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The ‘Mad Mullah’ and Northern Somalia

  • Robert L. Hess


In the first two decades of the twentieth century the affairs of northern Somalia were dominated by the politico-religious movement led by Muhammad Abdullah Hassan. The ‘Mad Mullah’, as he was styled by the British, proved to be an elusive adversary and at one time forced the British to evacuate their Somaliland Protectorate. The Italians too were concerned about the Mullah's dervishes, who disturbed the peace of Italy's two nominal protectorates, the sultanates of Obbia and the Mijertein, and of their colony in southern Somalia. At one time the Italians found a temporary solution to the problem by granting the Mullah the Nogal Territory in northern Italian Somaliland. For the Ethiopians the Mullah's movement posed a threat to their Empire's expansion eastward to the Indian Ocean because of its appeal for support from among the Ogaden Somalis. Although the Mullah's recruits were mostly Darod Somalis, for Somalis of other tribes he was not only the agent of a not always acceptable religious movement, but also the symbol of political revolt against foreign domination of any kind. Today the Mullah is regarded as a forerunner of contemporary Somali nationalism.



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1 Caroselli, Francesco S., Ferro e Fuoco in Somalia (Rome: Ministero delle Colonie, 1931), 300.

2 These are the words of Vianney, J. J., a Somali, in his article, ‘The Frontier Between Abyssinia and Somalia’, in Somali Chronicle, Mogadiscio, 30 November 1957, 2.

3 The above is the author's translation of Bruno Panza's Italian version of the Somali gabai (poems) of Muhammad Abdullah Hassan. The Mullah's son, Sheikh Abdurrahman Said Muhammad, has preserved much of his father's poetry. The Somali original and the Italian translation of this poem, ‘Sow Ma Aha?’ (‘Is He Not Perhaps ?’), appear in Somalia d'Oggi, I (12 October 1956), 21–2.

4 Libro Verde: Somalia italiana (Atti Parlamentari, Legisl. XIX, Prima Sessione, N. XIII quater, 25 luglio 1895), doc. 2, p. 27. letter from Consul Filonardi to the Foreign Minister, Zanzibar, 17 December 1888; doc. 6, p. 30, telegram from Crispi to Filonardi, Rome, 30 January 1889; doc. 10, annex 1, pp. 36–7, Treaty for Protectorate over Obbia.

5 Verde, Libro, doc. II, annex I, p. 39, Treaty for Protectorate over the Mijertein.

6 Archivio del Ministero dell'Africa Italiana (AMAI), pos. 55/4 f. 22, letter (reserved) from Editor G. Dalla Vedova of the Bulletin of the Italian Geographic Society. In this same period there were several instances of Government reprimanding the Society for publishing inaccurate information about Somalia; Libro Verde, doc. 85, pp. 201–2, report of Commander Rebaudi of the Piemonte to the Naval Ministry, Zanzibar, 1 January 1895.

7 In June a certain Ahmad Hassan Urbeita twice succeeded in smuggling severa hundred rifles into Alula under orders from his employer, Abu Bakr Pasha of Djibouti; on his third attempt he was jailed by British authorities at Aden. AMAI, pos. 59/2, f. 25, report of Acting Vice-Consul Lang to the Foreign Minister, Aden, 6 June 1900. Also, AMAI, pos. 597sol;2, f. 26, memorandum from British Chargé d'Affaires to the Foreign Minister, Rome, 54 September 1900; letter from British Agent Hardinge to Governor Dulio of Southern Somalia, Zanzibar, 8 September 1900.

8 AMAI, pos. 59/2, f. z, report from Governor Dulio of Southern Somalia to the Foreign Minister, Mogadiscio, 6 February 1900.

9 Caroselli, Ferro e Fuoco in Somalia, 7–8;Jardine, Douglas, The Mad Mullah of Somaliland (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1923), 3548.

10 The Qadariyah is the oldest self-perpetuating order in Islam; there are few parts of the Islamic world where it is not active. It was the first order to be introduced into northeast Africa and consequently is more widespread than the more recent orders. See Trimingham, J. S., Islam in Ethiopia (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), 238–42.

11 Jardine, op. cit. 41. This estimate of the Mullah's strength was sent by the British Consul-General, Colonel J. Hayes-Sadler, to the Marquess of Salisbury.

12 In August 1889 the Mullah wrote to the British, ‘This is to inform you that you have done whatever you have desired. You have oppressed our ancient religion without cause¨Dot;Now choose for yourselves. If you want war, we accept it; but if you want peace, pay the fine.’ Cited in Jardine, op. cit. 43.

13 Baldini, A., ‘Somalia Italiana, in Enciclopedia Italiana, xxxii, 115.

14 Vianney, J. J., ‘Mohamed Abdulla Hasan: A Reassessment’, in Somali Chronicle, Mogadiscio, 13 11 1957, 4.

15 Jardine, op. cit. 46.

16 Ibid. 56; Gaibi, A., Manuale di Storia politico-militare delle Colonie italiane (Rome: Ministero della Guerra, 1928), 170.

17 Jardine, op. cit. 85–6.

18 Speech by Under-Secretary of State Baccelli in the Chamber of Deputies, so February 1903, in L'Africa italiana al Parlarnento nazionale, 1882–1905 (Rome: Ministero degli Affari Esteri, 1907), 681–2.

19 AMAI, pos. 59/3, f. 43, report by the Commander of the Caprera to the Foreign Minister, Obbia, 14 March 1903.

20 AMAI, pos. 59/3, f. 43, telegram from the Foreign Minister to Consul Sola, Rome, 20 February 1903; 50, report by Capt. Ajroldi to the Minister of War, Obbia, 7 September 1903; f. 50, report by Admiral Mirabello to the Foreign Minister, Obbia, 16 May 1903.

21 Caroselli, op. cit. 57. Jardine makes no mention of this offer.

22 Declaration by the Mullah to Pestalozza, llig, 17 October 1904, cited in Caroselli, op. cit. 78–9.

22 Caroselli, op. cit. 261–2.

24 Ibid. 163.

25 AMAI, pos. 59/4, f. 59, Foreign Ministry memorandum on northern Somalia, January 1908.

26 AMAI, Pos. 59/4, f. 59, note from Tittoni to Cappello, Rome, 6 December 1906.

27 AMAI, pos. 59/4, f. 59, memorandum from Central Directory of Colonial Affairs to the Foreign Minister, Rome, 15 July 1907.

28 An Italian translation of the Arabic letter appears in Caroselli, op. cit. 129–31, and an English translation in Jardine, op. cit. 184–5. It would seem that the English text is not entirely accurate.

29 Jardine, op. cit. 186; Caroselli, op. cit. 131.

30 Jardine, op. cit. 189–92. The text of the letter is given.

32 AMAI, pos. 171/2, f. 13, memorandum from Agnesa to the Fordgn Minister (reserved), Rome, 27 July 1909.

33 Caroselli, op. cit. 138–40.

34 Ibid. 143.

35 AMAI, pos. 59/6, f. 9z, letter from the Foreign Minister to the Consul at Aden, Rome, 3 March 1910.

36 The text of this accord is given in Caroselli, op. cit. 144.

37 AMAI, pos. 59/6, f. 9Z, report from Piacentini to the Foreign Minister, Aden, 16 March 1910.

38 Deputati, Camera dei, Eritrea e Somalia: Discorso del Ministero degli Affari Esteri Conte Francesco Guicciardini pronunziato nella seduta del 12 marzo 1910 (Rome: Tipografia della Camera dei Deputati), 24.

39 AMAI, pos. 59/6, f. 94, letter from the Foreign Minister to Governor De Martino, Rome, October 1910.

40 AMAI, pos. 59/6, f. 94, letter from the Foreign Minister to Governor Dc Martino, Rome, 4 June 1910.

41 Caroselli, op. cit. 148.

42 AMAT, pos. 59/7, f. 104, report from Gasparini to the Foreign Minister, Obbia, I October 1911.

43 AMAI, pos. 59/7, f. xo, report from Governor De Martirio to the Foreign Minister Mogadiscio, 8 October 1911.

44 AMAI, pos. 59/7, f. 104, Gasparini report annexed to De Martino report of 8 October 1911.

45 Jardine, op. cit. 199.

46 Ibid. 237.

47 The tet of this letter appears in Jardine, op. cit. 209.

48 Jardine, op. Cit. 212–13.

49 AMAI, pos. 151/, f. 3, unsigned and undated memorandum on ‘Atti di Governo’ (Mogadiscio, 1913).

50 Caroselli, op. cit. 210–14.

51 AMAI, pos. 153/3, f. 27, telegram from Governor De Martino to the Colonial Ministry, Mogadiscio, 21 August 1915.

52 AMAI, pos. 59/8, f. n8, passim. ‘Situazione politica, 1915–1916.’

53 Jardine, op. cit. 246.

54 The Italian Consul in Harar informed the Governor of Eritrea of Lijj Iasu's relationship with the Mullah on 14 August 1910. See Caroselli, op. cit. 219.

55 The full text of this letter appears in Jardine, op. cit. 249. Where Jardine translates ‘Kaflirs’, I have substituted the literal meaning, ‘infidels’.

56 The Arabic original and the Italian translation of the Treaty of Protection and related correspondence appear in Caroselli, op. cit. 222–5.

57 Jardine, op. cit. 315.

58 Jardine, op. cit. 239.

59 Ibid. 266.

60 AMAI, pos. 161/2, f. 12, letter from the Foreign Minister to the Italian Embassy in London, Rome, 19 March 1920.

61 British sources contend that the death of the Mullah occurred on 23 November 1920; Italian sources are consistent in the January 6921 date. Cf. Jardine, op. cit. 307, and Caroselli, op. cit. 299. The Mullah's son claims that his father died on 21 December 1920, cf. Andezejewski, B. W. and Lewis, I. M., Somali Poetry (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1964), 55.

62 Lefevre, Renato, Politica somala (Bologna: L. Cappelli, 1933), 43.

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