He arrives at Azizia in the afternoon of February 25th, a brown-bearded and bare-legged saint of some forty-five years of age, clad in a short white burnous with a big grey coat over it, and spotless white breeches under it. He was no holy beggar with staff and bowl, but a soldier of the Crescent armed at all points. A short curved yataghan was suspended under his right arm, an Italian rifle was slung across his back, and over his left shoulder floated a banner, half green and half white. On the green portion, which was faded with age, was embroidered the inspiring text: Nasrun min Allah wa fet’hun karib” (Victory is from God and conquest near). The white part was emblazoned with a green sphere, representing Africa, and four red patched arranged in the shape of a half moon over it, representing the provinces of Islam- Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli.*
Whilst wandering between the oases and desert camps of Tripolitania in 1912, and reporting on the conflict between the Turkish and Arab forces and the invading Italian army, British war correspondent George Fredrick Abbott made the acquaintance of an incredibly intriguing figure of the Libyan resistance: Mohammed el-Kiani el-Bimbashi. On meeting Abbott, el-Kiani introduced himself as Baba Kiani, and in two couplets described himself as “the illustrious traveller who had for his map of the world the footprints of the People of Understanding” (i.e. the mystics; he was a follower of the Qadiriyya tariqa). While he called himself Bimbashi, or major, el-Kiani held no commission from Ottoman authorities. The son of an Afghan father and an Albanian mother, el-Kiani was reportedly well known across the Muslim world for rousing local resistance against foreign invaders wherever he travelled. On hearing of Italy’s war on the Libyan provinces, he walked from Alexandria to Derna, from Derna to Benghazi, from Benghazi to al-Khoms, and from al-Khoms to Azizia, arriving at Azizia ninety four days later. At each place, el-Kiani stopped, preached to locals, and supported the mujahideen in battle. The Italian rifle he carried was a trophy from a battle at al-Khoms.
Taken by the manner of this almost mythical figure whom he described as “a man of wide experience of the world and considerable culture”, Abbott dedicated an entire chapter in his book The Holy War in Tripoli to el-Kiani. The chapter, titled A Dreamer of the Desert, provides an interesting (and perhaps also embellished) account of el-Kiani’s life. Referring to him as “a veritable Peter the Hermit”, and the “the earnest preacher of a Moslem crusade”, Abbott proceeded to feature the nomad in newspaper reports pertaining to Italy’s invasion of the Libyan territories, holding him as an embodiment of the firm and fearless anti-colonial, Muslim resistance. The mujahideen’s determination and conviction constantly invigorated, Abbott suggests, by the “impassioned extortions of enthusiastic murabits” such as el-Kiani.
Under a moonlit sky in the Tripolitanian hinterland, el-Kiani recounts his origins to the English writer, allowing him to record perhaps the most comprehensive account of the nomad’s life, and likely the only account in the English language. Abbott considered el-Kiani not only strong and outspoken, but a man of “very refined manners”, with a keen sense of humour, and a “fascinating, quiet charm”. Fluent in Arabic and Turkish, and proficient in English, French, German, and Greek, el-Kiani had travelled across Europe, Africa, and much of the Far East. He was born on the Dodecanese island of Rhodes around 1867. His father, a learned Khodja in Egypt, was reportedly poisoned by Ismail Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt. El-Kiani himself was imprisoned in the 1890s for twelve years, escaping in the early 1900s aboard a Greek sailing vessel to the island of Syra. Here, he embarked on a French steamer to Marseilles, and then travelled to Tangier. He was wandering around Morocco when the Young Turk Revolution broke out in 1908, and on hearing the news, deemed it finally safe to return to Constantinople. Across the Caucasus, el-Kiani preached Pan-Islamism to the Muslims under Russian rule. It was on his return to Constantinople from a similar mission to Afghanistan that Italy invaded the Libyan territories, and he set set out on his next tour, crossing the Sahara to rouse the Libyan and Turkish forces against the European invaders. Abbott writes that el-Kiani regarded the Italian attack on the Libyan territories “the last encroachment of Christian Europe on Moslem Africa”, and the the beginning of “the great Jehad” of which he had dreamed of all his life. “I’ve spent years trying to bring all the Moslems together”, he tells the Englishman, “and this war will help unite us”. El-Kiani and the mujahideens’ fearlessness and determination to resist European conquest forced Abbott to reconsider the conventional Western depiction of Islam as statically and decadently fatalistic. Abbott concludes that Islam is a “dynamic force of incalculable magnitude – a force made up of two elements altogether beyond the modern European’s comprehension: boundless faith in the divine and a fearless contempt for death”.
During the course of their conversation, the two men learnt that they shared common acquaintances, and informed one another of the fates of certain consuls and brigands. As the end of their brief acquaintance drew near, el-Khiani offered to take Abbott, disguised as an Arab, across the Sahara to Kufra to meet Sayid Ahmed al-Sharif al-Sanussi. The Englishman was reluctant, expressing concern at how they would manage with little food and provisions. El-Kiani reassured him that two camels and two tents would suffice. As for food, the nomad declares with what Abbott describes as a “childlike simplicity”, that they needed very little, and that some bread, a few dates, and some tea would be enough for their journey. “People fall sick because they eat too much” el-Kiani tells the Englishman, who remained doubtful, but recognised “the full grandeur of the Eastern man’s improvidence and of his trust in God’s providence”. Although the prospect of accompanying the nomad across the Saharan desert captivated Abbott, particularly during the dim moonlight, the clear sunlight of the following morning caused him to doubt the scantiness of provisions and his own poor physique, which he decides precluded him from partaking in the expedition.
In a grave and earnest manner, el-Kiani parted with Abbott with the following words: “If you do not see me again you shall hear about me. In a short time the world shall hear about me. And when read the name of Mohammed el-Kiani in the journals of Europe, you shall say: Ah, that was the man I drank coffee with at Azizia”. With his rifle flung across his back, and his banner flying over his shoulder, el-Kiani bid farewell to his acquaintance and set off on his way to the desert oasis of Sokna in the Fezzan region of southwest Libya. No further reference to the nomad is made in later chapters of Abbott’s book.
He is not a fanatic in the sense of hating all Christians, though he hates the Italians and the French with a consuming hatred. It is impossible to question his sincerity or his ability. His sanity is a matter of point of view. Some people would call him possessed; I prefer to call him possessed of a great idea. Perhaps he is a little mad, and his disclaimer of madness shows that he is little conscious of it. Madness, however, is not a hinderance, but a help, in the work he has set his hand to. It was very easy to see the effect his words had on his Arab hearers, and I confess that I myself was not unaffected by the power of his personality. While he talked of the fortunes and the future of Islam he seemed to impart to me some of his own fire and enthusiasm, but when he gave utterance to them they sounded merely grand, and I echoed the Arabs’ pious exclamation, “Inshallah!” with a conviction as fervid as their own. I am thankful to have met a man of Baba Kiani’s stamp. As to his mission, whatever the future may bring forth, I have no doubt left in my mind about the strength of the Pan-Islamic movement at the present hour.*
*Abbott, G. F. The Holy War in Tripoli. London: E. Arnold, 1912.