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Haji Farah Oomar Ileeye (1879-1949): The Staunch Nationalist and the First Somali Lawyer

By Abdulrahman Baadiyow

Haji Farah Oomar Ileeye (1879–1949) was a dedicated Somali nationalist and a pioneer in the realm of Somali civil society. He was born in Hagal in the Saahil region of Somaliland, within a wealthy pastoral family connected to the Qaderiyah Sufi order. From a young age, Haji Farah’s education began at a Qur’anic school in his hometown, and he later moved to Berbera in 1886 to continue his education. In Berbera, Haji Farah was one of the first 11 students admitted to the French Catholic Mission School, which opened in the town that same year. After completing his elementary education in 1891, Haji Farah and his classmates were transferred to Aden, where they attended Marry Church School for their intermediate and secondary education. Some students converted to Christianity, such as the father of Michel Mariano.

Haji Farah Oomar Ileeye

In 1904, Haji Farah returned home after finishing his studies at the age of 25. He joined the colonial service as an official in the Camel Corps, a unit within the British Army. He was exposed to the harsh realities of the British colonial administration’s treatment of the Somali people. Haji Farah’s strong sense of justice and equality was evident when, upon being asked by a British administrator how much salary and accommodation should be provided to a black soldier, he replied, “It should be equivalent to that of a white soldier.” This firm stance on racial equality put him at odds with his superiors and put him under suspension and close observation. During his time in the Camel Corps, Haji Farah faced numerous challenges, including accusations of collaborating with the Darwish Movement, which was considered an enemy of the British. In 1911, amidst the heightened tensions and suspicions, he was decommissioned from the Camel Corps.

Haji Farah Oomar Ileeye’s contributions to Somali civil society and his unwavering commitment to the welfare of his countrymen left a legacy. His life and actions continue to be remembered as a testament to his dedication to justice and equality for all Somalis. Continuing his efforts to raise public awareness and fight against colonial oppression, Haji Farah Oomar Ileeye faced significant challenges from the colonial authorities, who regarded his activism with disdain. Despite this, he secured a scholarship to attend Aligarh Muslim University in India, where he pursued a law degree. During his time at the university, Haji Farah was exposed to a wealth of knowledge. He became acquainted with professors and students involved in African and Asian anti-colonial movements. He observed the Indian liberation movement led by prominent figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. His encounter with Gandhi taught him about non-violent resistance, profoundly influencing his activism approach. Haji Farah was also inspired by the work of Islamist revivalists and nationalists from the Muslim world, including Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a political activist and Islamic scholar; Shakib Arslan, a Lebanese writer; and Saad Zaghloul, an Egyptian revolutionary and statesman. These experiences enriched his perspective and commitment to fighting for justice and equality.

Upon graduating with a law degree, the first among Somalis, Haji Farah, returned to Somaliland and joined the British Lawyers’ Association. He established the first law firm in the Somali British Protectorate in Hargeisa to defend the rights of his people against colonial injustices and cruelties. Despite his determination, Haji Farah faced relentless pressure from the colonial authorities. In 1925, unable to bear the increasing harassment and intimidation, he relocated to Aden and continued his activism there. In Aden, he founded the Somali Islamic Association, the first Somali civil society organization, in collaboration with his colleagues. This association aimed to advocate for the rights of the Somali people and promote their welfare, setting a precedent for future civil society movements in the region. Haji Farah’s resilience and dedication to his cause made him a pivotal figure in the struggle for Somali independence and social justice. Haji Farah Oomar Ileeye’s journey from Aden to London marked part of the phase in his activism. Upon arriving in London, he received a warm welcome from the British Lawyers’ Association and quickly immersed himself in advocacy. He organized meetings and delivered impactful lectures across various British cities and penned articles in newspapers that sharply criticized the British mistreatment of the Somali people in the British Somali Protectorate.

During his time in Britain, Farah engaged with numerous Somalis and appointed Ismail Telefon as his representative to continue his mission in his absence. Before returning home, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca. He passed through Aden, where he was elected President of the Somali Islamic Association, solidifying his leadership in the Somali diaspora. In 1938, Farah returned home and was recognized by the Islamic scholars and elders of the Isaaq clan in Somaliland and Kenya as their official spokesperson. With this newfound role, he convened meetings and conferences, educating his people on the global rise of liberation movements and urging them to stand up against British occupation in Somalia. Based on his travels and experiences, Farah’s eloquent speeches drew the attention of key community leaders, including Islamic scholars, traditional elders, and other dignitaries.

The British administrators, troubled by Farah’s persistent agitation and growing influence, took drastic action. They exiled him to Socotra Island, where he was imprisoned until 1945. Upon his release, Farah returned home, only to find himself in poor health and facing another exile, this time to the historic Islamic city of Harar in Ethiopia. After six months in Harar, Farah’s deteriorating health necessitated his return to Hargeisa, where he continued his activism until he died in 1948 at the age of 70. Despite enduring multiple exiles, imprisonments, and health challenges, Haji Farah’s unwavering commitment to anti-colonial resistance left a permanent mark on Somali history. He is remembered as the first Somali lawyer, a passionate civil society activist, and a steadfast nationalist who faced numerous trials in his pursuit of justice for his people. His last words before his passing emphasized the importance of unity, stating, “My country is too small so that my people cannot be divided.” This parting message resonates as a testament to his enduring legacy as a champion for Somalia’s freedom and unity.

Telling the untold story of Haji Farah Oomar Ileeye is crucial, especially in a time of Somali divisions, as it offers valuable insights into the perseverance and determination of past generations in their quest for freedom and unity. By shedding light on the life and legacy of this influential figure, we can provide the current generation with a deeper understanding of their heritage and the challenges their ancestors face. Haji Farah’s life was marked by his relentless fight against colonial oppression and his dedication to promoting the rights and welfare of the Somali people. By narrating Haji Farah Oomar’s biography, we honor the memory of a hero whose life exemplified resilience, courage, and an unyielding pursuit of justice. His story is an inspiring lesson for today’s generation, encouraging them to appreciate the sacrifices made by their forebears and continue working toward a future of freedom and unity for all Somali people.

Dr. Abdurahman Baadiyow
Email: [email protected]

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Dr. Abdurahman Baadiyow is a Professor of Modern Islamic History and a Senior Adviser for the Somali President on Peace and Reconciliation.

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