Who was the Mad Mullah in Somalia? Reviewing Said S Samatar’s Book

Said S Samatar is the leading authority in Somali history in the west. He recently passed away. (Rah)

Recently I have been studying Somali history quite a lot. I came across an interesting author called Said S. Samatar who authored many books on Somali history and I’d love to review one of his books or at least what I learnt from his works. In the west, when you study Somali history there are always going to appear two names whenever you study Somali history. The first name is the name of Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan who took on the great struggle against the British Empire when they tried to colonise his native country Somalia. The second is that of Said S Samatar himself. Said S Samatar was a man who was a true academic in every sense of the word. He entered the education system late and subsequently was forced to be in classrooms with kids half his age. He said that the experience in general was “humiliating” but he suffered through. The reason why he entered the education system late was because the early years of his life were spent nomadically. Eventually he became a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It was during his life as a professor that he authored great books on the life of Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan. It’s fitting that these days (at least in the west) their names are stuck together since Said S Samatar dedicated a huge part of his life defending the true legacy of Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan.

How good is the book?

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At a time when the colonial western powers were invading african countries to conquer them, take their resources and strip them of with their own way of life, one man emerged from the country of Somalia and wasn’t content with the way the British and Italian powers were taking over his country by force. Deeply upset with the state of his conquered country, Sayyid (meaning leader, an honorific title) Muhammad Abdullah Hassan embarks on a journey to take on the most powerful empire of his time (the British Empire) and bring back his countries independance. The Sayyid holds of multiple military campaigns of the British Empire and shows to the entire world how much of a military genius he is. Frustrated about suffering multiple defeats, the British begin launching attacks against him in the media stating that he is some sort of ‘Mad Mullah’. However, the Sayyid scoffs at such insults and the entire Muslim world had their own beliefs about what was going on. The Sayyids struggle reached the Ottoman Caliph who even showed respect to the Sayyid. This is the great story of one small country, with little resources against a huge empire that has technology that the Somali people hadn’t even heard of. The Sayyids struggle was the birth of Somali nationalism and a sense of lasting unity between the Somali people. To this day, stories of the Sayyids struggles echoe through the streets of Somalia as well as through the hearts of the Somali people. The book is a 5/5 for me because the author, Said S Samatar put unbelievable efforts into publishing this work. This is a blog post dedicated to the thoughts I had and have whilst reading the Biography of this interesting man.

Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan is good for history

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This is the first thought that I ever got when reading about his life. Whatever you want to say about him, he was an interesting person and even if you disagree with everything about him completely, you have to admit that he tickles your curiosity once you read about him. I don’t mean he was good for history in the sense that the human race required that he existed. I meant that as someone who loves reading history, there are always going to appear those once in a millennia characters that truly know how to capture the imagination in every sense of the word. Many historians agree that the Sayyid was a genius. He excelled at poetry and would often (without practice) recite poetry after a big event occurred that is so high level and powerful. Furthermore, on top of his ridiculously great command over language, he had a deep understanding and confidence in his military ability. He was a military genius of that I have no doubt. The fact that he provided the British Empire (which was the most powerful of its time) with defeats despite having less resources, inferior technology and man power just highlights his genius. Moreover he had an interesting personality, mind set and character and all of these things combined made him someone who is exciting to read about and someone who is great for the history of science. In fact, he is the one person that feels like a movie character to me. His life was literally a movie. The story of how he started his entire rebellion against the British was absolutely unpredictable and exciting as were his calculated efforts to outmanoeuvre the British.

He was Successful

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Many times we often forget about success when admiring people in the sense that we forget to start listing their results. In reality, your results is all you have to show for your career when it’s all over and the Sayyid left behind a huge legacy that is still being commemorated to this day. Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, faced similar stressful scenarios to the Sayyid and Robert the Bruce is celebrated in Scotland for his efforts just like the way the Sayyid is. There is a reason why both of these men are celebrated in their native countries and it’s not just because they had passionate beliefs. They put in years of work, truly suffered for what they believed in and took the difficult road every single time. They constantly faced betrayal and set back over and over again but they never allowed that to stop them from reaching their goals. Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan held back multiple British campaigns during the colonial era. His efforts prevented the country from being potentially destroyed and it also led to the Birth of the First Somali Nation state. There is even a huge statue of the Sayyid in the capital city of Somalia and he is one of the rare people in Somali history that are appreciated and respected by people that come from all tribes. Even though he ended up dying from some sort of influenza and didn’t live to see the long term fruits of his success, he was still a successful person and that’s something because his ideas continued to live on after him and that is a very important that I discovered within his biography.

He Overcame A Hard Life

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The Sayyid lived a very difficult life. First of all, living in Somalia in late 19th century must have been terribly hard and difficult. If you think that life in the west was doing bad (technology wise) at that time then one can only imagine what Somalia was like. The weather was scorching hot, deserts everywhere, little water, no toilets or showers, not that much food, no swere systems, no great buildings, rampant diseases, dangerous animals like snakes, lions, scorpians, deadly insects just lurking around and practically no hospitals. It’s no wonder that the Sayyid died from Influenza or Malaria. It’s a miracle that he lived that long. On top of that, there was no government. Somalia was broken down into many different sultanates (or kingdoms) and every tribe was more less left to fend for themselves. Somalia suffered from the constant worry of being attacked by their Kenyan and Ethiopian neighbours. Within Somalia, the tribes themselves were incredibly disunited and lots of different idealogies were rampant at the time. The fear of being colonised by the western powers was also looming on the ground and the Somalis themselves have a way of (with the language and general mannerisms of the people) constantly challenging each other mentally. There was much instability and noise from the people. At any moment, you could be raided or killed. It was in this chilling environment that the Sayyid was raised in. It’s almost impossible for someone to imagine themselves growing up in this environment and then going on to become someone that is famous a century after his death. Here am I, writing about this man and he died over 100 years ago.

He Was A Military Genius

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One thing that everyone linked to the Sayyid, friend or foe, admits is that the Sayyid was a military genius the likes of which Somalia has never before or ever again seen. His results show this for themselves. In the book ‘Churchhill and the Mad Mullah of Somaliland’, the British author (who is clearly on the side of the British) even admitted that the Sayyid showed his military genius in multiple different occassions. My favourite occassion when the Sayyid displayed clear genius occured after he was driven out by the British to the borders of Ethiopia. The Ethiopians (ever so obediant to the British) agreed to attack the Sayyid from one side and the British from another side and this would of course lead to the unstoppable annihialtion of the Sayyid’s forces and the Sayyid himself. So at night they went to sleep, and it looked like all hope was over for the Sayyid and his forces. That night there was a very heavy rain that was making a lot of noise. The Sayyid told his men to (some narrations say to take of their shoes) lightly travel through the British camp during night and be gone by morning. This unexpected, out of the world tactic worked and the Sayyid survived what looked like death. I just thought it was absolutely amazing that someone would do think of something like that in the midst of all that chaos. He was clearly under ridiculous pressure and yet he was able to think of a crazy/genius tactic that worked. He displayed his military genius many other times in his battle against Britain. He chose where he would battle the British as he knew the land so well, monitored their every move with spies and had an intelligent unit of advisors from many different tribes around him who were skilled in military that he would regularly get advise from.

He Was A Poetic Genius

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What the Sayyid is often more remembered for (more than his political struggles sometimes) is his seemingly flawless ability to produce high level poems on the spot and sometimes in high level situations. Back in those days in Somalia, poems were the main source of entertainment. A poet would say a poem about love or something that happened to him. Unlike most Poets, he didn’t need to repeat his poems over and over again and rewrite them. He would just recite them in one go with no practise and keep moving. Before then, it didn’t occur to anyone to use poems as news or as a means to deliver their beliefs across the country as if it was the daily BBC News. The Sayyid wanted to tap into the minds of the people of Somalia and try to bring them to his side against the colonisers. This was (at the time) a revolutionary idea because poems spread around the country very quickly. However, as good as this show is, it needs a great poet in order to execute the idea.

The Sayyid did have poets working within his own administration but sometimes the need to express himself would pass through him and he would deliver some of the most amazing poems in the history of Somalia. Poems that are still quoted to this day by Somali people from all sorts of tribes. The amazing thing is that sometimes these poems would be done on the spot. That’s what blows my mind. The story of Richard Corfield, a military officer who was commander of the Somaliland Camel Constabulary, was a great example of this. Richard Corfield was defeated in an open battle against the Sayyid. At the moment of his death the Sayyid produced a powerful poem that I will place below. He uses much imagery and different poem techniques. The mind-boggling part of the poem for me was how the last thing that Corfield must have seen in his life was a bunch of angry Somali soldiers attacking him and the Sayyid uses powerful language to try and represent that. The last line when the Sayyid descibes the members of his movement as “thunderbolts of a storm, rumbling and roaring” really feels like to me that he correctly portrayed them.

The Poem goes as follows:

You have died, Corfield, and are no longer in this world,
a merciless journey was your portion.
When, Hell-destined, you set out for the Other World,
tell them how God tried you.
Say to them: “From that day to this the Dervishes
never ceased their assaults upon us.
the British were broken, the noise of battle engulfed us;
with fervour and faith the Dervishes attacked us.”
Say: “They attacked us at mid-morning.”
Say: “Yesterday in the holy war a bullet from one of their old rifles struck me.
and the bullet struck me in the arm.”
Say: “In fury they fell upon us.”
Report how savagely their swords tore you,
show these past generations in how many places the daggers were plunged.
Say: “Friend,” I called, “have compassion and spare me!””
Say: “As I looked fearfully from side to side my heart
was plucked from its sheath.”
Say: “My eyes stiffened as I watched with horror;
the mercy I implored was not granted.”
Say: “Striking with spear-butts at my mouth they silenced my soft words;
my ears, straining for deliverance, found nothing;
the risk I took, the mistake I made, cost my life.”
Say: “Like the war leaders of old,
I cherished great plans for victory.”
Say: “The schemes the djinns planted in me brought my ruin.”
Say: “When pain racked me everywhere,
men lay sleepless at my shrieks.”
Say: “Great shouts acclaimed the departing of my soul.”
Say: “Beasts of prey have eaten my flesh and torn it asunder.”
Say: “The sound of swallowing the flesh and the fat comes from the hyena.”
Say: “The crows plucked out my veins and tendons.”
Say: “If stubborn denials are to be abandoned, then my clansmen were defeated:
In the last stand of resistance there is always great slaughter.”
Say: “The Dervishes are like the advancing thunderbolts of a storm,
rumbling and roaring.”

from Somali Poetry
Bogumil M. Andrzejewski,
Oxford, 1969.

He Was Also A Political Genius

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It’s very clear that the Sayyid was a political genius. Like I mentioned before, during his time in Somalia, the country was very divided into different regions and each of these different regions was ruled by the dominant tribe that lived in that place. This is a problematic set up as every state (like now in Somalia) is in a way autonomous and therefore there is no central government and one paticular ruler. Even if there was a central government, it would be very difficult for that central government to rule over of the entire country because these autonomous states can easily disobey the central government since they view the central government as if they are on the same level as them. To outmanouvre this issue, the Sayyid set up a political party that could be joined by any member of any tribe. Much like Genghis Khan’s army, the new political party could mave past tribal lines and this dyanamically changed Somali politics. Members of the Dervish party could end up fighting their own tribe members which was seen as something wildly radical during that time. This made the Sayyid an unpredictable figure that outgrew other rulers that surronded him because he was fighting for a greater cause rather than just something predictable like tribal honour, more power etc.

One Could Only Imagine What Would Have Happened If……….

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Despite having many forward thinking ideas and genuine good intentions for the country the Sayyid was just a human being in the end. He made some mistakes which I can’t go into as it would require another article on its own. He was a strict character and some of the ruthless punishments that he served out to his weaker followers or fellow countrymen who he fought was rather extreme. His ruthless punishments which sometimes included large amounts of executions to his defeated enemies, harsh poetry against political enemies and literal burning of traitors showed a lack of subtle wisdom in politics. This ignored vital nuance of leadership ultimately led to powerful surronding sultans waiting for a chance to pounce at the weakening Sayyid at any given chance. Furthermore the Sayyid suffered from constant betrayal. The unprovoked attacks from neighbouring Somali Kings and Sultans significantly weakened his armies and one could only imagine what would have happened if Ali Yusuf, Boqor Cismaan and Ali Warabe would have united together and fought the colonial forces as one. Boqor Cismaan was a political genius who knew how to play the political game really well. His know-how of politics came really easy to him. Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan was a genius all around but paticularly a military genius. Ali Yusuf was a man who was skilled as a battle commander and Haji Warabe was very skilled in military raids as well. Had they combined together and used their skills together, they would have done a brilliant job. It would have been a great story. In the end, the divide and conquer tactic by the Europeans worked beautifully for them.

The Author Did An Unbelievable Job

To conclude, I really have to mention what a great job the author did. The author Said S. Samatar has passed away now (rah) and one thing that he did really well was that he went up and beyond the expectation of everyone. As a native Somali who was nomadic, he really went out of his comfort zone many times in his life. He left his country and spent many decades trying to get his education. From there he returned to his old deserts, travelled around the country and memorised much of the oral history. Travelling around Somalia is very difficult and I’m aware that he must have suffered through the heat, dangerous environments and had little food at certain times just to gain this oral history. He would have had to also spent a large amount of time (perhaps many years or decades) refining his knowledge of the Somali language so that he could deeply understan the poets and convey them in this book. He ended up becoming a prestigious professor at a university in the U.S. I’d like to also give him this special shoutout because without the efforts of Professor Said S. Samatar, we would never have known about the true history of the Sayyid and that time period in Somalia anyway.

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Who was the Mad Mullah in Somalia? by Muaad Sucule

Published by Muaad

21. Enjoy reading, travelling, meeting people and living life to the fullest.

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