“[J]ihad united Somali clans against a common enemy, the foreign “infidels,” Ethiopian and European,” according to Fae Miller in a study on the influences of Islam on Somali society (p. 58). While Jihad is only one aspect of Islam; Somalia has been a predominately Muslim country for centuries. It is impossible to examine Somali culture without appreciating the power of clan dynamics and religion and how pervasive they are. Miller’s observation depicts how Islam has been a unifying force susceptible to exploitation from the Abyssinian-Adal War to modern day Al-Shabaab.
Regardless of generation spanning clan rivalries, Islam has been “the unifying force capable of transcending clan lines” (Terdman, 2008, p. 11). The examination of the historical context that allowed the Adal Sultanate to unite Somali clans under the banner of Islam to conquer huge swaths of the Ethiopian Empire and later how Al-Shabaab united Somalis on a larger scale to fight AMISOM and European forces demonstrates the magnitude of influence Islam has on the Somali culture.
With an understanding of the historical and social context that allows the application of clan dynamics and religion to accomplish ideological ambitions; conclusions may be drawn on how Al-Shabaab will transform to maintain relevancy and how clan dynamics and religion may be exploited against Al-Shabaab. The Abyssinian-Adal War took place in modern day Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. What began as a conquest between Muslims from the Adal Sultanate and Christians of the Solomon Dynasty of Abyssinia, eventually evolved into a bloody war that lasted three decades.
With assistance from the Portuguese, Abyssinia was able to retake lost ground and drive the Sultanate back to the northern coasts of Africa. This resulted in a powerful empire losing interest in expansion to the south, but also left a majority of Ethiopia open to an influx of migrants from the south. During the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire, under Kanuni Suleyman I, expanded further south beyond the Mediterranean and Red Seas into Northern Africa.
During this time, the Muslim Adalites, led by the Somali leader Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi began the “Futuh Al-Habash” (conquest of Abyssinia) to defeat the Christian Aksum (Abyssinians or Ethiopians). This was the first time the Abyssinians were forced to fight against adversaries outfitted with firearms. Al-Ghazi’s army was mainly comprised of Somalis and with augmented support from the Ottomans; they would come very close to eradicating the historic Aksum. The Adalite Army would continue its conquest until the arrival of a Portuguese expedition led by Cristovao de Gama in 1541.
The Aksum at the start of the war were led by Dawit II and had an army that far outnumbered al-Ghazi and his soldiers (Pride, 2013). He would be succeeded after death by his son, Gelawdewos. The battle of Shimbra Kure in March of 1529 was one of the first great victories by the Adalites. It raised the smaller force’s morale and proved they could stand up to a superior force. For the next two years, the Adalites continued small skirmishes with the Abyssinians but remained beyond the Ethiopian highlands until the battles of Antukyah and Amba Sel in 1531.
Antukya was fought approximately 55 miles south of Lake Hayq and would give al-Ghazi and his army a significant tactical advantage and the momentum needed to gain sizeable territory in Ethiopia from the north. This allowed the Adalites to move into the Ethiopian highlands, where they would kill thousands of soldiers, destroy several historic churches, and oppress the Christian Amhara and Tigray population. Amba Sel was fought by Adalites that traveled from the south. These two battles allowed the Adalites to conquer major parts of Ethiopia in the north as well as the south (Pride, 2013).
After the death of Emperor Dawit II in 1540, his son Gelawdewos became emperor and for one year his army made several successful attacks on the Adalite garrisons in the Ethiopian highlands. Most believe he was doomed from the start of his reign due to his age. One year after his father’s death, Gelawdewos was defeated in the battle of Sahart in 1541, forcing him to flee south on a month long escape over the Abay river to Gindabret. In February that same year, a Portuguese fleet sailed from Portuguese India through the Ottoman controlled Red Sea, landing in Massawa (Eritrea).
This was after many months of Ethiopian pleas for assistance. Led by Cristovao de Gama, he and 400 soldiers journeyed to Northern Ethiopia to support their fellow Christians in battling the Adalite forces (Pride, 2013). The two day battle of Jarte in April 1542 resulted in another Portuguese victory, loosening al-Ghazi’s hold in the north. In August, de Gama would be victorious in the Battle of the Hill of Jews. De Gama’s successful campaign was cut short on August 28th 1542, during the Battle of Wofla. It was here that he was defeated and while trying to flee, was captured and taken to al-Ghazi directly.
Al-Ghazi tortured de Gama and eventually beheaded him. It was after this victory he sent away the Ottoman support (Pride, 2013). While de Gama and the Portuguese were gaining ground in the North, Emperor Gelawdewos made his way back to the capital of Aksum. After hearing of the death of de Gama, he traveled to the place where the Battle of the Hill of Jews took place. It was here that the Portuguese survivors from Wofla took refuge. Gelawdewos, so impressed with the fierceness of the Portuguese, that he vowed to take the fight to al-Ghazi once and for all.
The Battle of Wayna Daga in February 1543 occurred east of Lake Tana. Led by Gelawdewos, the Ethiopians and Portuguese defeated the Adalite army. It was here that Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi was finally killed. Once the Adalites learned of their leader’s death, the remaining soldiers fled (Pride, 2013). While the origin of Somali people is uncertain and often debated by historians, many agree and trace their origins back to Southeastern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya during the first millennium B. C. E. ith mass migration occurring into the Horn of Africa over the next 100 years. Arabs came from the north and the Arabian Peninsula starting around C. E. 600 introducing Islam to East Africa and establishing trading posts and Arab settlements along the Horn and down the Indian Ocean coastline. Before this period, Somalis worshipped many different Gods in a hierarchal structure, and even believed in some mysticism and magic. The remnants of this ancient theology can still be found today, with many Somali Muslims practicing Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam.
Mogadishu, which is Somalia’s capital city, was among the first known Arab settlements in East Africa because of the favorable port trade. This resulted in virtually absolute control of gold trade in the region, adding to the amount of Arab wealth and influence in the area (Metz, 1993, p. 3-5). Ahmad al-Ya’qubi was a Muslim geographer and historian during the ninth century and is regarded as the first true recorder of Islamic history in the medieval period.
Al-Ya’qubi wrote of Muslims living along the northern Somalia seaboard as well as the Adal Kingdom basing its capital in the same area in the late 800’s (Guardian Research Dept, 2012, para 9-12). The majority of Somalia consisted of devout Muslims practicing Islam by the early 1100’s, and by the fourteenth century nearly every Somali was Muslim. This led to a religious alliance between Somalis and Arabs to fight a holy war against Ethiopian Christians during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, playing a major role in the Adal-Abyssinian War.
Somali leaders defeated Ethiopian forces with the goal of conquering Abyssinia. Somali-led armies nearly eradicated the existence of the Christian Ethiopian Empire during the Futuh al-Habash or Conquest of Abyssinia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Today, Somalia is comprised of over 99 percent Sunni Muslims and less than one percent Christians. The unique dynamic of ancient theology merging with Islam resulted in the first indigenous tribal founders being hailed thereafter as Islamic Saints.
Additionally, pre-Islamic landmarks and shrines once believed to be angels or demons dedicated to the Gods where ancient Somalis prayed and sacrificed were re-established as Islamic holy places (Viola, 2011, para. 1-3). Islam has traditionally been and continues to be a major influence in the lives of Somalis, while they are Sunni Muslims; they also incorporate Sufi spiritualism into their practice of Islam. This includes chants, dances, and chewing qat which can cause a trance-like effect enhancing one’s ability perhaps to connect with and communicate with Allah.
Somalis also believe in Jinn, mortal spirits whom can cause illness, misfortune or good fortune depending upon your commitment to faith. Somalis are influenced by their Muslim leaders more-so than other Muslims because a majority believes that religious leaders have the power to bless or curse people, a power given by Allah called Baraka. This Sufi dynamic in Somali-based Islam provides good insight into how leaders of the Adal Empire and Al-Shabaab can have a much greater power of influence over Somali Muslims and Somali culture as a whole.
Dr. Andre Le Sage, a Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University and noted expert on Somali clan dynamics stated that “clan structures everything, but determines nothing” (p. 5). According to Dr. Le Sage, there is danger in both overplaying and underplaying clan dynamics in Somalia. On the one hand, many other factors are integral in truly understanding Somali society, such as class, professional status, gender, elite interests, and education level.
On the other hand, all decisions, actions, and reactions are viewed in clan terms, more specifically which clan(s) lose or win as a result (Le Sage, 2015, p. ). If one is going to attempt to truly understand Somali society, one must first delve into the two factors that make up the society, religion and tribal dynamics. Islam, clan identity, and clan rivalry are what drive politics, state success or failure, and even Al-Shabaab’s influence in Somalia. While Al-Shabaab makes claims of “transcending clan politics”, the simple truth is that without the manipulation of clan alliances and rivalry, the group would not have the power and influence it currently holds.
Al-Shabaab has been and remains deeply involved in local tribal dynamics and clan rules apply to Al-Shabaab regional leadership as much as it does anyone else (Black & Schaefer, 2011, para. 1-2). Clans in Somalia are not divided by clearly-cut boundaries or state lines, but are rather overlapping in areas and in some cases are even spread up and down the eastern coastline or throughout the country. This does not change the fact that certain major clans and sub-clans hold influence and power in specific regions.
The capital city of Mogadishu for example, is shared by Hawiye sub-clans and just to the west the Rahanweyne hold sway over the areas surrounding Baidoa in the Bakool regions. Puntland was established and is dominated by sub-clans of Darood while the Isaaq clan controls Somaliland. The significance of these divisions lie in the struggle for power, influence, and resources by each clan, as well as for Al-Shabaab to be successful they must also abide by these clan rules and divisions.
Clan affiliation is ingrained in Somalis from birth and is considered as important as religion. The ability to influence and control clan-dominated areas in Somalia vary greatly based upon clan dynamics. Traditionally, the regions that have seen both the most stability and the strongest opposition to Al-Shabaab are regions dominated by a specific clan, namely Puntland and Somaliland which are controlled by the Darod and Isaaq clans respectively. These areas have enjoyed a more stable society and some form of organized governance as opposed to the southern states.
The instability in the south is mostly attributed to urbanization, clan divisions, and violence which make it significantly more challenging to establish a legitimate governing body. With semi-successful examples of legitimacy and local government in the North with Somaliland and Puntland, it is clear that understanding and taking into account these complex tribal clan dynamics must be at the forefront of any effort to establish legitimate government in Somalia.
The hopes of an eventual solution to building a successful state in Somalia will have to include these clans and build from the bottom up (Kaplan, 2013, para. 6). Clan affiliation is as much of a pillar of Somali society as is Islam, so to approach the problems facing Somalia without studying and analyzing clan structure would be to push against the very aspect that has proven to be pivotal in its success.