Somali History: The Interior (7th-19th Centuries AD)

Somalia interior
Figure 1.--This Italian colonial postcard, depicting a Somali boy, shows that Somali people were never so throughly Arabized as the modern Muslim fundamentalists would like. We suspect tht the boy may have been given a wrap by the photographer. Now the fundamentalist Muslims are imposing Arab clothing in Somalia. Traditionally Somali Muslims were not so strict about the modesty rules. This boy may be the descendents of African slaves brought by Arabs from the south to work on coastal plantations.

Away from the Arabized coast, the vast majority of Somalis lived as nomadic pastoralists in small family groups, in part because of the baren interior could not sustain intensive agriculture or large herds on fixed pastures. Somali livestock consisted if camels, sheep, and goats. Camels were by far the most prized because of their ability to endure the harsh environment. They seved as not only a mode of transportation, but a food siurce (milk and meat) as well as leather. Somalis had to frequently moved their herds seeking fresh pastures. Pastures in the arid interior were esily exhausted. Thus Somalis were limitd by their enviroment to living in small family groups. It also led to a a culture of self-reliance and strong family structures as thee nomadic people neededvto depend on each other to survive. [Lewis, Understanding, pp. 52-54.] There was no concept of national identity. The nomadic life away from the coastal cities and Imans also meant that the Islamization that gradually occurred, was not a severe Islam and one mixed with many traditiinal belifs. Islam thus did not sugnificantly change Somali life. Political organization such as it existed was only loosely developed, limited largely the clan level. [Lewis, Understanding, p.35.] This was the genealogical network within Somali families identified. Arab sultanates, essentially city states along the coast developed with some characteristics of modern nations. They exerted minimal influence on the nomadic population of the interior where most Somalis lived, although they did over time Islamicize the interior. The coastal states linked the nomadic interior, through trade, with international markets. [Bradbury, p. 16.] Clan identity was developed through the male line, but thevdegree to which Somalis politically associated with their clans was 'highly fluid'. Clans in the sparsely populated interior were normaly too widely dispersed to act as any kind of stable political units, and the clans were not a united group. They were divided into many sub-clans. [Lewis Understanding, pp. 27-28.] The largest level of political organization was the clan family. There developed five important clan families in Somalia. [Elmi, p. 35.] The clans and clan families might unite to a degree in the face of foreign invasion. This is the socio-political structure encountere by the Europeans and inherited by the Somali state at independence. A new ethnic element was introduced in the 19th century when the Arabs brought enslved Africans from the south to work in coastal plantations.


Bradbury, Mark. Becoming Somaliland. London: Progressio, 2008.

Elmi, Afyare Abdi. Understanding the Somalia Conflagration: Identity, Political Islam and Peacebuilding (London: Pambazuka, 2010.)

Lewis, I.M. Understanding Somalia and Somaliland: Culture, History, Society (New York: Columbia UP, 2008).


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Created: 6:01 AM 1/21/2014
Last updated: 6:02 AM 1/21/2014