Religion in Somalia Before Islam

by Katharine Viola
Pre-Islamic Somalis worshipped a hierarchy of spirits with the sky god, Waaq, at the top.

Pre-Islamic Somalis worshipped a hierarchy of spirits with the sky god, Waaq, at the top.

Somalia is on the Horn of Africa. It has two coastlines; the northern coast borders the Gulf of Aden and the southern coast borders the Arabian Sea. Because of its location, Somalia became a central hub of trade and commerce and was frequented by Muslim traders. By the early 14th century, nearly all of Somalia was Muslim. Today, 99 percent of Somali citizens are Sunni Muslim and 1 percent are Christian. Before Somalia became a Muslim nation, the indigenous inhabitants worshipped many gods. Contemporary Somalis continue to incorporate ancient theology into their religious practices today.

The Land of Punt

The ancient Egyptians called the Horn of Africa “The Land of Punt,” and traded with the people of this region since the fifth dynasty. The unusual items that came from this land led the Egyptians to believe it was a mystical and godly place. The Egyptians traded for rare items such as skins from giraffes, panthers, and cheetahs; ivory, gum and rare incense. Pygmies and dwarfs were traded as commodities from this region as well. It is thought the Egyptians adopted Punt’s pygmy god, Bes, whose depiction was found in the Egyptian tomb of Harkhuf.

Hierarchy of Spirits

Pre-Islamic Somalis believed in a hierarchy of spirits with the sky god, Waaq, at the top. Jinn were supernatural spirits not unlike Islamic angels and demons. They also believed in ghouls that changed their shapes and inhabited features of landscapes such as rock formations or wells. There is evidence of pre-Islamic shrines dedicated to the gods where ancient Somalis sacrificed and prayed. These shrines have been re-established as Islamic holy places.

Incorporating the Past

Many pre-Islamic religious practices have been incorporated into the Islamic faith, not unlike how the pagan practices in Europe were incorporated into Christianity. The sky god Waaq’s characteristics are similar to those of Allah’s. Waaq was thought to have created man to fear and praise him. Genealogy played an important role in both pre-Islamic religion and Islam. When Islam spread throughout the Horn of Africa, indigenous clan founders transfigured into Islamic saints.

Judaism

Aside from the pagan, polytheistic religion of pre-Islamic Somalia is the notion that some of the ancient Somalis were monotheistic. Somalia is composed of many nomadic clans. The Yibr clan lives along the southern coast in the cities of Mogadishu, Bosassu, Bormama and Burco. The clan claims to be descendants of early Hebrews, and there is some historical merit to the notion that they did have a connection to Judaism.

About the Author

Katharine Viola lives just north of Philadelphia and has been writing cultural articles and papers since her time at Penn State University. Additionally she has completed a Masters thesis at New York University, where she recieved a degree in visual culture with a concentration on historical fashion.

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