Somalia’s recent history has been riddled with violent conflict, and much of its territory remains under the control of the militant Islamist organization al-Shabaab. Additionally, the northwestern part of the nation, Somaliland, is controlled by a separate government which is generally not internationally recognized, and it is governed by the same penal code and a similar constitution as Somalia. In Somalia proper, Islam is the state religion, and blasphemy is punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment and fines. There is no separate punishment for apostasy, but the constitution notes that no laws may be enacted which contradict Islamic religious law. Publicized prosecutions for blasphemy are rare, probably owing to the fragile political situation and consequent difficulty of international access to information about local and regional goings-on, but at least one has taken place in Somaliland, and al-Shabaab authorities may impose capital punishment for blasphemy and apostasy.

History of Blasphemy & Apostasy Laws

The lands that today encompass Somalia passed through many political hands throughout history, including many Islamic empires. The presence of Islam in the region dates back at least a thousand years, becoming firmly established well in advance of the colonial era. Come the late nineteenth century, British and Italian incursions resulted in two colonial regimes covering different parts of the region. Independence and the drafting of a new penal code occurred in the early 1960s, although the nation has since then been subject to decades of violence and instability. Today, control over the nation is divided into three political entities, all of which cast themselves as explicitly Islamic and punish blasphemy against the religion to varying degrees of severity.


The lands that encompass Somalia lie along the coast of the Indian Ocean in the Horn of Africa. It is a predominantly Islamic country, owing in part to being governed throughout history by Islamic sultanates, and it is mostly ethnically homogenous, being dominated by the Somali people. Politically, the country is fragmented, with part controlled by an internationally-recognized government, part by an unrecognized government-in-exile (Somaliland), and part by the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab.

Development of Blasphemy Laws

Islam came to Somalia more than a thousand years ago, and it has proliferated throughout the centuries to the point that the country is now mostly Muslim. Political control passed through the hands of several Islamic sultanates throughout the Middle Ages. Such sultanates were usually governed under some interpretation of Islamic religious law, under which those who blaspheme or apostatize could be punished with death.

British and Italian forces colonized the Somali sultanates in the late nineteenth century. They remained the governing forces until 1960, when the territory controlled by Britain and Italy—today roughly analogous to Somaliland and the rest of Somalia, respectively—were united as the Somali Republic. The penal code composed during these first years of independence, enacted in 1962, formalized blasphemy against Islam as a crime. 

The Somali Republic lasted less than ten years, when a coup overthrew it in 1969, and since then, the country has been a hotbed of political instability and fragility. Multiple constitutions have been drafted and re-drafted according to the desires of the entities in power at the time. However, the original 1962 penal code remains the official basis for Somali law today, and this is true in both Somalia and Somaliland. Punishment for blasphemy and apostasy in al-Shabaab-controlled territory, however, can entail execution, which is beyond what Somali law permits.

Recent Developments

The most recent constitution of Somalia has been in effect since 2012. It affirms Islam as the state religion, prohibits proselytizing for other religions, and mandates the teaching of Islamic doctrine in most schools. The constitution of Somaliland contains similar provisions. 

Internationally publicized cases of blasphemy law enforcement in the country are rare, which may be due to a relative rarity of such enforcement, a lack of international access to local and regional information about Somalian current events, or a combination of both. However, there is at least one documented case in Somaliland, when university professor Mahmoud Jama Ahmed was jailed for saying that prayer was an ineffective drought management strategy. There are likewise some documented cases of al-Shabaab “trials” and executions for blasphemers.

Cases of Persecution in Somalia
Somali politician Abdirahman Ahmed executed by militants for cooperating with non-Muslims
Professor Mahmoud Jama Ahmed-Hamdi imprisoned, hounded with death threats for blasphemy
Mohamud Mursal Muse executed by al-Shabaab authorities for blaspheming Muhammad