Leveraging Influence, Incentive, and Insurgency to Achieve Political Endstate in Early 20th Century Horn of Africa
The most celebrated political and military figure in the Horn of Africa may be Sayyid Mohammad Abdullah Hassan, a leader credited with constructing modern Somali political identity. Known as the ‘bard of Somalia,’ Hassan is oft considered the exemplar of colonial resistance, honored by numerous statues in the region. Famous for having stood up to the far superior British and Italian militaries, he and his militia displayed unwavering courage waging a protracted insurgency war against colonial powers in the early 20th century. Unique to Hassan’s leadership style was his use of a concise and articulate form of iambic pentameter, warrior poetry that was later to be known as gabei, that stirred his troops for battle. To this day, Hassan’s fusion of poetry and war-fighting is credited with imbuing into Somali culture deep oral traditions that remain prominent today[i]. There is a second story, albeit a lesser known narrative, divorced from Hassan’s historical record of bravery, that offers a more accurate portrayal of how Somali political agency came to develop. The story is not one of military prowess and spirited gabei to rally the troops, but rather one of patience, timing, and the leveraging of networks that exist in the informal space to fight for and achieve a political endstate—a kind of intellectual insurgency.
Shaykh Uways bin Muhammad al-Barawi, known simply as Uways al-Barawi was born in Baraawe, Somalia in 1847. As an adolecent, he was sent to Baghdad, Iraq to obtain a formal Islamic education in accordance with the traditions of Sufism[ii]. Returning to Somalia in 1883, al-Barawi served as a missionary working to spread his message across the region and in the process adopted a vast network of Islamic jama’a, or communities. Eventually, he would become the leader of the Qadiriyya, a regional Sufi sect that endowed al-Barawi with followers as far south as Kenya, Tanzania, and at that time, swaths of German-occupied Tanzania. Shrouded in a kind of mysticism, al-Barawi flourished into a leader with strong influence over people from all walks of life; from property owning merchants to slaves, no matter the gender, class, or age, people become enamored with al-Barawi and his teachings. Uways eventually commissioned 500 deputies to work on his behalf, known as khalifas, to assist in proliferating the spread of Sufism across his deep and effectual followership that proved to be unrestrained by colonial boundaries[iii]. Even the Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, a prominent and wealthy figure of the time, became a “dynamic khalifa” carrying the word of the Qadiriyya to Tanzania personally.[iv] [v]
Though al-Barawi was living in Somalia for much of the time he was teaching, he took great interest and concern in the politics of greater East Africa, particularly the German colonies located in the western interior of Tanzania, known as Tanganyika[vi]. Having recruited each consecutive Sultan of Zanzibar under British rule as a khalifa, al-Barawi garnered informal control over sea-based trade routes whose economic influences penetrated deep into the Saxon colonies (Martin, “The Qadiri” 158). By early 1908, al-Barawi began voicing his concerning with the inequities that British rule created in society. He wrote a pamphlet rebuffing the legitimacy of colonial rule, which was clandestinely distributed by his Qadiriyya khalifas in the German port of Linid located in present day Tanzania.[vii] Confident that fellow Sufis would pass the message along in port, al-Barawi intended for the pamphlet to find its way to the interior of Tanganyika where comparisons between British and German rule would be made. Aware of an intensifying anti-colonial sentiment, German leadership couldn’t be bothered by the changes in public opinion, thinking Sufis too weak to raise an army.[viii]
Al-Barawi’s pamphlet, did something quite unique however. Though it was distributed in German-occupied Tanzania, it specifically focused on the inequities of British controlled Somalia. This in effect created two results; first, it enabled subject of German-occupied Tanganyika to think objectively as a third party about the inequities of British-controlled Sufis, drawing parallels between that experience, their day-to-day life of Tanganyika. This enabled Sufis in Tanganyika to recognize the abuses that they too suffered. Second, it created a shared sense of political and cultural identity between Sufis in German and British occupied areas. The resulting intersectional identity of clan-family culture and Sufi Islam was finally understood to be regional, and the efforts of colonial rulers to define and conquer by placing this subject identity into a ‘residual category’ of irrelevance created a bifurcated society of formal and informal spaces now identifiable and exploitable by local people to rebel within.[ix]
In July of 1908, the German colonial magistrate experienced overwhelming rebellious activity and received “alarming telegrams from Lindi” that news of the confusion and instability was spreading. German Governor von Rechenberg warned his subject constituents of the zikir, a traditional Sufi dance, declaring it an act of colonial resistance.[x] Perhaps, most tactically, al-Barawi advertised this German instability to the British, convincing them that it may be in British favor to support the uprising through their network in order to destabilize their European competitor’s foothold in the region. Accordingly, and out a shortsighted self-interest, the British took the bait, and it became rumored that British leadership aided at the behest of al-Barawi himself in spreading propaganda to inspire the insurgency.[xi] The continued support to prop up the rebellion worked, and in 1909 the German military responded by crushing the resistance in a single decisive battle with European weaponry. What is remembered today as the Maji-Maji Massacre, is still viewed as a devastating act and overwhelming use of force, pitting the modern world against an impoverished indigenous population. The extreme use of violence created a regional consensus in opposing the presence of colonial militaries and their governments in East Africa, to include those under British rule.[xii]
Though tragic, the killing of the Maji-Maji people was the manifestation of a calculated and nuanced information campaign that leveraged informal networks, cultural identity, and the Eurocentric self-interest of modern nations that resulted in a favorable political endstate for subjected peoples. Deemed the “Mecca Letters Affair,” al-Barawi’s use of his informal network through religious and economic domains to communicate with those in Tanganyika, inspired a regional sense of empathy, and created a sort of subject identity that easily traversed geopolitical boundaries. The story of Uways al-Barawi exemplifies what has grown to become very essence of Somali political identity. Complex and multifaceted, but also deliberate in nature, al-Barawi set the conditions to drive European powers from the shores of East Africa; an achievement wrongly attributed to Mohammad Abdullah Hassan, until now.
Additional Titles Used For Background Reference:
Al-Hujwiri, ‘Ali b. ‘Uthman al Jullabi. The Revelation of the Veiled: An Early Persian Treatise on Sufism. Translated by Nicholson, Reynold A. Chippenham: Antony Rowe Ltd., 2000. Book.
Lin, Nan, Dayton, Paul and Greenwald Peter “Analyzing the Instrumental Use of Relations in the Context of Social Structure” in Ronald S. Burt and Michael J. Minor’s Applied Network Analysis. University of Michigan, Sage Publications, 1983. Book.
[i] Lewis, I. M. Saints and Somalis: Popular Islam in a Clan-Based Society. The Red Sea Press Inc., pp. 72-73 1998. Book.
[ii] Reese, Scott. The Best of Guides: Sufi Poetry and Alternate Discourses of Reform in Early Twentieth-Century Somalia. Journal of African Cultural Studies 14, No. 1, pp 53-57. 2001. Journal.
[iv] Trimingham, John Spencer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971. Book.
[v] Martin, B.G. “Muslim Politics and Resistance to Colonial Rule: Shaykh Uways B. Muhammad Al-Barawi and the Qadiriya Brotherhood in East Africa.” The Journal of African History, Vol. 10, No. 3 (1969), pp. 471-486. Journal.
[vii] Martin, B.G. “The Qadiri and Shadhili Brotherhoods in East Africa, 1880-1910.” Muslim Brotherhoods in 19th-century Africa. African Studies Series, London: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Book.
[ix] Erickson, Bonnie. “Networks, Ideologies, and Belief Systems” in Peter V. Marsden and Nan Lin’s Social Structure and Network Analysis. University of Michigan: Sage Publications, 1982. Book.
[x] Martin, B.G. “Muslim Politics and Resistance to Colonial Rule: Shaykh Uways B. Muhammad Al-Barawi and the Qadiriya Brotherhood in East Africa.” The Journal of African History, Vol. 10, No. 3 (1969), pp. 471-486. Journal.
[xii] Martin, B.G. “The Qadiri and Shadhili Brotherhoods in East Africa, 1880-1910.” Muslim Brotherhoods in 19th-century Africa. African Studies Series, London: Cambridge University Press, 1976. Book.