Small Wars Journal

Sufism in Asymmetric Warfare

Wed, 09/24/2014 - 12:50pm

Sufism in Asymmetric Warfare: Human Networks of the Somali Qadiriyya tariqa

William Allen


Stretching from Mogadishu, Somalia to Mombasa, Kenya to Port Linid, Tanzania, Islam has touched the lives of millions of people across the Benadir Coast, bringing with it language, customs, traditions, and values that are still present in East African life today. Within the greater narrative of Islam in East Africa exists Sufism, a form of mystical Islam that was often thought of as in contradiction to many orthodox understandings and teachings of the Qur’an. Sufism has played a major role in the development of East Africa particularly in coastal trade cities that allowed for the exchange of ideas and goods across thousands of miles of Indian Ocean. Refusing to relinquish their relevancy in contemporary politics, Sufis have sought leadership roles in important political, military, and social institutions in order to revitalize Sufi importance in the reconstruction of post-colonial East Africa.

Through the age of colonization, East Africa was divided into several regions by British, Italian, and German monarchies. During this time, Sufism played a crucial role in unifying the ethnically diverse regions to rebuff the advances of European colonists. Though several Sufi orders existed in East Africa in the late-19th century it is generally held that the Saalihiya order, led by Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan and his Dervish resistance fighters, had the greatest influence on the region. Contrastingly, historical evidence shows us that the Qadiriyya tariqa in East Africa was the most important factor in setting the conditions for Hassan’s later success against the colonial empires. This study argues that the Qadiriyya order, led by Uways al-Barawi, used its Sufi networks to wage limited aims warfare against the Europeans and pioneered a style of irregular doctrine that leveraged lesser means against greater forces. John Trimingham, an institutional scholar in the field of Sufi Islam, insists that the Qadiriyya tariqa, never gained power, prominence, or popularity, however, what he fails to understand is that the later successes of the Saalihiya order were the byproduct of irregular political tactics and the organizational structure founded by the Qadiriyya tariqa. Proving capable of uniting people across historic, ethnic, and clan differences, the influences of the Qadiriyya tariqa not only laid the foundation for insurgent success at the turn of the 20th century, but still prove relevant in contemporary Somali life. Reinforced by a singular narrative known as “The Way,” central to the doctrine of Sufism, the Qadiriyya tariqa is endowed by networks and communities, known as jama’a, that enable the whole by empowering the individual, thereby creating an interconnectedness that many Sufis attribute to an unalienable human agency that still informs the organizational structure of Sufi militias today.

Archaeological Remnants of Power Structures

Archeological exploration along the Benadir Coast helps us to further understand the intricacies of the maritime trade and the lives of Muslims, particularly Sufis in East Africa. Oven baked bricks originating from the Middle East have been discovered, used as foundation for homes in East African villages; it is presumed by archaeologists that the stones were used as ballast on dories sailing from the Hadhramaut in Yemen, then offloaded and reclaimed as building material (Connah 203). In another case, interior walls discovered in a Swahili home dwelling has graffiti inscribed on it, indicating that it once was used in the construction of a sailing vessel (212-213). Questions arise about the technological advancement of East African people like ‘Why not construct the bricks on site?’ and ‘Why were water logged planks of wood used in the construction of a home instead of fresh lumber?’ Graham Connah insists that even though there is no evidence of boat building in the region, all the materials were available to builders at the time (211). Connah goes on to argue that a lack of skilled craftsmen was not the issue because “quarrymen, lime-burners, stone-masons, plasterers and carpenters” were needed to build mosques and shrines (212). Even so, villages that have been excavated from earlier centuries show an order of precedence in buildings in relation to the center of town, nodding to a power structure that held seafaring tradesmen as the power brokers. Generally speaking homes were made of mud with thatched roofs and they existed on the outskirts of towns, whose centers were constructed by stone – perhaps from traders’ ships. Single and multi-roomed stone houses with courtyards and monuments are found closer to the center of town along with large extravagant entrances (214). Because of excavation that has been done, we learn that power in East Africa was dictated by seafaring traders, a vast majority of them Arabs who brought Islam to East Africa. Michael Pearson writes, “after Islam became established, links to the center became very important. The center can be political, or religious, or both” (Pearson 57).

When Europeans arrived on the shores of East Africa in the 19th century, Islam was already closely associated to “money and culture” because of the robust maritime trade that stretched to South and Southeast Asia. (Forster, Hitchcock, Lyimo 123). Coastal cities like “Muqdisho [Mogadishu]… Marka and Baraawe, seem to have settled into a pattern of regular if modest trade with boats plying the maritime routes between India, Arabia, Lamu and Zanzibar. Exports included cattle, slaves, ivory, and ambergris” (Alpers 59).  Moreover, the mysticism that Islam brought with it made it conducive to the indigenous belief systems already in place in East Africa, “this meant Islam became the de facto established religion” (Forster, Hitchcock, Lyimo 124). The mysticism that Forster et al. speaks of is undoubtedly the effects of Sufism, an Islamic sect founded by Abdul-Qadir Jilani in 11th century Persia that saw “its aesthetic theological climax in the 12th and 13th centuries” (Reese 52, Lewis 9). However, because in East Africa Sufism grew to be such an integral part of the societal power structure, Sufism maintained its popularity for centuries after it had receded elsewhere in the world. So powerful was Sufi Islam that families and clans began marrying into orders of Sufi masters and khalifas. Sufism became this ideological subscription that created an inextricable link to Arab societies elsewhere. An example of this exists in the tradition of the Alwayyia sect whose linear bloodlines extended directly to Hadramawt Province of Yemen, which later served one of the most important economic partners for East Africans. The tradition of marrying Sufi leaders and clan leaders created a vehicle of social mobilization that ultimately brought rural tribes under the control of urban religious leaders (Bang 128).

The intent of marrying Sufis, who were leaders in the East African economy and family members of clan leadership sought to counter the affects of an economy that was controlled by colonial powers. Merchants from India actually sought to benefit from shaking the colonial grip on the shipping industry in East Africa by exposing to the Somalis the weakness of colonial political legitimacy in East Africa; the Indians were well versed in disputing this colonial authority in their own history (Mangat 110). In return, Europeans across the board portrayed Indians as “crafty” traders, and perpetuated the idea that Indians were undesirables and people that East Africans could not trust (110). This merchant class warfare was especially strong in German East Africa and British Kenya. As a result, Indians began aiding East Africans with their resistance efforts providing “‘gun-running’, and provision of supplies” particularly to the Maji-Maji fighters in Tanganyikka (111). The British figured the Indians were motivated more gaining a foothold in the economy than bolstering an ideological resistance movement in the name of East Africa. So in return, the British developed the “Cotton Rules” which demanded cotton be purchased and sold via only “ginners” (Mangat 112). This move excluded indigenous parts of the Somali cotton industry, particularly the poorer, weaker parts of Somali society, and empowered the wealthy Indian traders who had the manufacturing equipment. As a result, the Indians’ support for localized efforts in Somali independence fractured in the face of a liberal economic market that they now had niche control in (Mangat 112).

The Somali Clan

Six major clans make up the Somali clan landscape including the Darod, Dir, Hawiye, Isaaq, Digil, and Rahanweyn (Hesse 3). Ethnic and economic factors drive the creation of subclan and sub-subclan affiliations, therefore, “Somali genealogy presents individuals with a seemingly infinite number of ways to affiliate with, or disassociate from, fellow Somalis” (3). Social mechanisms within clan leadership reinforce a patrilineal framework allowing for a group identity to form among its people (Abbink 2). These mechanisms are rooted in diya-groups, or “blood-wealth” (Hesse 5). According to Randall Pouwels in Horn and Crescent: Cultural change and Traditional Islam on the East African Coast, 800-1900 specific bloodlines within clans were expected to have certain intellectual and physical abilities passed on to them through birth (Lewis 17, Pouwels 81).

Because blood-wealth was so important to clan leadership, when the Sufi masters began forming the jama’a and power was being reorganized by the influences of Islam this meant that both the pious potential of an individual and the their successful standing within the maritime trade industry became important factors in determining leadership capabilities. As a result, clans began marrying into Sufi master bloodlines with the intent of bringing their blood lines closure to the Prophet Mohammed (Lewis, Saints and Somalis, 29-30). This genealogical connection increased one’s “blood-wealth” and created future generations of clan leadership that were thought of to be particularly pious and righteous. Blood-wealth and its connection to Islam through Sufi tradition also meant economic supremacy and therefore political leadership. In some parts of East Africa, members of clan leadership would refer to themselves as ‘Arab’ after they had attained advanced levels of Islamic knowledge, many began dabbling in their own forms of mystical Islam treating it as and activity of only the most elite and superior beings (McIntosh 53). In fact, such great respect was there for Arabs, the Swahili word “to be civilized” is ustaarabu, literally translated as “to be like an Arab” (Kubai, Interfaith Between Research and Dialogue, 33).

Pouwels argues that a leader’s status within the clan was also directly linked to their actually monetary wealth, the more wealthy, the more weight their opinions carried; this was especially true concerning legal opinion among Islamic proceedings in coastal cities (Pouwels 82). Thus clan leadership was expected to know clan genealogy, village history, the application of sharia law (particularly in balance with local customary laws of their village), and to provide the clan religious guidance and mentorship (84). With this being true, Lewis argues that Sharia law had a difficult time being applied equally regarding “external clan relations” (Lewis, Saints and Somali’s, 25). Lewis argues that after the occupation of the East Africa by European powers sharia law and local customary laws could only be enacted based upon the approval of their British or Italian magistrates (Lewis, Saints and Somalis, 25). Anne Bang reiterates this legal structure in Sufis and Scholars of the Sea: Family Networks in East Africa, writing that two tracks of law existed in British colonial East Africa, British law and Islamic religious law that was being adjudicated on by ‘qadis,’ or sharia judges (Bang 163). Though qadis often discussed their legal proceedings together, an offender would often be able to choose the court that he was to be tried on keeping in mind the different schools of thought and principles of the qadis (163). Because of the jurisdictional power that the British granted these qadis, Bang argues the “‘ulama’ found their place in the ‘colonial space’ as active partners” (Bang 153).

The Qadiriyya Network

Introduced to East Africa via the Ethiopian city of Harar the Qadiriyyi tariqa was brought to Somalia by Sharif Abu Bakr ibn Abd Allah al-‘Aydarus, also known as the “the Divine Axis” who died in 1509 (Lewis, Saints and Somalis, 11). By the late 19th century as the Europeans raced to divide and conquer the African continent into colonial magistrates and slave nations, Lewis asserts that the Qadiriyya tariqa became the most powerful of the Sufi orders. Challenging the supremacy of the Qadiriyya order were the Saalihiya, led by Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, the famous warrior bard of Somalia. The Saalihiya’s inextricable connection to Sunni traditions created the perception of “orthodox Sufis” and encouraged many of its members to make the pilgrimage to Mecca (12). Even so, the Qadiriyya’s strength stemmed from closely knit jama’a communities rooted deep in social pragmatism that worked to redistribute the wealth and successes of all its community’s annual harvest whilst roving “bush preachers” simultaneously taught Arabic and Sufi traditions like that of performing dhikr (13). Sufism was credited in East Africa, particularly Somalia, to bring organization, faith, money, and education from urban centers to the jama’a located throughout the rural countryside. The jama'a was a strong organization in many people’s eyes because it challenged the authority of the clan, which has ruled for so long before.

Early Sufi texts tell us that Sufis were considered an elite people and that the Arabic language was the redeemable technical skill used within the maritime trade that was being acquired by those that observed Sufism, particularly in urban centers (Reese 52). Essentially, if someone was a Sufi, then they were empowered to move up in society and become merchants with Arab trades men. The first great proponent of this system was named Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahman bin Ahmad al-Zayla ‘i. Born in a small town just outside Mogadishu, al-Rahman moved into the city to study and learn the tenets of Sufism before forming his own jama‘a in “the region of the upper Shabeelle river” (52). Al-Rahman eventually became a “considerable success among both the pastoralists and villagers of the interior and the ranks of the religious elites,” his rags to riches story gave hope to those in the interior of Somalia of one day becoming as pious and wealthy as the Arab merchants and embracing “civilization” (52).

Sufi Resistance in Tanganyika

Sufism further spread from the work of Shaykh Uways bin Muhammad al-Barawi, often considered second in holiness to ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (Reese 53). Born in Baraawe, Somalia in 1847, al-Barawi was sent to Baghdad for a formal Sufi education (53-54). Upon his return al-Barawi was “recognized as the leader of the Somali Qadiriyya,” supervising its sprawl as far south as the German East African colonies of Tanzania and Tanganyika (54). Al-Barawi was a true leader and a strong diplomatic statesman. He appealed to all economic classes; slaves and merchants, women, men, and children alike (54). He was known to provide protection to “the people of the interior by expelling disease, saving cattle from marauding lions and bringing rain to drought-stricken crops” earning him respect and power (56). Perhaps more importantly, he had an education that helped navigate the politics of colonial East Africa. To help control his expansive command and influence, al-Barawi commissioned over 500 khalifas, or deputies, to assist him - many of them hailing from clans within the urban maritime centers giving him in routes to influential and wealthy people (56). Scott Reese asserts in The Best of Guides: Sufi Poetry and Alternate Discourses of Reform in Early Twentieth-Century Somalia that historically, hagiographic works depict the Qadiriyya tariqa as having an influence across all socio-economic spheres of life, despite clan allegiances, a groundbreaking reality for Somalis (57).

When Uways al-Barawi returned from Iraq in 1883, the Qadiriyyi movement began garnering such an immense amount of influence across the region that regional monarchies took note (Martin, “The Qadiri,” 176). Until this point, al-Barawi had maintained a working relationship with the Italian magistrate that had come in control of the southern half of Somalia, however he began channeling his dislike for the colonial presence towards the Germans and British invaders south of Somalia, in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as, Zanzibar (Martin, “Muslim Politics,” 164). Al-Barawi began a personal relationship the Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, who eventually became on of al-Barawi’s “dynamic khalifas” and helped carry the word of the Qadiriyya tariqa south along the Tanzanian coastline and particularly into the ports of the German colony (Martin, “Muslim Politics,” 474). Though the Germans were aware of the rising anti-colonial fervor, they saw the Sufis as fractured and in disarray; unable to effectively organize against superior German forces (482). Al-Barawi’s relationship with the Sultan of Zanzibar was important because of the robust maritime industry that Zanzibar commanded. Though Zanzibar was a British colony, the Sultan of Zanzibar had immeasurable influence in the region providing economic opportunity through selected ports. Al-Barawi’s power and influence was communicated through his personal relationships and gave serious credibility to the growing Qadiriyya tariqa, linking it to organization and economic prosperity. Throughout two decades of colonial rule, al-Barawi courted each consecutive Sultan of Zanzibar until 1908 when a secretive pamphlet was published and distributed by Qadiri khalifas in the Tanzanian port of Linid (Martin, “The Qadiri,” 158). The revolutionary pamphlet perpetuated independent and anti-colonial sentiment and painted a picture of Sufis as slave subjects of European monarchies. The spread of the subversive material was deemed the “Mecca Letters Affair” and it was believed that failing to pass the message along to fellow Qadiri’s, or other Muslims, in port would bring “retribution for sinful ways” (158). Knowing that there was a direct connection between the Port of Linid and the land-locked German province of Tanganyika, the Qadiriyya khalifa targeted the port in a deliberate and calculated manner with the intent of inciting a violent uprising, striking fear into the hearts of German colonists (158-159).

In July of 1908 the German government in Europe began receiving “alarming telegrams from Lindi, a town on the Lukuledi Estuary” that indicated local subjects were not being obedient (Martin, “Muslim Politics,” 476). To further exacerbate the situation, it is reported that Britain may have covertly supported the spread of the “Letter from Mecca” throughout Kenya to further discredit and embarrass the Germans (Martin, “The Qadiri,” 174-175). In an effort to save face, Germany responded with a strong defense force leading to a gross over reaction leaving the German colonialists responsible for the infamous Maji-Maji massacre, where “modern” European weapons and tactics were utilized to slay thousands-upon-thousands of African subjects (Martin, “The Qadiri,” 158-159). Finally, in 1909 a German governor named von Rechenberg sent out a message warning of the growing influences of “zikir dance” equating traditional Sufism, and in particular Qadiriyya tariqa, practices as acts of colonial resistance, a sentiment that remains in East Africa to this day (Martin, “Muslim Politics,” 479).

Al-Barawi’s use of literary propaganda to incite an uprising in Tanganyika displays a masterful use of personal, cultural, religious, and economic relationships to quietly delegitimize the colonial authority. The distribution of surreptitious literature through the use of a third party economic powerhouse specifically targeting the lifeline port of subjected Tanganyikan people shows a comprehensive understanding of human networks, and exhibits a command of political and human capital that effectively disables European control and discredits the power that monarchies had over East African people. More importantly, perhaps, this proves that al-Barawi understood the fundamental political nature of warfare, learning that even without weapons, the power of revolutionary thought spread through a network of subjected people can create serious social and financial problems for colonial overseers. It it my belief that al-Barawi foresaw the gross overreaction of German forces presuming that this would further discredit the colonial power and unite East Africans across the region. Accordingly, the British experienced the blowback of spreading the “Letter from Mecca” literature and outraging the indigenous population of Kenya who saw no difference between the Maji-Maji struggle in German East Africa, and the Kenyan oppression by British rule.

The Rivalry of Uways al-Barawi and Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan

All Muslims in East Africa, however, did not view al-Barawi’s success favorably. Mentioned earlier as the leader of the Saalihiya tariqa, Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan competed with al-Barawai for influence and popularity in the northern half of Somalia. Without a doubt al-Barawi’s masterful ability to leverage power thereby wielding control over the colonial magistrates struck at Hassan’s ego as a commander. Furthermore, because al-Barawi translated many Somali poems into Arabic for the first time which allowed for his khalifas and “bush preachers” to offer a limited education to average townsmen some of Hassan’s followers from the Saalihiya were converting to the Qadiriyya tariqa (Martin, “The Qadiri,” 163). Because most Sufi’s were recruited out of the ranks of orthodox Sunni’s along the coast, al-Barawi and the Qadiriyya tariqa were seen as the door to prosperity and ultimately cut into Hassan’s recruitment efforts (167). The damage to Hassan’s reputation was further perpetuated within the political sphere because of al-Barawi’s comfortable relationship with the Italian protectorate in Somalia. Though al-Barawi was actively fighting the British and the Germans, he always remained close friends with the Italians who wanted no trouble. Hassan probably viewed this relationship as treasonous. In fact Hassan was actively engaged in conflict against the Italians; in an earlier episode, he attempted to cutoff the communication and support from Mogadishu to the town of Jilib in order to lay siege to it in 1906 (Hess 88). According to Robert Hess’ book Italian Colonialism in Somalia Italian colonists often sexually abused East African women. This was the last straw for Hassan who decided to declare war against al-Barawi and end the hypocritical relationship between al-Barawi and the Italians (76-78).

Hassan, a much-feared leader of the Dervish warriors, became famous for waging a kind of literary warfare, one that he perfected against the British in the Puntland of Somalia. Hassan’s poetry was distinctive for adding rhythmic and musical tones which would be recited or sung by his followers and encourage them to fight. Literary combat that ensued between Hassan and al-Barawi, the two men wrote poems back and forth to one another as a kind of joust. in 1909, however, the literary joust came to an end and Hassan’s forces assassinated al-Barawi in Biyoole, Somalia (Reese 56). After the death of al-Barawi it is well known that Hassan continued the battle against both the British and the Italians. Without al-Barawi’s assistance, the Italians feared Hassan would unite with the fighters of the Biamal Revolt, which was another independent Somali struggle in the south, and ultimately defeat the Italians (Hess 88). It was claimed by Hassan that 25,000 to 30,000 Somali slaves were freed from 1900-1914, though the official records from the Italian protectorate indicate much lower numbers. With Italy engaged along several fronts during the Second World War, and Hassan increasing the insurgency attack against the Italians, the Italian Somali colony became vapid of political or monetary strength leading to the government’s exit from the region (175). Hassan’s brave and daring missions to engage with colonial magistrates in open combat, and the increased pressures from the World War lead to the freedom of East Africans.

Hassan is often solely credited with casting the iron chains of colonialism from Somalia. However without the assistance of al-Barawi, and his fine example of political irregular warfare, the conditions would never have been set for Hassan’s victories against the colonial protectorates. In fact, the friendly and hypocritical relationship that al-Barawi maintained with the Italians was necessary for al-Barawi to maintain a safe haven to operate from - unlike Hassan who had to waste time and men building fortresses in the desert. In exchange for not organizing the Qadairiyya network against them, the Italians provided protection and safe haven to al-Barawai in Baraawe, Somalia enabling him to be as effective as he was in other parts of the region. In a way, al-Barawi was playing off the fears of the Italians; he was able to “divide” the colonial powers in the region along the fault lines of arrogance and ego, and “rule” against the British and Germans while enjoying protection by the Italians. In the end, al-Barawi should be credited as the instrumental figure in the war for East African independence. Appropriately, over 100 years after the fall of the German, Italian, and British East African colonies who were originally provoked by the cunning irregular, highly-political tactics of Uways al-Barawi, Master Ethnographer of the Somali, Professor I. M. Lewis, reminds us of al-Barawi’s legacy when he astutely highlights that al-Barawi is remembered as a Sufi saint and the great Dervish warrior, Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, is is not (Lewis “Saints and Somalis,” 36). Only in the west is the power of Hassan’s sword remembered as the reason the colonial powers were defeated - the truth exists in the power of the al-Barawi’s Qadiriyya human networks, and Sufi Somalis know this.

Contemporary Affects of the “Mad Mullah” and Uways al-Barawi

With such a storied legacy of literary warfare, contemporary Somali structures actively mirror the same communication and organizational values of Hassan and al-Barawi. Not only is the influence of 20th century resistance poetry reflected in Somali society today, but also the reputation of Sufis as warriors is a widely accepted belief across the Horn of Africa. So powerful is the Sufi’s ability to organize against an enemy, it is believed, that Sufi militia groups have been effectively hired by western military forces to battle some of the most well entrenched adversaries in East Africa. One example is Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a, a group of moderate Sufi Muslim’s that have sought to reinstate the supremacy of the Sufi warrior ethos in Somalia by defeating the threat of Salifist inspired Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen.

Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a is a Somali militia group sworn to protect Sufi Islam in Somalia and unit the three original tariqas, “the Qaadirya, the Ahmadiya, and the Saalihiya” (Stanford “Mapping Militants,” Lewis 11). Referred to as Ahlu Sunna by most people, and ASWJ for short, the group is made up entirely of Sufi Muslims. With a membership of over 1,500 fighters, ASWJ fighters consider themselves the “Companions of the Prophet” (Stanford “Mapping Militants”). In Somalia, Sufi traditions like paying tribute to Sufi saints by journeying to their shrines is popular but this is frowned upon by Salafists and Wahhabists and as a result, al-Shabaab has committed itself to destroy any Sufi shrine that it can (Rabasa 29). ASWJ swore itself to protect Sufism in Somalia, particularly from al-Shabaab’s desecration of Sufi shrines across the country. In spite of their seemingly innocent intentions of protecting Sufism in Somalia, not all Somali’s are happy about their existence. In an article published by Dr. Mohamed Abbas he argues that historically, conflict between Somalis was fueled by “land ownership, livestock, farming land, and most of the time over scarce resources such as drinking water and grazing land” (Abbas “Two Wrongs”). Before the civil war, Abbas argues, conflict was a matter of “‘clan A’ versus ‘clan B’” but after the central government dissolved during the war, non-state actors have taken control of Somalia and divided it along religious and cultural fault lines instead of clan allegiances (Abbas “Two Wrongs”). Abbas views ASWJ as an ideological group, similar to al-Shabaab in that sense, which seeks to reorganize Somali society along religious fault lines. The only difference between ASWJ and al-Shabaab is that they have a more moderate interpretation of Islam that results in a favorable view by the west. ASWJ remains ideological at its core however, and has engaged in firefights with Somali government forces. Western backed Somali forces have simply assumed that regions controlled by ASWJ now belong to the government because of their shared goal of eliminating al-Shabaab; it is becoming apparent that ASWJ does not have the same view on the matter. Though ASWJ leadership has annexed parts of Somalia in regions that have been otherwise out of bounds for western backed Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF), the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and Ethiopian AMISOM forces, the ASWJ chairman Sheikh Maxamed Maxamuud Yusuf (Awlibaax) has sought to work with local elders in the process of governing, not simply handing over the territory to the Somali government (Hashim “New Regional Bloc”). This miscommunication has led to the death of 6 Somali soldiers recently and has soured the relationship that ASWJ has had with the new centralized government in the Gedo Region located in western Somalia (Somalicurrent “Ethiopian AMISOM,” “Six people killed”).

Dr. Abbas makes a great argument that just because ASWJ and the west have similar goals against al-Shabaab, it does not automatically qualify ASWJ as having a western friendly view on state affairs or geopolitical issues. But there is a question that must be asked, ‘Did Sufism play a role in making ASWJ capable of uprooting the infamous al-Shabaab terrorist organization from around Somalia?’ In the end we must remember that the TFG thought that ASWJ was a better option to take al-Shabaab down despite the western funded and trained KDF and AMISOM military units; ‘What makes ASWJ so effective?’

Referring to one of the more recent studies of Sufi inspired warfare, Alexandre Bennigsen and S. Enders Wimbush write in Mystics and Commissars: Sufism in the Soviet Union, about Sufi insurgencies in the Northern Caucasus region of the Soviet Union. Like in East Africa, Sufis in the Northern Caucasus had the ability to preach to and earn the respect of all people in society, even on-Sufis. Sufis earned this respect by making shrines and paying homage to “saints” that were important local community figures, not just Sufi Muslims. In the end, the only qualifier to become a Sufi saint was to do good in the community resulting in the practice of “clan or tribal ancestors, Biblical prophets, even imaginary beings (often pre-Islamic deities of Zoroastrian or, rarely, of Buddhist origin)” becoming revered by Sufis (Bennigsen 94). This act of respect crossed religious, ethnic, and political creeds earning Sufis influence in all spheres of Northern Caucasus life. As a result, organizing recruiting campaigns and logistical operations against the Soviets was not merely a Sufi Muslim task; it became a local community task. As a result of the inclusive practices of Sufis, their shrines became meeting places for people from all walks of life. Mistakenly, the Soviets allowed the Sufis to control these very specific shrine areas and therefore they became “the critical juncture where popular belief meets clandestine organization, where ordinary Muslims come into contact with the highly motivated and rigidly disciplined Sufis” (94). Eventually, the Soviets caught on and concluded that Sufi shrines were “the holy place is the main contact place between ‘Sufi fanatics’ and the population – believers and unbelievers alike” (94-95). In the end two charges were levied against Sufis in the Soviet Union, the first was “The Sufi brotherhoods are the breeding ground of the most radical form of nationalism and nurseries of anti-Russian and anti-communist xenophobia” (102). Second, the Soviets believed that “Sufi communities are ‘closed societies’ which live outside the Soviet legal establishment” (108). From the Soviet’s experience, we can see that Sufism was considered inaccessible to western government, but extremely accessible to community members. Moreover, we learn that Sufis are not so concerned with physically defeating greater militaries are they are with finding a political end state that restores pride and honor in their communities. We even see this with ASWJ in the protection of Sufi shrines from desecration, and in their working with local elders to reinstate governance after an ASWJ victory; their goal is not to rule, just to influence society in latent manner. This approach to reconstruction is in opposition to the western mission of instating, or imposing, a form of governance on their “liberated peoples.” Lastly, as Bennigsen argues, “the brotherhoods have strong and strict hierarchies, a developed style of discipline, and a strong spirit of dedication and sacrifice” that leads to robust organizational skills (112). Confidence in the mission and integrity of their own organizational structure, innately prepares Sufis to combat other ideological groups with great success. When comparing this to the paper-thin integrity of the TFG, or of AMISOM or KDF units, it can be concluded that they do not maintain the will to win, but rather the means to as provided by the west - the two are not one in the same. The Soviets’ experience battling a Sufi insurgency in the Northern Caucasus was a challenging and frustrating task for them, but their study of Sufi insurgent organization capabilities encourages us to apply their ‘lessons learned’ to the Horn of Africa. In the end we learn that Sufis are both uniquely equipped to engage Salafist ideological extremist groups, but also ideological them self; a reality that the west will have to become more comfortable with as time goes on.


Locals in Mogadishu have mixed feelings about the influences of 20th century resistance poetry on contemporary Somalia. In an interview I conducted with a small business owner in Mogadishu, he agreed that the Somali society was oral in nature and that this tradition undoubtedly stemmed from writers like Hassan and al-Barawi. He said that, “information is passed through radio and people communicate on the Internet too,” he said, “Somalis are a very oral society, they will talk at a tea house and get the rumor mill going” (Interview, April 25, 2014). The man from Mogadishu goes on saying, “Everyone has a terrible literacy rate but the kids try to learn speeches from each mosque, they go mosque-to-mosque and listen to this Imam and to that Imam” (Interview, April 25, 2014). In spite of this, however, he reported that Somali kids do not know the names Hassan and al-Barawi because of an increase in Wahhabi affiliated madrases that have worked to downplay the role that Sufism has played in shaping the Somali identity; the affects of poetry on identity do exist, he argues, whether the kids know it or not (Interview, April 25, 2014).

Somali identity is complex. It has changed over the years and has been distorted by colonization, politics, warfare, and is now being influenced by new forms of Islam. Even with this being true, the affect of the Qadiriyya tariqa, and the legacy of al-Barawi is forever imbued into the cultural identity of Somalis as a courageous people who prize integrity in human relationships and embrace the power of oral communications. The Somali way of resistance is a unique and finely tuned Sufi inspired tradition that is still used today in modern warfare. Through groups like ASWJ, and others, the west can better learn about the power of networks and the influence that shared economies, religions, histories, ethnicities, traditions, and clans have in creating strong and flexible nexus topographies. The topic will required further study to better comprehend and appreciate the resiliency of these networks.


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About the Author(s)


William Allen is a Partner at Harpoon, a venture portfolio in Menlo Park, California focused on early stage companies in the defense and national security arenas. A graduate of Columbia University and Wheaton College, he served 10 years in the US Marine Corps before going into venture capital. William lives in San Diego, CA and Washington D.C. Views reflected in his writing are his own.