Ethiopian Jews in Somalia: Tracing remnants of the Yibir

| September 3, 2013 |
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The Yibir in Somalia is one of the few known Muslim communities worldwide that maintains Jewish descent. The community is small and tightly knitted, numbering not more than thirty thousand. The name Yibir, also pronounced Yibro and Yahar, simply means Hebrews.

Despite the wide array of research on African communities of Jewish descent, the Yibir have received minimum interest from academicians. No significant studies have been conducted on the group making the Yibir one of the most forgotten world populations.

For at least eight centuries, the Yibir have lived amongst the pastoralist populations of Northern Somalia. There, the populations are divided into different clan groupings. A strict caste system traditionally organizes the clans into a fixed hierarchy of noble to inferior. Being one of the lowest castes, the Yibir constitute one of the poorest populations in Somalia, if not the poorest.

Furthermore, the Yibir are not considered as ethnic-Somalis, or Samaale; instead, they are traditionally classified as Sab, i.e. the ethnic category that encompasses migrant and smaller groups of low castes. (Other Sab groups include the Muuse, a small group of Arabic ancestry; the Tumaal and the Madhibaan, small clans of ambiguous roots ancestrally related to the Yibir; and the Bantu, migrant populations primarily from central Africa). Accordingly, the Yibir are seen as inferior and landless. A popular Somali myth presents the Yibir as wondering scavengers of human carcasses. Samaale clans of higher castes shrug from the Yibir and do not conventionally intermarry with them; as a result, the Yibir mostly marry within their own community.

As a low caste, the Yibir do not traditionally practice herding and are prevented by local customs from owning livestock or land. For most of their history, they made their living by doing low-wage menial labor and housemaid work for other clans. They are also associated with leatherwork occupations, such as tanning hides and handcrafts involving the making of saddles, amulets and prayer mats. The Yibir are also well known for their skill in blacksmithery, in making iron tools and weaponry.

Historically, the Yibir have practiced a diversity of peddling trades such as folk medicine, spirituality and magic. Although considered a low caste, and in light of the scarcity of modern medical services in contemporary Somalia, Yibir healers and medicine-men provided the clan communities with indispensable folk medical services. As part of their traditional professional practices, they made and sold varieties of herbal medicines, performed traditional surgery involving circumcision, and specialized in the treatment of bone fractures. Midwifery is a popular Yibir specialization.

By tradition, Somalis believe that the Yibir possess dangerous supernatural powers. Taking advantage of this belief, Yibir spiritualists performed a variety of protection rituals for pay. Although they used Quranic scriptures in their rituals, research has indicated that the rituals encompass a range of seemingly pre-Islamic pagan traditions.

An old cultural tradition entitles Somalis to pay a fee to the Yibir, called samanyo, as retribution for the death of one of the Yibir’s historic leaders. If the fee is not paid, Somalis believed that the Yibir would curse them. The story associated with this tradition involves a Yibir leader, named Mohamed Hanif, who is said to have ruled northern Somalia centuries ago. While one version of the narrative describe him as not being a true Muslim, another identifies him as a pagan. Upon arriving to the northern parts of the country, the Somali holy man Sharif Yusuf–who is considered as one of the founders of Islam in Somalia–quarreled with Mohamed Hanif. The two decided to settle their disagreement in a showdown of spiritual power. Since Sharif Yusuf was supposedly truer to his religion, he defeated Mohamed Hanif. In course of the confrontation, Mohamed Hanif was also killed.

Worth mentioning is the once secret language of the Yibir. In the early 20th century, John W. C. Krik, who authored one of the most valuable works on the historic and linguistic heritage of Somalia, reported;

Yibirs and Midgans [i.e. a tribe closely related to the Yibir] are both very jealous of their languages, and keep them a secret from other Somalis, although all speak the common language of the country, namely Somali. There are, I believe, no Somalis who know anything of either dialect, and while I was having my interviews with these people, they were very particular not to allow any Somali within hearing, our conversations having to be carried on in the latter’s language.

Within the last few decades, as Somalia steadily urbanized, such traditional Yibir trades involving spirituality and folk medicine lost their demand in Somali society and became unprofitable. And although originally from the northern parts of the country, economic and social pressures pushed the Yibir to different urban centers of Somalia.

While some Yibir succeeded in finding menial work in urban centers, a significant minority have become full-time beggars. Recently, Somali Minority Rights & Aid Forum ranked the Yibir as one of the “Most socially excluded groups in Somalia”. Studies indicate that the Yibir are excluded from almost all available social services, such as education and health care. Particularly in rural areas, the Yibir, often more than any other minority are exposed to extreme forms of abuse and suffer from dire poverty.

Origins

In 2000, New York Times journalist Ian Fisher conducted a breakthrough interview with the Yibir community leader Sultan Ahmed Jama. The Sultan was not secretive about his Hebraic heritage and indicated that the prejudice his people experience in Somalia essentially goes back to their Israelite heritage. He also pointed out that members of the community –particularly the youth– are often ashamed of their Yibir identity as a low caste. Accordingly, they often identify with other clans of higher castes.

Yibir folklore suggests that the community’s ancestors converted from Judaism to Islam in the thirteenth century. Since scholars believe that Sharif Yusuf lived in the early thirteenth century, the events of the traditional narrative, involving the Sharif and the Yibir leader Mohamed Hanif, would accordingly date to the same century.

And although the name Mohamed Hanif is evidently Muslim, it is perhaps possible that the Yibir did not entirely abandon Judaism until Sharif Yusuf subjugated them. In any case, and as indicated, Somali traditions claim that Mohamed Hanif was not a true Muslim and seem to suggest that he was of a different religion.

Traditionally, the Yibir claim that their Jewish ancestors arrived in Somalia prior to the formation of the major noble Samaale clans, i.e. Darood, Dir, Hawiye and Isaaq. While Samaale clans commonly trace their paternal lineages to ninth century Arabian ancestors, some scholars have suggested that the Darood and Isaaq were only founded in the thirteenth century. If this is true, then the Yibir are also likely to be older than the two Samaale clans. That is because the Yibir were, presumably, already established as a powerful group in Somalia by the time of Mohamed Hanif in the thirteenth century.

Furthermore, the pagan rites noted earlier in the Yibir’s spiritual practices, in addition to the identification of the group’s historic leader Mohamed Hanif with paganism, may suggest that the community’s presence in Somalia predates the spread of Islam and possibly the formation of Samaale clans in the thirteenth century.

Although the question as to how Judaism has arrived to Somalia has not been previously researched, certain Yibir cultural features seem to indicate that the community has branched out of an older Beta Israel–Ethiopian Jewish population. (As reported in Jon Entine’s Abraham’s Children, genetic evidence has confirmed that the formation of the Beta Israel goes back approximately to the fourth or fifth century). Both groups, the Beta Israel and Yibir, are perceived as outcasts by their host populations and are associated with magic and superstition. (The Beta Israel are known in Ethiopia as Falasha, meaning exiles or outcasts in ancient Ethiopic. The Beta Israel are also strongly associated in Ethiopian traditions with the Budah, a magical or evil supernatural entity that can inflict curse on the locals).

A third compelling correlation between the Yibir and the Beta Israel involves blacksmithery; it seems hardly coincidental that both populations are popular in their host countries for being skilled in making and fashioning iron equipment. As I suggested in a former article, blacksmithery seems to have entered the culture of the Beta Israel from the ancient civilization of Kush, in what is today Northern Sudan.

The possibility that the Yibir community has branched out of a Beta Israel population may distantly be inferred from a medieval source that refers to a Habash queen (from what is today Ethiopia) as sending a zebra as a gift to the king of Yemen in the tenth century. This queen was no other than Judith, the ruler of the Beta Israel kingdom that sprang probably in eastern Sudan and subjugated Aksum in the ninth century. Though not precisely known by years, Judith’s reign fell between the late ninth century and early tenth century and is thought to have lasted for forty years.

Since zebras are most associated with the southern zone of the African Horn, i.e. the southern regions of Ethiopia and the plains of Somalia, it may be suggestible that Queen Judith has, at some point during her reign, expanded her kingdom’s control southward beyond the Ethiopian Highlands and into Somalia.

Could the Yibir have descended out of a Beta Israel population that migrated to Somalia during the time of Queen Judith? Is it possible that the Yibir’s ancestors were sent by the queen to control Somalia’s strategic Bab-el-Mandeb area linking the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea?

Need for DNA research

As demonstrated, although the Yibir constitute one of the oldest ethnic groups in Somalia, they are classified as inferior in the Somali caste system and are treated as outcasts. Due to their deteriorating economic situation, particularly within the past few decades, the Yibir were forced to scatter all over the country and abandon their native villages in northern Somalia.

On the other hand, a range of cultural features shared by the Beta Israel supports the Yibir’s claim for Jewish descent. The question as to how a Jewish community–or precisely a Beta Israel one– would have historically ended up in Somalia cannot be precisely known given the lack of available historical evidence.

Hence, a future genetic study may be our only hope to unraveling the historical roots of this community, and in finding connections—or lack of connections—with other Jewish groups, particularly the Beta Israel. On a broader level, such a study may help us attain a better idea as to how and when Judaism spread in East Africa.

Ibrahim M. Omer is a Research Assistant at California State University Monterey Bay, Visual & Public Arts Department, Museum Studies Program, and the author of the academic website AncientSudan.org.

  • Walid Kaise

    Ibrahim,this is great search but still their is something hiding my Clan Yibir,i real appropriate your,research thanks, my name is Eng, Walid, Who lives Easf-Africa

    • Edin Alyow

      Edin Alyow,
      The stories of my Rahanwein Somali fathers goes like this:
      Somalis never took Christianity as a religion but a great number ofthem were practicing Judaism before the arrival of Islam. When refuges from the Islamic civil wars that followed the death of Prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him) they were welcomed by the Somali people who were already there practicing Judaism and a pagan god called Waaq. The Somali-Judean leaders ( the children of Samaale and Sab) were worried of losing their high social position to the new coming Islamic leaders of the refugees. There followed a competition for the hearts and minds of the local people who asked ” which one of your books is the god’s one?” The religious leaders of the 2 religions contested publicly as if it was an “open Olympic game show but instead of a ball with the holly books- The Torah and the Qur’an”. However, at some point, the Jewish religious leaders realized that Islam was nothing but a continuation of their own faith, Judaism. Then they started negotiating for their future position in a Somali Muslim society. Among the main agreements which are still biding to any Somali person of Samaale (the one that milks the cow) and Sab (the one that entertains the cow while the other one milks it) is that a Yibir person/group has to be given presents whenever a Somali Muslim is getting married, whenever a Somali Muslim woman is pregnant and whenever a Somali Muslim household hasa new born child. More payments for sons. Even though, the Yibir are accepted when it comes to marriage outside their Yibir clan, they are well respected and feared because the Samaale and Sab groups believe that if they break that original agreement the anger of Allah and his punishment will be upon them. The Yibir, who are believed o be the decedents of the main Rabi and his entourage at the time of the agreement, do not wish to intermarry with other Somalis because they want to keep their purity and they want to honour that original agreement. Do not misunderstand the Yibir as non Somalis. They are Somalis as all the other Somalis are but they are from a formerly elite section of old Somali-Judean pre Islamic society. Does that mean the Somalis ( The Samaale and the Sab) inclusively are the original Cushitic Judaic inhabitants of the Somali area of the Horn of Africa? if so, does that make the Isaaq and Daarood clans the Arab factor in today’s Somali Islamic Society?
      Most of the Rahanwein clan members believe that to be true and one clear indication is that the greatest number of Somali families who call their son Isaaq (Isac) is found among the Rahanwein. The Isaaq clan of the north may have to give some answers to this questions even though some of them would like to call themselves Ishaaq ) the Arabic version of Isac).

      • dhagax tuur

        I am Somali and we don’t have nothing to do with the Jews criminals who enjoy killing Palestinian children. These evil human and we are Somali human being. That is it. And you isxaaq clan you are the sick man of Somalia may all of you and the Jews go to he’ll.

  • mena

    I’m somalian and i had a dna test performed………. sephardic Jew came up in my results

  • Dr. Rasheed

    Ibrahim. I like your article, but there are few mistakes. First, Yibirs do not engage themselves in black smiting, or leather tanning, the groups that do this type of work are the Tumals and the Midgans. Second, yibirs are not looked down on as you suggested in your article, rather Somalis are afraid of the Yibirs due to their perceived super natural powers.
    Great article,
    Dr. Farrah

    • Jonah Lissner

      Drs. Parfitt, Omer, Rasheed and others including my own research indicate the vibrant multicultural world of the Solomonic Kingdom and the centuries thereafter. It is the dynamic system of Afro-Asiatic socioculture that develops these communities of Israelites, e.g. from c. 1000 BCE to c.1000 CE from Mesopotamia to the Horn of Africa and the ancient to contemporary Nile River system cities and regions. Even 100 years ago, modern Eritrea, Djbouti and Yemen had Jewish communities, however the legacy from the Classical to Medieval Era is likely to include Ethiopia, Sudan and Somali based on the former extent and duration of the Israelite to Judaic migrations and proselytes or conversions to Israelite worship.

      There is much proof for a vibrant African and Asian Israelite community today, which includes the sociogenetic lines, sociocultural artefacts and historical data. As the tribes of Israel today regather the combination of complex system science, history, language, comparative studies and sociogenetics should build strong support for Israelites and Jews of all colors from the Exile, with the majority having the common Afroasiatic/Near Eastern genetic signatures, as Dr. Omer is demonstrating.

      In history and classical texts, popular medieval literature from Afro-Asiatic travelers like Eldad Ben Mahli Ha-Dani and Benjamin of Tudela and others lend more credence to the reality of thriving Jewish communities of the post-Solomonic era across Africa and Asia. If these criteria for Israelite presence are evaluated with folk traditions it is possible, like the Lemba of South Africa, and Chinese Jews of Kaifeng region, another of the Exiled tribes can be restored.

      Sources:

      http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11052-moses-children-of

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tudor_Parfitt

      http://lissnerresearch.weebly.com/journal-of-hebrew-african-and-indological-studies-jhais.html

      http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5515-eldad-ben-mahli-ha-dani

      http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2988-benjamin-of-tudela

  • Mowliid

    This story is another useless story regarding Somalis identity, we Somalis are African and Arab, if you love Jews and other ethnic its up to you, please stop writing such this untrue ans baseless rumors.

    Those people are 100% Somali, in every where in the world there are bad people who discriminate their bothers and this Yibir and Tumaal story is same like others, but this discrimination is slowly going to end.

  • Zeinab alishaq

    @Edin Aylow, what u mean by isaaq have to answer ??!! Are u suggesting isaaq are of rahanween origin!! Well isaaq clan for father’s is sheikh Isxaaq bin Ahmed bin hashim from Arabia Iraq in particular hope that helped

  • Kahin

    Its simply not true they been treated harshly,know many of thm I grew up with.Yes intermarriage doesn’t exist but that’s also true of otha different clans.They could go to school,work and become professionals.The regional education director where I live was one of thm,his name Ali Ikwaan.Most of thm have technical know how and don’t even need gov’t job thou they could equally be hired.
    They not that many but to say they abused is beyond truth.They can have business, own house/ land etc. I can imagine the feeling of being tiny minority but that’s all about it. Tell me one incident in modern times where they been killed, their property taken or done to anything in humane!

  • Kahin

    Think they were just part of the larger group of Somalis but somehow segregated in medieval times.AS we know the Somali dna today, 85% is Cushitic …E1b1b1 M35,which I believe they carry too as 20% of jews carry same.Somali Arab lineage doesn’t exist as we only have 3% J….seems is purposely made up during our conversion to Isalm.
    DNA exposed lot heresay….

  • ras

    Thank you for such an instructive article! A usual there will be ignorants and haters who, wherever they see the mentions of ethnicities they abhor, will try to throw hateful arguments into a conversation where there is no need for animosity. I see in a comment below, a negative mention about Jewish traditions, such as the Talmud or the Zohar. And i could not fail to notice the mention of Palestine and Israel in a topic that is not related to these issues. These knee jerk reflexes only display childish reactivity, and contribute to the clouding of what should be, and what could easily be, enlightening topics. African history is fascinating, it breaks the cliches of accumulated ignorance about our continent, and the riches it has to offer in terms of universal human cultural preservation. Thank you again.