Islam is the official state religion of Somalia and the vast majority of the Somali population identifies as Muslim. Most belong to the Sunni branch of Islam and the Shafi'i school of Islamic jurisprudence. Islam is strongly linked to the Somali national identity, providing a unified identity for all Somalis regardless of their affiliations or cultural backgrounds.
Religion is a key aspect of everyday life for all Somalis. Somalis tend to be more religious than some other Muslim African populations. For example, the idea of a ‘non-practising Muslim’ is very unusual in Somalia – everyone is expected to practise the religion to some degree. However, although they may be very devout, Somalis are quite tolerant within the Islamic tradition. Indeed, one commonly hears Somalis describe themselves as “moderate” or “liberal” Muslims.
Islam in Somalia
Islam was introduced to Somalia in the ninth century (CE). Somalis traditionally practise quite a moderate form of Islam, influenced by Sufism. However, the Salafi movement has gained more political influence in recent decades.1 This doctrine was developed in response to Western imperialism and adopts a more rigid interpretation of the Qur’an. It is centred around the concept of looking back to a prior historical period in an effort to understand how the contemporary world should be ordered.
Sunni Islamic traditions are deeply infused in the personal, political and legal lives of most Somalis. Religion directly influences governance and daily life. National legislation and traditional customary law are informed by shari’a rulings, meaning certain behaviours that do not abide by Islamic principles are criminalised in law. For example, blasphemy and “defamation of Islam” carry criminal penalties. However, Somalia does not enforce the shari’a code.
Interpretations of Islam and levels of conservatism vary throughout the country. The visibility of religious conservatism has increased in some regions due to Islamist militant groups’ control (see below). Some have also noted that some Somalis are feeling pressure to live as a “good” Muslim in response to perceptions that life in the Western world was becoming more hostile to Muslims.2 Somalis living overseas may similarly feel compelled to live a more and moral life than they did in Somalia to avoid being corrupted by non-Muslim influences.
On a daily basis, people express their faith through dress, dietary codes, regular prayer and frequent references to Allah’s (God’s) will or blessing. For example, reverence of Allah is quite evident in the way many people speak; it is common to slip praise into casual conversation. It is also normal to hear Somalis frequently referring to God with statements about the future often containing the statement “Inshallah” (“God willing”). This shows the dominant belief that the future is ultimately determined by God’s will. Almost all towns have a mosque where men attend special prayer services every Friday.
In 2006, the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist terrorist group Al-Shabaab was formed. The extremist militant group controls many areas in south-central Somalia and continues to carry out deadly terror attacks both in Somalia and surrounding countries. The majority of their large-scale bombings take place in Mogadishu, usually targeting civilians and government facilities. Al-Shabaab has also killed or harassed individuals suspected of failing to adhere to their strict interpretation of Islam or converting from Islam.3
The violence and insecurity brought by Al-Shabaab has displaced many Somalis. It is important to recognise that the views of Al-Shabaab and other extremist groups do not represent the average Somali Muslim.
Somalia is also host to a substantial Sufi community, a small Christian community and an unknown number of Shi’a Muslims. Members of minority religious groups are commonly immigrants and foreign workers, mainly from East African countries. Conversion from Islam to another religion is socially unacceptable in all areas. Those suspected of conversion may face harassment by members of their community and be subjected to extreme danger in regions controlled by Al-Shabaab.4 Religious minorities are also susceptible to being prosecuted under Islamic law surrounding and blasphemy, including minority Muslim groups.
Sufism is having a resurgence as some Somalis are becoming disaffected with Salafism over the actions of offshoot militant groups such as Al-Shabaab. Some see Sufism as a non-political spiritual alternative.