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SOMALIA. The Muslims of Somalia constitute almost 99 percent of an estimated population of eight to ten million. Four Sufi orders-the Qadiriyah, Ahmadiyah, Salihiyah and Rifa’iyah-have greatly influenced Somali Islamic practices. As in other cultures, Somali Islam has incorporated some pre-Islamic customs, for example, obligatory prayers for rain often involving young children. Somali lore divides society into two main categories, the man of religion (wadaad) and the warrior (waranleh, literally “spearbearer”). Ideally, a wadaad is expected to mediate clan conflicts, thus remaining aloof from politics. Most Somalis belong to one of five clan-families subdivided into clans, subclans, and lineage groups.

Somalia’s geography has influenced its history; for centuries the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean have facilitated long-distance trade. The ancient world knew Somalia as the Land of Punt, a source of frankincense and myrrh. The Islamic epoch, starting in the tenth century, accelerated trends toward trade and settlements. Citystates such as Zeila, Bulhar, Berbera, Mogadishu, Merca, and Barawa were established. Forms of Islamic administration were adapted to the decentralized pastoral society. Islamic commercial laws and regulations, systems of weights and measures, navigation technologies, and security arrangements facilitated trade.

During the sixteenth century, highland Abyssinian (Ethiopian) rulers invaded the Muslim state of Adal to secure a passage to the sea. The Muslims were avenged by the famed Imam Ahmed Gurey (Ahmad Grafi). Pushing deep into the highlands, Imam Gurey turned the defensive wars into an expansionist campaign. He was eventually killed in 1542 when the Abyssinian armies were joined by at least four hundred Portuguese bearing modern firearms.

Contrary to its expansionist phase, Islam in Somalia found itself on the defensive during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During the late nineteenth century, the British, French, and Italians and the Abyssinian Emperor Menelik colonized various parts of Somali territory. This led to the emergence of a radical Islamic revivalist movement, led by Sayyid Mohamed Abdille Hassan (Muhammad ibn `Abd Allah Hasan) from 1899 to 1920. His earlier efforts to mediate clan disputes and to preach anticolonialism won him fame and recruits. Sayyid Mohamed was also a great poet in a land of poets. However, his attempts to convert Somalis from the popular Qadiriyah into the puritanical Salihiyah sect met stiff resistance, bringing out a fanatical tendency in him. In 19o9 the Sayyid was allegedly implicated in the murder of the charismatic Qadiriyah shaykh Uways, who was propagating his order’s teachings in the southern interior among nominal Muslims and non-Muslims. In 1920 the British conducted aerial and ground assaults of his fortress at Taleh; the Sayyid escaped, and though defeated, he died peacefully in 1921. Many Somalis have derived one major conclusion from his legacy-the need to separate religious inspiration from secular power.

The fanaticism of the Sayyid was replaced during the 1920s and 1930s by the cautious reformism of two Islamic modernist leaders, Hajji Farah Omar in Somaliland and Maalim Jama in Mogadishu. Hajji Farah formed the Somali Islamic Association, a cultural organization that blended the best in Islamic education with aspects of Western education. However, modern Somali nationalism remained secular in outlook, despite the presence of leaders with religious backgrounds. Among the founders of the main southern nationalist party, the Somali Youth League, were the unassuming Shaykh Abdulkadir Sekhawedin and Hajji Mohamed Hussein, who inclined toward Nasserism and Islamic socialism. Somali nationalism was obsessed with irredentism in the form of unification with Somalis in French Djibouti, Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, and northern Kenya.

The Somali Republic operated a multiparty parliamentary system between 1960 and 1969. Islamic issues were secondary, except for the policy of providing a script for Somali: the Latin alphabet was favored by the governments and bureaucratic elite; a chauvinistic group advocated an invented script called Osmania; and a number of educational and cultural leaders preferred the Arabic alphabet. During this period a remarkable group of religious leaders interested in agricultural production emerged and led grassroots voluntary development organizations: Shaykh Mohamed Raghe in the north, and Shaykh Bananey’s solidarity cooperative in the south.

In 1969 General Mohamed Siyad Barre carried out a military coup and proclaimed scientific socialism as the official ideology. The Latin script was adopted for writing Somali. The military dictatorship imported Soviet methods of repression and waged campaigns against religion. In 1975, Barre executed ten religious leaders for peacefully protesting his imposition of a new family and marriage law that violated Islamic regulations. In protest against the regime’s hostility, many embraced an Islamic renewal: regular prayers and fasting, religious dress, and the public display of rosaries. Students wearing Islamic dress were arrested and often jailed. In 1989 and again in 1990 Barre’s troops massacred hundreds of religious leaders and their followers. Islam had fared better under European colonialism than under his dictatorship.

From bases in Ethiopia, clan-based armed oppositions successfully challenged Siyad’s forces. On 15 May 1990 more than one hundred former political leaders and administrators issued a public manifesto asking him to resign. A similarly large group of religious leaders issued the “Islamic Call” on 7 October 1990 The Call accepted parliamentary democracy as a general objective but insisted on an Islamic shura institution. Barre’s fall in January 1991 culminated in chaos, civil wars, banditry, and famine leading to a humanitarian intervention by the United Nations under American leadership in December 1992.

An Islamic resurgence, manifested in increased forms of piety, continues among Somalis at home and abroad. There are, however, pockets of Islamic fundamentalists among the clan-based armed movements. For the moment they do not have a charismatic leader, and clanism continues to act as a check against Islamic radicalism. The main Somali fundamentalist movement, al-Ittihad al-Islami (Islamic Unity), has been more active in the northeast; in June 1992 it seized control of the port of Bosaso but was expelled after heavy losses by the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF). It retreated to the nearby port of Las Khorey where it retained control as of March 1993, allegedly receiving assistance from the Sudan and Iran. Although Islam will continue to play a critical role in Somali culture and politics, it remains to be seen how much and what kind of Islam are compatible with, or necessary for, Somali political development.


Adam, Hussein M. “Islam and Politics in Somalia.” Unpublished ms., 1991. Contains interview material and documentary sources not available in libraries.

Andrzejewski B. W., and I. M. Lewis. Somali Poetry. Oxford, 1964. Contains a useful introduction to Somali practice of Islam, as well as a collection of religious poetry in Arabic.

Cassanelli, Lee V. The Shaping of Somali Society. Philadelphia, 1982. Provides an excellent study of Islamic themes in southern Somali history, including saints, practices, and sects; complements I. M. Lewis’s studies of Somali Islam in the north.

Esposito, John L., ed. Islam and Development. Syracuse, N.Y., 1980. Collection of insightful essays providing critical theoretical constructs.

Lewis, I. M. “Sufism in Somaliland: A Study in Tribal Islam.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 17.3 (1955): 581602, and 18.1 (1956): 145-160. Excellent and insightful study of popular forms of Islam in the former British Somaliland.

Lewis, I. M. “Shaikhs and Warriors of Somaliland.” In African Systems of Thought, edited by Meyer Fortes and Germaine Dieterlen, pp. 204-223. London, 1965. Detailed study of the ironies and ambiguities in Somali notions of religious and secular power.

Lewis, I. M., ed. Islam in Tropical Africa. London, 1966. Provides a useful comparative framework and contains Lewis’s chapter on conformity and contrast in Somali Islam.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. Islam in East Africa. Oxford, 1961. Historical and general overview of Islam in East Africa, including a useful bibliography.


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

  • writerPosted On: August 12, 2017
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