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  • A Remembrance of Salah Mohamed Ali and Aw Jama Umar Isse:The Passing of a Generation in Somali Studies
  • Mohamed Haji Mukhtar (bio)

In the past year, two prominent scholars of Somali history and culture passed away in the Horn of Africa. Salah Mohamed Ali and Aw Jama Umar Isse were well known in Somali studies circles as respected researchers and educators. They began their careers before Somalia’s independence in 1960, and continued to work tirelessly during the past two decades of civil strife in the country. I knew both men for more than forty years and was privileged to work at various times with each of them. Because they published largely in the Somali and Arabic languages, their contributions may not be as widely appreciated as they ought to be. Yet both deserve a prominent place among those learned Somalis who devoted their lives to the preservation of the country’s linguistic, cultural, and historical heritage. [End Page 167]

Salah Mohamed Ali (1936–2014)

Salah Mohamed Ali—popularly known as Sharif Salah or Dr. Sharif Salah—was a polymath, literary critic, educator, politician, and scholar-diplomat. He was born in 1936 in Huddur, in the Bakool region of south-central Somalia, the son of an Asharaf father, native of Huddur, and an Ogaden mother whose family had fled southern Ethiopia during the disruptive Dervish wars of the early twentieth century. Salah memorized the holy Qur’an at a young age, and then continued his studies of Arabic grammar, syntax, and morphology; by 1948 he was studying Islamic theology and Qur’anic translation under several prominent local sheikhs. At the same time, his family enrolled him in the public school system in Huddur, where English had been introduced as the medium of instruction by the British Military Adminstration (1941–1950).

When Italy returned to Somalia as Trust administrator in 1951 (Amministrazione Fiduciaria Italiana della Somalia, or AFIS), Salah continued his public education in the Italian language. In 1954, he enrolled in the scuola magistrale (teacher training school) in Mogadishu, where he earned a teacher’s training certificate in 1956. As a certified teacher, he advocated for adult education and volunteered to teach scuola serale (evening school) to prepare men and women for the Somalization of the civil administration in the run up to Somalia’s independence in 1960.

Salah continued his education in Italy, earning the laurea baccalaureato in economics and political science from the Universita degli Studi di Roma in 1962. Immediately after graduation, he joined the Somali Foreign Service and became commercial attaché at the Somali Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. From 1965–69 he served as Director General in the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in Mogadishu, then from 1971–74 as President of the Somali National University, where he led the development of a national curriculum for Somali higher education. Salah also presided over the Somali Language Commission (Guddiga Af-Somaliga) in 1971–72; and while he personally preferred the Arabic script for writing Somali, he embraced the government’s 1972 decision to adopt a Latin script as the national standard for writing the language and promoting literacy throughout the country. As Minister of Culture and Higher Education from 1974 to 1976, Salah oversaw the revamping of the curriculum of the renowned College [End Page 168] of Education at Lafole to meet Africa-wide and universal standards for undergraduate teacher training.

Sharif Salah was one of the founders of the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party in 1976 and a member of its Central Committee, where he headed the party’s Bureau of Scientific Research (1976–1977) and its Bureau of International Relations (1977–1978). He subsequently enjoyed a distinguished career as a Somali diplomat, serving as the country’s ambassador to Italy from 1978–1981, the People’s Republic of China from 1981–1984, and the United Kingdom from 1984–1988.

Salah was a prolific writer in Arabic, English, Italian, and Somali languages. His lifelong interest in the Somali language was reflected in a number of pioneering publications. A seminal study of the relationship between the Somali and Arabic languages, Usul al-Lughah al-Sumaliyah fi al-‘Arabiyah (The Roots of Somali Language in Arabic: A Comparative...


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