Dervish movement (Somali)

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The Dervish movement (Somali: Halgankii Daraawiishta) was an early 20th-century Somali Muslim revolt[1]. The rebellion was initiated by Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, a religious leader, and Tribal chief Nur Ahmed Aman.[2] The two gathered Somali forces from across the Horn of Africa and united them into loyalists known by the endonym Darwiish.[3] The Dervish movement acquired renown in the Muslim and Western worlds due to its resistance against the European empires of Britain and Italy. The Dervish forces successfully repulsed the British Empire in four military expeditions, and forced it to retreat to the coastal region.[4] As a result of its fame in the Middle East and Europe, the Dervish movement was recognized as an ally by major Central Powers: the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire.[5][6] After a quarter of a century of holding the British at bay, the Dervishes were finally defeated in 1920.

The movement is known in Somali as Daraawiish,[7] of whom the Dhulbahante clan of the Darod constituted the strongest demographic of loyalists to Mohammed Abdullah Hassan.[8] Its capital was located in Taleh.[9]


At the end of the 19th century, the Berlin conference gathered together Europe's most powerful countries during the Scramble for Africa. The British, Italians, and Ethiopians partitioned Greater Somalia into spheres of influence, cutting into the previous nomadic grazing system and Somali civilizational network that connected port cities with those of the interior. The Ethiopian Emperor Menelik's Somali expedition, consisting of an army of 15,000 men, made a deep push into the vicinity of Luuq in Somalia. However, his troops were soundly defeated by the Sultanate of the Geledi, with only 200 soldiers returning alive and at the same time being heavily traumatized. The Ethiopians subsequently refrained from further expeditions into the interior of Somalia but continued to attack the people in the Ogaden by plundering the nomads of their livestock numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The British blockade in firearms to the Somalis rendered the nomads in the Ogaden helpless against the armies of Menelik. With the establishment of important Muslim orders headed by Somali scholars such as Shaykh Abd Al-Rahman bin Ahmad al-Zayla'i and Uways al-Barawi, a rebirth of Islam in East Africa was soon afoot. The resistance against the colonization of Muslim lands in Africa and Asia by the Afghans and Mahdist Dervishes would inspire a large resistance movement in Somalia. Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, a former nomad boy that had travelled to many Muslim centers in the Islamic world, returned to Somalia as a grown man and began promoting the Saalihiya order in the urban cities and the interior where he found major success.

Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, leader of the Dervish state.

In 1899, 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 29 March 1899, the British Vice Consul wrote a very stern and insulting 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 invaders of Somalia, this small incident caused a clash with the British.[10]

Haji Sudi on the left with his brother in-law Duale Idres. Aden, 1892. Haji Sudi was the movement's right-hand man and chief lieutenant till its demise.[11][12]

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 in June 1899 precipitating the religious rebellion that later morphed into the Somali Dervish.[13]


Taleh, the Dervish capital.

The Dervish during their campaigns against the European and local powers began to build fortresses all over the Horn of Africa, and would move their armies from one city to another. According to Hastings Ismay, 1st Baron Ismay during his years in service in Somaliland (1915-1920), on March 1917 Haji Sudi began building Surud forts.[14] After the British withdrawal to the coast, the permanent capital and headquarters of the Dervishes was constructed at Taleh, a large walled town with fourteen fortresses. The main fortress, Silsilat, included a walled garden and a guard house. It became the residence of Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, his wives, family, prominent Somali military leaders, and also hosted several Turkish, Yemeni and German dignitaries, architects, masons and arms manufacturers.


A large area to the northeast of Taleh was used for cultivation, while the Dar Ilalo towers were used as granaries. Several tombs were constructed by Muhammad Abdullah Hassan to honor his father, mother and his fellow Salahiyya Dervish, Sultan Nur Ahmed Aman. However, those that committed acts of treason, crimes, or who had otherwise fallen out with the Dervish leader were sent to Hed Kaldig, the main execution arena.[15]


Hassan's aim with the Daraawiish had been "an autonomous space" with the "contours of a strict Islamic theocracy".[16] As such, in 1905, Hassan set up a theocratic state[17], wherein civil responsibilities were allocated to competent Darawiish members.[18] Hassan has been described as an authoritarian[19], and the Dervish state has also been described as an autocracy.[20][21] Historian Roy Irons described Hassan's position as follows[22]:

Thus the Sayyid's position in the dervish organization was analogous to that of Augustus in the Roman Empire, nominally a 'first among equals', but in reality a dictator. In the Augustan Empire, the path to power was by military command ... Power in the dervish state was exercised by religion and poetry, and the Sayyid, controlling religion absolutely, was as guarded in permitting poetic composition by others as Augustus in allocating military provinces.

Decision-making was made in a council called the "Khusuusi", which was allocated to religious leaders, notable elders as well as non-Somalis such as the Ottoman advisor Muhammad Ali.[23] According to Markus V. Hoehne the "Somali Dervish state indeed featured a clear centralised governance structure, with Sayid Mohamed Abdille Hassan on top".[24]


The Dervish domination of the hinterland in the Somali peninsula brought important trade routes under their hegemony, which they exploited by redirecting the wealthy livestock trade to port cities such as Las Khorey, Eyl, and Ilig. Important imports included firearms, horses and building material for the construction of several dozen fortresses in the Horn of Africa. Nonetheless, the Darawiish state was grounded on asceticism, and embraced stoicism, while abhorring hedonism and materialism.[25] Inhabitants of the Ogaden were especially economically impacted by the conflict due to the fact that trade activities were halted.[26]


The regular army (Maara-weyn) of the Dervish state was organised into seven regiments: Shiikh-yaale, Gola-weyne, Taar-gooye, Indha-badan, Miinanle, Dharbash and Rag-xun. Each regiment had its commander (muqaddim), and varied in size from between 1,000 and 4,000 men. A large para-military force was also drawn from the nomad population. The cavalry, for its part, numbered between 5,000 and 10,000 mounted horsemen, and the standing army was supplied with modern weapons such as rifles and maxim guns. Dervish soldiers used the dhaanto traditional dance-song to raise their esprit de corps and often sang it on horseback.[27]

Wars against the British Empire and Ethiopia[edit]

Somali Dervish soldiers engage their British counterparts at sea.

In late August of 1899, the Dervish leaders and their clan followers assembled at Burao, Mohammed Abdullah Hassan with his followers from the Dhulbahante, the various Habar Jeclo sub clans with their principle headman Haji Sudi, and Sultan Nur Ahmed Aman with his followers from the Habr Yunis clan, declared open hostility.[28] The assembled dervish and their clan allies sent the following stern letter to Captain Cordeauxe and James Hayes Sadler:

"This is to inform you that you have done whatever you have desired, and oppressed our well-known religion without any cause. Further, to inform you that whatever people bring to you they are liars and slanderers. Further, to inform you that Mahomed, your Akil, came to ask from us the arms we therefore, send you this letter. Now choose for yourself; if you want war we accept it, if you want peace pay the fine." September 1, 1899.[29]

The historic Daarta Sayyidka Dervish fort in Eyl, Puntland.

In 1900, an Ethiopian expedition which had been sent to arrest or kill Hassan looted a large number of camels. Hassan in return attacked the Ethiopian garrison at Jijiga on 4 March of that year and successfully recovered all the looted animals. 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 leader and in return gave his own sister, Toohyar Sheikh Adbile, to Abdi Mohammed Waale, a notable elder.

Towards the end of 1900, the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II 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 intent on crushing the 20,000 Dervish fighters (of whom 40 percent were cavalry).

In the 1920 campaign by the British, 12 aircraft were used to support the local British forces. Within a month, the British had occupied the capital of the Dervish State and Hassan had retreated to the west.

Modern legacy[edit]

Logo of the Puntland Dervish Force, named in honor of the Dervishes

The Dervish legacy in Somalia can be seen in the country's cultural heritage, history, and society. In memory of past heroes, the military government of Somalia led by Mohamed Siad Barre erected statues visible between Makka Al Mukarama and Shabelle Roads in the heart of Mogadishu. These were for three major Somali History icons: Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, Stone Thrower and Hawo Tako. Other historical facts about Somalia, numerous castles and fortresses built by the Dervishes were included in a list of Somalia's national treasures.[30] The Dervish period spawned many war poets and peace poets involved in a struggle known as the Literary war which had a profound effect on Somali poetry and Literature, with Mohammed Abdullah Hassan featuring as the most prominent poet of that Age.[31] Many of these poems continue to be taught in Somali schools and have been recited by several Presidents of Somalia in speeches as well as in poetry competitions. In Somali Studies, the Dervish period is an important chapter in Somalia's history and its brief period of European hegemony, the latter of which inspired the resistance movement. Due to their goal of creating a unified Somali State or Greater Somalia transcending regional and clan divisions, many scholars regard the Dervishes as the ideological architects of Somalia[32] and Muhammad Abdullah Hassan himself as the "Father of the Nation".[33]

In popular culture[edit]

  • 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-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.[34]
  • 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Somalia - Revolt in British Somaliland". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-09-07. 
  2. ^ F.O.78/5031,Sayyid Mohamad To The Aidagalla, Enclosed Sadler To Salisbury .69, 20 Aug. 1899
  3. ^ Mukhtar, Mohamed (2003). Historical Dictionary of Somalia. p. 27. 
  4. ^ Encyclopedia of African history – Page 1406[full citation needed]
  5. ^ The modern history of Somaliland: from nation to state – Page 78[full citation needed]
  6. ^ Historical dictionary of Ethiopia – Page 405[full citation needed]
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ The Failure of The Daraawiish State: The Clash Between Somali Clanship and State System Abdisalam M. Issa-Salwe – the 5th International Congress of Somali Studies December 1993
  11. ^ Sun, Sand and somals: leaves from the note-book of a district commissioner by Henry Rayne
  12. ^ Imperialismo e Ressitenza In Corn d'Africa: Mohammed Abdullah Hassan e il derviscismo somalo by Gerarado Nicolos.
  13. ^ F.O.78/5031,Sayyid Mohamad To The Aidagalla, Enclosed Sadler To Salisbury .69, 20 Aug. 1899
  14. ^ Ismay: 3/1/20 " Notes on Dervish personalities" King's college collections.
  15. ^ Taleh W. A. MacFadyen The Geographical Journal, Vol. 78, No. 2 (Aug., 1931), pp. 125–128
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Ethiopian Studies: Moscow, 26-29 August 1986, Andreĭ Andreevich Gromyko, p 192
  21. ^ Somalia: nation in search of a state - Page 56, David D. Laitin, 1987
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ [1]
  25. ^ Hasan, M. S., and Salada M. Robleh. "Islamic revival and education in Somalia." Educational Strategies Among Muslims in the Context of Globalization: Some National Case Studies 3 (2004): 141.
  26. ^ Robert L Hess, The Journal of African History, Volume 5, Issue 3, Cambridge University Press, 1964
  27. ^ Johnson, John William (1996). Heelloy: Modern Poetry and Songs of the Somali. Indiana University Press. p. 31. ISBN 1874209812. 
  28. ^ Sessional papers Volume 48 p. 8
  29. ^ Sessional papers Volume 48. p. 15
  30. ^ Beautiful Somalia – Page 86
  31. ^ SOMALIA: A Nation's Literary Death Tops Its Political Demise by Said S Samatar
  32. ^ Pg 393 – Literatures in African Languages: Theoretical Issues and Sample Surveys By B. W. Andrzejewski, S. Pilaszewicz, W. Tyloch
  33. ^ Pg 187 – The Soviet Union in the Horn of Africa: the diplomacy of intervention and Disengagement By Robert G. Patman
  34. ^ Exploits of Somalia's national hero becomes basis for movieKentucky New Era