The Isaaq (also Isaq, Ishaak, Isaac) (Somali: Reer Sheekh Isaxaaq, Arabic: بني إسحاق) is a Somali clan. It is one of the major Somali clans in the Horn of Africa, with a large and densely populated traditional territory.
The tomb of Sheikh Ishaaq, the founding father of the Isaaq clan, in Maydh, Sanaag
According to some genealogical books and Somali tradition, the Isaaq clan was founded in the 13th or 14th century with the arrival of Sheikh Ishaaq Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al Hashimi (Sheikh Ishaaq) from Arabia, a descendant of Ali ibn Abi Talib in Maydh. He settled in the coastal town of Maydh in modern-day northwestern Somaliland, where he married into the local Magaadle clan.
There are also numerous existing hagiologies in Arabic which describe Sheikh Ishaaq’s travels, works and overall life in modern Somaliland, as well as his movements in Arabia before his arrival. Besides historical sources, one of the more recent printed biographies of Sheikh Ishaaq is the Amjaad of Sheikh Husseen bin Ahmed Darwiish al-Isaaqi as-Soomaali, which was printed in Aden in 1955.
Sheikh Ishaaq’s tomb is in Maydh, and is the scene of frequent pilgrimages. Sheikh Ishaaq’s mawlid (birthday) is also celebrated every Thursday with a public reading of his manaaqib (a collection of glorious deeds). His Siyaara or pilgrimage is performed annually both within Somaliland and in the diaspora particularly in the Middle East among Isaaq expatriates.
Haggenmacher’s map depicting western Isaaq territory
The Isaaq have a very wide and densely populated traditional territory. They live in all 6 regions of Somaliland such as Awdal, Woqooyi Galbeed, Togdheer, Sahil, Sanaag and Sool. They have large settlements in the Somali region of Ethiopia, mainly on the eastern side of Somali region also known as the Hawd and formerly Reserve Area which is mainly inhabited by the Isaaq sub-clan members. They also have large settlements in both Kenya and Djibouti, making up a large percentage of the Somali population in these 2 countries respectively.
The Isaaq clan played a prominent role in the Abyssinian-Adal war (1529–1543, referred to as the “Conquest of Abyssinia”) in the army of Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi, I. M. Lewis noted that only the Habr Magadle division (Ayoub, Garhajis, Habr Awal and Arap) of the Isaaq were mentioned in chronicles of that war written by Shihab Al-Din Ahmad Al-Gizany known as Futuh Al Habash.
The Marrehan and the Habr Magadle [Magādi] also play a very prominent role (…) The text refers to two Ahmads’s with the nickname ‘Left-handed’. One is regularly presented as ‘Ahmad Guray, the Somali’ (…) identified as Ahmad Guray Xuseyn, chief of the Habr Magadle. Another reference, however, appears to link the Habr Magadle with the Marrehan. The other Ahmad is simply referred to as ‘Imam Ahmad’ or simply the ‘Imam’.This Ahmad is not qualified by the adjective Somali (…) The two Ahmad’s have been conflated into one figure, the heroic Ahmed Guray (…)
Sultans of the Isaaq clan in Hargeisa, Somaliland
The first of the tribes to reach Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi were Habr Magādle of the Isaaq clan with their chieftain Ahmad Gurey Bin Hussain Al-Somali, the Somali commander was noted to be one of Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi’s “strongest and most able generals”. The Habr Magādle clan were highly appreciated and praised by the leader Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi for their bravery and loyalty.Dervish Commander Haji Sudi on the left with his brother in-law Duale Idris (1892).
Long after the collapse of Adal Sultanate, sub-clans of the Isaaq established successor states known as Garhajis Sultanates. These two Sultanates exerted a somewhat centralized authority (relative to other clans) during its existence, and possessed some of the organs and trappings of a traditional integrated state: a functioning bureaucracy, regular taxation in the form of livestock, as well as an army (chiefly consisting of mounted light cavalry). These sultanates also maintained written records of their activities, which still exist.
The Isaaq clan along with other northern Somali tribes were under British Somaliland protectorate administration from 1884 to 1960. On gaining independence, the Somaliland protectorate decided to form a union with Italian Somalia. The Isaaq clan spearheaded the greater Somalia quest from 1960 to 1991.
During the Somali Civil War, the Isaaq were subjected to a genocidal campaign by Siad Barre‘s troops (which also included armed Somali refugees from Ethiopia); the death toll has been estimated to be between 50,000 and 200,000.
Historically (and presently to a degree), the wider Isaaq clan were relatively more disposed to trade than their tribal counterparts due in part to their centuries old trade links with the Arabian Peninsula. In view of this imbalance in mercantile experience, other major Somali clans tended to resort to tribal slang terms such as “iidoor”, an enviable pejorative roughly meaning trader/exchanger:
Somalis bandied about numerous stereotypes of clan behavior that mirrored these emerging social inequalities. The pejorative slang terms iidoor or kabadhe iidoora (loosely meaning “exchange”) reflect Somali disdain for the go-between, the person who amasses wealth through persistence and mercantile skills without firm commitments to anyone else. As the Isaaq became more international and cosmopolitan, their commercial success and achievement ideology aroused suspicion and jealousy, notably among rural Darod who disliked Isaaq self-confidence and made them the target of stereotypes.
This was not lost on the sole president and dictator of the Somali Democratic Republic (1969–1991), Siad Barre, Who disliked the Isaaq clan due to their financial independence, thus making it harder to control them:
Siyaad had a deep and personal dislike for the clan. The real reasons can only be guessed at, but in part it was due to his inability to control them. As accomplished business operatives, they had built a society that was not dependant on government largesse. The Isaaq had traditional trade relationships with the nations of the Arabian Peninsula that continued despite the attempts of the government to center all economic activity in Mogadishu. Siyaad did what he could, however, and Isaaq traders were forced to make the long trip to Mogadishu for permits and licenses.
Nevertheless, in the 1970s and 1980s, nearly all of the livestock exports went out through the port of Berbera via Isaaq livestock traders. The entire livestock exports accounted to upwards of 90% of the Somali Republic’s entire export figures in a given year, and Berbera’s exports alone provided over 75% of the nation’s recorded foreign currency income at the time.
In the Isaaq clan-family, component clans are divided into two uterine divisions, as shown in the genealogy. The first division is between those lineages descended from sons of Sheikh Ishaaq by a Harari woman – the Habr Habuusheed – and those descended from sons of Sheikh Ishaaq by a Somali woman of the Magaadle sub-clan of the Dir – the Habr Magaadle. Indeed, most of the largest clans of the clan-family are in fact uterine alliances hence the matronymic “Habr” which in archaic Somali means “mother”. This is illustrated in the following clan structure.Warriors of the Habr Awal clan
A. Habr Magaadle
Abdirahman (Habr Awal)
B. Habr Habuusheed
Ahmed (Tol Je’lo)
Muuse (Habr Je’lo)
Dualeh Abdi of the Musa Abokor Habr Je’lo tribe photographed in 1890
There is clear agreement on the clan and sub-clan structures that has not changed for a long time. The oldest recorded genealogy of a Somali in Western literature was by Sir Richard Burton in the mid–19th century regarding his Isaaq (Habr Yunis) host and the governor of Zeila, Sharmarke Ali Saleh
The following listing is taken from the World Bank‘s Conflict in Somalia: Drivers and Dynamics from 2005 and the United Kingdom’s Home Office publication, Somalia Assessment 2001.
Jama Mohamed Ghalib, former Police Commissioner of the Somali Democratic Republic, Secretary of Interior, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, Minister of Transportation, and Minister of Interior.
Mo Farah, British 4 time Olympic gold medalist and the most decorated athlete in British athletics history.
Mohammed Abdillahi Kahin ‘Ogsadey’, A Somali business tycoon based in Ethiopia, where he established MAO Harar Horse, the first African corporation to export coffee and amassed a net worth of approximately $3 Billion Ethiopian Birr.
Rageh Omaar, Somali-British journalist and writer. He used to be a BBC world affairs correspondent, In September 2006, he moved to a new post at Al Jazeera English, and as of 2017 is currently with ITV News
Umar Arteh Ghalib, former Prime Minister of Somalia 1991–1993. Brought Somalia into the Arab League in 1974 during his term Foreign Minister of Somalia from 1969 to 1977. Former president of UN Security Council, teacher and poet