Could Cushitic Wisdom Traditions Have Inspired Jesus and Mohammed?

Whether our thought processes about the nature of the universe is fashioned after “the world was created in seven days” teaching or after the notion that the universe has been going through a long arduous trek much of which is yet unknown, fully explaining either one may not be the easiest thing to do. What we have at our disposal are speculations and sometimes wild guesses. Perhaps it is such challenges that drive the conscious and wise mind to keep pondering and allow the self to ask serious questions to get satisfactory answers instead of conveniently settling for what its teachers have taught it. Such desires appear to be driving the human mind into the cosmos. They also drive the human mind to all corners of our own world to get clues for the missing links. Archeologists have unearthed Lucy in the land of the Afar people, a Cushitic branch of the peoples in the Horn of Africa. Anthropologists such as Drs. Asmarom Legesse, Marko Bassi, Gemechu Megersa and others have gone to the Borana community of the Oromo people, the most numerous branch of the Cushitic people in the Horn of Africa, to study some old civilizations. 

As NASA scientists and other inquisitive minds in the world ponder about signs of water on Mars to answer the question of whether life existed on the red planet, it is very interesting to observe an elderly Oromo from a remote corner of Oromo land try to explain what life is constituted of. At a 2002 Irecha celebration (Oromo wisdom tradition) in Bushoftu, Ethiopia, this elderly Oromo, who doesn’t seem to have any formal education or theological teaching at all, was heard saying that life was created from three things: soil, water and air (translation from Oromo language to English by the author). In fact, Oromo proverb has the following to say in Afan Oromo (Oromo language): Taatee taatee supheen nama taate. Its rough translation is slowly, clay became human being. The bible also has something similar to say which can be paraphrased as follows: you came from the soil and you shall go back to the soil. 

Be that as it may, we are in for a deeper understanding of not only our being but also our past history. It appears that the more we know, the more unanswered questions we face, which in itself is fascinating and tickles our desire to know more. Perhaps, it is such complexity that gave rise to wisdom traditions in various forms around the world. As the order of our world went through different episodes of frictions and achievements including the Dark Age and the Renaissance, its wisdom traditions tend to have the inclinations to minimize the frictions and maximize the achievements. The quest for liberty for and of the self seems to be common in the various wisdom traditions. Such quests have made history and will probably continue to do so in the future. 

Two important achievements of wisdom traditions may be the vision of “just society” and monotheism. Such important elements are evident in the Judo-Christian-Islam history which has its root in the Middle East. The Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), part of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), reported on July 13, 2004, under the title of Focus on Boran pastoralists, a stark revelation of the similarity in the monotheism notion between Christianity, Islam and the wisdom tradition of the Borana people, a Branch of the Oromo people in the Horn of Africa across from the Middle East. In Oromo religion, there is only one Waaqa, equivalent to God in English. In the IRIN report, Dr. Marco Bassi notes that the religion of the Boran is “monotheistic with similarities to Christianity and Islam….” The concept of polytheism or Gods and Goddesses that was evident in the Arab world before Islam is absent in Oromo religion. 

Perhaps, one of the major achievements of Mohammed was the emergence in the Arab world of the concept of monotheism at the expense of polytheism. From what both Jesus and Mohammed are reported to have said, it appears that Cushitic people’s values were looked up to by both prophets. In Amos 9:7 in the bible, the following is written: “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel?” Mohammed is also reported to have said that Ethiopia is a “country wherein no one is wronged: a land of the righteousness”. One would note that what is written as Ethiopians in the new versions of the bible refers to Cushites. In fact, some versions of the bible still use Cushites instead of Ethiopians. 

In the so called “modern” society, two important and interrelated concepts appear to be among its pillars: liberty and freedom of speach. While many are still struggling to attain liberty, some have instituted egalitarian order, arguably a tool for attaining liberty. Interestingly, the report by IRIN indicates that the Gada system embodies these important values. According to the Gada system, the UN report indicates, “Every individual has the right to air his views in any public gathering without fear, this being one of the reasons why the Boran have remained unaffected by intra-clan conflicts.” Some scholars on Islam such as Karen Armstrong suggest that one of the achievements of Mohammed was overcoming clan conflicts in the Arab world. What the “modern” world is struggling to consolidate, the freedom of speach, Oromos have achieved through the Gada system. In addition, what Mohammed helped overcome in the Arab clans, the Oromo people may have overcome through the Gada system. 

Interestingly, after such a long time after Jesus and Mohammed, old values are still evident in both regions. Careful observation suggests that both Christianity and Islam have co-habited Oromo wisdom traditions with practically no conflict. On the other hand, contemporary divisions in the Arab world seem to have pre-Mohammed flavor. In fact, Saddam Hussein seems to be nostalgic about pre-Mohammed Arab world for he is reported to have said that the Arab world became weak since acceptance of Islam. Could it be possible then that in spite of the wind blowing both ways, there may still be traces of old values that are still at work in both regions? After all, the Gada system and Qallu institutions have strong traces throughout Oromo land. As Voice Finfinne wrote in its May 2004 column, flickers of this old civilization can be observed in several pockets of Oromo land. 

As we appreciate the Gada system, we should also be reminded of the gloomy picture that Dr. Marco Bassi’s comments show us. He notes that “the outside world is encroaching on their [Borana] very way of life.” In fact, such gloomy picture goes as far as telling the world that “an ancient tribal prophecy predicts their [Borana] imminent demise.” Notwithstanding such metaphysical prophecy, the Oromo people must garner to protect and develop their values and achievements. In fact, they should lighten up these flickers of old civilization so that it may shine throughout Oromia and may become an exemplary democratic system for Africa and the world. The call of Guyo Goba, the groom for the next leadership in Borana, must be heeded by every Oromo. He has beautifully stated: “It is a heavy responsibility for me and it is constantly on my mind.”

International organizations such as the United Nations, the African Union and so on, which are preaching for democracy and freedom of speech everywhere, must support the flourishing of the Gada system. As Dr. Bassi clearly points out, the Gada system is “totally egalitarian and one of the most democratic structures in the world.” For the Oromo people, these values do not have to come from else where but have the potential to breathe out to their surroundings to solve the political suffocation in the Horn of Africa region. 

In the meantime, researchers in this field such as Dr. Marco Bassi may have just stepped on a gold field of social research. What has moved the world or parts of it may be another Out of Africa story. Oromo social scientists need to rethink that such a gold field of social research may be in their back yard. After all, if the Afar people, another Cushitic branch in the region, are the closest to Lucy, could it be far fetched to speculate that the Oromo people may have achieved old civilization of liberty and free speech long time ago through the Gada system? Perhaps not.