Isaaq Sultanate

The Isaaq Sultanate (Somali: Saldanadda Isaaq, Arabic: سلطنة الإسحاق‎) was a Somali kingdom that ruled parts of the Horn of Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries. It spanned the territories of the Isaaq clan in modern day Somaliland and Ethiopia. The sultanate was governed by the Rer Guled branch of the Eidagale clan.[3][4]

Isaaq Sultanate

Saldanadda Isaaq
سلطنة الإسحاق
Flag of Isaaq Sultanate
A banner used by the Adal Sultanate and later the Isaaq on key religious shrines[1]
CapitalToon (first)[2]
Hargeisa (last)
Common languagesSomali · Arabic
Sunni Islam
• ~1700s
Abdi Eisa (Traditional Chief)
• c.late 1750–1808 (first Sultan)
Guled Abdi
• 1870–1884 (last)
Deria Hassan
• Established
• Disestablished
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Adal Sultanate
Habr Yunis Sultanate
British Somaliland
Today part of Ethiopia



According to oral tradition, the Isaaq clan-family were up until the mid-18th century ruled by a dynasty of the Tolje'lo, a clan that claims maternal descent from Sheikh Ishaaq's Harari wife. The last Tolje'lo ruler Garad Dhuh Barar (Somali: Dhuux Baraar) was overthrown by a coalition of Isaaq clans. The once massive Tolje'lo were scattered and sook refuge amongst the Habr Awal with whom they still mostly reside.[5][6]


The Isaaq Sultanate was established in the mid-18th century by Sultan Guled of the Eidagale sub-division of the Garhajis clan. His coronation took place after the victorious battle of Lafaruug in which his father, the legendary Abdi Eisa successfully led the Isaaq in battle and defeated the Absame tribes, permanently pushing them out of present-day Maroodi Jeex region. After witnessing his leadership and courage, the Isaaq chiefs recognized his father Abdi who refused to adopt the Sultan title instead preferring his son Guled. Guled would be crowned the first Sultan of the Isaaq clan on July 1750.[7]. Sultan Guled thus ruled the Isaaq up until his death in the early 19th century, where he was succeeded by his eldest son Farah.[8]

Early European ConflictEdit

Part of the message from Sultan Farah Guled to Sultan Saqr in the 1830s

With the new European incursion into the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa contact between Somalis and Europeans on African soil would happen again for the first time since the Ethiopian–Adal war.[9] When a British vessel named the Mary Anne attempted to dock in Berbera's port in 1825 it was attacked and multiple members of the crew were massacred by the Habr Awal. In response the Royal Navy enforced a blockade and some accounts narrate a bombardment of the city.[10] In 1827 two years later the British arrived and extended an offer to relieve the blockade which had halted Berbera's lucrative trade in exchange for indemnity. Following this initial suggestion the Battle of Berbera 1827 would break out. After the Habr Awal defeat, 15,000 Spanish dollars was to be paid by the Habr Awal leaders for the destruction of the ship and loss of life.[11] In the 1830s Farah Guled and Haji Ali penned a letter to Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi of Ras Al Khaimah requesting military assistance and joint religious war against the British.[12] This would not materialize as Sultan Saqr was incapacitated by prior Persian Gulf campaign of 1819 and was unable to send aid to Berbera. Alongside their stronghold in the Persian Gulf & Gulf of Oman the Qasimi were very active both militarily and economically in the Gulf of Aden and were given to plunder and attack ships as far west as the Mocha on the Red Sea.[13] They had numerous commercial ties with the Somalis, leading vessels from Ras Al Khaimah and the Persian Gulf to regularly attend trade fairs in the large ports of Berbera and Zeila and were very familiar with the Isaaq.[14][15]

Berbera Civil WarEdit

One of the most important settlements of the Sultanate was the city of Berbera which was one of the key ports of the Gulf of Aden. Caravans would pass through Hargeisa and the Sultan would collect tribute and taxes from traders before they would be allowed to continue onwards to the coast. Following a massive conflict between the Ayal Ahmed and Ayal Yunis branches of the Habr Awal over who would control Berbera in the mid 1840s, Sultan Hassan Farah brought both subclans before a holy relic from the tomb of Aw Barkhadle. An item that is said to have belonged to Bilal Ibn Rabah.[16]

When any grave question arises affecting the interests of the Isaakh tribe in general. On a paper yet carefully preserved in the tomb, and bearing the sign-manual of Belat [Bilal], the slave of one the early khaleefehs, fresh oaths of lasting friendship and lasting alliances are made...In the season of 1846 this relic was brought to Berbera in charge of the Haber Gerhajis, and on it the rival tribes of Aial Ahmed and Aial Yunus swore to bury all animosity and live as brethren.[17]

Fracture and DeclineEdit

Habr Yunis SultanateEdit

German Map from 1874 showcasing Habr Yunis Sultan Hersi Aman's general location

During the reign of Sultan Farah Guled the Habr Yunis would break from his rule and form the Habr Yunis Sultanate. Sultan Deria Sugulle would had established his own capital at Wadhan and his own taxes.[18] The Habr Yunis Sultanate inherited the profitable trade routes leading into the Sheikh mountains and Burao from the Isaaq Sultanate and reached a pinnacle under Sultan Hersi Aman before being engulfed in civil wars after his considerable power caused a rebellion to break out in the late 1870s.[19][20]

The split was noticeable and Lieutenant C.P Rigby in the year 1848 writes about the two Sultans and the capital of the Isaaq at Toon.

The Hubr Gajis tribe and its different branches are governed by two Sultans, named Sultan Deriah [Habr Yunis Sultan] and Sultan Farah: the residence of the latter is at Toro.[21]

Internal Eidagale ConflictsEdit

Sultan Deria's domain in an Italian map of the Horn, 1894

During the reign of the last ruler of the Isaaq Sultanate Deria Hassan tensions were high between his Rer Guled and another subclan of Eidagale. The legendary Eidagale warrior & poet Hussein Hasan (Somali: Xuseen Xassan) who hailed from the Rer Guled was prideful and urged them to continue the conflict. Standing against him was a similarly skilled poet & warrior Hersi Absiyeh Somali: Xirsi Cabsiye a prominent member of the closely related Rer Abdi Bari who were warring with the Rer Guled. He called for the regular shir or meeting of subclans where he would take council and advise on what decisions to make next. Sultan Deria ruled that blood payment or mag was sufficient for both parties to exchange at the shir with the Rer Guled losing six and the Abdi Bari six as well. Hussein Hasan was boastful and urged for continued conflict with a rousing gabay rejecting the decision.[22]

Lix nin oo mankiyo shaalka iyo midhaha Guuleed ah
Oo wada ma dhaafta ah raggii ugu maloongeeyey
Inaan waliba maal ugu daraa waa masalo dhaafe
Waligeed markaha looma culin magannu soocnaaye
Waa waxaanay dhagahaygu maqal maanta ka horoowe
Inaanaan cayuun soo madhayn mudhayo dhaadheer leh
Haddaynu Reer Mataan nahay sidaa waydun maan garane

Six men who are the buds, the shawl and the fruit (youth) of Guuleed
Who together were the best, most excellent of men
That I add wealth to that is beyond the pale
We’ll never purify the vessel with blood compensation which we have separated off
This is something my ears have never heard before today
That we empty [our hands] of very tall camels
If we are Reer Mataan you will follow my thinking

—Xuseen Xasan[23]

Sultan Deria responded by sending Hussein away to Berbera and then resuming the shir. Absiyeh was made to swear a solemn oath not to recite a gabay following the Sultan's decision but he could not resist, especially since Hussein was away. Hussein returned and lamented that he missed the occasion and the two other men (Deria & Absiyeh) prevailed that day.[24]

Incorporation into British SomalilandEdit

Isaaq warriors on horseback

By the early 1880s the Isaaq Sultanate had been reduced to the Ciidangale confederation with the Eidagale, Arap and Ishaaq Arreh subclan of the Habr Yunis remaining. In 1884-1886 the British signed treaties with the coastal subclans and had not yet penetrated the interior in any significant way.[25] Sultan Deria Hassan remained defacto master of Hargeisa and it's environs. Working in conjunction with Mohammed Abdullah Hassan and the Dervish Movement he would exchange letters with Hassan in the first year of the movement's foundation and incited an insurrection in Hargeisa in 1900.[26]

Arap RevoltEdit

Unlike their larger brothers the Habr Awal, Habr Yunis and Habr Je'lo, the Arap were unable to break from Eidagale tutelage and decided to stand and change this situation. Led by their famed warrior and poet Farah Nur the Arap crowned him as Sultan and raised arms against the Eidagale and Sultan Deria Hassan.[27]

Composing this poem entitled The Limits of Submission Farah speaks of the conflict and intolerance to the subordinate status to the Sultan.[28]

Rag Sabaan ka Sabaan baan
Salaantow badiyaa
Hadduu saakimi waayona
Sariir baan u goglaayoon
Iska seexo idhaa
Hadduu saakimi waayona
Caanahii hasha Suubbaan
Saddex jeer u lisaayoo
Ku sarriigo idhaa
Hadduu saakimi waayona
Summalkii rugta joogiyo
Sogobkaan u qalaa
Hadduu saakimi waayona
Sarreenkii Cadameed baan
Sixinkowgu badshaa
Hadduu saakimi waayona
Gabadh suurad wanaagsan baan
Surrad’owga dhisaa
Hadduu saakimi waayona
Xoolo gooni u soofiyo
Sadadaan ku ladhaa
Hadduu saakimi waayona
Seeddoow Mood iyo Mood iyo
Salaantaan badiyaa
Hadduu saakimi waayona
Salaaddaan lallabaayoo
Maydal seedo madow iyo
Safkii aan ka dhashiyo
Salligaan cuskadaayoo
Sulub eebo ku joogtaan
Sarartaa ku dhuftaayoo
Sanbabkaan ka baxshaayoo
Markaasuu sallimaa

Time and again to men
I give many greetings
If he fails to calm down
I set out a sleeping mat for him
And say ‘Just sleep’
And if he fails to calm down
I milk Suubbaan, the camel
For him three times
And say ‘Drink from it’
And if he fails to calm down
The ram that is at the settlement
And the castrated billy goat I slaughter for him
And if he fails to calm down
The wheat from Aden
I will mix with ghee for him
And if he fails to calm down
A girl of fine appearance
And mats for the bridal hut I give to him
And if he fails to calm down
I drive livestock to graze just for him
And add them to the share
And if he fails to calm down
Oh brother-in-law ‘Pass peacefully’ and ‘Welcome’
I pile these greetings on him
And if he fails to calm down
At the time of the prayers I announce the reer is leaving
The grey horse with black tendons
And the line I am born of
And supporting myself on the salli
With a spearhead of iron
I strike his sides
And make his lungs come out
And then he settles the account

Faarax Nuur Hadduu Saakimi Waayona[29]

Despite early success the Arap would be eventually defeated by the larger and more powerful Eidagale, their newly inaugurated Sultan Farah Nur would be captured and killed at a tree near Hargeisa. The tree and location remains a famous place and Nur is remembered fondly despite his defeat.


The Sultanate had a robust economy and trade was significant at the main port of Berbera but also eastwards along the coast. The Berbera trade fair was the major commercial event of the year with tens of thousands descending on the town.[30]

Berbera held an annual fair during the cool rain-free months between October and April. This long drawn out market handled immense quantities of coffee, gum Arabic, myrrh and other commodities. These goods in the early nineteenth century were almost exclusively handled by Somalis who, Salt says, had "a kind of navigation act by which they exclude the Arab vessels from their ports and bring the produce of their country either to Aden or Mocha in their own dows."

Eidagale and Habr Yunis traders held the southernly trade routes into the Haud region and the Habr Awal the westerly ones, with the Habr Je'lo maintaining the easterly routes towards Berbera and their substantial frankincense trade exporting from Heis, Karin, and Ceel Daraad.[31] The western and southern routes would merge at Hargeisa. The Isaaq were also the predominant Somali traders in the Yemeni ports of Mukalla, Mocha and Aden.[32]


An Isaaq banner used on key religious sites derived from an Adal Sultanate flag

The Sultan of Isaaq often called for shirs or regular meetings where he would be informed and advised by leading elders or religious figures on what decisions to make. In the case of the Dervish movement Sultan Deria Hassan had chose not to join after receiving counsel from Sheikh Madar. He addressed early tensions between the Saad Musa and Eidagale upon the former's settlement into the growing town of Hargeisa in the late 19th century.[33] The Sultan would also be responsible for organizing grazing rights and in the late 19th century new agricultural spaces.[34] The allocation of resources and sustainable use of them was also a matter that Sultans concerned themselves with and was crucial in an arid region. In the 1870s there was a famous meeting between Sheikh Madar and Sultan Deria proclaimed that hunting and tree cutting in the vicinity of Hargeisa would be banned [35] The holy relics from Aw Barkhadle would be brought and the Isaaqs would swear oaths upon it in presence of the Sultan whenever fierce internal combat broke out.[36] Aside from the leading Sultan of Isaaq there were numerous Akils, Garaads and subordinate Sultans alongside religious authorities that constituted the Sultanate before some would declare their own independence or simply break from his authority.


The Isaaq Sultanate had 5 rulers prior to the creation of British Somaliland in 1884. Historically Sultans would be chosen by a committee of several important members of the various Isaaq subclans. Sultans were usually buried at Toon south of Hargeisa which was a significant site and the capital of the Sultanate during Farah Guled's rule.[37]

Name Reign From Reign Till
1 Abdi Eisa (Traditional Chief) Mid ~1700s Mid ~1700s
2 Sultan Guled Abdi (First Sultan) Late ~1700s 1808
3 Sultan Farah Sultan Guled 1808 1845
4 Sultan Hassan Sultan Farah 1845 1870
5 Sultan Diriye Sultan Hassan 1870 1939 (Creation of British Somaliland in 1884)


Amongst the Isaaq the traditional institution and leadership of the clan survived the British Somaliland period into present times. The Rer Guled Sultans although no longer ruling vast territory and with separate Isaaq subclans having their own Sultans still enjoy primus inter pares status and retain the title of Suldaanka Guud ee Beesha Isaaq (Sultan of the Isaaq). Sultan Deria Hassan continued in his role until his death in 1939 with his son Sultan Abdillahi Deria strongly involved in the independence movement of British Somaliland.[38] Sultan Rashid Abdillahi represented Somalia at the world parliamentary conference in 1967.[39] With the collapse of the Somali Republic and subsequent civil war in the 80s and 90s Sultan Mahamed Abdiqadir would be heavily involved in the peace process and reconciliation of the rebirthed Somaliland.


  1. ^ أل شيخ عبدلله ري اشأل صومالي, كشف السدول لريراش ,٥٠
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  3. ^ "Taariikhda Beerta Suldaan Cabdilaahi ee Hargeysa |". Retrieved 2021-01-09.
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  5. ^
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