trimingham J. S., ” ISLAM IN ETHIOPIA” (London, 1952) p. 44

From Early Times to 1800, (London, 1961), p. 49
3 Ibid, p. 49

4 Ibid, p. 49

5 Ibid, p. 49

6 Ibid, p. 49

7 Trimingham J. S., op. cit. pp 150 – 153; Ullendorf, “ THE ETHIOPIANS “
(London, 1967) pp 113 – 114.

(Addis Abeba, Oxford University Press, 1974) p. 113.

9 Yassin M. Aberra, “ ISLAMIC INSTITUTION IN ETHIOPIA “, op. cit. ,
p. 205

10 Ruppel, “ REISE IN ABESSINIEN “ (Frankfurt, 1838) , pp 327 – 8, 366
Or Trimingham, op. Cit., p. 113.

11 The Author’s estimation.

12 Punkhurst R., op. cit., p. 75.

13 Ibid, p. 75

14 G.k.N. Trevaskis, ” ERITREA, A COLONY IN TRANSITION: 1941-52 ”
Oxford University Press – London, New York, Toronto – 1960, p. 13.
15 Ullendorf, op. cit., pp 78 – 83.
16 Ibid, pp 89 - 90
17 Eritrean Weekly News, 1952.
18 Christine Sandford “ THE LION OF JUDAH HATH PREVAILED ” (London, 1955)
19 Ibid, pp 74 – 79.
20 John Markakis, op. cit. pp 229 – 259.
21 Erlich Haggai, lecture entitled “ ETHIOPIA AND ERITREA “ (AIDDA)

The University of Wisconsin Press, 1964, pp 20 – 34.

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