Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi (c. 1506 – February 21, 1543) was an Imam and General of Adal who defeated Emperor Lebna Dengel of Ethiopia. Nicknamed Gurey in Somali and Gragn in Amharic (Graññ), both meaning "the left-handed," he embarked on a conquest which brought three-quarters of Ethiopia under the power of the Muslim Kingdom of Adal during the Ethiopian-Adal War from 1529-43. He was known as Sahib al-Fath (the conqueror) among his Muslim subjects, and as Imam Ahmad. He used Ottoman Empire military tactics to train his soldiers. Imam Ahmad's success in Ethiopia led to an early European intervention in Africa when the Ethiopian Emperor asked the Portuguese to assist in repelling the Muslim army.
He is remembered by Somalis as a national hero, by Ethiopians as a ferocious and unwelcome conqueror. This mixed legacy is an example of how events and lives are differently regarded by different people. Whether someone is a hero or a villain depends on who tells the story, or on who writes the history. His empire ended with his own death. Initially, the Imam attacked Ethiopia in retaliation for an attack on his own Sultanate, then continued to subjugate Ethiopia. His motive appears to have been religious, since he called for a jihad against Ethiopia, which can be regarded as a defensive war, or as a call to extend the borders of the Islamic world. Al-Ghazi is used as a title by Muslim soldiers who help to spread the faith of Islam.
Imam Ahmad has traditionally sometimes been interpreted as being an Arab in Ethiopia, though he is more often represented as an ethnic Somali. The traditional interpretation of his ethnicity as Somali, however, has been challenged. Adal was a multi-ethnic state comprising Afars and Somalis, as well as the ancestors of the modern Harari, and, after the reign of Sa'ad ad-Din II (1403/15), Belews (Arabized Bejas). Ewald Wagner postulates that, in fact, "the main population of Adal may have been of Afar stock."
His ethnicity is never explicitly mentioned in the Futuh al-Habasha of Sihab ad-Din Ahmad bin 'Abd al-Qader (otherwise known as 'Arab Faqih), the primary source for his conquests, possibly because it was not important or because the author assumed it was known to his readers. There are a number of clues in the Futuh worth considering.
Although one could use the evidence of the Futuh to argue that Imam Ahmad was not a Somali, it is clear that he had many connections to the Somali people. Franz-Christoph Muth, among most other experts, identifies him as Somali.
Imam Ahmad was born near Zeila, a port city located in northwestern Somalia (then part of Adal, a Muslim state tributary to the Christian Ethiopian Solomonic dynasty), and married Bati del Wambara, the daughter of Mahfuz, governor of Zeila. When Mahfuz was killed returning from a campaign against the Ethiopian emperor Lebna Dengel in 1517, the Adal sultanate lapsed into anarchy for several years, until Imam Ahmad killed the last of the contenders for power and took control of Harar.
In retaliation for an attack on Adal the previous year by the Ethiopian general Degalhan, Imam Ahmad invaded Ethiopia in 1529. Although his troops were fearful of their opponents and attempted to desert upon news that the Ethiopian army was approaching, Imam Ahmad maintained the discipline of most of his men, defeating Emperor Lebna Dengel at Shimbra Kure that March. He adapted Ottoman military tactics, and trained his force into an efficient fighting unit. He also recruited some Turkish troops, and acquired firearms. He used the term jihad to describe his campaign.
Imam Ahmad again campaigned in Ethiopia in 1531, breaking Emperor Lebna Dengel's ability to resist in the Battle of Amba Sel on October 28. The Moslem army then marched northward to loot the island monastery of Lake Hayq and the stone churches of Lalibela. When the Imam entered the province of Tigray, he defeated an Ethiopian army that confronted him there. On reaching Axum, he destroyed the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in which the Ethiopian emperors had for centuries been crowned.
The Ethiopians were forced to ask for help from the Portuguese, who landed at the port of Massawa on February 10, 1541, during the reign of the emperor Gelawdewos. The force was led by Cristóvão da Gama and included 400 musketeers as well as a number of artisans and other non-combatants. Gama and Imam Ahmad met on April 1, 1542, at Jarte, which Trimingham has identified with Anasa, between Amba Alagi and Lake Ashenge. Here the Portuguese had their first glimpse of Ahmad, as recorded by Castanhoso:
On April 4, after the two unfamiliar armies had exchanged messages and stared at each other for a few days, Gama formed his troops into an infantry square and marched against the Imam's lines, repelling successive waves of Muslim attacks with musket and cannon. This battle ended when Imam Ahmad was wounded in the leg by a chance shot; seeing his banners signal retreat, the Portuguese and their Ethiopian allies fell upon the disorganized Muslims, who suffered losses but managed to reform next to the river on the distant side. Since Adal was known for its multi-ethnic population, this achievement testifies to Imam Ahmad's leadership skills.
Over the next several days, Imam Ahmad was reinforced by arrivals of fresh troops. Understanding the need to act swiftly, Gama on April 16 again formed a square which he led against Imam Ahmad's camp. Although the Muslims fought with more determination than two weeks earlier—their horse almost broke the Portuguese square—an opportune explosion of some gunpowder traumatized the horses on the Imam's side, and his army fled in disorder. Castanhoso laments that "the victory would have been complete this day had we only one hundred horses to finish it: for the King was carried on men's shoulders in a bed, accompanied by horsemen, and they fled in no order."
Reinforced by the arrival of the Bahr negus Yeshaq, Gama marched southward after Imam Ahmad's force, coming within sight of him ten days later. However, the onset of the rainy season prevented Gama from engaging Ahmad a third time. On the advice of Queen Sabla Wengel, Gama made winter camp at Wofla near Lake Ashenge, still within sight of his opponent.
Knowing that victory lay in the number of firearms an army had, the Imam sent to his fellow Muslims for help. According to Abbé Joachim le Grand, Imam Ahmad received 2000 musketeers from Arabia, and artillery and 900 picked men from the Ottomans to assist him. Meanwhile, due to casualties and other duties, Gama's force was reduced to 300 musketeers. After the rains ended, Imam Ahmad attacked the Portuguese camp and through weight of numbers killed all but 140 of Da Gama's troops. Gama himself, badly wounded, was captured with ten of his men and, after refusing an offer to spare his life if he would convert to Islam, was executed.
The survivors and Emperor Gelawdewos were afterward able to join forces and, drawing on the Portuguese supplies, attacked Ahmad on February 21, 1543, in the Battle of Wayna Daga, where their 9,000 troops managed to defeat the 15,000 soldiers under Imam Ahmad. The Imam was killed by a Portuguese musketeer, who was mortally wounded in avenging Gama's death.
His wife Bati del Wambara managed to escape the battlefield with a remnant of the Turkish soldiers, and they made their way back to Harar, where she rallied his followers. Intent on avenging her husband's death, she married his nephew Nur ibn Mujahid on condition that Nur would avenge Imam Ahmad's defeat.
Ahmad's invasion of Ethiopia is described in detail in the Futuh al-habasa ("The Conquest of Ethiopia"), written in Arabic by Ahmad's follower Sihab ad-Din Admad ibn 'Abd-al-Qadir, in its current version incomplete, covering the story only to 1537, narrating the Imam's raids on the islands of Lake Tana. Richard Burton the explorer claimed that the second part could be found "in Mocha or Hudaydah"; but, despite later investigation, no one else has reported seeing a copy of this second part. The surviving first part was translated into French by René Basset and published 1897-1901. Richard Pankhurst made a partial translation into English as part of his The Ethiopian Royal Chronicles (Addis Ababa: Oxford University Press, 1967), and a complete translation of the Futuh al-habasa by Paul Lester Stenhouse was published by the Tsehai in 2003.
Primary sources of the Portuguese expedition under Gama have been collected and translated by R.S. Whiteway, The Portuguese Expedition to Abyssinia in 1541-1543, 1902 (Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint Limited, 1967). The Solomonic side of the story is represented in the royal chronicles of Emperor Lebna Dengel and his son, Emperor Gelawdewos.
Ahmad's legacy is remembered differently depending on who is doing the remembering. Among Somalis, he is celebrated as a national hero. In Ethiopia, he is remembered as a bloodthirsty interloper. "In Ethiopia the damage which [Ahmad] Gragn did has never been forgotten," wrote Paul B. Henze. "Every Christian highlander still hears tales of Gragn in his childhood. Haile Selassie referred to him in his memoirs. I have often had villagers in northern Ethiopia point out sites of towns, forts, churches and monasteries destroyed by Gragn as if these catastrophes had occurred only yesterday." While acknowledging that many modern Somali nationalists consider Ahmad a national hero, Henze dismisses their claims, stating that the concept of a Somali nation did not exist during Ahmad's lifetime. He is also referred to as a Muslim reformer, with the title of Imam. It is said that the majority of people in the territory he conquered converted to Islam.
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