Mohammed Abdullah Hassan

From New World Encyclopedia

Mohammed Abdullah Hassan.

Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan or Sayyid Mahammad Abdille Hasan (April 7, 1856 - December 21, 1920) was Somalia's religious and nationalist leader (called the "Mad Mullah" by the British) who for 20 years led armed resistance to the British, Italian, and Ethiopian forces in Somalia. Some regard Mohammed Abdullah Hassan as a pioneer of Somali nationalism. Others suggest that his ambition were more parochial and that, while he did unite many clans in his opposition to colonialism he also had rivals among the clans, so the twenty year period of his insurrection was also a time of anarchy. Some see the post-1991 situation in Somalia as a repetition of this violent history. Perhaps, if Mohammed Abdullah Hassan had been left to his own devices, he might have established an enduring polity around which other Somalis would have unified into a cohesive state.

Under colonialism, however, Somali territory was divided under five different administrations. What emerged after decolonization an artificial creation, as were many other post-colonial African states. The disintegration of that state may have less to do with ancient inter-clan animosity than the failure of the nation-state model to deal with the Somalian reality, in which while culturally one people, Somalis lived in smaller political units. The problem is not the clan system as such but when different clans are competing for the same slice of the pie. Before the different clans were lumped together in the same state, each clan has their own pie, even if they sometimes coveted their neighbors larger pie. Only an equitable distribution of resources across all the communities will bring an end to this type of envy. The international community needs to re-think the idea that the nation-state is always the ideal system of political organization.


Hassan, who belonged to the Ogaden sub-clan of the Darod, was born in 1856 in the valley of Sa'Madeeq. Some say he was born at Kirrit in the north of Somalia. At the time, this part of Somalia was a protectorate of the United Kingdom. The area was known as British Somaliland from 1884 to 1960.

Hassan was the eldest son of Sheikh Abdille who was an Ogaden Somali and his mother a Somali of the Dhulbahante tribe. His great grandfather, Sheikh Ismaan of Bardee, was a reputed pious man who left his homeland slightly north of Qallafo along the Shebelle River valley in what is now the Ogaden and migrated southwards and settled with the religious community at Bardera along the Jubba River. His grandfather Hasan Nur left his home and moved closer to the Dhulbahante clan in north-eastern Somalia. There, he founded religious centers and devoted himself to the worship of God. His father Abdille had also adopted the religious style of his father's life. He married several Dulbahante women by whom he had about 30 children of which Hassan was the eldest. His mother Timiro Sade came from the Ali Geri sublineage of the Dhulbahante clan, which was an alliance to the Ogaden.

Hassan grew up in among the Dulbahante pastoralists who were good herdsmen and warriors and who used camels as well as horses. Young Hassan's hero was his maternal grandfather Sade Mogan who was a great warrior chief. By the age of eleven, he had learned the Quran by heart and displayed qualities of a promising leader and a good horseman. He continued his religious education. In 1875, his grandfather died. Hassan was shocked by this loss. After 1875, he worked as a Quranic teacher for two years. His thirst for Islamic learning was so intense that he left his job and devoted about ten years to visiting many famous centers of Islamic learning including Harar and Mogadishu and even some centers in Kenya and Sudan.

Hassan received education from as many as seventy-two Somali and Arab religious teachers. In 1891, returning to his home, he married an Ogadeni woman. Three years later along with two of his uncles and eleven other companions some of whom were his maternal kin, he went to Mecca to perform Hajj. The party stayed there for a year and half and came under the charismatic influence of the newly developing Saalihiya order under the leadership of the great mystic Mohammed Salih who was a Sudanese. Hassan received initiation and very rigorous spiritual training under Salih. The Saalihiya opposed many Sufi practices as heresy, including the role of the teacher as a mediator and visiting shrines of past teachers. Martin descibes it as "puritanical."[1]

Hassan emerged a changed man—a spiritually transformed man "shaken and over-awed" but determined to spread the teachings of the Saalihiya order in Somalia.

Religious mission

In 1895, Hassan returned to Berbera which was then considered by the British merely as "Aden's butcher's shop," since they were interested only in getting regular supplies of meat from Somalia through this port for their British India outpost of Aden.

Taking advantage of British complacency and arrogance, Emperor Menelek II of Ethiopia asked Ras Makonnen, the Governor of his newly conquered Hararghe Province, to send armed bands to plunder and occupy Ogaden politically. The British withdrew from this area of their territory in Somalia.

In Berbera, Hassan could not succeed in spreading the teaching of the Saalihiya order due to the hostility of the local Qadiriyyah inhabitants who did not like him criticizing their eating khat and gorging on the fat of sheep's tail and for following their traditional Qadiriyyah order. In 1897, he left Berbera to be with his Dulbahante kinsmen. On the way, at a place called Daymoole, he met some Somalis who were being looked after by a Catholic Mission. When he asked them about their tribe and parents, the Somali orphans replied that they belonged to the clan of the "Fathers." This reply shook his conscience; he equated Christian rule with the destruction of his people's faith.

Reaching his region, Hassan established his first headquarters at Qoryawaye and started preaching religious reform according to the Saalihaya order among the pastoral nomads. He started calling himself and his followers "dervishes." The Arabic word Dervish means a Muslim believer who has taken vows of poverty and a life of austerity in the service of God. Soon, his influence spread over the majority of the Habar Tol Jaalo and the eastern Habar Yoonis clans. For their part, British officials appreciated his role of settling the tribal disputes and of maintaining peace in the area.

In 1899, an unfortunate event took place. Some soldiers of the British armed forces met Hassan and sold him an official gun. When questioned about the loss of the gun, they told their superiors that Hassan had stolen the gun from them. On March 29, 1899, the British Vice Consul wrote a very insulting and stern letter to him asking him to return the gun immediately, which someone in Hassan's camp had reported stolen. This enraged Hassan and he sent a very brief and curt reply refuting the allegation.

While Hassan had really been against the Ethiopian imperialist plunderers of Somalia, this small incident made him clash with the British. The British and Ethiopian Emperor Menelek II joined together to crush the Dervish movement of Hassan and some antagonistic Somali Ogadeni also cooperated with Menelek II against him.

The British and Somalia

British Somaliland.

The British interest in this area was linked with the need to protect the route to India. This initially led to Britain's involvement in Egypt after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. As Britain gained control of Egypt, this in turn led to involvement in the Sudan. Partly, this was in order to end slavery there; partly it was to extend their protectorate over the Nile, which they saw as potentially profitable. While Somalia did not interest the British very much, apart from as a source of provisions for ships docking at Aden, the coast-line did have some strategic significance in terms of protecting shipping to India. For this reason, they began to annex Somalia, where they faced competition from France and Italy. France ended up with what later became Djibouti while the British and the Italians each had Somalian colonies. The British established their Protectorate in 1884. This was administered from India until 1898. That year, the British defeated the army of the Madhi of the Sudan, another Muslim political-religious leader.

Armed struggle

At root, the movement led by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan was an anti-colonial struggle. As the British began their Protectorate, he began to resist their colonial rule. In several poems and speeches, he emphasized that the British were infidels who were destroying Islam and making the children of Somalia into their own children, while the Christian Ethiopians, in league with the British, were bent on plundering the political and religious freedom of the Somali nation. He soon emerged in the eyes of many Somalians as a defender of his country's political and religious freedom against the Christian invaders. He issued a religious ordinance that any Somali national who did not accept the goal of unity of Somalia and would not fight under his leadership would be considered as kafir (unbeliever) or gaal. He acquired weapons from Turkey, Sudan, and other Islamic and/or Arabian countries. He appointed his ministers and advisers in charges of different areas or sectors of Somalia. He gave a clarion call for Somali unity and independence. Having just defeated the army of the Mahdi of Sudan, the British now faced more religiously motivate opposition to their presence in the region.

Hassan organized his follower-warriors. His "Dervish" movement had essentially a military character and the Dervish state was fashioned on the model of a Saalihiya brotherhood. It had rigid hierarchy and rigid centralization.

Though Hassan threatened to drive the Christians into the sea, he committed the first attack by launching his first major military offensive with his 1500 Dervish equipped with 20 modem rifles on the British soldiers stationed in the region.

Hassan sent one of his men to Yemen in disguise for reconnaissance activities to report the new airplanes preparedness for attack. He sent his emissaries all over the country appealing for Somali people to join his movement and many responded to him enthusiastically.

Against Ethiopia, Britain, and Italy

In 1900, an Ethiopian expedition which had been sent to arrest or kill Hassan, looted a large number of camels of the Mohammed Subeer tribe of Ogaden. In answer to his appeal, Hassan attacked the Ethiopian garrison at Jijiga on March 4 of that year and successfully recovered all the looted animals. This success emboldened Hassan and also enhanced his reputation.

In June, three months later, Hassan raided the British protected northern Somali clans of Eidagale and Isaaq and looted about 2,000 camels. He gained great prestige in recovering the looted stock from the Ethiopians and he used it along with his charisma and powers of oratory to improve his undisputed authority on the Ogaden. To harness Ogaden enthusiasm into final commitment, Hassan married the daughter of a prominent Ogaden chieftain and in return gave his own sister, Toohyar Sheikh Adbile, to Abdi Mohammed Waale, a notable Mohammed Subeer elder.

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 prime minister and friend, Aw 'Abbas, was killed in the plot. 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 heinous crime, Mohammed Subeer sought the help of the Ethiopians and the Dervish withdrew to Nugaal.

Hassan (by now better known by his honorific title of "Sayyid") patched up with the Dulbahante temporarily by paying huge blood monies. This frightened the British protected North Somali pastorals. Towards the end of 1900, Ethiopian Emperor Menelik proposed a joint action with the British against the Dervish. Accordingly, British Lt. Col. E.J. 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, to crush the Dervish movement of about 20,000 Dervish (of whom 40 percent were cavalry).

During 1901 and 1904, the Dervish army inflicted heavy losses to their enemies—the Ethiopians and the British as well as the Italian forces. "His successes attracted to his banner even Somalis who did not follow his religious beliefs." On January 9, 1904, at the Jidaale plain the British Commander, General Charles Egerton killed 7,000 Dervish. This defeat forced Sayyid and his remaining men to flee to Majeerteen country.

Around 1910, about 600 Dervish followers decided to stop follow Sayyid due to his high-handedness, in a secret meeting under a big tree later nicknamed "Anjeel-tale-waa" (The tree-of-Bad-Counsel). Their departure weakened, demoralized and angered Sayyid, and at this juncture he composed his most famous poem entitled, "The Tree of Bad Counsel."

Sayyid Mohamed's push to the south

Marehan forces from the Hinterland in Northern Somalia to the length of the entire Jubba inside Somalia, from Serinley, near Bardera, to the coast, Sayyed Mohamed received enormous support from Marehan population for his push to gather fighting men in the south of Somalia.

Sayyid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan's own Ogaden clansmen weren't entirely on his side when the Marehan saw the importance of siding with nationalist leader on the mission of getting rid the colonial power. From Serinley onwards to Dolow, the second arm of the Marehan wasn't happy with new dynamics of giving the British a second front for confrontation. The peaceful communities between Bardera and Dolow to the Tana River in East Africa were long established before the late nineteenth century uprising of Sayyed Mohamed Abdulle Hassan.

The Marehan Rer Guri were content and basically wanted to herd their livestock from the grasslands of Jubba to Tana River peacefully, where they had settled at the time. The Marehan Galti from the north and central Somalia was in the struggle mood. Northern Gedo Sheikh of Ali Dheere, who was at the time in concert with the Guri, was content with the status quo in terms of not wanting to be part of armed struggle against the British and their proxy fighters, the East Africa Riflery.


Mohammed Abdullah Hassan's fort Taleh.

During 1910-1914, Sayyid's capital moved from Illig to Taleex in the heart of Nugaal where he built three garrison forts of massive stone work and a number of houses. He built a luxurious palace for himself and kept new guards for his palace drawn from outcast clans. By 1913, he had dominated the entire hinterland of the Somali peninsula by building forts at Jildali and Mirashi in Warsangali country, at Werder and Qorahy in the Ogaden and Belet-Weyn in southern Somalia. On August 9, 1913, at the Battle of Dul Madoba, a Dervish force raided the Habar Yoonis tribe near Burco 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."

You have died, Corfield, and are no longer part of this world, a merciless journey was your portion, When, Hell-destined, you set out for the Other World Those who have gone to Heaven will question you,

If God is willing.[2]

In the same year, the Dervish attacked Berbera and looted and destroyed it. In 1914, the "Somaliland Camel Corps" was founded as an expanded and improved version of the constabulary.

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 Sayyed and his followers in Jubba vision was similar to that of people in Sudan and Egypt when Ottoman Sultanate was retreating from North and East Africa 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 Hassan were damaged and his 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 Ogadeen clans which made him a power in the land once again. The British sent a peace delegation to him offering to give a government subsidy and a land grant in the west of the British Somaliland where he could settle with his followers, but he spurned the proposal. He even raided the returning delegation. Then smallpox and rinderpest broke out in Ogaden and about half of the Dervish died therefrom. Soon thereafter, a tribal raid under the leadership of Haaji Waraabe (Haji the Hyena) armed and organized by the British killed the remaining Dervish and took away about 60,000 animals in loot but failed to catch Hassan. Along with some of his followers, he escaped to the Arsi Oromo in Ethiopia where he tried to contract marriages to stabilize his position.


On December 21, 1920, Hassan died of influenza at the age of 64.


For more than 20 years, the warriors of Somali "united under" Mohammed Abdullah Hassan "defeating every fore sent against them." Having finally defeated him, the British found that governing Somalia was a challenge as war-lords constantly rebelled. In 1945, a report actually praised the "Mad Mullah" for "exacting unquestioning obedience founded on fear" during his reign.[3] The British, though as have those who have subsequently intervened in Somalia failed to learn the lesson that mass starvation also follows warfare in this area; "What isn't remembered so well … is that battles between the Dervishes, their Somali rivals and the British caused mass starvation." Pererson comments that Mohammed Abdullah Hassan "nationalist example" and his "mastery of evocative poetry and song" is "often invoked" in Somalia.[3]

The British and Italian colonies united, in 1960, following their independence to form the modern nation-state of Somalia. Since 1991, when the oppressive regime of Siad Barre was overthrown, a Somali Civil War has waged and governance has disappeared from the state as it has disintegrated into small clan-based units led by war-lords. On the one hand, Somalis "constituted the most extensive and united "nation" in Africa before the arrival of European adventurers," says Peterson. "Speaking the same language" and following the same religion, Somalis "should have been among the last to dissolve into internecine conflict." However, he continues, despite Mohammed Abdullah Hassan's best efforts, the colonial power divided Greater Somali "five ways"—parts went to Ethiopia, Kenya, Britain, Italy, and France, thus, their "nation" was a victim of the carve up of Africa.[4]

On the other hand, no single political polity had ever governed the whole of Greater Somalia. Much smaller but culturally related units had each been ruled by a local Emir or chief. "City states, sultanates and independent clans" says Diriye Abdullahi "were the normal mode of Somali government since time immemorial." The notion of a unitary state, he says, is a legacy of colonialism; "a tributary of the nationalist ideals and the concept of the nation-state that started to take shape in nineteenth century Europe." He dismisses the idea that Somali nationalism can be traced from Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, describing his movement as too "parochial." In fact, he says, the only Somali that equals him in "wanton destruction and massacres is General Siad Barre." The Mullah "had no grasp of the wider implications of nationhood in the order of nations."[5] Kieh and Mukenge, though, argue that it is too simplistic to blame collapse of Somalia as a state on traditional clan-based rivalry, which "obscures the more long-term failure of the Western model of the nation-state to take hold in this region."[6] The unitary nation state may not be the best of the ideal system of governance unless all segments of the population can be guaranteed fair treatment. A system that delegates more responsibility to the local level might be more effective in governing a country where clan-links are important aspects of people's identity. If the British had not intervened, Mohammed Abdullah Hassan may have established a more durable polity, especially since, according to Diriye Abdullahi when moments of Somalian cohesion did occur, the catalyst was religion not nationalism, "In their brief moments of great cohesion, Somalis had come together as Muslims," he says.[7]


  1. Martin (2003), 161.
  2. B.W. Andrzejewski and I.M. Lewis., Somali Poetry; an Introduction (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1964), 72.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Peterson (2000), 10.
  4. Peterson (2000), 11.
  5. Diriye Abdullahi (2001), 24-25.
  6. Kieh and Mukenge (2002), 73.
  7. Diriye Abdullahi (2001), 24.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Beachey, R.W. 1990. The Warrior Mullah the Horn Aflame, 1892-1920. London, UK: Bellew. ISBN 9780947792435.
  • Diriye Abdullahi, Mohamed. 2001. Culture and Customs of Somalia. Culture and customs of Africa. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313313332.
  • Jardine, Douglas James. 1969. The Mad Mullah of Somaliland. New York, NY: Negro Universities Press. ISBN 9780837117621.
  • Kieh, George Klay, and Ida Rousseau Mukenge. 2002. Zones of conflict in Africa theories and cases. Westport, CT: Praeger. ISBN 9780313010835.
  • Martin, B.G. 2003. Muslim Brotherhoods in Nineteenth Century Africa. African studies, 18. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521534512.
  • Peterson, Scott. 2000. Me Against my Brother at War in Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda: A Journalist Reports from the Battlefields of Africa. New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN 9780203902905.
  • Samatar, Said S. 1982. Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayyid Maḥammad ʻAbdille Ḥasan. African studies series, 32. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521238335.
  • Sheik-ʻAbdi, ʻAbdi. 1993. Divine Madness: Moḥammed ʻAbdulle Ḥassan (1856-1920). Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Zed Books. ISBN 9780862324438.


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