By Eileen Moyer
University of Amsterdam (formerly University of Iowa)

Burkina Faso, end of Ramadan. Photo by Christopher D. Roy, 1983-5.

Although many people are aware of the long tradition of Christianity in Ethiopia and northern Africa, rarely is it acknowledged that the oldest Islamic community in the world was formed in Ethiopia. During the 6th century when the followers of the prophet Mohammed where persecuted in Mecca, they were forced to seek out refuge in Ethiopia. The ruler of the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum is said to have offered them protection and to have refused to extradite them to Arabia. When the persecution came to an end, the refugees returned home to Mecca and one of them, Umm Habibah, married the prophet Mohammed. Ties between Ethiopia and Mohammed remained strong, and he is said to have excluded their Christian kingdom from his jihad or Holy War against non-Muslims. One of the earliest converts to Islam was the Ethiopian Bilal, who journeyed to Mecca to become the first Islamic muezzin, the person who calls the faithful to prayer (Muir 1978).