Ahmad ibn Ibrahim ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi (Arabic, أحمد بن إبراهيم الغازي: ) “the Conqueror” (c. 1506 – February 21, 1543) was an Imam and General of the Sultanate of Adel who fought against the Abyssinian Empire, defeating several Emperors. With the help of an army mainly composed of Somalis, the peoples of Harla, Afares, Hararis and a small number of Arabs and Ottoman Turks, Imam Ahmad (nicknamed Gurey in Somali, “Gura” in Afar and Gragn in Amaric (ግራኝ Graññ), “the left-handed”), embarked on a conquest that brought three-quarters of Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) under the control of the Muslim Sultanate of Adel during the Abyssinian-Adal Wars of 1529-43.
Imam Ahmad is considered by most scholars to be of Somali ethnicity, yet few historians have discussed his ethnicity. Yet, few historians have discussed his ethnicity, being sometimes considered Harari. Many Somali clans played an important role in Gurey”s conquests and conquest of Abyssinia, yet these clans went to war not so much as Somalis but as Muslims.”
I. M. Lewis speaks of the existence of another leader named Ahmad Gurey, and suggests that the two leaders have been assimilated into one historical figure:
The text speaks of two Ahmads with the nickname ”Lefty”. One is usually presented as ”Ahmad Guray, the Somali” (…) Identified as Ahmad Guray Xuseyn, head of the Habar Magadle. Another reference, however, appears to link the Habar Magadle with the Marrehan. The other Ahmad is simply referred to as ”Imam Ahmad” or simply the ”Imam”. This Ahmad is not qualified with the Somali adjective (…) The two Ahmads have merged into one, representing the heroic Ahmed Guray.
Imam Ahmad was born in 1506 in Zeila, Adel Sultanate Due to the lack of Islamic rigor during the reign of Sultan Abu Bakr ibn Muhammad, Ahmad would leave Harar for Hubat. He married Bati del Wambara, daughter of Mahfuz, Governor of Zeila. In 1531, Bati would give birth to their first son named Muhammad.
When Mahfuz was assassinated returning from a campaign against the Abyssinian emperor Lebna Dengel in 1517, the Adel sultanate was plunged into anarchy for several years, until Imam Ahmad killed the last of the contenders and took control of Harar.
Ethiopian historians such as Azazh T”ino and Bahrey have written that during the period of his rise to power, Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi had converted the Oromo, a pastoralist people, to Islam.
In retaliation for an attack on Adel the previous year by the Abyssinian general Degalhan, Imam Ahmad invaded Abyssinia in 1529, reinforcing his force with numerous muskets purchased from the Ottomans, which caused panic among the Abyssinian troops. Imam Ahmad maintained the discipline of most of his men, defeating Emperor Lebna Dengel at Shimbra Kure that March.
The chronicle of the invasion of Abyssinia is described in various Somali, Abyssinian and foreign sources. Imam Ahmad campaigned in Abyssinia in 1531, breaking Lebna Dengel”s ability to resist at the Battle of Amba Sel on October 28. Imam Ahmad”s Muslim army then marched north and sacked the insular monastery of Lake Hayq and the stone churches of Lalibela. When the Imam entered the province of Tigray, he defeated an Abyssinian army that confronted him there. When he reached Aksum, he destroyed the Church of St. Mary of Zion, where Abyssinian emperors had been crowned for centuries.
The Abyssinians were forced to ask for help from the Portuguese, who landed in the port of Massawa on February 10, 1541, during the reign of Emperor Gelawdewos. The force was led by Cristobal da Gama and included 400 musketeers as well as numerous artisans and other non-combatants. Da Gama and Imam Ahmad met on April 1, 1542 at Jarte, which Trimingham has identified with Anasa, between Amba Alagi and Lake Ashenge. Here the Portuguese had their first impression of Ahmad, as recorded by Castanhoso:
On April 4, after the two unknown armies had exchanged messages and observed each other for several days, da Gama formed his troops in square and marched against the Imam, repulsing successive Muslim attacks with musketry and cannon. The battle ended when Ahmad was wounded in the leg by a stray bullet; seeing their flags indicate retreat, the Portuguese and their Abyssinian allies fell upon the disorganized Muslims, who suffered losses but managed to regroup across the river.
In the following days, Ahmad”s forces were reinforced by fresh arrivals of troops. Understanding the need to act quickly, da Gama formed another cadre on April 16 that he led against Ahmad”s camp. Although the Muslims fought with more determination than two weeks earlier-his cavalry nearly broke the Portuguese formation-a timely gunpowder explosion frightened the Imam”s horses, and his army fled in disarray. Castanhoso laments that “the victory would have been complete this day if we had only had a hundred horses to finish it: for the King was carried on the shoulders of men in a bed, accompanied by horsemen, and they fled without any order.”
Reinforced by the arrival of the Bahr negus Yeshaq, da Gama marched south behind Ahmad”s forces, catching up with him ten days later. However, the arrival of the rainy season prevented da Gama from being able to present battle to Ahmad a third time. On the advice of Queen Sabla Wengel, da Gama wintered at Wofla near Lake Ashenge, within sight of his opponent, while the Imam camped at Mount Zobil.
Knowing that the victory was based on the number of firearms, the Imam asked for help from his Muslim friends. According to Abbé () , Ahmad received 2000 musketeers from Arabia, and artillery and 900 Ottoman pikemen. Meanwhile, due to casualties and other tasks, da Gamase”s force was reduced to 300 musketeers. After the end of the rains, Ahmad attacked the Portuguese camp and killed all but 140 of its occupants. da Gamal himself, badly wounded, was captured with ten of his men and, after refusing to convert to Islam, was executed.
The survivors and Emperor Gelawdewos joined forces and, relying on Portuguese supplies of muskets, attacked Ahmad on February 21, 1543 at the Battle of Wayna Daga, where they defeated Grang, despite being vastly outnumbered (9,000 men to the imam”s 15,000 soldiers). Gragn was killed by a Portuguese musketeer, who was mortally wounded in avenging da Gama”s death.
His wife Bati del Wambara managed to escape from the battlefield with a group of Turkish soldiers, and they managed to reach Harar, where she gathered her followers. In an attempt to avenge her husband”s death, she married her nephew Nur ibn Mujahid on condition that Nur avenge the defeat of Imam Ahmad. In 1554-55, Nur set out on Jihad, or Holy War, to the Abyssinian eastern lowlands of Bale and Hadiya. In 1559, he invaded Fatagar, where he fought against the Abyssinian emperor Galawdewos, whom he killed in battle.
“In Ethiopia the damage Ahmad Gragn did has never been forgotten,” wrote Paul B. Henze. “Every Christian in the highlands still hears tales of Gragn in his boyhood. Haile Selassie referred to him in his memoirs, “I have frequently had villagers in northern Ethiopia point to sites of villages, forts, churches and monasteries destroyed by Gragn as if these catastrophes had occurred only yesterday.” To most Somalis Ahmad is a national hero who fought against the Abyssinian aggression of his former territories.
Ahmad”s invasion of Abyssinia is described in detail in the Futuh al-habaša (“The Conquest of Ethiopia”), written in Arabic by his follower Sihab ad-Din Admad ibn ”Abd-al-Qadir, in its present incomplete version, covering the story only up to 1537, narrating the Imam”s attacks on the islands of Lake Tana. Richard Burton the explorer claimed that the second part could be found “at Mocha or Hudaydah”; but, despite subsequent research, no copy of this second part has been found. The first part was translated into French by René Basset and published in 1897-1901. Richard Pankhurst made a partial English translation as part of his The Ethiopic Royal Chronicles (Addis Ababa: Oxford University Press, 1967), and a complete translation of Paul Lester Stenhouse”s Futuh al-habaša was published by Tsehai in 2003 (ISBN 978-0-9723172-5-2 978-0-9723172-5-2).
Primary sources of the Portuguese Gama expedition have been collected and translated by R.S. Whiteway, The Portuguese Expedition to Abyssinia in 1541-1543, 1902 (Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint Limited, 1967). The Solomonic view of history is represented in the royal chronicles of Emperor Lebna Dengel and his son, Emperor Gelawdewos.