The origins of Gragn are obscure. Popular legend has a colorful story of his origins however. It is said that in those days, the Emirate of Adal and Harrar would send as annual tribute to the Emperor of Ethiopia, 700 white mules, 50 nuggets of gold, 30 carpets, 1300 shawls, 1000 bulls, 3000 goats and sheep. On the occasion of the delivery of this tribute one year, Gragn’s mother, Shemshia, accompanied the caravan from Harrar to Debre Libanos. While she was there, she met a young monk who seduced her. The monk, who in his haste to return to the evening vespers service after this act, accidentaly put her muslim cap on his head instead of his monks cap. Upon entering the chapel wearing the cap of a moslem woman, all his fellow monks realized that he had slept with one of the moslem women from Harrar, and in anger they beat him with their prayer staffs. He was so badly injured that he died. Shemshia returned to Harrar and gave birth to Ahmed, who was ridiculed by his playmates for not having a father. These circumstances are said to be the reason why Gragn so hated the Christian highlanders, and monks in particular. Although this legend is rather colorful, it defers greatly with the account of his life preserved by the Harrari, Afar and Somalis. Their account states that Ahmed was the son of Ibrahim Al Ghazi, and that he grew up in the Port town of Zeila. His father is said to have given him a slave named Abdeli who remained his close retainer for his entire life. He entered the service of the Emir of Harrar and the Adal, Mahfuz, who would later be killed fighting Libne Dingel in Yifat. During his service under Mahfuz, his father Ibrahim was killed by the Sultan Abu Bakr of Zeila, earning the hatered of Ahmed Al Ghazi. He would lead a force against the Sultan and defeated him, and recieved the title of “Sheik of Zeila” from the Turks. Ahmed married the daughter of the Emir Mahfuz of Harrar and the Adal, Bati Dil Wenbera (whose name translates to Victory is her Throne). Upon the defeat and beheading of Emir Mahfuz in Yifat, Ahmed siezed the throne of the Wellasma dynasty in Harrar, and defeated all rivals. His wife, through whom he claimed the Emirate, urged him to avenge the death of her father. The Turks increased the amount of arms and aid they were sending to Harrar, and continued to encourage rebellion against the Emperor and the dominating Christians of Ethiopia. They provided him with the latest in weaponry in very large amounts. The Turks were naturally reacting to the growing alliance between the Portuguese and the Ethiopian Empire, and were determined to undermine it. Ahmed began to use the title of “Imam” and the Moslems of the Empire began to regard him as their great hope of taking the leading role. As time passed, armed with the latest weaponry, and led by a new ambitious ruler, the Adal moslems grew in confidence.
In 1525, a relative of the Emperor named Fanuel, ruler of the district of Wag was ordered by the Emperor to march into Adal territory. He did so, looting the moslem territories along the way. When news reached Imam Ahmed, he gathered a force and defeated Fanuel, taking back the looted property that Fanuel had seized. The Harrari’s were jubilant at their victory, and the Emperor and his court were horrified. Word spread of the left handed ruler of Harrar, “Ahmed Gragn” or “Mohammed Gragn” who had slaughtered the forces of the powerful Fanuel. It seems that a quick attempt was made to crush Gragn at this early stage by encouraging his rival and enemy, Sultan Abu Bakr of Zeila to attack him. This was the same Abu Bakr who had killed Gragn’s father years earlier. The Sultan was intitially successful, driving Gragn from the city of Harrar itself, pushing him all the way out to Hobat. However, Gragn lauched a counter offensive and crushed the Sultan, becoming the undisputed leader of the Moslem lowlands. Therefore, in 1527, the Emperor decided to send his response. A large force led by Ras Degelehan, husband of the Emperor’s sister and governor of Bale, marched and clashed with Gragns forces. The battle is said to have lasted for three days and was a bitter and bloody one. In the end however, the moslems were victorious, and the captured many great christian nobles, and a huge amount of weapons and loot. Again the following year the Emperor sent another important general, Wenag Jan, to fight Gragn. They fought a two day battle in Yifat with the moslems again emerging victorious. Wenag Jan was killed, and many christian soldiers are said to have defected to the victorious moslem side. Gragn then marched into the town of Antsokia, the district seat of Yifat, and burned down the Church of St. Mary. When news that the moslems had marched into the highlands and burned the Church of Our Lady in Antsokia, the Emperor rose to defend his faith and to firmly put the rebellious lowlanders down. The Emperor marched forward with his vast army.