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Book Review

Abdi Sheikh-Abdi, Divine Madness: Mohammed Abdulle Hassan (1856–1920) (London: Zed Books Ltd., 1992)
by Abdisalam Issa-Salwe
Thames Valley University, London, UK
Many books have been written about Mohammed Abdulle Hassan, the man who led the Somali resistance in the early twentieth century, yet he and the movement he led (the Dervish) continue to be a subject of study a long time after the fall of the movement. Known by his followers as Sayid (master), by the colonial literature as Mad Mullah, Mohammed Abdulle Hassan remains a controversial figure. Dr Abdi Sheikh-Abdi now adds his work on the subject which took him more than ten years to complete.

This book examines --- in a social and historical perspective --- the rise of Mohammed Abdulle Hassan and his movement. It consists of an introduction and six chapters. As Euro-colonialists were usually of another faith, the Somalis felt that the colonialists were trying to Christianise their children. The resistance led by Mohammed Abdulle Hassan was in response to this belief.

The introduction attempts to examine the literary historical of Mohammed Abdulle Hassan (known as Sayid Mohammed) who was one of the greatest Somali poets of this century. Chapter 1 presents the people of the country. Chapter 2 deals with the historical setting of the event which led to the Somali resistance led by Mohammed Abdulle Hassan in early part of this century. Chapter 3 covers the life of the man, his background and the influence which reflected the struggle which he spearheaded. Chapter 4 explores the armed resistance to colonialism. Chapter 5 focuses on the ideology, characteristics and organisation of the Somali Dervish movement. Chapter 6, which is also the conclusion, examines the implications and the ideological influences which the Dervish movement left on Somali nationalism which was to start shortly after the annihilation of the movement.

By forwarding a rich and in-depth analysis of literary materials, historical and social evidence, the author challenges both the interpretation and the early publications of Mohammed Abdulle Hassan’s personality and leadership. He maintains that Mohammed Abdulle Hassan was not “an ambitious chieftain of a militant Muslim sect [Salihiya] bent on wrestling power from the tradition-bound Muslim brotherhoods [Qadiriya, Dandarawiya, etc.] of the Somaliland”, but a true nationalist whose aim “transcended both religious considerations and clan based affiliations.” Consequently, the ideology behind the struggle was to arouse and stimulate the rise of modern Somali nationalism two decades later in the Somali peninsula.

The author’s approach differs from the style of contemporary scholars as he emphasises the social context of the Dervish movement rather than literary, spiritual or other aspects. Through his research, Dr Sheikh-Abdi gives attention to the oral tradition of the Somalis as it is an important element in the historical research into a predominantly oral society.

One important contribution forwarded by Dr Sheikh-Abdi is the atrocity committed by the British colonial forces against the followers of the Dervish movement. Previous works were written mostly by colonial officials who focused only on the fierce way Mohammed Abdulle Hassan deal with those Somali clans who opposed him.

Before the arrival of colonialism in the Somaliland, the Somali society led a decentralised way of life. The colonial powers demanded a way of life contrary to their traditional one. Subsequently, Somalis responded violently in reaction to this interference. However because of the lack of leadership, as the author maintains, this resistance was futile. Only with the appearance of Mohammed Abdulle Hassan did the Somalis became organized, under his leadership.

By knowing that the colonialists could not be defeated only by force, Mohammed Abdulle Hassan, use words as arms. As words, spoken or written, have been the most powerful means of communication in all mankind’s society, he consummately and skilfully used the communicative functions of Somali verse. He repeatedly sought to gain in verse what he had not succeeded in acquiring with arms. He designed his verse to enhance his cause, to encourage his followers or scorn and discredit his enemies. However, by scorning his enemies, he sometimes used to preach the pastoral ethos excessively as Said Samatar writes, like an “epigram that borders on the obscene.” It is here that Dr Abdi-Sheikh explores the dual poetic exchange between Mohammed Abdulle Hassan and his opponents, namely Ali Jama Habil and Ali Adan “Ali Dhuh”, as this throws light on the social dynamics of that period.

It is in the conclusion and the reason behind the disintegration of the Dervish movement that Dr Sheikh-Abdi’s work falters. The reason that Mohammed Abdulle Hassan was such a controversial figure was that his indiscriminate raiding, seizing and plundering of the property of the Somali clans he suspected, were not favourable to his cause. This behaviour poisoned his relations with the Somali clans and crippled his movement as, consequently, it alienated him from the clans who traditionally considered all crime against an individual as a crime against the clan to which the person belonged. It also estranged him from other religious orders such as Qadiriya and Dandarawiya. The conflict stretched to such an extreme that the Dervish eventually killed Sheikh Awees Biyooley (Sheikh Uways bin Mohammed al-Baraawa) in Biyooley, the Qadiriya representative in the southern Somaliland in 1909. The veteran Dervish Ismail Mire believed that what led to the collapse of the movement was the indiscriminate killing of holy men.

Despite the lack of emphasis on the gravity of the collapse of the Dervish, we cannot deny the invaluable contribution of Dr Sheikh-Abdi in the form of this inestimable scholarly work.
Abdisalam Issa-Salwe’s related Work:
The Collapse of the Somali State. The Impact of the Colonial Legacy
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