Developing Socially Conscious Curricula for Somali Schools: Teaching Human Rights Where Religious, Clan Customary, and International Law Collides

Written by Noora Reffat


Since 1983, the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation (DHAF) has served Somalia by promoting peace, health, and education in Hope Village, a camp for internally-displaced Somalis turned-city, located outside of Mogadishu. The Foundation commissioned the Orville H. Schell Jr. Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School in 2015 to design a curriculum on human rights and conflict resolution for use at the Hawa Abdi High School in Hope Village. Since then, a team of Yale students has designed a program that includes four modules—Identity & Self, Conflict & Conflict Resolution, Human Rights Principles & Institutions, and Becoming a Changemaker—and encourages students to interrogate their understanding of human rights and its intersection with life and identity. The goal of the curriculum is to bolster students’ confidence and understanding of rights so that they may become leaders in their community and beyond. In 2019, after piloting the first year of the program in the Hawa Abdi High School, the Yale team and the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation established a new partnership with Mogadishu University, in which Somali teachers-in-training will complete the curriculum themselves and take it into classrooms where they will eventually teach. If this partnership succeeds, schools around Somalia will be able to teach about human rights in a conflict context.

Before the Yale team established this partnership, the author of this paper spent nearly four months conducting the following research in order to offer recommendations to the Yale team on how to develop specific curriculum for the Hawa Abdi High School in Hope Village. By learning about Hope Village’s students and their home country, curriculum developers would be able to better incorporate features of Somali culture, religion (predominantly Islam), and laws into the curriculums that they were writing. The intention was to write a curriculum that students would be able to digest and relate to by using what they already knew — religion, culture, lifestyle — to teach them what they had not been taught  — human rights, leadership, and changemaking. Incorporating relatable material is especially important in the case of human rights because, as law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl writes:  

“Human rights commitments cannot be commanded into existence, and cannot be transplanted or borrowed from alien sources so that the borrowed may play the role of the natural borne child.”[1]

Imposing American or Western thought and practice on others is not only ethically questionable, but has also proven to be ineffective. Therefore, it was important for the Yale team developing the curriculum to draw on connections with the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, in addition to doing independent research and learning about the region properly, to build curriculum designed around its intended students, and not its Western authors.

In particular, the author of this paper identified a need for increased scholarship on the differentiation of Islam from political Islam (e.g. an interpretation of Islam as a source of political identity), paying special attention to historical uses of Islam in human rights frameworks and educational initiatives. This research is necessary, for when non-profits work in Muslim-majority countries, they tend to use Islam as a means of establishing legitimacy and to better access Muslim-majority communities. Such attempts may be well intentioned and can seem to build trust. For instance, the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) looked at a non-profit in Somalia that used a religious affiliation with Islam to try and mediate their work of distributing aid across Somalia. The HPG dubbed this approach “Islamic humanitarianism” and found that Somalis generally did tend to agree that they trusted Islamic organizations more than secular ones.[2] But such efforts often result in a specific use of Islam that is politically charged and not informed by local needs. Further, these efforts were typically ineffective: affiliating with Islam did not make the non-profit analyzed by HPG any more mobile in the region or effective at negotiating with Islamic extremist groups.[3] What proved far more helpful was having strong networks and a willingness to collaborate with already established organizations in Somalia.[4] 

With the expansion in use of curriculum to schools beyond Hope Village, the need to quality check the methodologies used for curriculum development becomes paramount. This scholarship, therefore, uses the project of developing human rights curriculum for Hope Village as a case study of international collaboration towards establishing educational frameworks that are locally situated but universally informed. This essay explores the complexities of human rights in a modern context. It grapples with questions of cultural relativism and how to best mediate interactions between Yale students tucked away in the ivory tower with students and educators a world away in Somalia, where barriers such as roadblocks, attacks by extremist groups, lack of funding and functioning government all impede upon access to education. How can Western understandings of human rights be bridged with local understandings in Somalia – understandings that are informed by multiple legal systems but also by consistent human rights abuses? How can the political use of Islam be parsed from its religious uses in order to illuminate the truth about sharia law and its implication for human rights? Applying anthropological methodologies, this paper serves to address these questions and others in its provision of necessary scholarship on developing socially conscious human rights curriculum for use in Somali schools in Hope Village and beyond.


A Brief History of Political Islam and Sharia Law

To understand Islamic states and Muslim societies such as Somalia, it is necessary to investigate fundamental questions such as how Islam the religion is distinct from political Islam, what political Islam is, how it is used, and how it relates to the nation-state – vital questions that are seldom asked in scholarship on the Muslim world. Political Islamic movements trace as far back as the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when the Ottoman Empire clashed with Europe and suffered a number of military defeats.[5] These defeats made subjects of the Ottoman Empire realize their ruling power was fallible and Europe was a place both to be cautious of and learn from.[6] The fall of the Ottoman Empire left behind nation-states that participated in global modernization efforts by taking cues from Europe, and it was amidst these movements that political Islam developed.

An Egyptian Imam named Shaykh al-Tahtawi was perhaps one of the first and most influential Islamic figures who wrote candidly about the ways in which the East (a word he used to refer to the Ottoman Empire and Egypt) was lacking in modernization in part because of its strict retention of religious tradition. He believed that the key to uplifting the Arab world was to adopt math and sciences in the style of the West — a word he used mostly in reference to France, where he spent five years as part of an educational mission in the 1820s.[7] [8] In his writing, al-Tahtawi distinguishes between what he called the wisdom sciences and the rational sciences. The rational sciences were a religious science that was consistent with sharia (Islamic law), while the wisdom sciences were those that dealt with math and physics.[9] Al-Tahtawi criticized the West for their lack of rational sciences, admonishing Westerners for secularizing science and placing it above religion. [10] He did not believe that science was incompatible with religion, but he did think that the East needed a more flexible viewpoint on Islam in order to fully grasp the wisdom sciences.[11] He viewed ijtihad  (interpretation) of Islam as a means of “social change,” and viewed it as the way forward over taqlid (tradition).[12] Knowing that he was writing to a Muslim readership, al-Tahtawi was careful not to oversubscribe to science, and made it clear that an adoption of science must occur within the limits of sharia law.[13]

The history of Al-Tahtawi and his call for integration of science in Islamic societies is not only significant in how it challenges the misconception that all Western influence on the East is forced, but also because his attempts to reconcile Islam and modernity marked the beginnings of what may be called “political Islam.” Researcher and academic Jocelyne Cesari argues that it is exactly the time period that al-Tahtawi was writing — after the fall of the Ottoman Empire — that political Islam began to take shape as nation-state projects erupted across the Arab world. Roughly defined, Cesari states that, “political Islam is not the outcome of an impossible clash between Western modernity and authentic non-colonized Islam,” but instead “results from grafting the concepts of religion, nationalism, and secularism in Muslim territories.”[14] It may be argued that al-Tahtawi’s project was inherently one of nationalism: a push to modernize Egypt not because it was bad the way that is was, but because it was already good and had the potential to be better. [15] Though political Islam emerged in the Arab world, the core ideology of political Islam has spread as far as the Horn of Africa — where Somalia is located.

Thus, political Islam is the result not only of European imposition, but also of internal modification in the Muslim world. Understanding this context helps to clarify that there are ways to intentionally use religion in initiatives aimed to change the thought and behavior of Muslim people. Religion may be used as a tool for helping people to learn how to act and behave in certain ways, particularly when it is used for non-faith-based purposes. Non-faith-based uses of religion become especially difficult when one considers religious law, such as the case with sharia law. Sharia law is commonly understood as Islamic law, which is accurate insofar as sharia is foundational to ways in which many Muslims understand and view legal frameworks. Literally, the word sharia translates to “the foundationhead that quenches the thirst of living beings” or, more simplistically, “the way to goodness.”[16] Sharia law is revealed to Muslims through the Quran, the account of God’s words exactly as they were communicated by the archangel Gabriel, written in Arabic  To ensure that fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is understood and applied appropriately, muftis (Muslim legal experts) were and continue to be appointed to provide legal rulings and interpretation.[17] A formal legal opinion provided by a mufti, informed by the Quran and hadith (narratives and stories about Prophet Muhammad’s(p) life), is called a fatwa.

The total authority of a mufti over law is dependent on which other legal schemes and systems may be established by governments in Muslim-majority countries. Therefore, it is rare that sharia would be written in an organized and consistent style, because it is based on interpretations of the Quran and is thus unstandardized. It is much more common for a nation’s law to be influenced by components of sharia. As sharia law is rarely codified, scholars write in the book Law and Tradition in Classical Islamic Thought that it may instead be understood as “an ethical search that seeks to resolve conflicts and establish justice” by compelling Muslims to adhere to specific forms of conduct and detailing punishments for any transgressions.[18] The reach of sharia law is wide, ranging from information on how to enter legal contracts (Quran 2:282) to outlining the punishment for theft (Quran 5:38). When sharia law is incorporated into written law, it is not typically incorporated in its totality and is instead modified to fit into or supplement specific frameworks.

 In the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century, social reformers began to emulate Al-Tahtawi’s approach of using religion as a means of advancing society, and schools were identified as the most effective location for this advancement to occur.[19] In Egypt, there was a push to make schools into places where the purpose of education was to establish social and civil norms and ensure that students understood and were able to emulate these norms.[20] Before Egypt was colonized by Britain and France, schools focused on teaching facts; colonial rule introduced the idea that schools could also be places where children could be taught how to behave.[21] As a result of the large push to modernize education in a European style, Cesari writes that “the secular/religious divide, previously unheard of, became a key feature of the education system.”[22] Some imams supported a more European-oriented educational system, but this support was faced by public disapproval as people worried about religion becoming obsolete or irrelevant.[23]

In the years that followed, the debate over whether to use secular or religious approaches to education continued. This divide remains a controversial topic within the discussion of what curricula should look like in Muslim-majority countries. Many governments are conflicted on this issue: making schools too religious might cause people to view them as authoritarian, while making schools too secular could cause concern over a loss of Islamic tradition. To mediate this divide, many Muslim nations have employed political Islam over time as a means of reforming education in a manner consistent with the aims of their government.  Often, this means that state-run schools present national identity and Muslim identity as synonymous, linking the secular mission of nationalism with religion.[24] This use of the educational sphere is significant because, as Cesari writes:

“By integrating Islam into the public education system, the state posits itself as the trustworthy protector of Islamic heritage and religious guidance… Socialization of religion into the national education system allows the state to effectively exert social control and determine what constitutes ‘good social behavior.’”[25]

In this way, state governments can use schools as a way of maneuvering themselves so that their authority over Islam trumps that of muftis and other Islamic scholars. Once governments have asserted this dominance, they are able to apply sharia with some flexibility to support the values and behaviors that they choose as significant. The application of political Islam in educational frameworks makes evident how susceptible sharia is to being used in ways that support political motives, rather than religious ones.

Along with educational initiatives, there have been several attempts to incorporate tenets of Islam into international human rights law. The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights Law (UIDHR) was published in 1981 and attempted to use divine Islamic text, such as the Quran, as a foundation to establish a set of human rights laws.[26] The UIDHR was written by the Islamic Council, a conservative non-governmental organization.[27] The UIDHR was intended to be modelled after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), but the authors of the UIDHR disagreed about which rights from the UDHR fit within sharia.[28] These disagreements meant that the resulting declaration was full of inconsistencies, according to Associate Professor of Legal Studies Ann Elizabeth Mayer.[29] Mayer contends that the UIDHR is ineffective in protecting human rights because its writers used conservative interpretations of sharia as a way of dismissing specific rights that were codified in the UDHR, where it could be argued that a different, more liberal interpretation of Islam could have protected these same rights.[30] This opportunistic approach to incorporating Islam into rights declarations ultimately poses threat to the integrity of the rights themselves. As Mayer notes, in instances where sharia is in opposition to human rights, all forms of rights — even those consistent with sharia — are more easily dismissed as being incompatible or against tradition.[31]

There are not only opportunistic approaches to using sharia law, but also explicit misuses of sharia that restrict international human rights so that they are purportedly within the confines of Islamic teachings and beliefs. As Mayer points out, many Islamic states don’t actually have any sustainable or substantive human rights laws that are consistently enforced. Instead, many states borrow from international human rights declarations but “[reduce] the protections that they actually afford” by “restricting the rights so that they can only be enjoyed within the limits of sharia.”[32] Limiting rights to fit within sharia can be restrictive because sharia is not codified and jurisprudence over sharia is inconsistent, allowing actors such as nation-states to define sharia as they want to. Sometimes, these definitions of sharia are very narrow, creating ambiguity over whether or not human rights law is truly applicable.[33] Lack of standardization amongst sharia’s application to human rights contributes to the ineffectiveness of implementing Islam into human rights law. Scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl adds that many Arab governments “are motivated by a desire to engage the international political process far more than to define what is distinctively Islamic.”[34] This statement, along with Mayer’s work, supports the conclusion that some governmental initiatives to advance human rights law in the Arab world are driven not by a commitment to thinking on effective Islamic tradition of human rights, but rather a desire to join the international political stage by paying lip-service to human rights standards.

The failure of the UIDHR to ratify serious human rights commitments by Muslim-majority countries brings to question sharia’s implementation into human rights law, and whether or not Muslim governments are capable of drafting human rights law that doesn’t rely on political Islam and ulterior motivations. Ultimately, whether discussing the UDHR or UIDHR, it is significant to first assess the conditions and context in which these declarations were written. What’s more, thought must be given to whom and for whom human rights declarations were composed, as the reality of the UIDHR exposes how it is not enough for Islamic nations to commit to human rights as concepts that are reconcilable with their other value systems.

Clan Customary Law and its Relationship with Sharia

There is a lack of cohesion across Somalia’s legal systems, which makes it challenging to establish common norms about human rights. There are three identifiable legal systems that have significant impact in Somalia: xeer law (clan customary law), sharia law (Islamic law), and governmental law. In part, the difficulty of establishing one, homogenized legal system is that Somalia has historically lacked an effective central government, with the introduction of pseudo-democracies occurring only after colonial powers withdrew from the country and left it to recover unsupported.[35]Anthropologist Spencer Heath MacCallum offers various sociocultural reasons for the failure of traditional democracy in Somalia. For one, he argues that having a voter system necessarily divides a people into “a group that rules and a group that is ruled” – a divide that does not naturally exist in Somalia’s traditional clan-based system.[36] A second reason offered is that the intimate kinship structures that are built around Somalis’ clan affiliations mean that people tend not to vote based on the issue but rather along clan lines.[37] The presence of clans therefore directly impacts the ways in which Somalis interact with democracy.

The preference for clans as an organizational structure has resulted in xeer law long being the form of governance used in Somalia in lieu of a democratic system. According to Natasha Leite, from the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, xeer law predates Islamic or colonial law in the region and is intended to specifically mediate disputes between clans.[38] As MacCallum points out, crime under xeer law is “defined in terms of property rights,” and “the law is compensatory rather than punitive.”[39] For example, when a crime is committed, the person culpable may be ordered to pay a fine and his clan or a group of his kin may be held liable if the fine isn’t paid.[40] Another feature of xeer is its lack of monopoly over policing or judicial services, meaning that any community member who is not already serving as a religious or political leader may serve in this role.[41] Additionally, there can be no victimless crimes under xeer law; a victim or his family must be the ones to initiate court proceedings. [42] Finally, each Somali is assigned a judge by their clan elders at birth, called an oday, who is responsible for judging them if they are to transgress the law at any time.[43]

According to researcher Aline Wauters, though xeer law predates sharia law in the region, the two systems are compatible.[44] One reason sharia and xeer law do not conflict is because the former is focused on punishment for crimes committed, whereas the latter is focused on retaliation and compensation for crimes.[45] Further, where sharia is based on references to written Holy text, xeer is not written down and is passed down orally to each clan member, which is how sharia is also taught.[46] There have been initiatives to codify xeer law, but it is a difficult project which necessitates engaging prominent clan members and changing key traditional components of how xeer has long functioned.[47] As Wauters writes, people in Somalia “experience the concept of law more as rules of conduct,” making sharia and xeer law enforceable not by lawmakers or police but instead by communities who have committed themselves to upholding specific values.[48] Between the two legal systems, xeer law is favored over sharia, but one does not replace the other.[49] Progressive sharia courts have enacted a practice termed suluh, which means “resolution” in Arabic and allows the courts to use sharia, xeer, and governmental laws together to make decisions on cases.[50]  In an instance where sharia and xeer are both referenced, the law of sharia simply comes to be adopted within xeer, alleviating tension between the two systems.[51]

According to Leite, a continued reliance on traditional justice systems that are passed down orally results from a lack of trust in the effectiveness of secular, governmental justice systems.[52] This lack of trust brings to question what cohesion there is within Somali justice systems, and also illuminates why many non-profit and humanitarian agencies in the region have focused on legal reform. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has especially taken interest in “emphasizing confidence building between society and the state” by working to make court systems across Somalia more accountable.[53] The ultimate goal of their initiative is to strengthen the rule of law in Somalia by making legal services more inclusive and effective.[54] With the first court management system established only in 2016, these initiatives are still very new and under progress, so it is unclear what tangible change the region has seen or will continue to see.


Forming Personal Human Rights Commitments

While governmental attempts to ratify human rights commitments using sharia have largely failed, it is perhaps still possible to encourage students to use religion to form personal commitments to upholding human rights. There are some academics who argue that the project of finding compatibility between Islam and human rights, as the UIDHR attempted to do, is unnecessary and perhaps even futile. Islamic scholar and professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im believes that Islam is useful to the discussion of human rights insofar as it provides some people with a foundational core for their beliefs in human rights. Therefore, religion is not significant in how it informs the laws themselves, but instead helps people to understand why they support said laws, whether this commitment is religiously or secularly grounded.[55] An-Na’im writes, “I do not see the possibility or need for any single foundation of human rights for all human beings,” further arguing that allowing people the ability to decide for themselves why they support human rights is integral to the concept itself.[56]

An-Na’im’s work helps dispel the notion that discussing Islam and how it pertains to human rights, as this essay has done, is necessarily a discussion of compatibility. An-Na’im states, “the foundation of human rights we accept are specific to who we are, in our own context.”[57] Therefore, interrogating the contextual conditions that inform one’s understanding of human rights is a more useful line of inquiry than arguing whether or not human rights and Islam are compatible. Many Muslims practice Islam as a way of life and a code of conduct, with religion intimately influencing their day-to-day thoughts and actions. Because of how deeply infused the religion is in practice and culture, it is not unrealistic to imagine that it would also influence believers’ reception to and perception of human rights. Though Islamic teachings are highly influential, it is important to note that Islam specifically may not be foundational to every Muslim’s commitment to human rights. It is on the developers of human rights curricula to understand and respect the right of an individual to form their own commitments to rights in a way that is consistent with their lived experiences. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of those working in human rights related fields to acknowledge when and why human rights have failed. A sociocultural approach to understanding Islam and human rights shows us that the rights guaranteed to Muslims by the Quran are different from rights provided by governments — that Muslims must reconcile their understanding of their intrinsic rights with their social realities.

Further, all educators should know that socialization takes place in schools, but it is especially important that curriculum developers think about what sort of behavioral norms and standards their lessons set. This reflection is particularly necessary when using religion, especially Islam, in a classroom setting. Instead of taking on the role of educating students on the teachings of ​sharia, teachers and curriculum developers should be encouraged to incorporate what students already know about Islam into lessons. Many students in Somalia ​will have had the opportunity to attend ​dugsi (‘schoolhouse’ in Somali), where students often learn how to read the ​Quran. Through dugsi, students are exposed to the teachings of ​the Quran, and sharia by extension,firsthand and without secondary interpretation. The benefit of this background is that educators and curriculum developers may play on what students already know about Islam without having to become the authority on the religion within their lesson plans. For instance, rather than framing teachings as, “The Quran says X about Y subject,” the question should be rephrased to ask, “What does the ​Quran say about Y subject?” In this way, educators are neither assuming that a student has knowledge about Islam nor are they supplying students with an interpretation of what the ​Quran says on a certain topic. To truly implement the teachings of ​sharia as a Muslim, students must make a ​personal commitment to practicing it in their daily lives. This commitment can be bolstered by providing students with a space to think on how ​sharia helps them to understand different topics.

It is significant to note also that many students in Somali schools have either suffered human rights violations or know of them as a result of civil war, clan conflict, famine, and government instability in the country. It is one thing to teach that human rights exist; it is quite another challenge to encourage students to believe that they are entitled to rights when they have had experiences that reflect otherwise. It is therefore important to keep an eye on the “context” referred to by An-Na’im, and recognize that while some students may find it compelling to use their religious background to supplement their understanding and commitment to human rights, other students may not. The language of lessons focused on human rights should reflect the central idea that though rights themselves may remain static when codified in law, commitment to supporting these rights is dynamic. Students should be encouraged to think about what rights do for them and have done for them. Similarly, students should think on when rights have failed them or when a right they have felt entitled to failed to materialize. Both these lines of inquiry make the discussion of human rights feel less abstract by tailoring it to students’ backgrounds.

A discussion on human rights necessarily requires a conversation on enforcement, as rights have very little effect if they are not upheld. Rights provided through the Quran and hadith are universal in the sense that practicing Muslims need only to turn to the Holy Book and its teachings to know what rights they are entitled to in this world. The difficulty comes in matching these universal religious rights with universal human rights. Human rights scholars such as An-Na’im argue that the concept of “universal” rights did not emerge until after World War II, when the development of the United Nations created a body to enforce rights that transcended the nation-state.[58] But, An-Na’im notes, even with the creation of the United Nations, there was never a movement to equate human rights with the rights of citizens, but rather to establish a “minimum standard of universal rights for all human beings everywhere.”[59] The rights of citizens are more comprehensive than the rights of non-citizens: the state has the power to enforce and enact additional rights that are exclusionary of non-citizens. For example, a universal right may be freedom from torture, whereas a citizen may have an additional right to voting and holding public office.[60] Universal rights would be protected by a non-state specific body, such as the United Nations, while citizen’s rights would be protected by a nation-state.

The question of who enforces rights is even more complex in Somalia, for the legal system currently in place is fragmented, with sharialaw, xeer law, and state law all acting simultaneously. An-Na’im argues that a secular state is necessary to most effectively mediate competing claims to rights (specifically referring to the freedom of speech and religion).[61]  He defines a secular state as “one that is neutral regarding all religions without being hostile or indifferent to any religion.”[62] In his view, a secular state is necessary because the key to mediating competing rights claims is through what he terms “civic reason,” a process through which citizens can debate and discuss their reasonings for supporting or not supporting specific rights.[63] This process would not be possible if a state were not neutral regarding all religions.[64]

An-Na’im is not the first to advocate for a civic approach to human rights. Cesari notes that many Islamic scholars and reformists have similarly argued that human rights must be fortified at a local level. For example, Egypt’s grand mufti from 1899 to 1905,Muhammed Abduh, believed that rights and social welfare had to be supported by the ummah, which specifically refers to a community of Muslims.[65] He argued that “civil power in Islam should rest on the ummah, the only source of legitimacy for a ruler.”[66] Here, he was speaking directly to Islamic nation-states which rely on a form of political Islam to reify their control over the people. Both Abduh and An-Na’im emphasize the community as an empowering force for rights, with El Fadl stating that though governments are necessary to implement human rights, it is “at the sociocultural level that individual commitments turn into a collective sense of entitled, denial, or outrage.”[67] Though many scholars agree that a functioning government is necessary for the implementation of human rights, the success of these rights draws on the beneficiaries of them, who are responsible for upholding and enforcing rights and protesting when they are violated.

When teaching human rights in conflict settings, students must be encouraged to make more personal commitments to human rights and school curriculum must be developed in such a way that encourages this type of thinking.  Further, students should be encouraged to think about themselves as active participants in the shaping their community’s culture and climate, to have conversations about how their personal commitments to human rights can benefit a community at large. Several activities included in the Human Rights & Conflict Resolution curriculum utilize An-Na-im’s model for “civic reason”: for example, students are asked to complete needs assessments of what their local communities can do to better enforce human rights and some lesson plans encourage students to debate rights that they consider to be essential and to brainstorm their own lists of human rights. Based on recommendations from this paper, the Yale team is currently working to create more commitment-based activities to be used in Somali classrooms. The benefit of doing activities such as these is that they not only make the concept of rights more accessible to students, but also encourage students to think about their own participation in human rights debates.


Developing a human rights curriculum that is effective and accessible to students in conflict settings is a challenging task that requires nuanced thinking on legal and social realities abroad. The tools to confront these challenges are available, but require careful collaboration and interactions between people of vastly different backgrounds and beliefs. The work and research conducted by the Yale team, in collaboration with representatives of Hope Village, the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, and now Mogadishu University, speak to the possibilities of such collaboration that considers a core belief of anthropology – that by learning about the cultures and livelihoods of others one can best connect with a people and engage with them in terms that are mutually understood. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously puts it: “It may be in the cultural particularities of people — in their oddities — that some of the most instructive revelations of what it means to be human are found.”[68] It is only by continuing to interrogate the particularities of Somalia, and using the resulting revelations to advance educational initiatives, that it may be possible to locate the human in human rights and to teach others how to do the same.

About the Author

Noora Reffat is a senior at Yale University where she is competing coursework in anthropology and pre-medical studies. After graduation, she will be earning her Masters in Public Health (MPH) at the Yale School of Public Health. She hopes to one-day work on developing disease prevention and health sustainability programs for refugee and displaced populations abroad.


2016 UNDP Annual Report Rule of Law and Human Rights (Rep.). (2017, November 1). Retrieved July 6, 2018, from United Nations Development Programme website:

Abou El Fadl, K. (2005, July 1). A Distinctly Islamic View of Human Rights: Does it Exist and is it Compatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Retrieved July 14, 2018, from

Abou El Fadl, K. (2017). Qurʾanic Ethics and Islamic Law. Journal of Islamic Ethics,1(1-2), 7-28. doi:10.1163/24685542-12340002

Al-Tahtawi, R. (1839). Takhlis al-Ibriz fi Tafseel Bariz (A Paris Profile).

An-Na’im, A. A. (2013). An Inclusive Approach to the Mediation of Competing Human Rights Claims. Constellations,20(1), 7-17. Retrieved July 4, 2018, from

An-Naim, A. A. (2012). Muslims and Global Justice. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Britannica, T. E. (2018, March 29). Mufti. Retrieved July 17, 2018, from

Cesari, J. (2018). What is Political Islam?Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Cook, M., Haider, N., Rabb, I., & Sayeed, A. (2013). Law and Tradition in Classical Islamic Thought: Studies in Honor of Professor Hossein Modarressi. Palgrave Macmillan.

Dawn, C. Ernest. “From Ottomanism to Arabism: The Origin of An Ideology,” in Albert Hourani et al. (eds.). The Modern Middle East. (I.B.Tauris, 2004), pp. 378.

Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books.

Islamic Humanitarianism? (Rep.). (2015, February). Retrieved July 7, 2018, from Humanitarian Policy Group website:

Leite, N. (2017, October 12). Reinvigoration of Somali Traditional Justice through Inclusive Conflict Resolution Approaches. Retrieved July 5, 2018, from

MacCallum, S. H. (2007, September 12). The Rule of Law Without the State. Retrieved July 5, 2018, from

Mayer, A. E. (2013). Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Wauters, A. (2012-2013). Research into a Harmonised Legal System for Somalia and Analysis of its Different Judicial Systems (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Universiteit Gent. Retrieved July 5, 2018, from


[1] Abou El Fadl, K. (2005, July 1). A Distinctly Islamic View of Human Rights: Does it Exist and is it Compatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Retrieved July 14, 2018, from

[2] Islamic Humanitarianism? (Rep.). (2015, February). Retrieved July 7, 2018, from Humanitarian Policy Group website:

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5]  Dawn, C. Ernest. “From Ottomanism to Arabism: The Origin of An Ideology,” in Albert Hourani et al. (eds.). The Modern Middle East. (I.B.Tauris, 2004), pp. 378.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Al-Tahtawi, R. (1839). Takhlis al-Ibriz fi Tafseel Bariz (A Paris Profile).

[8] Dawn pp. 378

[9] Ibid pp. 378.

[10] Al- Tahtawi.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Cesari, J. (2018). What is Political Islam? Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

[13] Al- Tahtawi.

[14] Cesari pp. 5.

[15] Dawn pp. 378.

[16] Abou El Fadl, K. (2017). Qurʾanic Ethics and Islamic Law. Journal of Islamic Ethics,1(1-2), 7-28. doi:10.1163/24685542-12340002

[17] Britannica, T. E. (2018, March 29). Mufti. Retrieved July 17, 2018, from

[18] Cook, M., Haider, N., Rabb, I., & Sayeed, A. (2013). Law and Tradition in Classical Islamic Thought: Studies in Honor of Professor Hossein Modarressi. Palgrave Macmillan.

[19] Cesari pp. 26.

[20] Ibid pp. 29.

[21] Ibid pp. 33.

[22] Ibid pp. 33.

[23] Ibid pp. 33.

[24] Ibid pp. 71.

[25] Ibid pp. 71.

[26] Mayer, A. E. (2013). Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

[27] Ibid pp. 21.

[28] Ibid pp. 21.

[29] Ibid pp. 21.

[30] Ibid pp. 46.

[31] Ibid pp. 66.

[32] Ibid pp. 66.

[33] Ibid pp. 66.

[34] Abou El Fadl, K. (2005, July 1). A Distinctly Islamic View of Human Rights: Does it Exist and is it Compatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Retrieved July 14, 2018, from

[35] MacCallum, S. H. (2007, September 12). The Rule of Law Without the State. Retrieved July 5, 2018, from

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Leite, N. (2017, October 12). Reinvigoration of Somali Traditional Justice through Inclusive Conflict Resolution Approaches. Retrieved July 5, 2018, from

[39] MacCallum.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Wauters, A. (2012-2013). Research into a Harmonised Legal System for Somalia and Analysis of its  Different Judicial Systems (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Universiteit Gent. Retrieved July 5, 2018, from

[45] Ibid pp. 48.

[46] Leite.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Wauters pp. 48.

[49] Ibid pp. 48.

[50] Ibid pp. 59.

[51] Leite.

[52] Ibid.

[53] 2016 UNDP Annual Report Rule of Law and Human Rights (Rep.). (2017, November 1). Retrieved July 6, 2018, from United Nations Development Programme website:

[54] Ibid pp. 26.

[55] An-Na’im, A. A. (2013). An Inclusive Approach to the Mediation of Competing Human Rights Claims. Constellations,20(1), 7-17. Retrieved July 4, 2018, from

[56] Ibid pp. 7.

[57] Ibid pp. 7.

[58] An-Na’im (2013) pp. 8.

[59] An-Naim, A. A. (2012). Muslims and Global Justice. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[60] Ibid pp. 9.

[61] An-Na’im (2013) pp. 9.

[62] Ibid pp. 8.

[63] Ibid pp. 8.

[64] Ibid pp. 8.

[65] Cesari pp. 28.

[66] Ibid pp. 28.

[67] El Fadl (2017).

[68] Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books.

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