ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia
Classes were once held in the open air, under a tree, or in a small room of an Ethiopian traditional building constructed of wood and mud with crumbling walls, leaking roofs, and pupils sitting in circles around their graceful teachers, said an Islamic seminary teacher, explaining how the madrassah began in the Horn of Africa nation.
The students then begin reading, reciting, and memorizing the major sources of Islam -- the Quran, Hadith, and other religious texts -- loudly and enthusiastically, Sheik Ahmed Awol, a respected educator at Saidna Hamzaa, Quranic school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, added.
"This is how Islamic education began in Ethiopia and has continued to improve," he explained.
Islamic education in Ethiopia dates back to the 7th century, when the companions and relatives of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed who were persecuted in the city of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia by pagans sought refuge in Nejashi, he said.
The first Islamic settlement in what is today Ethiopia is located in the town of Wukro in the northern Tigray region, some 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the capital. The refugees who were welcomed by the then-king of the land and its people had built the Al-Nejashi mosque, one of the world's oldest Muslim places of worship.
"Islamic education in our country is as old as our faith, and the Al-Nejashi mosque served as the first center of Quranic School," Awol noted, adding: "Ever since (then), schools supported by the community proliferated in rural and urban Ethiopia."
On a bright morning centuries later, Abdul Razak Ali and others like him were engrossed in reading the traditional Arabic Quran inside the well-built, carpeted, and pristine Sadina Hamzaa mosque. Others had encircled their teacher, Awol who was leading the learning from the Amharic version of the Quran. Dozens of girls were also attending a separate class.
Abdul Geni Kedir, the school's headmaster, told Anadolu Agency that the school had built a well-structured nationwide publicly funded educational system.
"We have nine boarding schools in the capital and 15 in other regions and we plan to open more," Kedir said, adding: "For Muslim students who follow regular secular education, we've established 70 after-school educational centers in the capital and all 10 regions."
The boarding schools receive students from every corner of Ethiopia, and most of them have graduated in different fields from different universities of the country, Kedir added.
Elite Imams and community leaders
Anwar Ahmed, a teacher, said the school offers a rigorous teaching methodology that involves examinations and various types of tests at different levels.
"Students are required to complete the first level of learning of Holy Quran and Hadith in two to three years," Ahmed noted.
"Those who pass the exam will be transferred to the second level of education in another branch, which often takes five years. We run a model college-type school."
According to Awol, the most valued aspect of education is morality, which "is the foundation of Islam."
"We teach our students morality of religious integrity, peace, and understanding which will govern their behavior and character in society," he said. "This contributes to sustaining our age-old harmonious interfaith relations."
Abdul Razak Ali, 17, is in the first level of his Islamic schooling. He said he is building a "mature Islamic personality" which will help him as a vital member of the community.
"I want to finish the course and become a preacher or a teacher in a rural Islamic school," he added.
Kedir remarked: "We have been producing elite Muslims over the last 12 years and many of them are serving as respected Imams (prayer leaders) of mosques and community leaders in different parts of Ethiopia."
The predominantly Sunni Ethiopian Muslim population has grown in number and constitutes an estimated 40% of the 112-million-population of the Christian-majority Horn of Africa country. Ethiopian Muslims and Christians of various denominations have coexisted peacefully for generations.
However, over the last three years, violence has broken out between the followers of the two major faiths in parts of the country. Religious leaders and government officials blame political forces for instigating the conflicts.
In addition to Sadina Hamzaa School, there are 218 officially recognized Quran schools in Ethiopia, according to the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council.
Kedir pointed out that the expansion of the schools, which have been "significantly contributing to the spread of the faith," reflected the steady increase of the community's influence in Ethiopian society.
"Islamic education has been reinforced by the burgeoning Islamic media and related public activities," he noted. "Now, we have private newspapers, television stations, educational videos, and there is an increase in the production of multilingual traditional and modern Islamic hymns," he added.
As students left class for a break, they quietly swarmed to the nearby compound of the mosque, which appears as an oasis of serenity amidst the bustling metropolis of an estimated 5 million population.
Donning Islamic clothing, Awol gazed at the compound from the mosque's entrance and said: "We're doing what is required of us and what we can. Global Muslims and institutions must work together to modernize and sustain our current educational system."
Turkish charities in Ethiopia have helped Muslim communities in many different ways. The Diyanet Foundation (TDV) of Turkey has been distributing the Amharic version of the Quran to schools and mosques, as well as funding further printing in collaboration with Addis Ababa University.
The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), Ankara's state-run aid agency, completed the restoration of the historical Al-Nejashi Mosque in 2018./aa