Wednesday, June 20, 2018
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Sheikh Shibli and the Somali Bantu: A Racial Controversy

By Hassan M. Abukar

A Somali politician once joked about what he termed Somalis’ penchant for “perpetual controversy.” It is always one letdown after the other, he said. “At this point, there is nothing my people could do that will shock me,” he said, smiling.

Last month, the Somali government caused a political ruckus when it handed over Colonel Abdikarim Muse, a Somali national, to Ethiopia. A government spokesman declared that the surrender was in the interest of fighting terrorism.

Abdiweli Sheikh Ali Elmi Yare

This month, Somalia faces a religious controversy, which is raging across the country and on social media. Abdiweli Sh. Ali Emi Yare, a resident of Galkacayo, was accused of possessing a picture of the Prophet of Islam, Mohamed (PBUH). This is a blasphemous act because Islam prohibits the making of an image of the prophet. The allegation is so serious that some clerics have demanded the man to be arrested and killed. Sheikh Bashir Ahmed-Salad Warsame, the head of the Council of Religious Scholars, condemned the man and asked the local authorities in Galkacayo to take action.

The local authorities investigated the man, arrested him, and brought him to court. He categorically denied all the charges against him and was released. In an interview with the BBC Somali Service , the man said he was flummoxed by the allegations. “Who is in his right mind can show an image of the prophet?” he asked incredulously. “I only have a picture of my religious teacher, who happens to be named Mohamed.”

However, the dismissal of the case did not temper the smoldering controversy. Sheikh Shibli, a prominent cleric based in Kenya, suddenly joined the discussion. As usual, he was stern and unbending and lashed out at the man, accusing him of engaging in kufr (disbelief). Shibli asked both the regional state of Galmudug and the federal government to intervene, arrest the man, and kill him, according to the Islamic jurisprudence. “I don’t care if the Somali federal government falls, but this man has to be brought to justice,” Shibli admonished.

Then, Shibli wondered why the man would show an image of the prophet that was one of “an ugly man, a Jareer (Bantu)?” To Shibli, showing an image of the prophet was sacrilegious, but the image of the prophet as a Bantu man was equally repugnant.” The TV interviewer chuckled in approval of Shibli’s statement.

Members of the Somali Bantu community in Jowhar, in Middle Shebelle, were horrified by Shibli’s remarks. The comments sent a large portion of their members—a marginalized group, who have been historically discriminated against—spinning into nervous fits and hyperbolic rants.  They asked why Shibli would call their people “ugly”. The fact that a prominent cleric like Shibli—who preaches tolerance, fairness, equality, and acceptance—would demean an entire community as unattractive was appalling, they said. “Shibli needs to repent as soon as possible,” said one of them.

Sheikh Mohamoud Shibli

Shibli issued a video in which he clarified his earlier statement but gave a lukewarm apology to the Bantu people. “If my remarks offended some people,” he said sheepishly, “then I apologize.” But, he continued to defend his position by offering a plethora of proof in the Islamic literature about the existence of the Jareer (Bantu) as a distinct race with distinct physical features. He said that all black people—including all the Somalis—were Bantu. Shibli was attempting to sidestep the furor he had created, which was not about the existence of Bantu as a racial group, but about him calling them ugly.

Sheikh Abdulkadir Kishki, a cleric based in Canada and a longtime nemesis of Shibli, jumped on the opportunity to attack him. Kishki apologized to the Somali Bantu community for what he called “Shibli’s ignorance, racist, and un-Islamic behavior.” It is shameful, he said, that a renowned religious scholar like Shibli, who knows better, would blatantly engage into racial baiting.

Race and racism have been a social issue in Somalia as long as the Somali Bantu have been a part of the Somalia society. The Bantu originally hailed from Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique and were brought into Somalia as slaves and plantation workers. They mostly reside between the two rivers of Somalia. The United Nations and some countries, including the United States, have recognized the Bantu refugees who fled Somalia as a protected group. Many have been resettled  in America.

Shibli was addressing a religious issue regarding the image of the prophet, but he inadvertently created another controversy. His failure to apologize to the Somali Bantu and own his faux pas added more fuel to the fire. The episode highlights how racism in Somalia is still a social problem that needs to be addressed and openly discussed. It is a stark acknowledgment that even religious scholars are not immune to racial charges.

Hassan M. Abukar


Mr, Abukar is a political analyst, a contributor to Wardheernews, and the author of Mogadishu Memoir. He can be reached at

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