Chapter 5: Two Heroes Of Somali Nationalism from the book Somali Nationalism: International Politics and The Drive For Unity In The Horn Of Africa – The Horn of Africa can be thought of as a triangle, whose up-tilted eastern point extends so far into the Indian Ocean that it is approximately due south of Tehran. The “Horn,” of course, is not a definite territorial jurisdiction, but for the purposes of this book, we define it arbitrarily (but conveniently) as the region inhabited mainly by Somalis.


Chapter 5: Two Heroes Of Somali Nationalism

From the book Somali Nationalism: International Politics And The Drive For Unity In The Horn Of Africa

Somali Nationalism International Politics And The Drive For Unity In The Horn Of AfricaSaadia Touval

Harvard University Press

Cambridge, Massachusetts • 1963

In this chapter




The Rebellion

Nationalism or Religious Fanaticism?

The Influence of the Mullah

A central figure in Somali traditions of conflict with Ethiopia is Ahmed Gran, the leader of the Moslem armies during the great war of the sixteenth century. With the development of modern Somali nationalism, Ahmed Gran has come to be viewed by the Somalis as a national hero. He shares a place of honor among Somali national heroes with the Mullah Mohamed ibn Abdullah Hassan, whose struggle in the early part of the twentieth century is still fresh in Somali memories.

AHMED GRAN (Ahmed Gurey)

The sixteenth century was a period of intense unrest among the people of Adal, a Moslem sultanate between the Gulf of Aden and the present Ethiopian city of Harar. The Sultanate was a loosely integrated state and consisted of a number of small principalities populated by Somali, Galla, Danakil, and other tribes. The unrest was probably caused by population growth, resulting in tribal pressures to expand, and by a simultaneous upsurge in religious fanaticism. A number of leaders appeared on the scene during this period and launched a series of “holy wars” against Christian Ethiopia.

The Imam Ahmed ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi (1506-1543), whom the Ethiopians nicknamed Gran—”the left-handed”—was according to tradition a Darod Somali. Little is known about his early life. He married a daughter of the Imam Mahfuz of Zeila, a prominent Moslem leader in the campaigns against Ethiopia. After a period of struggle against rival chieftains, Ahmed succeeded in establishing his predominance and then turned to the prosecution of the jihad (“holy war”).

In the fighting which followed, the Somalis played a prominent part, but the Moslem armies included many other tribes and peoples as well. For a while, Ahmed was successful in winning a series of victories against the Ethiopians. Between 1528 and 1535 the Moslems succeeded in overrunning considerable portions of the Ethiopian Empire and penetrated far north, reaching Kassala in 1535. Ethiopian power appeared to be completely broken, and the Emperor Lebna Dengel had to take refuge in the mountains. Many of the people were converted to Islam, and according to an Ethiopian chronicler, “hardly one in ten retained his religion.”

In their hour of danger, the Ethiopians appealed for assistance to Portugal (the only Christian country with which they had contact at the time). The arrival of the Portuguese forces in 1541 encouraged the Ethiopians to rally, and jointly they succeeded in inflicting a series of defeats upon Ahmed. The tides of war fluctuated for a while, as the Moslems obtained muskets and cannons from the Turks. Ahmed was wounded in one of the early encounters with the Portuguese but succeeded in escaping and regrouping his defeated army. Later, in 1542, the Portuguese commander, Cristoväo da Gama, was killed in battle. But the decisive encounter took place near Lake Tana in 1543 and resulted in the defeat and the death of Ahmed.

The Moslem armies now disintegrated and Galawdewos, son of Lebna Dengel, reestablished Ethiopian authority over the country. The threat of the Moslem conquest was over, though wars between the Ethiopians and neighboring Moslem peoples continued on a smaller scale for many years.[1]

The sixteenth-century wars have left an imprint upon the consciousness of successive generations of Amharas and Somalis. The Christian Amharas have remained fearful of a possible recurrence of a Moslem invasion. Their neighbors, both in Sudan to the north and in the Somalilands to the east, are Moslem. Moreover, a sizable minority of Ethiopians, estimated at nearly 40 percent of the population, adheres to Islam. Any time that Moslem minorities receive political inspiration from neighboring Moslem states, as the Somalis do today, Ethiopia feels seriously threatened.

Among the Somalis, the memory of Ahmed Gran as a folk hero has lingered on for generations and is emphasized today in the context of Somali nationalism. One cannot be certain whether Ahmed Gran was really a Darod Somali, as widely claimed, or the offspring of a Somali woman and an Abyssinian priest, as related by another tradition.[2] Historical facts are, however, sometimes less important than popular beliefs in shaping the attitudes of peoples. The significant point here is the revival of Ahmed Gran’s memory as a Somali national hero and leader in the wars against Ethiopia.


Another historical figure who has come to be regarded a national hero is the Mullah Mohamed ibn Abdullah Hassan. The Somali attitude toward the Mullah is still somewhat ambivalent. He is remembered as a great leader who wanted to unite the Somalis in a struggle against foreign influences. At the same time, his religious fanaticism, his despotic rule over his followers, and his bloody massacres of fellow Somalis have not been forgotten. During his lifetime he made many irreconcilable enemies, and his cruel methods earned him the epithet of “Mad Mullah.” Today, this title is considered by many Somalis to be in bad taste, and he is usually referred to more respectfully as Sayid Mohamed ibn Abdullah Hassan.

Sayid Mohamed was born in the early 1870s. He was a Darod Somali. Very little is known about his early life beyond the fact that he traveled extensively and made several pilgrimages to Mecca. There he became a disciple of Mohamed Salih, the founder of the Salihiyah. This order, one of several mystic orders in Islam, is notable for its puritanical precepts. Mohamed ibn Abdullah Hassan, during one of his visits to Mecca, was apparently appointed by the founder of the order as his deputy and charged with its propagation among the Somalis.[3]

In 1895, Sayid Mohamed settled in Berbera, then the main center of the British Somaliland Protectorate; there he started preaching the doctrines of the Salihiyah and reproaching the people for their irreligious mode of life. His drive did not meet with much success in Berbera, and he gained only few adherents to his order. Soon he retired to the interior and settled among the Dolbahanta, a Darod tribe in the southeastern section of the Protectorate. There, his preaching found more acceptance. People recognized his authority not only in purely religious questions but also in various tribal affairs. His exercise of authority was welcomed by the British, as they were not in a position to extend their administration into the interior and preferred to rule indirectly through tribal notables. During this period, Mohamed was in regular communication with the British authorities in Berbera, and there was nothing in his activities, either at Berbera or later among the Dolbahanta, to which the government could take exception.[4]

The Rebellion

By late 1898 and early 1899, Mohamed’s letters to the authorities in Berbera became truculent. At the same time, rumors began to circulate that he was arming his followers and was forcing the neighboring tribes to submit to his authority. According to some reports, Mohamed was preparing for a war against the Ethiopians. In August 1899 he and his followers occupied Burao, in the center of British Somaliland, and through this move established control over the watering places of two Ishaq tribes, the Habr Yunis and Habr Toljala. There he declared himself the Mahdi and proclaimed a holy war against infidels. All Somalis were called upon to join him, and those who failed to acknowledge his authority were denounced as infidels. Shortly thereafter he raided a settlement of the Qadiriyah (a rival order) at Sheikh, massacred its inhabitants and razed it.

Only after these incidents and the panic that spread in Berbera did the British become seriously alarmed. The authorities at Berbera called upon the home government in London to undertake an expedition against the Mullah. But the latter part of 1899 saw the outbreak of the Boer War and the early British reversals in that conflict. While the British were preoccupied with those events, conditions in the Protectorate continued to deteriorate. Trade with the interior came to a standstill because the caravans were attacked and looted. But more serious was the plight of the tribes that refused to cooperate with the Mullah. They suffered great losses in stock from repeated raids and, as the disturbances spread across the border, they had to abandon their regular summer grazing grounds on the Ethiopian side.

The authorities in Berbera continued to urge the government in London to take action, and finally received permission to raise a local levy of troops which would attempt to suppress the Mullah in coordination with Ethiopian troops.[5]

Four expeditions were undertaken by the British against the Mullah in the next four years. The forces employed in the first two expeditions (1901-1902) consisted mainly of locally recruited levies. In the third and fourth expeditions (1903-1904), principal reliance was put on regular troops of the Indian army and the King’s African Rifles. Somalis were employed too, but only in mixed units or as scouts—a policy which was decided upon after panic and demoralization had occurred among the Somali levies at Erigo in the final battle of the second expedition. In that incident, the Somalis’ morale collapsed because of superstitious fear of the Mullah.[6]

The results of these operations were inconclusive. The Mullah’s power was not completely broken, but he suffered heavy losses, resulting in a decline of his influence and prestige. For a while he ceased to be a menace.[7]

Needing a respite, Mohamed entered into negotiations with the Italian authorities, and in March 1905 an agreement was reached at Illig by the terms of which the Mullah was assigned a territory of his own under Italian protection. He was guaranteed access to grazing areas within the British Protectorate and given freedom to trade, except in slaves and firearms. Lastly, Mohamed’s authority over his followers was recognized. To this agreement between the Mullah and the Italians the British gave their assent, and for four years relative peace reigned in the area.[8]

By 1908 it appeared, however, that Mohamed was preparing to resume his harassment of the Protectorate tribes. This threat forced the British to choose among the following courses of action: a new expedition; a defensive policy through temporary military occupation of the interior; withdrawal from the interior and concentration at the coast; complete evacuation of the Protectorate.

After extensive deliberations, the government finally resolved in November 1909 to withdraw from the interior and to concentrate at the coast—the least costly policy short of complete abandonment of the British position in Somaliland. Arms were distributed among the friendly Ishaq tribes, and it was hoped that they would be able to hold their own against the Mullah’s forces. Soon after the withdrawal, however, the interior was seized by complete anarchy. The tribes took advantage of the opportunity to settle old accounts and to raid one another’s stocks, instead of uniting to face the Mullah. The Mullah’s followers were active too, trying to coerce the tribes to accept his authority. It is estimated that one-third of the Protectorate’s male population perished in these disorders.[9]

Emboldened by his successes against the tribes, the Mullah threatened to attack the coastal towns. The deteriorating situation persuaded the government to authorize in 1912 the establishment of a Somali Camel Constabulary, a small striking force, some 150 strong. Its task was to patrol the hinterland behind Berbera and thereby to discourage the Mullah from attacking the town, and at the same time to promote peace among the friendly tribes. The Constabulary was placed under the command of Richard Corfield, a former political officer in Somaliland. This man, who enjoyed some popularity among the Somalis, was successful in improving security in the interior and encouraging the friendly tribes to face the Mullah. But in August 1913 his force was ambushed while pursuing one of the Mullah’s raiding parties. The Constabulary was almost annihilated and Corfield himself was killed.[10]

In his fateful decision to pursue the Mullah’s raiders, Corfield contravened orders. But, ironically, the disaster which overtook him and the Constabulary had the effect of persuading the British government that it could not escape involvement if it wished to maintain Britain’s position in Somaliland. Consequently, measures were taken to strengthen the military, and the government gradually proceeded to reoccupy certain strategic locations in the interior. Intermittent fighting with the Mullah continued throughout the period of the First World War.

At the end of that war, in response to urgent representations by the Protectorate officials, the British government decided to launch another offensive against the Mullah. In this operation, the final one, the Somaliland Camel Corps, along with an irregular Somali tribal levy, played a prominent part. In addition to Somali troops, detachments of Indian troops and King’s African Rifles took part, along with six airplanes. The operations were successful, except for their failure to capture the Mullah. His forces were beaten and dispersed and Mohamed fled into Ethiopian territory with a small group of followers. There, near Imi, in the Arussi country, he died of influenza in November 1920. A small tomb with a dome, like the tombs over the burial places of other Moslem saints, was erected over his grave. After his death, his remaining followers scattered, and thus ended the rebellion which for twenty-one years Britain, assisted by Italy and Ethiopia, was unable to suppress.[11]

Nationalism or Religious Fanaticism?

No clear-cut classification of the Mullah’s rebellion as “religious” or “nationalist” is possible. It was motivated primarily by religious fanaticism and had as its ultimate objective the imposition of the Salihiyah precepts and way of life upon the population. But, to attain that objective, political means were necessary. The political struggle inevitably had nationalist ingredients, and the ultimate religious objectives of the movement had certain nationalistic aims as their corollaries. It would seem, therefore, that characterizing the Mullah’s movement as primarily a religious one, coupled with nationalistic corollaries, would be more appropriate than attempting to constrain it into a purely “religious” or “nationalist” mold.

Mohamed ibn Abdullah Hassan’s failure to gain many adherents to his order during his activity as “holy man” in Berbera is believed to have instilled in him a sense of frustration and a conviction that foreigners were to blame. The work of a French Roman Catholic mission which maintained an orphanage and a school in Berbera was particularly repugnant to him. At the beginning of his uprising, in July 1899, he wrote to the Eidagalla tribe seeking their support: “Do you not see that the infidels have destroyed our religion and made our children their children?” His proclamation, upon his arrival at Burao in August, calling on the tribes to accept his authority, was religious in character; he declared himself the Mahdi and proclaimed a holy war against the infidels.[12]

Though denounced for his misdeeds in 1909 by Mohamed Salih, the founder of the order, the Mullah continued to believe in his religious mission. In 1913 he wrote to one of the tribes: “I also inform you that I am a pilgrim and a holy fighter, and have no wish to gain power and greatness in this world . . . I am a Dervish, hoping for God’s mercy and consent and forgiveness and guidance, and I desire that all the country and the Moslems may be victorious by God’s grace.”[13]

Among his followers, there certainly were many who joined for the sake of loot. Mohamed was well aware of this and often apologized to the victims of his undisciplined followers. In one letter to the British authorities at the end of 1912, he said that “most of the Dervishes have got beyond my control and frequently raid the people without my orders.” But the Dervishes behaved in battle like religious fanatics rather than common outlaws interested only in loot. Moreover, they evidently believed in the Mullah’s supernatural power, such as his ability to turn bullets into water. Defeat was attributed to failure to adhere to his religious injunctions. To ascribe to the Mullah’s followers mere avarice and desire for a life of licentious raiding seems unjustified.[14] Those who were impelled to raid and loot their neighbors could have continued to do so in the traditional tribal framework and manner, as indeed the majority of Somalis have done for centuries.

When this religion-motivated movement assumed the form of a political struggle, its nationalistic elements were what impressed the tribes—friend and foe, near and distant. Significantly, these features of his movement have had the most lasting and influential effect in molding Mohamed’s image in tribal traditions.

Mohamed’s primary political objective was to attain independence from foreign rule. Like modern nationalists, he viewed foreign domination as disrupting the way of life of his people and inhibiting the development of their spiritual well-being. Foreign rule was responsible for the superficiality of his countrymen’s adherence to Islam. The foreigners were trying to divert his people from the just path of Islam and even established a mission attempting to convert them to Christianity. Various rival religious orders were operating in the country and, being less austere in their demands than the Salihiyah, were more successful in gaining adherents. This too was attributed partly to the foreigners. In any event, it seemed to Mohamed that the attainment of his religious objectives was contingent upon the expulsion of the foreigners and the establishment of his own temporal authority over the tribes.[15]

Thus, in his view of foreign rule as a barrier to the well-being of the population, and in his desire to rid the country of that rule, Mohamed ibn Abdullah Hassan bears close resemblance to modern nationalist leaders. However, the resemblance cannot be stretched much further, for modern nationalism is essentially a secular movement. Its strictures against foreign rule usually emphasize the inhibitive effect of colonialism upon the social and material development of the population. The spiritual well-being of the people is also a matter of concern to modern nationalists, but it is spiritual well-being in this world, rather than the next. Modern nationalists are concerned with social and racial equality. The Mullah’s concern was the institution of an austere and devout way of life, so as to gain admission to Heaven. The modern nationalists’ case for independence is stated in terms of a Western ideology, involving principles of democracy and self-determination. The Mullah did not justify his demands by such arguments, and indeed there is no evidence that he was aware of the existence of this Western ideology.

The Mullah and the moderns do agree, however, in their opposition to tribalism—tribalism in the sense of activity directed toward maximizing the political influence of a lineage group. Somali nationalists, like other African nationalists, have put very considerable emphasis upon the elimination of tribal political activities. The same can be said about the Mullah, as well as about other Moslem religious orders active among the Somalis. Tribalism had always hindered the propagation of the orders, just as today it hinders the spread of national unity. The orders, on their part, propagated the doctrine of Muslim unity and brotherhood and attempted to combat tribal divisiveness. The same policy was followed by the Mullah. He attempted to abolish tribal distinctions and affiliations among his followers. Instead of identifying themselves by the names of their tribes, they all assumed the unifying title of Dervish. In this respect, the Mullah’s movement, along with other religious orders, helped prepare the way for the emergence of modern nationalism.[16]

It is significant that the Mullah’s followers not only avoided tribal names but also the name “Somali.” The Mullah always used terms such as “Dervishes” and “Moslems.” Some of his letters indeed give the impression that he regarded the Somalis as his enemies. For example, in 1908, at the end of his truce with the government, he wrote to the British authorities complaining about the harassment by the tribes:

I beg to inform you that I am in peace with the British Government, and I shall never attempt to tell you lies. All that I mentioned to you in my letters is true, but most of the people who talk to you about me are telling lies, and you must know that all the Somalis are talking and dealing against me, and no doubt always they tell you that the Dervishes have done so-and-so . . . Although I have been treated as stated above by the Somalis, yet I am considered by them and called a bad man, such as “old singer,” “killer,” “looter,” “disturber of peace,” “thief” . . . My request from you now is for aman [truce] and peace, and I also request you to put out your hand and make peace between me and the other Somalis.[17]

This style and language contrast rather sharply with modern expressions of nationalism. Modern nationalists claim to speak for their people whom they normally call by the name of the nation (Somalis, Arabs, Hungarians, and so on). Similarly, modern Somali nationalists claim to speak for their nation and strive to counter tribalism by calling themselves Somalis.

The Influence of the Mullah

The attitude of the Somali tribes toward the Mullah varied from enthusiastic support to implacable hostility. Most of the Mullah’s support came from the Darod tribes, but only a few of these were unwavering in their loyalty to him. The Ishaq and Dir tribes were for the most part hostile to his movement, and at times actively fought against him.

Mohamed’s rising caused a great deal of unrest throughout the region. Word of his movement spread far, and his struggle against foreign infidel authority aroused sympathy. As far south as Benadir, restless tribes, encouraged by the Mullah’s example, and sometimes invoking his name, caused trouble for the Italian authorities.[18]

What inspired the Somalis—his friends and foes alike—was his defiance of alien authority. Douglas Jardine, whose account of the Mullah is by no means a sympathetic one, wrote in 1923: “Intensely as the Somalis feared and loathed the man whose followers had looted their stock, robbed them of their all, raped their wives, and murdered their children, they could not but admire and respect one who, being the embodiment of their idea of Freedom and Liberty, never admitted allegiance to any man, Moslem or infidel.”[19]

The question of whether Mohamed ibn Abdullah Hassan was a nationalist, or merely a religious fanatic, seems less important than the fact that his example was widely admired. Today, he is regarded throughout the Somali area as a great national hero and fighter for independence. Modern Somali nationalism probably would have developed without his example. However, every nation has its historical heroes who symbolize and inspire its national struggle. Mohamed ibn Abdullah Hassan is the Somali symbol.


[1] On the foregoing Ethiopian-versus-Moslem campaigns, see J. S. Trimingham, Islam in Ethiopia (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), pp. 79-81, 85-86, 88-89. See also Α. H. M. Jones and E. Monroe, A History of Ethiopia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), pp. 55-56, 81-85. For contemporary chroniclers’ accounts see Sahab ad-din Ahmad, trans, by P. Paulitschke, Futuh el Habacha, des Conquêtes faites en Abyssinie au XVIe siècle par L’Imam Mohammed Ahmad dit Gragne (Paris: Librairie Emile Bouillon, 1898) and W. E. Conzeleman, Chronique de Galawdewos (Paris: Librairie Emile Bouillon, 1895).

[2] Lewis, “Political Movements,” p. 359; R. L. Hess, “Italian Colonial Policy in Somalia” (diss., Yale University, 1958), pp. 28, 287; H. Jenny, Äthiopien, Land im Aufbruch (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1957), pp. 34-35.

[3] D. Jardine, The Mad Mullah of Somaliland (London: Herbert Jenkins, Ltd., 1923), pp. 36-38. See also R. E. Drake-Brockman, British Somaliland (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1912), pp. 175-178; Angus Hamilton, Somaliland (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1911), pp. 48-49. On the mystic orders in Islam see Trimingham, pp. 233-256, and I. M. Lewis, “Sufism in Somaliland: A Study in Tribal Islam,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (London), vol. XVII (1955), pp. 581-602, and vol. XVIII (1956), pp. 145-160.

[4] Jardine, pp. 38-40; Great Britain, War Office, Official History of the Operations in Somaliland, 1901-04 (London: H.M.S.O., 1907), vol. I, pp. 48-49 (hereafter cited as Official History)·, Hamilton, pp. 49-50.

[5] Jardine, pp. 40-47; Official History, vol. I, pp. 49-51; Hamilton, pp. 50-53·

[6] Jardine, pp. 81-86; Hamilton, pp. 89-101; Official History, vol. I, pp. 104-108.

[7] Jardine, pp. 57-155; Official History, vol. I, pp. 49-265; Lieut. Col. H. Moyse-Bartlett, The King’s African Rifles (Aldershot: Gale & Polden, 1956), pp. 160-190. Angus Hamilton was the Reuter correspondent at the scene during these operations. For his account, see Hamilton, pp. 68-343. For an account of the Ethiopian expedition cooperating with the fourth British expedition, see Maj. J. W. Jennings and C. Addison, With the Abyssinians in Somaliland (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1905).

[8] For text of treaty see Jardine, pp. 156-158.

[9] Jardine, pp. 156-196; and Somaliland Protectorate 1956—57, p. 52.

[10] Jardine, pp. 197-229; Moyse-Bartlett, pp. 190-194. See also H. F. P. Battersby, Richard Corfield of Somaliland (London: Edward Arnold, 1914).

[11] Jardine, pp. 230-308; Moyse-Bartlett, pp. 419-433.

[12] Jardine (for Eidagalla appeal, p. 48; Burao declaration, p. 42).

[13] Jardine (the Mullah’s statement, p. 211; for a translation of Salih’s epistle repudiating the Mullah, pp. 184-185).

[14] For the 1912 letter see Jardine, p. 209; the same is stated more apologetically in other letters (see ibid., pp. 169-170, 211). On the Dervishes’ behavior and motives, see Jardine, pp. 50, 52-53, 71; Official History, vol. I, p. 106; and Trimingham, p. 215.

[15] Jardine, pp. 48-49.

[16] For an example of the modern nationalists’ attitude on tribalism, see the 1947 constitution of the Somali Youth League, reproduced in Four Power Commission, part II, chap. 4, app. 4. See also Lewis, “Political Movements,” PP· 358-359 and Trimingham, p. 134.

[17] Jardine, pp. 165-166. In other letters the term Somali is used disparagingly (see ibid., pp. 213-215).

[18] See Italy, Ministry of War, Somalia, vol. I (Rome, 1938), pp. 94-179; and C. Cesari, La Somalia Italiana (Rome: Fratelli Palombi, 1935), pp. 94-145. For a detailed account of the effect of the rebellion on Italian Somaliland, see F. S. Caroselli, Ferro e Fuoco in Somalia (Rome: Sindicato Italiano Arti Grafichi, 1931).

[19] Jardine, p. 313.

To be continued …..

About This Book

In this first book on the emergence of Somali nationalism, Saadia Touval draws on extensive research and firsthand knowledge to explore the complex and dangerous situation in easternmost Africa. He describes the land and people, the spread of Somali tribes with their Moslem culture, the arrival of Europeans during the nineteenth century, the development of national consciousness, politics in the new Somali Republic and French Somaliland, problems presented by the Somalis of Kenya and Ethiopia, and the overriding question of boundary lines. Finally, he discusses the prospects for a peaceful solution.

About the Author(s)

Saadia Touval lectures on Political Science and African Politics at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

The book is worth buying: Available from De Gruyter

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.