Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.
A Case of competitive Sharing

History of the two Communities

Muslim-Christian relations in Nigeria are important for all of Africa because of the strength and influence of this country. Situated on the West coast of Africa, it reaches north to near the edge of the Sahara and covers an area as large as France. Its population, according to the provisional 1973 census, is estimated at 80 million.

Islam entered this very diverse territory in medieval times when Muslim traders from across the Sahara and from further West or East Africa settled in its northern towns. These traders were accompanied by clerics, or full time specialists in Islamic learning, who earned their living by secretarial service to the kings and by teaching the people, leading them in prayer and providing advice and religious medicine in the form of amulets. These competed successfully with the medicine of the traditional religion and, together with the ceremonies of Islamic worship, provided an attraction for the people to make this religion their own.

In making Islam their own, the people found a way to blend Islamic practices with those of their traditional religion. This was the case especially when the kings of Borno adopted Islam in the 11th century and the kings of Hausaland at the end of the 15th century. Apart from the courts of the rulers, Islam at this time gained a foothold among townspeople along the trade routes leading over the Sahara and to the Western and Eastern Sudan. From the 16th century onwards nuclei of Muslim communities arose along the trade routes through Yorubaland to the coast. Most of the countryside, however, remained completely untouched by Islam until recent times.

Christians, too, found their way into Nigeria, perhaps even before the Muslims did. It can be reasonably conjectured that Christian Berbers or Tuareg in pre-Islamic and early Islamic times carried some vestiges or knowledge of Christianity as far as Nigeria, in the form of crosses or simple rituals. Some traces of Christian symbols and vocabulary can be found among the neighboring Tuareg to the North, and in Nigeria the "Northern Knot" is part of the Agadez and other Tuareg cross series, which most likely has a Christian origin. The presence of Nubians during its flourishing Christian epoch is better evidenced in Borno (northeastern Nigeria), where there are ruins of burnt brick construction. These are of Nubian inspiration, and presumably Christian Nubians introduced this form of construction which is also found across Chad and Darfur. The Nubian formée cross was even found on the coast in Benin City when the Portuguese arrived in 1486. Only in the neighbourhood of Benin and nearby Warri, through Portuguese contact, did Christianity take real root and flourish for a while before being neglected and then found in a moribund condition by missionaries in the late 19th century.

In the meantime, partly because of its non-sacramental structure, Islam continued to deepen its roots and grow. The jihad of Uthman dan Fodiye gave Islam new prominence not only in Hausaland but throughout the North, with reverberations right to the coast, where Muslim traders and clerics followed the long-distance trade routes which spread out from European shipping terminals. Christians, too, experienced a new birth with the missionary movement of the late 19th century, when both religions grew phenomenally during colonial rule. British policy makers were not committed to the cause of Christianity or of Islam, but for their own commercial advantage did help Christianity in the South by promoting missionary education, and Islam in the North by strengthening and extending the power of the emirs and later their competitors, the Muslim politicians who,were assured control of the Northern Region and thereby of the Federation.

Religious growth, however, was fostered not especially by any official policies, but by the new conditions of social development, urbanization and mobility. As a result, although accurate statistics are unavailable, Muslims in independent Nigeria are about 45% and Christians about the same or more.

Relations between the communities in colonial times

The nineteenth century missionaries' dream of a Christian African continent was encouraged by the welcome their preaching found among traditional worshippers. Muslim resistance did not dampen the missionaries' optimism, but it did turn them to give more vigorous attention to the non-Muslim peoples bordering on Muslim areas. In the meantime the forces of modernization were at work. An administrative machinery grew up with a communications network for both information and transport of goods. Skilled tradesmen, technicians and white-collar workers were in heavy demand. As soon as British rule was established at the beginning of this century, mission trained southern Nigerian civil servants began settling in all the major Northern towns. Schools followed, most of them run by Christian churches, but some of them were non-sectarian government schools designed to attract Muslim students, Muslims, were very hesitant even about government schools, because the "secular" had no meaning for them and they saw any British school as a Christian school. As a result, tension grew in the North between the Muslims, who under the shadow of the British controlled the political scene, and the Christian southerners who had Western education and skills.

In Yorubaland the pax Britanica put both Muslims and Christians in contact with the mass of the population. One of the factors leading to an option for one or the other religion was the alignment of Christianity with the modernization and change brought by the Europeans and Islam with traditional society. Islam had its own affinity with the traditional religion, especially in divination and medicine, and chiefs could find their traditional authority enhanced by the adoption of Islam. It is not surprising that many who at first turned to Islam from love of tradition later allowed their children to become Christians. Some far thinking Yoruba Muslims as early as the 1920s struggled to ally Islam with Western education and progress, but only after Independence in 1960 has the tide of Yoruba Muslims turning to Christianity dwindled and Muslims have found their own identity and confidence in modem society.

Around the 1940s or 1950s a new element emerged in Nigerian Muslim-Christian relations. That was the appearance in the Northern Region, but more properly in its lower part called the Middle Belt, of a considerable native Christian population. These Christians were rising in education and did not want to remain any longer a deprived and voiceless tax support for the Muslim feudal gentry. The interests of these northern Christians, however, were very distinct from those of southern Christians living in the north. The northern Christians identified with the north and, like the Muslims, regarded the southerners often as alien high-handed competitors.

Independence and the civil war

The tension between the Northern Muslims and th Southern Igbos living in the North came to a head in 1966 after the coup led by Igbo officers. The Igbo were attacked and driven out of the North. A second coup in 1966 brought to power Yakubu Gowon, a Northern Christian, who immediately divided the nation into 12 states, satisfying the aspirations of his home area (the Middle Belt), but also occasioning the Igbo East to secede. During the war which lasted from the end of 1966 to the beginning of 1970, some Muslims (especially newspaper poets) used jihad terminology to describe the conflict, but most Muslims did not see the Federal side as exactly coinciding with Islamic interests, especially since the Federal army was led mostly by Christian officers. On the other hand, to gain outside support, Biafran propaganda frequently construed the war as a defense of Christian civilization against invading Muslim hordes.

At stake in the civil war was not only the unity of the country but also the oil fields. If religious difference was very secondary in the fighting, it was submerged in the post-war reconstruction, mainly because of Gowon's policy of national reconciliation. Igbos quickly found it was safe to spread throughout the Federation once more and that good jobs and opportunities were open to them. The universal and spontaneous quieting of public tribal chauvinism after the war is really remarkable.

The Sharî`a movement and return to civil rule

The post-war spirit of unity and piece looked auspicious, but before long tension emerged from Muslim aspirations for an Islamic state. This was not a new aspiration. Throughout the 19th century an Islamic political order existed in the Sokoto federation of Islamic emirates, founded by Uthmân dan Fodiye, and in the Borno State. In 1902 the British conquerors reaffirmed the Islamic political institutions of the North, but at the same time put ultimate authority in the hands of British Residents, paving the way for an alternate secular system of government which was eventually to leave the emirs with merely a ceremonial role in society. Zealous Muslims, however, did not neglect the new terrain where real political power lay. Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the Northern Region from Independence until his assassination in 1966, publicly promoted his dream of restoring the Islamic state of his ancestor, Uthman dan Fodiye, and extending it to the sea, contributing to the pre-war national tension. In the mid-1970s, once the nation was quiet and prosperous again, Islamic aspirations resurfaced, this time in harmony with a revival of Islamic fundamentalism. In 1975 General Gowon was removed in a quiet coup. Apart from his growing ineptitude in governing the nation, he represented Northern Christian interests, which through the system of states had succeeded in greatly turtailing the dream of a great Islamic block in the North.

The years 1975 to 1979 were ones of intense preparation for civilian rule, including the designing of a new constitution and a very, different structure of government, one more or less following the American model rather than the parliamentary British one. This was the chance for Muslims devoted to Sharî`a in its fullness to advocate incorporation into the Constitution a measure of Islamic structures. Some more outspoken Muslims made it clear that their ultimate goal was to make Sharî`a or Islamic law, the only law and constitution of the land, but for the moment they were ready to compromise by putting only part of the Sharî`a into effect by establishing Sharî`a courts in all the states, with a Federal Sharî`a court of appeal, headed by a Federal Grand Mufti.

Christians opposed this move, because they saw in it the danger of their eventual reduction to the status of dhimmis, with the second-class citizenship to which classical books on Sharî`a relegate Christians.and Jews. In the Constitutive Assembly the Federal Sharî`a Court was eliminated, but allowance was made for state Sharî`a courts and various other applications of Islamic law. Thii compromise settlement did not satisfy the Muslim politicians, but after a short but vociferous protest they ceased to press the issue, realizing how inflamatory it was.

Muslims were happy at the election of the first civilian executive president, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, one of their own men from the North. As president, he tried to appear very equitable to all religious groups, heading off religious conflict or the exploitation of religion for political advancement. The `Id al-kabir festival of 19 October 1980,occuring slightly a year after the return to civilian rule, was an occasion for many speeches urging peace and tolerance. An example was the call by the then Gov. A.B. Musa of Kaduna State that "in order to build a virile and united country the people must eschew bitterness, respect each others' rights and religious differences" (New Nigerian, 22 Oct. 1980).

The New Nigerian editorial commented, "A common theme in the sallah messages of our spiritual and temporal leaders was peace... There was no better time to preach th virtues of religious and political tolerance than at the occasion of the Eid-El-Kabir and soon after the first year of civil rule" (Ibid.).

Day to day Muslim-Christian relations

Not much has taken place on the level of formal Muslim-Christian dialogue. At one such meeting in Ibadan in November 1974 a mood of defensiveness and tension began to form, and was broken only when one lawyer stated that in his experience Christians who swear by the Bible and Muslims who swear by the Qur'an are frequently caught in perjury. Yet someone who swears by Ifa, the traditional Yoruba deity of divination, will always tell the truth. This statement shamed the dialogue participants into examining their common failures and needs rather than boast of their opposing merits.

In day to day life the adherents of the two religions have a considerable reserve and resistance towards the other religion as a system inviting their total allegiance, but there is not the least hesistancy about borrowing elements from the other religion which appear particularly attractive.

Both in Hausaland and Yorubaland Christian men and women have adopted many traditional Muslim clothing styles for certain dress occasions. On the other hand many Muslims, especially the youth, have been attracted to modern shirt and trouser styles such as Christian men wear most of the time.

It is not at all unusual for a Christian to bear a Muslim name, usually because of parentage or social influence, but occasionally adopted to gain entrance into a school or to get a job. The pastor of one Anglican church is called Rev. Muhammad. On the other hand, Muslims rarely bear Christian names.

Among Yoruba Muslims it is quite fashionable now to have a "mosque wedding" with an exchange of vows and other ceremonies such as Christians have. The bride will also dress up in white lace as Christians do, and she is often led to the mosque with drumming. In some circles, mostly educated middle-class people, monogamy is more usual and accepted by Muslims. On the other hand, some churches, such as the African Church (a break away from the Anglican) and the Celestial Church of Christ, permit polygamy to their members who are usually from the lower class. Some very wealthy Christians, too are beginning to take many wives.

Muslims have learned much from Christian church organization, and in Yorubaland many societies have opening up which an the equivalent to Christian sects or denominations. They also run schasis and hospitals and provide othr services such as Christian missions originated.

In some parts of the country where Christians are few they have taken on many Muslim values. For instance, Lenten fast is not really a fast unless it involves no food or drink the entire day. Christians are often ashamed to carry on some traditional practices in public such as drinking home-made beer, eating animals that Muslims do not eat, and wearing only beads and a loincloth while the Muslims wear flowing. robes and a cap or turban. Evangelical Protestant missions have concurred with the Musfims in discouraging such traditional customs.

The Muslim pilgrimage, or hajj, is a colossal event each year. At least 50,000 go, and one year the number exceeded 100,000. The attention of the nation is fixed on every step of the operation and the provisions made for it. Christians, especially Catholics, were not slow in imitating this event by promoting annual pilgrimage to Rome, the Holy Land and Lourdes (usually all of them. The bishops have demanded, and to some extent received similar government assistance in facilitating this pilgrimage.

Mutual. influence in the area of beliefs is hard to ascertain, although in a general way then is a sharing of outlook. Muslims unconsciously use many Biblical phrases, such as "a widow's mite" in their conversations and speeches, just as much as a Cluistian will use Arabic phrases, including the Shahâda. as expletives. Some Christians in any trouble go to the mallam for charms or advice; yet just as commonly, or even more so,. Muslims go to healers or healing services of the popular Pentecostal churches. Many are converted in this way. I have not, however, found. Muslims wearing Christian medals and emblems for protection, maybe because these are not available in Protestant or Pentecostal circles.

If future years bring greater sharing of cultural resources, together with toleration of religious differences and cooperation in other areas of life, Nigeria will have taken the lead in the world for good Mushm-Christian relations.


1. For further information and documentation on this section see my article, "Christian Muslim relations in Nigeria", Islamochristiana. Rome 5 (1970), pp. 171-192.

2. Cf. A.D.H. Bivar and P.L. Shinnie, "Old Kanuri capitals," Journal of African History, 3:1 (1962), 1-10.

3. Joao de Barros, Asia, Dec. I, lihro 3, ch. 4 (Lisbon, 1945), p. 90 ff.