Sheikh Umal (left) vs Sh. Ali Raage

By Liban Ahmed

YouTube has become a medium for religious debate among Somali Sheikhs. In this way the Internet has raised the profile of the Somali religious class; it has facilitated exposure of many viewers to esoteric religious debates worth having in academic journals.

The latest religious debate posted on YouTube revolves around interpretation about permissibility of songs and poems put forward by Sheikh Ali Raage. Sheikh Ali Raage argued that a song or poem should be judged on messages words convey. This interpretation has irked many Sheikhs who liken songs and poems to sinful actions. He has quoted lines from a poem followers of Prophet Mohamed recited in the presence of the Prophet. Sheikh Ummal begs to differ. He based his interpretation that songs are sinful on a verse from the Qur’an:

“And of the people is he who buys the amusement of speech to mislead [others] from the way of Allah without knowledge and who takes it in ridicule. Those will have a humiliating punishment. (Luqman, Surah 31,Verse 6).”

According to Sheikh Ali Raage this verse is referring to Nadr ibn al-Harith, who went to Persia and returned to Makah with stories to challenge Prophet Mohamed’s propagation of Islam. For Sheikh Ummal this very verse renders songs sinful although Sheikh Ali Raage brings to our attention the meaning of the word hadith (speech) in the verse.

It is worth noting that Arabic songs praising Al-Shabab fighters feature in video clips about attacks by Al-Shabab fighters on AMISOM and Somali Federal Government forces.  Are songs permissible only in Arabic language? The late Al-Shabab leader, Ahmed Godane, recited patriotic poems of Ahmed Ismail Diriye (Qasim) with which Somali students of the second part 1970s and 1980s are familiar.

Another topic discussed by Sheikh Ali Raage is prophecy hadith (Prophet Mohamed’s traditions). Sheikh Raage says hadith about what will happen in the future are not  as a reliable guide for Muslims as  the following verse from the Koran: ”  He (alone) knows the Unseen, nor does He make any one acquainted with His Mysteries,” ( Verse 26, Surah 72 ). All hadith about what will happen in the future contradict verses from the Qur’an, Sheikh Ali Raage added.

Long ago Somali Sheikhs made headway in democratizing Islamic knowledge by vocally translating the Qur’an and hadith in mosques for non-Arabic speaking people.  While this approach had produced generations of Somali religious men, its shortcomings did come to light during 1980s when Saudi-educated Sheikhs returned to Somalia to challenge traditional Somali Sheikhs who did not attend Islamic colleges abroad.

Once, a man was stabbed to death in a mosque for trying to defend the proposition that it was permissible to pray with shoes on. As followers of the Shafi’i school of thought, traditional Somali religious men called new graduates from universities in Saudi Arabia bidca (religious innovators).  The new group of Sheikhs opposes veneration of saints (the one-time annual visit to the tomb of Sheikh Aweys in Biyooley, for example). This rivalry culminated in Al-Shabab calling Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a mushrikiin (idolaters).

The drawback to using YouTube for religious debate or discussion is that Sheikhs assume that viewers understand the context and methodology. Sheikhs use to make a case for or challenge interpretations by rival Sheikhs affiliated with different schools of Islamic thought.

There are other pressing issues that Somali Sheikhs ought to be discussing for the benefit of Somalis in the homeland and Diaspora. Which of these three topics are worthy of  religious  debate: (1) wiping out of medical college graduates at a graduation ceremony and justifying the action in the name of Islam , (2) Drafting  underage children into the fighting force  of a religious militant organization, (3) The impact of songs and poems on the faith of Somalis.

Since 2006 many Somalis were killed for being ‘ apostate’. The major proof for apostasy is being a government employee, not leaving Islam.  Respected Sheikhs were assassinated in Garowe, Bossasso and Mogadishu.

How would a Somali Sheikh living in the West respond if he had been asked about the punishment meted out to a Somali who embraced Christianity? Many Somalis ask Sheikhs on phone-in programs questions that can land the latter in trouble if they forget that those asking eschatological questions have an ax to grind. In the eyes of Al-Shabab the Somali President is an apostate!

Somalis have been grappling with polarization along clan lines. Religious polarization is now taking its toll on a nation whose Sunni groups (Al-Shabab, Al’itisam, Takfir, and Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a) are at loggerheads with each other.

Rushing to religious judgment, self-righteousness, calling someone an apostate or directly or indirectly justifying the killing of innocent people is a habit Somalis nowadays associate with religious leaders. Somali Sheikhs should not be surprised if their sermons do not lead to spiritual enlightenment on the part of the laity. Possibly some Somali religious leaders skip reading the following verse from the Koran: “Do you encourage right conduct on people and forget to practice it yourselves, though you study the Scripture? Will you not understand? (Surah 2, verse 44)”

Religious polarization is piling up more woes on Somalis.  

Liban Ahmad




  1. Liban, good article here. YouTube, like any other technology, is a tool. Used correctly, it can benefit all of us. I am happy to see our Sheikhs embrace technology. Sheikh Umal has a laptop by his side as he preaches or answers questions.

    Islam is the universal religion for mankind and Arabic is the most powerful spiritual language ever known to man. As muslims, we believe that the holy quran is the last revelation.

    As you have rightly pointed out, some things are only known to man. A very good example of this is the judgement day. It is a secret that only Allah (saw) knows. Thus, ad muslims, we treat with the obvious scepticism it deserves, any attempts by scientists and others in predicting things like the end of the world. The simple answer is that no one really knows. Not the ulamaas, prophets or angels.

    Each prophet had his own miracles. But they were quick to point out that these were powers from Allah (saw), the absolute ruler of the world. The Quran is one of Allah’s Greatest Mysteries. Its interpretation and exact meaning is ONLY known to HIM. All the ulamaas in the world can never fully decipher its mysteries. It is the greatest bestseller of all times. Each individual or groups interpretes it in its own ways. None of them is wrong or right. No one size “fits all”.

    In my view, Sheikh Raage has a point when he says that only Allah (saw) is familiar with all knowledge. All these Sheikhs agree on this. Allah is All-Knowing, All-Seeing. As humans, we will NEVER fully understand Him.

    In any case, the Koran has covers so many subjects and disciplines, it is impossible for any one person, ulamaa or groups to claim to have complete monopoly of it. The contents of the Holy Quran includes subjects like geography (eg earthquakes), accounting (measurements), biology (conception of humans), astrology (stars, planets), gender (women), ethics (right, wrong, good/bad), geometry (straight lines as in “saaf” during prayers) et al. Some of its mysteries are being discovered now with the aid ofodern technology. Others may never be discovered during our lifetime.

    Each time I see these Sheikhs on YouTube, I listen to them..Just like experts in any given subject, there are many areas where there is a general consensus. For instance, they all agree on ONE God (“Shahaada”). They all agree on the universal religion too. However, there are areas in which a consensus is lacking. Different scholars give different interpretations. Some quote the Quran, others the hadith (traditions of the holy prophet, pbuh). They also try to give reasons for their decisions. Nothing wrong with this. No one is wrong. Neither is the other right. It all depends on the context. I listen to them all then try to draw reasonable conclusions.

    To conclude, debate is healthy as long as it is professional and does NOT get personal. In my view, if the Sheikhs want more respect from us, they should fight things like qat abuse, tahriib, unemployment, high divorce rates, poverty, insecurity, clannism, extremism et al. I think these are more pertinent issues. Why concentrate on “helpless” musicians like Nasteeho Indho when we have more urgent and pressing issues at hand? No wonder our comedians like Caali had a field day on YouTube!

Leave a Reply