Explorations in History and Society

Exploring and Collecting the History of the Somali clan of Hawiye.

Sufism in nineteenth century Benaadir

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Merchants and Ulama, Blood and Patronage:

The Urban Sufi Phenomenon

At the same time that the Benaadiri community began to experience the crisis of the late nineteenth century, organized Sufi turuq gained popularity in the towns of the coast. From the last quarter of the nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth, the various turuq played a central role in Somali society. While Sufism was known in Somalia before that time, it was largely the preserve of a few ascetics; it only emerged as a prominent social movement under the guidance of charismatic preachers after 1880. The efforts of these clerics were so successful by the beginning of the Second World War, it was estimated that virtually all Somali males identified, at least nominally, with one of the local schools of Sufism: the Qadiriyya, Ahmadiyya, or Salihiyya. Modern scholars of Somali history and culture have amply demonstrated the importance of rural saints, shaykhs, and local preachers, or wadaads. In addition to their spiritual roles, these men frequently acted as advisors, mediators, and even political leaders amongst the clans of the interior. An examination of the manaqib and urban oral traditions reveals that the townspeople of the Benaadir coast also participated in a vibrant mystical culture and, as I will show below, played a pivotal role in Sufism’s expansion number of influential shaykhs of the period made their mark in the largely urban milieu of the coast. Foremost among these was the Qadirishaykh Uways b. Muhammad (1847–1909). Born in the southernmost Benaadir town of Barawe, Shaykh Uways is credited by his followers with the almost single-handed revival of the Qadiriyya order in East Africa.

Accounts of Uways’ childhood, education, and travels have been widely documented: between 1880 and his death in 1909, the Shaykh succeeded in spreading what became known as the Uwaysiyya branch of the Qadiriyya throughout southern Somalia and along the East African littoral as far south as Tanganyika. The writings of most western-trained scholars concentrate on Uways’ activities among rural and disadvantaged peoples. Qadiri oral and written traditions emphasize the attraction the Shaykh held for all segments of society, rural and urban, elites and non-elites. As the quote at the beginning of this article clearly indicates, Qadiri disciples viewed Uways as an important presence in the towns of the Benaadir as well as its villages and hinterland.

The Shaykh’s influence among the urban mercantile classes is demonstrated in numerous written and oral manaqib. His first miracle is said to have been performed in Mogadishu among the merchants of the town whom he “saved” from their reputedly immoral ways and initiated into the path of the Qadiriyya.

This incident will be discussed more fully below. Here it is important to note that according to oral and written hagiographies, following this incident, hundreds of townsmen from all social classes, “both free and slave,” flocked to the side of the Shaykh and joined the Qadiriyya as muridun. These new adherents included many of the local ulama, including Shaykh Abd al-Rahman b. Abdullah al-Shanshy, known more commonly as Shaykh Sufi; members of the political elite, most notably Imam Mahmud b. Binyamin al-Yaquubi, leader of the Abgaal clan, the dominant political force in the Shangani quarter of the city; and many members of the merchant class. Although less dramatic than the arrival of the Qadiriyya in Mogadishu, the appearance of the Ahmadiyya also attracted ready adherents from the urban peoples of the Benaadir. The advent of the Ahmadiyya on the coast is credited not to the emergence of a single charismatic holy man but to the efforts of a number of shaykhs deputized to spread the word of the order by an Ahmadi leader from Arabia, Shaykh Mowlan Abd al-Rahman.

According to most oral accounts, Shaykh Mowlan came to the Benaadir coast a few years before the return of Shaykh Uways and installed five pious men as representatives of the order. These five then proceeded to spread the teachings of the order along the coast and up the Jubba valley. While never as numerically large as their Qadiriyya counterpart, the Ahmadiyya had, by the end of the nineteenth century, spread throughout the Jubba valley, making it, by some accounts, the preeminent tariqa along the river. During the same period, large Ahmadiyya followings formed in the towns of Barawe and Marka under the leadership of Shaykhs Nurayn Ahmad Sabr and Ali Maye respectively. A small Ahmadiyya community also formed in Mogadishu, although some contend that membership there consisted primarily of immigrants from the other two towns.

Exact data for the numbers of townsmen attracted to the various turuq are non-existent. Family histories suggest that by the turn of the twentieth century most men claimed at least nominal attachment to one of the main turuq, the Qadiriyya, Ahmadiyya, or, more rarely, Salihiyya. Similarly, an early Italian administrator in the interior trading center of Luuq in the 1890s noted the prominence of tariqa membership among the community of merchants from the coast. One of the distinctive features of the turuq in the towns was the extent to which the lives of religious practitioners and merchants were closely intertwined. While it was possible to find among the mercantile inhabitants of the Benaadir towns those who were concerned only with commerce and others who followed purely religious pursuits, the social lines between these groups were hardly distinct. The lives of religious practitioners and lay people were closely linked. Their worlds intersected through ties of tariqa affiliation, kinship, and patronage. Sometimes individuals were both religious practitioners and merchants. Few urban lineages were exclusively religious in character. An exception was the Reer Faqih, also known as the Banu Qahtan, of Mogadishu, a clan of religious scholars, who, until the advent of colonial rule, held a local monopoly over the position of qadi, or judge. In general, however, urban families and lineage units tended to be involved in both religious and secular spheres of society. Many families, in fact, counted both ulama and merchants among their members. While urbanites claim that this was a custom carried out from “time immemorial,” evidence of its practice can only be dated to the later nineteenth century and is largely connected to the rise of the turuq. During this period, most merchant families hoped ideally to direct at least one of their sons to religious pursuits and the study of ilm (the religious sciences), while the others took up commerce or various trades. Such was the case of Faqih (“jurist”) Yusuf, of Mogadishu’s Shangani quarter during the early twentieth century. According to family traditions related by his grandson, the Faqi and several other brothers dedicated their lives to study, supported by several younger siblings who became small merchants and tailors. Occasionally, this strategy produced a noted scholar or holy man. Shaykh Ahmad Nurayn, a respected nineteenth-century jurist and early leader of the Ahmadiyya tariqa from Barawe, for example, was a member of the notable Hatimy clan of merchants. Similarly, Shaykh Abd al-Rahman Sufi., poet and early Qadiriyya leader in Mogadishu, came from the commercial Shanshiyya clan. Obviously, not every family or lineage could hope to produce a scholar or holy man of prominence.

For merchants who lacked a prominent relative among the ranks of the ulama, or Sufi leadership, supporting religious institutions such as mosques or student hostels through endowments of waqf or patronizing individual religious notables were the most common means of acquiring spiritual capital. In Mogadishu, as in most places in the Islamic world, notables regularly provided funds for the construction and maintenance of mosques and other religious structures. Evidence from epigraphs demonstrates that from as early as the eleventh century, local personages, including a number of women, supported the construction of mosques in the oldest sections of the town. The Italian ethnologist Enrico Cerulli noted that one of the earliest inscriptions found in Mogadishu’s main jami or Friday mosque indicated that it was constructed around 1238 and endowed by a local notable, Kululah b. Muhammad. Similarly, the Somali historian Sharif Aydrus b. Ali provides a detailed list of prominent mosques built and maintained by local persons of note through the mid-twentieth century (Aydrus 1954:39). In the hagiographies and oral traditions of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, mention of such endowments is rare.

Rather than endowing centralized institutions, benefactors subsidized the activities of individual Sufi masters, students, and scholars. The funding of scholarly activities could take a variety of forms. The most direct of these was the distribution of personal largesse. Local benefactors, for instance, might present regular or occasional gifts of cash, livestock, or other foodstuffs to a shaykh or alim in order to help finance the latter’s study and instruction of students or, more rarely, the practice of traditional/Islamic medicine. Alternatively, a merchant might provide an alim with a quantity of goods, such as cloth, spices, coffee beans, which the latter could sell to finance his activities. Merchants are also said to have helped members of the ulama finance larger trade ventures toward the same end. In addition to the distribution of largesse, merchants and other notables also subsidized members of the ulama and Sufi shaykhs through acts of hospitality. This often took the form of feasts provided for shaykhs and their followers on various holy days or the provision of permanent or semi-permanent housing. The provision of hospitality to scholars, saints, and students is a motif that appears constantly in both written hagiographies and oral traditions.

Merchants might make their homes available to learned individuals on an ad hoc basis. During the 1920s, for example, a hide merchant and follower of the Qadiriyya named Uways Nuur, from the Bendawow lineage, often hosted a certain Shaykh Ooyey al-Qadiri from Jawhar, of the Abgaal, along with his followers. His hospitality usually consisted of providing them with food and occasionally lodging during their stay. Similarly during the 1930s, Hadi al-Barawi, a Barawe merchant living in Bardheere, frequently offered passing scholars lodging for a night or two in exchange for prayers of blessing or lessons in ilm. Hospitality could also take the form of more long-term and concrete investment. Two vivid examples of this are recorded in the oral traditions of Barawe.

The first centers around the Ahmadiyya shaykh and alim Mahmud Waciis, who settled in the town of Barawe from the Ogaden during the later nineteenth century: “Shaykh Mahmud Waciis came to Barawe in the middle of the night and encountered Shaykh Nurayn Ahmad Sabr and said ‘I am here at the order of God. Take me to the house of Suudow Abrar [the pious wife of a wealthy merchant].’ Shaykh Nurayn escorted him there and when they arrived at the correct house the former shouted out to her that he had a guest. At this she is said to have replied, ‘Is it Shaykh Mahmud Waciis?’ And both Shaykhs were filled with wonder at her foreknowledge.” The Shaykh is reputed to have remained in the house of Suudow Abrar until his death some years later (Funzi 1994).

Another example of relatively large-scale largesse was the case of the wealthy Barawe merchant Abd al-Qadir b. Shaykh Ismaan, known more commonly as Shaykh bin Shaykh. Oral traditions about the Shaykh b. Shaykh family state that following the death of the Qadiri leader Shaykh Uways Muhammad in 1909, no one dared buy his house in Barawe for fear that it was inhabited by jinn or spirits. As a result it remained unoccupiedfor months after his death. One night, however, Shaykh Uways came to Shaykh b. Shaykh in a dream and instructed him to buy the house. Shaykh b. Shaykh, who was not then as wealthy as he was to become, borrowed a large amount of money from his relatives and purchased the deceased holy man’s house. Following this, it became the principal place of residence for all Qadiri ulama visiting Barawe, who stayed as the guests of Shaykh b. Shaykh for both long and short periods of time (Shaykh bin Shaykh 1994). Finally, merchants and notables also made long term financial and material commitments to the education of future ulama and religious notables. In addition to entertaining and housing religious practitioners,some urban merchants provided extensive aid to students who came from other parts of the region to study with local scholars. These patrons paid for the subsistence of the students during their stay and built and maintained special student hostels where students resided during the course of their studies. In addition, a local notable might establish a waqf or endowment to finance the education of an individual student. The creation of a waqf for an individual rather than an institution, such as a mosque or school, is unusual and the extent of this practice in the Benaadir is unknown. However, there is at least one recorded instance of such an individual waqf. The hagiography of Shaykh Nurayn Ahmad Sabr indicates that on at least two separate occasions the Shaykh initiated endowments for the purpose of financing the religious education of the future children of two Mogadishu Sharifs. Given the well-established connection between merchants and religion, it is not surprising that Sufi ritual became an integral part of urban life.

Urban Woes and the Social Lens of Hagiography

One way to explain the proliferation of the turuq and the manaqib that grew up around them is to consider them a way for adherents to discuss the problems of society in relation to the crises of the period. Rather than constituting purely laudatory accounts of the miracles of various holy men, the literature produced by the turuq was a genre that presented the sacred as a remedy for secular ills. The use of manaqib as eulogistic literature dates to tenth- and eleventh-century Maghreb, where the first biographies dedicated to ascetics and martyrs appeared.

From this point onward in Islamic history the genre became a favorite vehicle of religious orders, especially Sufi turuq, whose adepts wished to venerate their founders and more distinguished adherents using the written word. The founders of the Qadiriyya and Ahmadiyya orders, Shaykh Abd al-Qadir Jilani and Ahmad b. Idris, were memorialized in such compilations. This genre remained a hallmark of Sufis through the nineteenth century. Thus it should come as no surprise that with the appearance of well-organized Sufi congregations in the Benaadir came the production of the first locally composed manaqib.

The emergence of manaqib as a written genre of literature in Somalia appears to be directly linked to the local renaissance of the Qadiriyya and Ahmadiyya Sufi orders during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The earliest known collections are dedicated to the first generation of scholar-saints, who are credited with the Sufi revival. According to current Sufi leaders and adherents, these collections served to memorialize the saints and to educate new initiates about the tariqa. As such, they were generally recited during weekly, or even nightly, meetings, known as dhikr, and during annual ceremonies, known as ziara, held to mark the anniversary of the death of a particular saint. Recitals also occurred on a much more informal basis, however, taking place during what B.W. Andrzejewski described as “ad hoc situations, round the evening camp fires in the interior,” or “at parties in private houses in towns”. These were written exclusively in Arabic, which Somali urbanites considered the only proper language of public oratory. Running translations into Somali were generally provided at all such events for the benefit of less-educated adepts and casual observers.

Andrzejewski suggests that such oral performances provided the manaqib with a public audience that went far beyond the boundaries of an individual tariqa. He notes that while hagiographic stories were often heard during religious events, they also found their way “into ordinary conversation, especially when people discuss some difficult or unusual situation or reminisce about similar things in the past”. Andrzejewski’s comments highlight two important aspects of the genre. First, it existed as a distinct form of oral literature, which was widely known and used in both rural and urban society. Second, and more importantly, individual stories could be used to illuminate particular social problems. The observations put forward by Andrzejewski were based on evidence gathered during the 1950s and 1960s. However, the presence of hagiographic accounts in Somali oral literature can be demonstrated for a much earlier period. One of the earliest examples comes from Richard Burton, who, in his 1856 First Footsteps in East Africa, related a story told to him by a local alim about the saint Sayyid Yuusuf al-Baghdadi, who vanquished the infamous magician Bucur Bacar, supposed progenitor of the Yibir group of outcasts (72–73). Several other nineteenth-century European writers also noted the existence of oral hagiographies, albeit usually about somewhat mythical saints.

These early accounts point to the possibility that a hagiographic tradition was present in Somali oral literature before the Sufi revival of the late nineteenth century. The emergence of the turuq and their tradition of written hagiography, therefore, seems to have provided a new vehicle of transmission, written text, for an already existing genre of literature. Oral versions of many of the stories recorded about the scholar-saints in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries appear to have circulated widely before they were committed to paper. Shaykh Abd al-Rahman Umar noted that the manaqib of the Qadiri shaykh Abd al-Rahman Zaylai contained in Jala al-Aynayn were “drawn from the learned, and the mouths of men, and the loving brothers of the tariqa”.  Similarly, in other collections, the oral roots of the manaqib are presented as validating their authenticity. In each work the compiler provides a chain of transmission, silsila, for every story. Such chains begin with the person from whom the compiler received the story and proceeds backward in time, listing each transmitter of a manqabah and ending with the person who is said to have witnessed the actual event. Such chains are modeled upon similar chains, known as isnad, used to validate the pedigree of hadith, the sayings of the Prophet. The social utility of various oral genres among the Somali has been amply demonstrated by numerous researchers. The late B.W. Andrzejewski and Said Samatar have demonstrated the various political and social uses of Somali oral poetry, while Lee Cassanelli has illustrated the uses of historical tradition and the histories of individual clans in the definition of social relationships and identities among pastoral groups. If, as Andrzejewski maintains, manaqib are simply another category of oral literature within the Somali repertoire, then it can be argued that they, like other genres, also hold social meaning. Many of the issues confronted and remedied by the saints of the manaqib were physical threats to both urban and rural society: famine, physical insecurity, and epidemic illnesses such as smallpox. In other instances, the issues were moral in character, involving social concerns such as public morality and local tradition versus Islamic “orthodoxy.” Many stories in the hagiographic literature center on public morality and piety.

Such episodes invariably pit pious saints against impious, or at least morally misguided, townsmen. This could be viewed merely as the moral invective of holy men against the apparent evils of the secular world. An examination of these stories within the social and economic context of the late-nineteenth-century Benaadir coast suggests that they may also mirror a widespread belief of the time that local society was suffering from a genuine moral and social crisis, one which could only be remedied by turning to God and religion. This is demonstrated by the first miracle recorded in the hagiography of Shaykh Uways b. Muhammad, al-Jawhar al-Nafis, which is quoted above. The written manaqib does not state the exact nature of the abomination known as hiikow. Oral versions suggest that it was a licentious dance which was performed either by the townspeople or by their slaves. In the latter case, according to oral sources, merchants used the event and the carnival-like atmosphere that surrounded the weekly performances to attract customers. The written version links this immoral behavior directly to members of the urban elite, especially those involved in commerce: “Among them were the Ashraf, merchants, notables, clan elders, rulers, patrons and people of the ships. All of them assisted and participated in this abominable practice until the breasts of the ulama contracted [with anguish]”. It was only the appearance of Uways, according to the hagiographer,that led to the immediate and miraculous renunciation of “the abomination” by the parties concerned, the reconciliation between merchants and ulama, and the adoption of the Qadiriyya tariqa by the townsmen. In another instance of immoral behavior amongst the mercantile elite, rather than a pious Shaykh rescuing townsmen from the path of immorality, irate townsmen plotted the downfall of an overzealous qadi and Sufi saint, Nurayn Ahmad Sabr. During the reign of the Zanzibari Sultan Sayyid Barghash (1870–1888), the Ahmadiyya Shaykh Nurayn Ahmad Sabr was appointed qadi over the town of Barawe. According to both oral and written hagiographies, the Shaykh favored a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia over the use of local customary law, or xeer. Oral versions of this story emphasize that this privileging of “orthodoxy” clashed with the customs of certain Barawan lineages which, in contradiction to Islamic law, excluded women from inheriting wealth or property, thus limiting the distribution of wealth to the agnatic line. Because of this conflict, the written hagiography states, many local notables and merchants wanted to remove the Shaykh from his position of power. Leading citizens wrote to the Zanzibari Sultan making false claims about his lack of competence in the law and clamoring for his removal. The Sultan resolved to have the qadi arrested and brought in chains to Zanzibar for punishment. The Shaykh, by virtue of his karama, or holy qualities, avoided the trap set for him by the jealous townsmen and proceeded to Zanzibar in order to refute the charges against him. He was received by the Sultan and tested by members of the Zanzibari ulama who proclaimed that he was an erudite scholar worthy of his post. The Sultan then denounced those who had leveled the charges against the Shaykh and ordered his reinstatement as the qadi of Barawe  Shaykh Nurayn’s problems apparently did not end here. Another story from the same collection relates that an unnamed town “leader” attempted to assassinate the controversial Shaykh.

One of the leaders of Barawe, who harbored ill will against the Shaykh, went one night to Balad al-Rahma18 with ill intent, accompanied by one of his askaris [soldiers]. As they drew near to the house of the Shaykh . . . they saw a person appear by the door whose shape was like that of the Shaykh’s . . . there was no doubt of it being Shaykh Nurayn. The askari fired his rifle and wounded the person, who fell to the ground. The two thought that they had killed him; but they had not. It seems that the deceased was a cow . . . And when the leader came to know that he had not killed Shaykh Nurayn with the rifle he began to keep watch on the affair for fear that it would reach the government of the Italian Company. Certainly, the above anecdotes cannot be taken as faithful representations of “historical fact.” On the other hand, to categorize them as merely religious polemic robs them of their potential value for the social historian. Instead, I suggest, the above manaqib constitute commentary on the many social and economic maladies of the late nineteenth century—ills brought about by a perceived immorality and impiety of the urban elite that could only be remedied through a return to piety in the forms of the Sufi turuq and the sharia.


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Written by hawiye1

May 21, 2009 at 3:36 pm

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