|Intro||Founder of Dervish state|
|A.K.A.||Muhammad `Abd Allāh al-Hasan, Sayid Maxamed Cabdille Xasan, Sayyid Ha…|
7 April 1856, Buuhoodle, Somalia
21 December 1920, Imi, Ethiopia, Ethiopia
Mohamed Abdullah Hassan (Somali: Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan; (1868 – 1920) was a Somali religious and patriotic leader. He established the Dervish movement in Somalia that fought a 20-year war against the British, Italian, and Ethiopian empires.
Due to his successful completion of the hajj to Mecca, his complete memorization of the Quran and his purported descent from the Prophet Muhammad, his name is sometimes preluded with honorifics such as Hajji, Hafiz or Sayyid.
Muhammad `Abd Allāh al-Hasan (Somali: Sayid Maxamed Cabdille Xasan, Arabic: محمّد عبد اللّه حسن; Sayyid Muḥammad ibn ‘Abdallāh was referred to as the Mad Mullah by the British empire. His name is sometimes informally abbreviated as MAH. Due to his influence in the precipitation of Somali nationalism, he is referred to as the Father of Somali nationalism. In 1917, the Ottoman Empire referred to Hassan as the “Emir of the Somali”.
According to Douglas Jardine, the epithet ‘Mad Mullah’ did not originate with the British or the Italians as is often thought, but is a translation of the Somali expression wadaad waal (the Mullah that is a lunatic) used by Somalis in Berbera. One Somali poet at the time, Ali Jama Habil composed a poem titled ‘Maxamed Waal’ (Mohamed the Lunatic). The Somali word waalan covers a spectrum that ranges from sheer lunacy through ‘lunatic’ valour to an other worldly inner serenity.
The Birth of the Somali Dervish rebellion
In 1895, Hassan returned to Berbera. The British considered Berbera merely ‘Aden’s butcher’s shop’, since they were only interested in getting regular supplies of meat from Somaliland through this port for their Indian outpost of Aden.
In Berbera, Hassan could not succeed in spreading the teaching of the Salihiyya order due to the hostility of the local Qadiriyyah inhabitants to the Ahmedia order the head order of the Salhiya which is only a sub brand of the Ahmediya. The Qadiriyyah did not like the new Ahmediya strict interpretations, the later opposed the chewing of the mild leafs khat, or the consumption of sheep’s tail ( the fat) and following their traditional Qadiriyyah order in which the issue of Tawassul. In 1897 the young Mullah left Berbera to the mullah settlement at Kob Fardod.
On March 1899, one Duwaleh Hirsi a former member of the Somali Aden police then Mr Percy Cox’s (former counsel-resident of Zeila and Berbera, 1893–1895) expedition guide in Somaliland allegedly stole a rifle and sold it to the tariqa at Kob Fardod. The vice-counsel at the coast, Harry Edward Spiller Cordeaux, sent a letter to the mullahs at Kob Fardod demanding the return of the rifle. The letter was carried by a Somali mounted policeman named Ahmed Adan. Upon his return after the delivery of the letter, Cordeaux interviewed Adan, who provided the following information:
I knew many of the people there—some of them were relations of mine. My brother-in-law, Dualeh Aoreb, was there. I asked them if they had any rifles, they said they at first had only six, but had just received fifty-five from Hafoon. I saw two or three of the new lot, they are Martins(new). They told me they had one or two “14-shot rifles.” I saw some Mullahs walking about with Sniders. The Sheikh himself and some of his Mullahs used to practice daily shooting at a target; they put up a shield against a tree. I used to talk with people every day. We talked about many things, some of the words they said were good and others were bad. They called me a Kafir, and laughed at my uniform, saying that I smelt, and asking me why I wore the Sircars clothes. There were hundreds of people there, some from every tribe, Dolbahanta,Habr Toljaala,and Habr Yunis.
What is particularly revealing about Ahmed Adan’s interview is the confusion that was caused by another letter carried by a Somali supposedly also from the British administration at the coast. This second letter angered the mullahs at the Tariqa ;
“On the third day the Mullah sent
for me. I had seen him before;
he often used to come into
the house. I went to him, and
he said he would give me
his reply to the letter I had
brought; that he had just
received another letter which
had been brought by a
Somali. He asked me about it,
but I told him I knew
nothing about it, and asked
him who had brought it. He
said, “A Somali.” A man named
Salan had come in that
day. I thought that he must
have brought the letter. He
then gave me a letter. It was
written on the back of the
letter I had brought him. I
saw the Government stamp on
it. He (the Sheikh) said,
“This is the reply to your letter. I
will give you the answer to
the other letter to-morrow.”
He said that the second letter
contained “bad words.” Next
morning he gave me two
letters, and I then went away,
and got into Berbera on
The second letter provoked the mullahs, the hostile tone in the reply is due to the offensive second letter carried by Salaan the Somali. Both replies; one regarding the rifle curt but relatively inoffensive and a second addressing the confusing insolent second letter are in the British record.
Origins of armed struggle
The news of the incident that sparked the Dervish rebellion and the 21 years disturbance according to the consul-general James Hayes Sadler was either spread or as he alleged was concocted by Sultan Nur of the Habr Yunis. The incident in question was that of a group of Somali children that were converted to Christianity and adopted by the French Catholic Mission at Berbera in 1899. Whether Sultan Nur experienced the incident first hand or whether he was told of it is not clear but what is known is that he propagated the incident in the Tariqa at Kob Fardod on June 1899. In one of his letters to sultan Deria in 1899, Hassan said that the British “have destroyed our religion and made our children their children” alluding to Sultan Nur’s incident with the Roman French Mission at Berbera. The Dervish soon emerged as an opposition of the Christian activities, defending their version of Islam against the Christian mission. The Dervish considered all non-dervish Somalis as non-Muslims (gaalo).
Ethiopia, Britain and Italy
However, soon angered by his autocratic rule, Hussen Hirsi Dala Iljech’ – a Mohammed Subeer chieftain – plotted to kill him. The news of the plot leaked to Hassan. He escaped but his maternal uncle, Aw ‘Abbas, was killed. Some weeks later, Mohammed Subeer sent a peace delegation of 32 men to Hassan, but he had all the members of the delegation arrested and killed. Shocked by this, Mohammed Subeer sought the help of the Ethiopians and the Dervish withdrew to Nugaal.
Towards the end of 1900, Ethiopian Emperor Menelik proposed a joint action with the British against the Dervish. Accordingly, British Lt. Col. Eric John Eagles Swayne assembled a force of 1,500 Somali soldiers led by 21 European officers and started from Burco on 22 May 1901, while an Ethiopian army of 15,000 soldiers started from Harar to join the British forces intent on crushing the 20,000 Dervish fighters (of whom 40 percent were cavalry).
On 9 January 1904, at the Jidaale (Jidballi) plain, the British Commander, General Charles Egerton, killed 1,000 Dervish. This defeat forced Sayyid and his remaining men to flee to Majeerteen country.
Around 1909, in a secret meeting under a big tree later nicknamed “Anjeel tale waa” (“The Tree of Bad Counsel”), about 400 Dervish followers decided to stop following the mullah upon receiving the explosion letter from the head of the Tariqa , Sheikh Salah excommunicating the mullah. Their departure weakened, demoralized and angered Sayyid, and it was at this juncture that he composed his poem entitled The Tree of Bad Counsel.
During 1910–1914, the dervish capital moved from Illig to Taleh in the heart of Nugal where the dervish built three garrison forts of massive stone work and a number of houses. He built a luxurious palace for himself and kept new guards drawn from outcast clans. By 1913, the dervish dominated the entire hinterland of the Somali peninsula building forts at Jildali and Mirashi, and at Werder in the Ogaden and Beledweyne in southern Somalia. On 9 August 1913, at the Battle of Dul Madoba, a Dervish force raided the Dolbahanta clan and killed or wounded 57 members of the 110-man Somaliland Camel Constabulary. The dead included the British officer who commanded the constabulary, Colonel Richard Corfield. Hassan memorialized this action in his poem simply entitled “The Death of Richard Corfield”. In the same year, fourteen Dervishs infiltrated Berbera and fired few shots on its citizens fleeing , nonetheless causing panic. In 1914, the Somaliland Camel Corps was founded as an expanded and improved version of the constabulary.
A British force was gathering against the Dervishes when they were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Among the British officers deployed was Adrian Carton de Wiart (later Lieutenant General), who lost an eye during the campaign, and Hastings Ismay, a staff officer who was later Winston Churchill’s chief military adviser.
By 1919, despite the British having built large stone forts to guard the passes to the hills, Hassan and his armed bands were at large, robbing and killing. The vision of Sayyid and his followers in Jubba was similar to that of people in Sudan and Egypt when the Ottoman Sultanate was retreating from those other Northeast African territories.
In the beginning of 1920, the British struck the Dervish settlements with a well-coordinated air and land attack and inflicted a stunning defeat. The forts of the dervishes were damaged and the army suffered great losses. They hastily fled to Ogaden. Here, again with the help of his patriotic poetry and charisma, he tried to rebuild his army and accomplish the coalition of Ogaden clans, which made him a power in the land once again.
On 21 December 1920, Hassan died of influenza at the age of 64, his grave is believed to be somewhere close to Imi town of the Somali region of Ethiopia; however, the exact spot of the Sayid’s grave is unknown. In mid 2009, the Somali Regional State administration announced that they would exhume his remains and rebury them in his old castle at Imi. Most of the people who knew the exact location of Hassan’s tomb were long dead, but the Regional Information Minister Guled Casowe told VOA Somali Section that a few, very old individuals might be left and they would be able to reveal the details of the Hassan’s grave. Remains were found in a graveyard at Gindhir and the Somali Region of Ethiopia then tried to test the DNA to determine whether they could be those of Sayid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan.
The efforts and fervor of the erstwhile Anti-colonial leader of the Somali Dervish movement, who by the time of his death had reclaimed and united large swathes of the lands historically territorial to the Somali peoples, to this day inspires and mobilizes the autochthonous peoples of Somalia to form a consolidated bulwark against imperialism (namely that of Ethiopia) as captured in the struggles of the Islamic Courts Union, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, and the former Western Somali Liberation Front. Hassan has thus become more than just a token of pride for the various sectional groups in Somalia, but has also been seen by some as icon of Pan-Somalism, at times even distinguished as one of the great revolutionaries of the turn of the 20th century by notable Pan-Africanist movements, who led the Senussid resistance against the Italians. Hassan’s reputation thus transcends the very borders he sought to liberate from foreign rule and domination, the very essence of the Pan-Africanist movement.
In popular culture
- The documentary film The Parching Winds of Somalia includes a section on the Dervish struggle and its leader Mohammed Abdullah Hassan.
- The historic romance novel Ignorance is the Enemy of Love by Farah Mohamed Jama Awl has a Dervish protagonist called Calimaax, who is part of an ill-fated love story and fights against the British, Italians and Ethiopians in the Horn of Africa.
- A 1983, film entitled A Somali Dervish was directed by Abdulkadir Ahmed Said.
- In the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode “Loyalty”, references are made to the Dervishes and their leader. The episode also features a character purported to have been descended from Muhammad Abdullah Hassan.
- In 1985, a 4-hour and 40 minute Indian-produced epic film by filmmaker Salah Ahmed entitled the Somalia Dervishes went into production. With a budget of $1.8 million, it included an actual descendant of Hassan as its star, and featured hundreds of actors and extras.
- In the popular comic book series Corto Maltese, the protagonist travels to the Horn of Africa during the Dervishes’ battle against the British, and witnesses the former power storm a British fort. During these travels, he develops a long-term friendship with a Dervish warrior named Cush, who subsequently features in several other of Corto’s adventures around the world.