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Religion in Somalia has served both to exacerbate conflict and to create social trust and peace-building mechanisms. Few groups in the country have escaped the influence of political Islam, writes Stig Jarle Hansen of the Norwegian University of Life Science


The role of religion in the Somali conflict has frequently been neglected, misunderstood or dismissed as irrelevant. Researchers have often preferred to focus on warlords,  I would like to thank Mohamed Hussein Gaas, for comments on a draft version of this paper  See for example Huseein Adam (1992):"Somalia, Miltarism, Warlordism or Democracy", Review of African Political Economy, 54; Daniel Compagnon (1992):"Political Decay in Somalia, from personal rule to warlordism" Refugee 12 (5) but religious actors have always been important, causing violence as well as establishing peace and creating forms of justice, delivering services and building educational institutions.

Religion has served to enhance Somali national identity in opposition to former colonial masters and to Ethiopia more recently, being used as a mobilising force against outsiders of a different religious identity. It has also facilitated forms of social capital, crucially aiding cooperation in a context where civil war and statelessness have broken down trust. This was most notable during the Somali civil war, but the history of religion in Somalia also shows how grassroots religion creates social order, and creates opportunities for innovative development by new religious movements.

History of religion in Somalia

Somalia is a predominantly Muslim state where religion has played a role in the formation of national identity, the regulation of social order, and the provision of nominal social cohesion. In pre-colonial Somali society Islam lowered transaction costs by creating what Berger and Heffner refer to as spiritual capital: networks of social connections and norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness. Peter L. Berger and Robert W. Hefner(2003):" Spiritual Capital in Comparative Perspective" papers on spiritual capital that were written for the Planning Meeting in 2003, of the Spiritual Capital Research program

The role of the "men of religion", the wadaad, was important for peace-making, resolving criminal cases, and preventing clan conflict. Marlene Renders (2007)"New "Religious Men" in Somaliland" ISIM Review 1 (20) Wadaad qualifications varied considerably and it was sometimes enough for an individual to appear religiously devoted and know a little Arabic to qualify for the title. ibid The wadaad did not need to fight in war, and besides preaching, overseeing marriage and death rites and praying when wells were drilled, they could also assume less 'religious' roles, such as engaging in business or acting as elders in clan meetings. Their responsibility for conflict resolution was not as judges, but as negotiators, as well as praying for reconciliation or taking oaths of abstinence from violence. Ian M Lewis (1998):Saints and Somalis: Popular Islam in a Clan-based Society, Red Sea Press: Asmara, 65 The wadaad used the social standing afforded by religious knowledge to legitimise solutions, as well as using their positions to their own advantage. A similar role was played by some of the Somali Sufi brotherhoods, which enjoyed local support, and whose schools often transcended the clan system.

Islam became a part of post-colonial Somali identity

Somali nationalism was heavily influenced by Islam, and although it also had strong secular traits, Islam became a part of the post-colonial Somali identity. Forms of traditionalist religion also functioned as a marker of identity and were an intrinsic part of the early narrative of being Somali. The roles of religion as an identity marker, and in regulating behaviour and minimising transaction costs were to be mirrored during the turmoil of the civil war era, starting in 1991.

As the Italian and British Somalilands proceeded towards independence and union in 1960, the young, very often secular and western educated elite allied themselves with traditional religious voices to promote the struggle for independence through organisations like the Somali Youth League (SYL) and the Somali Islamic League. Abdurahman M. Abdullahi 'Baadiyow' (2008):»THE ISLAH MOVEMENT: Islamic Moderation in War-torn Somalia" Paper, Mogadishu Somalia, 5 Central to these processes was the use of the constellation of national heroes available to Somalis, for example Sayid Maxamed Cabdille Xasan, the Sufi inspired rebel leader who fought against the British, Italians, and Ethiopians. Sayid Maxamed Cabdille Xasan also fought against other Somalis, although this is often neglected in the nationalist narrative

Somali religion in the Civil War

Though Islamist groups often seem the most prominent, to equate religion and religious influence in Somalia with such organisations is an error, as the development of a more grassroots form of religiosity through the civil war proved.

As the civil war gathered pace through the early 1990s, social order in southern Somalia collapsed, as the various factions took little interest in providing justice and protection for the general population. The lack of institutional protection against crime made economic transactions and contracts uncertain and business life came to depend on trust and honesty. During the great battles of the early civil war much of the pre-war business community had fled, with warring factions so large that little protection was available. By the late 1990s this was changing, as the stabilisation of small sub-clan and warlord based fiefdoms meant that Somali business life was growing again, and many businessmen returned from the Gulf. It was in this situation that the need to reduce insecurity in business life became more pressing.

One mechanism was found in an echo of the wadaad system. Religious leaders were contacted by the business community to assist with contractual processes, and religious networks, utilising Friday prayers in mosques, were used as sources of trust. Religion was also actively used as a form of commercial strategy and consumer protection by several business leaders. See Stig Jarle Hansen (2007):» Civil War economies, the hunt for profit and the incentives for peace" , AE Working Paper 1,ært%20arbeid/somaliadraft.pdf (accessed 24 February 2014) By supporting mosques, or becoming religious leaders themselves, business leaders projected a sense of security to consumers, where few other consumer protection mechanisms existed.

Religion was a mechanism to create justice and social order

Religion also came to the forefront as a mechanism to create justice and social order. Again this was connected to the widespread belief that religious leaders adhered to the Quran, which strongly condemns rape, pillaging, theft and murder. Religious leaders were seen as one of very few trustworthy sources of support when suffering injustice or economic hardship. Religious charities, some controlled by Somali groups such as al-Islah and others supported by Middle Eastern organisations, aided poor Somalis, contributing to a general increase in the popularity of religion.

It is perhaps because of the positive functions of religion during the Somali civil war, bringing a form of 'metaphysical order' to chaotic circumstances, that general religiosity grew relative to diminishing Somali traditions, illustrated for example by 'Islamised' dress-codes mirroring common Gulf and Saudi Arabian styles.

Key Players and Groups: The establishment of Islamist organisations in Somalia

Islamist organisations had grown from the late 1960s onwards, partly due to the offer of private and state sponsored scholarships outside Somalia, mainly in Sudan and Saudi Arabia. ibid The most important Islamist organisation before Harakat al Shabaab was al-Islah, the Somali Muslim Brotherhood, which was started in 1978.

Al-Islah also had a more radical rival, al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, whose origins were in the 1982 Abdurahman M. Abdullahi 'Baadiyow' (2008):»THE ISLAH MOVEMENT: Islamic Moderation in War-torn Somalia" Paper, Mogadishu Somalia, 5; Tadesse, Medhane. 2002. Al-Ittihad: Political Islam and Black Economy in Somalia. Addis Ababa: Meag Printing merger of two older organisations, al-Jamaa al-Islamiya and Wahdat al-Shabaab in Hargeisa. Al-Ittihad al-Islamiya initially had an unclear ideological position, being made up of members from many different Islamist groups, including some with al-Islah sympathies . But, over time, it developed into an organisation dominated by Wahhabism, an approach that condemned traditional Somali Sufi practices.

The Somalian clan system caused problems for Islamist groups

Somalia's clan system presented severe problems to all the country's Islamist groups. None have escaped the effects of clanism: al-Ittihad al-Islamiya was to divide across clan lines; in al-Islah, the Sheikal clan held a prominent position; the Harakat Ras Kamboni, which originally had al-Qaeda connections, was based around the Ogadeeni clan; and al-Qaeda's operations in the early 1990s were seriously hampered by its confusion over the clan system. Later, al-Shabaab was to engage in clan conflicts when it was to their benefit, whilst some clans similarly attempted to take advantage of al-Shabaab, manipulating them for gains in local disputes.

This situation was partly created by overlapping Islamist and clan identities, but also by the fact that clans were efficient channels of communication, which even Islamists with weak clan identity could find useful. Indeed, as the importance of clans as channels of political mobilisation grew in the 1990s, it was tempting for Islamists to try to manipulate them. This came at the cost of getting dragged into clan politics.


Al-Islah's significance to Somali history came partly through attempts to bring in humanitarian aid and facilitate reconciliation after the outbreak of the civil war, and partly because its members and former members were to attain high political office.

Al-Islah had a different trajectory to al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, partly because it largely abstained from violence. Stig Jarle Hansen & Atle Mesøy (2009): "The Muslim brotherhood at the wider horn of Africa", NIBR Report 2009:33. (Accessed 1 January 2011) It preferred to focus on aid, and so called peace caravans, whereby the organisation attempted to achieve reconciliation in local conflicts. Their belief was that Islam functioned like a 'glue', a common network that could be used to draw Somalis together. ibid However, as the state collapsed under the fragmenting forces of the clan system, from 1995 onwards the organisation developed the so-called "dealing with reality" doctrine which allowed members to be involved in political activities within their own clan, whilst prohibiting them from fighting with each other.

However, Al-Islah was to fragment. The organisation had successfully drawn upon western partners, and some prominent members came to regard the more active fundraisers in the west with increased suspicion, as western agents undermining Somali culture. Nur Gurhan Barud, one of the most important of the organisation's activists during the Siad Barre dictatorship, particularly opposed Abduraman Abdulahi for his partnerships with western organisations. Both figures remain important in Somalia today.

Al-Islah entered Somali politics and backed the 1999 peace process

Meanwhile, al-Islah entered into Somali national politics by actively supporting the Djibouti-Arta peace process in 1999. This peace process convened members of Somali civil society and produced a Transitional National Government (TNG). Although al-Islah collected funds to support the Arta process, Djibouti was the most significant actor, hosting the conference and thus stealing credit from the regional hegemon, Ethiopia. As Ethiopian-allied warlords boycotted the conference, Ethiopia and its allies became al-Islah enemies. A new peace process, started in 2002, accommodated Ethiopia and the warlords of Mogadishu and side-lined al-Islah. At the time, Islamists seemed a spent force in Somalia; this was not to be the case.

Sharia Courts Movement

The early 1990s saw the creation of the first rudimentary sharia courts in the north of Mogadishu. For a long time even religion could not transcend clan identity, and the sharia courts remained segregated by clan borders. However, Islamic leaders linked to international militants began to build trust by virtue of their strict interpretation of sharia. This was regarded as an improvement on the alternatives, guaranteeing that rather than being based on clan interests, or self-interest, pure normative regulations drove decisions. Some courts attained huge geographic reach; for example, the al-Shabaab linked Ifka Halane court managed to come to the aid of rape victims in the far away city of Jowhar. Stig Jarle Hansen (2006): "Sharia courts holds sway in Mogadishu" Foreign Report 10; Stig Jarle Hansen (2013): ,Al Shabaab in Somalia, Hurst: London

The development of the sharia courts also contributed to a split in al-Islah, as parts of the organisation disassociated due to its non-violent stance, being impressed by the sharia movement and joining it by forming the origins of the present day Damul Jadiid network. A crisis in al-Islah had been created by the increased importance of the sharia courts, which exposed differences amongst its members over approaches to pacifism. Stig Jarle Hansen & Atle Mesøy (2009): "The Muslim brotherhood at the wider horn of Africa", NIBR Report 2009:33. (Accessed 1 January 2011)

The role of sharia courts grew and dominated southern Somalia

It took time for the sharia courts of Mogadishu to consolidate their influence, but as warlord factions weakened between 2000 and 2006, slowly losing the support of the business sector as well as the general population, their role grew. By the autumn of 2006, the sharia courts dominated southern Somalia, and astonishingly, Mogadishu was at peace.

As the sharia courts of Mogadishu expanded, Ethiopia felt its position in Somalia threatened by advancing sharia court soldiers who gained ground around Baidoa, the capital of the transitional Somali government. In December 2006, Ethiopian forces struck at sharia court positions, and their defences broke down. By the end of January 2007 the movement had collapsed and Ethiopian forces had moved into Mogadishu with their Somali allies.

The international community managed to involve the more moderate parts of the sharia courts in the Djibouti negotiations of 2008. The court moderates joined a broader group, the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), which entered into power sharing negotiations with the western-backed Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, conditioned on Ethiopian withdrawal. A new government emerged led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the old leader of the sharia courts, and as parts of the sharia courts merged with the government, A smaller faction of the ARS rejected the agreement, and became known as ARS Asmara (ARS A), while the part that accepted the deal became known as ARS Djibouti (ARS D) Ethiopia largely withdrew from Somalia.

Harakat al-Shabaab

A more radical network had grown in Mogadishu in the early 2000s. As it became part of the sharia court network, it was nicknamed al-Shabaab, 'the youth', a name it formally assumed in 2006. The network had close connections with the remains of al-Qaeda in East Africa: it had many Afghanistan veterans in its ranks, and it shared much of the vision of the rest of the sharia court movement. However, it also emphasised other elements more clearly than the rest of the court movement: it was openly internationalist, criticising the Somali flag and seeing the conflict in Somalia as a part of a wider clash between Islam, Christianity and secularism. Stig Jarle Hansen (2013): ,Al Shabaab in Somalia, Hurst: London Al-Shabaab thus had two pillars, 'jihad' and 'justice': waging a holy war to protect the wider Muslim community, but also seeing themselves as the upholders of justice in the face of Somalia's anarchy. These two pillars are still found in al-Shabaab today, and the organisation has in many areas thrived on the lack of interest amongst its rivals in providing justice for ordinary people.

Al-Shabaab also took advantage of religion's place in Somali social identity. After the sharia courts movement's collapse in the face of the Ethiopian offensive of 2006-7, Damul Jadiid activists and al Shabaab joined the insurgency against the Ethiopians. In doing so, they drew upon the history of enmity between Ethiopia and Somalia, framed in religious terms as a conflict between Christian Ethiopia and Muslim Somalia.

Al-Shabaab employed suicide attacks in Somalia for the first time

This representation was a misconception, as the Somalis themselves were divided, with Puntland, major parts of the Rahanweyn community, and the Abgal sub-clan of the Hawiye all supporting the government. However, it proved an excuse for al-Shabaab's terror attacks, which often targeted civil servants and employed suicide attacks for the first time in Somali history. ibid The corruption of the western backed government, and the criminality of the police force, which often resorted to pillaging to make up for their lack of pay, also provided a source of legitimacy to al-Shabaab. The movement's videos highlighted crime statistics and made accusations of pillaging and theft against the government, as well as containing more globalist messages. ibid

Al-Shabaab's systematic targeting of the military leadership of the courts at this time led to a loss of popularity. Al-Shabaab's patterns of governance in the territory it controlled also highlighted the differences between its practices and the practices of religious groups deeply respected by Somali society. The Sufi orders of Somalia enjoyed local support, but their tradition of praying to the founders of the various Sufi schools, as well as their practice of flocking to the tombs of these founders, were deemed as un-Islamic by al-Shabaab. The organisation tried to redefine the meaning of Islam in Somalia, and attempted to persuade Sufi religious leaders with their interpretation of Islam. The attempt failed, and led to a counter-reaction from Sufis and their Somali sympathisers, although very often the militant organisation said to have been mobilised to protect the Sufis, the Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, was restricted by its entanglement in clan politics.

Other Groups

Parallel to al-Shabaab's development, other, relatively closed, religious networks grew in power. The first that gained public attention was the Ahlu Sheikh network around former president Sheikh Hassan. The second, probably more important than the Ahlu Sheikh, was the Damul Jadiid ("young blood"), oriented towards the current President Hassan, and consisting mostly of former al-Islah members who had rejected the organisation's pacifism in the face of the Ethiopian invasion. Damul Jadiid was widely said to have the ear of President Hassan, who had earlier been on the periphery al-Islah. Staff writer (2013):"Dissension in the Al Islah group", The Indian Ocean Newsletter N°1355; Ali Abdulle (2013):" Somalia: That is the Year that Was" Raxanreeb, 30 December, (accessed 25 February 2014);Matt Bryden (2013):"Somalia redux?", A report of the CSIS Africa Program, august,3

Both al-Islah and Damul Jadiid took care of their own members, aiding them with scholarships and educational support programmes. However, unlike al-Islah, Damul Jadiid did not have a clearly defined organisational structure, and was more of a movement based on loose friendships, reciprocity and business connections. Staff writer (2013):" Dissension in the Al Islah group", The Indian Ocean Newsletter N°1355

Wider Aspects of the Conflict: Religion in Somali politics today

Somalia has recently gained a new and internationally recognised government, led by president Hassan Sheikh Muhamed (elected in 2012) alongside prime minister Abdiweli Sheikh Ahmed (elected in 2013). The government has managed to improve the quality of policing and enhanced the Somali army, but payments to both are delayed, courts are largely defunct and the government is seen as controversial in districts where implementing the federalism of the Somali constitution has been difficult. These problems mean the government fails to serve the ordinary Somali citizen, and amidst uncertain circumstances, religiosity and religious networks have offered alternatives, and religious capital has remained important.

Three factions of al-Islah remain allies against al-Shabaab

Religious actors remain politically important, evidenced particularly by the Damul Jadiid network which is regarded as close to the president and several ministers. Today, the other remaining factions of al-Islah have developed in different directions. Circles surrounding Abduraman Abdulahi supported his political career and attempt to become president in 2012, and have been divided from other members who criticised his involvement in politics. The three factions of al-Islah – Damul Jadiid, those surrounding Abdulahi, and those who opposed his presidential candidacy – nevertheless remain allies in the struggle against al-Shabaab.

Other Islamist organisations also part of the wider anti al-Shabaab alliance include the Harakat Ras Kamboni, a group with strong clanist leaning, and other groups previously linked with al-Qaeda. Ras Kamboni is one example of a group that has combined contradicting ideologies, clanism and Islamism, and yet still remains powerful. These Islamist groups, in addition to militant Sufi groups which are usually clan based, are a part of a wider alliance that includes Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Sierra Leone and Djibouti, who have all supplied African Union troops to Somalia. A broader external circle of allies in the struggle against al-Shabaab consists of the United States, the European Union, Norway, Qatar, and to a lesser extent, Turkey.

Inside this alliance, there are cleavages and sub-groups, historical allies and enemies. Firstly, the animosity between the former al-Islah factions remains unresolved. Secondly, the likelihood of increasing Ethiopian involvement in 2014, as part of AMISOM forces, may well recreate animosity towards foreign intervention, using religion as a mobilising tool based on the past relationship between Ethiopia and Somalia.

The most famous organisation in Somalia remains Harakat al-Shabaab. However, organisationally it is now unable to hold larger cities in the face of superior opposition forces, and it is plagued with internal discord. Religion has played a key role in some of these divisions, such as the criticism of al-Shabaab's former leader Ahmed Abdi Godane by the international al-Qaeda leadership for ignoring the protection of civilian Muslims prescribed in the Quran, and for ill-treatment of foreign fighters who as Muslims should be considered equals. However, by early 2014 Godane seemed to have consolidated his grip on the organisation, and al-Shabaab had launched major terror offensives inside Mogadishu. Godane was killed in a US airstrike in September 2014.

Somalia in 2014 serves as an example on how one religion, in this case Islam, can manifest itself in different forms. Religion remains important both in Somali politics and in Somali society: religion in Somalia remains an important driver of conflict, but also an important remedy to the misery of civil war, and a tool for reconciliation. The role of religion has changed over time, and religious movements have entered the civil war as significant actors over the last twenty three years. The interaction between Islamist organisations and networks has at best been plagued by disagreements, at worst by war. These religious organisations also interact with the Somali clan system, and the difference between a clanist and an Islamist is not always easy to see.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

This situation report was first published on 16 April 2014.

It was updated on 22 September 2014.