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Somalia: A Forgotten Past

Black History Month

This month we have put together a series of blogs, that will focus on and celebrate, the rich Islamic history and culture of some of the countries Islamic Relief works in.

In this blog, we will explore the history and culture of Somalia, Islamic Relief has been working in Somalia since 1996.


Country Background:
Independence: 1st July 1960
Population: 15 million (2018)
Religion: Sunni, Islam
Official Languages: Somali, Arabic

Islamic History

Modern-day Somalia was among the first places on the continent to embrace Islam. The earliest mention of Islam in the country came shortly after the first Hijra (migration) in the port city of Zeila, Somaliland. The city hosts Masjid al-Qiblatayn which is the oldest mosque in Somalia, the third oldest in Africa.

Masjid al-Qiblatayn literally means ‘the mosque with two qiblas’ and is one of only a few mosques in the world that feature two mihrabs: one oriented to the north toward Mecca, and the other faced to the northwest toward Jerusalem.  The Ka’bah in the holy city of Mecca is now used by millions of Muslims around the world as the qibla. This was ordained by God in several verses of the Qu’ran revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) in the second Hijri year. Prior to this revelation, the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) and his followers in Medina faced Jerusalem for prayers.

Aside from Zeila, many ancient mosques can also be found in southern Somalia most notably Mogadishu the capital of modern-day Somalia.  Mogadishu was founded by Arab settlers in the 8th century, Ibn Battuta, the famous scholar, and traveler described the city as an Islamic center and an active commercial port on the Banadir coast. The famous 14th-century scholar Ibn Khaldun also noted in his book that Mogadishu was a massive metropolis and claimed the city was very populous with many wealthy merchants.

Notable Islamic Figures

Yusuf bin Ahmad al-Kawneyn

One of the most notable figures in the region is Yusuf bin Ahmad al-Kawneyn, popularly known as Shaykh Abu Barakat al Barbari (‘Blessed Father of Somalia’). He was a 12th Century Islamic Scholar and traveller who was born in the port city of Zeila.  After completing his studies in Iraq, he returned to the region establishing learning centres in Harar Ethiopia, and various cities in southern Somalia all of which were part of the Shafi’i school of thought.

He is known for spreading the Islamic faith, to the Maldives islands, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, after traveling there from Zeila, and was called ‘Al Barakat Al Barbari’ (‘Blessed Father of Somalia’) by the residents of these countries.

Sa’id min Mogadishu

Sa’id min Mogadishu was a 14th-century scholar and traveler. Aside from his scholastic work, Sa’id traveled the world, including visiting Bengal and China. He also went to India, where he stayed in a mosque and met Ibn Battuta.

According to some scholars when Sa’id and Ibn Battuta met in India they had a long conversation in which Sa’id told Battuta about his travels in China, detailed the Yuan Dynasty’s political landscape and succession. It is also widely believed that Sa’id was the first Ambassador from the African continent in China representing the Sultanate of Mogadishu. He is also considered to be the first African to study Mandarin and to translate works from the language to Arabic. He is also accredited with making Somali coastal towns the leaders in trade between Africa and Asia.


Somalia has the highest population of camels in the world around 6.2 million camels, the majority of the people in this region are nomadic and rely heavily on camels and livestock. The livestock sector is the largest contributor to Somali livelihoods.  With over 65% of the population engaged in some way in the livestock industry, it still remains the most vital sector in the country. In 2015, the Horn of Africa nation exported a record 5.3 million animals, the highest such figure in two decades, according to the Food and Agriculture (FAO) organisation.

Despite this, the region now suffers from prolonged droughts and intense flooding as a result of climate change. The ongoing civil war and conflict in the region has also resulted in many losing their livelihoods.  However, this wasn’t always the case, in fact, just hundred years ago modern-day Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan had such large numbers of livestock that they regularly sent charity to the Arabian Peninsula during times of difficulty.


The country is not entirely homogeneous, 85% of the population is ethnic Somali with the remaining 15% consisting of Arab and Bantu populations, despite this, Somali is the dominant language. Until very recently the majority of the country were nomads or agropastoralists. For centuries nomads have relied on meat, maize, and camel milk, the cuisine – therefore, has always been very simple. The Arab and Bantu ethnic groups almost exclusively live in coastal/urban or settled farming areas.

The Indian Ocean trading networks makes the urban/ coastal cuisine is very different, with influences from Southern Arabia, Persia, and the Sub-Continent. European colonialism in the latter part of the 19th-century meant that Italian cuisine has also left its mark with pasta now considered somewhat of a staple in Southern Somalia.

The country is sometimes referred to as the nation of poets as poetry plays a significant role in society. Somali poetry includes both a rich folklore heritage such as work songs (hees-hawleed) sung to accompany everyday tasks like watering camels and a classical form of poetry (maanso) composed by poets.

Incense also plays a vital role in Somali culture and serves various purposes, frankincense is not just known for its inebriating smell, but also for its deep healing properties. Dissolved in water, it is widely used as a malaria repellent and as a cure for indigestion, nausea, hypertension as well as a post-partum medicine. Somalia is the world’s biggest producer of frankincense, it’s woodsy and sweetly aromatic, is one of the oldest commercial commodities, spanning more than 5,000 years. Today, thousands of tons of it are traded every year to be used by Catholic priests as incense in thuribles, and by makers of perfumes, natural medicines, and essential oils that can be inhaled or applied to the skin for their purported health benefits.

Frankincense is found in from resin in the Boswellia sacra tree which is native to North Africa, Oman, Somalia, and Yemen but is also found in parts of India. Fine resin is produced in Somalia, from which the Roman Catholic Church has been purchasing most of its stock for centuries.

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