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Lidwien Kapteijns
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The Somalis of the Horn of Africa—estimated at eleven to thirteen million, including several million living in Ethiopia, Kenya, and the diaspora—are almost entirely Muslim. There is a small Christian minority, whose emergence was influenced by colonial missionary activities and the proximity of Christian Ethiopia.

Through the Nineteenth Century.

Muslim traders and teachers visited and settled in Somalia as early as the ninth century. From the tenth to the twelfth centuries, some of the ancient emporia on the Somali coast and along major trade routes to the interior developed into Muslim city-states and principalities, Zeila, Yifat, Adal, Harer, Mogadishu, Merka, and Brava being among the best known. The inland communities, of farmers and of nomads, adopted Islam as early as the thirteenth century.

From the middle of the fourteenth century, the Christian state of Ethiopia set out on a course of expansion to the south and southeast. This led to a two-century struggle with the Muslim principalities of the lowlands that culminated in the campaign of Ahmed Gurey (or Ahmed Gran), who conquered and ruled most of Ethiopia from 1529 to 1543. The Christian state and the Muslim alliance fought each other to a standstill and opened the way for the large-scale migrations of the Oromo people from the south.

In the early nineteenth century both Egypt and Zanzibar were expansionist powers, extending their rule into parts of the Horn and expanding the trade in slaves in all of northeastern and eastern Africa. Later in the century, Britain, Italy, France, and Abyssinia (Ethiopia) established colonial rule over the Somalis. In part as a response to this, there was an “Islamic revival” in the region, as long-existing Sūfī brotherhoods such as the Qādirīyah intensified their educational activities, while new, reformist Sūfī orders established themselves in Somalia for the first time.

The Twentieth Century.

It was the leader of one of the latter, Sayyid Mohamed ʿAbdulla Hassan of the Ṣāliḥīyah brotherhood, who, from 1899–1921, waged a jihād against Ethiopian, British, and Italian colonialists. Although Sayyid Mohamed wrote several religious treatises in Arabic, he is best remembered for his oral poetry in Somali, in which he articulated with enormous linguistic and rhetorical skill his pride in Islam and his resistance to foreign rule. The Sayyid was nevertheless also a deeply divisive figure; his movement caused a Somali civil war that, together with the colonial military expeditions against him, caused enormous devastation, loss of life, and displacement of people.

When, after World War II, new anticolonial resistance movements gained strength, their leaders articulated their demands in the secular terms of Somali nationalism, even though their personal values remained largely based in Islam, often a liberal Islam that valued the compatibility between the Islamic faith and modern, secular statecraft and education. It was these men who, with the help of the women's branches of their parties, established the independent Somali Republic in 1960.

The newly independent state had many forces arrayed against it, and in 1969 the civilian government was overthrown in a military coup led by General Mohamed Siyad Barre (1969–1991). The Siyad Barre regime proclaimed scientific socialism as its official ideology and set out on an active course of development. In 1974, it put an end to the long dispute about a suitable orthography for the Somali language by choosing the Latin script over the Arabic script or the Somali-created Osmanīya script. Opponents declared the “Latin” script lā dīn (without religion). In 1975, Siyad Barre introduced a new family law, which gave women more rights than they had before. When members of the religious establishment preached against it, Siyad Barre executed ten religious shaykhs. Coinciding with a period of extensive labor migration to the Arab oil states, this event marks the beginning of a new turn to a deepened personal Islamic piety and the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Somali society.

In 1978, after Somalia had been abandoned by the Soviet Union in the middle of its war against Ethiopia, the U.S. and other Western countries came to Siyad Barre's aid and propped up his regime with economic and military aid. This continued even after 1988, when the regime bombarded and totally devastated its northern cities for harboring one of the armed resistance fronts. It was not until the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1989 that this support faltered and, in January 1991, Siyad Barre was driven out. Since the armed opposition fronts that had established themselves from 1978 onwards had not been able to establish a joint agenda, competing warlords, mobilizing dispossessed youth for campaigns of ethnic cleansing, plunged the country into civil war.

Of the fourteen formal, large-scale reconciliation efforts that have taken place since 1991, the thirteenth, in 1999–2000, was significant in that it allowed for the participation of Somali civic organizations and for the first time explicitly recognized an Islamist movement and constituency. However, this same conference adopted representation on the basis of clan, thus denying civil society groups (such as women, Islamists, and others) any right of representation except through the clans into which they had been born.

Since 1991, an Islamic resurgence, manifested in intensified forms of religious observation, has characterized the lives of many Somalis. The influence of political Islam (Islamism)—the vision of Islam as a framework for a new worldwide political and social order—has also increased since the collapse of the state. In the broad spectrum of this political Islam, some groups are committed to gaining political power through armed force.

The Twenty-First Century.

In 2004, a Transitional Federal Government (TFG), resulting from a long public process involving all Somali warlords and their cohorts and the international community, was imposed on the Somali people. Its power-sharing formula continued to be based on clan. Some members of the TFG turned against it almost immediately and returned to violence, especially in the capital. While the U.S. had helped to bring the TFG into being, it now sidestepped it and secretly hired a group of Mogadishu warlords to hunt down al-Qaʿida agents in Somalia. It was to defend themselves against these U.S.-supported warlords that the Islamic Courts Union emerged into the limelight in June 2006.

The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), each of whose courts was anchored in a particular subclan and neighborhood, was initially able to bring peace to the streets of the capital and to defeat the U.S.-backed warlords militarily; in so doing, it captured worldwide attention and support. The ICU was, however, racked by internal contradictions: while it identified itself in terms of an increasingly hard-line Islamist ideology, it was tribally anchored and included notorious warlords who occupied large parts of southern Somalia's most fertile lands and most suitable harbors. The ICU seriously overreached its power when, in the months following June 2006, it tried to displace the TFG by force, thus triggering international support for the beleaguered TFG, which received military assistance from Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi, and others, resulting in continuing fighting in Mogadishu.



  • Berns McGown, Rima. Muslims in the Diaspora: The Somali Communities of London and Toronto. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
  • Cassanelli, Lee V.The Shaping of Somali Society: Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People (1600–1900). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
  • Ciise, Jaamac Cumar. Diiwaanka Gabayadii Sayid Maxamed Cabulle Xasan. (Collection of the Poems of Sayyid Mohamed ‘Abdulla Hassan) Moqadishu: Akadeemiyaha Dhaqanka, 1974.
  • Kapteijns, Lidwien. “Ethiopia and the Horn.” In The History of Islam in Africa, edited by Nehemia Letzion and Randall L. Pouwels, pp. 227–250. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000.
  • Lewis, I. M.Saints and Somalis: Popular Islam in a Clan-Based Society. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1998.
  • Luling, Virginia. Somali Sultanate: The Geledi City-State Over 150 years. Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2002.
  • Menkhaus, Kenneth. Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism. Adelphi Paper 364. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Menkhaus, Kenneth. “Political Islam in Somalia.”Middle East Policy9, no. 1 (March 2002): 109–123.
  • Mukhtar, Mohamed Haji. Historical Dictionary of Somalia. New ed.Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2003.
  • Samatar, Said. Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayyid Mahammad ʿAbdille Hassan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Samatar, Said. In the Shadow of Conquest: Islam in Colonial Northeast Africa. Trenton: Red Sea Press, 1992.
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