Sultanate of Ifat

The Sultanate of Ifat, known as Wafāt or Awfāt in Arabic texts,[2] was a medieval Sunni Muslim state in the eastern regions of the Horn of Africa between the late 13th century and early 15th century.[3][4][5] It was formed in present-day Ethiopia around eastern Shewa[6][7][8] or Zeila.[9][10] Led by the Walashma dynasty, the polity stretched from Zequalla to the port city of Zeila.[11] The kingdom ruled over parts of what are now Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland.

Sultanate of Ifat
سلطنة عفت
The Ifat Sultanate in the 14th century.
The Ifat Sultanate in the 14th century.
CapitalShewa, Harar plateau, and Zeila present day Somaliland
Common languagesSomali, Harari, Arabic, Afar, Argobba and other
languages[citation needed]
• Established
• Disestablished
CurrencyDinar and Dirham[1]
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Sultanate of Showa
Adal Sultanate
Today part ofDjibouti


According to Al-Omari,[clarification needed] Ifat was a state close to the Red Sea coast, 15 days by 20 days "normal traveling time". The state had a river (Awash River), was well peopled and had an army of 20,000 soldiers and 15,000 horsemen. Al-Omari mentioned seven cities in Ifat: Belqulzar, Kuljura, Shimi, Shewa, Adal, Jamme and Laboo.[12] While reporting that its center was "a place called Walalah, probably the modern Wäläle south of Šäno in the Ěnkwoy valley, about 50 miles ENE of Addis Ababa", G.W.B. Huntingford "provisionally" estimated its southern and eastern boundaries were along the Awash River, the western frontier a line drawn between Medra Kabd towards the Jamma river east of Debre Libanos (which it shared with Damot), and the northern boundary along the Adabay and Mofar rivers.[13] The Al-Omari territorial account of Ifat Sultanate implies a size of 300 kilometers by 400 kilometers, which may be an exaggeration, according to Richard Pankhurst.[14]

According to Taddesse Tamrat, Ifat's borders included Fatager, Dawaro and Bale. The port of Zeila provided an entry point for trade and served as the most important entry point for Islam into Ethiopian lands. Ifat rulers controlled Zeila, and it was an important commercial and religious base for them.[15]

It was the northernmost of several Muslim states in the Horn of Africa, acting as a buffer between Christian kingdom and the Muslim states along the coastal regions.[3] Five Ifat cities in eastern Shewa; Asbäri, Nora, Mäsal, Rassa Guba, and Beri-Ifat now mostly in ruins dating back to the fourteenth century have been located.[16][17] The local Argobba people credited Arabs for building these towns.[18]

Founding of IfatEdit

Islam was introduced to the Horn region early on from the Arabian peninsula, shortly after the hijra. Zeila's two-mihrab Masjid al-Qiblatayn dates to about the 7th century, and is the oldest mosque in Africa.[19] In the late 9th century, Al-Yaqubi wrote that Muslims were living along the northern Somali seaboard.[20][21]

The Argobba people are regarded by some scholars with the founding of the Ifat Sultanate.[22][23][24] And some scholars believe Somalis, Ethiopian Muslims and Arabs to be founders of the Ifat Sultanate.[9][10]

Yusuf bin Ahmad al-Kawneyn was born in Zeila during the Adal Kingdom period. Al-Kawneyn is a Somali Muslim saint.[25] He is believed to be the founder and ancestor of the royal family known as the Walashma Dynasty, which later governed both the Ifat Sultanate and the Adal Sultanate during the Middle Ages.[25][26]

Ifat first emerged when Umar ibn Dunya-huz, later to be known as Sultan Umar Walashma, carved out his own kingdom and conquered the Sultanate of Showa located in northern Harar.[27] In 1288AD Sultan Wali Asma invaded Hubat, Adal and other Muslim states in the region.[28] Taddesse Tamrat explains Sultan Walashma's military acts as an effort to consolidate the Muslim territories in the Horn of Africa in much the same way as Emperor Yekuno Amlak was attempting to consolidate the Christian territories in the highlands during the same period.[29]


According to the Arab historian Maqrizi, known for his pro-Islamic version of history written around 1435 that Sultan Umar ibn Dunya-huz was the first ruler of Ifat and founded Ifat at Zeila in 1185. He was also the grandson of the famous Yusuf bin Ahmad al-Kawneyn[30] Umar died around 1275, stated Maqrizi, and was succeeded by "four or five sons" with each ruling a short period.[31] Finally, Sabr ad-Din I came to power and he ruled Ifat till the turn of the century. He was succeeded by Sultan Ali, according to Maqrizi, who was the first ruler to engage with a warfare against the Abyssinia.[32]

Independent States of IfatEdit

Before the establishment of Ifat eastern Ethiopia was ruled by the Gidaya, Dawaro, Sawans, Bali, and Fatagar.[33] These states were incorporated into the Ifat Sultanate however they managed to maintain a source of independence after Ifat collapsed. When Ifat was abolished by the Ethiopian Empire these states were also invaded, however Fatagar still managed to stay under the control of Yifat.[34]

Conflict with AbyssiniaEdit

In 1320 a conflict between the Christian monarch and Muslim Ifat leaders began. The conflict was precipitated by Al-Nasir Muhammad of Egypt.[35] The Mamluk ruler Al-Nasir Muhammad was persecuting Christian Copts and destroying Coptic churches. The Ethiopian Emperor Amda Seyon I sent an envoy with a warning to the Mamluk ruler that if he did not stop the persecution of Christians in Egypt, he would retaliate against Muslims under his rule and would starve the peoples of Egypt by diverting the course of the Nile.[31][36] According to Pankhurst, of the two threats, the diversion of Nile was an idle threat and the Egyptian sultan dismissed it because he likely realized this to be so. The fear that the Ethiopians might tamper with the Nile, states Pankhurst, was nevertheless to remain with Egyptians for many centuries.[31]

As a result of the threats and the dispute between Amda Seyon and Al Nasr, the Sultan of Ifat, Haqq ad-Din I responded,[31] initiating a definite war of aggression.[36] He invaded the Christian Abyssinian territory in the Amhara kingdom, burnt churches and forced apostasy among Christians.[36] He also seized and imprisoned the envoy sent by the Emperor on his way back from Cairo. Haqq ad-Din tried to convert the envoy, killing him when this failed.[36] In response, the irate Emperor raided the inhabitants of all the land of Shewa, much of it inhabited by Muslims at that time, and other districts of Ifat Sultanate.[37] The historical records of that time, depending on which side wrote the history, indicate a series of defeat, destruction and burning of towns of the opposite side.[31]

According to the Christian chronicles, the son of the Sultan Haqq ad-Din Dadader Haqq ad-Din who was the leader of the Midra Zega and Menz people who were then Muslims, fought the emperor in the battle of Marra Biete in an area somewhere south of Marra Biete in modern North Shewa. Dadader forces were able to surround the emperor Amda Seyon I, who nevertheless succeeded in defeating them and killed the commander Dadader in the battle .[37][31][36]

Ifat rebellionEdit

Sabr ad-Din's rebellion was not an attempt to achieve independence, but to become emperor of a Muslim Ethiopia. Amda Seyon's royal chronicle states that Sabr ad-Din proclaimed:

"I wish to be King of all Ethiopia; I will rule the Christians according to their law and I will destroy their churches...I will nominate governors in all the provinces of Ethiopia, as does the King of Zion...I will transform the churches into mosques. I will subjugate and convert the King of the Christians to my religion, I will make him a provincial governor, and if he refuses to be converted I will hand him over to one of the shepherds, called Warjeke [i.e. Werjih], that he may be made a keeper of camels. As for the Queen Jan Mangesha, his wife, I will employ her to grind corn. I will make my residence at Marade [i.e. Tegulet], the capital of his kingdom.[38]

In fact, after his first incursion, Sabr ad-Din appointed governors for nearby and neighboring provinces such as Fatagar and Alamalé (i.e. Aymellel, part of the "Guragé country"), as well as far-off provinces in the north like Damot, Amhara, Angot, Inderta, Begemder, and Gojjam. He also threatened to plant khat at the capital, a stimulant used by Muslims but forbidden to Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.[39]

Sabr ad-Din's rebellion in early 1332, with its religious support and ambitious goals, was therefore seen as a jihad rather than an attempt at independence, and it was consequently immediately joined by the nearby Muslim province of Dewaro (the first known mention of the province), under the governor Haydera, and the western province of Hadiya under the vassal local ruler Ameno. Sabr ad-Din divided his troops into three parts, sending a division north-westwards to attack Amhara, one northwards to attack Angot, and another, under his personal command, westward to take Shewa.[40]

Amda Seyon subsequently mobilized his soldiers to meet the threat, endowing them with gifts of gold, silver, and lavish clothing – so much so that the chronicler explains that "in his reign gold and silver abounded like stones and fine clothes were as common as the leaves of the trees or the grass in the fields."[41] Despite the extravagance he bestowed on his men, many chose not to fight due to Ifat's inhospitable mountainous and arid terrain and the complete absence of roads. Nevertheless, they advanced on 24 Yakatit, and an attachment was able to find the rebellious governor and put him to flight. Once the remainder of Amda Seyon's army arrived, they destroyed the capital of Ifat Zeila and killed many soldiers at the battle of Zeila. But Sabr ad-Din once again escaped. The Ethiopian forces then grouped together for a final attack, destroying one of his camps, killing many and taking the rest as slaves as well as looting it of its gold, silver, and its "fine clothes and jewels without number."[40]

Sabr ad-Din subsequently sued for peace, appealing to Queen Jan Mengesha, who refused his peace offer and expressed Amda Seyon's determination not to return to his capital until he had searched Sabr ad-Din out. Upon hearing this, Sabr ad-Din realized that his rebellion futile and surrendered himself to Amda Seyon's camp.[40] Amda Seyon's courtiers demanded that Sabr ad-Din be executed, but he instead granted him relative clemency and had the rebellious governor imprisoned. Amda Seyon then appointed the governor's brother, Jamal ad-Din I, as his successor in Ifat. Just as the Ifat rebellion had been quelled, however, the neighboring provinces of Adal and Mora just north of Ifat rose against the Emperor. Amda Seyon soon also put down this rebellion.[42]

After the era of Amda Seyon IEdit

the Muslim rulers of Ifat continued their campaign against the Christian Emperor. His son, Emperor Sayfa Arad appointed Ahmad, also known as Harb Arad ibn Ali as the sultan of Ifat, and put Ali's father and relatives in prison.[43] Sayfa Arad was close to Ahmad and supported his rule, however, Ahmad was killed in an Ifat uprising. Ahmad's son Haqq ad-Din II then came to power in Ifat. Internal ruling family struggle in Ifat expelled grandfather Ali's son named Mola Asfah who gathered forces and attacked Ahmad's son. A series of battles affirmed Sultan Haqq ad-Din II position of power.[43] In the fourteenth century Haqq ad-Din II transferred Ifat's capital to the Harar plateau thus he is regarded by some to be the true founder of the Adal Sultanate.[44] The new Sultan moved away from previous capital of Ifat, to a new town of Wahal. From there, he ceaselessly fought with the Emperor, in over twenty battles through 1370, according to Maqrizi's chronicle written in 1435. The Ifat Sultan Haqq ad-Din II died in a battle in 1376.[43]

According to historian Mordechai Abir, the continued warfare between Ifat Sultanate and the Ethiopian Emperor was a part of the larger geopolitical conflict, where Egypt had arrested Coptic Church's Patriarch Marcos in 1352. This arrest led to retaliatory arrest and imprisonment of all Egyptian merchants in Ethiopia. In 1361, the Egyptian Sultan al-Malik al-Salih released the Patriarch and then sought amicable relations with Ethiopian Emperor. The actions of the Ifat Sultanate and Muslim kingdoms in the Horn of Africa, states Abir, were linked to the Muslim-Christian conflicts between Egypt and Ethiopia.[45]

The end of Ifat sultanateEdit

In 1376, Sultan Sa'ad ad-Din Abdul Muhammad, also called Sa'ad ad-Din II, succeeded his brother and came to power, who continued to attack the Abyssinian Christian army. He attacked regional chiefs such as at Zalan and Hadeya, who supported the Emperor.[46] According to Mordechai Abir, Sa'ad ad-Din II raids against the Ethiopian empire were largely hit-and-run type, which hardened the resolve of the Christian ruler to end the Muslim rule in their east.[45] In the early 15th century, the Ethiopian Emperor who was likely Dawit collected a large army to respond.[46] He branded the Muslims of the surrounding area "enemies of the Lord", and invaded Ifat. After much war, Ifat's troops were defeated in 1403 on the Harar plateau.[47]

Sultan Sa'ad ad-Din subsequently fled to Zelia .[46][48] The Ethiopian soldiers pursued him all the way into the most southern parts of zeila where they killed him. The sources disagree on which Emperor conducted this campaign. According to the medieval historian al-Makrizi, Emperor Dawit I in 1403 pursued the Sultan of Adal, Sa'ad ad-Din II, to Zeila, where he killed the Sultan and sacked the city of Zeila. However, another contemporary source dates the death of Sa'ad ad-Din II to 1415, and credits Emperor Yeshaq with the slaying.[49]

The Sultanate of Ifat was invaded by Fatagar, and Wag along with Ganz.[50] Adal Sultanate with its capital of Harar emerged in the southeastern areas as the leading Muslim principality in latter part of the 14th century.[51] Several small territories continued to be ruled by different Walasma groups up to the eighteenth century.[52] By eighteenth century several Christian dynasties named Yifat and Menz, which were the province names of Ifat sultanate, were established.[53] Presently, its name is preserved in the Ethiopian district of Yifat, situated in Shewa of the Amhara region.

Sultans of IfatEdit

According to fourteenth century historian Al Umari, the ruler of Ifat donned headbands made of silk.[54]

Ruler Name Reign Note
1 Sulṭān ʿUmar DunyaHuz 1185–1228 Founder of the Walashma dynasty, his nickname was ʿAdūnyo or Wilinwīli
2 Sulṭān ʿAli "Baziwi" ʿUmar 1228–12?? Son of ʿUmar DunyaHuz
3 Sulṭān ḤaqqudDīn ʿUmar 12??–12?? Son of ʿUmar DunyaHuz
4 Sulṭān Ḥusein ʿUmar 12??–12?? Son of ʿUmar DunyaHuz
5 Sulṭān NasradDīn ʿUmar 12??–12?? Son of ʿUmar DunyaHuz
6 Sulṭān Mansur ʿAli 12??–12?? Son of ʿAli "Baziwi" ʿUmar
7 Sulṭān JamaladDīn ʿAli 12??–12?? Son of ʿAli "Baziwi" ʿUmar
8 Sulṭān Abūd JamaladDīn 12??–12?? Son of JamaladDīn ʿAli
9 Sulṭān Zubēr Abūd 12??–13?? Son of Abūd JamaladDīn
10 Māti Layla Abūd 13??–13?? Daughter of Abūd JamaladDīn
11 Sulṭān ḤaqqudDīn Naḥwi 13??–1328 Son of Naḥwi Mansur, grandson of Mansur ʿUmar
12 Sulṭān SabiradDīn Maḥamed "Waqōyi" Naḥwi 1328–1332 Son of Naḥwi Mansur, defeated by Emperor Amde Seyon of Abyssinia, who replaced him with his brother JamaladDīn as a vassal.
13 Sulṭān JamaladDīn Naḥwi 1332–13?? Son of Naḥwi Mansur, vassal king under Amde Seyon
14 Sulṭān NasradDīn Naḥwi 13??–13?? Son of Naḥwi Mansur, vassal king under Amde Seyon
15 Sulṭān "Qāt" ʿAli SabiradDīn Maḥamed 13??–13?? Son of SabiradDīn Maḥamed Naḥwi, rebelled against Emperor Newaya Krestos after the death of Amde Seyon, but the rebellion failed and he was replaced with his brother Aḥmed
16 Sulṭān Aḥmed "Harbi Arʿēd" ʿAli 13??–13?? Son of ʿAli SabiradDīn Maḥamed, accepted the role of vassal and did not continue to rebel against Newaya Krestos, and is subsequently regarded very poorly by Muslim historians
17 Sulṭān Ḥaqquddīn Aḥmed 13??–1374 Son of Aḥmed ʿAli
18 Sulṭān SaʿadadDīn Aḥmed 1374–1403 Son of Aḥmed ʿAli, killed in the Abyssinian invasion of Ifat under Yeshaq I


According to Mohammed Hassan Ifat's infantry consisted of the Argobba people.[55] Ifat army also composed of Somalis and were active in battling with neighbouring Ethiopia.[56]


Ifat's inhabitants, according to Nehemia Levtzion Randall Pouwels, and Ulrich Brakumper include nomadic groups such as Somalis, Afars and Werjih people whom were already Muslims by the thirteenth century, the Hararis, Argobbas and the extinct Harla.[57][58][59][60]

Somali TheoryEdit

The Somalis founded a state which they called Ifat with its principal center in Zeila.[9] According to I.M. Lewis, the Zeila polity was governed by local dynasties consisting of Somalized Arabs or Arabized Somalis, dynasties, who also ruled over the similarly established Sultanate of Mogadishu in the Benadir region to the south.[20][21] Many centuries of trade relation with Arabia began with the establishment of commercial colonies along the coast by the Himmyrati Kingdom and these eventually developed into two small states of Zeila or Adal in the north and Mogadishu in the south, gradually local dynasties of Somalized Arabs or Arabized Somali ruled." In due time these converts [Somali-Arabs] even established the Muslim sultanates of Ifat, Dawaro, Adal, and Dahlak and put pressure on the highland Ethiopian Christians by controlling trade through the main seaports of Suakin, Aydhab, Zeila, and Berbera.[10] The Walashma dynasty of Ifat is more commonly linked with the Sheikh Yusuf bin Ahmad al-Kawneyn who is described as a Somali.[61]

The Abyssinian king (negus) Yeshaq (1414-1429) expanded his kingdom's political and commercial interests into the trade routes and domains of the Somali Kingdom of Ifat, centered in Zeila. Yeshaq declared the Muslims to be "enemies of the lord" and invaded Ifat in 1415. The local Muslim potentate, king Sa'ad Ad-Din was, defeated, and he was pursued up the coast of the Abyssinians, but it took over a century to overthrow them.[62][63]

Ethio-Semitic TheoryEdit

Scholars proposed, based on Al Umari's account stating that the inhabitants of Ifat mainly spoke Ethiopian Semitic.[64][65]

Ifat or Yifat, once the easternmost district of Shewa Sultanate, is located in a strategic position between the central highlands and the sea, and includes diverse population.[58][66] Its predecessor state Shewa Sultanate is believed to be the first inland Muslim state and by the time it was incorporated into Ifat much of the inhabitants of Shewa land were Muslims.[66][31] According to the chronicle of Shewa Sultanate converting the inhabitants in the area begun in 1108, and the first to convert were the Gbbah people whom Trimingham suggested them being the ancestors of Argobbas.[65] A few years later after the conversion of the Gbbah people, the chronicle of Shewa sultanate mentions that in 1128 the Amhara fled from the land of Werjih. The Werjih were a pastoral people, and in the fourteenth century they occupied the Awash Valley east of Shewan Plateau.[67]

By the mid-fourteenth century, Islam expanded in the region and the inhabitants north of Awash river were the Muslim people of Zaber and Midra Zega (located south of modern Merhabete); the Gabal (or Warjeh people today called Tigri Worji); and much of the inhabitants of Ankober, were under the Sultanate of Ifat.[68][69][70] Tegulat, previously the capital of Shewa Sultanate, is situated on a mountain 24 km north of Debre Berhan and was known by Muslims as Mar'ade.[71][72][73] The chronicle of Amda Tsion even mentions Khat being widely consumed by Muslims in the city of Marade.[74] Tegulat, later became the seat of Emperor Amde Tsion, thereby, making it the capital of the empire. The emperor then appointed the descendants of Walasmas as the king of all the Muslim lands.[75]


The 19th-century Ethiopian historian Asma Giyorgis suggests that the Walashma themselves spoke Arabic.[76]

See alsoEdit


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