Hajji Hafiz Sayyid Muhammad `Abd Allāh al-Hasan (Somali: Sayid Maxamed Cabdille Xasan, Arabic: محمّد عبد اللّه حسن‎; Sayyid Muḥammad ibn 'Abdallāh[2]) (April 7, 1856 – December 21, 1920) was a Somali religious and patriotic leader. Referred to as the Mad Mullah by the British, he established the Dervish State in Somalia that fought the 20-year Somaliland Campaign against British, Italian, and Ethiopian forces.

Birth and early life

historic Daarta Sayyidka Dervish fort in Eyl.

Hassan was born in 1856 in the valley of Sa'Madeeq. Some[who?] say he was born in Kirrit in northern Somalia. At the time, this part of Somalia was a protectorate of the United Kingdom. Between 1884 and 1960, the area was known as British Somaliland.

Hassan was the eldest son of Sheikh Abdille, who hailed from the Ogaden Bah Gari sub-clan of the Darod major clan. His mother, Timiro Sade, also a Somali, belonged to the Dhulbahante clan. His great grandfather, Sheikh Ismaan of Bardee, was a pious man of great repute who left his homeland slightly north of Qelafo along the Shebelle River valley in what is now the Ogaden and migrated southwards to settle with the religious Somali community at Bardera along the Jubba River. Hassan's grandfather, Hasan Nur, in turn, left his home and moved closer to the Dhulbahante stronghold in north-eastern Somalia. There, he founded several religious centres and devoted himself to the worship of Allah. Following in the footsteps of Hasan Nur, Hassan's father Abdille also led a religious life. Abdille married several Dhulbahante women by whom he had about 30 children, of which Hassan was the eldest. Hassan's mother, Timiro Sade, came from the Ali Geri sublineage of the Dhulbahante clan, which was allied with the Ogaden.

Hassan thus grew up among the Dhulbahante pastoralists, who were good herdsmen and warriors and who tended and used camels as well as horses. Young Hassan's hero was his maternal grandfather, Sade Magan, who was a great warrior chief. In addition to being a good horseman, by the age of eleven, Hassan had learned the entire Qur'an by heart (he was a hafiz), and displayed all the qualities of a promising leader. He continued his religious education. In 1875, Hassan's grandfather died, which came as a shock.

In 1891, upon returning home, he married an Ogadeni woman. Three years later, along with two uncles and eleven other companions some of whom were his maternal kin, Hassan went to Mecca to perform the Hajj. The party stayed there for a year and a half and came under the charismatic influence of the newly-developing Saalihiya order under the leadership of the great Sudanese mystic, Mohammed Salih. Hassan received initiation and very rigorous spiritual training under Salih. From this experience, Hassan emerged a changed man — spiritually transformed, 'shaken and over-awed', but determined to spread the teachings of the Saalihiya order in Somalia.

The Birth of the Somali Dervish rebellion

Statue of Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan in Mogadishu, Somalia.

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 Somalia through this port for their British India outpost of Aden.

In Berbera, Hassan could not succeed in spreading the teaching of the Saalihiya 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.[3]

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 Saturday night.”[3]

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.[4]

Origins of armed struggle

Illustration of Mohamed Abdullah Hassan by da Rondini, from cover of Il Mullah del paese dei somali by Douglas Jardine[5]

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 Chritian activities, defending their version of Islam against the Christian mission. The Dervish considered all non-dervish Somalis as non-Muslims (gaalo).[6] He acquired weapons from the Ottoman Empire, Sudan, and other Islamic countries. He appointed his ministers and advisers in charge of different areas or sectors of Somalia and called for Somali unity and independence.

At this time Hassan organized his warriors. His Dervish movement had an essentially military character, and the Dervish State was fashioned on the model of a Salihiyya brotherhood. It had a rigid hierarchy and robust centralization.

Hassan threatened to drive the Christians into the sea, and he committed the first attack by launching a major military offensive with his 1,500 Dervishes, equipped with 20 modern rifles, on the British

Ethiopia, Britain and Italy

Somali Dervish soldiers engage their British counterparts at sea.

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

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 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.

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 pastoralists. 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).

During 1901 and 1904, the Dervish army inflicted heavy losses on their enemies – the Ethiopians, the British, and the Italian forces. "His successes attracted to his banner even Somalis who did not follow his religious beliefs." On 9 January 1904, at the Jidaale (Jidballi) plain, the British Commander, General Charles Egerton, killed 1,000 Dervish.[7] This defeat forced Sayyid and his remaining men to flee to Majeerteen country.

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


Mohammed Abdullah Hassan's fort in Taleex.

During 1910–1914, Sayyid's capital moved from Illig to Taleh in the heart of Nugal 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 drawn from outcast clans. By 1913, he had dominated the entire hinterland of the Somali peninsula by building forts at Jildali and Mirashi, and at Werder and Korahe 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, the Dervish sacked Berbera. 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 advisor.

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.[8] 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 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 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.[9] 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.[10]


The efforts and fervor of the erstwhile Anti-colonial leader of the Dervish state of Somalia, 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,[citation needed] the Ogaden National Liberation Front,[citation needed] and the former Western Somali Liberation Front.[11] 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,[12] 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.[13]

"Over the span of 21 years Sayyid was able to unite the peoples of Somalia from the Sanaag provinces in the northern hinterlands all the way south across the entire Jubba river. After being humiliatingly outmaneuvered and out-skilled in battle by the Somali Dervishes, the British were forced for the first time to bomb Africa from the Sky in 1920. Nothing truly captures the spirit of resistance and zeal displayed by the Somali Dervishes than these very poetic words delivered by Hassan "I have no forts, no houses, no country. I have no cultivated fields, no silver or gold for you to take — all you can get from me is war, nothing else. I have met your men in battle and have killed them. We are greatly pleased about this. Our men who have fallen in battle have won paradise. God fights for us. We fight by God’s order. If you wish war I am happy; if you wish peace I am also content. But if you wish peace, go away from my country to your own. If you wish war, stay where you are!”.[14] With his legacy undoubtedly among the greatest anti-colonial freedom fighters and revolutionaries of the 20th and 21rst century, Hassan died a natural death on December 21rst, 1920 bringing an end to the resistance of the Dervish State. But the revolutionary spirit of resistance never dies, it passes on from generation to generation, and the flickering torches of liberation burn bright as they have done in the days of yore, for on that very day Africa witnessed the birth of a true son of the soil, Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara!"

— Pan-African Renaissance (Non-Profit Organisation)[12]

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.[15]
  • 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


  1. ^ Abdi, Abdi Abdulqadir Sheik. "Divine madness: Mohammed Abdulle Hassan (1856–1920)." (1993).
  2. ^ Journal of the African Society, Volume 19. African Society. 1920. p. 222. Retrieved 15 February 2018. 
  3. ^ a b Foreign Department-External-B, August 1899, N. 33-234, NAI, New Delhi.In closure 5 in No. 1. Statement by Ahmed Adan, Camel Sowar
  4. ^ Foreign Department-External-B, August 1899, N. 33-234, NAI,New Delhi, Inclosure 2 in No. 1. And inclosure 3 in No. 1.
  5. ^ "Bibliografia Ost-Afrika: un archivio bibliografico e documentario sull'Africa Orientale". UNIFI. Retrieved 25 February 2018. Copertina ill. da Rondini 
  6. ^ J. D. Fage, A. D. Roberts, Roland Anthony Oliver (eds.) (1986). The Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 7. Cambridge University Press. p. 196. ISBN 0521225051. 
  7. ^ "1,000 Dervishes slain; British Rout the "Mad" Mullah's Forces in Somaliland". New York Times. 12 January 1903. Retrieved 22 June 2013. 
  8. ^ Baker, Anne (2003). From Biplane to Spitfire. Pen And Sword Books. p. 161. ISBN 0-85052-980-8. 
  9. ^ Honouring Sayid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan, By Mohamed Bakayr.
  10. ^ "Guled Asowe: We are Searching The Burial Place of Sayid Mohamed.", VOA, 02 January 2010 (accessed 18 January 2011)
  11. ^ http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ad20
  12. ^ a b Sons of the soil, the Mad Mullah by Pan-African Renaissance, February 5th, 2017
  13. ^ http://nkrumahinfobank.org/article.php?id=235&c=22
  14. ^ http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2014/04/21/learning-from-barbarian-underdogs/
  15. ^ Exploits of Somalia's national hero becomes basis for movieKentucky New Era


  • Abdisalam Issa-Salwe, The Failure of The Daraawiish State, The Clash Between Somali Clanship and State System, paper presented at the 5th International Congress of Somali Studies, December 1993 [1]
  • Abdi Sheik Abdi, Divine Madness: Mohammed Abdulle Hassan (1856–1920), Zed Books Ltd., London, 1993
  • Bartholet, Jeffrey. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Newsweek, Oct. 12, 2009, pp. 43–47.
  • Battersby, Henry Francis Prevost. Richard Corfield of Somaliland (1914), ASIN: B000WFUQT8.
  • Jaamac Cumar Ciise, Taariikhdii Daraawiishta iyo Sayid Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan, (1895–1921), Wasaaradda Hiddaha iyo Tacliinta Sare, edited by Akadeemiyaha Dhaqanka, Mogadishu, 1976.
  • Jardine, Douglas J., The Mad Mullah of Somaliland, H. Jenkins, 1923.
  • McNeill, Malcolm, In Pursuit of the 'Mad' Mullah, 1902.
  • Said S. Samatar, Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayyid Mahammad Abdille Hasan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982 (analyzes Mahammad Abdille's poetry and assesses his nationalist and literary contributions to the Somali heritage)
  • Skoulding, F.A. With 'Z' Unit in Somaliland, RAF Quarterly 2, no.3, (July 1931), pp. 387–396.
  • Swayne, H.G.C., Seventeen Trips through Somaliland and a visit to Abyssinia: With Supplementary preface on the 'Mad Mullah' risings, 1903.