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Remembering Scholars of Islam Executed in 1975

Prof. Abdurahman Abdullahi (Baadiyow)

Forty-eight years ago, on January 23, 1975, the Somali people were shocked after the military regime executed 10 eminent scholars of Islam. These scholars peacefully protested the violation of Islamic law in the promulgated secular family law. Although Somalia had gone through many tragic events and mass human rights violations during military rule and the civil war, the motives for the execution of these scholars were exceptional. It symbolized the confrontation between the secular military regime and Somali scholars who defended the Sharia of Islam: the family and property laws.

Arbaca -Rukun mosque, Mogadishu Somalia

It is a pity that the importance of this tragic event received less attention from the historical memory of our people and intellectuals. Dr. Ali Sheikh Ahmed, the former president of Mogadishu University, was the first scholar to record the detailed first-hand narration of this event in his book “Somalia: The Roots of the Current Tragedy.” In addition, this author published the first English essay on this event.[1] 

The tragic episode evolved when President Mohamed Siyad Barre announced the new Family Law on January 11, 1975, at the Stadium in Mogadishu, offering equality between men and women in inheritance matters which contradicts the Qur’anic text. Public reaction, however, was timid and cautious because of the overwhelming presence of the repressive security apparatus. Later, on January 16, some scholars found the courage to overtly criticize the law from the pulpit of the famous Abdulkadir Mosque in Mogadishu. The initiator of the protesting speech was Sheikh Ahmed Sheikh Mohamed, a prominent jurist from Northern Somalia who came to Mogadishu at the invitation of Ismael Ali Abokor, a member of the Revolutionary Council. The regime quickly unleashed its security apparatus and detained these scholars and hundreds of other activists and sympathizers. Afterward, on January 18 and 19, the National Security Court put the scholars on trial, imposed a death sentence on ten of them, and jailed 6 for 30 years and 17 others for 20 years.

Mohamed Siad Barre, the former Somali president 1969-1990

Finally, on January 23, 1975, at the Police Academy in Mogadishu, the military regime executed these ten scholars. The public was caught flabbergasted and considered the execution of the scholars the beginning new calamity in Somalia. This public feeling was so captivated after the instantaneous clash of the two Mig 17 fighters in the sky of Mogadishu during the execution of the scholars.    

The encounter between Somali scholars of Islam and the military regime centered on Islam’s role in the state and society. The issue of women was merely one of the theaters of confrontation between the two parties that were suspicious of each other because the regime adopted socialism to reform Somali society accordingly.  The military regime’s Family Law was part of the regime’s program that directly contravened the Quranic verse (4:11-14). Bizarrely, colonial administrations in Somalia never dared to touch family and property laws based on Sharia, fearing the people’s wrath, while the military regime deliberately transgressed.

The secular Family Law was initiated when the United Nations adopted resolution 3010 on December 18, 1972, designating 1975 as International Women ‘s Year to promote the alleviation of the role of women in social, political, and economic aspects. Indeed, the military regime offered more opportunities for Somali women to become more vocal and participate in grassroots revolutionary programs. They became more visible in public, particularly in the Socialist Orientation Centers. They participated more actively in education programs and took higher public service positions. There were women of high rank among the officers in the army and the air force, and they took up positions as general managers, Ambassadors, directors-generals, and ministerial positions. In addition, the military regime issued laws to promote women, such as ensuring equal salaries for equal jobs and providing paid maternity leave.

Moreover, the military regime had even established a woman’s mosque to show its commitment to the advancement of women in all aspects since they did not have their own prayer spaces in the traditional mosques in Somalia. All these positive aspects of the military regime in promoting Somali women agree with the general principles of Islam. The conflict between the scholars of Islam and the military regime was confined to the regime’s denial of the parts of the Quran that gives the detailed distribution of the inheritance to the deceased person’s family members.  

With the execution of the scholars of Islam, leading scholars were either imprisoned or fled the country to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan. As a result, the Islamist awakening, hitherto united in their ideology and leadership, was fragmented, and the doctrine of extremism and Takfir emerged strongly. The regime’s harshness provoked this phenomenon in dealing with the scholars and the encouragement and support of the conservative Arab governments. Moreover, the contact with the varieties of Islamist ideologies and activism worldwide has contributed to the fragmentation of Somali Islamists. Furthermore, some activists of the Islamist awakening fled to Saudi Arabia and Sudan and began regrouping there. Notably, this occurred during booming economies and Islamic revivalism throughout the Arab/Muslim world. This economic well-being and education offered the emerging Somali Islamist movement the impetus to reorganize itself again.

The execution of the scholars of Islam on 23 January 1975 could be considered the root cause of the beginning of the ideology of extremism in Somalia. However, the extremist ideology has been growing since the 1970s, not only in Somalia but in all Muslim countries, due to multiple factors. The current menace of Al-Shabaab and Daish in Somalia is the extension of a similar world phenomenon, the highest trajectory and probably the last stage of such unprecedented extremism and terrorism. The oppressive nature of the state and the imposition of secular laws is the main instigator of the emergence of groups raising the flag of Islam that can be brutally violent.

In conclusion, the martyrs of 23 January 1975 who sacrificed their lives to defend Islamic values owe scholars of Islam to memorialize this important historical event. Therefore, I urge all scholars and the wider community to commemorate this event collectively every year to protect and preserve the tradition of Islam from the transgression of the state. Indeed, there have been many human rights violations throughout Somali history, yet this incident shook the whole society’s spirit and fundamental faith. Moreover, among many other violations, the government of Somalia must recognize this case and apologize to the victims’ families as part of the restorative justice process in Somalia.

Prof. Abdurahman Abdullahi (Baadiyow)
Email: [email protected]


[1] Abdurahman Abdullahi, “Women, Islamists and the Military Regime in Somalia: The new family Law and its Implications.” in Markus Hoehne and Virginia Luling (ed.), Milk and Peace, Drought and War: Somali Culture, Society and Politics. London: Hurst &Company, 2010, 137-160.


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