Strife in Ethiopia over an Anti-Radical (or Is It Radical?) Muslim Sect

The Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa has been recently shaken by violent clashes between the police and Muslim protestors. According to Shabelle News, “The protesters, some wearing masks, blocked the entrance of the Anwar Mosque in the west of the capital and hurled stones at riot police who had surrounded the compound after noon prayers.” The protestors were angered by the government’s alleged interference in the practice of their religion, claiming that it has been trying to foist the Al Ahbash sect on the Ethiopian Muslim community. According to the Shabelle News story, the infuriated protestors view Al Ahbash as “an alien branch of Islam.” The Ethiopian government denies promoting the sect while insisting that “is determined to prevent Islamic militancy spilling over from neighbouring Sudan or lawless Somalia.”

Although Al Ahbash grew on Lebanese soil, it was founded by an Ethiopian cleric (Abdullah al-Harari)—as is reflected by its Arabic name, which literally means “the Ethiopians” (although the group officially calls itself the “Association of Islamic Charitable Projects,” or AICP). According to the Wikipedia article, Al Ahbash is noted for blending “Sunni and Shi’a theology with Sufi spiritualism into a doctrinal eclecticism that preached nonviolence and political quietism.”

The organization’s own website stresses its Islamic orthodoxy: “The A.I.C.P has as guides the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad and the path of the Islamic scholars like Imam Ash-Shafi^iyy, Imam Malik, Imam Ahmad and Imam Abu-Hanifah.” In an interesting twist, it claims that that it is actually the Islamists who are guilty of bid’ah, or of concocting novel, heretical doctrines. In particular, it singles out the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabi movement of Saudi Arabia for censure: “Unlike the followers of Sayyid Qutub [spiritual founder of the Muslim Brotherhood] who deviated from the right path by following an erroneous idea that sprung fifty years ago, and unlike the followers of Muhammad ibn adbil-Wahhab who deviated from the right path by following an erroneous idea that sprung two hundred years ago, unlike them we are following the right path of the prophet, his companions and their followers.”

Al Ahbash stresses charity, which it says must be followed regardless of the religion of those in need. As its website specifies: “The A. I. C. P. urges Muslims to help each other and share responsibilities, such as encouraging the wealthy to console and relieve the poor—whether Muslims or non-Muslims.”

Street fights and other conflicts pitting Al Ahbash against Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood have broken out on several occasions in both Lebanon and Jordan. Mainstream Muslim groups tend to be skeptical of Al Ahbash, which many clerics regard as a cult that seeks to undermine Islamic unity.  In 2011, the Australian National Imams Council tried to shut down the group’s Sydney-based radio station, claiming that it was run by a ”radical cult” that promoted “sectarian fringe views.” A scathing IslamicWeb article on the group, which ranks third in a Google search for “Al Ahbash,” relies on crude anti-Semitic characterizations. In regard to the founder of the sect, it states that, “Some people said he is Jew man, however there is no clear evidence for that, but at least he has a lot of the Jew’s characteristics.”

Although Ethiopia is a Christian-majority country, its eastern half is solidly Muslim, as can be seen from the detail of an M. Izady map posted here. Some 28 million Muslims live in Ethiopia, a figure roughly equal to that of Saudi Arabia.


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