Shaikh (“Teacher” in the Arab world) Zäkaryas was born in 1845 in Nägalla district of Bagemder province. His parents were Amhara Muslims, living off the land and involved in petty trade. At an early age Zäkaryas received a Quranic education in Wollo province. s
In 1892 Zäkaryas received a series of disturbing visions which culminated in his seeking out an Arabic Bible. Christian contemporaries of Zäkaryas claimed that his conversion was similar to that of the Apostle Paul in that, “Without a tutor God revealed to him through His Spirit the secret of the Trinity” (Crummey, 1972, p.58, quoting an oral poem of Aleqa Tayye). But the Shaikh was not a Christian yet. The context of Zäkarias’ unusual visions may have been the crisis of the Great Famine of Ethiopia that began in 1888 as well as the death of Emperor Yohannes IV in 1889 during his war with the Muslim Mahdists.
Zäkaryas’ first vision was that of a man coming from the East sent by God to give him special wisdom and greater insight into the teaching of the Quran. The second vision was of three shaikhs who appeared to him advising him to be bold in interpreting the Quran. They instructed him to preach against that which conflicted between the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the Quran. Two of the messengers then ascended to heaven, and one remained behind to comfort and encourage Zäkaryas in the task he had been assigned. After these two visions he set out to reform and renew Islam. It appears he was beginning a journey to Trinitarian Christianity but had not yet arrived.
From 1892 to 1895 Zäkaryas preached in many places in the area of Soqota, Wag. From the Arabic Bible procured from the Swedish Mission, he carefully pointed out the many shortcomings in the Quran. His preaching, which now had the ring of Christianity, aroused strong opposition from the local Muslim population. Consequently, Zäkaryas was accused by the Muslims before the local officials on two counts: heretical teaching about the Quran, and disturbing the peace of the local Muslim community. The officials, who were Amhara Christians, dismissed the case.
Shaikh Zäkaryas transferred his ministry to the province of Bägemder in 1896. His teaching now shifted from Islam reform to conversion to Christianity. He and his disciples were given helpful Christian books and pamphlets in Amharic from the Swedish Mission bookstore in Asmara. His following grew rapidly among the Tigrenya and Amharic-speaking population. Among them were seventy-five notable Muslims, shaikhs, and custom officials. But strong resistance to Zäkaryas’ teaching from the Muslim community in northern Ethiopia culminated in a summons to appear before Emperor Menilek’s court in Addis Ababa in 1906.
Muslim officials from Lasta, Bägemder, and Tegre were his accusers, supported by other Muslims from Wollo and Gurage. The Menilek-Zäkaryas Council was convened in 1907. Zäkaryas made his defense by demonstrating the places where the Quran and the Old and New Testaments were in harmony. At the conclusion of the Council of May, 1907, Menilek issued this “Permission and Proclamation”:
Shaikh Zäkaryas has answered from the Quran every accusation brought against him by the Moslems. Hence we have given him permission to teach in any Moslem area, as he pleases. Now then, from this day forward, let no man bring any accusation concerning religious matters against Shaikh Zäkaryas, his followers, or those who are helped by his teaching. Shaikh Zäkaryas has utterly rebutted every accusation. So let this proclamation, given into the hand of Shaikh Zäkaryas and all others who have received it, and in the hand of the government be an eternal witness. We have therefore given this proclamation and so let Moslem no longer dispute with Moslem. (Crummey, 1972, p.61)
Because of limited documentary sources, (except for Zäkaryas’ account in Amharic of “The Fixed and Permanent Collection”), it is difficult to construct an accurate account of Shaikh Zakaryas’ preaching. It is clear that he affirmed that Jesus is the “Word of God” whenever that phrase is mentioned in the Quran. He also taught that the Old Testament prophecy points to Christ, not to Mohammed. Zäkaryas had an unusual grasp of the Quran and possessed dialectical skills in presenting the superiority of Jesus.
In 1910 Zäkaryas was baptized in Däbra Tabor into the Orthodox Church and given the Christian name of Newayä Krestos (“Christ’s Possession”). As the state now honored him with a gift of land, a small pension, and a small band of armed retainers to protect him, he joined, in effect, the traditional hierarchy in Ethiopian rural class structure. It is said that his prophetic gift ended shortly after his baptism. Crummey asserts, “The spiritual office thus suffered through secular blessing.”
The movement continued until Zäkaryas’ death in 1920. Around 1915 some estimated his followers at 10,000–a figure which may have been an exaggeration. In 1920 figures of 7,000 are mentioned. The Orthodox Church leadership provided limited assistance to this unusual group of Christians whom they pejoratively called Adadis Krestiyan (New Christians). Jonas Iwarsson, writing in the 1920s, reflected the thinking of other Swedish missionaries by calling Zäkaryas’ followers “A Living Abyssinian Church” with the potential of reforming the ancient Orthodox Church. But this was not to be. Many of the younger generation moved beyond their leader, Zäkaryas, towards a more evangelical understanding of their faith, joining the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
E. Paul Balisky
Donald Crummey, “Shaikh Zäkaryas, an Ethiopian Prophet,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Vol. X, No.1, 1972, pp. 55-66.
Jonas Iwarsson, “A Moslem Mass Movement Towards Christianity,” Moslem World, Vol. XIV, 1924, pp. 286-289.
Thomas A. Lambie, A Doctor without a Country (New York, 1939), p.277.
This article, received in 2006, was researched and written by E. Paul Balisky, former lecturer at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, Addis Ababa. He and his wife Lila serve as members of the DACB Advisory Council and now reside in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada.
Shaikh Zäkaryas, Ethiopia, Independent Prophet**