Between Mirqaniya & Wahabiya
In Defense Of Secularism
My subject today is triggered by the inhumane, tragic and criminal incidents that London went through. To the population of the world who are unfamiliar with Eritrea, the name “Ibrahim Mukhtar Said” an accused terrorist, is now synonymous with Eritrea. In this issue of Negarit, I will speak about the Islam I grew up with to make the obvious point: Ibrahim Mukhtar’s “Islam” is a mutation, not the real thing. As usual, this edition of Negarit contains information that is anecdotal stream-of-consciousness; It is not a well-researched academic writing. It is also limited to my experience, which is obviously Keren-centric, but I believe it will arouse memories of Muslims who grew elsewhere in Eritrea. I hope it will trigger an exercise of comparisons of how we were and how we are, and how much of our traditions, cultural pride and heritage has been hijacked or deformed by the fringe extremists of today.
An Unthinkable Crime
There are many things wrong with what Ibrahim Mukhtar (and others) tried to do but perhaps the most shocking—and the one that got many of us to question if he really is an Eritrean, is he really a Muslim, did he really grow up in Eritrea—is that he is attacking the principle of “Amana.”
When we were kids, and we committed a grave error or somebody stronger than us, a bully, wanted to do us harm, it was customary to run and cling to an elder and ask “Amanakha!” “Eqbka” and receive sanctuary. You would be under the custody of your protector who would tell the bully that he can no longer do what he was planning to do without getting past him. The bully would threaten that he would get to you next time, and leave. Now, would it be at all conceivable for this child to burn the house and attempt to kill the family of the same elder he had gone to in his time of need?
The West has embraced tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees, all escaping armed and violent bullies: Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie and Mengistu, as well as our homegrown one, Isaias Afwerki. They granted asylum denied to us in our own countries. The West paid for our education; when we were denied education and sanctuary even in many Muslim countries. It’s the trust. Asylum seekers trusted the West and the West trusted them. That trust should not be broken; and if anyone dares to break that trust, it is the obligation of Muslims to turn them in to the law officers. No criminal should be harbored; especially a criminal that endangered the lives of tens of thousands, caused the disrespect of millions, violated the trust awarded to him and importantly, showed disregard for life and for humanity.
That is not the Islam I know and grew up with; let me tell you about the one I knew and grew up with. It is one that celebrated life, had a healthy dose of tolerance of other religions and was led by devout people who made charity, education and work their life’s virtuous calling.
When Medrasa Meant School and Not an indoctrination camp
In Eritrea (and Ethiopia), Islam was introduced long before much of the Arab world embraced it by contemporaries of the prophet Muhammad himself – we were Muslims long before present day Saudi Arabia accepted Islam. The significance of this is that an Eritrean Muslim, unlike many in other parts of the world, is secure in his/her “Muslimness” and doesn’t feel one bit of subordination to those who may wish to claim seniority or expertise on the matter. Let me tell you about my great-grandfather, Sheikh Abdullah Mohammed Nur: he was devout beyond comprehension. I still visualize his wife, my great grandmother Abshai Saediya, using sharp blades and cutting the callus from his forehead, a sign of his praying non-stop, five times a day including extras since he was a child. They never raised their voices, never complained, never gossiped and never hated anyone. Sheikh Abdullah, whose main subject of discussion, outside reading the Quraan and telling us the stories of prophet Joseph, Noah, Abraham and Moses, was his proud recount of how he was selected to make a saddle for General Lorensino when he first visited Keren. Had he lived to witness what a few deranged elements are doing under the guise of Islam, he would have died of a heart attack. I am glad he passed away before the image of his religion was besmirched.
Sufis predominantly spread Islam in Eritrea. Among the many Sufi Schools, the predominant was the Mirqaniya School, a faith of peace, respect for life, society and its traditions. When I was growing up, the huge “Ad Sidi” compound where the tomb of Sidi Bekri Al Mirqani rests in Hillet-Sudan, Keren, was a vibrant spiritual Sufi center. It has a basic one-room school where the late Seidna Bilal taught generations of Kerenites how to read and write and recite the Quraan. It was a Medrasa, a name that unfortunately has become synonymous with terrorist breeding grounds, courtesy of the merchants of death, the Stone Age minded Mullahs of Afghanistan and Pakistan and equally stupid media. In his age, the revered Seidna Bilal was one of the few teachers that Kerenites would turn to for education. Single-handedly, he probably taught more than what the Italians taught during their preceding fifty-year long rule. Many Kerenites learned their basic arithmetic, reading and writing- all through the vehicle of Quraanic recitation. The great Seidna Bilal educated generations; none of his students strapped themselves with explosives to blow-up innocent people. None of his students preached hate. None of his students contemplated killing an animal, let alone a human life.
The Mosque As A House Of Charity
When the first Italian commander arrived in Keren, after the remnants of Ras Alula’s armies departed, he asked why the town center was deserted. He was told that it was Id AlFitr and most of the traders, the Muslims, have closed their shops and have gone to pray. It was work, prayer, and life – unlike now, where life is condemned by extremists. There is a one room mosque in the neighborhood where I grew up and where my father grew up, and where my grandfather before him grew up – it was the first structure my ancestors built the moment they came to Keren during one of the famine and other catastrophes of the nineteenth century in the Kebessa. It was known as Enda GuhCha’a after their ancestral place; to this day, though the Ethiopians unsuccessfully tried to name it ‘Hailemariam Mammo Street’, the neighborhood is still known by its original name.
The mosque served as a social center for the elders and as a disciplinary example for the children. Everyday after work, the elders would meet there to pray the sunset prayer, Meqrb, and then sit around until late night prayer, Isha. Then, they dispersed to their houses to meet again the next day for the dawn prayer – before everyone goes “to look for the bounties of God”, to work and earn and raise a family.
What did they discuss in the mosque? A certain family is in dire hardships and needs some financial help- they raise money. A certain youngster is growing up and going astray (women and drinking)- Let’s marry him to the daughter of so and so. A widow has been living alone for too long, can’t we match her with a good husband? Social issues were solved; commercial deals were finalized; disputes were solved and individuals were so content and proud because they belonged to a strong community that looked after them. Even the poor were not humiliated in public for lack of clothing or food; the community took care of that all in secrecy- “the right-hand should not know what the left hand is giving” generosity. “The hand that gives is more blessed than the hand that receives”- humility. This is the community that instilled in us the fear of God. It inculcated in us the respect for trust. That was when the mosque acted as the center of charity, not like now, in some places, when it is the proving grounds for sermons of agitation and the name of God is evoked to support a political agenda.
Aya Ibrahim Mussa
In 1991, when I went to Keren after years of absence, I arrived late and slept in a room close to the local mosque. At dawn, I woke up to a voice that was stored in my memory that wet my eyes with tears of nostalgia and emotions. I was sure who the man who was chanting and reciting in that voice was. Is this aya Ibrahim? I asked, and my relatives were amazed that I could pick his voice. This was the best voice I grew up hearing. A sharp alto that pierced through the misty morning and floated with the birds in mid-air leaving a soft imprint in the ear before it found its way to memory never to leave it again. Aya Ibrahim, who probably knew he had the best voice in town, did the chanting for years except for a few years lapse when he was a refugee in the Sudan in the late seventies and eighties. He came back to Keren to do what he did since I first saw the sun that lighted Keren; where it started its day and then went further to light the rest of the world.
But now, all that chanting and reciting, according to our disrespectful Wahabi oriented kids is Bed’Aa, something close to a sin that takes you straight to hell! They get to decide who goes to hell and who goes to heaven!
The Hawliya of The Mirqaniya
There were colorful festivals of Mowlid Annabi, and the abundance of biscuits, fruit juices, sweets and cheerful processions all over Eritrea: it was the prophet’s birthday; a celebration of life. There was the nostalgic Ramadan- the waking up for breakfast by the sound of drummers who roamed the streets chanting, “As-Ha Ya Sayim”, Wed Drar and his colleagues; the Lgemat, and Mushabek and late night strolls which was later disrupted in the days of the curfew, and many other festivities and rituals.
One day, every year, people flocked from all corners of Eritrea for the Mirqani Hawliya (ngdet), a social and spiritual festival in Keren. Though there were similar Hawliyas in Massawa and Agordat, the Keren Hawliya was the most vibrant; Keren was in the middle of the two towns. Busloads of people came from all places; but more visible were people from Massawa who put colorful stalls where they sold a unique Massawa specialty- the Halawat Sela (candies & pastries). The Semharites had a specialty that no one could beat them at; they had Sufi mystics who chanted praises, recited poetry and played Jebajib: a spectacular Sufi meditation in vocals accompanied by inspiring drum beats that aroused the spirit.
The Hawliya festival would not be what it was without the Sudan-Tsebab, a few hard working people who lived by the banks of the Anseba river on the outskirts of Keren; the people who developed the Citrus, Zeitun (guava) and mango plantations in Tsebab. They had their own crowded corner were they played the Deluka, a rhythmic music of drums and a dance where tradition dictated that the dancers bloodied each other’s back with a long whip to prove their courage and perseverance, amid the ululation of the girls – which probably numbed their pain-signaling nerves and aroused their macho frenzy, and they called for more whipping that tore their skin, to show courage. In another corner there was the Tembour – an African melancholic soul music that probably originated in West Africa and which I have seen played in the Arab Gulf state. There, it is considered a heritage by the sailors and divers, a community (obviously of African descent judging from their features) that lived off deep-sea pearl harvesting. In the Hawliya however, the paralyzed Abdullah Sudani was the master Tembour player. He strummed his Rebaba with an agitating tune that excited the dancers and aroused the Zar spirits of some. This was all in the compound of Ad Sidi during Hawliya: The Al-Mirqani family was a well-respected religious family in Eritrea; the descendants of the family are now in exile scattered all over the world. They were the social gravitation of Muslims and practiced a different Islam than that of the extremists.
There were many respected spots in Eritrea associated with revered community leaders and religious imams, where people flocked to pay respect: Sheikh Adem AlKinani’s center in Abi Adi; Sheikh Muzammil Ali’s center, In Adi Etai; Sheikh Abdusalam’s center, in Emba Derho; and Sheikh AlAmin’s center, in Emberemi and many others.
Now, all these events celebrating Islam and Muslims are all frowned upon by the dour Wahabis as, you guessed it, they call them Bed’Aa: an innovation.
And there was Mariam Daarit
Alongside the Hawliya, Maryam Daarit was another great festival special to Kerenites. Though religiously speaking Mariam Daarit is a Catholic festival, many Muslims have never missed celebrating that day- festivals offer more than their religious dimensions. Our families in Eritrea respected each other’s religions. In times of drought, for example, they would have joint Days of Prayer. There was the Hoyena-Hoye of Qudus Yohannes, the Damera of Meskel and many others.
But now, even watching that would be considered Bid’Aa. Everything that was not done or was not present in the deserts of Saudi Arabia 1400 years ago is a Bid’Aa. Reason and dialogue is not the strength of the extremists, it is no use telling them that we are living neither in that age nor in that geographical limit. They don’t listen, and they don’t want to listen.
When A Mufti Meant A Mufti
Ironically, talking about the suspected bomb planter Ibrahim Mukhtar brings us to another great person with a similar name: the revered Mufti, the late Ibrahim AlMukhtar. During my childhood, he was the highest Muslim authority in Eritrea. He was an enlightened religious scientist and an enlightened leader. Educated in Egypt’s AlAzhar University in the thirties, Shiekh Ibrahim became the Mufti and Qadi Al-Quddat (Grand Judge) of Eritrea in 1940 and served his people with dedication until he passed away in 1969. He was buried in the “Haz Haz” burial ground in Asmara.
Mufti Ibrahim was an influence of moderation; he protected Muslims and promoted their social issues with admirable diplomatic tact, courage and modernism. This, despite the theocratic rule of Haile Sellasie that pronounced one faith as the official religion of the nation. Mufti Ibrahim AlMukhtar was a voice of modernism: his older daughter was a famous athlete involved in horse racing.
But now, today’s archaic religious leaders would consider that “Jahiliya”, ignorance. Of course, it doesn’t serve their agenda of limiting the life of women to nothing. But then, even the age they want to take us back to, the early days of Islam, any woman would have galloped on a horse without fearing for her life and her family wouldn’t fear being ostracized. The extremists are fond of summoning darkness.
Islam has spread; it has encompassed the four corners of the world. It has come into contact with other cultures, languages, and geographical confines. Islam has never been a prescription of claustrophobia as those who refuse to leave the medieval ages want to define it: the age of Andalucia and the Moorish empire of Spain is history and there is no going back to the days of military conquests. There is no going back to the days of a Muslim geography ruled by a Khelifa, a Caliph.
Muslim nations have developed differently and, by the way, they are almost all universally bad: authoritarians, dictatorships, archaic monarchies and kingdoms whose leaders pretend they are republics. And there is disease everywhere- and ignorance and lack of freedoms and corrupt regimes stifling the spirit and creativity of their people by keeping winds of enlightenment and modernity at bay. Certainly, this has created ignorance and intolerance and arrogance; the result is the medieval elements that are wreaking havoc all over the world. But it is worse for the Muslims.
Reclaiming Our Religion
Many non-Muslims do not know what a regular Muslim undergoes: we are robbed of our faith, of our dignity of our pride and of our freedom. The extremists has encroached every aspect of our social life and has made the societies motionless drawing in backwardness when the rest of the world is advancing socially, economically and technologically. We have to take charge. We as a society should not let this happen to our glorious religion. We should not let this happen to the future of our children. We have to hand them a world where they feel proud about their religion–not be burdened to apologize for the deeds of extremists who have damaged the lives of so many.
This is what they planted; and this what Muslims are reaping today. Suspected just for being Muslims. We have to be suspected; and we have to be shameful: we let the merchants of death and backwardness hijack our religion one-step at a time while we dozed. When we woke up, there was very little to protect. It is time that the purity of the faith is reclaimed from those who have owned it for too long: the forces that are using it as an ideological vehicle to mobilize Muslims, in their worldly political quest. What they are doing has nothing to do with the communication between Muslims and their creator; it is a worldly affair, and it should be seen as such – and condemned.
I don’t think anyone wants to hear apologetic explanations and conspiracy theories that defy logic. Terrorism is shameful. It is shameful simply because it is blind and is counter-productive. Maiming civilians and damaging properties cannot be justified for whatsoever reason. Such acts should be condemned with the strongest words. No apologetic explanations and no ifs. What is being promoted against our traditions disguised as religion is in fact a foreign tradition of intolerance and a backwardness that rejects modernity and condemns Muslims to a life of poverty, misery and ignorance. We still have time. We need to wake up and prevent our community from such horrendous acts and such destructive culture. Enough of Wahabi Evangelism.
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