The tomb of Sheikh Ishaaq, the founding father of the Isaaq ethnic group, in Maydh, Sanaag
Regions with significant populations
Somaliland, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Yemen
Islam (Sunni)

The Isaaq (also Ishaak, Isaac) (Somali: Reer Sheekh Isxaaq, is a major clan in Somaliland.[2] It is one of the major clans in the Horn of Africa, with a large and densely populated traditional territories.

The Isaaq people claim descent from Sheikh Ishaaq bin Ahmed, an Islamic scholar who traveled to Somaliland in the 12th or 13th century and married into the local Dir clan.


Further information: Ishaaq bin Ahmed

Portrait of Sultan Abdillahi Deria, the 5th Grand Sultan of the Isaaq Sultanate
Eidagale warriors on horseback

Somali genealogical tradition places the origin of the Isaaq tribe in the 12th or 13th century with the arrival of the Sheikh Ishaaq Bin Ahmed (Sheikh Ishaaq) from Arabia.[3][4] Sheikh Ishaaq purportedly settled in the coastal town of Maydh in modern-day northeastern Somaliland, where he married into the local Magaadle clan.[5] Some modern Arabic hagiographies also claim that Sheikh Ishaaq was a descendant of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad.[6]

There are also numerous existing hagiographies 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.[7] 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.[8]

Sheikh Ishaaq's tomb is in Maydh, and is the scene of frequent pilgrimages.[7] Sheikh Ishaaq's mawlid (birthday) is also celebrated every Thursday with a public reading of his manaaqib (a collection of glorious deeds).[5] His Siyaara or pilgrimage is performed annually both within Somaliland and in the diaspora particularly in the Middle East among Isaaq expatriates.[9]

The dialect of the Somali language that the Isaaq speak has the highest prestige of any other Somali dialect.[10]


The Isaaq Sultanate banner derived from an Adal Sultanate flag with the Shahada

The Isaaq have a very wide and densely populated traditional territory and make up 80% of Somaliland's population,[11][12] and live in all of its six regions (Awdal, Marodi Jeh, Togdheer, Sahil, Sanaag and Sool). The Isaaq 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 residents. The Habarnoosa, a clan of the Hadiya people in the Hadiya Zone claim descent from the Habr Yunis subclan of Isaaq.[13] The Isaaqs also have large settlements in Naivasha, Kenya, where the Ishaakia make up a large percentage of the Kenyan population, and in Djibouti, where the Isaaq is the fourth largest group after the Issa, the Afar, and the Gadabuursi, accounting for 20% of Djibouti's population.

The Isaaq tribe are the largest group in Somaliland. The populations of five major cities in Somaliland – Hargeisa, Burao, Berbera, Erigavo and Gabiley – are all predominantly Isaaq.[14] They exclusively dominate the Marodi Jeh region, and the Togdheer region, and form a majority of the population inhabiting the western and central areas of Sanaag region, including the regional capital Erigavo.[15] The Isaaq also have a large presence in the western and northern parts of Sool region as well,[16] with Habr Je'lo sub-clan of Isaaq living in the Aynabo district whilst the Habr Yunis subclan of Garhajis lives in the eastern part of Xudun district and the very western part of Las Anod district.[17] They also live in the northeast of the Awdal region, with Saad Muse sub-clan being centered around Lughaya and its environs.

The populations of five major cities in SomalilandHargeisa, Burao,[18] Berbera, Erigavo and Gabiley – are predominantly Isaaq.[19][20]

An illustration depicting a Somali woman of the Isaaq clan published in Bilder-Atlas in 1870



The Isaaq played a prominent role in the Ethiopian-Adal War (1529–1543, referred to as the "Conquest of Abyssinia") in the army of Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi,[21] 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.[22]

Habr Awal (left) and Eidagale (right) chiefs photographed in Hargeisa, Somaliland

I. M. Lewis states:[23]

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 (...)

Dervish Commander Haji Sudi on the left with his brother-in-law Duale Idris (1892)

Early modern

Main article: Isaaq Sultanate

Long after the collapse of the Adal Sultanate, the Isaaq established successor states, the Isaaq Sultanate and the Habr Yunis Sultanate. These two Sultanates 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).[24][25][26][27] These sultanates also maintained written records of their activities, which still exist.[28] The Isaaq Sultanate ruled parts of the Horn of Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries and spanned the territories of the Isaaq clan in modern day Somaliland and Ethiopia. The sultanate was governed by the Rer Guled branch of the Eidagale clan and is the pre-colonial predecessor to the modern Republic of Somaliland.[29][30][31]

The modern Guled Dynasty of the Isaaq Sultanate was established in the middle of the 18th century by Sultan Guled of the Eidagale line of the Garhajis clan. His coronation took place after the victorious battle of Lafaruug in which his father, a religious mullah Abdi Eisa successfully led the Isaaq in battle and defeated the Absame tribes near Berbera where a century earlier the Isaaq clan expanded into. After witnessing his leadership and courage, the Isaaq chiefs recognized his father Abdi who refused the position instead relegating the title to his underage son Guled while the father acted as the regent till the son come of age. Guled was crowned the as the first Sultan of the Isaaq clan in July 1750.[32] Sultan Guled thus ruled the Isaaq up until his death in 1839, where he was succeeded by his eldest son Farah full brother of Yuusuf and Du'ale, all from Guled's fourth wife Ambaro Me'ad Gadid.[30]

By the early 1880s the Isaaq Sultanate had been reduced to the Ciidangale confederation with the Eidagale, Arap and Ishaaq Arreh subclan of the Habr Yunis remaining. In 1884–1886 the British signed treaties with the coastal subclans and had not yet penetrated the interior in any significant way.[33] Sultan Deria Hassan remained de facto master of Hargeisa and it's environs.


Dervish movement

The Isaaq also played a major role in the Dervish movement, with Sultan Nur Aman of the Habr Yunis being fundamental in the inception of the movement. Sultan Nur was the principle agitator that rallied the dervish behind his anti-French Catholic Mission campaign that would become the cause of the dervish uprise.[34] Haji Sudi of the Habr Je'lo was the highest ranking Dervish after Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, he died valiantly defending the Taleh fort during the RAF bombing campaign.[35][36][37] The Isaaq tribes most well-known for joining the Dervish movement were from the eastern tribes such as the Habr Yunis and Habr Je'lo. These two sub-tribes were able to purchase advanced weapons and successfully resist both British Empire and Ethiopian Empire for many years.[38] The fourth Isaaq Grand Sultan Deria Hassan exchanged letters with Muhammad Abdullah Hassan in the first year of the movement's foundation, with the sultan inciting an insurrection in Hargeisa in 1900 as well as supplying the Mullah with vital information.[39]


The Isaaq people 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.

The Isaaq played a massive role to push for unification and independence. They selected to join the Trust Territory of Somaliland to form the Somali Republic. During the civilian government from 1960 to 1969, they held dominant positions. Jama Mohamed Ghalib (1960-4) and Ahmed Mohamed Obsiye (1964-6), both belonging to the Isaaq clan, served as the president of the National Assembly, while a notable Isaaq member named Muhammad Haji Ibrahim Egal served as the Prime Minister of Somalia from 1967-9. Furthermore, when English became one of the official languages, the ministries of Foreign Trade, Foreign Affairs, Education, and Information were mainly held by the Isaaq members. They were still powerful in the early years of the military dictatorship (1969–91). However, from the late 1970s, Marehan became politically powerful under the leadership of the military dictator Siad Barre. The Isaaq began to face political and economic marginalization and in response, they organized the Somali National Movement to over his regime. Thus the Somaliland War of Independence began and this struggle movement forced the Isaaq clan to become a victim 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 250,000. After the collapse of the Somali Democratic Republic in 1991 the Isaaq-dominated Somaliland declared independence from Somalia as a separate nation.[40][41]


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.[42]

The Habr Awal clan of the Isaaq have a rich mercantile history largely due to their possession of the major Somali port of Berbera, which was the chief port and settlement of Habr Awal clan during the early modern period.[43] The clan had strong ties to the Emirate of Harar and Emirs would hold Habr Awal merchants in their court with high esteem with Richard Burton noting their influence in Emir Ahmad III ibn Abu Bakr's court and discussions with the Vizier Mohammed.[44] The Habr Awal merchants had extensive trade relations with Arab and Indian merchants from Arabia and the Indian subcontinent respectively,[45] and also conducted trade missions on their own vessels to the Arabian ports.[46] Berbera, in addition to Berbera being described as “the freest port in the world, and the most important trading place on the whole Arabian Gulf,[47] was also the main marketplace in the entire Somali seaboard for various goods procured from the interior, such as livestock, coffee, frankincense, myrrh, acacia gum, saffron, feathers, wax, ghee, hide (skin), gold and ivory.[48]

The Habr Je'lo clan of the Isaaq derived a large supply of frankincense from the trees south in the mountains near port town of Heis. This trade was lucrative and with gum and skins being traded in high quantity, Arab and Indian merchants would visit Habr Je'lo ports early in the season to get these goods cheaper than at Berbera or Zeyla before continuing westwards along the Somali coast.[49] Heis, in addition to being a leading exporter of tanned skins also exported a large quantity of skins and sheep to Aden as well as imported a significant amount of goods from both the Arabian coast and western Somali ports, reaching nearly 2 million rupees by 1903.[50] The Habr Je’lo coastal settlements and ports, stretching from near Siyara in the west to Heis (Xiis) in the east, were important to trade and communication with the Somali interior, with Kurrum (Karin), the principle Habr Je’lo port, being a major market for livestock and frankincense procured from the interior,[51] and was a favorite for livestock traders due to the close proximity of the port to Aden.

Starting in the middle of the 19th century, Isaaq clans became more connected to the European commercial world as historic ties between southern Somali towns along the Benadir coast with India and Oman were being reoriented southward toward Zanzibar.[52] Isaaq trade and migration patterns were skewed by British imperial control of Aden more toward Europe and colonies like India, Egypt, and the Sudan, enabling the Isaaq to maintain a variety of contacts across the British Empire.[52] The Isaaq clan-family became the first Somalis to actually reside abroad, in western Europe or its colonial outposts, where they socialized in two different cultures.[52]

The Isaaq affinity for mercantilism was not lost on the sole president and dictator of the Somali Democratic Republic (1969–1991), Siad Barre, who disliked the Isaaq clan-family 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.[53]

Nevertheless, in the 1970s and 1980s, nearly all of the livestock exports went out through the port of Berbera via Isaaq livestock traders, with the towns of Burao and Yirowe in the interior being home to the largest livestock markets in the Horn of Africa.[54][55][56] 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.[57][58]

Isaaq sub-clans

Sultan Abdurahman Deria of the Habr Awal Isaaq in London 1955

In the Isaaq clan, component sub-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-tribe of the Dir – the Habr Magaadle. Indeed, most of the largest subtribes of the tribal-ethnic group are in fact uterine alliances hence the matronymic "Habr" which in archaic Somali means "mother".[59] This is illustrated in the following clan structure.[60]

Warriors of the Habr Awal subtribe

A. Habr Magaadle

B. Habr Habuusheed

Dualeh Abdi of the Musa Abokor Habr Je'lo tribe photographed in 1890

One tradition maintains that Sheikh Ishaaq had twin sons: Muhammad (Arap), and Ismail (Garhajis).[61][62]

There is clear agreement on the tribe and sub-tribe 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[63]

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.[64][65]

Stereotypes among the Isaaq subtribes go a long way to explaining each subtribes role in Somaliland.[66][67] In one exemplified folklore tale, Sheikh Ishaaq's three eldest sons split their father's inheritance among themselves.[66] Garhajis receives his imama, a symbol of leadership; Awal receives the sheikh's wealth; and Ahmed (Tolja'ele) inherits his sword.[66] The story is intended to depict the Garhajis's proclivity for politics, the Habr Awal's mercantile prowess, and the Habr Je'lo's bellicosity.[66]

To strengthen these tribal stereotypes, historical anecdotes have been used: The Garhajis were dominant leaders before and during the colonial period, and thus acquired intellectual and political superiority; Habr Awal dominance of the trade via Djibouti and Berbera is practically uncontested; and Habr Je’lo military prowess is cited in accounts of previous conflicts.[66]

Notable figures

Hadraawi, notable contemporary Somali poet

Royalty and rulers

Abdullahi Qarshe, Somali musician, poet and playwright; known as the "Father of Somali music"


Sir Mo Farah, British long-distance runner and the most successful British track athlete in modern Olympic Games history


Rageh Omaar, British-Somali journalist and writer


Military leaders and personnel

Musa Haji Ismail Galal, Somali linguist and historian who reformed the Somali Wadaad script and immensely contributed to the creation of the Somali Latin script

Writers and musicians


Mohamed Farah Dalmar Yusuf "Mohamed Ali", Somali military commander and revolutionary known for his leadership within Western Somali Liberation Front, Afraad and later the Somali National Movement

Religious leaders and scholars


Abdirashid Duale, Somali entrepreneur and the CEO of Dahabshiil, an international funds transfer company


Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud "Silanyo", 4th president of Somaliland as well as longest serving SNM chairman





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