Language and Religion In Eritrean Politics (Archive)

(The following was presented at a panel discussion under the theme “Eritrea’s Path towards Democracy: Dialogue on Constitutional Issues”. The event was held at the Universities at Shady Grove, Rockville, Maryland, on June 25, 2011; the organizers of the event assigned the topic to the presenter. It’s being republished to shed light on the topic as it’s relevant to the ongoing debate. Still, after so many years of debating the issue of language and religion, there seems to be sever lack of knowledge on the topic because it has been overly politicized and scholarly input to alleviate the situation are lacking. Apart from minor changes, in this version, I have included a poster that shows Surat AlFatiha, the first Surra of the Kura’an, and Abune Zebezemayat the Christian Ft’hat. Both are written in a hypnotic Arabic calligraphy. The poster in itself does not prove anything, but the intention here is to provoke people to question their perception and understand that language in itself is religion-neutral. Like many other languages of humanity, Arabic is the language of Muslims, Christians, Jews, as well as of adherents of other Middle Eastern faiths.)

I didn’t choose the topic; and though it seems like a dispassionate intellectual topic, I believe it is specific: language and religion as it relates to Eritrea. It is even more specific than that—for religion, read Islam and for language, read Arabic. Both remain in trial indefinitely, and the latter is treated like a suspect that needs to prove and reprove, and reprove once more that it is Eritrean. I intend to do that, for the umpteenth time not forgetting that Arabic has been in the land long before the name Eritrea entered our memory.

I will tell you a story that I probably told a dozen times because this subject keeps re-emerging in old garb and its presenters think it is original: the same tired objections, the same cynical suspicion of Islam and Arabic, and by extension, that of half the Eritrean population. I have no other way but to tell the same story over and over again. I will only stop that when the arguments change; otherwise, it will always be there.

A drunken violinist, a Wata, had an excellent day in Asmara and was returning to his village in the outskirts. On his way, he arrived at a roaring river, which he could not cross. Since the main job description of a Wata is showering everyone with songs of praise, he pleaded to the river to slow down and enable him to cross to the opposite bank. He sang: Oh dear mighty river, my honorable river, please be gracious, slow down for a while and allow me to cross! The river didn’t yield. Another stranded man noticed the Wata singing to the river and told him: “the portion that you praised moves on and a new portion follows it; you have to focus on one portion and run alongside it, singing, until it stops for you to cross!”

Like the violinist, some are doomed to repeat the same argument to new portions of the flood, newcomers to the debate. It is exhausting, but no one is giving up.

And since the topic is old and politicized, I am aware that some portions of my presentation is recycled material; I cannot help but do just that.

Arabic and Muslims in “Abyssinia”

The countries known as Ethiopia and Eritrea today, are close neighbors to the Arab world. In fact Eritreans have been closer than most people would like to admit. For Muslims, they know that their Kur’aan itself is called mesHaf, a word borrowed from Geez[1], metsHaf.

There is a wealth of material that explains the relations of Axumites with Arabia, well before the prophet Mohammed, and it was natural for that to continue after the advent of Islam. Twenty out of the 132[2] Muslim refugees who fled Mecca to Abyssinia were Abyssinians or of Abyssinian ancestry. Among them was the Abyssinian Baraka Um Aymen[3], the prophet’s mother (by breast feeding, “wet nurse.”) The refugees lived in Abyssinia for 16 years, and 14 of them died and were buried there. So, don’t be surprised if an Eritrean says that someone from those Arabs who lived in Abyssinia for 16 years is their ancestor.

The Abyssinian-Arab relations means a lot to Muslims: the maternal grandmothers of both Omer Bin Alkhatab, the second Khelifa and Omer Bin AlAas, the conqueror of Egypt, were Abyssinians. Again, Khelifa Omer was killed by an Abyssinian in Medina and so was Hamza, the prophet’s uncle who was killed by Jahash, an Abyssinian slave. Abyssinians are not strangers in the history of Arabia, even before Islam—Abraha and the “People Of The Elephant” (asHab alfil), is a story that is told in a surra of the Kur’an, and Muslims memorize by heart. Bilal the Abyssinian and Luqman AlHakim[4] (Luqman the wise) are just two of the tens of prominent Abyssinians in Islamic history. To this day, the inner security of the Ka’aba is entrusted to people most of whom are descendants of the erstwhile Abyssinians, who until recently were eunuchs (I am not sure if they are so now.) In short, Islamic history is full of Abyssinian personalities of high stature—in the military, trade, craftsmanship, literature; Abyssinians are generally associated with beauty, piety, singing, dancing, bravery, etc. And Yemen has its long relation with Abyssinia; the migrations and cross migrations are well chronicled.

The crescent-shaped area extending from the Zeila (an old port around today’s border between Djibouti and Somaliland), all the way to Southern Shoa, had flourished under Muslim Sultanates—seven of them are well known—and it is believed that the word Jeberti comes from one of those Sultanates of that area. Many people from those Sultanates joined Imam Ahmed Ibrahim AlQazi (commonly known as Ahmed Gragn, teh left-handed) in his conquest against the highland kings of Abyssinia.

Today, we find most of the suspicion of Muslims and rejection of Arabic by Abyssinian Christians based on what I mentioned above—specially the conquests of Ahmed Gragn which remains alive in the psyche of many Christians though it happened six-hundred years ago. Why?

Isn’t the anti-Christian onslaught by Gragn more than matched by the anti-Muslim excesses of kings of the era, and later by Prince Wube, King Tedros, and King Yohannes? And if Christian Abyssinians don’t feel the need to apologize for the deeds of those kings, why should Muslims be made to feel of dual loyalty or suspect for the excesses of Gragn? And if Christian Abyssinians could move around and settle anywhere in the Eritrean and Ethiopian highlands why is the word “settler” only reserved for Muslims?

In the 19th century, the population of the Eritrean highlands was less than 300,000, most of whom were settlers who came with the waves of the invading Abyssinian armies from the South. Many villages and regions in present Eritrea are descendants of Amhara and Oromo armies sent to the Eritrean highlands to protect the trade and caravan routes from Massawa to the hinterland or to fight one war or another, or to invade and plunder. Many villages were established by followers of the many generals who raided the highlands and who remained and established themselves in present day Eritrea. Alula, Yohannes’ general, is said to have enforced many legislations to enable his soldiers and those before him, to acquire land rights. The Seraye region is settled by many warrior families from Tigray and their retainers and followers. There are villages whose ancestral origin is Dembia, Gondar and Tigrai[5]. But, amazingly, demeaning “settler from Tigray,” is reserved only for Muslims.

Speaking of language and religion: Are the Jeberti in Eritrea originally from Tigray? Some are. Others have been there since time immemorial. And yes, some even came with Ahmed Gragn or were converted by him 600 years ago. There are Jeberti from every conceivable race in the region, including Arabia and beyond. That is why they try to tell people that Jeberti is not a race, but an amalgam of people with countless racial background: anyone from any place who is a Muslim and embraces the local culture is easily assimilated. It is not a race; it is a nation—again, that is why they object to being baptized Tigrigna by a government Fiat issued on the whims of Isaias and his ideologues.

But here is the biggest problem that Eritrea faces. The Beni Amer, and the Hedareb, have no problem in recognizing their cross-border relations with their kinsmen in Sudan. The Danakil tribal confederation doesn’t have a problem recognizing their kinship, the Afars in Djibouti and Ethiopia. The Bet Asghede tribes of Sahel do not have a problem recognizing their kinship with their brethren across the border in Sudan or their ancestry in Abyssinia proper. It is only in the Eritrean Highlands that people seem to have a problem recognizing their relations to Tigray and Amhara. Not the Jeberti, not the Saho speaking tribes, not the Erob and not many people who live on the border regions of the area. But as you move further from the border, you have a never-ending attempt to differentiate one’s self and to severe the racial, linguistic, and religious ties with Abyssinia, specially with Tigray!

And there is another problem caused by a twisted logic: the elite of the highlands want to decide the race, ethnic name, division, and retroactively molding of Eritreans as per their whims. No one objects when Eritrean Highland Christians claim ancestry from personalities who lived a thousand years ago, to biblical times; yet never does a Muslim mention an Arab ancestry without a noticing a belittling chuckle from those same Eritreans. But let’s see: the Assawerta claim ancestry from Asawr; the TroAa from Suleiman Al-Arabi; a small section of the Jeberti claim affinity with the Arab Mekhzumis, Moroccans, and still others from Osman Bin Afan; the Beni Amer from several Arab ancestors; the Ad Mualim and Ad Shek claim Hashimi (prophets tribe) ancestry. The name Hedarb is a corruption of the word Hadarem[6] from Hadramot in Yemen. The Artega section of the Beni Amer claim ancestry from Mohammed Jemalladdin (and beyond him), an Arab who first settled in Saukin[7], and there are many more such ancestries.

Arabic Pre-dates Eritrea

“The Arabic language has not been a language of religion only, but it is also a language of life in this world, and many documents that go back to centuries, and which was kept in the Archives of the court in Massawa and Keren, attest to this fact since it was written in Arabic[8].”

There is ample proof to indicate that Arabic was a ligua-franca in Massawa. Documents of inheritance, endowments (Awqaf), marriage, commercial dealings, etc, were all conducted in Arabic in Massawa in the 18th and 19th centuries[9]. There are old Arabic engravings in gravestones in Dahlak Kebir, etc. It was common in Muslim towns to see inscriptions or embossed writings on top of the doors and gates of the affluent: adkhuluha bslamin amneen[10], or, ya dakhil albab sely Alanebi[11], etc.

There is also a misconception that Arabic is the choice of the Muslim elite. That is not correct, it is the choice of all Eritrean Muslims not just Muslim elites.[12]

  1. Whatever education Eritrean Muslims were getting in pre-modern Eritrea (namely khelwa (Madrassah), or Kur’anic studies) was in Arabic. Muslim literacy in pre-colonial Eritrea was essentially Arabic literacy. The Khelwa tradition continues to this day. Basically, every Muslim child in Eritrea, prior to going to regular school, attends kura’anic school[13]. Modern education started less than a century ago; Eritreans have been around in that land quite a few centuries before that. That should establish the fact that Arabic, (since no one is objecting to Tigrinya) has been an indigenous Eritrean language forever. The founding fathers of modern Eritrea agreed and designated Arabic and Tigrinya as official languages of the country. That treaty is sacrosanct—any violation of that agreement bears grave consequences.
  2. The Shariaa courts (family laws), and all documentation were (and are) performed in Arabic. Since time immemorial, Muslims conduct their rituals, death, marriage, inheritance, business transactions, etc. on Arabic. Therefore, Arabic is not limited to religious affairs as some wrongly assume.
  3. Even in religious affairs, in Eritrea where Muslims belong to every linguistic group in the country, there is no practical way of duplicating communications and Friday sermons in all the nine languages. Muslims adopted Arabic as a solution to their multi-lingual reality, not because they hate their languages, but because every Muslim has a basic knowledge of Arabic from a young age; it is therefore practical tool for their unity.

Arabic was part of life of Eritrea and Ethiopia for centuries and not just for Muslims. Unless crowned by the patriarch of Alexandria, who speaks Arabic, no Ethiopian king was considered legitimate. This is supported by the fact that the seal of many Abyssinian emperor carried Arabic inscriptions: melk mululk AlHabasha (King of Kings of Abyssinia). Ras Alula has an iconic picture wearing An Arab garb. Much of the Ethiopian religious literature was translated from Arabic. The kings’ envoys to the region and their trading emissaries were Abyssinian Muslims fluent in Arabic.

When the Italians came to Eritrea, they brought with them Arabic translators and spoke with the locals in that language. When a Portuguese delegation passed through Massawa in 1520, the Captain General met the chief of Hergigo and “had conversation which they held by interpreters, the Captain speaking Arabic well…”[14]. The priest of the embassy who accidentally became its registrar, refers to the local populations he met on the shores of the Red Sea as Moors. This is indicative of the fact that he didn’t see any difference between them and the Arabs (Moors) who ruled his country, the Iberian Peninsula. As recently as when I was growing up, we referred to the people from the countryside of Western Eritrea as Arab.

It is not true to say that Arabic is advanced by Muslim elites. But it is very true to say that Arabic is denied by EPLF/PFDJ elite. And the EPLF/PFDJ elite don’t even have to be from the highlanders or Christians to deny the historic role of Arabic in Eritrea.

In 1996, in a debate over the constitution provisions, Mussa Naib, a PFDJ functionary whose very last name is an Arabic title (similar to Viceroy, or Deputy) stated to me that Arabic is a British invention in Eritrea; but we know the British came to Eritrea in 1941. Mussa was a member of the constitution commission of Eritrea that was touring the world to promote the idea of adopting mother languages (never mind the PFDJ had already decided that.) Someone asked a question: “In what language did your ancestors, the Naib’s of Massawa, correspond and in what language did they gain their primary education?” Of course, Mussa brushed the questions off. But the answer was, Arabic, and that was centuries before the British set foot in Eritrea, But poor Mussa was only pushing the official PFDJ line.

For instance, let’s take the name Rashaida. In its social reengineering exercise, the PFDJ divided Eritreans into nine linguistic groups. It baptized every group by the name of the language it speaks except the Rashaida who kept their racial reference, Rashaida. This is not only inconsistency it is done just to avoid referring to them as Arabs. Of course, the PFDJ wouldn’t call them Arabs when it is engaged in a futile attempt to eradicate Arabic from Eritrea.

Prejudiced Energizers

The prejudice against Arabic has its roots; Europeans missionaries and zealots have played a destructive role in the region, specially the Portuguese[15] and Jesuits. The damage can be traced to ignorant priests like Alvarez.

Many Ethiophiles after Alvarez continued the damage, and one of them wrote that the, “Tigre speakers are very largely illiterate, and those who have pretensions to literacy find Arabic a more useful means of communication.” And “The decision of the Eritreans government, in 1952, declaring Tigrnya and Arabic official languages of Eritrea is significant and augurs ill for the future of Tigre.”[16]

A respected Ethiopian scholar writes, “[the ELM] was soon eclipsed by the Muslim dominated ELF.”[17] Though it is an established fact that both the ELM and the ELF were started by Muslims with national agendas and programs, but the anti Muslim die was already caste a long time ago.

Such are the “scholarly” inputs that the PFDJ feeds from and adds to its bigotry, exclusionary and dangerous policies that have relegated Muslims to the inferior citizenship status. It has happened in the fifties[18], and it is happening now[19].

Polarized Society

When the British proposed the idea of dividing Eritrea between Sudan and Haile Sellassie’s Ethiopia, it was primarily the Muslims who fought that proposal and caused its failure. The Muslim dream for a united, peaceful Eritrea, and their commitment to it, is just there for anyone to see, provided there is honesty.

Recently, I have noticed a growing frustration among Muslims, especially those who were born or raised in the refugee camps of Sudan. Just a few weeks ago I met one of them and he was cursing Ibrahim Sultan and his colleagues who aborted the British proposal of partitioning Eritrea. The refugee told me, “what is the difference, myself and my family have been living in Sudan as refugees since 40 years, at least we would have been Sudanese and we wouldn’t have been kicked off our land.” However one tries, it is difficult to put yourself in his shoes and I felt like crying in despair. I didn’t even manage to utter enough words to console him, I felt helpless. “They betrayed us”, he said. I don’t know who he meant by THEY, but I felt as guilty as they, whoever they are.

The main culprit for the continuation and exasperation of the polarization is the PFDJ designs which was unfortunately not corrected by the constitution commission[20] when it had a chance. In its attempt to eradicate Arabic, the PFDJ has always avoided designating official languages. The result is what we see today in Eritrea: it is a unilingual, hegemonic state and “the domination of the Eritrean state by the Tigrigna ethnic is not subject of question. This is the fact and only those suffering from self-delusion can deny it.”[21]. If you do not know Tigrigna, you have no chance of getting a public employment or advancement in position regardless of the set of skills and certificates that you hold. And this fact can be illustrated by a story of another frustrated Eritrean I met in Dubai in the nineties.

A lawyer by training, he eagerly raced back to Eritrea to live there for good; no one could patronize him for not joining the struggle because of his young age. He applied for a job and was asked to take an exam for a public job; he did. One Sunday morning, he wanted to check if he passed the exam before traveling to Western Eritrea to be with his relatives for an occasion. He went to where they put the list of those who passed the exam and looked at the list on the wall. But he couldn’t read the names, it was written in Tigrigna. He stood there for a while until he saw a child of about twelve passing by. He asked him if he could read the list for him. The child went through the list and told him, yes, this is your name. He was supposed to be happy; but he was not. “That was the day I discovered I was illiterate by PFDJ standards though I carried a university degree.” He said to me with bitterness. He left Eritrea for good—even if he stayed, what awaited him was a job as an elementary school teacher like many graduates from the Middle East who can only get a teacher’s job, teaching Arabic to elementary school students simply because they do not know Tigrigna and could not be absorbed in the public employment positions. That is why after twenty years of independence, the diversity in the PFDJ employee list is warped. Worse, some people do not like Muslims complaining about that. What should they do? Keep quiet and die in agony?

The UNESCO Doctrine

I am not sure how UNESCO describes its goals and missions, but in the Eritrean context, in relation to the mother-tongue policy, I am taking the liberty to define it as follows: a doctrine that fiercely promotes the equality of languages. It promotes mother tongues as both a governing policy and as a means of education. Unwavering believers defend the doctrine as any fanatic would defend his faith.

One of the mistrust of the constitution commission by most Muslims is because they believed it will endorse the PFDJ policies. Those who should have known didn’t object, those who didn’t know the reality of Eritrea, those who never ventured outside their villages to know the rest of Eritrea, considered the issue an intellectual exercise and trampled over the rights of others[22]. As planned, the adaptation of the mother-tongue policy neither benefited the non-Tigrigna speakers, nor the Muslims who have always opted for Arabic. And the entire country is still going through a damaging journey.

After twenty years of misrule in Eritrea, we all know the language issue is not theoretical any more. The UNESCO doctrine is just another useless acrobatics.

Idris Aba-Arre

The language topic cannot be discussed without mentioning the brave Idris Aba-Arre who warned about the risks of the irresponsible and mischievous language policy. In 2001, the regime threw him in jail for his views and he disappeared in the dungeons of Isaias. Aba-Arre challenged the elite that should have known better, that exclusion of Arabic is detrimental to the cohesion of Eritreans and vital to social justice. They didn’t heed his advice. Just as he predicted, almost twenty years of mischievous application of the mother-tongue policy produced two generation of illiterate adults (about 8% high school attendance only.) The policy also effectively barred those whose educational background is Arabic from employment in the public sector.

And look around you, Muslims are excluded (or exclude themselves) because of this polarizing factor. Decade ago, just like now, individuals tried to silence people from discussing their grievances, as usual, Muslims never abandoned their call for dialogue, tirelessly they tried to explain their issues which were discouraged because the issues were considered polarizing—those who oppose Arabic with passion fail to notice that their patronizing posture is the only polarizing factor.

What Is In Arabic?

Many fail to remember that Eritreans launched an armed struggle to reinstate the official languages, flag and other symbols of Eritrean sovereignty that Ethiopia violated—the violation of Arabic was one of the main reasons. No one has the right to make a choice on behalf of anyone—paternalist posture is anti-democratic and every bleeding-heart democrat should be aware of this fact. In a free country, citizens are equal and they have equal choices.

The elite of our society has always been in the middle of all political and social unrest and today’s unelected rulers of Eritrea perpetuate the prejudices and paternal attitudes of the past. What emboldens the rulers to continue to punish the people with impunity? Why are Eritrean citizens so weakened that they cannot resist tyranny? Eritreans are so confused to strengthen mutual trust among themselves and be able to wage an effective combined national struggle to rid themselves of their present predicament.

The intensity of the regime’s obsession with systematically excluding Arabic from Eritrea is in direct contrast to the intensity with which Eritreans are determined to defend their choice. That choice should be viewed as a national, cross denominational and patriotic choice for the wellbeing of Eritrea and for keeping a genuine unity of its people.

No. I am not an Arab. But Arabic is part of the social bond that the founding fathers of Eritrea made a covenant on; and to reject or marginalize it is akin to forfeiting a bonding contract.

Thank you

(Saleh “Gadi” Johar, founder and publisher of, author of ‘Simply Echoes’,  ‘Of Kings And Bandits’, and ‘Miriam Was Here.’ You can also read his 2010 article on the language issue at:  

[1] Mohammed AlTayeb Al Yousifi, Ethiopia wel Eruba Wel Islam, first edition (AlMaktaba AlMecciah, 1996), the authors mentions many words borrrowd from Abyssinian language.

[2] ibid

[3] Dr. Lapiso Dileba, Ye etipiawinet tarikawi mesertoch’ena masaryawoch, 1999.

[4] There are also a few sources that contradict that and claim he was Persian. Mohammed AlTayeb Al Yousifi believs he was Abyssinian.

[5] Alberto Polera, translated from Italian to Tigrigna by Abba Issak Gebreyesus, Deqebat Hzbtat Ertra. This book gives a through description of the origin of the present Eritrean people; though very informative, it overwhelmingly based on folktales and traditions.

[6] Andrew Paul, History Of The Beja Tribes Of Sudan, 1953

[7] ibid

[8] Mohammed Saeed Naud, the founder of the Eritrean Liberation Movement (Haraka or Mahber Shewaate) June 16, 2011.

[9] Jonathan Miran, Red Sea Citizens: Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa.

[10] ‘Enter this house in peace and trust’

[11] ‘Oh ye who enter this house, pray for the prophet’

[12] Check Chefena Hailemariam, Doctoral thesis, Language and Education in Eritrea: A case study of Language diversity policy and Practice. The book concludes from the surveys conducted in several Eritrean communities and schools that the overwhelming majority of Muslim parents (Tigre, Saho, Barya/Nara, Blin speakers) said that they prefer Arabic as the language of instruction for their children at primary schools. Similarly, the vast majority of students from those communities attending the schools covered by the survey also opted for Arabic.

[13] Kur’anic schooling usually continues a few years more, side by side with secular education, until the child completes the whole course of the Kur’an).

[14] Father Alvarez, Expedition Of Portuguese Embassy Into Abyssinia -1520 (English translation).

[15] When Alvarez was asked by the people of Debarwa to pray to God to rid the region from the locusts, he prayed that “..within three hours [the Locust] should begin to set out on their way, and go to the sea, or to the country of the Moors [Muslims], or to mountains of no profit to Christians….”

[16] Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians: introduction to country and people.

[17] Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1974

[18] Interview with Adem Melekin, a veteran of the Eritrean struggle since the fifties

[19] Refer to Ahmad Raji’s “The Lost Rainbow” series of studies (Part1-4):
August 9, 2009 The Lost Rainbow (I)
August 15, 2009 The Lost Rainbow (II)
August 24, 2009 The Lost Rainbow (III)
October 1, 2009 The Lost Rainbow (IV)

[20] In his book Wounded Nation, Red Sea Press, 2011, Dr. Bereket Habte Sellase acknowledged the shortcomings with regards to the official language issue and he explains in detail the causes and risks of polarization and presents workable solution to overcome the political impasse in Eritrea.

[21] Ibid

[22] On April 14, 1997, the late Tekie Fesahatsion, member of the constitution commission wrote: “One cannot give a constitutional imprimatur to one or two of the local languages, without downgrading the other eight or seven. We are a multilingual society. The moment we designate, constitutionally, some, and not all, of our languages, we will surely be straying from the equality provision–the cornerstone-of our constitution. This we cannot do, must not do.”


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