The Wars of Imam Ahmed ibn Ibrahim (Ahmed Grañ)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2019

25 Pages, Grade: 12+


Table of Contents

1. The wars of Imam Ahmed ibin Ibrahim (Ahmed Grañ)
1.1. Introduction

2. Historical Background of Ahmad

3. Causes for the wars of Ahmed Grañ

4. The Wars

5. Factors for the success of Ahmed’s campaign.

6. Outcomes of the wars

7. Conclusion



1. The wars of Imam Ahmed ibin Ibrahim (Ahmed Grañ)

1.1. Introduction


There were many wars in the history of Ethiopia, but the most important and turning point was the wars of Imam Ahmed Grañ. It is regarded as the ‘’fundamental transformations’’ in 16th century, and the event that shaped the political, demographic and diplomatic courses of the horn in general.1 Surely, the wars of Ahmed have influenced every aspect of the lives of Ethiopian societies since then.

From historiographical point of view too, the history of the wars of Ahmed was crucial and very important. Mainly because of its controversy, different historians of different time and place interpreted it differently. This leads to the emergency of very divergent outlooks regarding the wars and Ahmed himself. For example, the Somalis people celebrate him as a national hero, while the Ethiopians remembered him as a ‘‘bloodthirsty interloper.’’2 Nevertheless, in Ethiopia itself, it is difficult to find similar outlooks.

Many writers have recorded the history of Imam Ahmed’s war and issues related to it since 16th century. Shihab al Din was the first; he was a Yemeni eyewitness to the event, his book Futuh al Habasha provides significant but incomplete information on the wars of Ahmed Grañ, especially up to 1535. Then foreign travellers, missionaries and scholars followed: Francisco Alvarez, who include the conflict between Christians and Muslims in his account; Karl Cederquist, who asserts Islam was introduced to Ethiopia by Ahmed Gran; Carlo Conti Rossini, who wrote about Libne Dingil’s war with Ahmed Grañ; and Rene Easset, who wrote Arabic history of Ahmed Grañ. 3

Although criticized by Hussein Ahmed because of their ‘overemphasis’ on the clash between Christians and Muslims, and because of their presentation of Islam as a recurrent threat to Christian Ethiopia and reduction of Islam history to the conflicting relation with Christians. J. Spencer Trimingham, Mordechai Abir and Father Joseph Cuoq are also among the notable contributor to the history of the wars of Ahmed. Hussein accepts and admires historians who have focused on the positive relationship between Christians and Muslims. 4

From the Ethiopian writers the work of Taklas’adik Makuria YaGrañ Ahmed Warara is worth mentioning. Although, he wrote from the Christian perspectives and mostly used hagiographical sources like Gadls and Chronicles,5 his work seems to be scholarly endeavour as he uses footnotes and the presence of some form of analysis. In addition, the book complied by Bahru Zewde A Short history of Ethiopia and the horn, and Tadese Tamrat’s Church and state in Ethiopia 1270- 1527 was going to be dealt in this paper, specially on the cause and consequences of the war respectively.

Among the 21st century works, Teshome Birhanu’s book Imam Ahmed Ibrahim (Ahmed Grañ ) was notable by his special focus on Ahmed Grañ and his wars only. Rajib Mohamed Abdulhalim, Gamaluddin Ibrahim Khalil and Hashim Gamaludin are from the Middle East and Afar respectively. They wrote in Arab language and included the wars of Ahmed Grañ in their book. Especially, the two latter work characterized by narration and ‘pan- Islamic’ interpretation of the event.

All the above historians are similar on writing about the wars of Imam Ahmed, but on what was the role of religion? Where was the homeland of Ahmed? What are the causes of the wars of Ahmed? Why Ahmed become successful? What were the roles of foreigners? and Which sides most affected by the distractions? It is not easy to find similar answers; even sometimes, they divided in to two hostile camps. These questions are interrelated and stand at the centre of a scholarly debate. Thus, we can easily realize that controversy is the dominant theme in the historiography of the wars of Imam Ahmed.

Since the wars of Imam Ahmed was very broad, this paper specifically tries to focus on controversial issues like: the historical back grounds of Ahmed (his origin), the causes and the consequences of the wars, factors for the success of Ahmed’s campaign and the war itself (whether invasion, conquest or expansion). In addition, I try to compare and contrast the writing of different authors on each points, especially that of domestic and foreign, Muslim and Christian historians. Moreover, the role of religion in these war, although forgotten by most historians. This is mainly because, to make it specific and detail. It is obvious, doing these is not an easy task as Hussein Ahmed said, ‘‘the study of 16th c military conquest of large areas of Ethiopia under Grañ has given rise to conflicting interpretation of his origin and of the nature and impacts of the conquest itself’’.6

2. Historical Background of Ahmad

Ahmed was both a political and religious leader of the sultanate of Adal from 1520s to 1543, his name conventionally known as Grañ or Gurey, by Ethiopians and Somalis respectively, which means the left handed. Although, there was discrepancy among historians on the full name of Ahmed, most of them agreed on, Imam Ahmed ibn Ibrahim al-Gahazi. Regarding his birthplace and family background, the Somali people claimed Ahmed as their own general and even built statue for him in Mogadishu. Peoples of Hararge, Berbera, Zayla, Tajura, and Awusa also maintain that, he was from their community.7 The difference and claim arises mainly because, the main source of our knowledge concerning Ahmed, Futuh al-Habasha of Sihab ad Din (Arab Faqih) tells us nothing explicitly about his birthplace. It seems probable that, the author believed it was not important or he thought that his readers already knew it.8

Because of these, most historians began writing the history of Ahmed from where he lived and grown up. For example, Harold G. Marcus explained as Ahmed was raised in Jildesa, along the trade route of Zeila,9 Trimingham also only mentioned that, Imam’s earlier year was passed in Hubat (between Jildessa and Harar). However, Teshome’s attempt to explain in detail has some problem. He described, Ahmed was born in 1498 in the eastern parts of Ethiopia from his father (Ibrahim bin Ahmad) who was from Ogaden or Sumale clan and his mother who was from Harlawa, which include current state of Afar, Oromiya and Harari.10 But, his writing, specially on this issue lacked sources and evidences.

Another important attempt to explain the historical background of Ahmed made by Gamaluddin Ibrahim Khalil and his son Hashim Gamaludin Ibrahim; they used names of Imam Ahmed’s relatives to explain his family background. Accordingly, names like Jasa, Shihem, Mahe, Dini and others (who are relatives of Imam) were only used in or around Afar region and not common out of these areas, including Somalia. For instance, he took the case of Jasa who was the governor of Afar in the end of 16th century. Moreover, to validate his claim Gamaluddin quoted from Trimingham, who said ‘‘Imam Muhammad Jasa a member of Grañ’s family’’ was a successor of Mansur b. Muhammad11 who become the governor of Harar in 1580s. 12 Thus, it is to mean that, since the name of Ahmed’s family is not in use out of Afar region, and his relatives was from Afar, Ahmed himself could be from Afar. Nevertheless, it is difficult to generalize like that, since we do not know the name of every individuals in each country, and being relative or family can be made or got (may not be natural) by marriage and other methods.

On the other hand, M. Abir stated, as Ahmed was most likely from Somali.13 Wikipedia the Free Encyclopaedia also notes as ‘‘most scholars and historical sources identified Ahmad Grañ as an ethnic Somali’’ some of the scholars cited there include Franz Christoph Muth, Nikshoy C. Chatterji, Charles Pelham Groves and the others.14 Davis also used Imams soldiers (which was dominated by Somali) and his title (which shows Shi’ite influence) to claim as Ahmed was from Somali movement.15 However, is there any state known as Somalia at that time? Mesfin Woldemaryam explains that, there was no state known as Somalia before 1960.16 Thus, Somali is the product of recent time, that is, after the end of colonialism. In addition, on the Aksumite inscription Somali named as ‘YaItan ager’. The inscriptions in Adulis also explained as the Ethiopian land or border extends from Aksum to Nubia and up to the Red sea, including the current state of Somaliland 17

Beside this, there are some details on Futuh, which help us to say something on the homeland of Ahmed. For instance, Futuh talks about Ibrahim bin Ahmad, who was Imam’s father was previously the ruler of the town of Hubat, which later on become one of the power bases of Imam Ahmad. Imam Ahmdad's relatives too were identified for example his sister Fardusa was the wife of chieftain of Mattan who was known as from Somali unlike her.18 The brother of Imam, Muhammad bin Ibrahim was the chieftain of the tribes of Shewa and Hargaya 19 he had a cousin Muhammad bin Ali, whose mother was the Imam's aunt.20 Thus, this information gives us some clues on the ethnic background of Ahmed. (On the family of Imam Ahmed mentioned here and others please refer to Tekles’adiq’s YaGran Ahmed Warara).

In addition, there were many cases in Futuh where Imam Ahmad and the Somali people stated together, but ‘‘never once does Arab Faqih mention the ethnic connection between the two’’. Further, the Somali soldiers mentioned as having escaped during the Battle of Shimbra Kure, would Arab Fiqih who praises Imam Ahmed at every turn states this embarrassing detail?21 Logical question that needs answer from scholars who claimed Ahmed is from Somali.

Nonetheless, the reason why the Somali people claimed Ahmed was evident. According to Clapham, previously colonized and newly independent African states were searching for a ‘usable African past’ for ‘modern state formation’.22 Thus, as a newly independent state of Africa, Somali was also searching for ‘usable past’ that serve for nation building, especially after its independency of 1960. In my view the conflict with Ethiopia and the emergency of the idea of greater Somalia, also has its own contribution for the intensification of this claim.

Lastly, we should have to remember that still there are confusions in Ethiopia itself, some Christian and hagiographical sources identify Ahmed’s father as a priest. According to these sources, a woman named Shimshiya came from Harar to Shawa in order to pay tribute for Libne Dingil, since she was very beautiful one priest attracted and finally slept with her, resulting in to the birth of Ahmed Grañ.23 Richard Greenfield also accepted this legend and stated Ahmed as an ‘‘Illegitimate son of a Christian priest who was stoned for his lapse’’ with Muslim woman. 24 As to them, the father of Imam Ahmed was a christen priest, and not an Ogaden Muslim landlord whom Taklas’adiq Makura and other historians are talking about.

3. Causes for the wars of Ahmed Grañ

Regarding causes of the war, there are differences among scholars. Some foreign writers and Futuh al Habasha give emphasis to religion as a main cause. Whereas other writes are sceptical on this point and give attention to economic factors. According to Futuh al Habasha (the Amharic version, here after Futuh) Imam Ahmed has two main objectives and he cannot stop his effort from achieving it, one is clearly mentioned there when he say, ‘‘we have no other desire rather than Jihad’’. 25 In addition, Richard Pankhurst stated that, Ahmed’s motive was almost certainly religion like his predecessor Mahfuz.26 Other historians as well mentioned the motives behind or an objective of the wars of Ahmed Grañ was religion. 27

On the other hand, historians like Hussein Ahmed and Bahru Zawde not agreed with the above explanations. According to Hussein, it is deceptive to describe the wars of Ahmed Grañ as a conflict or contest between the Christians and Muslims, rather it related with economy. He described the work of historians who insist on the religious ground of the war as ‘narrow interpretation. 28 Hussein’s idea implies the war must be seen as a contest between rival economic powers to dominate long-distance trade. In addition, after explaining as the wars of Ahmed often presented in religious terms and traditionally portrayed as struggle for supremacy between Christians and Islam, Bahru Zewude stated, ‘‘this was mainly because the accounts that have come down to us have been written down by Christian or Muslim clerics’’.29 Hence, the writer not the war that has a religious form, however he used the term ‘Jihad’ to describe the war between the two sides.

As Encarta world dictionary defines, Jihad is an Islamic campaign against nonbelievers, a campaign waged by Muslims in defence of the Islamic faith against people, organizations, or countries regarded as hostile to Islam.30 Futuh , also used the term ‘Jihad’ repeatedly to describe the war, and ‘none believers’ to denote the Christians. Not only Futuh, M. Abir showed, jihad was declared on Ethiopia many times (even before the coming of Imam Ahmed), but, historians simply ignored it.31

Historians who had not considered religion at least as one cause of the wars of Imam Ahmed were referred us, ‘modernist nationalism’. Their writing had an objective of forming nation state and intensifying the sense of nationalism into citizens, thus they criticized because of their goal-oriented writing.32 Moreover, after explaining as a ‘conventional history’ of Ethiopian was a state history, Clapham mentioned what it serves, ‘‘construction... of sense of nationalism that will help to strengthen and preserve the state in to the future’’.33 Perhaps that is why they ignore religion as a cause of the war, if they do they dread of religious conflict, which is against unity or nation formation. But, Clapham mentioned, the conflict between Christian and Muslims as ideological.34

However, in addition to previously mentioned reasons, we can at least understand the objectives of the war from what the leaders of both group did after controlling the opponents’ territory, and from their routine deeds. Concerning the former, when they controlled the ‘enemy’s’ land the first thing they did was to burn churches or Mosques 35 and to convert the local people to their own religion. 36 If their primary motives are economy and to control long distance trade, why they did this? Or do they bother about conversion? On the later point Libne Dingil constructed many churches and often passed his time with spiritual readings37, Ahmed Grañ also reads Quran or listen everywhere, even when he make long journey there were preachers with him38 Therefore it was rational to states, both leaders started the war as one part of their religious deeds.

Nevertheless, some scholars believed that, the war assumed religious form after it begins or in the middle, however, as we understood from the book of Pankhurst’s the Ethiopian border land, on the first conflict between Ahmed Grañ and Christians, Imam Ahmed used to say, ‘‘Holy war in the service of Allah’’39 to call for his followers. In addition, there are ‘visions of reforms’ that encouraged Ahmed to have a religious objectives starting from his early years of twenties, when he was ordinary soldier. For example, one of the dreams thought that, through him Allah intended to reform Abysinia40 Ahmed showed as he was devoted to this vision and dream when he started a struggle to bring back the state to Islamic principles in his early years.41 From these we can realize that even at its root both the leader and the war has religious ground and objective.

Giving the war an economic form, Bahru goes back to 1320s and even back to the end of Aksumite civilization. He explains, after the end of Axumite civilization the main inlet and outlet of the trade shifted from north (Adulis) to south (Zeila) ports. As a result, new towns and market centres started to emerge along the routes from Zeila. This new centres included Dakar, which was a seat of Walasma dynasty before Harar, Suq Dawaro, Weez, Suq Amaja, Gandaballo and others. Because of their geographical advantage (which is near to the trade route), the Muslim state had to exercise control over it. Nevertheless, the growing power of Solomonic Kingdom was going to be a serious challenge to the Muslims, leading to the competition between the two groups and escalating into the wars of Ahmed Grañ.42

Such explanations are admirable and very important in history writing because, it was that which gives history its intellectual or academic characters. However, for my part, the account of Bahru was too abstract, relating the history of more than five centuries. That is from the end of Aksumite civilization (10th century), to 16th centuries of the war of Ahmed Grañ. Even jumping over one per iodization in the history of Ethiopia, i.e. medieval periods, in which change in cultural, politics, economic and social aspects of the society was immense. Although, the end of Aksumite civilization serves as a long-term cause of the war, it was too far apart from the wars of Ahmed Grañ (to serve as the main cause) not only by time but also by geography.


1 Bahru Zewede , A short History of Ethiopia and the Horn, (Addis Ababa: Commercial Printing ent. , 1998), P. 79.

2 New World Encyclopaedia, ‘‘Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi’’, (23 November 2010).

3 Hussein Ahmed, ‘‘The historiography of Islam in Ethiopia’’, Journal of Islamic studies 15-16 (1992): PP. 23, 24, 25 and 28.

4 Hussein Ahmed, PP. 29, 30, 18, 19

5 For instance, he used sources which explained the causes of the wars of Imam Ahmed in relation to the punishment from the God for the sin of Libne Dingil. Taklas’adiq Mekuria, YaGrañ Ahmed Warara (Addis Ababa: Birhanina Salam, 1966), p. 163.

6 Hussein Ahmed, P. 24

7 Teshome Birhanu , Imam Ahmed Ibrahim (Ahmed Grañ) (Addis Ababa: Far East Pvt. Ltd. Co press. 2000), on the back cover page.

8 New World Encyclopaedia, ‘‘Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi’’.

9 Harold G. Marcus, A History of Ethiopia (updated edition: University of California press, 2002), p. 31.

10 Teshome, P.66

11 J. Spencer Trimigham, Islam in Ethiopia (London: Frank Cass & co. ltd. 1965) P. 96

12 Gamaluddin Ibrahim Khalil and Hashim Gamaludin, YaAfar/ Danakil/ Tarikina Marāja Arki Minch/Almanhal, Ashe Ahmed Mohamed Kibo al Harari, trans, (Addis Tirat Atamiwoch, 2007), p. 284.

13 Mourdechai Abir, Ethiopia and The Red Sea: the rise and decline of the Solomonic dynasty and Muslim- European rivalry in the region, (London: Frankcass and Company limited. 1980). P. 87.

14 Wikipedia the free encyclopaedia,‘‘Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi’’, (23 November 2010).

15 Asa J. Davis ‘‘The sixteenth century Jihad in Ethiopia and the impact on the culture’’ (part one), Journal of Historical society of Nigeria 2.4 (1963), as cited on Hussein Ahmed, ‘‘The historiography of Islam in Ethiopia’’, P. 24.

16 Mesfin W/Mariam, The background of Ethio- Somale border Disputes, 1964. as cited on Teshome, p. 77

17 Teshome, P.77

18 Sihab ad-Din Ahmad bin 'Abd al-Qader, Futuh al-Habasa: The conquest of Ethiopia, translated by Paul Lester Stenhouse, PP. 44 and 8, as cited on New world Encyclopaedia, ‘‘Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi’’.

19 As cited on new world encyclopaedia, Pankhurst identifies this Hargaya as a location inside modern Ethiopia, different from the modern city of Hargeisa.

20 Sihab ad-Din, P. 44, as cited on New world Encyclopaedia, ‘‘Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi’’.

21 Sihab ad-Din, P. 81, as cited on ibid.

22 Christopher Clapham, ‘‘Rewriting Ethiopian History’’, Journales d Ethiopie vol. XVIII: (2002), P.41.

23 Diyqon Daniel Kibret, YaBātākiristiyan Marājawoch, 1999, as cited on Teshome Birhanu, P. 72.

24 Richard Greenfield, Ethiopia A New political history, (London: Pall Mall Press, 1965), P. 52.

25 Sihab ad-Din Ahmad bin 'Abd al-Qader, Futuh al-Habasa: Abashān Yamāqnāt Zamachā, Abdala Mohamad Ali, trans., volume 1, (Addis Ababa: Mega printing press, 1994.E.C), PP.59 and 67.

26 Richard Pankrust. The Ethiopian Border Lands: Essay in Regional History from Ancient Time to the End of 18thc (Asmara, Eretria: Red Sea printing inc. 1997), P. 169.

27 According to Greenfield, the wars of Ahmed were a jihad with religious motives. Greenfield, Ethiopia A New political history, (1965, p. 52). As to Teshome, the objective of the wars of Ahmed was to expand Islam. Teshome, Imam Ahmed Ibrahim,(2000, p. 80). To M. Abir the wars of Ahmed Grañ were a conquest to transform Christians to Muslim. M. Abir, Ethiopia and The Red Sea, (1980, p. 89).

28 Hussein, P. 18

29 Bahru Zewede, A short History of Ethiopia and the Horn, P. 75.

30 Although, others defined Jihad as, the struggle to please Allah, and argued as the West equated it with “holy war”, the context in Futuh best matched with the definition of Encarta world dictionary.

31 Abir, P. 77.

32 National Historiography of Ethiopia’’, (a reading material), P. 5 .

33 Clapham, P. 41

34 Ibid, P. 50.

35 Sihab ad-Din, Abashān Yamāqnāt Zamachā, P. 140.

36 Trimigham, P. 88.

37 Tekletsadiq Mekuria, YaGrañ Ahmed Warera. 1966. as cited on Teshome Birhanu. Imam Ahmed. Ibrahim (Ahmed Grañ) P. 80

38 Sihab ad-Din, Abashān Yamāqnāt Zamachā PP. 111, 150.

39 Pankrust, P. 165.

40 Trimigham, P.85

41 Marcus, p. 31

42 Bahru Zewede, A short History of Ethiopia and the Horn, pp. 74 and 75

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The Wars of Imam Ahmed ibn Ibrahim (Ahmed Grañ)
Haramaya University  (Haramaya University)
Medieval Ethiopia
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The term paper presented on a faculty and department level and obtained great support for publication.
wars, imam, ahmed, ibrahim, grañ, medieval, Ethiopia, Somali
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Zerihun Gudata (Author), 2019, The Wars of Imam Ahmed ibn Ibrahim (Ahmed Grañ), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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