Ethiopia’s Sharia Courts

By Michael Kebede [1]

Samira[2] walked into Sheikh Sirak’s courthouse teary, clutching a tattered sheet held together by sticky tape.  If her absentee husband’s brother and lawyer stood for stolid detachment, she cut the inverse image of scorned fury.  She said in court that her husband’s divorce request came without warning, as a bolt from the blue, that she tore it apart the minute she saw it two days before.  When she mended and read it she realized it was a court summons.  The judge told her that she must submit a reply to the Registrar stating whether she consents to the court’s jurisdiction.  She was of two minds; she wanted to incriminate her husband, to tell of his trickery; but she wanted to know whether consenting to the court’s jurisdiction would help or hurt her.

The judge refused to hear her until she consented to the court’s jurisdiction.  She left, trembling.  I followed her out.  At the Registrar’s office, she said her husband first left Ethiopia for the capital of an Arab country a few months after their marriage.  When he came back, she became pregnant.  He convinced her to abort the child on the promise that they would start a family once he was stably employed in Addis Ababa.  He returned to the Arab capital.  A few months later, she received the divorce notice and summons to court.

As she fought tears, the Registrar coolly repeated that to cry would solve nothing, that she had better wipe her face and think of a solution.  She said she had “no idea” about sharia, whether consent to this court’s jurisdiction would do her good.  The Registrar, a Christian, said that compared with the secular court, the sharia court would better serve her faith.  Haltingly she talked to a nearby lawyer, who repeated the Registrar’s advice.  The lawyer said he would take on her case pro bono, that he would try what he can, including delays that may give her time to salvage her marriage.  He finally said that she could not force her husband to stay her husband—that regardless of delays or appeals to elders, the husband is still entitled to a divorce.  Thus without considering the differences in property division between the sharia and secular courts, she signed a form consenting to the sharia court’s jurisdiction.  This case is still underway.

* * *

Ethiopia’s Federal Sharia Court, a yellow, half-finished four-story building, sits on about five hundred square metres in Kebena, a largely Christian neighbourhood in northern Addis Ababa.  A year ago, the court was in a neighbourhood called Menen, in a building one informant described as a run-down single-story travesty of a courthouse.  Someone else explained that the court once sat in the same building as the secular federal courts.  It was moved to Menen after a strong-willed sharia court president insisted that as a religious institution, it must distinguish itself from the secular courts.  The court’s initial proximity to the secular courts exposed sharia judges to petty insults—the judiciary’s refusal, for example, to renovate the sharia part of the building while the rest of the building was being renovated—and made more painful the lower pay of sharia officials as compared with secular judges.  These insults haunted the court in its subsequent locations, but for some their new address soothed the pains of inferior treatment.  It was perhaps like the autarky of a despised nation within a nation, whose links with the latter stunt its fate long after devolution.

The court lacks some amenities afforded to other federal buildings in Addis Ababa.  The loss of electricity, for example, does not stop work at most other federal courthouses because they have electric generators.  A bidding process to buy a generator has started for the sharia court but the secular federal court’s funding schedule, which controls all funding for the sharia court, has been so irregular as to prevent the sharia court from buying amenities.  Still, one elderly informant remembered the court from the imperial regime, and said its present condition is a cut above its marginality under Haile Selaissie.  ‘It was’, he said, ‘in a rotten backroom peopled by ignorant qadis who did the bidding of Orthodox Christian priests, not like now, when the courtrooms are better and the qadis of greater learning and independence.’  It is these better learned and more independent qadis, their mostly Christian auxiliaries, and the court’s many litigants and witnesses that I spent two months interviewing.

* * *

The historic and hegemonic image of Ethiopia, in an old chestnut first coined by monarchs manoeuvring for the support of European powers, is that of ‘an Island of Christianity in a sea of Muslims.’  In Gibbon’s Decline and Fall we find the image of an embattled Christian kingdom, ‘[e]ncompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Æthiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten.’  Haile Selassie was the last of the country’s leaders to trade on a Christian image of Ethiopia.

But Ethiopia is equally a nation of Muslims.  Although the most recent national census from 2007 puts Islam’s demographic share at 34%, UNICEF and the US State Department describe Ethiopia as approximately 45% Muslim and 45% Christian and the rest as various types of animist.  Three of Ethiopia’s nine states are overwhelmingly Muslim; two have Muslim populations of over 95%; and Ethiopia’s most populous state, Oromia, is majority Muslim.  What is more, in no region of the world, save the Arabian Peninsula, did Islam arrive earlier.

Islam first came to the region during the Prophet’s life.  Some four score of his first followers fled attacking tribes of Mecca and sought refuge in the Christian kingdom of Axum.  King Armah of Axum not only gave these exiles a haven, but also rebuffed envoys from Mecca that offered bribes in exchange for the refugees.  The king is reputed to have said, ‘Not for a mountain of gold would I surrender even one of Prophet Mohammad’s followers.’  Muslims describe this affair as the first hijrah or migration to Abyssinia.  The Hadith records that the Prophet Mohammad said, ‘Abyssinia is a land of justice in which no one could be oppressed’ and that Muslims should ‘let the Abyssinians alone as long as they let you alone.’

Subsequent centuries saw the formation of strong military centres along the east African coast, the conversion of costal and nomadic populations, the domination of regional commerce by Muslims, and the emergence of strong Islamic political units. Christian kingdoms and Muslim sultanates warred over access to commercial routes and the sea.  Islam’s most spectacular feat of expansion came in the sixteenth century, when a brief period of Islamic military conquest—a storied campaign led by Ahmed Gragn or Ahmed the Left Handed— took vast swathes but ultimately ended in the collapse of highland Muslim power.  From then until the nineteenth century, Islam spread into the north central plateau while the highland Christian monarchy weakened.  Finally, in the nineteenth century, mystical orders of Islam spread in central and southern Ethiopia; during this century the country’s Christian monarchs visited crisis on Muslims by attempting forcible conversions.

All the while the sharia developed in Muslim communities.  As with everywhere else where Islam took root, Muslims assented to local interpreters of the sharia, but in a format wholly unlike the state sharia of the last two centuries.  The jurisdiction and basic structure of Ethiopia’s current federal sharia court originated in the early twentieth century, when Menelik II, the last of Ethiopia’s nineteenth century monarchs, established courts to resolve disputes between Muslims.  Subsequently in the mid 1930s, Italy occupied Ethiopia and attempted to rule it indirectly through Muslims.  The Italians supported Muslim institutions, including official shari’a courts, and built some of the country’s biggest mosques.  One year after Ethiopian insurgents and the British‑trained Gideon Force defeated the Italians and Haile Selassie regained power, the Imperial regime issued a proclamation limiting shari’a courts’ jurisdiction to Islamic family law between Muslims who consented to the court’s jurisdiction.  That basic formula, preserved by the federal proclamations that recognized the sharia court in 1944 and in 1999, still defines the court’s ambit.  In addition to the federal court, there are sharia courts in eight of Ethiopia’s nine states.

State sharia courts continued their work for the duration of socialist government, which lasted from 1974 to 1991, leaving Christianity and Islam marginalized.  The current regime, in power now for twenty-four years, inaugurated a period of religious liberalization that, in addition to continuing to fund state sharia courts, permitted Muslims freer movement to and from Mecca.  This liberalization has washed Ethiopia into global currents of Islamic reformism.  In this period, Ethiopia became America’s chief regional client in the so-called War on Terror, leading to the local entrenchment of the Manichean distinction between good and bad Muslim.


During my last week of fieldwork, a cruel offense upon migrant Ethiopians by soldiers of the Islamic State (IS) rattled the nation.  IS released a video on April 19th, 2015 showing masked men on a beach in Libya murdering twenty-eight Ethiopians.  A voice in the video said the executions were punishment for the Ethiopians’ failure to pay a tax due from enemy Christians in IS territory.  IS had released a similar video three months prior showing its soldiers beheading Egyptian Christians.

April 19th was a Sunday.  The video stole from my sister and many others a full night of sleep.  Kin of the slain in Cherkos, a poor neighbourhood in Addis Ababa, announced public funerals.  The funerals started on Tuesday and attracted throngs by noon; when mourners marched, state and federal police violently dispersed them.  By dusk the government had announced three days of official mourning to begin on Wednesday.  Police went door to door in some neighbourhoods to publicize the keynote event, a morning of rallies in Meskel Square.  At 9:00am on Wednesday the square teemed with thousands.

A succession of dignitaries held forth, including Addis Ababa’s mayor and the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  The prime minister spoke last.  Crowd members yelled anti‑government slogans and held up their arms in an “X”.  When his speech ended, federal police waded violently through the crowd, kicking, punching, and swinging batons—an image from the day shows a soldier leaning on a fellow soldier to gain leverage as he lands a spinning jump-kick on someone’s neck.  Police fired tear gas.  The crowd scattered and police arrested many.

The events shook the sharia court, whose identity unenviably combines the Islamic and the governmental.  The court president gave a teary interview.  He said the IS attack was odious, but a deed of Wahhabi, of immoderate Muslims.  He said the Wahhabis are bent on turning Ethiopia into an Islamic state, are a dormant giant that may someday come menacingly into its own.

But he had another more disturbing, more ominous, take.  The “clashes,” as he called them, between soldiers and the crowd on the official day of mourning were the doing of a nefarious fifth column, of the Blue Party, the leading opposition force in Ethiopia’s then imminent elections.  He said the Blue Party stood to do to Ethiopians at home what IS did to Ethiopians abroad.  Ending in an inflection beloved of state authorities, he said they must be tattooed from the body politic.   Anti-terrorism thus met authoritarianism in a mutual embrace emblematic of our time.

These events turned my informant, once warm and genial, into a hardened party spokesman.  I broke rank as a researcher one afternoon that week when I challenged, ever so gently, my informant-cum-friend’s depiction of all the opposition as a pestilence.  His tone turned turgid and impenetrable.  I veered him back by intoning party shibboleths before returning to cloudy Oxford where my department awaited my fieldwork presentation.

Image by Michael Kebede.

[1] Michael Kebede is reading for an Mst in Socio Legal Research at the Centre for Socio-legal Studies at the University of Oxford; his research investigates the role of Islamic courts in Ethiopian federalism. Prior to Joining the Centre, Michael was a law clerk for Chief Justice Saufley of the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine in the United States.  Michael obtained his JD at Boston College Law School and his BA at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and has been admitted into the New York and Massachusetts bars (

[2] The author has replaced all real names with aliases.