Mogadishu — Followers of the Somali Sufi group Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa (ASWJ) in Mogadishu are now openly practicing the rituals they were forced to halt while embroiled in years of armed conflict with al-Shabaab.
Since its emergence in 2006, al-Shabaab strictly banned Sufi ceremonies and destroyed shrines in areas it controlled, claiming the rituals, which involve chanting prayers in unison and singing Sufi hymns, do not conform with the teachings of Islam.
ASWJ members say the return of the religious and social activities to the Somali capital is a sign of peace.
Sheikh Ibrahim Yarow, 65, has been hosting Alle Bari (prayers to Allah) functions for 30 years in the Mogadishu district of Hodan, where more than 300 clerics used to attend. During these traditional ceremonies, which are held for a variety of reasons including to pray for a sick individual or for a funeral, residents would slaughter a goat, recite chants to praise the Prophet Mohammed, and burn incense.
In 2010, Yarow's operation was brought to a halt when al-Shabaab fighters arrested him and beat him for days.
"The most shocking and frightening day for me was an afternoon when my former congregation and I were attacked in Elasha Biyaha by heavily armed al-Shabaab men during a religious ceremony," Yarow told Sabahi. "They forced their way inside the centre and started beating us with the butts of their guns."
"They locked us in a prison that they used to detain anyone in who did not agree with their ideas. We were held for a month and they would not even let us see our families. Eventually, they forced 20 of us to sign [a document saying] we would never hold religious ceremonies again in order to secure our freedom," he said.
Yarow said that with the fall of al-Shabaab, they are now free to hold religious ceremonies any time they want.
"The militant group al-Shabaab has lost power," he said. "They will not be back and I want to let the public know that they should resume their worship."
Sadia Ibrahim Hassan, a 55-year-old divorced mother of seven in Hawl Wadag district, said she suffered similar treatment by an al-Shabaab gang in 2010 when a soldier forced his way into her house as she was preparing food for a traditional ceremony only for women to wish her nine-month pregnant daughter an easy delivery.
Hassan was removed from the house and taken immediately to court for organising the gathering and singing hymns.
"When I got to the court, I was fined 2 million shillings ($80) and ordered to bring all the food I made to al-Shabaab's centre. I was escorted to my house by a soldier who was charged with dispersing the women in my house," she said, adding that al-Shabaab fighters used to roam around the neighbourhood and barge into households as soon as they saw incense burning or heard chanting.
Al-Shabaab 'had nothing to do with religion'
"That day, I realised that this group's activities in the country had nothing to do with religion," she told Sabahi. "They were abusing the public, but now you see what is happening to them because of the curses of the people. Both Muslims and Christians are searching for them due to the unjust crimes they committed."
Sheikh Yusuf Ali, a 57-year-old muezzin in Warta Nabada district, said al-Shabaab made him change the way he called people to prayer.
"The mosque where I work as a muezzin was attacked with a hand-held grenade in 2009, resulting in the injury of a person attending the evening prayer," Ali said. "The attack was carried out after members of al-Shabaab called me several times and ordered me to change the way I called people to prayer because I used to recite a prayer after I made the adhan."
Ali said al-Shabaab had threatened his life numerous times before but decided to follow the orders when he realised his congregation was at risk.
"Thanks to Allah, we can now worship as we please because there is no one to prevent us from doing that now that al-Shabaab has been kicked out of Mogadishu," he said.