The Somali people are an East Cushitic ethnic group native to the Horn of Africa. They are mainly found in Somalia (around 12.3 million), Ethiopia (4.6 million), Kenya (2.8 million) and Djibouti (534,000). Despite the national boundaries, all Somalis consider themselves one people, and this unity makes them one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa.


There are various theories regarding how the name came about. The first theory states that the term Somali was coined from Samaale, a common ancestor of several Somali clans. Another is that it was derived from the words soo and maal, which mean "go and milk". This interpretation differs depending on the region, with northern Somalis implying that it refers to go and milk in regards to the camel's milk. At the same time, southern Somalis use the translation sa' maal, which refers to cow's milk. The third one proposes that the term Somali was derived from the Arabic word zāwamāl, meaning wealthy, referring to Somali riches in livestock.

The final theory suggests it was derived from the Automoli (Asmach), a group of warriors from ancient Egypt. Asmach is thought to have been their Egyptian name, with Automoli being a Greek word S'mali, meaning on the left-hand side.


Somali people are the only homogenous ethnic group in Africa that speak one common language, the Somali language, an Eastern Cushitic dialect from the Afro-Asiatic family of languages, previously called Hamito-Semitic.


The most important political unit in the traditional Somali system is the clan. The two major clans are the Samaal and  Saab, named after brothers whose origin is highly contentious. Some Somali believe that the brothers were members of the Prophet Muhammad's tribe, the Quraysh of Arabia. The Samaal, which comprise about three-quarters of the Somali population, is divided into four main sub-clans: the Dir, Daarood, Isaaq and Hawiye, while the Saab is divided into the Digil and Rahanwayn clan families. 

Clan membership is traced through the paternal lineage to a common male ancestor from whom the group takes its clan name. Clan groups with the longest ancestry have the most prestige. 

Somalis are traditionally independent and fiercely loyal to their clan and its political party. Ceremonial clan leaders are called Sultans, or bokor, meaning bind the people together. 

The leaders deal with people politically on a face-to-face basis. They claim no rights as rulers over their people, despite being responsible for all affairs concerning the clan and its relations with other clans. Actual rule and enforcement of clan laws is the responsibility of the elders and a council made up of the clan's adult males.


Somali clans have a traditional means of compensating for lives lost in inter-clan disputes. The clan responsible for the death pays the victim's clan compensation,  dia, traditionally a set number of camels or other livestock. A certain percentage of the dia, jiffo, is paid to the deceased's family by relatives of the one responsible for the death. Dia is also paid, in a lesser amount, for other crimes, such as rape, adultery, and theft. The paying groups are formed by agreement among closely related clan members, and the enforcement of dia customs falls on the elders and the clan council. 


The Arabs introduced the Islam religion. More than 99% of the population is Sunni Muslim. Members of other religious groups combined constitute less than 1% of the people and include a small Christian community, a small Sufi Muslim community, and an unknown number of Shia Muslims.

They believe in one God, Allah, and the dedication to studying the teachings of Allah's prophets. Prophet Mohammed is central among these, though other respected prophets include the Biblical patriarch Abraham and Jesus. The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar month and begins numbering from when Mohammed arrived in Medina.

They observe Important religious holidays such as Ramadan, Id ul-Fitr, Id Arafa, and Moulid. Ramadan is the 9th month of the lunar calendar. During the 30 days of the holiday, people pray, fast and refrain from drinking during the day and eat only at night. Pregnant women, very ill people, and children (usually interpreted as under 14 years old) are exempted from the fast. 

Immediately following Ramadan is the holiday of Id ul-Fitr, which marks the end of the fast. This celebration involves big family gatherings and gifts for children. Id Arafa ( also called Id ul-Adhuha) is the most important holiday of the calendar year as it is the time for making pilgrimages (hajjia) to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Moulid is another important holiday, occurring in the month after Ramadan. It commemorates the birth and death of the Prophet Mohammed.


The Somali people are traditionally semi-nomadic, living subsistence lifestyles as agro-pastoralists or nomadic livestock herders. Somali nomads typically live in domed structures (agal) made of branches, mats and/or animal skins that can quickly be taken down and moved to another area.



Somali names have three parts. The first name is the given name and is specific to an individual. The second is the child's father's name, and the third is the paternal grandfather's. Thus both male and female siblings share the same second and third names.


Circumcision is practised for both males and females. It is viewed as a rite of passage to allow one to become a fully accepted adult member of the community. It is considered necessary for marriage, as uncircumcised people are considered unclean.

Male circumcision is performed between birth and five years of age. It is performed either by a traditional doctor or in a hospital. It is accompanied by a celebration involving prayers and the ritual slaying of a goat.

Female circumcision has different procedures in which varying amounts of genital tissues are removed. Procedures include the removal of the clitoral hood leaving the rest of the genitalia intact, removing the clitoris and anterior labia minora, the entire labia minora, part of the labia majora and suturing of the labia major, leaving a posterior opening for passage of urine and menstrual flow.

It is usually performed between birth and five years of age. However, in the last twenty years, much attention has been focused on the medical and psychological complications of female circumcision. It has become the centre of a debate about potentially harmful traditional cultural practices and a complex subject.


Somali marriages were and are still considered a bond between both a man and a woman and between clans and families. The man pays a bride price (livestock or money) to the woman's family. Until recently, most marriages were arranged between a wealthy older man and the father of a young woman he wished to wed.

Traditionally the Samaal marry outside their family lineage, and if within, there must be a difference of six or more generations from the man. On the other hand, the Saab follows the Arab tradition of marrying within the father's family lineage, with first cousins often marrying. A Somali bride usually lives with her husband's family after marriage, with her parents providing the home and household goods. However, the women keep their family names to maintain affiliation with their birth clan.

Islamic laws allow a man to marry up to four wives as long as he can provide for them.


Somalis bury the dead on the same day they pass on. Family members read passages from the Quran to encourage the spirit to leave the body. If the deceased is female, female family members wash the body with a warm cloth and vice versa. The body is then wrapped securely in white cotton clothes from head to toe and taken to the mosque for a service and a special ritual called Janaaso

Afterwards, the body is covered with a green cloth embroidered with gold and taken to the burial site. The Muslims bury without a casket or any other coverings.


Somali men traditionally wear the ma'awiis, a sarong-like garment worn around the waist and a large cloth wrapped around the upper part of their body. On their heads, they often cover a colourful turban or wear the koofiyad, an embroidered taqiyah(a rounded cap).

The women usually wear the guntiino, a long stretch of cloth tied over the shoulder and draped around the waist. The fabric is generally made out of a textile known as alandi. For weddings or religious celebrations like Eid, women wear the Dirac. It is a long, light dress made of silk, chiffon, taffeta or saree fabric. The Dirac is usually sparkly and very colourful, the most popular styles being those with gilded borders or threads. The gown is worn over a full-length half-slip. An underskirt (gorgorad) made of silk is a vital part of the overall outfit.


UNESCO. (2013, December). Scoping Study on the Culture Sector in Somalia. A Research Study Report

Abdisalam, M., Issa-Salwe. The Collapse of The Somali State: The Impact of the Colonial Legacy

Mohamed, N. A. A Linguistic Outline of Early Somali History

Abdi Sheik-Abdi. Divine Madness: Mohammed Abdulle Hassan (1856–1920), 1993.

Larson, Charles R. "Full Disclosure." World and I 13 (12): 1998.

Lewis, Ioan M. Blood and Bone: The Call of Kinship in Somalia Society, 1995.

The Modern History of Somalia: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa, 1988.

Metz, Helen Chapin, ed. Press, Robert. Somalia: A Country Study, 1993.

The New Africa: Dispatches from a Changing Continent, 1999.

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