This article provides a brief introduction to the Sufi women’s religious practice in Somalia known as Sitaad. The text is based on my recently published book called Sitaad: Is-dareen Gelinta Diineed ee Dumarka Soomaaliyeed (2013) (in English: Somali Women’s Self-teaching in Islam through Sitaad).
This is a bold attempt by a Somali author to write about a subject which has been ignored, and probably the first book in Somali language completely devoted to the subject matter. However, there are a few foreign writers who have studied the topic before, including Lidwien Kapteijns with Maryan Omar Ali, Fransesca Declich and Marja Tiilikainen.
The book looks into the history of Sitaad and its place in the Somali culture. It also explores the transformation Sitaad has gone through during the past two decades and the impact of contemporary revivalist Islamic movements on its continuity. While the book underlines the important role that women of Sitaad played in disseminating some basic teachings and facts about Islam within the circles of womenfolk, it also laments the attitudes of men that deprived them the right to learn and practice their faith. Women were in most situations seen as “servants” who assisted their husbands in fulfilling the latter's spiritual journey that leads them to paradise (Jannah).
The book also documents the different issues of socio-economic and spiritual significance such as resource mobilization for holding the Sitaad session, and description of the venue and ritual functions. Most importantly, more than a dozen songs from a large body of devotional literature discussing a wide range of topics such as spirituality, fidelity, peace building, philanthropy etc. are presented.
Sitaad is a genre of religious panegyrics laced with spirituality and a yearning to emulate, eulogize and fuse with some respected earlier women of Islam – most notably Fatimah (the daughter of Prophet Muhammad – Peace and blessings be upon him) and even others who lived before the coming of Islam such as Xaawa (Eve). The term Xaawaleey, which can be translated as “the party of Eve”, alludes to that common bond and shared identity among women which transcends time and space.
Other than its spiritual significance, Sitaad is a medium where women may turn up to temper any negative feelings troubling them, and eventually it assists them to reconcile with the reality of the world they live in. When the chanting, often accompanied by clapping and drumming, reaches its climax, some participants pass into religious ecstasy (Jibbo), after which, it is said, they later emerge stronger, relieved, full of optimism and energy to face the challenges of their immediate future. For children, Sitaad is a festive occasion, and for wayfarers a place where they can quench and satiate their thirst and hunger respectfully.
In contrast to many local contemporary women-run institutions focusing on female empowerment programs in the country, whose actions are often looked at by most men with suspicion, the women of Sitaad never use it as a forum to conspire against men or challenge their hegemony. Instead, they use it as a medium for consoling those who suffered bereavement or experienced misfortune, helping the sick and the poor, as well as conjoining the good and advising against evil deeds.
Every woman of Sitaad wants to be identified with the ideal character of Raalliyo (the good woman) which is synonymous to the Arabic word Mar’at-u-Saliha and has a place of esteem in Islam. A woman who is regarded as a Raalliyo can be contrasted with an Arliyo – an unruly and rebellious one.
The world “Sitaad” originates from the Arabic term “Sayidaat” (literally: Mistresses) – a direct reference to some respected early women of Islam. There is no accurate information on when Sitaad was first introduced into the Somali peninsula. According to a popular tradition, however, it is believed that Fatimah, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) was the initiator of Sitaad, who (as the story goes), while pregnant with Hassan and Hussain, organized a feast for poor women and children, and by that noble act asked or begged Allah earnestly for a safe delivery.
The tradition which was extended to the present day is maintained in what is known among the Somali women as Taraaraysi – a ritual which is performed during the seventh to ninth month of the pregnancy.
Still some scholars attribute Sitaad to non-Islamic Oromo songs for Atete, the goddess of fertility (Kapteijns 1998). It is noteworthy that Somalis were also Waaq (the Cushitic god) worshippers prior to the arrival of Islam in the Horn of Africa. In tracing the origin and development of Sitaad, a direct link can be established between the Somali Sufi religious orders (turuq; sing., tariqa, "way" or "path") and Sitaad. Some of the most popular Sufi orders are Qaadiriya, Ahmediya and Saalihiya.
Qaadiriya is believed to be the oldest and has been around in the Somali peninsula since the 15th century. Therefore, it is very likely that Sitaad developed in parallel with these male-dominated institutions, providing a devotional space for women.
Sitaad also encompasses the oldest form of organized social work in Somali history that women turn to for issues relating to their spiritual and socio-economic needs.
Benevolence, generosity and solidarity for the poor, infirm, sick and other vulnerable members of the community are some of the key aspects of Sitaad. These attributes are eloquently described in the following song:
Kuwii kici waayay kaalmeeyaa la yidhi;
Waa is dhaantaane isu dhiibaa la yidhi;
Kuwii goolmoon u garaababaa la yidhi;
Middii dhaliwayday u dhabreeyabaa la yidhi;
Middii gambo wayday gobol siiyabaa la yidhi.
Extend your generosity to all those among you who are infirm; verily that is what has been said to you;
You are better off than another in possession of material resources,
Therefore, pass the charity among you, from hand to hand; verily that is what has been said to you;
Accept the argument of those among you who are in need; verily that is what has been said to you;
For mundane material burdens, lend you back to the service of elderly barren women; verily that is what has been said to you;
Give a strip (of cloth) to those who cannot afford a head cover; verily that is what has been said to you.
It is on the basis of the humane and sublime ideals above that such a strong social welfare bond among women through Sitaad thrived for such a long period.
In the song above, the refrain “la yidhi” – that was said to you – alludes to Qur’anic and Hadith (collections of traditions including sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) injunctions and instructions, as well as others in different bodies of Islamic literature.
The reported form of the tense underlines the fact that even the scanty religious knowledge that women circulated among themselves came through the agency of men, as women in the past had no direct access to Islamic education and knowledge.
Drought episodes, though less common in the past than nowadays, used to be a recurring phenomenon which during bad years caused a lot of suffering, including loss of human and animal lives. Therefore, the women of Sitaad used to hold Alle-Bari in the form of supplications asking Allah earnestly to bring them rain and ease the hardships of drought and its effects.
One of the particular rituals in a rain-making session, contrasting with the common congregational prayers led by men, is conducted as follows:
After the main Sitaad rituals, mostly devotional songs, once everyone present has been fed to his or her fill, the leader of the congregation calls loudly:
“Tumaa Xaawaleey ah, oo xilo janno ah, oo ninkeeda u xil qarisa?” (Who among you is a true personification of Eve, and at the same time faithful to her husband, and keeps his secret and never betrays him?)
These criteria also allude to an understanding that a woman who should respond to such a call is free from adultery and/or pre-marital sex. As everyone in the congregation is in anticipation of that woman, one of them will stand up and emphatically say in public: “I am a true personification of Eve, faithful to my husband, I keep his secret and never betray him”.
All of a sudden, the group turns to the direction of the woman and with admiration starts ululating. Immediately, her left hand small finger will be tied with a string and then she is asked to beseech Allah for his mercy (rain). She will say:
Allahayow far beyxidhan;
Fartuna waa faryarobidix;
Allahayow biyaan xaday;
Allahayoow I soo furo!
O Allah, a finger of mine is tied;
And it is the left small finger;
O Allah, I stole some water;
O Allah, please compensate for that stolen water!
To fulfill the ritual, an act of dragging the woman in the dust (which she will volunteer) follows, while the empty pots and bans are picked by others, imitating as if they are scooping water from the ground. Then, narrated to me 86-year-old Awo Jama: “Immediately after the Roob-doon (rain making), clouds used to gather and the settlement was relieved of the drought”.
The foregoing process is seen by many contemporary sheikhs as purely un-Islamic. But actually, those women understood that beseeching Allah with the agency of good personal deeds can be instrumental to His approval of the supplications.
This is also in accordance with a Hadith quoted from Prophet Muhammad (narrated by Bukhari) concerning three men who were locked in a cave, after a huge boulder had rolled onto the entrance and barred them from exiting the cave. The men did everything to push the rock aside, but with no success. Finally, they beseeched Allah with their most remarkable past pious deeds, and, as the Hadith goes, it had the miraculous effect of freeing them from the rock prison.
In a country where tribal conflicts used to be (and still are) a recurring feature, women and children are generally more vulnerable to the ensuing suffering, in comparison to the male combatants. Even if women should be spared from the edge of the sword (according to the traditional rules women, children and the elderly persons were categorized as Bir-ma-geydo, i.e. those whom one should not take arms against for the purpose of harming them), the psychological damage on them was painful. Therefore, the women of Sitaad used to hold sessions of solemn prayers seeking Allah’s intervention in defusing standing tensions between different clans.
Since the coming of the modern Islamic reform movements in Somalia since the late 60s of the last century, and their onslaught almost on all forms of traditional practices which have been interpreted as un-Islamic, there has been an apparent decline in the practice of Sitaad. This is more visible in the urban centers where the influence of such movements is very profound.
However, in the rural areas, particularly among pastoralists, Sitaad is still not dented by those new developments. Even in the urban areas, rather than being thought to be dying, Sitaad is taking new forms where its practice is being extended to many new settings, for example, marriage ceremonies, farewell parties and welcome events for women returning home after a long stay in a foreign country.
The different Somali communities across the length and breadth of the country are also experiencing a new trend of cultural revival, characterized by the popularity of traditional dances, dresses and folklore which will play a role in turning of the tide that has almost burned the past. Those developments, along with the sharp interest sparked by the book presented here, may usher a new lease of life for Sitaad and encourage the continuity of this rich tradition.
Ahmed Ibrahim Awale
The author is a development worker and a writer based in Hargeisa. He has passion for environmental protection and the ancient history of the Somalis. His other published books include: Environment in Crisis (Qaylodhaan Deegaan 2010); Dirkii Sacmaallada (The Progeny of Cow Milkers 2012); and the Mystery of the Land of Punt Unravelled (2013).
Cover photo: Hassan A. Derie
Photos: Marja Tiilikainen
Abdullahi, Mohamed Diiriye (2001). Culture and Customs of Somalia. Westport: Greenwood Press.
Cawaale, AxmedI braahin (2013). Sitaad: Is-dareen Gelinta Diineed ee Dumarka Soomaaliyeed. Copenhagen: Liibaan Publishers.
Cawaale, AxmedIbraahin (2012). Dirkii Sacmaallada: Meel kasoo jeedka Soomaalidii Hore (Sooyaal, Rumayn, Ilbaxnimo). Hargeisa: Iftin Press.
Carvello, Waheeda (2009). The Impact of Marginalizing Women in the Islamic Movement. Crescent International.
Declich, Francesca (2000). Sufi experience in rural Somali. A focus on women. Social Anthropology 8(3): 295–318.
Hersi, Ali Abdirahman (1981). The Arab Factor in Somali History: The Origins and the Development of Arab Enterprise and Cultural Influences in the Somali Peninsula. Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Kapteijns, Lidwein (1999). Somali Women’s Songs for the First Ladies of Early Islam. ISIM Newletter 3(1): 27.
Kapteijns, Lidwien with Maryan Omar Ali (1999).Women’s Voices in a Man’s World. Women and the Pastoral Tradition in Northern Somali Orature, c. 1899–1980. Portsmouth, NH: Heinmann.
Lewis, I. M.(1998). Saints and Somalis: Popular Islam in Clan-based Society. London: Haan Associates.
Osman, Ahmed I. Osman (2003). The Emergence of “al-Madih an-Nabawi”: Oral Religious Poetry in Sudan. Sudanese American Community Development Organization (SACDO).
Qaamuus Af Soomaali (2013). Machadka Afafka ee Jabuuti.
Samatar, Abdi Ismail (2000). Social Transformation and Islamic Reinterpretation in Northern Somalia: The Women's Mosque in Gabiley. Arab World Geographer 3(1): 22–39.
Suleman, Suleman & Afaaf Rajbee (2007). The Lost Female Scholars of Islam. Emel Magazine.
The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary by Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1983). Amana Corporation.
Tiilikainen, Marja (2010). Sitaat as Part of Somali Women’s Everyday Religion. In Marja-Liisa Keinänen (ed.): Perspectives on Women's Everyday Religion. Stockholm: Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis, 203–218.
Tiilikainen, Marja (2012). Somali Health Care System and Post-conflict Hybridity. Afrikan Sarvi 2/2012.