Sufism (tasawwuf) is an Islamic modality that emphasizes self-purification and the attainment of spiritually advanced states through the assumption of specific practices and disciplines, typically through affiliation with a particular brotherhood and its leader, a sheikh. Most Somalis today are at least nominal members of a Sufi order and members of the same Sufi order may come from opposing—even warring—clans. Devout members often gather together in residential communities around their sheikh known as jamaat (sing. jamaa’). Common practices include visitations to saints’ tombs, veneration of the Prophet Muhammad and members of his family, and the recitation of litanies (dhikr). Sufi brotherhoods also oversee religious schools for children.
The three most prominent orders in Somalia are the Ahmadiyyah, the Qadiriyyah, and the Salihiyyah. Though Sufi orders are typically apolitical, in 1991, representatives from these orders joined together to form the Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa in order to combat the rising influence of militant Islamism, which is decidedly anti-Sufi.
The Ahmadiyyah order was founded in Mecca by Ahmad Ibn Idris (d. 1837), a reformist Sufi leader and opponent of the rising Wahhabi movement, and was brought to Somalia by Sheikh Ali Maye Durogba (d. 1917).
The Qadiriyyah order was founded in fourteenth century Damascus, and named posthumously for Baghdadi scholar Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d. 1166). It spread across North Africa and the Middle East by the end of the fourteenth century, and to West Africa and Southeast Asia by the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most celebrated Qadiri sheikh in Somalia is Uways al-Barawi (d. 1909), whose annual celebration in southern Somalia draws crowds in the many thousands from both Somalia and Kenya. His followers form a particular branch known as the Uwaysiyyah.
The Salihiyyah Sufi order is a branch of the Ahmadiyyah, founded by Sayyid Muhammad Salih (d. 1917) in Mecca. In Somalia, the most renowned leader of the Salihiyya was Muhammad Abdille Hassan (d. 1920), who transformed the order into a militant anti-colonial movement who members were known as “dervishes.”
Jon Abbink, “The Islamic Courts Union: The ebb and flow of a Somali Islamist movement,” Movers and Shakers: Social Movements in Africa, eds. Stephen Ellis and Ineke Van Kessel (Leiden: Brill, 2009), pp. 87-113.
I. M. Lewis, Saints and Somalis: Popular Islam in a Clan-Based Society (Lawrenceville: The Red Sea Press, 1998), p. 60.
Rima Berns McGown, Muslims in the Diaspora: The Somali Communities of London and Toronto (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), p. 31.
Bernhard Helander, “Somalia,” Islam Outside the Arab World, eds. Ingvar Svanberg and David Westerlung (Abingdon: Routledge, 1999), pp. 37-55.