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Between Clan and Faith in Somalia – Professor Hussein Solomon

August 22, 2013


Between Clan and Faith in Somalia

By Hussein Solomon[i]

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 18 (August 2013)

Whilst the Somali “nation” forms one of the largest ethnic blocks on the African continent, they are hardly homogenous given the primacy of clan and sub-clan politics. The four main clans are the Dir, Isaq, Hawiye and Darod[1]. Despite the existence of clan leaders having the title of sultan, these have little more than ceremonial power. Indeed Somali society has been historically resistant to hierarchical authority that has come to be associated with the modern state[2]. This could possibly account for the fact that Somalia has consistently earned the dubious distinction of occupying the poll spot in the Failed State Index year after year.

At the core of Somali society – the ultimate unit is not the clan but the so-called diya-paying group. According to Lewis, “This unit with a fighting strength of a few hundred men to a few thousand men, consists of close kinsmen united by a specific contract that they should pay and receive blood compensation (Arabic, diya) in concert. An injury done by or to any member of the group implicates all those who are a party to its treaty”[3]. Under the circumstances, Somali society remained warlike marked by incessant conflicts between clans, sub-clans and the respective diya-paying units. This is perhaps best captured in the popular Somali proverb:

            `Me and my clan against the world;

            Me and my family against my clan;

            Me and my brother against my family;

            Me against my brother’[4].

However, it should also be noted that the forces of division and anarchy threatening to tear Somalia society apart, were also mediated, to a certain extent, by Muslim clerics known as waddads or sheikhs[5] who stressed the unity of the Muslim body of believers (ummah) as an anti-dote to cleavages of clan within the Somali body politic. It should hardly serve as a surprise then, that Muslim clerics should turn to 7th century Arabia as their model to unite their own warring clans and sub-clans. After all, the warring clans of Arabia – the Beni Bakr, Beni Hanifa, Beni Asad, Beni Tamim, Beni Sulaym, Beni Kinana, and Beni Saida – were all united under the banner of Islam following the Ridda wars under Caliph Abu Bakr[6].

As in Arabia, Somali religious leaders found that the best way to settle internal differences was to direct the ummah towards the foreign infidel. In this way, Somali nationalism could only be defined by what it was against as opposed to what it is for – a most destructive means of nation-building. Imam Ahmed Ibrahim al Ghazi (1506-1543), for instance, led Muslim Somalia against Christian Abyssinians (Ethiopians) which resulted in Muslim armies penetrating into the heartland of Ethiopia[7]. In similar vein, Sayyid Mohammed Abdulla Hassan’s jihad from 1900 to 1920 against British and Ethiopian colonizers served to foster Somali nationalism and attempting to overcome clan differences[8].

Latter-day Islamists such as Al Shabab in Somalia have learned these lessons well as they seek to galvanize the Somali population behind them for a united and greater Somalia including Ethiopia’s Ogaden, Djibouti and North-Western Kenya. Al Shabab’s approach however only served to isolate it and ensure that an Islamist Greater Somalia under Al Shabab leadership will never materialize. Its strict Salafist interpretation of Islam went against the Sufi practices of the majority of Somalis[9]. With the desecration of tombs of revered ancestors from which lineages and clans take their identity, soon Al Shabab had to fight against the Sufi-oriented Ahlu Sunna wa Jama who was allied to both the Mogadishu government and Ethiopia. Indeed, fearful of Al Shabab dreams of a greater Somalia, neighbouring countries have not only acted to thwart Al Shabab but also to promote a balkanized Somalia. Currently, and despite the rhetorical support of the international community for the regime in Mogadishu, there are at least 20 mini-states in Somalia supported by various neighbouring states[10].

Moreover, whilst trying to project itself as a Muslim vanguard party, Al Shabab has failed to overcome its own clan demons – drawing most of its fighters from the Hawiye clan[11]. This has only served to exacerbate clan tensions within Al-Shabab. Given Al Shabab’s alliance with Al Qaeda and the resultant influx of foreign fighters within Al Shabab ranks, it has also served to introduce tensions between Somali nationalism and Islamist internationalism.

No small wonder then, that Al Shabab finds itself on its back foot in Somalia.


[i] Hussein Solomon is Senior Professor in the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State and is also a Senior Research Associate of RIMA.

[1] I.M. Lewis. A Modern History of Somalia: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa. Longman Group Limited. 1980. London, p. 6.

[2] Ibid., pp. 9-10.

[3] Ibid., p. 11.

[4] Mary Harper. Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State. Zed Books. 2012. London, p. 11.

[5]Lewis, op.cit., p. 15.

[6] Barnaby Rogerson. The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad And the Roots of the Sunni-Shia Schism. Abacus, 2006. London, p. 141.

[7] Lewis, op.cit., p. 25.

[8] Harper, op.cit., p. Xi.

[9] Ken Menkhaus. “Political Islam in Somalia,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 9 No. 1, March 2002, p. 110.

[10] Hussein Solomon. “The Changing Nature of the Terrorist Threat in Africa,” Journal of African Union Studies, Vol. 1, Issue 1, 2012, p. 95.

[11] Ioannis Mantzikos. “Somali and Yemen: The Links between Terrorism and State Failure,” Digest of Middle East Studies. Vol. 20, No. 2, Fall 2011, p. 249.

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