The Saho Kinship Groups ‘Tribes’ and Their Customary Laws

Written by: Taha Mohammad Siraj

Posted: 11 August 2017 at

Translated by: Ismail Ali Ahmad

Among many things, making laws that safeguard the rights of people, and peaceful coexistence among persons, and with neighbors as well is a feature that manifests civilization in any society.

Image result for senafe mosque

The Saho Kinship Groups (tribes) had in similar way formulated, codified and practiced their customary laws since ancient times. These laws were rooted in their values and norms, cultures, traditions and customs. And, following their acceptance of Islam as their faith, they subscribed to the divine tenets of Islamic laws parallel to their temporal laws passed to them from generation to generation. While the Sharia jurists adjudicated on the basis of precepts prescribed to the faithful by Islamic jurisprudence in matters of marriages, divorces and inheritances, tribal elders applied clauses of their customary laws to trials pertaining to personal disputes and conflicts without contravening the tenets of Shari’a.

The Saho kinship groups were known for their prowess in defending their rights to practice their customary laws as well as preserving them parallel to divine laws for more than millennium in spite of hostile campaigns by successive colonial powers to impose mundane laws on Eritrea. They had resisted these threats and encroachements and preserved their rights to retain their Sharia and customary laws, upholding the notion that Sharia divine laws could not be tampered with since they had precedence to temporal laws of the state. There had been many episodes and instances in history in this regard that could be narrated in future.

Moreover, the Saho tribes had entered into agreements and covenants with neighboring communities for safeguarding the interest of the tribes. In this regard, the renowned treaty referred to as Meie Mahazo with the Tigrigna speaking communities in Akkele-Guzai may be cited as an historic example. Such accords, covenants and laws had served to preserve peaceful neighborly coexistence and led to harmonious relations among communities. There were also common weekly and annual markets in regions that were peaceful due to agreements and covenants that sustained strong inter-communal peace.

During the last century, the Saho tribes made historic advances towards openness to others through developing, formulating, writing and documenting their customary laws on the basis Sharia laws – features that indicate advancements in societies. To expound some of these, it can be mentioned that judges were designated to regions instead one for each tribe as happened previously for more than four hundred years. For example the Minifire instated a judge from their own tribe, and the same was true for Asawurta tribes in ways that precluded cross tribal assignments.

But after the death of the Sheikh Abdalla Ulwan in 1930, who was the judge of the Minifire, the juridical affairs of his tribes were added to the functions of Sheikh Ibrahim bin Abdalla. The latter was a member of Lelish Are of the Asawurta tribes. Thereafter, Sheikh Ibrahim bin Abdalla acted as the judge of all the Saho tribes. From that time onwards, jurisprudents represented regions and resided in urban centers such as Adi-Keih and Senafe; the era of independent judges for each tribe had been closed.

It is worth mentioning that Sheikh Ibrahim bin Abdalla was the first jurist who held the title of Qadi (judge). All of the Asawurta tribes who preceded him held the title of Faqih beginning with Sheikh Suleiman bin Shum Ahmad Kurbia of the Asawurta tribes. At that time, the title Faqih had referred to scholars and judges. Here, it can be seen that intellectual advancements began to allow for diversity and accommodation of divergent opinions among the Saho tribes, and scholarly credentials and qualifications as criteria for occupation of juridical functions instead of the previous narrow tribal affiliations, despite the social status and authority post had carried, besides the endorsement by the state. Tribal narrowness and chauvinism were abandoned in favor of scholarship and competence.

This historic progressive forward leap was followed by another. The Saho tribes developed further law making in terms of the formulation and documentation to safeguard the rights of all. Designated representatives from them collected, drafted and revised laws that was compiled in eight chapters of 191 articles and signed as the customary law of all Moslems of Akkele-Guzai on Friday, 15 Dhul Qa’da 1362 AH corresponding to 13 November 1943.

The signatories included: Nasser Basha Shum Abubaker, Cavaliere Ali Bek Mohammad, and Cavaliere Ona Ali bin Shum Suleiman and Fitwrari Abdalla Suleiman. That way, thus, the Saho tribes attained an historic forward step that closed a millennium of law making experience in the development of customary law side by side with the Sharia laws that heralded openness and diversity in their life.

Source: The memoires of Sheikh Ibrahim Mukhtar, the late Grand Mufti of Eritrea.