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The tomb of Sheikh Isaaq, the founding father of the Isaaq clan, in Maydh, Sanaag
Regions with significant populations
Islam (Sunni, )
Related ethnic groups
Dir, Darod, Hawiye, Rahanweyn, other Somalis

The Isaaq (also Isaq, Ishaak, Isaac) (Somali: Reer Sheekh Isaxaaq, Arabic: إسحاق‎) is a Somali clan.[1] It is one of the major Somali clans, with a large and densely populated traditional territory.[2]

The populations of five major cities in SomalilandHargeisa, Burao,[3] Berbera, Erigavo and Gabiley – are predominantly Isaaq.[4][5]


Portrait of Sultan Abdillahi Sultan Deria, the grand Sultan of Isaaq clans.

According to some genealogical books and Somali tradition, the Isaaq clan was founded in the 13th or 14th century with the arrival of Sheikh Isaaq Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al Hashimi (Sheikh Isaaq) from Arabia, a descendant of Ali ibn Abi Talib in Maydh.[6][7] He settled in the coastal town of Maydh in modern-day northwestern Somaliland, where he married into the local Magaadle clan.[8]

There are also numerous existing hagiologies in Arabic which describe Sheikh Isaaq's travels, works and overall life in modern Somaliland, as well as his movements in Arabia before his arrival.[9] Besides historical sources, one of the more recent printed biographies of Sheikh Isaaq is the Amjaad of Sheikh Husseen bin Ahmed Darwiish al-Isaaqi as-Soomaali, which was printed in Aden in 1955.[10]

Sheikh Isaaq's tomb is in Maydh, and is the scene of frequent pilgrimages.[9] Sheikh Isaaq's mawlid (birthday) is also celebrated every Thursday with a public reading of his manaaqib (a collection of glorious deeds).[8] His Siyaara or pilgrimage is performed annually both within Somaliland and in the diaspora particularly in the Middle East among Isaaq expatriates.


The Isaaq have a very wide and densely populated traditional territory. They live in all 5 regions of Somaliland such as Awdal, Woqooyi Galbeed, Togdheer, 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.[11]

The Isaaq clan constitute the largest Somali clan in Somaliland. The populations of five major cities in Somaliland – Hargeisa, Burao, Berbera, Erigavo and Gabiley – are all predominantly Isaaq.[12] They exclusively dominate the Woqooyi Galbeed 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.[13] The Isaaq also have a large presence in the western and northern parts of Sool region as well,[14] with Habar Jeclo sub-clan of Isaaq living in the Aynabo district whilst the Habar Yoonis subclan of Garhajis lives in the eastern part of Xudun district and the very western part of Las Anod district.[15] They also live in the northeast of the Awdal region, with Issa Musse sub-clan of Isaaq being centred around Lughaya and its environs.


Sheikh Isaaq bin Ahmed was one of the Arabian scholars that crossed the sea from Arabia to the Horn of Africa to spread Islam around 12th to 13th century. It is said that sheikh Isaaq is to have been descended of the prohet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima. Thus making the Sheikh belong to the Ashraf.

Some anthropologists specialized in Somali studies dispute this genealogy and place the Isaaq within an indigenous Somali clan framework belonging to either the Dir or Irrir sub-grouping of the Somali clan family.[16][17]

Sheikh Isaaq married two local women in Somalia that bore him eight sons. The descendants of those eight sons comprise the modern Isaaq clan.


Forensic genetic testing of Isaaq clan members inhabiting Djibouti found that all of the individuals belonged to the E-V32 subclade of the paternal haplogroup E1b1b1.[18] Most Isaaq in Djibouti belong to the Habar Awal subclan.[19][20]


Chieftains of the Isaaq clan in Hargeisa, Somaliland

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,[21] I. M. Lewis noted that only the Habar Magadle division (Ayoub, Garhajis, Habar Awal and Arab) of the Isaaq were mentioned in chronicles of that war written by Shihab Al-Din Ahmad Al-Gizany known as Futuh Al Habash.[22]

I. M. Lewis states:[23]

The Marrehan and the Habar 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 Habar Magadle. Another reference, however, appears to link the Habar 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 (...)

The first of the tribes to reach Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi were Habar Magādle of the Isaaq clan with their chieftain Ahmad Gurey Bin Hussain Al-Somali,[24] the Somali commander was noted to be one of Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi's "strongest and most able generals".[25] The Habar Magādle clan were highly appreciated and praised by the leader Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi for their bravery and loyalty.[26]

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

After the collapse of Adal Sultanate the Isaaq clan established successor states that split into 3 Sultanates known as Garhajis Sultanate, Habar Awal Sultanate and Habar Jeclo Sultanate. These 3 Sultanates exerted a strong centralized authority during its existence, and possessed all of the organs and trappings of an integrated modern state: a functioning bureaucracy, a hereditary nobility, titled aristocrats, a state flag, as well as a professional army.[27][28] These sultanates also maintained written records of their activities, which still exist.[29]

The Isaaq clan played a prominent role in the Dervish movement, with Sultan Nur Aman of the Habar Yoonis 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.[30] Haji Sudi of the Habar Jeclo was the highest ranking Dervish after Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, he died valiantly defending the Taleh fort during the RAF bombing campaign.[31][32][33] The sub-clans that were highly known for joining the Dervish movement were respectively from the Habar Yoonis, Habar Jeclo, Eidagale and Arap clans. The Isaaq clans were able to purchase advanced weapons and successfully resist both British Empire and Ethiopian Empire for many years.[34]

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. However, after the collapse of the Somali Democratic Republic in 1991 the Isaaq dominated Somaliland declared independence from Somalia as a separate nation.[35]

Clan tree

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 Isaaq by a Harari woman – the Habar Habuusheed – and those descended from sons of Sheikh Isaaq by a Somali woman of the Magaadle sub-clan of the Dir – the Habar Magaadle. Indeed, most of the largest clans of the clan-family are in fact uterine alliances hence the matronymic "Habar" which in archaic Somali means "mother".[36] This is illustrated in the following clan structure.[37]

A. Habar Magaadle

  • Ismail (Garhajis)
  • Ayub
  • Muhammad (Arap)
  • Abdirahman (Habar Awal)

B. Habar Habuusheed

  • Ahmed (Tol-Ja’lo)
  • Muuse (Habar Jeclo)
  • Ibrahiim (Sanbuur)
  • Muhammad (‘Ibraan)

There is clear agreement on the clan and sub-clan structures that has not changed for centuries the oldest recorded genealogy of a Somali in Western literature was by Sir Richard Burton in 1853 regarding his Isaaq host the Sultan of Zeila Sharmarka Ali Saleh,[38] the most famous nineteenth century Somali.

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.[39][40]

One tradition maintains that Isaaq had twin sons: Ahmed or Arap, and Ismail or Gerhajis.[41]

Nineteenth century Isaaq notables

Shermarke Ali Saleh, career started as a British agent, after rescuing survivors of the Mary Ann, in 1825, thus starting his career as an agent for the British protectorate of Somali land[46]. As a result of his actions of aiding the British Empire, he was facilitated by an act of gratitude from the British Government of Bombay as being the Governor of Zayla, for his protection (of the lives of the crew) of the Mary Ann, a British brig attacked and plundered by the local Somalis in Berbera in 1825.[47]

" In 1842 the Sheriff of Mocha subjected himself and his possession including Zeila, to the Porte; he was made Ottoman pasha of western Arabia, and Zeila theoretically returned to Turkey. On the spot however, the situation was more complex for in 1843 Haji Sharmaarke from Berbera sized Zeila, imprisoned the Shariff's garrison and offered to put the port under British protection ; the government of India rejected the offer on the ground that Aden was merely a depot for coals and that any intervention in the affairs of the African coast would be expensive and unprofitable and might excite the jealousy of other European powers. Sharmaarke's object seems to have been to make himself ruler of the Somali coast; finding that the British would not serve his purpose he apparently submitted as a governor of Zeila to the Turks who dismissed Shariff's Hussain and occupied Mocha in 1849. He intrigued with the Turks to get Berbera placed under the Turkish flag, but with no result.".[48]

“The Governor of Zaila, El Hajj Shermarkay bin Ali Salih, is rather a remarkable man. He is sixteenth, according to his own account, in descent from Ishak El Hazrami, the saintly founder of the great Garhajis and Awal tribes. Originally the Nacoda, or Captain of the native craft, he has raised himself, chiefly by British influence, to the chieftainship of his tribe (a clan of the Habr Garhajis). As early as May 1825, he received from Captain Bagnold, then our Resi- dent at Mocha, a testimonial and a reward for a severe sword wound in the left arm, received whilst defending the lives of English seamen. He went afterwards to Bombay, where he was treated with consideration; and about fifteen years ago he succeeded the Sayyid Mohamud El Barr as Governor of Zaila and its dependencies, under the Ottoman Pasha in Western Arabia.“The climate of Zaila is cooler than that of Aden, and the site being open all round, it is not so unhealthy. Mand spare roomand enclosed by the town walls. Zaila commands the adjacent harbour of Tajurrah, and is by position and northern part of Aussa (the ancient capital of Adel)and Harar, and of southern Abyssinia. It sends caravans northwards to the Dankali, and south-westwards throand the Easa and Gadabursi tribes, as far as Efat and Gurague. It is visited by Kafilas from Abyssinia, and the different races of Bedouins extending from the hills to and sea-board. The exports are valuable slaves, ivory, hides, honey, clarified butter and gums: the coast aboundsthe sponge, coral, and small pearls, which Arab divers coabout in the fair season. In the harbour I found about native craft, large and small; of these, ten belonged to the Governor. They trade with Berbera, Arabia, and Western India and are navigated by “Rajpoot” or "Hindoo pilots."[49]

  • Aden Ahmed Dube "Gabay Xoog" circa 1821–1916.

One of the greatest Somali nineteenth century poet. A composer of over 300 poems spanning a period of over 60 years. His poetry can be summarized as a history in verse of all major tribal politics of the 19th century in northern Somali regions, his poetic duel with Somali poets such Hassan Dalab and Raghe Ugaz in addition to numerous Sufi poetry composed at end of his life is among his classics.[50][51]

  • Aden Ahmed Dube of the Isaaq, Habr-Yonis tribe, great poems aroused envy in Raage Ugaz, and infrequently, bloody wars and irreconcilable enmity.
  • Mohammed Liban from the Isaaq tribe of Habr Awal, was an eloquent and witty improviser, and even better known under the name of Mohammed Liban Giader.[52]

Isaaq people


  1. ^
  2. ^ Ethnic Groups (Map). Somalia Summary Map. Central Intelligence Agency. 2002. Retrieved 2012-07-30. Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection – N.B. Various authorities indicate that the Isaaq is among the largest Somali clans [1], [2].
  3. ^ Tekle, Amare (1994). Eritrea and Ethiopia: From Conflict to Cooperation. The Red Sea Press. ISBN 9780932415974.
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  6. ^ Rima Berns McGown, Muslims in the diaspora, (University of Toronto Press: 1999), pp. 27–28
  7. ^ I.M. Lewis, A Modern History of the Somali, fourth edition (Oxford: James Currey, 2002), p. 22
  8. ^ a b I.M. Lewis, A Modern History of the Somali, fourth edition (Oxford: James Currey, 2002), pp. 31 & 42
  9. ^ a b Roland Anthony Oliver, J. D. Fage, Journal of African history, Volume 3 (Cambridge University Press.: 1962), p.45
  10. ^ I. M. Lewis, A pastoral democracy: a study of pastoralism and politics among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa, (LIT Verlag Münster: 1999), p.131.
  11. ^ Gitonga, By Antony. "Community takes over 'ancestral land'". The Standard. Retrieved 2017-04-16.
  12. ^ Somaliland: With Addis Ababa & Eastern Ethiopia By Philip Briggs. Google Books.
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  17. ^ GILKES, P. (1996-10-01). "Blood and Bone: The call of kinship in Somalia society". African Affairs. 95 (381): 628–629. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.afraf.a007787. ISSN 0001-9909.
  18. ^ Iacovacci, Giuseppe; et al. (2017). "Forensic data and microvariant sequence characterization of 27 Y-STR loci analyzed in four Eastern African countries". Forensic Science International: Genetics. 27: 123–131. doi:10.1016/j.fsigen.2016.12.015. Retrieved 18 January 2018.
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  20. ^ Imbert-Vier, Simon (2011). Tracer des frontières à Djibouti: des territoires et des hommes aux XIXe et XXe siècles (in French). KARTHALA Editions. ISBN 9782811105068.
  21. ^ Lewis, I. M. (1999). A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics Among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa. James Currey Publishers. ISBN 9780852552803.
  22. ^ The Galla in Northern Somaliland, I. M. Lewis, p. //;jsessionid=F28E001218E0DFF229E2CBFF6E361652
  23. ^ Morin, Didier (2004). Dictionnaire historique afar: 1288–1982 (in French). KARTHALA Editions. ISBN 9782845864924.
  24. ^ a b c "مخطوطات > بهجة الزمان > الصفحة رقم 17". Retrieved 2017-07-26.
  25. ^ Lewis, I. M. (1999). A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics Among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa. James Currey Publishers. ISBN 9780852552803.
  26. ^ "مخطوطات > بهجة الزمان > الصفحة رقم 16". Retrieved 2017-08-24.
  27. ^ Horn of Africa, Volume 15, Issues 1–4, (Horn of Africa Journal: 1997), p.130.
  28. ^ Michigan State University. African Studies Center, Northeast African studies, Volumes 11–12, (Michigan State University Press: 1989), p.32.
  29. ^ Sub-Saharan Africa Report, Issues 57–67. Foreign Broadcast Information Service. 1986. p. 34.
  30. ^ Foreign Department-External-B, August 1899, N. 33-234, NAI, New Delhi, Inclosure 2 in No. 1. And inclosure 3 in No. 1.
  31. ^ Sun, Sand and Somals – Leaves from the Note-Book of a District Commissioner.By H. Rayne,
  32. ^ Correspondence respecting the Rising of Mullah Muhammed Abdullah in Somaliland, and consequent military operations,1899–1901.pp.4–5.
  33. ^ Official history of the operations in Somaliland, 1901–04 by Great Britain. War Office. General Staff Published 1907.p.56
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  35. ^ "History". Archived from the original on 20 August 2017. Retrieved 2017-10-26.
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  37. ^ I. M. Lewis, A pastoral democracy: a study of pastoralism and politics among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa, (LIT Verlag Münster: 1999), p. 157.
  38. ^ "From fine to a failed state". Africa Review. Retrieved 2017-05-26.
  39. ^ Worldbank, Conflict in Somalia: Drivers and Dynamics, January 2005, Appendix 2, Lineage Charts, p. 55 Figure A-1
  40. ^ Country Information and Policy Unit, Home Office, Great Britain, Somalia Assessment 2001, Annex B: Somali Clan Structure Archived 16 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine., p. 43
  41. ^ Laurence, Margaret (1970). A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose. Hamilton: McMaster University. p. 145. ISBN 1-55022-177-9. Then Magado, the wife of Ishaak had only two children, baby twin sons, and their names were Ahmed, nick-named Arap, and Ismail, nick-named Garaxijis .
  42. ^ The Visit of Frederick Forbes to the Somali Coast in 1833 R Bridges. Int J Afr Hist Stud 19 (4), 679–691. 1986.
  43. ^ Travels in Southern Abyssinia Through The Country of Adal to the Kingdom of Shoa. by Charles Johnston, Volume 1. 1844
  44. ^ First footsteps in East Africa : or, An exploration of Harar by Burton, Richard Francis, Sir, 1821–1890; Burton, Isabel, Lady, Published 1894
  45. ^ Marston, Thomas E. Britain's Imperial Role in the Red Sea Area, 1800–1878. Hamden: Conn., Shoe String Press, 1961.
  46. ^ Dumper, Michael; Stanley, Bruce E. (2007). Cities of the Middle East and North Africa: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 91. ISBN 9781576079195.
  47. ^ Lewis, I. M. (2003-03-17). A Modern History of the Somali: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa. Ohio University Press. ISBN 9780821445730.
  48. ^ Britain's imperial Role....pp.108–9. Ibid, p .149 ibid, p.161
  49. ^ Britain's imperial Role....pp.108–9. Ibid, p .149 ibid, p.161
  50. ^ Bollettino della Società geografica italiana By Società geografica italiana. 1893.
  51. ^ Somalia e Benadir: viaggio di esplorazione nell'Africa orientale. Prima traversata della Somalia, compiuta per incarico della Societá geografica italiana. Luigi Robecchi Bricchetti. 1899. The Somalis in general have a great inclination to poetry; a particular passion for the stories, the stories and songs of love.
  52. ^ Bollettino della Società geografica italiana. ... 1893 (ser.3, vol. 5). p.372
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  54. ^
  55. ^ Mohamed Yusuf Hassan, Roberto Balducci (ed.) (1993). Somalia: le radici del futuro. Il passaggio. p. 33. Retrieved 22 September 2014.
  56. ^ "Mo Farah's family cheers him on from Somaliland village". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 March 2014.
  57. ^ "Somali Entrepreneurs". Salaan Media. 15 June 2017. Retrieved 15 February 2018.