Dervish State? What's That?

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This year marks the centenary of the end of World War I, and as such we’ve been focusing most of our attention on the war and its many facets. Your correspondent is still recovering from SXSW, so this week’s focus is a response to the many calls for more information on World War I’s Dervish state, mentioned in 10 Countries That Played Lesser Roles in World War I.” Behold:

10. The Dervish state was located in the Horn of Africa and encompassed much of the non-coastal areas of present-day Somalia (and Somaliland). At the time of the Dervish state’s birth, it was part of the United Kingdom’s British Somaliland protectorate.

9. The British Empire began building schools in their new protectorate, which angered many local elites who were not privy to the arrangement of the protectorate (they got no benefits from British imperialism, unlike the local elites who actually brokered the protectorate deal). The local elites on the losing side of the deal turned to Islam as an alternative to British imperialism, so much so that the Dervish elite’s Islamism can easily be viewed as a precursor to the present-day’s Islamist movements worldwide.

8. The Dervish state was short-lived. It was founded in 1897 and was disintegrated by the British Empire in 1920. During this time, though, the Dervish proved capable and cunning enemies of European and Ethiopian imperialism. The Dervish state established a capital city at Taleh, built madrassas, and oversaw important trading routes throughout the Horn of Africa. It gained most of its notoriety by decisively beating the British, Italian, and Ethiopian armies in battle on numerous occasions over the course of its lifetime.

7. Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, also known as the "Mad Mullah," was the founder of the Dervish state. As a young man he branched out from traditional Sunni Islam and embraced a form of Sufism, which is still heavily influenced by Sunni Islam but allows for more room for magic and superstitions. As he watched the British establish themselves in his homeland, Hassan appealed more to traditional Sunni Islam when making arguments in favor of an anti-Christian (U.K., Italy, and Ethiopia) state.

6. Dervishes exist today, throughout the Muslim world, but the connection between present-day dervishes and the Dervish state is unclear. Dervishes are beggars who are on a spiritual quest. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, dervish communities in the Muslim world were common and considered vital to the social order of villages, towns, and cities, but - again - it is unclear how this connects to the Dervish state.

5. Italy had a colony next door to British Somaliland, creatively named Italian Somaliland. Like British Somaliland, it was a protectorate that was formed as a result of treaties signed between the Italian state and various local Somali elites. The Italians took a much more robust approach to colonization than the British (perhaps because the British already had plenty of experience governing overseas), and as a result, Italy was much more unpopular than was the United Kingdom. When the Italians sent troops to fight the Dervish state, Rome’s military was routed, likely because of a lack of local help.

4. Ethiopia also fought against the Dervish state. Surrounded on all sides by European imperial powers, Ethiopian policy makers believed that the Dervish state could be seized and used a buffer against further European encroachment. As an officially Christian state, Ethiopia also had an interest in keeping radicalized Islamist states from appearing on Ethiopia’s borders. Like the British and the Italians, the Ethiopians failed to subdue the Dervish state.

3. The Ottoman Empire, an ally of the Dervish state during World War I, had little to no formal ties with Taleh. The Horn of Africa had, at a few points in time, been controlled by Ottoman elites, but Istanbul had long since lost control of the Horn by the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Instead, the Horn of Africa was a decentralized conglomerate of various princely states that all shared a common language, much like the Holy Roman Empire in Europe. The Ottomans contented themselves by arming the Dervish state as it took up arms against the British, Italians, and Ethiopians. This had two major effects: pinning down Istanbul’s rivals in uncomfortable positions, and bolstering its image as the leader of the Muslim world.

2. Sovereignty and suzerainty are concepts that have little to no bearing on today’s world, but perhaps they should. Prior to the end of World War II, when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. became the globe’s alpha powers, suzerainty was often used by imperial powers to manage their colonies. Suzerainty is a formal recognition, by a power, of a minor polity’s independence and autonomy, and a formal recognition by the minor polity of the power’s control over its diplomatic and economic affairs. Suzerainty was used especially often by the British and Dutch (and less so by France and other Latin states, which preferred more direct control over their territorial claims, as well as the Ottoman Empire. The U.S.-led order has focused on sovereign states rather than unofficial spaces, and this has led to many misunderstandings ( Somalia, which has long been a region of suzerains, is a basketcase today largely because it is approached by powers as a sovereign state.

1. The end of the Dervish state came on Feb. 9, 1920. With World War I at a definite end, the British Empire turned its attention toward the Horn of Africa. London used airpower for the first time in Africa, and this proved to have a devastating effect on the Dervish state; it fell in three weeks, and this after 20 years of war with three different countries. Hassan, known by the British public as the “Mad Mullah,” fled to the hills, and though he tried to regroup and counterattack, his power had been broken forever.

Further reading

The Law of the Somalis by legal scholar Michael van Notten

Somalia: Economy without State ( by anthropologist Peter D. Little

Somalia After State Collapse: Chaos or Improvement?  by economists Benjamin Powell, Ryan Ford, and Alex Nowrasteh


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