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Reviewed by:
  • Islam and Christianity in the Horn of Africa: Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan
  • Terje Østebø (bio)
Islam and Christianity in the Horn of Africa: Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, by Haggai Erlich, Boulder Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2010; pp. 225. $49.95 cloth.

With this latest publication, Haggai Erlich has come full circle. In Ethiopia and the Middle East (1994), followed by The Cross and the River (2002) and Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia (2007), Erlich has surveyed the relationships between Ethiopia and its Muslim neighbors and analyzed the complex nature of Christian-Muslim relations in the Horn of Africa. Like his previous books, this latest publication reaches back to the early stories about the Axumite hijrah and the Ethiopian nejashi, and examines how this legacy has dialectically shaped the mutual conceptualizations of Ethiopia and its Muslim neighbors. Erlich’s argument, familiar to his readers, is that these stories have produced two opposite images of Ethiopia: that of the righteous Ethiopia, a haven for persecuted believers, put forward by what he calls “moderate” Muslims; and that of the illegitimate Ethiopia (because it forced the nejashi to abandon Islam), recycled by so-called “less tolerant” Muslims.

The book comprises eight chapters and analyzes relations between Ethiopia and the neighboring countries of Sudan and Somalia through [End Page 141] the last 120 years. After a short introductory chapter, Erlich discusses the impact of Mahdi Muhammed Ahmed (and his successor, Khalifa Abdallah al-Ta’aishi) of Sudan (chapter 2) and the impact of Sayyid Muhammed Abdallah Hassan in Somalia (chapter 3), and points to how these two figures—intersecting with geopolitical events—contributed in producing mutual images that wavered between enmity and amity. Chapters 4 and 5 follow the relational developments between Ethiopia and Sudan from the 1930s through the Derg period and up to the present, explore how an initially cordial relationship was checked by the two countries’ support for each other’s liberation movements (in southern Sudan and Eritrea), how this issue, together with the emergence of pan-Arabism in Sudan and Marxism in Ethiopia, produced in the two countries increasingly negative images of each other, and how the relationship deteriorated with the emergence of “religious militancy” (p. 123) under the al-Turabi/al-Bashir regime. Covering the same historical period, yet shifting the focus to Somalia, chapters 6 and 7 point to the fact that relations between Somalia and Ethiopia were clearly marked by mutual suspicion and hostility. Chapter 6 discusses the emerging Somali nationalist movement, allegedly coupled with “radical Islam,” seeking independence from the Western colonial forces and Ethiopia in the 1940s and 1990s, and continues with a survey of the developments leading up to the Ogaden war in 1977. Establishing connections between these events and the sayyid, Erlich turns to the present situation (in chapter 7) and underscores how the already established animosity has been cemented by recent events. The chapter explores both the situation of Ethiopian Muslims and the trajectory of Islam in Somalia during the 1990s, depicts the emergence of groups such as al-Itihad al-Islamiyya, the Union of Islamic Courts, and al-Shabaab, and provides a discussion of the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia in 2006. Chapter 8 summarizes the main findings of the study.

Erlich’s work is an important contribution to a relatively neglected aspect of the history of the Horn of Africa, and provides valuable insights and refreshing, if sometimes controversial, perspectives. Erlich’s publications have been rich in sources, putting forward interesting empirical data and lines of argument. Unfortunately, this latest book is not the best to have come from Erlich’s hand. The most interesting parts are the discussion of the mahdi and the sayyid, in which Erlich provides the [End Page 142] reader with fascinating data and interesting perspectives. The sections covering recent developments are to a large degree reproductions of earlier works, are less fully substantiated by sources, and contain a number of unqualified assumptions. Erlich’s references to the “Wahhabists” (p. 137) and Oromo “Jihadists” (p. 167) and the claim that they were “activists for the “political victory” of Islam (p. 160), are not substantiated by any arguments and not supported by any sources. Erlich oversimplifies a highly complex matter...


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