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Somali People

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Somali People

This article is about the Somali ethnic group. For the general population of the Federal Republic of Somalia, see Demographics of Somalia. For other uses, see Somali (disambiguation).
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Total population
16-19 million
Regions with significant populations
Horn of Africa, Middle East
 Somalia 8.7 million[1]
 Ethiopia 4.6 million[2]
 Kenya 900,000[3]
 Yemen 858,000
 Djibouti 464,600[4]
 Canada 150,000[5]
 United Kingdom 108,000[6]
 United States 85,700[7]
 Sweden 40,165[8]
 Netherlands 33,750[9]
 Norway 27 523[10]
 United Arab Emirates 25,000[11]
 Saudi Arabia 20,000[11]
 Denmark 16,550[12]
 Finland 9,000[13]
 Italy 6,414[14]
 Australia 6,403[15]
Somali, Arabic
Related ethnic groups

The Somali people, also known as Somalis (Somali: Soomaaliyeed, Arabic: الصوماليون‎), are an ethnic group inhabiting the Horn of Africa (Somali Peninsula).[16] The overwhelming majority of Somalis speak the Somali language, which is part of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. They are predominantly Sunni Muslim.[17] Ethnic Somalis number around 15-17 million and are principally concentrated in Somalia (around 8.7 million[1]), Ethiopia (4.6 million[2]), Yemen (a little under 1 million), Kenya (900,000[3][18]), and Djibouti (464,600),[4] with many also residing in parts of the Middle East, North America and Europe.


Irir Samaale, the oldest common ancestor of several Somali clans, is generally regarded as the source of the ethnonym Somali. The name "Somali" is, in turn, held to be derived from the words soo and maal, which together mean "go and milk" — a reference to the ubiquitous pastoralism of the Somali people.[19] Another plausible etymology proposes that the term Somali is derived from the Arabic for "wealthy" (dhawamaal), again referring to Somali riches in livestock.[20]

An Ancient Chinese document from the 9th century referred to the northern Somali coast — which was then called "Berbera" by Arab geographers in reference to the region's "Berber" (Cushitic) inhabitants[21] — as Po-pa-li.[22][23] The first clear written reference of the sobriquet Somali, however, dates back to the 15th century. During the wars between the Ifat Sultanate based at Zeila and the Solomonic Dynasty, the Abyssinian Emperor had one of his court officials compose a hymn celebrating a military victory over the Sultan of Ifat's eponymous troops.[24]


Main articles: History of Somalia, Maritime history of Somalia and Somali aristocratic and court titles
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Ancient rock paintings in Somalia which date back to 5000 years have been found in the northern part of the country, depicting early life in the territory.[25] The most famous of these is the Laas Gaal complex, which contains some of the earliest known rock art on the African continent and features many elaborate pastoralist sketches of animal and human figures. In other places such as the northern Dhambalin region, a depiction of a man on a horse is postulated as being one of the earliest known examples of a mounted huntsman.[25]

Inscriptions have been found beneath many of the rock paintings, but archaeologists have so far been unable to decipher this form of ancient writing.[26] During the Stone age, the Doian culture and the Hargeisan culture flourished here with their respective industries and factories.[27]

The oldest evidence of burial customs in the Horn of Africa comes from cemeteries in Somalia dating back to 4th millennium BC.[28] The stone implements from the Jalelo site in northern Somalia are said to be the most important link in evidence of the universality in palaeolithic times between the East and the West.[29]

In antiquity, the ancestors of the Somali people were an important link in the Horn of Africa connecting the region's commerce with the rest of the ancient world. Somali sailors and merchants were the main suppliers of frankincense, myrrh and spices, items which were considered valuable luxuries by the Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Mycenaeans and Babylonians.[30][31]

According to most scholars, the ancient Land of Punt and its inhabitants formed part of the ethnogenesis of the Somali people.[32][33][34][35] The ancient Puntites were a nation of people that had close relations with Pharaonic Egypt during the times of Pharaoh Sahure and Queen Hatshepsut. The pyramidal structures, temples and ancient houses of dressed stone littered around Somalia are said to date from this period.[36]

In the classical era, several ancient city-states such as Opone, Essina, Sarapion, Nikon, Malao, Damo and Mosylon near Cape Guardafui, which competed with the Sabaeans, Parthians and Axumites for the wealthy Indo-Greco-Roman trade, also flourished in Somalia.[37]

The birth of Islam on the opposite side of Somalia's Red Sea coast meant that Somali merchants, sailors and expatriates living in the Arabian Peninsula gradually came under the influence of the new religion through their converted Arab Muslim trading partners. With the migration of fleeing Muslim families from the Islamic world to Somalia in the early centuries of Islam and the peaceful conversion of the Somali population by Somali Muslim scholars in the following centuries, the ancient city-states eventually transformed into Islamic Mogadishu, Berbera, Zeila, Barawa and Merca, which were part of the Berberi civilization. The city of Mogadishu came to be known as the City of Islam,[38] and controlled the East African gold trade for several centuries.[39]

The Ifat Sultanate, led by the Walashma dynasty with its capital at Zeila, ruled over parts of what is now eastern Ethiopia, Djibouti, and northern Somalia. The historian al-Umari records that Ifat was situated near the Red Sea coast, and states its size as 15 days travel by 20 days travel. Its army numbered 15,000 horsemen and 20,000 foot soldiers. Al-Umari also credits Ifat with seven "mother cities": Belqulzar, Kuljura, Shimi, Shewa, Adal, Jamme and Laboo.[40]

In the Middle Ages, several powerful Somali empires dominated the regional trade including the Ajuuraan State, which excelled in hydraulic engineering and fortress building,[41] the Sultanate of Adal, whose general Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi (Ahmed Gurey) was the first commander to use cannon warfare on the continent during Adal's conquest of the Ethiopian Empire,[42] and the Geledi sultanate, whose military dominance forced governors of the Omani empire north of the city of Lamu to pay tribute to the Somali Sultan Ahmed Yusuf.[43]

In the late 19th century, after the Berlin conference had ended, European empires sailed with their armies to the Horn of Africa. The imperial clouds wavering over Somalia alarmed the Dervish leader Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, who gathered Somali soldiers from across the Horn of Africa and began one of the longest colonial resistance wars ever. The Dervish State successfully repulsed the British empire four times and forced it to retreat to the coastal region.[44] As a result of its successes against the British, the Dervish State received support from the Ottoman and German empires. The Turks also named Hassan Emir of the Somali nation,[45] and the Germans promised to officially recognize any territories the Dervishes were to acquire.[46] After a quarter of a century of holding the British at bay, the Dervishes were finally defeated in 1920, when Britain for the first time in Africa used airplanes to bomb the Dervish capital of Taleex. As a result of this bombardment, former Dervish territories were turned into a protectorate of Britain. Italy similarly faced the same opposition from Somali Sultans and armies and did not acquire full control of parts of modern Somalia until the Fascist era in late 1927. This occupation lasted till 1941 and was replaced by a British military administration.

Following World War II, Britain retained control of both British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland as protectorates. In 1945, during the Potsdam Conference, the United Nations granted Italy trusteeship of Italian Somaliland, but only under close supervision and on the condition — first proposed by the Somali Youth League (SYL) and other nascent Somalian political organizations, such as Hizbia Digil Mirifle Somali (HDMS) and the Somali National League (SNL) — that Somalia achieve independence within ten years.[47][48] British Somaliland remained a protectorate of Britain until 1960.[49]

To the extent that Italy held the territory by UN mandate, the trusteeship provisions gave the Somalis the opportunity to gain experience in political education and self-government. These were advantages that British Somaliland, which was to be incorporated into the new Somali state, did not have. Although in the 1950s British colonial officials attempted, through various administrative development efforts, to make up for past neglect, the protectorate stagnated. The disparity between the two territories in economic development and political experience would cause serious difficulties when it came time to integrate the two parts.[50] Meanwhile, in 1948, under pressure from their World War II allies and to the dismay of the Somalis,[51] the British "returned" the Haud (an important Somali grazing area that was presumably 'protected' by British treaties with the Somalis in 1884 and 1886) and the Ogaden to Ethiopia, based on a treaty they signed in 1897 in which the British ceded Somali territory to the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik in exchange for his help against plundering by Somali clans.[52] Britain included the proviso that the Somali nomads would retain their autonomy, but Ethiopia immediately claimed sovereignty over them.[47] This prompted an unsuccessful bid by Britain in 1956 to buy back the Somali lands it had turned over.[47] Britain also granted administration of the almost exclusively Somali-inhabited[53] Northern Frontier District (NFD) to Kenyan nationalists despite an informal plebiscite demonstrating the overwhelming desire of the region's population to join the newly formed Somali Republic.[54]

A referendum was held in neighboring Djibouti (then known as French Somaliland) in 1958, on the eve of Somalia's independence in 1960, to decide whether or not to join the Somali Republic or to remain with France. The referendum turned out in favour of a continued association with France, largely due to a combined yes vote by the sizable Afar ethnic group and resident Europeans.[55] There was also widespread vote rigging, with the French expelling thousands of Somalis before the referendum reached the polls.[56] The majority of those who voted no were Somalis who were strongly in favour of joining a united Somalia, as had been proposed by Mahmoud Harbi, Vice President of the Government Council. Harbi was killed in a plane crash two years later.[55] Djibouti finally gained its independence from France in 1977, and Hassan Gouled Aptidon, a Somali who had campaigned for a yes vote in the referendum of 1958, eventually wound up as Djibouti's first president (1977–1991).[55]

British Somaliland became independent on June 26, 1960 as the State of Somaliland, and the Trust Territory of Somalia (the former Italian Somaliland) followed suit five days later.[57] On July 1, 1960, the two territories united to form the Somali Republic, albeit within boundaries drawn up by Italy and Britain.[58][59] A government was formed by Abdullahi Issa and other members of the trusteeship and protectorate governments, with Haji Bashir Ismail Yusuf as President of the Somali National Assembly, Aden Abdullah Osman Daar as the President of the Somali Republic and Abdirashid Ali Shermarke as Prime Minister (later to become President from 1967 to 1969). On July 20, 1961 and through a popular referendum, the people of Somalia ratified a new constitution, which was first drafted in 1960.[60] In 1967, Muhammad Haji Ibrahim Egal became Prime Minister, a position to which he was appointed by Shermarke. Egal would later become the President of the autonomous Somaliland region in northwestern Somalia.

On October 15, 1969, while paying a visit to the northern town of Las Anod, Somalia's then President Abdirashid Ali Shermarke was shot dead by one of his own bodyguards. His assassination was quickly followed by a military coup d'état on October 21, 1969 (the day after his funeral), in which the Somali Army seized power without encountering armed opposition — essentially a bloodless takeover. The putsch was spearheaded by Major General Mohamed Siad Barre, who at the time commanded the army.[61]

Alongside Barre, the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC) that assumed power after President Sharmarke's assassination was led by Lieutenant Colonel Salaad Gabeyre Kediye and Chief of Police Jama Korshel. The SRC subsequently renamed the country the Somali Democratic Republic,[62][63] dissolved the parliament and the Supreme Court, and suspended the constitution.[64]

The revolutionary army established large-scale public works programs and successfully implemented an urban and rural literacy campaign, which helped dramatically increase the literacy rate. In addition to a nationalization program of industry and land, the new regime's foreign policy placed an emphasis on Somalia's traditional and religious links with the Arab world, eventually joining the Arab League (AL) in 1974.[65] That same year, Barre also served as chairman of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor of the African Union (AU).[66]


Main article: Greater Somalia

Somali people in the Horn of Africa are divided among different countries (Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and northeastern Kenya) that were artificially and some might say arbitrarily partitioned by the former imperial powers. Pan-Somalism is an ideology that advocates the unification of all ethnic Somalis once part of Somali empires such as the Ajuuraan Empire, the Adal Sultanate, the Gobroon Dynasty and the Dervish State under one flag and one nation. The Siad Barre regime actively promoted Pan-Somalism, which eventually led to the Ogaden War between Somalia on one side, and Ethiopia, Cuba and the Soviet Union on the other.

Notable Pan-Somalists

  • Muhammad Abdullah Hassan (April 7, 1856 - December 21, 1920) – Somali nationalist and religious leader that established the Dervish State during the Scramble for Africa.
  • Mohamoud Ali Shire – 26th Sultan of the Warsangali Sultanate (1897–1960).
  • Hasna Doreh – Early 20th century Somali female commander of the Dervish State that frequently joined battles against the imperial powers during the Scramble for Africa.
  • Hawo Tako (d.1948) – Early 20th century Somali female nationalist whose sacrifice became a symbol for Pan-Somalism.
  • Bashir Yussuf (b. 1905-1945) – Somali nationalist and religious leader.
  • Abdullahi Issa (b. 1922-1988) – First Prime Minister of Somalia.
  • Aden Abdullah Osman Daar (January 7, 1960 - June 10, 1967) – First President of Somalia.
  • Abdirashid Ali Shermarke (June 10, 1967 - October 15, 1969) – Second President of Somalia.
  • Siad Barre (b. 1919 - January 2, 1995) – Third President of Somalia.
  • Jama Korshel – Somali National Army General, former Head of Somali Police, and commander in the Supreme Revolutionary Council.
  • Daud Abdulle Hirsi (1925–1965) – Prominent Somali General considered the Father of the Somali Military.
  • Mahmoud Harbi – active Pan-Somalist that came close to uniting Djibouti with Somalia in the 1970s.
  • Salaad Gabeyre KediyeMajor General in the Somali military and a revolutionary.
  • Haji Dirie Hirsi (b. 1905 - 1975) – Somali businessman actively supporting Pan-Somalist aspirations in the 1950s.
  • Abdirizak Haji Hussein – Former Prime Minister of Somalia (1964–1967) and Somali Youth League leader.
  • Sheikh Mukhtar Mohamed Hussein, speaker of parliament, from 1965 to 1969 and interim President of Somalia before the coup d'état in 1969.
  • Abdullahi Ahmed Irro – General in the Somali National Army and commander in the Ogaden campaign.
  • Haji Bashir Ismail Yusuf – First President of the Somali National Assembly and prominent Somali Youth League member.
  • Osman Haji Mohamed – Prominent Somali Youth League member and parliamentarian.
  • Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed – President of Somalia, Colonel in Somali National Army, and commander during Ogaden campaign.


Genetic genealogy, although a new tool that uses the genes of modern populations to trace their ethnic and geographic origins, has also helped pinpoint the possible background of the modern Somalis.


According to Y chromosome studies by Sanchez et al. (2005) and Cruciani et al. (2004), the Somalis are paternally closely related to certain Ethiopian groups, particularly Cushitic speakers:[67][68]

"The data suggest that the male Somali population is a branch of the East African population − closely related to the Oromos in Ethiopia and North Kenya − with predominant E3b1 [now "E1b1b1"] cluster lineages... and that the Somali male population has approximately 15% Y chromosomes from Eurasia and approximately 5% from sub-Saharan Africa."[67]

Besides comprising the majority of the Y DNA in Somalis, the E1b1b1a (formerly E3b1a) haplogroup also makes up a significant proportion of the paternal DNA of Ethiopians, Sudanese, Egyptians, Berbers, North African Arabs, as well as many Mediterranean and Balkan Europeans.[68][69] The M78 subclade of E1b1b is found in about 77% of Somali males,[67] which, according to Cruciani et al. (2007), may represent the traces of an ancient migration into the Horn of Africa from Egypt/Libya.[70] After haplogroup E1b1b, the second most frequently occurring Y DNA haplogroup among Somalis is the Eurasian haplogroup T (M70),[71] which is found in slightly more than 10% of Somali males. Haplogroup T, like haplogroup E1b1b, is also typically found among populations of Northeast Africa, North Africa, the Near East and the Mediterranean.[72][73]


According to mtDNA studies by Holden (2005) and Richards et al. (2006), a significant proportion of the maternal lineages of Somalis consists of the M1 haplogroup,[74][75] which is common among Ethiopians and North Africans, particularly Egyptians and Algerians.[76][77] M1 is believed to have originated in Asia,[78] where its parent M clade represents the majority of mtDNA lineages[79] (particularly in India).[80] This haplogroup is also thought to possibly correlate with the Afro-Asiatic language family:[75]

"We analysed mtDNA variation in ~250 persons from Libya, Somalia, and Congo/Zambia, as representatives of the three regions of interest. Our initial results indicate a sharp cline in M1 frequencies that generally does not extend into sub-Saharan Africa. While our North and especially East African samples contained frequencies of M1 over 20%, our sub-Saharan samples consisted almost entirely of the L1 or L2 haplogroups only. In addition, there existed a significant amount of homogeneity within the M1 haplogroup. This sharp cline indicates a history of little admixture between these regions. This could imply a more recent ancestry for M1 in Africa, as older lineages are more diverse and widespread by nature, and may be an indication of a back-migration into Africa from the Middle East."[75]

Another mtDNA study indicates that:

"Somali, as a representative East African population, seem to have experienced a detectable amount of Caucasoid maternal influence... the proportion m of Caucasoid lineages in the Somali is m = 0.46 [46%]... Our results agree with the hypothesis of a maternal influence of Caucasoid lineages in East Africa, although its contribution seems to be higher than previously reported in mtDNA studies."[81]

Overall, these genetic studies conclude that Somalis and their fellow Ethiopian and Eritrean Northeast African populations represent a unique and distinct biological group on the continent:[82][83]

"The most distinct separation is between African and non-African populations. The northeastern-African -- that is, the Ethiopian and Somali -- populations are located centrally between sub-Saharan African and non-African populations... The fact that the Ethiopians and Somalis have a subset of the sub-Saharan African haplotype diversity -- and that the non-African populations have a subset of the diversity present in Ethiopians and Somalis -- makes simple-admixture models less likely; rather, these observations support the hypothesis proposed by other nuclear-genetic studies (Tishkoff et al. 1996a, 1998a, 1998b; Kidd et al. 1998) -- that populations in northeastern Africa may have diverged from those in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa early in the history of modern African populations and that a subset of this northeastern-African population migrated out of Africa and populated the rest of the globe. These conclusions are supported by recent mtDNA analysis (Quintana-Murci et al. 1999)."[83]

HLA antigens

The analysis of HLA antigens has also helped clarify the possible background of the Somali people, as the distribution of haplotype frequencies vary among population groups.[84] According to Mohamoud et al. (2006):[85]

"HLA antigens of the Somali population are not categorised as well as those of other international ethnic groups. We analysed the HLA antigens of 76 unrelated Somalis who lived in the west of England. HLA -A, -B, -C and DRB1 typing was performed by polymerase chain reaction using sequence-specific oligonucleotide probes (PCR-SSOP) at a low-intermediate resolution level. Phenotype frequency, gene frequency and haplotype frequency were used to study the relationship between Somalis and other relevant populations. The antigens with highest frequencies were HLA -A1, A2, and A30; B7, B51 and B39; Cw7, Cw16, Cw17, Cw15 and Cw18; DR 13, DR17, DR8 and DR1. HLA haplotypes with high significance and characteristics of the Somali population are B7-Cw7, B39-Cw12, B51-Cw16, B57-Cw18. The result of HLA class I and class II antigen frequencies show that the Somali population appear more similar to Arab or Caucasoid than to African populations. The results are consistent with hypothesis, supported by cultural and historical evidence, of common origin of the Somali population."[85]


Main article: Islam in Somalia

The history of Islam in Somalia is as old as the religion itself. The early persecuted Muslims fled to various places in the region, including the city of Zeila in modern-day northern Somalia, so as to seek protection from the Quraysh. Somalis were among the first populations on the continent to embrace Islam.[86] With very few exceptions, Somalis are entirely Muslims, the majority belonging to the Sunni branch of Islam and the Shafi`i school of Islamic jurisprudence,[87] although a few are also adherents of the Shia Muslim denomination.[17]

Qu'ranic schools (also known as dugsi) remain the basic system of traditional religious instruction in Somalia. They provide Islamic education for children, thereby filling a clear religious and social role in the country. Known as the most stable local, non-formal system of education providing basic religious and moral instruction, their strength rests on community support and their use of locally made and widely available teaching materials. The Qu'ranic system, which teaches the greatest number of students relative to other educational sub-sectors, is oftentimes the only system accessible to Somalis in nomadic as compared to urban areas. A study from 1993 found, among other things, that "unlike in primary schools where gender disparity is enormous, around 40 per cent of Qur'anic school pupils are girls; but the teaching staff have minimum or no qualification necessary to ensure intellectual development of children." To address these concerns, the Somali government on its own part subsequently established the Ministry of Endowment and Islamic Affairs, under which Qur'anic education is now regulated.[88]

In the Somali diaspora, multiple Islamic fundraising events are held every year in cities like Birmingham, London, Toronto and Minneapolis, where Somali scholars and professionals give lectures and answer questions from the audience. The purpose of these events is usually to raise money for new schools or universities in Somalia, to help Somalis that have suffered as a consequence of floods and/or droughts, or to gather funds for the creation of new mosques like the Abuubakar-As-Saddique Mosque, which is currently undergoing construction in the Twin cities.

In addition, the Somali community has produced numerous important Muslim figures over the centuries, many of whom have significantly shaped the course of Islamic learning and practice in the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and well beyond.

Important Islamic figures

Clan and family structure

The clan groupings of the Somali people are important social units, and clan membership plays a central part in Somali culture and politics. Clans are patrilineal and are often divided into sub-clans, sometimes with many sub-divisions.

Somali society is traditionally ethnically endogamous. So to extend ties of alliance, marriage is often to another ethnic Somali from a different clan. Thus, for example, a recent study observed that in 89 marriages contracted by men of the Dhulbahante clan, 55 (62%) were with women of Dhulbahante sub-clans other than those of their husbands; 30 (33.7%) were with women of surrounding clans of other clan families (Isaaq, 28; Hawiye, 3); and 3 (4.3%) were with women of other clans of the Darod clan family (Majerteen 2, Ogaden 1).[89]

Major Somali clans include:

In 1975, the most prominent government reforms regarding family law in a Muslim country were set in motion in the Somali Democratic Republic, which put women and men, including husbands and wives, on complete equal footing.[90] The 1975 Somali Family Law gave men and women equal division of property between the husband and wife upon divorce and the exclusive right to control by each spouse over his or her personal property.[91]

Geographic distribution

Main article: Somali diaspora

Somalis constitute the largest ethnic group in Somalia, at approximately 85% of the nation's inhabitants.[16] They are traditionally nomads, but since the late 20th century, many have moved to urban areas. While most Somalis can be found in Somalia proper, large numbers also live in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Yemen, the Middle East, South Asia and Europe due to their seafaring tradition.

Civil strife in the early 1990s greatly increased the size of the Somali diaspora, as many of the best educated Somalis left for the Middle East, Europe and North America.[92] In Canada, the cities of Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Hamilton all harbor Somali populations. Statistics Canada's 2006 census ranks people of Somali descent as the 69th largest ethnic group in Canada.[93]

While the distribution of Somalis per country in Europe is hard to measure because the Somali community on the continent has grown so quickly in recent years, an official 2010 estimate reported 108,000 Somalis living in the United Kingdom.[6] Somalis in Britain are largely concentrated in the cities of London, Sheffield, Birmingham, Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, and Leicester, with London alone accounting for roughly 78% of Britain's Somali population.[94] There are also significant Somali communities in the Netherlands: 31,237 (2011);[9] Norway: 25,496 (2010);[95] Denmark: 16,550 (2008);[12] and Finland: 14,769 (2012).[96]

In the United States, Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Columbus, San Diego, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Houston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Portland, Denver, Nashville, Lewiston, Portland, Maine and Cedar Rapids have the largest Somali populations.

An estimated 20,000 Somalis emigrated to the U.S. state of Minnesota some ten years ago and the Twin Cities (i.e. Minneapolis and Saint Paul) now have the highest population of Somalis in North America.[97] The city of Minneapolis hosts hundreds of Somali-owned and operated businesses offering a variety of products, including leather shoes, jewelry and other fashion items, halal meat, and hawala or money transfer services. Community-based video rental stores likewise carry the latest Somali films and music.[98] The number of Somalis has especially surged in the Cedar-Riverside area of Minneapolis.

Somalis now comprise one of the largest immigrant communities in the United Arab Emirates. Somali-owned businesses line the streets of Deira, the Dubai city centre,[99] with only Iranians exporting more products from the city at large.[100] Internet cafés, hotels, coffee shops, restaurants and import-export businesses are all testimony to the Somalis' entrepreneurial spirit. Star African Air is also one of three Somali-owned airlines which are based in Dubai.[99]

Besides their traditional areas of inhabitation in Greater Somalia, a Somali community mainly consisting of entrepreneurs, academics, and students also exists in Egypt.[101][102] In addition, there is an historical Somali community in the general Sudan area. Primarily concentrated in the north and Khartoum, a geographical region where the local population exhibits strong cultural, physical and religious similarities with ethnic Somalis, the expatriate community mainly consists of students as well as some businesspeople.[103] More recently, Somali entrepreneurs have established themselves in Kenya, investing over $1.5 billion in the Somali enclave of Eastleigh alone.[104] In South Africa, Somali businesspeople also provide most of the retail trade in informal settlements around the Western Cape province.[105]

Notable individuals of the diaspora

  • Amina Mohamed - former Chairman of the International Organization for Migration and the World Trade Organisation's General Council, and current Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Kenya.
  • Ayaan Hirsi AliFeminist and atheist activist, writer and politician known for her views critical of Islam and female circumcision.
  • Ayub Daud – Somali international footballer who plays as a forward/attacking midfielder for FC Crotone on loan from Juventus.
  • Halima Ahmed – Somali political activist with the Youth Rehabilitation Center and prospective candidate in the Federal Parliament of Somalia.
  • Hanan Ibrahim – Somali social activist. Received the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service in 2004 and was made an MBE in 2010.
  • Hassan Abdillahi – Somali journalist. President of Ogaal Radio, the largest Somali community station in Canada.
  • Hawa Ahmed – Somali-Swedish fashion model and winner of Cycle 4 of Sweden's Next Top Model.
  • Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid – international fashion icon, supermodel, actress and entrepreneur; professionally known as Iman.
  • Jawahir Ahmed – Somali-American model. Served as Miss Somalia in 2013 Miss United Nations USA pageant.
  • Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (Farmajo) – Somali politician and diplomat. Former Prime Minister of Somalia and founder of the Tayo Political Party.


Main article: Somali language

The Somali language is a member of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family. Its nearest relatives are the Afar and Saho languages.[107] Somali is the best documented of the Cushitic languages,[108] with academic studies of it dating from before 1900. File:Shaxmednuradc1.ogg The exact number of speakers of Somali is unknown. One source estimates that there are 7.78 million speakers of Somali in Somalia itself and 12.65 million speakers globally.[109] The Somali language is spoken by ethnic Somalis in Greater Somalia and the Somali diaspora.

Somali dialects are divided into three main groups: Northern, Benaadir and Maay. Northern Somali (or Northern-Central Somali) forms the basis for Standard Somali. Benaadir (also known as Coastal Somali) is spoken on the Benadir coast from Adale to south of Merca, including Mogadishu, as well as in the immediate hinterland. The coastal dialects have additional phonemes which do not exist in Standard Somali. Maay is principally spoken by the Digil and Mirifle (Rahanweyn) clans in the southern areas of Somalia.[110]

A number of writing systems have been used over the years for transcribing the language. Of these, the Somali alphabet is the most widely used, and has been the official writing script in Somalia since the government of former President of Somalia Mohamed Siad Barre formally introduced it in October 1972.[111] The script was developed by the Somali linguist Shire Jama Ahmed specifically for the Somali language, and uses all letters of the English Latin alphabet except p, v and z. Besides Ahmed's Latin script, other orthographies that have been used for centuries for writing Somali include the long-established Arabic script and Wadaad's writing. Indigenous writing systems developed in the twentieth century include the Osmanya, Borama and Kaddare scripts, which were invented by Osman Yusuf Kenadid, Abdurahman Sheikh Nuur and Hussein Sheikh Ahmed Kaddare, respectively.[112]


Main article: Culture of Somalia

The culture of Somalia is an amalgamation of traditions developed independently and through interaction with neighbouring and far away civilizations, such as other parts of Northeast Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, India and Southeast Asia.[113]

The textile-making communities in Somalia are a continuation of an ancient textile industry, as is the culture of wood carving, pottery and monumental architecture that dominates Somali interiors and landscapes. The cultural diffusion of Somali commercial enterprise can be detected in its cuisine, which contains Southeast Asian influences. Due to the Somali people's passionate love for and facility with poetry, Somalia has often been referred to by scholars as a "Nation of Poets" and a "Nation of Bards" including, among others, the Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence.[114]

All of these traditions, including festivals, martial arts, dress, literature, sport and games such as Shax, have immensely contributed to the enrichment of Somali heritage.


Main article: Music of Somalia

Somalis have a rich musical heritage centered on traditional Somali folklore. Most Somali songs are pentatonic. That is, they only use five pitches per octave in contrast to a heptatonic (seven note) scale such as the major scale. At first listen, Somali music might be mistaken for the sounds of nearby regions such as Ethiopia, Sudan or Arabia, but it is ultimately recognizable by its own unique tunes and styles. Somali songs are usually the product of collaboration between lyricists (midho), songwriters (lahan) and singers ('odka or "voice").[115]

Musicians and bands

  • Aar Maanta – UK-based Somali singer, composer, writer and music producer.
  • Abdi Sinimo – prominent Somali artist and inventor of the Balwo musical style.
  • Abdullahi Qarshe – Somali musician, poet and playwright known for his innovative styles of music, which included a wide variety of musical instruments such as the guitar, piano and oud.
  • Ali Feiruz – Somali musician from Djibouti; part of the Radio Hargeisa generation of Somali artists.
  • Dur-Dur – Somali band active during the 1980s and 1990s in Somalia and Ethiopia.
  • Hasan Adan Samatar – popular male artist during the 1970s and 80s.
  • Khadija Qalanjo – popular Somali singer in the 1970s and 1980s.
  • K'naan – award-winning Somali-Canadian hip hop artist.
  • Magool (May 2, 1948 - March 19, 2004) – prominent Somali singer considered in Somalia as one of the greatest entertainers of all time.
  • Maryam Mursal (born 1950) – famous musician from Somalia; composer and vocalist whose work has been produced by the record label Real World.
  • Mohammed Mooge – Somali artist from the Radio Hargeisa generation.
  • Waaberi – Somalia's foremost musical group that toured through several countries in Northeast Africa and Asia, including Egypt, Sudan and China.
  • Waayaha Cusub – Somali music collective. Organized the international Reconciliation Music Festival in 2013 in Mogadishu.

Cinema and theatre

Main article: Cinema of Somalia

Growing out of the Somali people's rich storytelling tradition, the first few feature-length Somali films and cinematic festivals emerged in the early 1960s, immediately after independence. Following the creation of the Somali Film Agency (SFA) regulatory body in 1975, the local film scene began to expand rapidly. In the 1970s and early 1980s, popular musicals known as riwaayado were the main driving force behind the Somali movie industry. Epic and period films as well as international co-productions followed suit, facilitated by the proliferation of video technology and national television networks. In the 1990s and 2000s, a new wave of more entertainment-oriented movies emerged. Referred to as Somaliwood, this upstart, youth-based cinematic movement has energized the Somali film industry and in the process introduced innovative storylines, marketing strategies and production techniques. The young directors Abdisalam Aato of Olol Films and Abdi Malik Isak are at the forefront of this quiet revolution.[116]


Main article: Somali art

Somali art is the artistic culture of the Somali people, both historic and contemporary. These include artistic traditions in pottery, music, architecture, wood carving and other genres. Somali art is characterized by its aniconism, partly as a result of the vestigial influence of the pre-Islamic mythology of the Somalis coupled with their ubiquitous Muslim beliefs. However, there have been cases in the past of artistic depictions representing living creatures such as the golden birds on the Mogadishan canopies, the ancient rock paintings in northern Somalia, and the plant decorations on religious tombs in southern Somalia, but these are considered rare. Instead, intricate patterns and geometric designs, bold colors and monumental architecture were the norm.

Additionally, henna is an important part of Somali culture. It is worn by Somali women on their hands, arms, feet and neck during weddings, Eid, Ramadan, and other festive occasions. Somali henna designs are similar to those in the Arabian peninsula, often featuring flower motifs and triangular shapes. The palm is also frequently decorated with a dot of henna and the fingertips are dipped in the dye. Henna parties are usually held before the wedding takes place.


Football is the most popular sport amongst Somalis. The first football teams in Somalia were established in the 1940s. The competitions were basic in structure, and were associated with the anti-colonial movement. The Somali Youth League (SYL), the nation's first political party, had put together a team of local youth to play against the Italian expatriate teams. In 1958, the first commissioner for sport in Somalia was also established. The football squad that the SYL had assembled, which would later change its name to Bondhere, won the first several competitions. However, it was not as successful in its early forays against foreign teams. Important countrywide competitions are the Somalia League and Somalia Cup. The Ocean Stars, the national team, is popularly known as the "giant killers" because of its underdog status, and the upsets it has achieved during games against better funded and established teams at continental tournaments. A multi-ethnic squad, Somalia first participated at the Olympic Games in 1972 and has sent athletes to compete in most Summer Olympic Games since then. The equally diverse Somali beach soccer team also represents the country in international beach soccer competitions. In addition, several international footballers such as Mohammed Ahamed Jama, Liban Abdi, Ayub Daud and Abdisalam Ibrahim play in European Premiere Leagues.

The FIBA Africa Championship 1981 was hosted by Somalia from December 15 to December 23, 1981. The games were played in Mogadishu, and the Somalian national team received the Bronze prize. Abdi Bile, one of the most celebrated Somali athletes, won the 1500 m World Championship in 1987, running the final 800 m of the race in 1:46.0, the fastest final 800 m of any 1,500 meter race in history. He was a two-time Olympian (1984 and 1996) and dominated the event in the late 1980s. Bile was ranked first in the world at the mile distance in 1989. He was World Cup champion in the 1500 m in 1989 and two-time world Grand Prix final champion. Hussein Ahmed Salah a Somalia born former long-distance runner from Djibouti, won a bronze medal in the marathon at the 1988 Summer Olympics. He also won silver medals in this event at the 1987 and 1991 World Championships. In addition, he won the 1985 IAAF World Marathon Cup.

Many Somalia born athletes have found success in the diaspora. Mohamed Suleiman, who competes for Qatar, achieved the greatest success of his career when he won the bronze medal in the Barcelona Olympics, becoming the first-ever Olympic medallist for Qatar. Throughout his career, Suleiman ran several Asian records over 1500 m and the mile run. He won the gold medal in the 1500 m representing Asia at the 1992 IAAF World Cup. Suleiman ran for Qatar at two further Olympic Games (in 1996 and 2000) and reached the event finals, although he did not make the podium. Suleiman's younger brothers Nasser and Abdulrahman Suleiman have also competed internationally in middle-distance running – Abdulrahman was the 2002 Asian champion for the 1500 m.[117]

Mo Farah holds the European track record for 10,000 metres, the British road record for 10,000 metres, the British indoor record in the 3000 metres, the British track record for 5000 metres and the European indoor record for 5000 metres. In July 2010, Farah won Britain's first-ever men's European gold medal at 10,000 m. He followed this with a gold in the 5000 m at the 2011 World Championships in Athletics, in Daegu, South Korea, becoming the 5th male athlete to complete the long-distance double at the championships and the first British man to do so. Mustafa Mohamed, the Somali-Swedish long-distance runner who mainly competes in the 3000 meter steeplechase. Won gold in the 2006 Nordic Cross Country Championships and at the 1st SPAR European Team Championships in Leiria, Portugal in 2009. He beat the 31-year-old Swedish record in 2007. Abdihakem Abdirahman the Somali-American long-distance runner who specializes in the 10,000 metres, won Gold for this event at the US Olympic Trials in 2008.

In the martial arts, Faisal Jeylani Aweys and Mohamed Deq Abdulle also took home a silver medal and fourth place, respectively, at the 2013 Open World Taekwondo Challenge Cup in Tongeren. The Somali National Olympic committee has devised a special support program to ensure continued success in future tournaments.[118] Additionally, Mohamed Jama has won both world and European titles in K1 and Thai Boxing.[119]


When not dressed in Westernized clothing such as jeans and t-shirts, Somali men typically wear the macawis, which is a sarong-like garment worn around the waist. On their heads, they often wrap a colorful turban or wear the koofiyad, an embroidered fez.

Due to Somalia's proximity to and close ties with the Arabian Peninsula, many Somali men also wear the jellabiya (jellabiyad or qamiis in Somali), a long white garment common in the Arab world.[120]

During regular, day-to-day activities, Somali women usually wear the guntiino, a long stretch of cloth tied over the shoulder and draped around the waist. The guntiino is usually made out of alandi, which is a textile common in the Horn region and some parts of North Africa. The garment can be worn in different styles. It can also be made with other fabrics, including white cloth with gold borders. For more formal settings such as weddings or religious celebrations like Eid, women wear the dirac, a long, light, diaphanous voile dress made of silk, chiffon, taffeta or saree fabric. It is worn over a full-length half-slip and a brassiere. Known as the gorgorad, the underskirt is made out of silk and serves as a key part of the overall outfit. The dirac is usually sparkly and very colorful, the most popular styles being those with guilded borders or threads. The fabric is typically acquired from Somali clothing stores in tandem with the gorgorad. In the past, dirac fabric was also frequently purchased from South Asian merchandisers.

Married women tend to sport head-scarves referred to as shaash, and also often cover their upper body with a shawl known as garbasaar. Unmarried or young women, however, do not always cover their heads. Traditional Arabian garb such as the jilbab and abaya is also commonly worn.

Additionally, Somali women have a long tradition of wearing gold jewelry, particularly bangles. During weddings, the bride is frequently adorned in gold. Many Somali women by tradition also wear gold necklaces and anklets.


Main article: Somali cuisine

Somali cuisine varies from region to region and consists of a fusion of diverse culinary influences. It is the product of Somalia's rich tradition of trade and commerce. Despite the variety, there remains one thing that unites the various regional cuisines: all food is served halal. There are therefore no pork dishes, alcohol is not served, nothing that died on its own is eaten, and no blood is incorporated.

Qado or lunch is often elaborate. Varieties of bariis (rice), the most popular probably being basmati, usually serve as the main dish. Spices like cumin, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and sage are used to aromatize these different rice dishes. Somalis eat dinner as late as 9 pm. During Ramadan, supper is often served after Tarawih prayers; sometimes as late as 11 pm.

Xalwo (halva) is a popular confection eaten during special occasions, such as Eid celebrations or wedding receptions. It is made from sugar, corn starch, cardamom powder, nutmeg powder and ghee. Peanuts are also sometimes added to enhance texture and flavor.[121] After meals, homes are traditionally perfumed using frankincense (lubaan) or incense (cuunsi), which is prepared inside an incense burner referred to as a dabqaad.


Main article: Somali literature

Somali scholars have for centuries produced many notable examples of Islamic literature ranging from poetry to Hadith. With the adoption of the Latin alphabet in 1972 to transcribe the Somali language, numerous contemporary Somali authors have also released novels, some of which have gone on to receive worldwide acclaim. Of these modern writers, Nuruddin Farah is probably the most celebrated. Books such as From a Crooked Rib and Links are considered important literary achievements, works which have earned Farah, among other accolades, the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Farah Mohamed Jama Awl is another prominent Somali writer who is perhaps best known for his Dervish era novel, Ignorance is the enemy of love. Young upstart Nadifa Mohamed was also awarded the 2010 Betty Trask Prize. Additionally, Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame 'Hadrawi' is considered by many to be the greatest living Somali poet, and several of his works have been translated internationally.

Authors and poets


Main article: Xeer

Somalis for centuries have practiced a form of customary law, which they call Xeer. Xeer is a polycentric legal system where there is no monopolistic agent that determines what the law should be or how it should be interpreted.

The Xeer legal system is assumed to have developed exclusively in the Horn of Africa since approximately the 7th century. There is no evidence that it developed elsewhere or was greatly influenced by any foreign legal system. The fact that Somali legal terminology is practically devoid of loan words from foreign languages suggests that Xeer is truly indigenous.[122]

The Xeer legal system also requires a certain amount of specialization of different functions within the legal framework. Thus, one can find odayal (judges), xeer boggeyaal (jurists), guurtiyaal (detectives), garxajiyaal (attorneys), murkhaatiyal (witnesses) and waranle (police officers) to enforce the law.[123]

Xeer is defined by a few fundamental tenets that are immutable and which closely approximate the principle of jus cogens in international law:[124]

  • Payment of blood money (locally referred to as diya)
  • Assuring good inter-clan relations by treating women justly, negotiating with "peace emissaries" in good faith, and sparing the lives of socially protected groups (e.g. children, women, the pious, poets and guests).
  • Family obligations such as the payment of dowry, and sanctions for eloping.
  • Rules pertaining to the management of resources such as the use of pasture land, water, and other natural resources.
  • Providing financial support to married female relatives and newlyweds.
  • Donating livestock and other assets to the poor.


Main article: Somalian architecture

Somali architecture is a rich and diverse tradition of engineering and designing involving multiple different construction types, such as stone cities, castles, citadels, fortresses, mosques, temples, aqueducts, lighthouses, towers and tombs. Spanning the ancient, medieval and early modern periods in Somalia, it also includes the fusion of Somalo-Islamic architecture with Western designs in contemporary times.

In ancient Somalia, pyramidical structures known in Somali as taalo were a popular burial style, with hundreds of these drystone monuments scattered around the country today. Houses were built of dressed stone similar to the ones in Ancient Egypt.[36] There are also examples of courtyards and large stone walls like the Wargaade Wall enclosing settlements.

The peaceful introduction of Islam in the early medieval era of Somalia's history brought Islamic architectural influences from Arabia and Persia. This had the effect of stimulating a shift in construction from drystone and other related materials to coral stone, sundried bricks, and the widespread use of limestone in Somali architecture. Many of the new architectural designs, such as mosques, were built on the ruins of older structures. This practice would continue over and over again throughout the following centuries.[125]

Somali studies

Main article: Somali Studies

The scholarly term for research concerning Somalis and Somalia is known as Somali Studies. It consists of several disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, linguistics, historiography and archaeology. The field draws from old Somali chronicles and oral literature, in addition to written accounts and traditions about Somalis and Somalia from European explorers and neighbouring regions in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Since 1980, prominent Somalist scholars from around the world have gathered annually, either in Somalia or a different country, to hold the International Congress of Somali Studies.

Somalist scholars

See also



  • Hanley, Gerald, Warriors: Life and Death Among the Somalis, (Eland Publishing Ltd, 2004)

External links

  • Ethnologue population estimates for Somali speakers
  • US Library of Congress Country Study of Somalia
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