Somalis are an ethnic group belonging to the Cushitic peoples native to Greater Somalia. The overwhelming majority of Somalis speak the Somali language, which is part of the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic (formerly Hamito-Semitic) family. They are predominantly Sunni Muslim. Ethnic Somalis are principally concentrated in Somalia (around 12.3 million), Ethiopia (4.6 million), Kenya (2.8 million), and Djibouti (534,000). Somali diasporas are also found in parts of the Middle East, North America, Western Europe, African Great Lakes region, Southern Africa and Oceania.
Origin of the Name Somali
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. Another plausible etymology proposes that the term Somali is derived from the Arabic for "wealthy" (dhawamaal), again referring to Somali riches in livestock.
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 — as Po-pa-li. 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.
Ethnic Somalis speak Somali language known as Af-Soomaali, a branch of Cushitic language that belongs to the larger Afro-Asiatic language phylum. It is specifically a Lowland East Cushitic language along with its nearest relatives, the Afar and Saho languages. Somali is the best documented of the Cushitic languages, with academic studies of it dating from before 1900.
Somali which is the second most widely spoken Cushitic language after Oromo, is spoken by over 19 million ethnic Somalis in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya, and by the Somali diaspora. It is also spoken as an adoptive language by a few neighboring ethnic minority groups and individuals. Somali is also an official language of the Federal Republic of Somalia (95%), a national language in Djibouti (80%), and a working language in the Somali region of Ethiopia.
Traditionally, Somalis were nomadic cattle herders and later some of them became fishermen. The majority of Somalis are working in the agricultural sector. Agriculture in Somaliland can be divided into three sub-sectors. The first is nomadic pastoralism, which is practiced outside the cultivation areas. This sector, focused on raising goats, sheep, camels, and cattle, has become increasingly market-oriented. The second sector is the traditional, chiefly subsistence, agriculture practiced by small farmers. This traditional sector takes two forms: rain-fed farming in the south and northwest, which raises sorghum, often with considerable head of livestock; and small irrigated farms along the rivers, which produce corn (maize), sesame, cowpeas, and—near towns—vegetables and fruits. The third sector consists of market-oriented farming on medium- and large-scale irrigated plantations along the lower Jubba and Shabeelle rivers. There the major crops are bananas, sugarcane, rice, cotton, vegetables, grapefruit, mangoes, and papayas.
The acacia species of the thorny savanna in southern Somalia supply good timber and are the major source of charcoal, but charcoal production has long exceeded ecologically acceptable limits. More efficient and careful handling of frankincense, myrrh, and other resin-exuding trees could increase yields of aromatic gums.
The industry that does exist is almost all small scale and produces products that are sold at local markets rather than exported overseas. In a lot of ways Somalia may well be a model for how to build an economy in a very poor third world country. The total lack of government involvement has proven beneficial in a number of ways.
The ethnic Somali’s small fishing sector revolves around the catch and canning of tunny (tuna) and mackerel in the north. Sharks are often caught and sold dried by artisanal inshore fishers. In southern Somalia choice fish and shellfish are processed for export. In the early 21st century, Somalia’s fishing industry was affected by climate change, overfishing, and increasing incidents of piracy along the coasts.
The bulk of Somalia foreign exchange comes in the form of remittances from Somalis working abroad, mainly in Middle East. Again this is quite an accomplishment given that there are no banks in the country. An informal banking sector has sprung up to handle these transactions. The Somalis have proven to be remarkably resilient.
In precolonial times, land claims were made by families and through bargaining among clan members. During European colonization, Italians established plantations in the riverine area and settled many poor Italian families on the land to raise crops. Since independence much of this land has been farmed by Somalis.
Somali nomads consider pastureland available to all, but if a family digs a water well, it is considered their possession. Under Siad Barre's socialist regime there was an effort to lease privately owned land to government cooperatives, but Somalis resented working land they did not own. Some land was sold in urban areas, but grazing land continued to be shared.
In traditional Samaal clans, men and older boys do the important work of tending camels and cattle, the most valuable animals. Girls and young boys tend sheep and goats. Somali men are considered warriors ( waranle ), except for those few who choose the religious life. Adult men are also expected to serve on their clan-family council. Urban men may work as businessmen, blacksmiths, craftsmen, fishermen, or factory workers.
Women in nomadic clans are responsible for caring for children, cooking, and moving the family aqal. Women and girls in farming clans are responsible for planting and harvesting crops, caring for children, and cooking. Urban women may hold jobs in shops or offices or may run their own business.
Somali women are expected to submit to men and to fulfill their duties as daughters, wives, and mothers. Although they do not wear the Muslim veil, they generally do not socialize with men in public places. Somali women living in the cities, especially those educated in other countries, dress and behave more like Western women.
Given the right to vote in newly independent Somalia, women began to take an active interest in politics and served on government committees and the People's Assembly. They served in military units and played sports. Opportunities for secondary and higher education had increased for women before the collapse of the government in 1991.
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 divided into sub-clans and sub-sub-clans, resulting in extended families.
They are family trees of male descendants, that generally do not consider the roles of women, unless a man has more than one wife and there is a distinction between his sons by different wives. However, this does not mean that women have no importance in such male hierarchies. Rather, there are subtle roles for women, that differ in the clan structures from one ethnic group to another ethnic group.
Among the Somali clans, a man is free to marry a member of his own clan or sub-clan, a member of any other clan or sub-clan, or a non-Somali. As Muslims, Somali men are allowed to be married up to a maximum of 4 wives at one time, but economic conditions seldom allow them to have more than 1 or 2 wives at one time. When a man dies, a brother sometimes marries the widow as a part of assuring social security within the extended family.
Intermarriage among clans and subclans also has important political functions. When a small group from one clan moves into a territory dominated by another clan, it is prudent for their men to marry women from the larger clan, and vice versa, in order achieve peaceful relations.
The importance of a given clan or subclan depends more upon the size of the clan or subclan and its wealth, usually measured by the number of animals that it owns, rather than the age of the clan or position of the founding father in the Somali family hierarchy. Small clans may effectively merge with larger clans for survival and small clans also often live for long periods of time interspersed within a larger clan, as if they were members of that clan.
"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 (Majeerteen 2, Ogaden 1)"
The Samaal (Zumali) believe that their clan-family is superior to the Saab. The Saab clan-family developed a caste system that awards status to different groups based on their heritage or occupation.
Lower-class groups among the Digil and Rahanwayn were identified by occupation. The largest group was the midgaan (a derogatory name), who served as barbers, circumcisers, and hunters. The Tumaal were blacksmiths and metalworkers.
The Yibir served as fortune-tellers and makers of protective amulets and charms. In the late twentieth century, many from these groups found work in towns and cities and raised their status, and the old arrangements whereby they served certain clans had largely disappeared by the 1990s.
Major Somali clans include:
Among the nomads, wealthier men were traditionally those who owned more camels and other livestock. Warriors and priests were considered to have the most prestigious vocations. In some Rahanwayn and Digil settlements, members are divided between Darkskins and Lightskins, with those of darker skins having slightly more prestige in ceremonies, although the two are considered equal in other ways.
By 2000, education, income, and the ability to speak foreign languages had become standards by which status was attained among urban Somalis.
Somali marriages have traditionally been considered a bond between not just a man and a woman but also between clans and families. Until very recently, most Somali marriages were arranged, usually between an older man with some wealth and the father of a young woman he wished to wed. These customs still hold true in many rural areas in the twenty-first century. The man pays a bride price—usually in livestock or money—to the woman's family. Samaal traditionally marry outside their family lineage, or, if within the lineage, separated from the man by six or more generations. Saab follow the Arab tradition of marrying within the father's family lineage, with first cousins often marrying. A Somali bride often lives with her husband's family after marriage, with her own parents providing the home and household goods. She keeps her family name, however.
Weddings are joyous occasions, but the couple often signs an agreement giving the bride a certain amount of property should the couple divorce, which is common in Somalia. The husband holds the property in trust for her. Tradition calls for the wife to relinquish her right to the property if she initiates the divorce.
Islamic law permits a man to have up to four wives if he can provide them and their children with equal support. If a man repeats three times to his wife, "I divorce you," the couple is considered divorced. The wife is given a three-month grace period, however, in case she should be pregnant.
Today many urban Somalis choose a mate based on love and common interests rather than accepting an arranged marriage.
The Somali domestic unit consists of a man, his wife or wives, and their children. Elderly or unmarried relatives may live with the family. In homes with more than one wife, each wife usually lives with her children in her own house, and the husband and father divides his time among them. In the case of a divorce, children usually remain with their mother. The male is considered the head of the household, except where it is headed by a divorced or widowed woman.
Inheritance passes from father to son in Somali families. A wife remains a part of her father's lineage, while her children belong to her husband's lineage.
Under Islamic law, daughters are entitled to inherit half of what sons get, but in Somali society daughters usually did not receive valuable animals or land. Under Siad Barre's regime, social reforms included equal inheritance rights for women, although this was opposed by some Islamic leaders.
Somali society is based on a clan-family structure. The two major clan groups are the Samaal (or Samale) and the Saab (or Sab), named for two brothers who are said to have been members of the prophet Muhammad's tribe, the Quraysh of Arabia. Many Somalis believe that their ancestor from Old Testament times was Noah's son Ham.
The Samaal, which make up about three-quarters of the Somali population, are divided into four main clan-families: the Dir, Daarood, Isaaq, and Hawiye. The Saab are divided into the Digil and Rahanwayn clan-families. Major clans can have thousands of members, each claiming descent from a common ancestor. These clans are subdivided into subclans and into primary lineage groups. Somali men trace their membership in a particular clan-family through their patrilineage, going back a dozen or more generations. Clan groups with the longest ancestry have the most prestige. Clans and subclans are associated with the territory they occupy for most of the year.
With few exceptions, Somalis are entirely Muslims, the majority belonging to the Sunni branch of Islam and the Shafi`i school of Islamic jurisprudence, although some are also adherents of the Shia Muslim denomination. Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, is also well-established, with many local jama'a (zawiya) or congregations of the various tariiqa or Sufi orders. The constitution of Somalia likewise defines Islam as the religion of the Somali Republic, and Islamic Sharia as the basic source for national legislation.
Islam entered the region very early on, as a group of persecuted Muslims had, at Prophet Muhummad's urging, sought refuge across the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa. Islam may thus have been introduced into Somalia well before the faith even took root in its place of origin.
Although Somalian women were initially excluded from the many male-dominated religious orders, the all-female institution Abay Siti was formed in the late 19th century, incorporating Somali tradition and Islam.
In addition, the Somali community has produced numerous important Islamic figures over the centuries, many of whom have significantly shaped the course of Muslim learning and practice in the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and well beyond. Among these Islamic scholars is the 14th century Somali theologian and jurist Uthman bin Ali Zayla'i of Zeila, who wrote the single most authoritative text on the Hanafi school of Islam, consisting of four volumes known as the Tabayin al-Haqa’iq li Sharh Kanz al-Daqa’iq. Christianity is a minority religion in Somalia, with over 1,000 practitioners.
Unlike other Muslims, Somalis believe that both their religious and secular leaders have the power to bless and to curse people. This power, believed to be given by Allah, is called baraka . Baraka is believed to linger at the tombs of Somali saints and to help cure illness and resolve other troubles upon a visit to the tomb. Islamic teachers and mosque officials make up a large portion of religious practitioners (Islam has no priests).
Somali followers of Sufiism, given the name Dervishes, dedicate themselves to a life of religion by preaching Islam and giving up all possessions. The Sufi are also known for the farming communities and religious centers they established in southern Somalia, called jamaat.
Among nomads, a respected male leader or religious devotee might be appointed wadad. His duties are to lead prayers and to perform ritual sacrifices on religious holidays and special occasions. He also learns folk astronomy, which is used for healing, divination, and to determine times for migration.
Other religious practitioners include the Yibir clan of the Saab. Yibir practitioners are called on to exorcise spirits and restore health, good fortune, or prosperity to individuals through prayers and ceremonies, including animal sacrifice.
Mosques can be found in all Somali cities and towns. Nomads worship wherever they are, with men and women praying and studying the Qur'an separately. In accordance with Islam, Somalis are to pray five times each day, facing Mecca. They should recite the creed of Islam and observe zakat, or giving to the poor, if able. They should make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once and should observe the fast of Ramadan.
Tombs of the Somali holy men or sheiks, venerated as saints, have become national shrines. Pilgrims visit on the saint's annual feast day, usually in the month of his birth, when his power is believed to be the strongest.
Religious holidays include the Islamic holidays of Ramadan (the month of fasting); Id al-Fitr (the Little Feast); the First of Muharram (when an angel is said to shake the tree of life and death); Maulid an-Nabi (the birth of the prophet Muhammad); and Id al-Adha (commemorating the story of Abraham and his son Ishmael). Islamic holidays fall at different times of year according to the Islamic calendar. Holidays are celebrated with feasting and storytelling, visiting graves, giving to the poor, parades, plays, and ceremonies.
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 delicacies. 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 festive 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. After meals, homes are traditionally perfumed using frankincense (lubaan) or incense (cuunsi), which is prepared inside an incense burner referred to as a dabqaad.
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 instances in the past of artistic depictions representing living creatures such as the golden birds on the Mogadishan canopies, the camels and horses on 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.
Men: When not dressed in Westernized clothing such as jeans and t-shirts, Somali men typically wear the macawis (ma'awiis), 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 taqiyah.
Due to Somalia's proximity to and close ties with the Arabian Peninsula, many Somali men also wear the khamis (kamis in Somali), a long white garment common in the Arab world.
Women: During regular, day-to-day activities, women in Somalia usually wear the guntiino, a long stretch of cloth tied over the shoulder and draped around the waist. The guntiino is traditionally made out of plain white fabric sometimes featuring with decorative borders, although nowadays alindi, a textile common in the Horn of Africa region and some parts of North Africa, is more frequently used.
The garment can be worn in many different styles and with different fabrics. For more formal settings such as weddings or religious celebrations like Eid, women wear the dirac, a long, light, diaphanous voile dress made of cotton, polyester or saree fabric. The dirac is related to the short-sleeved Arabian kaftan dress. 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.
Married women tend to sport head-scarves referred to as shash, 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 is also commonly worn.
Additionally, Somali women have a long tradition of wearing gold and silver jewelry, particularly bangles. During weddings, the bride is frequently adorned in gold. Many Somali women by tradition also wear gold necklaces and anklets. Xirsi, a quranic necklace, also worn in countries such as Ethiopia and Yemen, is also frequently worn.
Henna is another 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 ceremony takes place.
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")
Somalis hold the Muslim view that each person will be judged by Allah in the afterlife. They also believe that a tree representing all Muslims grows at the boundary between Earth and Heaven (some believe the boundary is on the Moon). Each person is represented by a leaf on the tree. When an angel shakes the tree on the first day of the new year, in the Islamic month of Muharram, it is said that those whose leaves fall off will die within the coming year. Muslims also believe that a person who dies while fasting during Ramadan is especially blessed by Allah.
When a Somali dies, feasting and celebration are held, as they are at a birth. A Somali wife must mourn her husband's death in seclusion at home for four months and ten days, according to Islamic practice.