Religious Orders and the Cult of the Saints

Somalia Table of Contents

Religious orders have played a significant role in Somali Islam. The rise of these orders (turuq; sing., tariqa, "way" or "path") was connected with the development of Sufism, a mystical current in Islam that began during the ninth and tenth centuries and reached its height during the twelfth and thirteenth. In Somalia Sufi orders appeared in towns during the fifteenth century and rapidly became a revitalizing force. Followers of Sufism seek a closer personal relationship to God through special spiritual disciplines. Escape from self is facilitated by poverty, seclusion, and other forms of self-denial. Members of Sufi orders are commonly called dervishes (from the Persian plural, daraawish; sing., darwish, one who gave up worldly concerns to dedicate himself to the service of God and community). Leaders of branches or congregations of these orders are given the Arabic title shaykh, a term usually reserved for these learned in Islam and rarely applied to ordinary wadaddo.

Dervishes wandered from place to place, teaching and begging. They are best known for their ceremonies, called dhikr, in which states of visionary ecstasy are induced by group- chanting of religious texts and by rhythmic gestures, dancing, and deep breathing. The object is to free oneself from the body and to be lifted into the presence of God. Dervishes have been important as founders of agricultural religious communities called jamaat (sing., jamaa). A few of these were home to celibate men only, but usually the jamaat were inhabited by families. Most Somalis were nominal members of Sufi orders but few underwent the rigors of devotion to the religious life, even for a short time.

Three Sufi orders were prominent in Somalia. In order of their introduction into the country, they were the Qadiriyah, the Ahmadiyah-Idrisiyah, and the Salihiyah. The Rifaiyah, an offshoot of the Qadiriyah, was represented mainly among Arabs resident in Mogadishu.

The Qadiriyah, the oldest order in Islam, was founded in Baghdad by Abd al Qadir al Jilani in 1166 and introduced into Harer (Ethiopia) in the fifteenth century. During the eighteenth century, it was spread among the Oromo and Somalis of Ethiopia, often under the leadership of Somali shaykhs. Its earliest known advocate in northern Somalia was Shaykh Abd ar Rahman az Zeilawi, who died in 1883. At that time, Qadiriyah adherents were merchants in the ports and elsewhere. In a separate development, the Qadiriyah order also spread into the southern Somali port cities of Baraawe and Mogadishu at an uncertain date. In 1819 Shaykh Ibrahim Hassan Jebro acquired land on the Jubba River and established a religious center in the form of a farming community, the first Somali jamaa.

Outstanding figures of the Qadiriyah in Somalia included Shaykh Awes Mahammad Baraawi (d. 1909), who spread the teaching of the order in the southern interior. He wrote much devotional poetry in Arabic and attempted to translate traditional hymns from Arabic into Somali, working out his own phonetic system. Another was Shaykh Abdirrahman Abdullah of Mogadishu, who stressed deep mysticism. Because of his reputation for sanctity, his tomb at Mogadishu became a pilgrimage center for the Shabeelle area and his writings continued to be circulated by his followers in the early 1990s.

The Ahmadiyah-Idrisiyah order was founded by Ahmad ibn Idris al Fasi (1760-1837) of Mecca. It was brought to Somalia by Shaykh Ali Maye Durogba of Merca, a distinguished poet who joined the order during a pilgrimage to Mecca. His visions and the miracles attributed to him gained him a reputation for sanctity, and his tomb became a popular objective among pilgrims. The AhmadiyahIdrisiyah , the smallest of the three orders, has few ritual requirements beyond some simple prayers and hymns. During its ceremonies, however, participants often go into trances.

A conflict over the leadership of the Ahmadiyah-Idrisiyah among its Arab founders led to the establishment of the Salihiyah in 1887 by Muhammad ibn Salih. The order spread first among the Somalis of the Ogaden area of Ethiopia, who entered Somalia about 1880. The Salihiyah's most active proselytizer was Shaykh Mahammad Guled ar Rashidi, who became a regional leader. He settled among the Shidle people (Bantu-speakers occupying the middle reaches of the Shabeelle River), where he obtained land and established a jamaa. Later he founded another jamaa among the Ajuran (a section of the Hawiye clanfamily ) and then returned to establish still another community among the Shidle before his death in 1918. Perhaps the best known Somali Salihiyah figure was Mahammad Abdille Hasan, leader of a lengthy resistance to the British until 1920.

Generally, the Salihiyah and the Ahmadiyah-Idrisiyah leaders were more interested in the establishment of jamaat along the Shabeelle and Jubba rivers and the fertile land between them than in teaching because few were learned in Islam. Their early efforts to establish farming communities resulted in cooperative cultivation and harvesting and some effective agricultural methods. In Somalia's riverine region, for example, only jamaat members thought of stripping the brush from areas around their fields to reduce the breeding places of tsetse flies.

Local leaders of brotherhoods customarily asked lineage heads in the areas where they wished to settle for permission to build their mosques and communities. A piece of land was usually freely given; often it was an area between two clans or one in which nomads had access to a river. The presence of a jamaa not only provided a buffer zone between two hostile groups, but also caused the giver to acquire a blessing since the land was considered given to God. Tenure was a matter of charity only, however, and sometimes became precarious in case of disagreements. No statistics were available in 1990 on the number of such settlements, but in the 1950s there were more than ninety in the south, with a total of about 35,000 members. Most were in the Bakool, Gedo, and Bay regions or along the middle and lower Shabeelle River. There were few jamaat in other regions because the climate and soil did not encourage agricultural settlements.

Membership in a brotherhood is theoretically a voluntary matter unrelated to kinship. However, lineages are often affiliated with a specific brotherhood and a man usually joins his father's order. Initiation is followed by a ceremony during which the order's dhikr is celebrated. Novices swear to accept the branch head as their spiritual guide.

Each order has its own hierarchy that is supposedly a substitute for the kin group from which the members have separated themselves. Veneration is given to previous heads of the order, known as the Chain of Blessing, rather than to ancestors. This practice is especially followed in the south, where place of residence tends to have more significance than lineage.

Leaders of orders and their branches and of specific congregations are said to have baraka, a state of blessedness implying an inner spiritual power that is inherent in the religious office and may cling to the tomb of a revered leader, who, upon death, is considered a saint. However, some saints are venerated because of their religious reputations whether or not they were associated with an order or one of its communities. Sainthood also has been ascribed to others because of their status as founders of clans or large lineages. Northern pastoral nomads are likely to honor lineage founders as saints; sedentary Somalis revere saints for their piety and baraka.

Because of the saint's spiritual presence at his tomb, pilgrims journey there to seek aid (such as a cure for illness or infertility). Members of the saint's order also visit the tomb, particularly on the anniversaries of his birth and death.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress