Somali literature

Somali literature refers to the literary tradition of Somalia. It ranges from Islamic poetry and prose produced by the region's scholars and Sheikhs of centuries past to works of fiction from contemporary writers.

Islamic literature

The Islamic literature of Somalia dates back to the early 14th century, with Uthman bin Ali Zayla'i producing Tabayin al-Haqa’iq li Sharh Kanz al-Daqa’iq, one of the most referenced books in the Hanafi school of Islam. Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan (1864–1921), the celebrated religious and nationalist leader, also left a considerable amount of manuscripts. One of the better-known examples of Somali Islamic literature is Maja'mut al-Mubaraka, a work written by Shaykh Abdullah al-Qalanqooli and published in Cairo in 1918. Shaykh Abd Al-Rahman bin Ahmad al-Zayla'i also produced many Islamic-orientated manuscripts in the 19th century. In addition, poetry in the form of Qasidas was also popular among Somali Sheikhs, the latter of whom produced thousands of such works in praise of Prophet Muhammad.

English translation
Whenever you wish to make easy your objective
Then give a prayer to your Messenger, the best of Guides
And say seeking aid in every circle
Blessings of God and the crier cries
On the chosen our Master the Praised
Beloved of God preferred to those who ascended
His tomb is above any Throne or High Place
As is Every pious place sincerely
Musk and Spices give fragrance, truly
To the tomb of Muhammad, light of Heart
Every aspect of the Habib gives light
The one who seeks him sees the lights with goodness
The distance meets it along with the near
It will encompass the Family, the neighbours of the Beloved
As well as people of the community with knowledge of his fragrance

Somali poetry

Nation of Bards

Due to the Somali people's passionate love for and facility with poetry, Somalia has also been called by, among others, the Canadian novelist and scholar Margaret Laurence, a "Nation of Poets" and a "Nation of Bards".[1] The 19th-century British explorer Richard Francis Burton, who visited the Somali Peninsula, similarly recounts in his book First Footsteps in East Africa how:

According to Canadian novelist and scholar Margaret Laurence, who originally coined the term "Nation of Poets" to describe the Somali Peninsular, the Eidagale clan were viewed as "the recognized experts in the composition of poetry" by their fellow Somali contemporaries:

Muhammad Abdullah Hassan

Observing that "some say he was 'peerless' and his 'noble lines' .. are commonly quoted throughout the Somali peninsula", Samatar concurs with J. Spencer Trimingham's judgement that "Mahammad 'Abdille Hasan [Sayyid Abdullah Hassan] was a master of eloquence and excelled in the art of composing impromptu poems which so readily inspire and inflame the Somalis" -- although Samatar dissents on its "impromptu" nature.[4]

One of Hassan's well-known poems is Gaala Leged ("Defeat of the Infidels"):

English translation
To begin with, I had neglected poetry and had let it dry up
I had sent it west in the beginning of the spring rains.
But let me set forth what prevented me from sleeping last night
God's Blessing are more numerous than those growing trees.
I will remind you of the victory he gave us
Listen to me my council, for you are most dear to me
If the unwashed left handed one had died yesterday,
if I had cut his throat- may he taste hell in the grave itself
And the wild animals had eaten him, he and his ilk would deserve this
I would salute the hyena that would gorge itself on his flesh, as it's doing me a favor, it is dearer to me than any other animal of the wild.
If could I would reward it every day
That deformed one wasted a lot of my wealth
since he kept committing wrongs again and again
I knew all along that the hyena would devour him
It was their insincere refusal to acknowledge the truth that put them down and destroyed them
And made me attack their best man with a Dagger
If they had not become ungrateful, I would have not become enraged with them
I would have not lost my generosity and respect for them
I would have not have withheld anything from them, if they desired peace
But when they acted disdainfully, death marched straight at them

Elmi Boodhari

Elmi Boodhari differed from the poets of his generation in that he eschewed the popular theme of Tribal war and vengeance in Somali poetry, instead wholly focusing on love and composing all his poems for the woman he loved, Hodan Abdulle, which was seen as highly unconventional and scandalous at the time.

Author Mohamed Diiriye in his book Culture and Customs of Somalia, writes:

Among the poets of the past century, a poet who has gained the hearts of all Somalis in every district is Elmi Boodhari, many major poets such as Mohamed Abdallah Hassan and Abdi Gahayr, aroused resentment among some somalis, as they addressed diatribes against the members of a certain clan, or urged bloodletting; such poets are known as viper tongues, and the poems of such poets have been known to cause feuds and clan wars. But not so with Elmi Boodhari, his subject was romance and only that. While the poets of his day where addressing serious subjects such as war and feuds, Boodhari composed all of his poems for the lady of his affection Hodan, who was given in hand of marriage to a man much wealthier than him. Instead of getting literary kudos for his beautiful verse, Boodhari was made the object of public ridicule. Somali society had not been of course devoid of romance either in song or prose in any age, but to proclaim the object of ones love was frowned upon in the social mores of Somalis. [5]

A poem Elmi composed for Hodan:

She is altogether fair:

Her fine-shaped bones begin her excellence;

Magnificent of bearing, tall is she; A proud grace is her body’s greatest splendor; Yet she is gentle, womanly, soft of skin. Her gums’ dark gloss is like unto blackest ink; And a careless flickering of her slanted eyes Begets a light clear as the white spring moon. My heart leaps when I see her walking by, Infinite suppleness in her body’s sway. I often fear that some malicious djinn

May envy her beauty, and wish to do her harm.

— From “Qaraami” (Passion), as presented by Margaret Laurence in A Tree for Poverty.[6]

Function in society

As the Somali Studies doyen Said Sheikh Samatar explains, a Somali poet is expected to play a role in supporting his clan, "to defend their rights in clan disputes, to defend their honor and prestige against the attacks of rival poets, to immortalize their fame and to act on the whole as a spokesman for them."[7] In short, a traditional poem is occasional verse composed to a specific end, with argumentative or persuasive elements, and having an historical context.

The veteran British anthropologist and Horn of Africa specialist I. M. Lewis recounts how in the latter days of the rule of General Muhammad Siad Barre, the political opposition often relied on oral poetry, either recorded on cassette tapes or broadcast through the Somali language service of the BBC, to voice their dissent. When the British considered closing the Somali language service down for financial reasons, a delegation of prominent Somali leaders met with the British, and argued that "much as they appreciated the ambassador personally, it would be better to close the British embassy rather than terminate the BBC broadcast!"[8]


The form of Somali verse is marked by hikaad (or alliteration) and an unwritten practice of meter.[9]

Folk literature

Somalis also have a rich oral tradition when it comes to ancient folktales, stories which were passed on from generation to generation. Tales such as Dhegdheer the cannibal woman were told to little children as a way to instill discipline in them since the dreaded Dhegdheer was said to pay a visit at night to all those who had been naughty. "Coldiid the wise warrior" is another popular Somali folktale with a positive message regarding a waranle (warrior) who avoids all forms of violence. For this abstinence, he is looked down upon by his peers. However, in the end, he manages to show that violence is no way to earn either respect or love. A Lion's tale is a popular children's book in the Somali diaspora wherein two Somali immigrant children struggle to adapt to life in a new environment. They find themselves surrounded by friends that strike them as greedy, only to magically return to Ancient Somalia where they live out all of the popular Somali folktales for themselves. A Lion's tale has also recently been developed into a school play.

Modern literature

Somali scholars have for centuries produced many notable examples of Islamic literature ranging from poetry to Hadith. With the adoption in 1972 of the modified Latin script developed by the Somali linguist Shire Jama Ahmed as the nation's standard orthography, numerous contemporary Somali authors have also released novels, some of which have gone on to receive worldwide acclaim.

Of these modern writers, Nuruddin Farah is probably the most celebrated. Books such as From a Crooked Rib and Links are considered important literary achievements, works that have earned Farah, among other accolades, the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. His most famous novel, Maps (1986), the first part of his Blood in the Sun trilogy, is set during the Ogaden conflict of 1977, and employs the innovative technique of second-person narration for exploring questions of cultural identity in a post-independence world. Farah Mohamed Jama Awl is another prominent Somali writer who is perhaps best known for his Dervish era novel, Ignorance is the enemy of love. Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame "Hadrawi" is considered by many to be the greatest living Somali poet. Some have compared him to Shakespeare and his works have been translated internationally.

Cristina Ali Farah is a famous italo-Somali writer who was born in Italy to a Somali father and an Italian mother, Farah grew up in Mogadishu from 1976 to 1991. Her novels and poetry have been published in various magazines (in Italian and English) such as El Ghibli, Caffè, Crocevia, and in the anthologies "Poesia della migrazione in italiano" ("Poetry of migration in Italy") and "A New Map: The poetry of Migrant Writers in Italy". In 2006, Farah won the Italian national literary competition, "Lingua Madre" ("Mother Tongue"). She was also honored by the city of Torino at the "International Torino Book Fair". In 2007, she published her first novel, Madre piccola ("Little Mother"[10]), based on her own experience living in Mogadishu. Actually (2014) she is starting to write some works in Somali language.[11] [12]

See also


  1. Diriye, p. 75.
  2. Burton, Footsteps, p. 91.
  3. Laurence, Margaret (1970). A tree for poverty: Somali poetry and prose. McMaster University Library Press. p. 27.
  4. Said S. Samatar, Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayyid Mahammad Abdille Hasan (Cambridge: University Press, 1982), p. 187.
  5. "Moahmed Diiriye Abdulahi : Culture and Customs of Somalia, p.79".
  7. Samatar, Oral Poetry, p. 56.
  8. I. M. Lewis, A Modern History of the Somali (Oxford: James Currey, 2002), p. 251.
  9. Samatar, Oral Poetry, p. 64.
  10. Little Mother
  11. Cristina Ali-Farah biography
  12. Brioni, Simone, The Somali Within: Language, Race and Belonging in 'Minor' Italian Literature , Cambridge, 2015.


  • Ahmed, Ali Jimale, Daybreak is Near - the Politics of Emancipation in Somalia: Literature, Clans, and the Nation State, Lawrenceville, 1996.
  • Andrzejewski, Bogumił W., Somali Poetry, Oxford, 1969.
  • Brioni, Simone, The Somali Within: Language, Race and Belonging in 'Minor' Italian Literature , Cambridge, 2015.
  • Burton, Richard, First Footsteps in Somalia , London, 1854.
  • Galaal, Muuse, I., Hikmad Soomaali, London, 1956.
  • Kabjits, Georgij L., Waxaa la yidhi, Köln, 1996.
  • Lawrence, Margaret, A Tree of Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose, Nairobi, 1954.

Dirie, Shamsa, "Somali Legends" "Somalia: the literature of a nation in ruins" (interview with Ali Jimale Ahmed)

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