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Sheikh Madar Ahmed Shirwa (1825-1918): The Qadiriyya Sufi, a Founder of Hargeisa and a Societal Reformer

By Dr. Abdurahman Baadiyow

The Qadiriyya Order originated in Baghdad by Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani (died 1166 AD) and later spread to the western and northern regions of Somalia in the early sixteenth century through the efforts of Abubakar bin Abdullah Al-Aydarus (died 1502 AD) from Hadramaut, Yemen. The Qadiriyya Order thrived in Harar, a historic city considered the epicenter of Islam in the Horn of Africa. Harar attracted numerous Somalis seeking residence and education, establishing itself as a hub for Islamic learning across the region. However, Harar faced turmoil with the Ethiopian invasion in 1887, following Egypt’s abrupt withdrawal due to pressure from the Sudanese Mahdist movement.

Sheikh Madar Ahmed Shirwa (1825-1918)

This invasion led to tragic consequences, including massacres of residents and scholars, closure of educational institutions, and desecration of Muslim holy sites. During this tumultuous period, Ethiopian Emperor Menelik arrogantly proclaimed his conquest of the city, disregarding its Islamic heritage.

One of the outcomes of this invasion was the migration of some surviving scholars to distant places away from Harar. Consequently, Jigjiga emerged as a new thriving hub for Islamic education in the region, replacing Harar. Notable Qadiriyya scholars in Jigjiga included:
1) Sheikh Abdurahman Ahmed Golle,
2) Sheikh Omar Al-Azhari,
3) Sheikh Abdullah Al-Qutbi,
4) Sheikh Abdisalam Haj Jama,
5) Sheikh Mohamud Moalim Omar, and others.

The most renowned scholars, Sheikh Abdurahman Al-Zaylai and Abdisalam Haj Jama established their bases in Jigjiga and Qulunqul, respectively. Sheikh Al-Zaylai dedicated his efforts to spreading the Qadiriyya order, while Sheikh Abdisalam Haj Jama founded an Islamic educational center in Jigjiga. Through these centers and their offshoots, Islamic education and the Qadiriyya order spread hand in hand in the neighboring regions during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Moreover, Islamic educational institutions were established in various areas of western and northern Somalia, with the prominent “Al-Jama’a Al-Kabir” center founded by Sheikh Madar Ahmed Shirwa, the founder of Hargeisa.

Sheikh Madar Ahmed Shirwa is celebrated as a Sufi Sheikh, a societal reformer, and a legal scholar. Born in Hedayta near Berbera to a Bedouin family, he memorized the Quran in his early years in a mobile Quranic school, which served as a school accompanying the seasonal migrations of nomads. Berbera, a trading port linked to Harar, witnessed frequent travel of scholars, students, and traders between the two cities. In contrast, other cities in the region remained stagnant during this period. While Berbera served as the commercial center, Harar stood as the region’s focal point for Islamic education. With the British takeover of Aden in 1839, Berbera became a key source of livestock for the British garrison, leading to increased wealth among livestock traders in the region and flourishing trade between Berbera and Harar.

Consequently, many Somalis migrated to Harar for trade and work, residing there as students in Islamic educational institutions. By 1855, around 2,500 Somalis lived in Harar, constituting a significant portion of the city’s population. Notably, two of the three prominent Sheikhs in Harar were Somalis, namely Sheikh Abdisalam Haj Jama and Kabir Khalil, with the latter likely originating from the Berbera area and gaining influence among his fellow natives after settling in Harar.

In contrast to the educational model in other regions of Somalia, which depended on local community support, students in Harar were required to fend for themselves and acquire costly religious materials. This made it difficult for poor students to access education in Harar. Sheikh Madar’s father, a prosperous livestock trader in Berbera, funded his son’s education in Harar. Over 20 years, Sheikh Madar studied in Harar, eventually emerging as a highly esteemed scholar and a leader of the Qadiriyya order. Assigned by his mentor, Kabir Khalil, to return to his homeland, Sheikh Madar undertook the tasks of propagating Islam, advancing the Qadiriyya order, and mediating tribal conflicts that obstructed trade between Berbera and Harar.

Back in his homeland, Sheikh Madar founded the “Al-Jama’a Al-Kabir” center as an Islamic educational institution in the 1860s. He rallied local Sheikhs, provided housing for his followers, and erected his grand mosque in 1883 (which Sheikh Madar established and still stands in Hargeisa). This marked the onset of a surge in Islamic education and the implementation of Sharia law in the community. Initiatives to foster reconciliation and peace among feuding tribes were also launched. Sheikh Madar’s endeavors were backed by a cadre of fellow Sheikhs who returned with him from Harar, including Sheikh Harun Sheikh Ali and Haj Farah Ismail, dispatched to Berbera and Bulahaar to educate people about their faith. Sheikh Ahmed Bon was also sent to Berbera, and Sheikh Kabir Omar was sent to Bulahaar. Drawing from his experiences in Harar, Sheikh Madar Ahmed Shirwa implemented reforms to revolutionize nomad communities’ lives.

The first reform championed by Sheikh Madar was establishing a permanent settlement, a departure from the traditional nomadic lifestyle characterized by constant migration in pursuit of pastures and rainfall. This shift towards settled living aimed to stabilize and facilitate community economic development. The second reform focused on fostering unity and cohesion among members of diverse tribes. Sheikh Madar recognized the divisive nature of tribal loyalties and sought to transcend these barriers by promoting affiliation with the Qadiriyya order. Sheikh Madar aimed to forge stronger solidarity and cooperation among community members by emphasizing shared spiritual values and collective belonging to the Sufi order. Additionally, Sheikh Madar introduced a transition towards agriculture as a sustainable livelihood, marking the third reform in his agenda. Acknowledging the limitations of a pastoralist economy reliant on herding and seasonal migration, he encouraged his followers to embrace farming to secure food security and economic prosperity.

The agricultural communities Sheikh Madar Ahmed Shirwa established in Hargeisa, Gibeley, and Borama districts stand as living embodiments of his commitment to transforming nomads into settled communities. Through his visionary leadership and dedication to improving the lives of rural residents, Sheikh Madar has left an indelible mark on the agricultural landscape of Somaliland, enriching the lives of countless individuals and fostering a legacy of resilience and prosperity. Sheikh Madar aimed to diversify livelihoods and reduce dependency on precarious pastoralism by promoting agricultural practices and supporting farming initiatives. Sheikh Madar sought to improve the well-being and prosperity of Nomadic communities in Somalia by addressing key challenges and fostering unity, stability, and economic resilience.

During Sheikh Madar’s era, Turkish dominion extended to the northern expanse of Somalia. Sheikh Madar maintained cordial ties with the Turkish rulers and their successors, the Egyptians, who seized control of Somali coastal ports and conquered Harar by 1875. However, the abrupt withdrawal of the Egyptians from Harar and the Somali coast created a strategic void, which the Ethiopians exploited by seizing Harar in 1887. The Ethiopian incursion posed a grave threat to the fractured and vulnerable Somali tribes, prompting Sheikh Madar to beseech the British authorities for aid against the Ethiopians urgently.

Regrettably, the British, enjoying an amicable relationship with the emerging Ethiopian empire, disregarded the plea. With limited options at their disposal, the Somalis, mere factions embroiled in conflict without a central authority, faced peril from Ethiopian expansion in the west and British colonialism in the east. Bereft of internal political leadership, the Somalis favored British governance over Ethiopian rule. The rationale behind this reluctant choice was multifaceted, with the foremost concern being the recurrent pillaging of Somali livestock by the Ethiopians to sustain their troops, juxtaposed with Britain’s establishment of a livestock trade conduit with them via the city of Berbera.

Dr. Abdurahman Baadiyow
Email: [email protected]

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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