The following article is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Annalena Tonelli, 60, humanitarian worker and founder of hospital and school for the deaf in Borama, Richard Eyeington, 62, headmaster of the Sheikh Secondary School, and his wife Enid, 61, who were all slain in cold blood in Somaliland.
Recently, I came across news reports on the activities of a group of clerics calling themselves “the Authority for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” trying to impose draconian moral codes on Somaliland citizens in general and residents of the capital Hargeisa, in particular. The following article is therefore, a reaction to this issue. I can ignore, though grudgingly, when such clerics impose dress codes and other punctilious rituals on Somali men and women in the West because these are in the free world where they can express their opinion and seek legal protection against such abuse, but to import this demented thinking to my homeland and the heart of the capital city is quite unbearable to me. I cannot sit back and watch these people humiliate our women, destroy our beautiful culture, hijack our religion and denigrate the reputation of our country worldwide.
I cannot find a better start than to relate an incident that occurred in my home village, Dilla, 60 miles west of Hargeisa, in the early 1990s. It was Friday and the residents of the little farming village of Dilla, western Somaliland, were looking forward to a normal weekend day. The only worry that the villagers had in mind on such days was the crowds of farmers and nomads that descended on the village to attend Friday prayers, thus swelling population to a breaking point. Fridays, however, were bustling days for business. Teashops and shopkeepers sold more than they could sell for the whole week and mothers had the luxury of abundant choice for milk and ghee from the hordes of countryside men and women coming to sell dairy products to buy weeklong provisions instead. Children also looked forward to special lunches with meat, rice or spaghetti instead of the bland, single menu local hadhuudh (millet).
The whole village carried an aura of sweetness as the shopkeepers, teashops and mothers all burned frankincense to greet the Islamic weekend, perfumed themselves and adorned the best of their clothes for the Friday sermon.
No one had the slightest expectation of how this particular Friday would be any different from the thousands of Fridays that they had lived through. But it was and the people were in the offing of a strange phenomenon that would put the wisdom and patience of villagers, particularly the Ulema (clerics), to unprecedented test.
After Friday sermon, a man stood up in the mosque to address the worshippers. Everybody knew him. He was the headmaster of the school, a respected man, a dedicated teacher and a devoted Muslim. A man of no vices; he never smoked, never chewed Qat and led an ascetic life away from women and other worldly luxuries. The general guess was that he was going to lecture about the needs of the school or complain about children’s behavior.
“You all know me,” he said “but what I am going to tell you today is something that you have never expected to hear from me. I am a new prophet”. The people were frozen. The teacher said that he was told by God to reform the Islamic religion and that anyone who believed that Mohammed (PUH) was the last prophet should read the Quran again.
“It is here,” he emphasized, raising the Quran book that was in hand, “I am not fabricating a new thing. My name is mentioned here in the Quran and all you have to do is to read it carefully.”
The worshippers left the mosque dumfounded, but the Ulema decided to have a word with the teacher. They had two things in mind, to assess his mental condition and to judge how adamant he was on his claim of prophethood. Founding that he was mentally sound after a few hours of discussions, the Ulema asked him to promise two things only if they had to leave him in peace. First he should not preach his new gospel in the village’s two mosques and second that he should not try to spoil the faith of school children. If he accepted to fulfill these two conditions he was free to do whatever he wanted with his “message”. He accepted the terms. Two years later, the teacher was spotted praying in the mosque and when the Ulema questioned him his answer was that he returned to his faith and had given up his infatuations.
This is not an imaginary tale. It is a true story that all the people in the area know very well. My point in bringing it up, however, is to raise a question: Imagine this taking place in Saudi Arabia or any other place where Wahhabism or religious extremism prevailed! What the fate of this teacher would have been is anyone’s guess. He would have been hanged mercilessly. However, it is amazing to see how the Ulema of the little farming village of Dilla had dealt with the issue with the sagacity and tolerance that are the long lost faculties of Islam. By simply patronizing the teacher’s claim, they had proven that Islam was too strong and too entrenched in the hearts of people to be shaken by bogus prophets. They also set an excellent example for tolerance and compassion in giving the poor teacher the grace to come back without any fear of reprisal.
The Ulema of Dilla represented a generation and a time when Islam and the Somali culture lived together in perfect harmony when Islam was natural and neatly interwoven into our people’s social fabric, when being Somali and a Muslim was an indivisible whole. Islam back then was like a crystal glass that takes on the color of any liquid that was poured into it. The crystal was so clear that one could see the inside liquid with unmistakable clarity. It was a time when the message of tolerance and peace prevailed, when Islam meant Islam in the true meaning of the word – submission to God and living in a state of mental and physical peace with others. Islam was a bond between the worshipper and the worshipped; an internal harmony whose radiance reflected on one’s face and was felt in one’s humility and generosity towards his fellow (fallible) human beings.
Depending on your view of history, since Somalis embraced Islam at the time of the Prophet or shortly after his death, it never clashed with the local culture in terms of clothing, eating and going about their ordinary life. Once it settled in the heart, it made there its home and never bothered about how a person looked on the outside. The guiding principle in worshipping God was measured on one’s purity of heart as the Qur’an says “Qalbun Salim” (soundness of heart) or wa libaasu Ataqwa (“..the raiment of righeousness…”). Consequently a Somali woman would travel with a single man or even a group of men on long trips, spending nights and days in their company with neither the men nor the woman having any sinister thoughts about their togetherness. The heart was clean and nothing else had mattered much. These Somalis were unknowingly abiding with the prophet’s hadith, which says: “Verily in the body there is a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the body is all sound. If it is corrupt, the body is all corrupt. Verily, it is the heart.”