Islam in the Colonial Era and After

Somalia Table of Contents

Because Muslims believe that their faith was revealed in its complete form to the Prophet Muhammad, it has been difficult to adapt Islam to the social, economic, and political changes that began with the expansion of colonial rule in the late nineteenth century. Some modifications have occurred, however. One response was to stress a return to orthodox Muslim traditions and to oppose Westernization totally. The Sufi brotherhoods were at the forefront of this movement, personified in Somalia by Mahammad Abdille Hasan in the early 1900s. Generally, the leaders of Islamic orders opposed the spread of Western education.

Another response was to reform Islam by reinterpreting it. From this perspective, early Islam was seen as a protest against abuse, corruption, and inequality; reformers therefore attempted to prove that Muslim scriptures contained all elements needed to deal with modernization. To this school of thought belongs Islamic socialism, identified particularly with Egyptian nationalist Gamal Abdul Nasser (1918-70). His ideas appealed to a number of Somalis, especially those who had studied in Cairo in the 1950s and 1960s.

The 1961 constitution guaranteed freedom of religion but also declared the newly independent republic an Islamic state. The first two postindependence governments paid lip service to the principles of Islamic socialism but made relatively few changes. The coup of October 21, 1969, installed a radical regime committed to profound change. Shortly afterward, Stella d'Ottobre, the official newspaper of the SRC, published an editorial about relations between Islam and socialism and the differences between scientific and Islamic socialism. Islamic socialism was said to have become a servant of capitalism and neocolonialism and a tool manipulated by a privileged, rich, and powerful class. In contrast, scientific socialism was based on the altruistic values that inspired genuine Islam. Religious leaders should therefore leave secular affairs to the new leaders who were striving for goals that conformed with Islamic principles. Soon after, the government arrested several protesting religious leaders and accused them of counterrevolutionary propaganda and of conniving with reactionary elements in the Arabian Peninsula. The authorities also dismissed several members of religious tribunals for corruption and incompetence.

When the Three-Year Plan, 1971-73, was launched in January 1971, SRC leaders felt compelled to win the support of religious leaders so as to transform the existing social structure. On September 4, 1971, Siad Barre exhorted more than 100 religious teachers to participate in building a new socialist society. He criticized their method of teaching in Quranic schools and charged some with using religion for personal profit.

The campaign for scientific socialism intensified in 1972. On the occasion of Id al Adha, the major Muslim festival associated with the pilgrimage, the president defined scientific socialism as half practical work and half ideological belief. He declared that work and belief were compatible with Islam because the Quran condemned exploitation and moneylending and urged compassion, unity, and cooperation among Muslims. But he stressed the distinction between religion as an ideological instrument for the manipulation of power and as a moral force. He condemned the antireligious attitude of Marxists. Religion, Siad Barre said, was an integral part of the Somali worldview, but it belonged in the private sphere, whereas scientific socialism dealt with material concerns such as poverty. Religious leaders should exercise their moral influence but refrain from interfering in political or economic matters.

In early January 1975, evoking the message of equality, justice, and social progress contained in the Quran, Siad Barre announced a new family law that gave women the right to inheritance on an equal basis with men. Some Somalis believe the law was proof that the SRC wanted to undermine the basic structure of Islamic society. In Mogadishu twenty-three religious leaders protested inside their mosques. They were arrested and charged with acting at the instigation of a foreign power and with violating state security; ten were executed. Most religious leaders, however, kept silent. The government continued to organize training courses for shaykhs in scientific socialism.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress