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The Dervish State was an early 20th century Somali Muslim state that was established by Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, a religious leader who gathered Somali soldiers from across the Horn of Africa and united them into a loyal army known as the Dervishes. This Dervish army enabled Hassan to carve out a powerful state through conquest of lands claimed by the Somali Sultans, the Ethiopians and the European powers. The Dervish State acquired renown in the Islamic and Western worlds due to its resistance against the European empires of Britainmarker and Italymarker. The Dervish forces successfully repulsed the British empire in four military expeditions, and forced it to retreat to the coastal region. As a result of its fame in the Middle East and Europe, the Dervish State was recognized as an ally by the Ottoman Empire and the German empiremarker. It also succeeded at outliving the Scramble for Africa, and remained throughout World War I the only independent Muslim power on the continent. After a quarter of a century of holding the British at bay, the Dervishes were finally defeated in 1920, when Britain for the first time in Africa used aeroplanes to bomb the Dervish capital of Taleexmarker.


At the end of the 19th century, the Berlin conference gathered together Europe's most powerful countries who decided amongst themselves the fate of the African continent. 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 11,000 men, made a deep push into the vicinity of Luuqmarker in Somalia. However, his troops were soundly defeated by the Gobroon army, with only 200 soldiers returning alive. The Ethiopians subsequently refrained from further expeditions into the interior of Somalia, but continued to oppress the people in the Ogadenmarker 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 Mahdists would inspire a large resistance movement in Somalia. Muhammad 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 Salihiya order in the urban cities and the interior where he found major success.

In 1897, Hassan left Berberamarker. On this journey, at a place called Daymoole, he met some Somali children who were being looked after by a Catholic Mission. When he asked them about their clan 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." 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.


The Sayyid during his campaigns against the European and local powers built fortresses all over the Horn of Africa, and would move his armies from one city to another. In 1913, after the British withdrawal to the coast, the permanent capital and headquarters of the Dervishes was constructed at Talehmarker, a large walled town with fourteen fortresses. The main fortress, Silsilat, included a walled garden and a guard house. It became the residence of Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, his wives, family, prominent Somali military leaders, and also hosted several Turkish, Yemeni and Germanmarker 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 prominent members from northern and southern Somaliamarker. 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.


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 Khoreymarker, Eylmarker and Ilig. Important imports included firearms, horses and building material for the construction of several dozen fortresses in the Horn of Africa.


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 from between 1000 to 4000 men. A large para-military force was also drawn from the nomad population. Bodyguards (Gaarhaye) of Muhammad Abdullah Hassan and other senior members of the state were either freed slaves whom he had adopted as sons or riverine groups such as the Reer Baarre. The cavalry, for its part, numbered between 5000 and 10000 mounted horsemen, and the standing army was supplied with modern weapons such as rifles and maxim guns.

Wars against Italy, Britain and Ethiopia

In August 1898, the Dervish army occupied Buraomarker, an important centre of British Somaliland, giving Muhammad Abdullah Hassan control over the city's watering places. Hassan also succeeded in making peace between the local clans and initiated a large assembly, where the population was urged to join the war against the invaders.

Foreign relations


Modern legacy

The Dervish legacy in Somaliamarker can be seen in the country's cultural heritage, history, and society. The numerous castles and fortresses build by the Dervishes were included in a list of Somalia's national treasures. 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 Muhammad Abdullah Hassan featuring as the most prominent poet of that Age. 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 poetry competitions. In Somali Studies, the Dervish period is an important chapter in Somalia's history and its brief period of European hegemony which inspired the resistance movement.

See also


  1. Encyclopedia of African history‎ - Page 1406
  2. The modern history of Somaliland: from nation to state‎ - Page 78
  3. Historical dictionary of Ethiopia‎ - Page 405
  4. 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
  5. Taleh W. A. MacFadyen The Geographical Journal, Vol. 78, No. 2 (Aug., 1931), pp. 125-128
  6. Beautiful Somalia‎ - Page 86
  7. SOMALIA: A Nation's Literary Death Tops Its Political Demise by Said S Samatar

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