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Sheikh Ahmed Gabyow (1844-1933):  A Poet and Early Anti-colonial Scholar

By Dr. Abdurahman Baadiyow

The Somali encounter with colonialism can be broadly divided into two main phases. From 1889 to 1927, the first phase involved interactions between scholars of Islam and clan elders on one side and colonial powers on the other. This era culminated in the defeat of Boqor Osman, leader of the Majeerteen clan, who, after two years of war, finally surrendered to the Italian Fascist Governor, De Vecchi, in 1927. The second phase began in 1943 and saw a shift in leadership and approach. Between the two phases, there was a 15-year gap of “Somali disorientation” in which Somalis lost their independent leaders and were used as canon fodders in the Italian-Ethiopian War (October 1935 to February 1937) and WW II. The second phase was led by nationalist elites striving for Somali independence.

Avv. Gabyow, the son of the late Sheikh Ahmed Gabyow

The focus of leaders shifted from rejecting Christian invaders to establishing a modern, sovereign state in 1943. The first phase was a defensive war against Christian invaders and protecting Islam and the land. In contrast, the second phase was peaceful and nationalistic, aiming to establish an independent and unified modern Somali state.

In southern Somalia, the initial Somali response to colonialism was fragmented and uncoordinated, characterized by resistance emerging independently from various scholars, clans, and small sultanates. In contrast, the colonial powers implemented their strategies using a mix of coercion and incentives, often relying on superior military technology and weaponry. This disjointed resistance is evident in early confrontations such as the Warsheikh, Adale, and Merca incidents. Warsheikh is a town located about 40 km north of Mogadishu. In 1890, the first anti-colonial resistance began in Warsheikh when the residents of the town confronted the Italian navy ship and killed two Italian navy officers, Zavaglio and Bertorello. This incident highlighted the localized and spontaneous nature of the Somali resistance against Italian colonialism. This early conflict set the stage for further tensions between the Somali people and the advancing colonial forces.

After the incident in Warsheikh, further resistance emerged in the town of Adale in May 1891, marking a notable escalation in the conflict between the local Somali population and the colonial forces. The people of Adale, under the leadership of Sheikh Ahmed Gabyow, took a bold stand against the colonial occupation. The resistance against Italy took a heavy toll on the Abdalla Arone sub-clan of the Harti Abgal, to whom Sheikh Ahmed Gabyow belongs. A significant loss of life occurred on both sides, with about 45 Somali fighters and many non-Italian soldiers, including at least 7 Italians.

The anti-colonial resistance in Adale exemplified the fierce determination of the Somali people to defend their land against foreign powers. Adale was the original administrative center of Societa’ Filonardi, established by Vincenzo Filonardi, the first Italian governor, in 1889. This early foothold in the region began Italian colonial rule in Somalia. However, the incidents in Warsheikh and Adale exposed significant resistance from the local population, forcing a re-evaluation of colonial strategies in dealing with the people. As a result, the Italian headquarters was moved from Adale to Mogadishu.

This shift was motivated by the high costs of conflict and the realization that existing policies were not sustainable in the long term. In response to these challenges, Sheikh Ahmed Abikar Gabyow, a respected religious and community leader, composed a patriotic poem urging resistance against Italian colonialism. His powerful words rallied the Somali people to defend their land and freedom. Translated into English, the poem resonated deeply with the population’s sentiments and became a rallying cry for continued resistance. This cultural and literary response showcased the Somali spirit of defiance and determination to resist foreign domination.

Somalian u dagaalamaynaa; Kuwa dulmaaya la dood gelaynaa; Kufriga soo degay diida leenahay; Dabeysha mawdka intey I daadiheyn; Hilibka duud cunin oo aanan deeb noqon; Dadka tusaan danahiisa leeyahay; Kuwa dambaan udariiq falaaya!

Its English translation is as follows: We are fighting for the Somalis; we fight those who commit evil. Oh, ye reject colonial infidels; before the wind of death takes you, turning to ashes to be eaten by worms, we want to show the people who they should stand for, their rear the path for future generations.

These dynamic lines, taken from a poem by Sheikh Ahmed Abiikar Gabyow, may have catalyzed the rebellion in Warsheikh against Italian forces.  The uprising drew a harsh response from the Italians, who sent a punitive expedition to quell the unrest. This military response resulted in the devastation of both Warsheikh and Adale, with the loss of more than 80 Somali lives in 1891. The destruction left a profound impact on the local communities, deepening the hatred towards the colonizers. Moved by the suffering of his people in the aftermath of the Italian massacre, Sheikh Ahmed Abiikar Gabyow composed another poem to capture the anguish and injustice faced by the Somali people. His moving verses resonated with the community, providing a voice for their pain and continuing to inspire resistance against colonial oppression. Translated into English, the poem serves as a stark reflection of the hardships endured and the resilience of the Somali people in the face of adversity.

Ragow hadoo qalbi waa rafaadaa! Rujulka kaafira oo rugtaan yimid; Sidii Rasuul Rabi nooma soo dirin; mana rabne naga reed bax waa niri; Hadaadse ruux la dagaasho kaa roon; reerkaad u kasha laheedna raagaan; Ragow hadda qalbi waa rafaada!.

The English translation is as follows: These aliens wound manhood; they are not prophets sent by God; we rejected them, but they did not listen to us. Woe to those who arrive late; when we were battling such a formidable force, our manhood suffered at the hands of these intruders.

This lament expresses the pain and loss inflicted on the Somali people by Italians. The reference to manhood being wounded speaks to the profound cultural and emotional impact of colonization on Somali identity and pride. The lack of divine sanction for the colonizers’ actions highlights their illegitimacy in the eyes of the Somali people, reinforcing the sense of injustice and resistance. The poem’s acknowledgment of the latecomers who arrived too late to join the struggle underscores the urgency and intensity of the conflict. It suggests that the Somalis fought courageously against overwhelming odds, their bravery overshadowed by the power and brutality of the invaders.

Continuing such sporadic resistance, in October 1893, an Italian officer named Maurizio Talmone was killed in Merca, stabbed to death on the very day the Italian flag was raised in the town. Just a few years later, another Italian officer, Giacomo Trevis, met a similar fate in Merca in 1897, highlighting the ongoing tension and resistance in the region. Although initially isolated and sporadic, these instances of resistance gradually evolved into a more structured and cohesive opposition to colonial rule. In this early resistance phase, Islamic scholars and religious leaders were primarily responsible for defending Muslim land from Christian invaders. These figures offered spiritual guidance to the people and served as rallying points for resistance, using their influence and authority to inspire and organize efforts to resist colonial domination.

The Somali resistance to colonialism saw a significant transformation as it became more organized. One of the most notable examples of this movement was the Darwish Movement, led by Sayyid Mohamed Abdulle Hasan (1856-1921). Another resistance movement in southern Somalia against Italian colonialism was the Biyamal resistance (1896 -1908) led by two prominent figures, Mo’alin Mursal Yusuf and Sheikh Abikar Gafle.  

Understanding the early history of anti-colonial movements and their leaders is crucial, given the limited general awareness of this period in the nation’s past. One key figure from this era is Sheikh Ahmed Gabow, who exemplifies the influential role of early Islamic scholars in spearheading resistance against colonial rule. Like Sayid Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, Sheikh Ahmed used his poetic talents to express the struggle and aspirations of his people. His legacy extended beyond his own life. Mohamed Sheikh Ahmed Gabyow, known as “Advocate Gabyow,” his son, became one of the earliest Somali university law school graduates. He became a prominent politician and minister of the constitution in the first government after the independence in 1960. Most of the poems of Sheikh Ahmed Gabow were collected by Hussein Sheikh Ahmed Kadare. Recently, a book compiling the poems of Sheikh Ahmed Gabow has been published by Mohamed Elmi Tohow. Moreover, Giorgio and Isse Mohamed Siyad wrote a linguistic analysis of two of his poems. Through his works, Sheikh Ahmed Gabow’s legacy inspires new generations to appreciate their rich cultural and historical heritage.

Colonialism remains a persistent issue, although it now presents itself in more subtle forms. The new generation in Somalia must heed the wisdom of their elders, such as Sheikh Ahmed Gabyow, and prepare themselves to defend their nation from threats that may disguise themselves as religious or stem from external powers seeking to control the country due to its rich resources and strategic position. Young Somalis must be vigilant against local adversaries who exploit Islam to manipulate and oppress their people, as well as foreign entities striving to dominate the country for their benefit.

Dr. Abdurahman Baadiyow
Email: [email protected]

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Dr. Abdurahman Baadiyow is a Professor of Modern Islamic History and a Senior Adviser for the Somali President on Peace and Reconciliation.

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