Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

"Heard about the Good-Deed-Sayers?" Islam and Everyday Conversations on Religious Difference in Harar, Ethiopia

Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

"Heard about the Good-Deed-Sayers?" Islam and Everyday Conversations on Religious Difference in Harar, Ethiopia

Article excerpt

Introduction

One of the most incisive policy measures implemented by the new Ethiopian government after toppling the socialist regime in 1991 has been to stipulate religious freedom in the constitution. The political change had important and highly appreciated consequences for Muslims in Ethiopia, who had been widely marginalised by former regimes. For the first time, they were offered a space for political participation, self-organisation, and for negotiating religious issues. At the same time, new Muslim activists gained public presence. Often associated by the wider public with Salafiyya or Wahhabiyya ideologies, they triggered new debates within Muslim communities concerning correct religious practices and conduct because of their denouncement of shrine pilgrimage and saint veneration as (traditional) "cultural" or "un-Islamic" practice. After the government, in turn, had accused them of fueling violent confrontation between Muslims and Christians, a public debate ensued on the question of what constitutes an Ethiopian Muslim identity.2

In early 2003, during my research on the contemporary role of saint venerations in the city of Harar,3 I was struck that neither the described ruptures within Muslim communities nor conflicts between Christians and Muslims in many regions of Ethiopia did not have much impact on local urban religious life. Contemporary Harar is a multiethnic and multi-religious city,4 but it is also considered to be one of the most important Islamic centres in the Horn of Africa. However, when it came to Muslim activists, most people in Harar had a relaxed attitude toward the so-called 'Wahhabis,' who were either non-existent or a small number, always hiding their religious attitude. It seemed at first sight that Muslim activists or reform did not have any impact on the public sphere and that established religious practices, particularly associated with shrines and saint veneration, went on unharmed as if they had been practiced forever. Moreover, open discussions concerning correct religious practices or doctrine were absent, while public signs of Muslim piety were rare. During the usual morning stroll along the narrow streets, people may point towards the increase of Muslim fashion, in particular the Pakistani style, or the rate of prayer marks on the forehead. However, instead of considering these signs as a display of piety, people start to mock the passers-by behind their backs that they try to compensate for their lack of religious knowledge by their masquerade. Still, these remarks on the performance of others were rather casual or even humorous, similar to the disapproval of one's appreciation of a particular football team.

In general, there has been no open discourse on Islam as an ethical project, nor a debate about secular ideas or how religion should be implemented in the public sphere. Muslims in Harar attend prayers at the mosques, they fast regularly and send their children to schools where they learn basic knowledge of Islam, even though these are hardly signs of an emerging Muslim activism like what's being observed in other regions of Ethiopia. If people do not "do" religion to express that they are more pious than others, politicians in Harar correspondingly have never stopped to explain what the city is not, namely a blooming urban milieu of Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism. Instead, politicians were eager to clarify that Harar cultivated a peaceful, tolerant and moderate Islam which has nothing to do with extreme variants of Muslim faith (amhar. akrari islemena be'ethiopia, "Islamic extremism in Ethiopia").

In fact, many people in Harar were involved in debates about religious conduct and ethics - but never in public. Discussions about religion might of course have happened in religious circles of scholars or in educational spaces, but the most vibrant and emotional talk was articulated in confident, intimate and trustworthy face-to-face friendship circles during the daily afternoon cat chewing sessions (har. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.