Sovereignity of Islamic Institutions of Eritrea and Foreign Influence

Islamic Institutions of Eritrea are victims of foreign institutions. For different reasons, the historical Institutions of Islam in Eritrea have left aside since the fall of the Ottoman empire. This was done for a purpose.

With the grand ambition of European expansion and the rise of Arabs against the Ottoman Empire, the Europeans and Arabs were partners to conquer Africa and other parts of the world. But this was a difficult task unless religion was used as a tool, to subjugate the target people.

For this, new religious missionaries from the West and Arab world started to proselyte their own religious orders that had a long-term ambition to colonize the people. These missionaries played the tool of royal family offsprings and trade as a means to establish their base. These were used as initial steps. After some twenty or thirty years, these centers became the springboard to launch their aggressive colonization project by oppressing the native people and eliminating the existing religious institutions.

Since the 16thC, Eritrea had strong religious institutions that had a base along the Red Sea coastal areas. Sheikh Hanafi mosque was of the historical religious institution that had a center in Massawa and belonging to the Sheikh Hanafi School of thoughts from Sunnah Islam. Dankal region had one of the oldest Sunni school of Jurisprudence, the Shafi’i school. There were also from the Maliki and Hanbali schools.

Sheikh Hanafi Mosque in Massawa, Eritrea

But, these schools were phased out with the arrival of new doctrines that were better armed for the service of colonizers.

In the year of 1817/18, a missionary from Hijaz(now Saudi Arabi) named Muhammad Uthman al-Mirghani al-Khatim(originally from Turkistan) crossed the Red Sea to proselytize Idrisiyyah Order(a Sufi Order which was founded by a Sunni Islamic Scholar, jurist, and Sufi, Ahmad Ibn Idris al-Fasi from Morroco).

Muhammad Uthman al-Mirghani begot Muhammad al-Hassan al-Mirghani from a Dongola (a city in North Sudan) which he later became the inheritor of legacy in Africa, Khatim. Al-Hassan founded the Khatmiyyah Order in Kassala and became the main instrument of the 19yhC Egyptian expansion in Eastern Sudan and Eritrea. Since then the Khatmiyyah Order had a stronghold in Eritrea, especially the Western Lowlands, Sahel and cities of Eritrea.

The old Sunni Schools were not preferred schools by the Egyptians, Italians, and English. As a result, their influence diminished significantly.

Other Islamic institutions which have growing influence in Eritrea are the al-Azhar University, the Grand Mosque of Mecca and the Grand Mosque of Turkey.

The most influential Islamic Institutions in Eritrea

1. Khatmiyyah Mosque of Kassala and its brotherhood Association branches in Eritrea – the al-Mirghani Royal Family have branches in Keren and Massawa(not effective).

2. al-Azhar Mosque of Egypt and its affiliated institute – Al Azhar University – Cairo

3. The Grand Mosque of Mecca – it is the holiest place of Islam and center of pilgrimage. Its influence is obvious but the Saudi royal family is not free to use the opportunity to influence Eritrean Islamic institutions through their heavily funded projects.

4. Grand Mosque of Turkey

Although Turkey is a secular state, its influence in the Islamic world and Muslim communities is significant. Since the 14thC and to the early 20thC, Turkey was the major power of the world. Its expanded Ottoman empire had a control over the two Holy places of Mecca and Medina.

Although its influence was diminished for the last 100 years or so, its newOttoman project Ambition is playing a great role to attract some opportunist secular and liberal Islam politicians to use Turkey as a base for their political ambitions. Eritreans are not free from this.

The above mentioned Islamic institutions are well established and their influence across the world is strong. With the changing order of the world and fear of the unknowns, these institutions will continue to influence sovereign countries across the world.

Eritrea, being one of the poorest and politically disadvantaged countries with almost non-existing religious institutions, the influence of these foreign institutions will continue to be prominent. This will lead to politically unstable country because Eritrean Islamic institutions are not free from outside influence.

As a Liberal Democrat, my political principle is based on Eritrean sovereignty. This means sovereignity from any kind that breaches absolute freedom of the people and their established institutions. Therefore, it is strategically important to have a general understanding of those actora which have potential threats to influence the political process and independence of Eritrea.

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