The Sultanate of Ifat, established in the 13th century in eastern Ethiopia, was a prominent Muslim state. It contested with the Christian Kingdom of Axum and later the Ethiopian Empire. Over time, conflicts led to its decline, and it was absorbed by the Adal Sultanate in the 15th century.
Origins of the Sultanate of Ifat
The Sultanate of Ifat first emerged when Umar ibn Dunya-huz, later known as Sultan Umar Walashma, founded his own domain and vanquished the Sultanate of Shewa in northern Hararghe. In 1288, Sultan Wali Asma launched a successful invasion of Hubat, Zeila, and other Muslim states in the region. Historian Taddesse Tamrat suggests that Sultan Walashma’s military ventures aimed to unify the Muslim territories in the Horn of Africa, much like Emperor Yekuno Amlak’s contemporaneous efforts to consolidate Christian territories in the highlands.
Conflict between the Sultanate of Ifat and Abyssinia
In 1320, a conflict erupted between the Christian monarch and Muslim leaders of the Sultanate of Ifat, instigated by Al-Nasir Muhammad of Egypt. The Mamluk ruler was persecuting Christian Copts and demolishing Coptic churches. Ethiopian Emperor Amda Seyon I dispatched an envoy to the Mamluk ruler, warning that if the persecution of Christians in Egypt continued, he would retaliate against Muslims within his realm and starve the Egyptian population by diverting the course of the Nile. Although the threat to divert the Nile was dismissed as an idle one by the Egyptian sultan, the fear that Ethiopians might tamper with the river persisted for centuries.
The threats and dispute between Amda Seyon and Al Nasr prompted the Sultan of Ifat, Haqq ad-Din I, to initiate a war of aggression. Invading the Christian Abyssinian territory in the Amhara kingdom, Haqq ad-Din torched churches and forced Christians to convert. He also captured and imprisoned the emperor’s envoy on his return journey from Cairo, attempting to convert him and subsequently executing him when this failed. In retaliation, the furious Emperor Amda Seyon raided the inhabitants of Shewa and other districts in the Ifat Sultanate.
According to Christian accounts, Dadader, son of Sultan Haqq ad-Din, led the Midra Zega and Menz people—then Muslims—in the battle of Marra Biete, south of the modern North Shewa. Although Dadader’s forces managed to surround Emperor Amda Seyon I, the emperor emerged victorious and killed Dadader in battle.
The Rebellion in the Sultanate of Ifat
Sabr ad-Din’s rebellion aimed not for independence but to establish a Muslim Ethiopia. Amda Seyon’s royal chronicle recounts Sabr ad-Din’s proclamation, detailing his plans to become king of Ethiopia, govern Christians according to their law, destroy churches, appoint governors, and convert the Christian king to Islam. Sabr ad-Din’s early 1332 rebellion, supported by religious motives and ambitious objectives, resembled a jihad more than an independence bid, attracting the neighbouring Muslim provinces of Dewaro and Hadiya.
Amda Seyon marshalled his troops to counter the threat, bestowing them with gifts of gold, silver, and lavish clothing. However, many chose not to fight due to Ifat’s inhospitable terrain and lack of roads. Eventually, they advanced, destroyed The Sultanate of Ifat’s capital Zeila, and quelled Sabr ad-Din’s rebellion. The emperor imprisoned Sabr ad-Din instead of executing him, appointing his brother, Jamal ad-Din I, as his successor in Ifat. No sooner had the Ifat rebellion been subdued than the neighbouring provinces of Adal and Mora, north of the Sultanate of Ifat, revolted against the Emperor. Amda Seyon promptly quashed this rebellion as well.
Decline of the Sultanate of Ifat
In 1376, Sultan Sa’ad ad-Din Abdul Muhammad, also called Sa’ad ad-Din II, succeeded his brother and continued attacking the Abyssinian Christian army. He targeted regional chiefs like those in Zalan and Hadeya who supported the Emperor. According to Mordechai Abir, Sa’ad ad-Din II’s raids against the Ethiopian empire were primarily hit-and-run tactics that hardened the Christian ruler’s resolve to end Muslim rule in the east. In the early 15th century, the Ethiopian Emperor, likely Dawit, assembled a large army in response. He labelled the Muslims of the surrounding area as “enemies of the Lord” and invaded Ifat. After much warfare, Ifat’s forces were defeated in 1403 on the Harar plateau, and Sultan Sa’ad ad-Din fled to Zeila, where Ethiopian soldiers pursued him.
Contemporary sources differ on which Ethiopian Emperor led this campaign. According to medieval historian al-Makrizi, Emperor Dawit I chased Sultan of Adal Sa’ad ad-Din II to Zeila in 1403, killed the Sultan, and sacked the city. However, another source attributes Sa’ad ad-Din II’s death to 1410 and credits Emperor Yeshaq with the killing.
After Sa’ad ad-Din’s death, the strength of the Muslims waned, and the Amhara settled in the country, converting ravaged mosques into churches. Followers of Islam were reportedly harassed for 20 years. In the latter part of the 14th century, the Adal Sultanate, with its capital at Harar, emerged as the leading Muslim principality in the southeastern regions. Several small territories continued to be ruled by different Walasma groups up to the 18th century. By that time, several Christian dynasties named Yifat and Menz, the province names of the Ifat Sultanate, had been established. Today, the name lives on in the Ethiopian district of Yifat, located in North Shewa in the Amhara region.
“Sultanate of Ifat.” DBpedia. Accessed April 21, 2023. https://dbpedia.org/page/Sultanate_of_Ifat.
“Ifat.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 21, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/place/Ifat.
“Sultanate of Ifat.” Wikipedia. Last modified March 23, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sultanate_of_Ifat#:~:text=The%20Sultanate%20of%20Ifat%2C%20known,around%20eastern%20Shewa%20in%20Ifat.