Somalis - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Somalis are Sunni Muslims, the vast majority of whom follow the Shafi rite. Islam probably dates as far back as the thirteenth century in Somalia. In the nineteenth century Islam was revitalized, and popular versions of it developed following the proselytizing of shuyukh (sing. shaykh ) belonging to different Sufi orders.

The Muslim faith forms an integral part of daily social life. The activities of Catholic and Protestant missionaries have never been successful. Somali scholars debate the extent to which Somali Muslims may have incorporated elements of a pre-Islamic religion. Some of the terms for "God" (e.g., Wag) are also found among the neighboring non-Muslim peoples. In urban areas, groups have appeared that, inspired by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Akhiwaan Muslimin), propagate a more orthodox Islam and criticize the government on moral grounds.

A variety of spiritual beings are believed to inhabit the world. The jinny, the only category of spirits that Islam recognizes, are generally harmless if they are left undisturbed. Other categories of spirits, such as ayaamo, mingis, and rohaan, are more capricious and may bring illness by possessing their victims. Groups of those who are possessed often form cults seeking to soothe the possessing spirit.

Religious Practitioners. The Somali culture distinguishes between a religious expert ( wadaad ) and a person who is preoccupied with worldly matters. There is no formal hierarchy of clergy, but a wadaad may enjoy considerable respect and may assemble a small party of followers with whom to settle in a rural community. The five standard Muslim prayers are generally observed, but Somali women have never worn the prescribed veils. Villagers and urban settlers frequently turn to the wadaad for blessings, charms, and advice in worldly matters.

Ceremonies. Somalis do not worship the dead, but they do perform annual commemorative services at their graves. Pilgrimages (sing. siyaaro ) to the tombs of saints are also prominent events in ritual life. The Muslim calendar includes the celebration of ʿIid al Fidr (the end of Ramadan), Araafo (the pilgrimage to Mecca), and Mawliid (the birthday of the Prophet). Among the non-Muslim ceremonies, the dab - shiid (the lighting of the fire), at which all household members jump across the family hearth, is most widely performed.

Arts. Somalis enjoy a broad variety of alliterated oral poetry and songs. Famous poets may come to enjoy nationwide prestige.

Medicine. Illnesses are attributed both to abstract entities and emotions and to tangible causes. Somali nomads discovered the role of mosquitoes in the spread of malaria long before this connection was scientifically proven. The medical system is a plural one: patients have a free choice between herbal, religious, and Western medicines.

Death and Afterlife. Although graves are insignificant looking, the symbolic dimensions of funerals are considerable. The corpse is seen as harmful and must be disposed of rapidly. Within the local community, relations with the deceased must be cleared of grievances, and his or her passage from "this world" ( addunnyo ) to the "next world" ( aakhiro ) ensured. Funerals serve as a reminder to the living of the return of the Prophet and the approaching day of judgment ( qiyaame ), when the faithful will have nothing to fear, but sinners will be sent to hell.


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