Sayid Abdulla-Hassan
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Mohammed Abdullah Hassan

Mohammed Abdullah Hasssan on his famous horse Xin-Faniin
Mohammed Abdullah Hasssan on his famous horse Xin-Faniin

Mohammed Abdullah Hassan (Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan, Sayyid) (born April 7, 1864, in the north of Somalia, died December 21, 1920 in Imi, Ethiopia) was Somalia's religious and nationalist leader (called the "Mad Mullah" by the British, although he was neither mad nor a mullah[citation needed]) who for 20 years led armed resistance to the British, Italian, and Ethiopian forces in Somalia.


Sayyid Mohammed, who belonged to the Ogaden sub-clan of the Darod was born in 1856 at the valley of Sa'Madeeq, some say at Kirrit, in the north of Somalia which later became British Somaliland. His father was an Ogaden Somali, his mother a Somali of the Dolbahanta tribe. He was the eldest son of Sheikh Abdille. His great grandfather Sheikh Ismaan of Bardee was a reputed pious man who left his homeland slightly north of Qallafo along the Shabelle River valley in what is now the Ogaden and migrated southwards and settled with the religious community at Bardere along the Jubba River. His grandfather Hasan Nur left his home moving towards the Dhulbahante clan in northeastern Somalia. There he founded religious centres 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. Sayyid Mohammed was his eldest son. His mother Timiro Sade came from the Ali Geri sublineage of the Dhulbahante clan, which was a numerically superior to the Ogaden.

Sayyid Mohammed grew up among the Dhulbahante pastoralists who were good herdsmen and warriors and who used camels as well as horses. Young Sayyid Mohammed's hero was his maternal grandfather Sade Mogan who was a great warrior chief. By the age of eleven, he had learnt the Holy Quran by heart and displayed qualities of a promising leader and a good horseman. He continued his religious education. In 1875, his grandfather died, and he 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 centres of Islamic learning including Harar and Mogadishu and even some centres in Kenya and Sudan. He 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. Sayyid Mohammed received initiation and very rigorous spiritual training under Salih.

He emerged a changed man — a spiritually transformed man 'shaken and overawed', determined to spread the teachings of the Saalihiya order in Somalia.

Religious Mission

In 1895 he 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 such a limited and weak attitude of the British, Ethiopia's Emperor Menelek II asked Ras Makonnen, 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, Sayyid Mohammed could not succeed in spreading the teaching of the Saalihiya order due to the hostility of the local Qadiriyya inhabitants who did not like him criticising their eating khat and gorging on the fat of sheep's tail and for following their traditional Qadiriyya order. So he left Berbera in 1897 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 (Catholic) Fathers." This reply shook his conscience, for he felt that the "Christian Overlordship in his country was tantamount to the destruction of his people's faith."

Reaching his region, he 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 and soon his influence spread over the majority of the Habar Tol Jaalo and the eastern Habar Yoonis clans. The British officials appreciated his role of settling the tribal disputes and of maintaining peace in the area.

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

While Sayyid Mohammed 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 Sayyid Mohammed and some antagonistic Somali Ogadeni also cooperated with Menelek II against the Somali interests.

Armed struggle

In several of his poems and speeches he emphasized that the British infidels "have destroyed our religion and made our children their children" and that the Christian Ethiopians in league with the British were bent upon plundering the political and religious freedom of the Somali nation. Thus he soon emerged as "a champion of his country's political and religious freedom, defending it against all Christian invaders." He issued a religious ordinance that any Somali national who did not accept the idea of unity of Somalia and fight under his leadership be considered as kufr or gaal. He acquired weapons from Turkey, Sudan, and other Arabian countries. He appointed his ministers and advisers as incharges in different areas or sectors of Somalia. He gave a clarion call for Somali unity and independence.

He 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 he threatened to finish the Christian infidels by throwing them into the sea, he committed the mistake of launching his first military offensive with his 1500 Dervish equipped with 20 modem rifles on the Somalis themselves — his old enemies, the Ahmadiya settlements at Sheikh and burnt and looted their houses. Then he turned westwards — and temporarily subjugated the Harbar Yoonis Isaaq tribe. He captured almost all the important people of the Isa Mahud tribe in eastern Somalia, tied them together with ropes and threw them into the sea.

He sent one of his men to Berbera in disguise for reconnaissance. That man went to the market and approached some shopkeepers sitting there and requested them to give him a matchbox. One of the shopkeepers asked him, "What will you do with the matchbox?" He replied, "With it we will burn Berbera". At this all the shopkeepers laughed. They asked him, "Where do you come from?"

He replied, "I come from the Dervish." They asked him, "Then why do you need the matchbox?" He replied again, "To burn this city." People thought it just a joke and gave him the matchbox. After one hour, indeed the Berbera city was attacked and burnt by Sayyid Mohammed's soldiers.

He sent his emissaries all over the country appealing and threatening Somali people to join his movement and many responded to him enthusiastically on their own and many out of fear. Then he committed a political blunder. He got the nominal Garaad (Chief) of the Dulbahante Ali Mohammed killed by one of his men, when he learnt that the Garaad had, out of jealousy toward his rising fame and power, complained to the British against him. This rash action created great tension in the Dulbahante tribe. The Mohammed Garaad, the most numerous of the three Dulbahante primary lineages and other Darod clans left the following of Sayyid Mohammed and only his immediate maternal kin the Ali Gari remained with him. So he escaped to his paternal kin in Ogaden.

Against Ethiopia, Britain and Italy

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

Three months later in June, he raided the British protected northern Somali clans of Lidagaie Isaaq and looted about 2000 camels. Sayyid Mohammed 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, he 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 Sayyid Mohammed. 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 Sayyid Mohammed, 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. The Dervish withdrew to Nugaal.

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 Burao 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, British as well as 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 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 quit the following of 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".

Consolidation and defeat

Mohammed Abdullah Hassan's Fort Taleh.
Mohammed Abdullah Hassan's Fort Taleh.

During 1910-1914 Sayyid's capital moved from Illig to Taleeb 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 Warsangeli country, at Wardeer and Qorahy in the Ogaden and Belet-Weyn in Southern Somalia. In 1914, a Dervish force raided the Habar Yoonis tribe near Burao and killed the British officer Corfield commanding the British Camel Corps. In the same year, the Dervish attacked Berbera and looted and destroyed it.

In the beginning of 1920, the British struck the Dervish settlements with a well-coordinated land, sea and air attack and gave them a stunning defeat. Thus Somalia was the first country in Africa which was attacked by aeroplanes. The forts of Sayyid Mohammed 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 ('the Hole Hyene') armed and organized by the British killed the remaining Dervish and took away about 60,000 animals in loot but failed to catch Sayyid Mohammed. Along with some of his followers, he escaped to the Arsi Oromo in Ethiopia where he tried to contract marriages to stabilize his position. But in December 1920 he died of influenza at the age of 54.


  • 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
  • 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, London: Jenkins, 1923. Reprint. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969 (one of the main sources of this article)
  • 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)


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