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Nigeria: The Many Faces Of Islam – Analysis


By Abdulrazaq Magaji

For Nigerian Muslims, this year’s Ramadaan, the one-month fasting period by adherents of the Islamic faith worldwide, will follow a weather beaten path. As is the practice, the Amir al Mumineen (Commander of the Faithfuls) and Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, who is also the President General of Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in Nigeria, based on verifiable information from across the country, will soon announce the sighting of the new of the moon of Ramadaan to signal the commencement of the fasting period.

Expectedly, the announcement by His Eminence, Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar will go unheeded by a significant minority. Many believe that those who will not heed the annual announcement choose that path as their way of protesting the recognition of the Sultan of Sokoto as leader of the Muslim community. Disagreements over the dates to commence the Ramadaan have, over the years, been the underlying manifestation of a needless acrimony among the Nigerian Muslim community. The façade of unity received a terrible jolt early last year.


In the thick of the 2011 presidential election campaign, prominent Muslim cleric Sheikh Dahiru Usman Bauchi stirred the hornet’s nest when he publicly declared that he would have no qualms casting his ballot for a Christian in an election that pits a Christian against a member of the Jama’atu Izalatul Bidi’a wa Ikamatu Sunnah, JIBWIS, a Muslim sect that once subscribed to militant campaigns to, as the name suggests, end innovations in Islam and impose undiluted traditions of Prophet Muhammad on society. The red was still in the eyes of members of the Izala sect and apprehension grew among members of the Christian community when the cleric rationalised his position.

His words: ‘Christians don’t insult me, they don’t insult my religious beliefs, they don’t insult my respected religious leaders. That, precisely, is what the Izala man does; he calls himself a Muslim but he does not respect my beliefs. He openly insults me, he openly insults my religious and my respected religious leaders. He takes pride in openly referring to me as kafir. Why should I vote for someone who calls himself a Muslim but who publicly calls me kafir instead of a Christian who does not call me a kafir, at least, not in the open?’ Few disputed his claim: Prophet Muhammad, in some of his sayings, spoke vehemently against the use of the term kafir even for non-Muslims, especially Christians, who are recognised in the Holy Qur’an as Ahlil Kitaab or ‘People of the Book.’

At the heart of the disunity in the Muslim community is the raging controversy between members of the Ahlil Sunnah, the mainstream Muslim group and Izala, on one hand, and these two rival groups and other more militant groups on the other. Basically, all the contending religious groups have no fundamental differences; where they differ is how to attain these goals, a situation that has led to so much bloodletting and destruction of property. Strangely, non-Muslims have been often been caught in the crossfire of what should normally be intra-religious confrontations. Another interesting angle to the scenario is the common knowledge that all the new groups, many of them espousing extreme and militant views, sprouted from the mainstream Ahlil Sunnah. Except for some exceptions, all the contending and constantly feuding groups basically subscribe to the five cardinal pillars of Islam arranged in their order of simplicity: Iman (faith in God), Salat (five daily prayers), Saum (fasting during the month of Ramadaan), Zakat (alms giving) and Hajj (pilgrimage to the Holy Land). Noticeable exceptions surround the acceptance of Prophet Muhammad as the seal of prophets and some new but curious interpretations regarding the five daily prayers which some do not consider as mandatory.

Take, for instance, the Ahmadiyya. To the consternation of the Muslim community, members of the group, which originated in Pakistan, revered its founder, Ghulam Ahmad, to the extent of elevating him to the position of a messiah and prophet. Since the early 1970s, members of the Ahmadiyya sect have been contending with four out of the five cardinal pillars of Islam on account of their being barred from embarking on the annual Hajj. That decision by the Saudi authorities whipped majority members of the sect worldwide into line as they were forced to moderate their views. Though the Ahmadiyya sect still enjoys some visibility in Nigeria, the immediate reaction of majority of its members, in the aftermath of the decision to bar members of the sect from performing the Hajj, was to change the name of the group to Anwar- al Islam.

Though disagreement within the Muslim community had been simmering, it was basically limited to differences between the Tijjaniya and Quadriyya sects. But the Tijjaniyya and Quadriyya succeeded in managing their crises largely because they belonged to the mainstream Ahlil Sunnah. There is a widely held belief that it was the differences between the Tijjaniyya and Quadriyya that facilitated the emergence of the Izala. Since it came on stage, the perception of members of the Izala group of other Muslims, basically the Ahlil Sunnah, and which in the recent past was the source of constant bloody letting, is one big community of unbelievers because of innovations allegedly introduced into the practice of Islam by the Ahlil Sunnah. Two of the allegations levelled by the Izala against the Ahlil Sunnah are the annual celebration of Maulud Nabiyyi, or birthday of Prophet Muhammad and, regular songs of praise, zikr, in honour of the prophet.

Aside Maulud and zikr, the Izala are remarkable for frowning at naming ceremonies, ostentatious wedding ceremonies and display of respect for elders through prostrating before them. These, among others, are in the views of the Izala, mere innovations since they were not practiced in the days of the prophet. Many Muslims still find these developments quite disturbing and those versed in Islamic theology are taken aback by the charges of introduction of ‘innovations’ into Islam. For instance, pilgrimage to the Holy Land, at least on once in the life time of a Muslim is prescribed for those with the means. But this cardinal principle is not possible, at least in modern times, without ‘innovations’: air travel, acquisition of Basic Travel Allowance, BTA, and vaccinations are mandatory for intending pilgrims. Question is: are Muslims to forego this cardinal pillar of Islam simply because they were not in practice in the days of Prophet Muhammad? Curiously, in their decades of campaigns to end ‘innovations’ in Islam, members of the Izala sect have yet to revert to the use of camels, end open air preachings through outside broadcasting vans and dismantle loud speakers mounted on their mosques on account of the common knowledge that Prophet Muhammad did not have to do any of these in his time. Disunity within the Muslim community worsened with the emergence increase in the activities of the Maitatsine, the Shia inclined Muslim Brothers and sundry groups.

The Maitatsine crisis which began in Kano in the north west in 1980 before spreading to Bulumkutu in the outskirt of Maiduguri in the north east and other parts of the north was not the first in the north; difference was that, with Maitatsine, the country, for the first time witnessed a band of religious zealots, armed to the hilt, squaring up to the overwhelming military might of the state. Outside their hazy claims to Jihad, the Maitatsine sect waged their war in predominantly Muslim communities which resulted in high casualty figures. Not unexpectedly, Maitatsine provided a common platform for feuding Muslim groups who united in their condemnation of members of the Maitatsine group.

Since Maitatsine, it is safe to say that Nigeria did not witness any armed insurrection of note in the name of religion but there were clear cases of radical, extremist groups that emerged to challenge the status quo often with dire consequences to human lives and property. It is important to state here that just like Izala before it and sundry groups that emerged after it, Maitatsine was the product of the disdain for western education on one hand and growing frustration arising from the dwindling socio economic fortunes of some people in Muslim communities of the north.

The early 1980’s also heralded the emergence of the Muslim Brothers on the stage. Though denied by its leaders, the Muslim Brothers drew inspiration from the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, which knocked off the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi from his peacock throne and replaced him with Imam Ayatullah Ruhullah Khomeini. The Muslim Brothers are associated with World Shi’a Movement, a radical muslim sect with millions of adherents in the Muslim world though they are swift in dismissing it. Its leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El Zakzaky, was one of the first set of students who abandoned their studies at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, to join an endless gravitation to Iran to receive the blessings of Imam Khomeini. Upon returning to Nigeria, the group began to espouse revolutionary ideas and never hid their intention to ‘purify’ Islam. Most of the demonstrations on campuses of tertiary institutions and secondary schools across the north between 1980 and 1982 were allegedly instigated by the young Muslim revolutionaries under the direction of Sheikh El Zakzaky.

That suspicion is rooted in the early history of Islam. Just before the death of Prophet Muhammad, there emerged a group among his followers who saw his cousin, Ali, as the right person to occupy the post of Caliph as there was to be no prophet after Muhammad. Those who took this position pointed to the kinship between the prophet and Ali and the fact that he married Fatima, daughter of the prophet. But the early Muslim community had an example on how to choose its leaders; throughout the mission of Muhammad, which lasted for twenty three years, he laid emphasis more on competence than issue of kinship in appointments. Indeed, on his death bed, Prophet Muhammad appeared to have named his successor as leader of the Community when he appointed Abubakar to lead the Muslim faithfuls in prayer. On the death of Prophet Muhammad, therefore, Abubakar was the natural successor to the apparent consternation and disaffection of those who rooted for Ali.

The mainstream Ahlul Sunnah believes and recognises the diversity and peculiarities of Nigeria and promotes the idea of Muslims co habiting in peace with non Muslim groups as was the practice in the days of Prophet Muhammad and as the prophet enjoined his followers to do. Prominent clerics of the mainstream Ahlul Sunnah regularly remind their followers of God’s clear, direct and specific injunction on tolerating and peacefully co habiting with the Ahlul Kitaab or, People of the Book, God’s name for Christians in the Glorious Qur’an as contained in Chapter 5 v 82 of the Muslim Holy Book: ‘You will find (time and again) that the most hostile of all people to the Believers (i.e., Muslims) would be the Jews and those who are idol-worshippers or pagans; and nearest among them in love to the Believers would be those who say, ‘We are Christians’, because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world and, they are not arrogant.’This injunction and several others have so far been discarded by members of the Jamaat al Ahlul Sunnah wa Lidaawat wa Jihad aka Boko Haram.

Another area of divergence between members of the Jamaat al Ahlul Sunnah wa Lida’awat wa Jihad and the mainstream Ahlul Sunnah revolves round the issue of vengeance. In His bid to regulate societies and restrain individuals or groups from taking laws into their hands, God allows room for vengeance provided it is done according to rules He has laid down even though He admonishes people to forgive those who offend them. However, in seeking revenge, especially in the case of murder, the main condition laid down is for the murderer to be sought and punished for his crime; none is permitted to visit the sins of a brother on any other member of his family as Islam forbids visiting the crimes of a father on his son.

In essence, what this means is that a Muslim, say in Geidam, is forbidden to kill a non-Muslim resident in the community in the name of avenging the death of a Muslim brother in Warri. In the opinion of prominent Muslim clerics God laid down these and many more injunctions as a warning against man’s insatiable appetite to sow the seeds of discord ‘because He could have created all mankind to wear the same skin colour, speak one language and profess a common religion.’

Unity! This is the five letter word that is posing the greatest problem to the Muslim community in Nigeria today and which attainment could help bring down the current security challenges and wanton destruction of human lives and property. In trying to tell the story of Islam in Nigeria as one not characterised by militancy, violence and intolerance, several pan Islamic associations and inter faith organisations have sprouted to project Islam in its true and undiluted picture- a religion of peace- by constantly preaching peace, concord and tolerance. Two of such early Muslim groups were the Jama’atu Nasri li Islam, JNI, and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Nigeria, NSCIA. Since it was created fifty years ago, the JNI, which has the Sultan of Sokoto as its president general, has been working in collaboration with traditional rulers to propagate Islam, preach peaceful existence and promote inter and intra faith understanding. But even in its early years and, with politics and religion constantly clashing, the JNI did not enjoy the support of all members whose interest it was set up to protect. The death of the First Republic and the coming of the military did not bring much respite as some groups, more as a result of the carry over of the ill feelings of the politics era, continued to attack the JNI for hobnobbing with traditional rulers.

As things stand, the issue now transcends intra Muslim rivalry as many Nigerians do not appear to see an immediate end to the divergent views within the Muslim community. For instance, the role played by politicians in funding private militias and growing poverty especially in northern Nigeria have been cited as some of the factors responsible for growing militant posturings in the name of religion. If Nigerians were shocked by the 1980 Maitatsine uprising and, today feel even more threatened in prevailing peace time, northern leaders and, by extension, leaders on the national scene learnt nothing from those past events and events from the unfolding scenario.

As was the case with the Maitatsine sect, the military will ultimately bring its might to bear and will eventually succeed in dislodging the Boko Haram, kill or arrest its entire leadership and disperse what remains of its followership. Chillingly, many innocent lives will be lost in the cross fire. Then, as was the case thirty one years ago, it will be time for backslapping and bear hugs. Big money will be appropriated to organise victory parades across the land and, as to be expected, there will be long, boring and empty speeches to celebrate the end of a nightmare and the return to life on the fast lane. In the euphoria of the victory, nobody will see the need to redress wrong headed social and economic policies that gave rise to Boko Haram. Going by the stiff neck introduction of belt tightening measures this year against the backdrop of cases of mindless treasury looting that go unpunished, government so far has failed to display enough commitment to redressing the conditions that continue to attract frustrated youths to espouse extremist and often divisive views.

Abdulrazaq Magaji, journalist and writer and former history lecturer, is based in Abuja, Nigeria and can be reached at [email protected]

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2 thoughts on “Nigeria: The Many Faces Of Islam – Analysis

  • July 5, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    Assalam alaikum, With due respect to the writer, on the submission on Izala the writer is not abress with the word “innovation” as its meaning becouse it means bringing new things into islam,the teachings of prophet Muhammad, that which he did not teaches, and not things that were invented for human use after his life. This is not bid’a “innovation”. I hope the writer will investigate more about what bid’a means in islam. Wassalamu alaikum


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