By Mohammed Ademo
Recently reporter Megan Verlee filed a story for "PRI's The World" Geo Quiz about an ancient shrine in Ethiopia. Verlee’s report offered a rare glimpse at one of the most magnificent treasures unknown to many in the western world and even in parts of Ethiopia.
Amid a growing Wahhabi influence, both the shrine and Sufi followers, who also revere Sheik Hussein, face a budding threat from those who espouse a more puritan version of Islam. I applaud Verlee for having visited and observed the Muudaa ceremony in Bale. Her report, which came during this year’s Hajj, inspired the following background information on Sheik Hussein and Sufism among Bale Oromos to encourage more study on the subject. Verlee’s report also brought back fond childhood memories.
Growing up, I visited Annajina, or Dire Sheik Hussein, as the shrine is known in the local Oromo language, several times. The rite of Sheik Hussein was very much a part of my upbringing. I remember pleading with my parents to go on the biannual pilgrim, Muudaa, even when school was in session. My family rarely missed the five-day-long pilgrim. In the event we did, we went to local mosques, like the Abba Guutaa mosque in Cirisa, to compensate or people gathered at our house whereby a sheep or lamb was slaughtered for the feast. Descendants of Sheik Hussein, who lived in Dire, visited our home every few years. On every visit, my father sent them home with a bull to be sacrificed at the shrine.
The story of Sheik Hussein Bale
Dire Sheik Hussein is located in the Bale zone of Oromia region, southeastern Ethiopia. Among many other things, Bale is home to a range of mountains that pivot the Bale Mountains National Park including Mount Tullu Dimtu, the second highest mountain in Ethiopia (4,377 m).
Other notable peaks in the zone include Mount Batu (4,307 m), Mount Darkeena, Mount Gaama, Doda etc. Wabe Shabelle and the Weyib, a major tributary to Jubba river, are among the major rivers in the district. One of Africa’s largest underground caves, the Sof Omar, which has 42 entrances and 15.1 kilometers long, named after a venerated Sufist Sheik Safiy Mullah Omer is not too far from Dire Sheik Hussein. The Harena forest, also located in Bale, is said to be among the few remaining afro-alpine plateaus in Africa.
Sheik Hussein (variably Nur Hussein) was a benevolent, virtuous, and religious missionary who lived in Bale around 1300[i] A.D. Nur Hussein, a comrade of Sof Omar -- another prominent religious disciple of the same era – is credited for introducing and spreading Islam in the region. There are conflicting reports about Sheik Hussein’s ancestry including those that claim he was born in Saudi Arabia. Others suggest, his grandfather, Sayyid Abdallah, emigrated from Saudi Arabia in the way of Somalia sometime before the 12th century. According to this account, Nur Hussein, the youngest of Sheik Ibrahim’s three sons, was born and raised in Bale making him a second-generation immigrant. Other sources claim, Sheik Hussein came as a missionary to the area 300 years ago to convert Oromos to Islam. Modern historians can help piece together the genealogy as well as history of Nur Hussein and Islam in the region.
One thing is clear. The legends, deeds and countless miracles performed by Sheik Hussein as recounted by his followers show, Nur Hussein Bale was an influential personality whose story touched the lives of those who have embraced his fellowship.
Since his death, songs have been written to honor him. In fact, a distinct genre of hymn called Baahroo, recited both in his honor and as a prayer, has evolved. Today, a religious cult of sort exists around his life and deeds. It is difficult to enumerate the number of Sheik Hussein’s followers but his cult remained dominant among many similar practices in the region.
One legend oft recited by his admirers goes; Nur Hussein was such a devout Muslim that even trees bent when he descended to pray as a sign of respect and honor. Sheik Hussein’s admirers pray to God through him. They consider him a saint of countless miracles who is noted for his love of God. By praying through him, the adherents hope their quest for spiritual renewal, a barren women’s prayer for fertility, and a sinner's prayer for forgiveness - will be attained promptly.
Nur Hussein’s legacy has left an unmistakable imprint on the lives and spirituality of the Oromo. For generations, it is believed, God has come through and through for those who’ve made the long and often treacherous journey braving mountains and the desert. Twice yearly, pilgrims from far-flung places such as Jimma, Haraghe, Wollo, Illubabor, and even other countries flock to Dire Sheik Hussein.
Bale before Sheik Hussein
Before Christianity and Islam took hold in the subregion, Oromo people believed in Waaqayyo, the all-knowing monolithic black God. According to the teachings of Waaqefanna, the Oromo religion, the power of Waaqayyo is manifested to humans through a spiritual leader called Abba Muudaa.
Oromo people, who trace their common ancestry to one father, consider Mada Walabu their prime place of origin. Located in the Bale zone, Mada Walabu, not too far from Dire Sheik Hussein, was once the site of Abba Muudaa where adherents made similar pilgrimage.
Up until the arrival of missionaries, Sheik Hussein and Sof Umer among them, Waaqefanna was the main religion in the area. The pilgrimage, Muudaa, was also once an Oromo religious voyage. The Sufi Islamic missionaries came and introduced Islam while maintaining most of the preexisting rituals. Although Sheik Hussein was a Sufi missionary, the Sunni's started going to Muudaa until the emergence of Salafists in 1970's – when the practice saw some decline.
According to historian Ulrich Braukamper, the expansion of Islam to Bale reached a pioneer phase somewhere between late 12th century and early 13th century. For many years since, Nur Hussein’s mosque served as a religious center for Oromos. The whitewashed shrine was constructed by Amir Abd al-Shakur of Harar sometime between 1783-94 A.D. Harar is the fourth holiest city in Islam, after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Research also shows that the construction of the Annajina shrine, called Gamoo in Oromo, surrounded by mosques and the tomb of Sheik Hussein, was aimed at strengthening the expansion of Islam in the region.
Dire is the epicenter of the fusion between Islam and Oromo religion. When I visited Dire in the mid-90s, I observed the locals, who often trace a distant lineage to Sheik Hussein, to be prolific readers of Quran, the Islamic holy book. Gathered in front of a poorly kept mud huts, young and old, women and men, recited scriptures from the Quran. The speed and melody with which they read was so captivating that I remember docking before them -- watching and listening with awe and astonishment -- although I understood no word of what was being said. It seemed like a reading competition of some sort - akin to poetry.
Largely uneducated, most of the pilgrims were either Muslims or traditional believers. Those days, “traditional” Islam was tolerant to such practices. Because Sheik Hussein and his tradition that has been carried on for centuries advocated tolerance, peace and unity, Christians and foreigners were welcomed with open arms. In fact, no one checked for IDs or asked about the pilgrim’s faith. In most cases, it was an individual or family quest each with their own specific reasons for the pilgrimage. Others went because they loved Sheik Hussein and for the spiritual rejuvenation felt upon walking through the shrine.
The practice spread across the region as devotees began establishing replica mosques in other areas, named after prominent spiritual leaders of the time such as Abal Qasim, Sof Umar, Aya Mako, Ayo Momina, Sheika Gugu, etc. These local mosques held their own Muudaa and served as an alternative for those who can’t take the long journey across the Bale Mountains. For example, in Arsi region, Ayo Momina, a charismatic Christian convert to Islam, from Wollo, maintained a mosque that served as a similar pilgrimage-site.
Symbols and Rituals
Baahroo -- an elegant poetry that rhymes uninterrupted -- recited impromptu in call and response style, by uneducated men, brings many to tears. The highlight of the long and arduous journey, often up to a month for some, Baahroo is the test of spirituality where pilgrims often experience trance. The verses speak to the glory of God, and the bounty and benevolence of Nur Hussein.
Jawaaraa is another reason why the pilgrims make the journey. Jawaaraa is a white ash that is found inside the shrine. It had a distinct taste and smell that can only be found there. It is used as a remedy for illnesses ranging from headaches to chronic diseases.
Sacred waters - there are also two sacred ponds at the Shrine said to have been dug during the time of Nur Hussein - Haro Lukkuu and Haro Dinkoure. At first glance, the ponds look like a green and badly polluted body of water. But known for medicinal values, the water, called Zamzama is the local equivalent of the Well of Zamzam located inside the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, east of the Ka’aba, the holiest place in Islam. Like Zamzam Well, Haro Lukkuu and Dinkoure remain full, year-round, in an area that is largely semi-arid and lowland with high temperatures--which the believers consider among many of Sheik Hussein’s miracle. Pilgrims drink directly from the pond and take some home for loved ones who are sick or unable to make the sojourn.
Dhanqee, the forked stick, carried by pilgrims to Dire Sheik Hussein and Nur Hussein’s admirers elsewhere, symbolizes a spiritual potency and is used as identification by the pilgrims to receive aid and support in their annual journey. For the adherents the stick, cut from a special type of tree found only in the valleys of Qacamsaree near Annajina, has a protective power.
Aynagange is a remarkable cave located within a walking distance from the shire, where pilgrims squeeze through tiny holes to test their faith in God. It is a site where Nur Hussein spent a lot of time meditating and praying. For those who manage to get through the narrow stone passages, it is a confirmation that they are not sinners, gossipers or thieves. For those who are unable to pass through, it is a call for spiritual self-reflection, often remedied through sacrificial sermons and prayers.
The Politicization of Sheik Hussein
In 19th century, when most of southern nations and nationalities were conquered and forcibly incorporated into the Ethiopian empire, non-Christians are said to have been baptized en masse, in a homogenization attempt that pressed people to adopt an official culture and religion. In protest, most Oromos took up Islam. The introduction of Gabbar system in late 19th century reduced the locals to serfs and subjected them to serfdom, necessitating a search for ways to cope. This is believed to have led to the rise and prominence of Sheik Hussein. The rituals and the annual gatherings offered an opportunity for the Oromos to practice their ways outside the state institutions.
The current government initially attempted to suppress the pilgrimage but unable to do so, have adopted a strategy to stage-manage the pilgrimage the same way it deals with Eretcha, the premier Oromo Thanksgiving holiday, and similar cultural events in its effort to remain relevant in the eyes of the populace.
The construction of an all-weather Addis-Dire road that passes through Jarra, and Dallo Sabro towns has led to the surge in the number of pilgrims especially those coming from faraway places.
In 2005, the Oromia region won the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation grant, an annual competitive program from the U.S. Department of State, to renovate the nearly thousand years old shrine. The $25,600 grant played an important role in renovating a deteriorating site. The Oromia regional government has been trying to get the shrine registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sheik Hussein under attack?
Those who were educated in the Middle East and believed in a radical interpretation of the Quran, introduced, starting in 1970’s, a more radical and puritan version of Islam to Bale. The traditional Islamic clergy with less formal religious training, but with equally unwavering devotion to Islam, was tolerant to the fusion with indigenous practices.
The new arrivals insisted in strict adherence and objected to the mixing of Islamic and indigenous practices, particularly Sheik Hussein. The formal training and the external financial backing gave them a comparative advantage over the existing and locally financed sheiks. Soon they began to develop a following, splitting the community and accusing the former of impiety. Starting 1990s, with alleged tacit approval of the government, the new clerics began physically attacking pilgrims and obstructing their journey by blocking roads.
The government of Meles Zenawi that was fighting Oromo insurgents in the area at the time thought that by weakening the traditional group who was known to sympathize with the rebels, it would deplete the support base for the insurgency. Such shortsighted decisions has helped spread of radicalization which the government now claims to counter by bringing another foreign Islamic sect, a distinct Lebanese cult called al-Ahbash or al Habashiyyin, inspired by its founder Sheikh Abdullah Al Harari Al Habashi.
The Ethiopia government has financed and invited the group for religious re-education of the entire Ethiopian Muslim community. Al-Habashi's belief system is a blend of Sunni and Shi'i theology that advocates “Islam's innate pluralism, along with opposition to political activism and the use of violence against the ruling order [ii].”
The Sunni hardliners, having been previously supported by the same ruling elites for over two decades, have entrenched themselves in the area, and the public has thrown its weight behind them. The government is now waging a campaign against what it calls a growing influence of ‘Wahhabi's.’