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Somalia: the changing spectrum of Islam and counterterrorism

In the mid-20th century, new Islamic reform movements emerged throughout the Muslim world, including Somalia, advocating for strict adherence to the written sources of Islam— the Koran, Hadith, and authoritative comments. An important motive of these movements was to correct what they saw as aberrations of politicians influenced by eastern, western or non-aligned positions during late colonial rule and the Cold War. It is in this context that the term ‘political Islam’ gained currency and relevance.[1] The term refers to actors involved in religious reform in the way just mentioned. Political Islam covers social reform movements, as well as militant or so-called ‘jihadi’ groups.[2] The boundaries between these various and often ideologically heterogeneous strands of political Islam are blurred. Any clear cut ‘black-and-white’ (e.g., ‘moderate’ versus ‘extremist’, ‘Sufi’ v ‘Salafi’, ‘nationalist’ v ‘globalist’) separation is misleading.

From an analytical perspective, one can argue that the only common goal of all political Islamists is to erect Islamic states and in the long run, a new Caliphate, in which the divine law (Shari’a) rules; but the strategies how to reach these aims differ tremendously.[3]

Foundations of Islam in Somalia

Islam reached the Somali peninsula early on, already in the 7th century AD. It concentrated along the coast and the caravan routes inland. There, sultanates came into existence between the 12th and the 19th century (e.g. Ifat, Adal in the north and later, Ajuuraan in the south).[4] Somali Islam was until the 20th century characterized by the Sufi tradition. The Qadriya tariqa (Arabic for ‘path’—one of four main Sufi orders in Somalia) reached the Somali peninsula in the 15th century. Harar, now in Ethiopia’s Somali region, became an early centre of Muslim learning in the Horn. The Sufi ‘orders’ usually incorporated local traditions into their system of belief.

In the Somali case, Lewis has shown how Somali genealogy, focusing on certain ancestors as ‘segmentary nodal points’, and the veneration of saints in Qadriya tradition fit together.[5] Ancestors frequently transformed into venerated sheikhs. Some of their tombs can still be visited in Somalia, such as Aw Barkhadle’s tomb near Hargeysa, Sheekh Isaaq’s tomb near Maydh in the north, but also the tomb of Sheikh Uways near Biyooley in the south, between Baydhabo and Huddur. Saints and shrines like these have been the centres of Somali religious activity before the newer reform movements gained power in the late 20th century.

Islam provided the first script for Somali (in Arabic), and some vernacular scripts derived from Arabic, such as Osmaniya, developed by Osman Yusuf Kenadid in the early 20th century. It provided for the first formal curriculum and the social differentiation of Somali groups into religious specialists, such as Asharaf or Sheekhaal, and others. The former were traditionally teaching the latter. Closely related to conquest and trade, the Islamic influence certainly also fostered an early urban culture in some places in the Horn, with a focus on the southern Benaadir coast.

In the legal sphere, Shari’a existed besides customary law (Somali: xeer) since long and in many regards, xeer takes up basic provisions from Shari’a. In the late 19th century the Ahmediya and Salihiya orders established themselves as Sufi reform movements in Somalia. They distanced themselves from the veneration of saints. The Salihiya inspired the anti-colonial uprising of the Dervishes between 1899 and 1920 which in some regards had proto-nationalist aspects.[6]

Recent Islamic transformation and ‘civil’ war

Until the mid-20th century, the Sufi tradition in Somalia went unchallenged. An obvious religious and political transformation of Islam in Somalia began in the 1950s and 1960s. Egypt and Sudan increased their influence on the Somali territories (partly instigated by the British colonisers) in the form of scholarships for Somali students and establishment of schools in colonial Somalia. A ‘modern’ religious elite came into existence in late colonial and early post-colonial Somalia influenced by the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in Egypt in the 1920s). Simultaneously, Wahhabi Islam, propagated by the Saudi Arabian rulers, gained ground in the Islamic world. It was transmitted to Somalia through oil workers, students and other migrants to the Gulf states. In the 1970s, these new and not any more Sufi-oriented forms of Islam fed into the emerging opposition against the military regime under General Mohamed Siyad Barre (1969-1991). The conflict reached its first climax when the regime reacted harshly against clerics who criticized the new family law; and ten of them were executed in 1975.[7]

Reformist groups like Ahda, Nahda and Wahda, mainly aiming to purge Islam of ‘impure’ indigenous and Sufi practices and beliefs, continued to exist but were forced to stay underground due to the repressive actions of the Somali government. They came to the fore openly from 1991 onward, in the context of civil war, state collapse and international interventions. The first effective political Islamist movement was Al-Ittihat Al-Islamiyya (AIAI), founded already in 1984, which engaged in the civil war. It provided an alternative political order with a ‘caliphate’ in south-western Somalia—in Luuq (Gedo region).

Besides AIAI, a number of reformist but not necessary militant Islamist movements were active, engaging mainly in humanitarian work and education. Groups close to the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Al-Islah took the lead in this regard. But also Wahhabi oriented groups such as Al-Ictisam appeared that sought social and political transformation in Somalia without resorting to violence. Sufi groups such as Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a kept a more ‘traditionalist’ profile. Their political career began around 1991 as a partner of the warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed who presented himself as a ‘traditionalist’. The full militarization of the Sufis happened when they were threatened by Al-Shabab and the tombs of venerated sheikhs were attacked.[8] Ahalu Sunna Wal Jama’a began to fight back, assisted by the Ethiopians, from 2009 onward.

Once Somalia became a theatre in the ‘war on terror’ after the 9/11 attacks on the USA, new and more radical groups developed, diversifying the Islamist scene even further. Al-Shabab emerged around 2003 as small cell in the south, but also supported by activists from the north (where it carried out first attacks). It engaged in the dirty war in Mogadishu in which warlords paid by the USA snatched Islamist suspects (not only those close to the emergent Al Shabab) and delivered them to the Americans. The political Islamists fought back.

In 2006 Al-Shabab joined the Islamic Courts. It was still a rather small nucleus of hardcore Islamists. Only in the fight against the Ethiopian military intervention between December 2006 and January 2009 did Al-Shabab become the most powerful and, in the eyes of many Somalis, legitimate military and political actor.[9] Between 2009 and 2011 it was the de facto government of the south. Besides, the other strands of Islam continued to exist. Al-Islah mainly kept its distance from militant extremism, and Ahlu Sunna became an active military adversary of Al-Shabab. Al-Ictisam kept distance as well and a low profile.[10]

Failures of the analysis of Islamic movements (in Somalia and beyond)

Recent literature on Islam in Africa (which is relevant for the understanding of Islam in Somalia) stresses that ‘there has been a tendency within the realm of African studies in general and African history in particular, to treat the Islamic religion as practiced in the continent as virtually sui generis, and by and large, removed from the global community of believers.’[11] African Islam was constructed as peripheral and ‘local’ by western academics, in contrast to the Arabo-Persian centre, which was seen as having a global outreach. To counter this narrative, Reese emphasises the integration of Muslim communities through economic, social and political exchange beyond continental borders in pre-colonial time. With colonialism, exchange of ideas and contact among people intensified. Moreover, the discursive creation of religious knowledge, which was not limited to the Arabic language, provided a basis upon which believers across time and space could stay in contact and local interpretations of the religious could travel.[12]

The perspective on the interconnected and agile nature of Islam in Africa is directly feeding into Østebø’s critique of the misleading construction of ‘African Islam’ as ‘traditional, tolerant, and heterodox’, in contrast to ‘Arab Islam’, perceived to be ‘scripturalist, more orthodox’ and actually ‘foreign’ to Africa.[13] This binary distinction not only serves ‘to uphold an unwarranted dichotomy between Africa and the outside’, but it provides us with ‘inaccurate analytical tools’.[14] Particularly in the post-9/11 era, negative influences on ‘traditional’ (in the Somali case, Sufi-oriented) African Islam originate, in the dominant western perspective, from ‘outside’. The dynamics and multifaceted nature of Islamic currents is ignored and categories such as ‘fundamentalist’, ‘Islamist’ and ‘Wahhabi’ are used—without any sense of their religious and ideological content and nuances between them—to define what, in the eyes of ‘counterterrorists’ needs to be kept at bay and cannot be granted any political legitimacy in Africa.

There are at least three concrete consequences of the flawed and divisive analysis of contemporary Islam in Africa in general and in Somalia, in particular.[15] First, Islam in Somalia is ‘othered’ as ‘traditional’ (versus ‘modern’ brands of Islam elsewhere). This helps to identify ‘foreign’ influences in ‘local’ Islam that need to be ‘eradicated’ (e.g., by international military interventions). This is used to justify counterterrorism with all its negative consequences (e.g., provoking more radical reactions by political Islamic movements).

Secondly, in the related debate about ‘good’ (local, traditional) and ‘bad’ (global, jihadist) Muslims the agency of Somali agents is getting lost. This inhibits constructive ‘bottom up’ engagement independent of foreign agendas and interventions.

Finally, Western Islamophobic discourses are localized and inform politics in the Horn of Africa, for instance the Ethiopian engagement in Somalia, against the ‘foreign’ Islamists of Al-Shabaab and in favour of ‘traditional’ Sufi groups like Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a. This prolongs civil war in Somalia and legitimates the meddling of neighbouring countries in Somali affairs which is hardly in the best interest of most Somalis.

Gaps in policy making

To understand the current Somali situation, one has to move beyond the politically and analytically inhibiting framework of counterterrorism. One has to overcome the ‘traditional/African’ versus ‘reformist/foreign’-divide, or, to put it differently: the ‘Sufi-Salafi/Wahabi’-divide that is mentioned in reports dealing with the situation in Somalia in recent years. Rather, one can locate various Islamic groups along a spectrum from least to most tolerant toward alternative readings of Islamic sources (and other religions or world views), and from least to most inclined to use violence. In a more constructive perspective, the massive transformations of Islam in Somalia since the mid-20th century ought to be recognized.

Furthermore, the global situatedness of Islam in Somalia and the local-global connections when it comes to various Islamic movements in the country need to be acknowledged and analysed.

Islam in Somalia is a deeply entrenched historical and cultural phenomenon which, at the same time, is very dynamic and part of the contemporary world system. It can be used for producing political legitimacy and influences dynamics of conflict, peacebuilding and social order in Somalia and beyond. Its reformative power (in social, political and economic regards) should not be underestimated. It constitutes an alternative ideology that is still very attractive to most Somalis and therefore will shape the future of the country regardless of western unease about it.

Finally, despite the differences of interpretations and ritualistic practices between different Somali Islamist groups (Ahlu Sunna, Al-Islah, Al-Ictisam, Al-Shabaab), there are still many similarities between them regarding politics and the analysis of the current Somali problems.[16] They all agree, in principle, on Shari’a as the basis of life in Somalia and see the need for ‘moral’ reform among Somalis. They also all realize that foreign interventions in the country worsen the situation and that the dependence of Somalis from foreign powers needs to be reduced. The prevalent narrative of a moderate-extremist binary division, on the other hand, does not take these factors into account, leading to flawed analyses informing counterproductive policies that aggravate the conflict rather than addressing it in a constructive manner and providing space for negotiations among Somalis.

Markus Virgil Hoehne, PhD, is lecturer for Social Anthropology at the University of Leipzig. Contact:

[1] Tibi, Bassam 2014: Political Islam, World Politics and Europe: From Jihadist to Institutional Islamism. New York: Routledge; Deepa Kumar 2011. Political Islam: A Marxist analysis. International Socialist Review No. 76, Online:

[2] The adjective ‘jihadi’ is related to ‘jihadism’, which again is ‘a neologism derived from the Arabic jihad (to struggle, to strive) that is frequently used in the press to denote the most violent strands of Islamism’ (Euben, Roxanne L. and Zaman, Qasim 2009: Introduction, in: R.L. Euben and Q. Zaman (eds.): Princeton readings in Islamist thought: texts and contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp.1-46, p. 3.)

[3] Euben and Zaman, Introduction, pp. 4-5.

[4] Hersi, Ali Abdirahman 1977. The Arab Factor in Somali History. The Origins and the Development of the Arab Enterprise and Cultural Influences in the Somali Peninsula. Unpublished PhD thesis, Los Angeles, University of California.

[5] Lewis, Ioan M. 1955. ‘Sufism in Somaliland: A Study of Tribal Islam I’. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies vol. 17, no. 3: 581-602.

[6] Cassanelli, Lee V. 1982. The Shaping of Somali Society. Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People, 1600-1900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; Sheikh-‘Abdi, ‘Abdi 1993. Divine Madness. Mohammed ‘Abdulle Hassan (1856-1920). London: Zed Books; Trimingham, J. Spencer 1952. Islam in Ethiopia. London: Oxford University Press.

[7] Abdurahman M. Abdullahi Baadiyow. 2012. The Islamic Movement in Somalia: A Historical Evolution with the Case Study of Islah Movement (1950-2000), PhD Dissertation, Mac Gill University; Abdurahman M. Abdullahi Baadiyow 2010. Women, Islamists and the Military Regime in Somalia: The New Family Law and its Implications, in Markus Virgil Hoehne and Virginia Luling (eds), Milk and Peace, Drought and War: Somali Culture, Society and Politics. London: Hurst, 137-160.

[8] Baadiyow, The Islamic Movement in Somalia.

[9] Marchal, Roland: A tentative assessment of the Somali Harakat Al-Shabaab. Journal of Eastern African Studies 3(3)/2009; Hoehne, Markus V. 2009: Counter-Terrorism in Somalia, or: How External Interferences Helped to Produce Militant Islamism. Online:

[10] Marchal, Roland: The Rise of a Jihadi Movement in a Country at War: Harakat Al-Shabaab Al Mujaheddin in Somalia. Paris 2011. Online: ; Marchal, Roland and Zakariya M. Sheikh. 2013. ‘Ahlu Sunna wa l-Jama’a in Somalia’. In: Patrick Desplat and Terje Østebø (eds.), Muslim Ethiopia. The Christian legacy, identity politics and Islamic reformism. New York: Palgrave: 215-239.

[11] Reese, Scott S. 2014: Islam in Africa/Africans and Islam. Journal of African History Vol. 55, Issue 1: 17-26, p. 17.

[12] Reese, Islam in Africa, pp. 18-24.

[13] Østebø, Terje. 2013. ‘Islam and state relations in Ethiopia: From containment to the production of a “governmental Islam”.’ Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol. 81, No. 4: 1029-1060, p. 1032.

[14] Østebø, Islam and state, p. 1033.

[15] These flaws in general have been indicated by Østebø, Islam and state, p. 1043.

[16] Much of this is outlined in in a recent report by LPI, see LPI: 2013. Alternatives for conflict transformation in Somalia: A snapshot and analysis of key political actors’ views and strategies. Online:

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