During the time of Prophet Mohammad (s), 1400 years ago, Ethiopia was part of a vast empire in northeast Africa known as Abyssinia (al-Habasha) reputed to be ruled by a just Christian king Negus (Nejash).
While the small Muslim community in Makkah was facing extreme persecution, the Prophet advised a band of his followers to seek asylum in Abyssinia.
This landmark episode known as the First Migration took place 6 years before the major Muslim migration to Madinah (616 CE), the year from when the Islamic calendar, After Hijrah (AH) commenced.
The Makkan polytheists sent a delegation to King Negus demanding the return of the Muslim fugitives and after a historically recorded dialogue between the King, Makkans and Muslims, the King gave refuge to Muslims to live in peace and practice their religion with full freedom in his country.
Prophet Mohammad (s) publicly prayed for King Negus as a fair and just ruler and for his kindness to Muslims and it is reported that eventually, the King accepted Islam.
In the year 9 AH (631 CE), the Prophet received the news of the passing away of King Negus and offered funeral prayer (Salat al-Janaza-al-Ghaib) together with his companions and prayed for his forgiveness.
Since Muslims in Makkah were denied the freedom to worship in public, Muslim asylum seekers living in Abyssinia, using their freedom to worship started praying in congregation well before anywhere else on the planet.
For the purpose of congregational prayers, in their first settlement in the village of Negash in Abyssinia, the Muslims built a simple mosque that is claimed to be the first mosque in the world and was later known as Negash Amedin Masjid.
Some of the asylum seekers returned back after the migration to Madinah, while a number of Sahaba, companions of the Prophet who remained in the country were later buried near the mosque.
The mosque has now been renovated into a beautiful structure with the help of Turkish NGO’s who have also marked the graves in the cemetery and turned the whole site into an upmarket destination for Islamic tourism.
The villiage of Negash is around 10 km from the town of Wukro in the Tigray region, the northern part of Ethiopia with its capital Mekelle.
We made our decision to visit the Negash Mosque while in Addis Ababa and purchased our flight tickets a couple of days before flying.
It is important to note that domestic airfares in Ethiopia are very high, but if you fly into Ethiopia on Ethiopian Airlines, the concessional airfare is almost one third of the normal fare.
Our visit to Negash Mosque was facilitated by Br Abdur Rahman and Sheikh Abdul Salam who organised all the guidance, contacts, conveyance in a most amicable way at a very reasonable cost.
We took a domestic flight from Addis to Mekelle on Friday 12 April 2019 and were kindly received at the airport by Dr Mohammedsalih Abdelkadir, a lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at Mekelle University, PhD from Belgium, together with our driver Abdul.
We stayed in an upmarket Hotel Planet with gym and a large heated pool but were surprised to know that they had no idea what a halal meal was and had to avoid meat products at the hotel.
Next day we were picked up by our local hosts in the morning for a couple of hours drive to the Negash Mosque through a well-maintained mountain road system built by the Chinese.
We observed farmlands and simple traditional huts made from grass and muds as well as some modern ones made from local limestone cut into large rectangular pieces.
Driving through the town of Wukru we arrived at the Negash mosque complex around 12 noon. There was a large billboard in front of the mosque describing the significance of the site, its recent renovation history and further development plans for the future.
The current mosque structure has been designed based on rich traditional Turkish architecture with exquisite tile work and geometric paintings.
A women’s section is allocated within the main prayer hall of the mosque with no real barrier or curtains for separation.
The larger mosque complex has Turkish style traditional as well as modern wudu areas, large meeting halls with state of the art industrial-scale kitchen, serving and dining facilities.
The mosque complex and the cemetery is connected with a beautiful walkway with 17 pillars with names of King Negus and the 16 sahabas, companions of the Prophet who are buried there.
The cemetery has two tombs, the larger tomb with a mass grave of King Negus together with 13 sahabas. The original graves were separate, but due to a major flood, they were all mixed up and therefore a mass grave was then constructed instead.
The smaller tomb consist of the grave of sahabi known as Usaid ibne Nafla who is associated with the revelation concerning the laws of inheritance in the Quran.
There were two more graves of sahabas preserved in the cemetery while a number of other graves have been marked after local scholars, merchants and benefactors.
The Negash Mosque organises a major yearly event on 10 Muharram, a sort of pilgrimage for people to come and visit the site with talks, meetings, festivities and free meals for all.
We offered our Zuhr prayers led by the local Imam of the mosques together with other visitors and the local community and later combined it with Qasr prayer.
After the prayer while we were meeting with local people Br Mohammedsalih came with up with a strange but pleasant request. One of his local friend’s cousin just got married and we were invited to the walima reception, that was too good to refuse.
We were escorted through a mountainous walkway close to mosque where a large tent was set up outside the groom’s parents home for the reception.
The view was superb, we could see a large church far away almost at the peak of a mountain surrounded by forests and farmland.
Mehar and I were offered the sofa set, reserved for the bride and groom, to sit while we waited for the married couple party to arrive from a nearby town.
We were offered local meals and drinks and consumed it in a traditional communal way, Ethiopian style.
Finally, the bridal group arrived with drumming and dancing by the boys and the typical joyous sounds being made by the women and girls in order to receive them.
The bride and groom were very young and the bride looked very nervous as she came to this new family. We were told that they will live with the groom’s parents for a week and then they were obliged to move to their own independent dwelling.
On the way back we stopped in Wukru and visited Mohammedsalih’s older brother, Sheikh Saeed who runs a madrassah next to the Aisha mosque adjacent to the madrassah.
Sheikh Saeed studied Islam in Pakistan for six years and runs a residential madrassah with clean classrooms and dormitories with the help of a Turkish NGO.
After two years of study, the students graduate and join the tertiary madrassah/university in Addis run by Sheikh Abdul Salam.
Both myself and Mehar were invited to address the students who showed great discipline giving us full attention and recited the Quran and sang Islamic songs for us.
Sheikh Saeed took us to his home and we met his wife, baby daughter, mother in law and sister in law. His wife made a delicious cake and a huge round bread like Naan.
Every household makes this Naan every third day and they eat in the morning for breakfast. They packed some for us as well.
One of his wife’s sisters put mehndi on Mehar’s hand where the colours came out very quickly.
Sheikh Saeed could speak Urdu and made special Pakistani style doodh-patti chai that was very delicious.
We visited a number of mosques later in Wukru in the evening including Hamza and Bilal Mosques meeting elders and offering our prayers as well as taking photos with them.
While Christian and Muslims live in harmony in the Tigray region where Muslims hardly constitute 10% of the population, but they strictly don’t consume meat from each other’s household.
If a Muslim wants to invite his Christian friend he has to buy meat from a Christian shop and ask his Christian neighbour to cook for his Christian guests and vice versa. For us, it was very strange.
After Maghrib prayer, we headed towards Mekelle and had our dinner at a Muslim restaurant eating injeera, a round big bread with meat on top of it, together with rice and some very chewy meat called tib.
Injeera is a fermented big, round bread and tib is meat with gravy on top of it.
The next day on Sunday 14 April, we check out at 12 noon and went to visit another madrassah in Mekelle attached to a mosque with residential dormitories under construction.
We met a couple of head teachers, again fluent in Urdu, who were educated in Pakistan and were actively attached with Tablighi movement frequently visiting India and Pakistan.
We returned to Addis the same evening.