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Shaikh Zekaryas

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Note: This article or section represents an Oriental Orthodox (Non-Chalcedonian) perspective, which may differ from an Eastern Orthodox (Chalcedonian) understanding.

Shaikh Zekaryas (1845-1912), also known as Niwaiye Kristos, was a prominent Muslim prophet and shaikh in the Ethiopian Empire who led a number of Ethiopian Muslims into the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Early life

Shaikh Zekaryas was born in 1845 in Begemidir's Negala district to Amhara Muslim parents. At an early age Zekaryas was sent to Welo province in eastern Ethiopia to receive a Quranic education there. (Begemidir was largely Orthodox Christian, whereas Welo had a much larger and deeply rooted Muslim population.)

Preaching a reformed Islam

In 1892 Shaikh Zekaryas began seeing disturbing visions that prompted him to look for an Arabic-language Bible. His first vision was of a man coming from the East to give him wisdom and a greater insight into the teachings of the Quran. In Shaikh Zekaryas' second vision three other shaikhs appeared to him advising him to be bold in interpreting the Quran and to preach against Muslim teachings that were not consist with the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the Quran.

After the second vision Shaikh Zekaryas set out to reform Islam in Ethiopia, preaching first amongst the Muslims of Wag around Soqota and then amongst the Amhara Muslims of his native Begemidir. His disciples eventually came to include 75 well known Muslims shaikhs and officials as well as many other Ethiopian Muslims. In his preaching Shaikh Zekaryas emphasized that Quranic references to the 'Word of God' meant the Lord Jesus Christ and that the Old Testament prophecies pointed to the coming of Christ, not Muhammad.

Because of the content of his preaching Shaikh Zekaryas was accused before officials in both Wag and Begemidir of distorting the meaning of the Quran and destroying the peace of the Muslim community. His case was eventually brought before Emperor Menelik II, who in 1907 vindicated him, saying that Zekaryas had "answered from the Quran every accusation brought against him." Emperor Menelik went on to grant Shaikh Zekaryas complete freedom to teach in any Muslim area of the country.

Conversion to Orthodoxy

I 1910, on the great feast of Pascha, Shaikh Zekaryas was baptized in Debre Tabor with the name Niwaiye Kristos ('Property of Christ'). Some 3,000 of his disciples and followers were baptized at the same time. Not long after this the imperial government provided Niwaiye Kristos with a small estate, a pension, and bodyguards to protect him from Muslims who felt that he had condemned himself to death through his apostasy from Islam.

As a result of Niwaiye Kristos' baptism many of his followers also joined the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, becoming known as 'Adis Kristiyanoch' ('New Christians'). Their numbers are estimated to have been between 7,000 and 10,000. Although Evangelical Protestant missionaries in Ethiopia hoped that the Adis Kristiyanoch would become a reform movement within the Church of Ethiopia, they instead largely disappeared into the wider mass of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, being virtually unknown as a distinct group less than 25 years after Niwaiye Kristos' baptism.

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