Most Somalis are Sunni Muslims. (Less than 1 percent of ethnic Somalis are Christians.) Loyalty to Islam reinforces distinctions that set Somalis apart from their immediate African neighbors, most of whom are either Christians (particularly the Amhara and others of Ethiopia) or adherents of indigenous African faiths.
The Islamic ideal is a society organized to implement Muslim precepts in which no distinction exists between the secular and the religious spheres. Among Somalis this ideal had been approximated less fully in the north than among some groups in the settled regions of the south where religious leaders were at one time an integral part of the social and political structure. Among nomads, the exigencies of pastoral life gave greater weight to the warrior's role, and religious leaders were expected to remain aloof from political matters.
The role of religious functionaries began to shrink in the 1950s and 1960s as some of their legal and educational powers and responsibilities were transferred to secular authorities. The position of religious leaders changed substantially after the 1969 revolution and the introduction of scientific socialism. Siad Barre insisted that his version of socialism was compatible with Quranic principles, and he condemned atheism. Religious leaders, however, were warned not to meddle in politics.
The new government instituted legal changes that some religious figures saw as contrary to Islamic precepts. The regime reacted sharply to criticism, executing some of the protesters. Subsequently, religious leaders seemed to accommodate themselves to the government.
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