The Isaaq (also Isaq, Ishaak, Isaac) is a Somali clan. It is one of the major Somali clans in the Horn of Africa, with a large and densely populated traditional territory.
According to some genealogical books and Somali tradition, the Isaaq clan was founded in the 13th or 14th century with the arrival of Sheikh Ishaaq Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al Hashimi (Sheikh Ishaaq) from Arabia, a descendant of Ali ibn Abi Talib in Maydh. He settled in the coastal town of Maydh in modern-day northeastern Somaliland, where he married into the local Magaadle clan.
There are also numerous existing hagiologies in Arabic which describe Sheikh Ishaaq's travels, works and overall life in modern Somaliland, as well as his movements in Arabia before his arrival. Besides historical sources, one of the more recent printed biographies of Sheikh Ishaaq is the Amjaad of Sheikh Husseen bin Ahmed Darwiish al-Isaaqi as-Soomaali, which was printed in Aden in 1955.
Sheikh Ishaaq's tomb is in Maydh, and is the scene of frequent pilgrimages. Sheikh Ishaaq's mawlid (birthday) is also celebrated every Thursday with a public reading of his manaaqib (a collection of glorious deeds). His Siyaara or pilgrimage is performed annually both within Somaliland and in the diaspora particularly in the Middle East among Isaaq expatriates.
The Isaaq have a very wide and densely populated traditional territory. They live in all 6 regions of Somaliland such as Awdal, Marodi Jeh, Togdheer, Sahil, Sanaag and Sool. They have large settlements in the Somali Region of Ethiopia, mainly on the eastern side of Somali Region also known as the Hawd and formerly Reserve Area which is mainly inhabited by the Isaaq sub-clan members. They also have large settlements in both Kenya and Djibouti, making up a large percentage of the Somali population in these two countries respectively.
The Isaaq clan constitute the largest Somali clan in Somaliland. The populations of five major cities in Somaliland – Hargeisa, Burao, Berbera, Erigavo and Gabiley – are all predominantly Isaaq. They exclusively dominate the Marodi Jeh region, and the Togdheer region, and form a majority of the population inhabiting the western and central areas of Sanaag region, including the regional capital Erigavo. The Isaaq also have a large presence in the western and northern parts of Sool region as well, with Habr Je'lo sub-clan of Isaaq living in the Aynabo district whilst the Habr Yunis subclan of Garhajis lives in the eastern part of Xudun district and the very western part of Las Anod district. They also live in the northeast of the Awdal region, with Saad Muse sub-clan being centered around Lughaya and its environs.
The populations of five major cities in Somaliland – Hargeisa, Burao, Berbera, Erigvo and Gabiley – are predominantly Isaaq.
The Isaaq clan played a prominent role in the Ethiopian-Adal War (1529–1543, referred to as the "Conquest of Abyssinia") in the army of Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, I. M. Lewis noted that only the Habr Magadle division (Ayoub, Garhajis, Habr Awal and Arap) of the Isaaq were mentioned in chronicles of that war written by Shihab Al-Din Ahmad Al-Gizany known as Futuh Al Habash.
The first of the tribes to reach Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi were Habr Magādle of the Isaaq clan with their chieftain Ahmad Gurey Bin Hussain Al-Somali, the Somali commander was noted to be one of Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi's "strongest and most able generals". The Habr Magādle clan were highly appreciated and praised by the leader Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi for their bravery and loyalty.
Long after the collapse of the Adal Sultanate, the Isaaq established successor states, the Isaaq Sultanate and the Habr Yunis Sultanate. These two Sultanates possessed some of the organs and trappings of a traditional integrated state: a functioning bureaucracy, regular taxation in the form of livestock, as well as an army (chiefly consisting of mounted light cavalry). These sultanates also maintained written records of their activities, which still exist.
The Isaaq clan also played a major role in the Dervish movement, with Sultan Nur Aman of the Habr Yunis being fundamental in the inception of the movement. Sultan Nur was the principle agitator that rallied the dervish behind his anti-French Catholic Mission campaign that would become the cause of the dervish uprise. Haji Sudi of the Habr Je'lo was the highest ranking Dervish after Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, he died valiantly defending the Taleh fort during the RAF bombing campaign. The Isaaq sub-clans that were highly known for joining the Dervish movement were from the eastern Habr Yunis and Habr Je'lo sub-clans. These two sub-clans were able to purchase advanced weapons and successfully resist both British Empire and Ethiopian Empire for many years.
The Isaaq clan along with other northern Somali tribes were under British Somaliland protectorate administration from 1884 to 1960. On gaining independence, the Somaliland protectorate decided to form a union with Italian Somalia. The Isaaq clan spearheaded the greater Somalia quest from 1960 to 1991.
During the Somali Civil War, the Isaaq were subjected to a genocidal campaign by Siad Barre's troops (which also included armed Somali refugees from Ethiopia); the death toll has been estimated to be between 50,000 and 200,000.
After the collapse of the Somali Democratic Republic in 1991 the Isaaq-dominated Somaliland declared independence from Somalia as a separate nation.
Historically (and presently to a degree), the wider Isaaq clan were relatively more disposed to trade than their tribal counterparts due in part to their centuries old trade links with the Arabian Peninsula. In view of this imbalance in mercantile experience, other major Somali clans tended to resort to tribal slang terms such as "iidoor", an enviable pejorative roughly meaning trader/exchanger:
Somalis bandied about numerous stereotypes of clan behavior that mirrored these emerging social inequalities. The pejorative slang terms iidoor or kabadhe iidoora (loosely meaning "exchange") reflect Somali disdain for the go-between, the person who amasses wealth through persistence and mercantile skills without firm commitments to anyone else. As the Isaaq became more international and cosmopolitan, their commercial success and achievement ideology aroused suspicion and jealousy, notably among rural Darod who disliked Isaaq self-confidence and made them the target of stereotypes.
This was not lost on the sole president and dictator of the Somali Democratic Republic (1969–1991), Siad Barre, who disliked the Isaaq clan due to their financial independence, thus making it harder to control them:
Siyaad had a deep and personal dislike for the clan. The real reasons can only be guessed at, but in part it was due to his inability to control them. As accomplished business operatives, they had built a society that was not dependant on government largesse. The Isaaq had traditional trade relationships with the nations of the Arabian Peninsula that continued despite the attempts of the government to center all economic activity in Mogadishu. Siyaad did what he could, however, and Isaaq traders were forced to make the long trip to Mogadishu for permits and licenses.
Nevertheless, in the 1970s and 1980s, nearly all of the livestock exports went out through the port of Berbera via Isaaq livestock traders, with the towns of Burao and Yirowe in the interior being home to the largest livestock markets in the Horn of Africa. The entire livestock exports accounted to upwards of 90% of the Somali Republic's entire export figures in a given year, and Berbera's exports alone provided over 75% of the nation's recorded foreign currency income at the time.
In the Isaaq clan-family, component clans are divided into two uterine divisions. The first division is between those lineages descended from sons of Sheikh Ishaaq by a Harari woman – the Habr Habuusheed – and those descended from sons of Sheikh Ishaaq by a Somali woman of the Magaadle sub-clan of the Dir – the Habr Magaadle. Indeed, most of the largest clans of the clan-family are in fact uterine alliances hence the matronymic "Habr" which in archaic Somali means "mother".