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DJIBOUTI. For many centuries the Horn of Africa, in which the Republic of Djibouti forms a small coastal enclave, has provided access for the transmittal of goods and ideas between the Middle East and the African continent. Since the ninth century CE Djibouti has been the point of departure for Islamic missionary activity and for material support of Muslim proselytization and reform in Africa.

Place Mahamoud-Harbi and the Great Mosque in Djibouti city, Djibouti.
Credit: A. Picou/De Wys Inc.

In 825 CE missionaries from Arabia introduced Islam into the Horn, which was then ruled by Christian Abyssinia. By the twelfth century merchants and clerics from the Arabian Peninsula were proselytizing extensively along the coast, where local clans established small Muslim emirates. From the thirteenth to the seventeenth century these small Muslim states struggled for independence from the Christian Abyssinian rulers and eventually coalesced into three sultanates-Tadjoura, Rahayto, and Bobaad-which survive with symbolic powers in Djiboutitoday.

Situated on one of the two southern gateways to the Red Sea,Djibouti attracted European attention as early as the sixteenth century. The Portuguese were the first to move into the Red Sea, followed by British and French traders and administrators. During the partition of Africa by European colonial powers,France took possession of the region in 1888 and built up Djibouti’s port and town. First known as French Somali land and later as the French Territory of the Afars and Issas(1967),Djibouti served as a fueling station and military base until independence in 1977.France continues to maintain some four thousand military personnel in the Republic.

Virtually all (1991 estimates range from 94 to 1oo percent) of Djibouti’s 346,000 people are Sunni Muslim. Both city dwellers and nomadic pastoralists living in Djibouti’s barren countryside share a mystical Muslim tradition. Most follow the Shafi’i school of law, and many belong to the Qadiriyah Sufi brotherhood that was well established in the region by the nineteenth century. The Ahmadiyah and Salihiyah also had created a presence in Djiboutiby the end of the nineteenth century. The tombs of saintly and learned Muslims in the republic are visited annually by Djiboutian and Somali pilgrims. The highest authority in the Muslim community is the Qadi of Djibouti, who is usually of Arab origin. The Qadi celebrates marriages, registers divorces and wills, administers properties, and presides over the shari`ah court. The Islamic holy days are legal holidays, and the government observes Ramadan with shortened workdays.

Islam, along with a shared language and cultural tradition, has contributed to a strong sense of common identity. Nevertheless, Djiboutians are deeply divided by clan loyalties. The largest kin group is the Somali Issa clan (4o percent of the population), which is concentrated around the capital. Somali Afars (35 percent) living in the countryside are essentially nomadic and ethnically linked to Ethiopian groups. Somali Gadaboursis, Warsangeli, Dulbahante, and Yemeni Arabs make up the balance of the Muslim community. Powersharing by Issas-who have dominated the highest ranks of government-and Afars, who fill the lower ranks, has been a divisive issue since before independence. Inter-ethnic tensions erupted into violent clashes in 1991, exacerbated by fighting between related groups spilling over from neighboring Somalia and Ethiopia. Since 1991 a simmering insurgency over Afar demands for greater democratization has undermined the government’s authority in the north of the country. In June 1992 President Hassan Gouled Aptidon announced a calendar for transition to democracy following a popular referendum on a new constitution that created a multiparty state and an elected legislature.

Despite political frontiers separating it from Somalia and Ethiopia,Djibouti differentiated neither culturally, ethnically, nor geographically from its neighbors. Djiboutians maintain close contact with Muslim activists in Ethiopia and Somalia along the Dire-DawaDjibouti corridor and through their clan ties in northern Somalia.

Djiboutians regularly provide sanctuary to refugees and support for Muslim causes across their borders. Furthermore, contacts with the Middle East and North Africa over the past ten years have helped to energize movements for Islamic renewal and political reform within Djibouti itself, particularly among young people, 70 percent of whom are unemployed. Djiboutians study abroad at centers of Islamic learning. Several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have provided economic assistance to the Muslim community and support Islamic and Arabic-language education. According to the 1992 Annual Report of Imam Muhammad University in Riyadh, the university has established an Arab-Islamic Institute in Djibouti. The Muslim resurgence is increasingly evident in the proliferation of mosques, Qur’dnic schools, and study centers. Groups of reformists with names such as the Islamic Struggle of Djibouti Youth are calling for the establishment of a fully Islamic state in Djibouti and reduction of the European presence in the country.


Fisher, Humphrey J. “The Western and Central Sudan and East Africa.” In The Cambridge History of Islam, vol. 2, The Further Islamic Lands, Islamic Society, and Civilization, edited by P. M. Holt, Ann K. S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis, pp. 345-405.Cambridge,

1970. Useful introduction to the Islamic background of the region. Lewis, I. M. Peoples of the Horn of Africa: Somali, Afar, and Saho.London, 1955. Introduction to the ethnography of the region. Lewis,I.M. The Modern History of Somali land.London, 1965. Introduction to the political and social history of the region. Briefly treats the place of religion in Somali society, the Muslim Brotherhoods, and Muslim resistance to colonial domination.

Lewis,I.M. “Conformity and Contrast in Somali Islam.” In Islam in Tropical Africa, edited by I. M. Lewis, pp. 253-267.London, 1966. Thought-provoking insights into the structure of Islamic communities in the Horn.

Thompson,Virginia, and Richard Adloff.Djibouti and the Horn of Africa.Stanford,Calif., 1968. Overview of Djibouti’s history, with an extensive bibliography.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. Islam in East Africa.Oxford, 1964.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/djibouti/

  • writerPosted On: November 6, 2012
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