Inform, Inspire, Embolden. Reconcile!

The Need For Historical Fairness

History will be kind to me for I intend to write it, once said Winston Churchill. Ever since writing was invented and kings and emperors climbed to their thrones to rule; scribes, chroniclers and later on historians began to document events for posterity. The majority of them scribbled the royal version on their clay tablets or parchments or even papyruses, and left us a somewhat warped picture of their times, for, as prescribed by the rules of utmost servility, the ruler was always right no matter what crimes he might have committed against his own people.

Rulers have always wanted to be remembered as great men who dispensed justice to their people and under whose reign trade flourished and everyone had decent meals on the table. And for this, the scribe or the chronicler was always ready to please the master.

But even real historians, those who are said to make deep researches, are not completely free from similar behavior. Scratch any historian and you will find a court scribe or a chronicler underneath. The propensity to fall back to such an abject state from time to time is so common among historians that history books need to be examined closely for any signs of lies, deceit, extrapolation, propaganda, etc. that could have contaminated them along with the minds of those who read them.

About 40 years ago I happened to get hold of a history textbook used by an Italian Elementary School in Asmara. When I saw the image of Menelik I was eager to read what the Italians could have written about the man who humiliated them at the Battle of Adwa. Under his effigy the caption read: Menelik king of the Sudan! Maledizione! I continued my reading and finished the paragraph without even a single line mentioning the famous battle!

As far as the history of Islam is concerned, our history textbooks for Grade 7 (that was in the 50s in Asmara) featured illustrations of turbaned and ‘bloodthirsty’ Moslem invaders disturbing the peace in Christian Europe and elsewhere. The intention was to discredit the religion before our eyes. In this, European missionaries played a decisive role. 

I am a graduate in French Literature and World History, but I don’t give a damn about what I have learned at colleges and universities. I am a self-educated man. As Churchill once said, I like to learn but I hate to be taught. Such disposition made me to become an avid reader of informative literature including history books, and I have more often than not gotten several rude awakenings during my reading life.

This time it was in the 1980s and I was Head of the Institute of African Studies at Asmara University when I came upon a book entitled Eritrean History (as far as I can remember) by Saleh Sabe, one of the founders of EPLF. I began thumbing through just out of curiosity and to my surprise my eyes fell upon the following subheading: the Sultanate of Ansaba or something like that. What?! I went over to the end footnote and found out that most of the sources were Arab historians. I said why not? Why should I always rely on a Conti Rossi, a Cerulli, an Alvarez, a James Bruce, etc. when I have my Arab historians who knew my country more closely than did Europeans? It was then that I began to suspect the veracity of history textbooks in general.

Then this one. Ras Hotel in Addis Abeba, April 2011. An acquaintance asks me if I have read a recently published book in Amharic with the provocative title: Etiopiawian Muslimoch, Yechikonana Yetgl Tarik 1615-1700 (Ethiopian Moslems: A History of Oppression and Struggle 615-1700). How do you like that?! No time to spare. I shouted at an ambulant book-vendor across the street and bought it on the spot. The author is Ahmedin Jebel from Addis Abeba University. He waited for many years to see others lead the way, but, as he says in his book, he waited enough and decided to write it himself.

According to the author, Islam was given a bad name by elite writers based on three errors: selection, omission and demonization followed by misinterpretation and misconception. Whenever a country writes its history, there are always the elites who representing one ethnic group (naturally the ruling one) commit the abovementioned crimes to hide the real history. I have myself followed books on the history of Eritrea written during the Italian occupation, the British Administration, during the union with Ethiopia and recent versions. They all read like different versions of the same theme in a concert, with each version tailored to please the one in power.

Anyway, it is always fair to listen to other versions, for by reading one version only it is impossible to be fair in one’s judgment.

Historians can sometimes be very cruel, and the history or exploits of Imam Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim commonly known in Ethiopia and Eritrea as Ahmed Gragn is a case in point.

According to the abovementioned book which is replete with footnotes from European and Arab sources, the so-called Gragn, being an Ethiopian through and through, was not an invader (by any stretch of the imagination) as he is invariably represented by most Ethiopian historians or by foreigners who write on Ethiopian history. If one can call Gragn an invader then Teodros belongs to that category too. And if Gragn is accused of burning churches and monasteries, Ethiopian kings such as LibneDingl and ZeraYakob cannot not be free from similar crimes, as they burned mosques and persecuted Moslems everywhere. Why were most of the history books about Ethiopia very circumventive and full of lacunas about Eritrea and the Oromos or even about Tigray or Ras Alula during my university days in Addis in the 1960s?

Ahmedin Jebel goes on to say that Christianity and Islam came to Ethiopia (Eritrea can blend into the picture considering the time the history covers in the book) in peaceful ways. The former by Frementius from Alexandria (about 330 AD) and the latter by the followers of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) who were allowed by an Ethiopian king to preach their faith freely.

Considering the long time for the lay people to accept Christianity in a pagan setting (probably for about 200 years), Islam which arrived around 600 AD was not too far behind in its converting campaign. This means that both religions had more or less the same momentum and the same point of departure when they started their southward missionary expansion. The problem was however that one came earlier to convert a king, while the other came a bit later to create suspicion, if not on the king himself then very likely on the royal court and the church. So in such circumstances it is not difficult to guess who persecuted who. And with the coming of the Solomonic dynasty which based its divine power on Israelite lineage which the old Ethiopian church failed to disassociate from Christianity, the fate of Islam was sealed.

But the thorniest chapter is the story that deals with an Axumite king (Negash) who is said to have been converted to Islam by the followers of the Prophet. This fact is clearly documented in history books written by Arab historians. Strangely enough, many Ethiopian historians who otherwise refute the above account, refer freely to those sources when writing their findings on Islam in the Horn.

According to Ahmedin Jebel, if most Ethiopian historians categorically reject the conversion story, they however fail to come up with a very convincing counter argument to bolster their statement apart from commenting that they find it very strange indeed that a Christian king of Axum could accept Islam in his sane mind and that therefore the whole story is a figment of the imagination and a wishful thinking of the person who wrote it.

Jebel rebuts by saying that while these scholars accept as normal the fact that one of the followers of the Prophet converted to Christianity after having suffered untold injuries and degradation in his beloved Arabia in order to protect and uphold the religion he cherished, when it is a question of a Christian accepting Islam, they find it unpalatable and call the historian a liar and perpetrator of falsehood. Is this fair?

My intention in writing this article is not to defend the author’s argument as I know very little about the said story, but to praise him for rising up boldly to rewrite, using his well-documented version, a history he found to be biased against those who had for long been marginalized in their own land.

Jebel goes to say that in the same way that there were kingdoms of Shoa or Gojam or Lasta, etc. in Ethiopia, there were also parallel Moslem kingdoms here and there, namely the Sultanates of Adal, Shoa, Bali etc. which had never been given their rightful place in Ethiopian history. He says that historians like Trimmingham who wrote Islam in Ethiopia presented Islam as a negative and alien force to be reckoned with. To add injustice to injury, court and church historians dismissed the rise of these kingdoms calling the times the Dark Age of Ethiopian history.

Jebel says to the effect that if a nation fails to see its past history freed from dross and grime, then it cannot manage the present or control the future.

If the retro mirror in your car gives you a blurred image of what lay behind you, you may get confused as to where you exactly are at a given moment and you will find it difficult to know where you are heading for. So clean your past history of all accumulated dust and dross so that you may be able to move forward with confidence in your heart and a bright vision in your eyes.

I liked the book for the reasons given above. It is a good beginning. A second volume is coming soon. I don’t think the author would hate a critical response to his findings.

Anyway, a nation’s history is not a Bible. Yet not even the Bible is safe from critical analysis known as exegesis. Old beliefs die hard. It needs a man of courage and analytical mind to shorten the lives of warped and contaminated history books. There is no time more opportune than the present.  

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