Somalis/Issas

Somalis/Issas

The Somali are a large homogeneous group occupying Somalia, southern Djibouti, southeastern Ethiopia, and northern Kenya. They are Muslim and speak Somali, a Cushitic language. There are approximate 12 million Somalis, mostly nomadic pasto-ralists. The Issa (Esa) are an important sub-group concentrated in the north, where they comprise 50 percent of the population of Djibouti.

Somali origins are uncertain, though con-tact with Arabia has existed from ancient times. Arab merchants introduced Islam in the seventh century, and Arab immigrants were founders of some Somali clans. Powerful principalities emerged in the 10th century, chiefly Adal and Mogadishu.

Somali expansion, fueled by Arab immigration, Islamic fervor, and need for grazing land, began in the 10th century. Tribal warriors in the north spread out west and south, pushing out local people and rival tribes. Movement west ended with the Christian defeat of Adal in the 16th century, but the expansion continued southward.

By the 18th century, Somalis were established along the Shebelle and Juba rivers, and by the 19th century in northern Kenya, where they encountered other pastoral peoples such as the Cushitic Rendille. Conflict between the pastoral groups in northern Kenya continues to this day. Territorial borders set by European colonization finally contained Somali expansion.

Somali are divided into two classes. The “Somal” are the elite nomadic herds-men who base wealth on livestock, pri-marily camels in the north and cattle in the south. Horses are the most prized pos-session of a Somal warrior and gave them superiority over many other groups they encountered.

The largest Somal tribe is the Issa belonging to the Dir clan, consid-ered to be the original Somal. The “Sab,” viewed as inferior by the Somal, are sedentary farmers found between the Shebelle and Juba rivers, where they grow grains, fruit, and cotton. Outside of those who consider themselves to be Somali are classes of tradesmen such as black-smiths, ironsmiths, and hunters, jobs detested by Somali. They live separately and cannot intermarry with Somali.

Tribal alliances are based on kinship traced through the male line to a common ancestor. Clans claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad, and Islam is the bond between clans. Somali follow Sufi orders with many saints, shrines, and holy men. Islamic holy men have played impor-tant roles in Somali history, and in the early 20th century, Sayyid Muhammad ‘Abdille Hassan, who belonged to the Sal-ihiyah Sufi order, was able to combine clan groups in organized resistance. He seemed to lack a larger set of political and religious ideology. Some of his sup-porters killed Shaykh ‘Uways, leader of the Somali Qadiriyah Sufi order, and as a result, his conflict with the British lost needed Qadiri support. Eventually Sayyid Muhammad’s followers were defeated by the British after his death.

In the late 19th century, colonial powers carved up Somali coastal areas into French, Italian, and British protectorates, with Ethiopia controlling Ogaden in the interior and Great Britain in Kenya. A struggle for unification began immedi-ately.AngeredbyChristiandomination, Muhammad ‘Abdille Hassan, the “Mad Mullah,” led a “Dervish” (from the fact he was a Sufi leader) revolt from 1899 to 1920 against the British and Ethiopians. As many as a third of the population of British Somaliland died as a result.

Unification of Italian and British Soma-liland was achieved with independence of Somalia in 1960, but intense clan rivalries between the two areas followed. In efforts to unite all Somali people, Somalia waged several wars with Ethiopia over Ogaden and sought annexation of northern Kenya. These efforts all failed.

The French territory of Afar and Issas gained separate independence as Djibouti in 1977, with the Somali Issas tribe dominating the government. In 1977, shortly after its independence, Djbouti joined the Arab League of States and Arabic, along with French, was declared an official language of the state. Admissions to the Arab League had much to do with the historical Arab sphere of influence along the Red Sea and East African coast, Somali belief in shared origins with South Arabs,and hopes for Arab money (from Saudi Arabia) to support the new state’s economy.

In 1969, the socialist government of Said Barre came to power in Somalia, imposing policies that went against traditional and cultural life. Several clan-based rebel groups emerged. Fighting and famines caused widespread suffering. Since the collapse of the regime in 1991, there has been no func-tioning government in Somalia. Rebel fac-tions continue to fight for dominance. In addition, since the emergence of groups such as Al Qaeda, the lack of a central government has allowed them to establish bases in Somalia.

During the first decade of the 2000s, Somali pirate activities grew as lawlessness prevailed on land. Somali fishermen deprived of fishing due to pollu-tion of their traditional waters used to clean out vessels such as oil tankers, helped to cre-ate the conditions for the pirates. Somali pirates began seizing ships and taking their crews hostage. Ransom demands grew, forc-ing Western governments to deploy naval detachments in the Indian Ocean to patrol for, intercept, and arrest pirates.

Geri Shaw

Further Reading

Abdullahi, Mohamed Diriye. Culture and Cus-toms of Somalia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia (CSA).“Census 2007.” http://www.csa.gov.et (accessed May 26, 2011).

Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Lewis, I. M. The Modern History of Somali-land. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Pub-lishers, 1965.