The Roots of the Islamic Conflict in Somalia (2)

There is no doubt that the phenomenon of Islamic extremism in Somalia is part and parcel of the global Jihadist project of al-Qaida and its associates. Somalia is simply an extension that depends on the global sponsors for the leadership, inspiration, guidance, and resources. Also, it is now clear that the project of Islamic Courts that attracted so much support in 2006 was Al-Qaida project even though most of its supporters were not aware of it. The project was skilfully masked with Islamic sentimentalism, nationalism, clanism and personal interests. Understanding of this phenomenon is very crucial in order to avoid its recurrences and to deal with it in an effective way.  This article briefly informs doctrinal differences of the two major persuasions of Islamism in Somalia and its relations with the traditional Islam.

(1) Traditional Islam in Somalia

Islam, as practiced for generations in Somalia, follows three main persuasions: the Ash’ariyah theology, Shafi’i jurisprudence, and Sufism. Therefore, the traditional Somali society goes along with their scholars who espouse taqlīd (imitation) and follow strictly these three persuasions. In addition, these three persuasions are perpetuated through traditional Islamic institutions comprising educational establishments and Sufi orders’ centers where the master-disciple intimate relationship is nurtured. This relationship is the core foundation of Sufism and is preserved through various social functions. The most important of those functions are: Mawliidka (commemoration the Prophet’s birthday), Xuska (offering alms to the souls of the deceased parents), and Siyaaro (paying homage to respected teachers and visiting their tombs).

The Ash‘ariyah theology was founded by Abu al-asan Al-Ash‘ari (873-935) in reaction to the extreme rationalism espoused by the school of Mu‘tazilah. The Ash’ari theology was accepted as the standard of mainstream Sunni theology by the scholarly community during that time and in every generation afterwards.  Among the most prominent scholar of Ash’ rites is Abu-amid al-Ghazāli (1058-1111) who articulated moderate Sufism that combines it with al-Ash’ariyah theology. Sufism in Somalia belongs to that moderate Sufism rooted in Al-Ghazāli’s way, and it had a significant missionary impact throughout Somalia. Its tremendous influence is exercised through its two main brotherhoods: Qaadiriyah and Axmadiyah. Somalia also adheres to the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence, one of the four main schools of Sunni jurisprudence. This is the nature of Islam adhered to by an overwhelming majority of Somalis and advocated by Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jamaaca, an organization that belongs to various Sufi orders.

(2) Salafism versus Traditional Islam

Certainly, Salafism and its various versions and derivatives, as it is applied in Somalia, stand completely in opposition to the traditional Islam in Somalia. The adherents of this ideology entertain that the pernicious innovations (bida’) introduced to Islam are the primary obstruction that caused the decadence of the Muslim Umma. Therefore, they place overriding emphasis on the purification of Islamic teachings from these innovations. Consequently, they preach idealized Tawhid (monotheism) and focus their condemnation on many traditional Muslim practices as being innovations and shirk (polytheism). This school adheres to what is termed the Salafia theology, which arrived to Somalia with the increased influence of Saudi Arabia through students educated in its Islamic universities and through migrant labor. The students learned and preached the teachings of Sheikh Mohamed Abd Al-Wahhab, often referred to by their adherents as Salafi and by their detractors as Wahabi. The Salafia theology is based on the refutation of any plausible interpretation of the attributes of Allah.

Adherents of the Salafia theology in Somalia also introduced some aspects of Hanbali jurisprudence arguing that they do not necessarily follow any specific school of jurisprudence. These practices created continuous Islamic conflicts in the Somali communities adhering to the predominant Shafi’i jurisprudence. Salafia followers consider their primary duty to be spreading al-Aqidah al-Sahiha (the right theology). Accordingly, they believe that their theology is the only right one because it is the theology of the first three generations of Muslims. This is the claim from which they draw their name, al-salafia, (followers of the early pious generations of the Muslims). However, this mode of thinking by its own breeds intolerance, internal conflict and extremism. Moreover, being educated in Saudi Arabia, many of these students were employed by many Saudi institutions to preach the “the right theology” (Salafia) in Somalia and receive massive economic and technical assistance.  

Furthermore, the Salafis consider Sufism a dangerous heresy and are engaged in an uncompromising conflictual campaign against the Sufis. In that way, Salafism is not a reform movement but a revolutionary approach that aims to completely change traditional Islam. This stream of thought is followed by Al-Itihad which became militant in 1991 with the infiltration of Al-Qaida in its ranks. It was engaged in various local conflicts with clan warlords and implemented their interpretation of Islam in their area of domination. However, Al-Itihad failed its political agendas because of the violent method that disregard wisdom of gradualism and community sensitivities. Moreover, more extreme versions of Salafism such as Al-Shabab and Hizb Al-Islam who are imposing their version of Islamism and are engaged in the destruction and desecration of the tombs of prominent Sufi scholars. In prioritizing conflictual issues and trivial matters of Islam, they overstep major objectives of the Shari’a (Maqasid al-Shari’a).

(3)The Muslim Brotherhood versus Traditional Islam

The MB was founded in 1928 by Hassan Al-Banna in Egypt and reached Somalia in the 1950s through Egyptian teachers and then via Somali students in Arab universities. The MB stands in the middle of the two orientations: traditional Islam and Salafism. Hassan Al-Banna wrote in the treatise of “Al-Aqaid” (Creed) the following moderate position: “We believe that the position of the Salaf [in explaining Creed] is safer and should be followed … On the other hand, we believe that Khalaf [Ash’ rite scholars for example] do not sanction any judgment on them as having gone outside Islam… Islam is vast and comprehensive enough to accommodate all of them”.

Moreover, the MB adopted the slogan, “We should unite upon that which we agree, and excuse each other in that which we disagree.” The tolerance of the MB emanates from its worldwide program based on the gradual reform of Muslim societies. These Muslim societies adhere to different schools of jurisprudence, theologies, and various forms of Sufism. Hassan al-Banna, who belonged to one of the Sufi orders, wrote that “differences on the branch matters of Islamic Jurisprudence should not be allowed to cause division, contention, or hatred within the ranks of the Muslims.” In that context, followers of the MB methodology avoid divisive Islamic discourses on doctrinal matters and legal aspects within its society. Being open to the diversity of Islamic theology and practices, they are tolerant to the different theological views on Islam and deplore rigid preoccupation with nuances of the religious doctrine. They believe that Sufism and other traditional practices should be accommodated and that the focus in Islamic activism should be directed toward social and political issues, rather than theological hair-splitting. This means that the MB does not contravene with the Ash’ari theology, Shafi’i jurisprudence, and Sufism, which constitute the basic components of the traditional Islam in Somalia.  

However, the MB consider as part of its mission to promote better understanding of Islam and cleanse practices that contravene Islam in the society through educational process in a tolerant atmosphere, which does not ruin community cohesion and avoids religious disputes. Its main program is to create an environment of cooperation between various Islamic groups and organizations for the benefit of the bigger goal, the Islamization of the society and the state. There are many groups and individuals who adhere to this ideology; however, Islah Movement is the main representative of this stream of thought in Somalia. It is reputed for its adherence to principles of peaceful reform in a violence-appealing atmosphere and promoting an anti-war and pro-reconciliation platform since the collapse of the state 1991. Islah is also famous for its educational programs and moderate views on Islam.


In conclusion, the roots of the Islamic conflict lies in the militancy of Salafia ideology brought from the Arabian Peninsula which confronted traditional Sufi Islam in violent ways. Salafism in Somalia undertook its major objective of purging some innovations prevalent in some Sufi practices. The early Islamic conflicts between Sufi orders were also rooted to the influence of Salafism to the Salihiyah Order which introduced some Islamic reforms using violence. Bardheere Jamaaca, Sayid Mohamed Abdulle and Sheikh Ali Majertain had common features of attempting to introduce some Islamic reforms and establishing Islamic emirates at the gun point. As a result, they provoked violent conflicts in name of Islam between Sufi Orders.  Likewise, modern Salafism embodied by Al-Itihad, Al-Shabab and Hizbul-Islam follow the same method based on the use of violence. Lastly, historical analysis demonstrates that Salafia persuasions with its confrontational approach and violent means are the major cause of the Islamic conflict in Somalia.

Abdurahman Abdullahi (Baadiyow)


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