Somali Sultanates And Islam


Somali Sultanates And Islam

During the Middle Ages, Somalia’s territory witnessed the emergence and decline of several powerful sultanates that dominated the regional trade. At no point was the region centralized as one state, and the development of all the sultanates was linked to the central role that Islam played in the area since the 7th century. Islam was introduced to the northern Somali coast from the Arabian Peninsula early on, shortly after the hijra (also hegira), or the journey of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Yathrib, later renamed Medina, in 622 CE.

The oldest mosque in the city of Zeila, a major port/trading center, dates to the 7th century. In the late 9th century, Muslims were living along the northern Somali seaboard, and evidence suggests that Zeila was already the headquarters of a Muslim sultanate in the 9th or 10th century. According to I.M. Lewis, the polity was governed by local dynasties consisting of Somalized Arabs or Arabized Somalis, who also ruled over the Sultanate of Mogadishu in the Benadir region to the south.


The Sultanate of Mogadishu was an important trading empire that lasted from the 10th century to the 16th century. It rose as one of the pre-eminent powers in the Horn of Africa over the course of the 12th to 14th centuries, before becoming part of the expanding Ajuran Empire. The Mogadishu Sultanate maintained a vast trading network, dominated the regional gold trade, minted its own Mogadishu currency, and left an extensive architectural legacy in present-day southern Somalia. Its first dynasty was established by Sultan Fakr ad-Din. This ruling house was succeeded by the Muzaffar dynasty, and the kingdom subsequently became closely linked with the Ajuran Sultanate. For many years, Mogadishu stood as the pre-eminent city in what is known as the Land of the Berbers, which was the medieval Arab term for the Somali coast. Contemporary historians suggest that the Berbers were ancestors of the modern Somalis.


Location of Mogadishu Sultanate according to 15th-century Italian cartographer Fra Mauro. During his travels, Ibn Sa’id al-Maghribi (1213–1286) noted that the city had already become the leading Islamic center in the region. By the time of the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta’s appearance on the Somali coast in 1331, the city was at the zenith of its prosperity. He described Mogadishu as “an exceedingly large city” with many rich merchants that was famous for its high quality fabric that it exported to Egypt, among other places.


The Ajuran Sultanate ruled over large parts of the Horn of Africa between the 13th and late 17th centuries. Through a strong centralized administration and an aggressive military stance toward invaders, it successfully resisted an Oromo invasion (a series of expansions in the 16th and 17th centuries by the Oromo people from parts of Kenya and Somalia to Ethiopia)from the west and a Portuguese incursion from the east during the Gaal Madow and the Ajuran-Portuguese wars. Trading routes dating from the ancient and early medieval periods of Somali maritime enterprise were strengthened or re-established, and foreign trade and commerce in the coastal provinces flourished, with ships sailing to and coming from many kingdoms and empires in East Asia, South Asia, Europe, the Near East, North Africa, and East Africa.

The Ajuran Sultanate left an extensive architectural legacy, being one of the major medieval Somali powers engaged in castle and fortress building. Many of the ruined fortifications dotting the landscapes of southern Somalia today are attributed to the Ajuran Sultanate’s engineers. During the Ajuran period, many regions and people in the southern part of the Horn of Africa converted to Islam because of the theocratic nature of the government. The royal family, the House of Garen, expanded its territories and established its hegemonic rule through a skillful combination of warfare, trade linkages, and alliances.

As a hydraulic empire, the Ajuran monopolized the water resources of the Shebelle and Jubba rivers. It also constructed many of the limestone wells and cisterns of the state that are still in use today. The rulers developed new systems for agriculture and taxation, which continued to be used in parts of the Horn of Africa as late as the 19th century. The tyrannical rule of the later Ajuran rulers caused multiple rebellions to break out in the sultanate, and at the end of the 17th century the Ajuran state disintegrated into several successor kingdoms and states, the most prominent being the Geledi Sultanate.


The Warsangali Sultanate was a kingdom centered in northeastern and in some parts of southeastern Somalia. It was one of the largest sultanates ever established in the territory, and, at the height of its power, included the Sanaag region and parts of the northeastern Bari region of the country, an area historically known as Maakhir or the Maakhir Coast. The Sultanate was founded in the late 13th century in northern Somalia by a group of Somalis from the Warsangali branch of the Darod clan. It survived until the British colonization of the region in the 19th century.


The Ajuuraan, Adal, and Warsangali Sultanates in the 15th century. Already in the classical (ancient) period, the Somali city-states of Mosylon, Opone, Malao, Sarapion, Mundus, Essina, and Tabae developed a lucrative trade network connecting with merchants from Phoenicia, Ptolemic Egypt, Greece, Parthian Persia, Sheba, Nabataea, and the Roman Empire. They used the ancient Somali maritime vessel known as the beden to transport their cargo.


The Sultanate of Ifat was a medieval Muslim Sultanate in the Horn of Africa. Led by the Walashma dynasty, it was centered in the ancient cities of Zeila and Shewa. The sultanate ruled over parts of what are now eastern Ethiopia, Djibouti, and northern Somalia.
Ifat first emerged in the 13th century, when Sultan Umar Walashma (or his son Ali, according to another source) is recorded as having conquered the Sultanate of Showa in 1285. Historian Taddesse Tamrat explains Sultan Umar’s military acts as an effort to consolidate the Muslim territories in the Horn of Africa in much the same way as Emperor Yekuno Amlak was attempting to consolidate the Christian territories in the highlands during the same period. These two states inevitably came into conflict over Shewa and territories further south. A lengthy war ensued, but the Muslim sultanates of the time were not strongly unified. Ifat was finally defeated by Emperor Amda Seyon I of Ethiopia in 1332.

Despite this setback, the Muslim rulers of Ifat continued their campaign. The Ethiopian emperor branded the Muslims of the surrounding area “enemies of the Lord” and invaded Ifat in the early 15th century. After much struggle, Ifat’s troops were defeated. Ifat eventually disappeared as a distinct polity following the Conquest of Abyssinia led by Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi and the subsequent Oromo migrations into the area. Its name is preserved in the modern-day Ethiopian district of Yifat, situated in Shewa.


The Adal Sultanate or Kingdom of Adal was founded after the fall of the Sultanate of Ifat. It flourished from around 1415 to 1577. The sultanate was established predominately by local Somali tribes, as well as Afars, Arabs, and Hararis. At its height, the polity controlled large parts of Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea.
During its existence, Adal had relations and engaged in trade with other polities in northeast Africa, the Near East, Europe, and South Asia. Many of the historic cities in the Horn of Africa, such as Abasa and Berbera, flourished under its reign, with courtyard houses, mosques, shrines, walled enclosures, and cisterns. Adal attained its peak in the 14th century, trading in slaves, ivory, and other commodities with Abyssinia and kingdoms in Arabia through its chief port of Zeila.

Modern Sultanates

Following the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, Arab sultanates continued to dominate the region, until it fell under the colonial control of Europeans in the 19th century. The Sultanate of the Geledi ruled parts of the Horn of Africa during the late 17th century and 19th century. The Sultanate was governed by the Gobroon Dynasty. It was eventually incorporated into Italian Somaliland in 1908, and ended with the death of Osman Ahmed in 1910.

The Majeerteen Sultanate was a Somali Sultanate centered in the Horn of Africa. Ruled by Boqor Osman Mahamuud during its golden age, it controlled much of northern and central Somalia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The polity had all of the organs of an integrated modern state and maintained a robust trading network. It also entered into treaties with foreign powers and exerted strong centralized authority on the domestic front. In late 1889, Boqor Osman entered into a treaty with Italy, making his kingdom a protectorate known as Italian Somaliland.

Finally, the Sultanate of Hobyo, in present-day northeastern and central Somalia and eastern Ethiopia, was established in the 1870s by Yusuf Ali Kenadid, cousin of Boqor Osman Mahamuud. As with the Majeerteen Sultanate, the Sultanate of Hobyo exerted a strong centralized authority during its existence, and possessed all of the organs and trappings of an integrated modern state: a functioning bureaucracy, a hereditary nobility, titled aristocrats, a state flag, and a professional army. In late 1888, Sultan Kenadid entered into a treaty with the Italians, making his realm an Italian protectorate, but the sultanate eventually dissolved in 1926.

By:  Abdirahman Dahir (Samawade)


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