particularly in Nigeria

Colonial times

The immediate effect of French and British occupation was to stop jihâd warfare and slave raiding.  The main difference between the two colonial powers was in their policy towards established jihâd states.  The French dismantled their structures and set up direct rule, using ûfî brotherhoods as intermediaries for any matters touching on Islam.  The British instituted indirect rule, notably in the emirates of northern Nigeria.

Both policies curbed overt military expansion of Islam, but in the long run colonial rule was advantageous to Islamic expansion and consolida­tion.  In the first place, the jihâd states were ridden with internal dissension, and their military strength was ineffective against more sophisticated methods of resistance in the areas they raided.   British rule recognized definite leaders and secured them against adventurous contenders, whether these be political opponents or “Mahdist” upstarts.  They also affirmed the lordship of the emirs over subordinate district and village heads throughout their territory, giving them coercive power and tax revenue such as they never knew before.  The British even included under the emirs’ jurisdiction previously unsubjugated territory.  Throughout the colonial period, the emirs’ word was law; they had police and prisons to back up their authority.  Sharîca law covered all matters, even crime and capital offenses, except for penalties such as mutilation, stoning and crucifixion. Elsewhere in West Africa Sharîca law was only used for personal matters, like marriage and inheritance.

In areas of indirect rule, the British followed a policy of separate development, excluding missionaries from preaching and setting up schools.  This insulation preserved Islam in archaic purity and satisfied the emirs, but later generations of Muslims have decried it for keeping the area backward.  The few government schools for the elite could not prevent the educational and social gap that developed between these areas and the rest of the country.

Apart from propping up the emirs, the British peace allowed Muslims in all their West African dependencies to move freely, setting up colonies and proselytizing as they wished.  In parts of Yorubaland and elsewhere Islam became the rallying point for those who did not wish to assimilate to Western learning and social changes.  Throughout the colonial period the ûfic brotherhoods played a major role in sustaining and developing Islam, especially when the emirs and other Muslim authorities appeared oppressive or to have compromised their religion.  Colonial rule throughout West Africa was a time of great growth in numbers of Muslims.  In Nigeria the final bequest of the British to Islam was the political arrangement on independence that Muslims controlled the Northern Region, and the Northern Region controlled the Federation.

This situation left an enduring tension between the Northern Muslim establishment and the rest of the country, manifested in conflict sometimes with Christians and sometimes with other ethnic groups.  Religious tension was virtually unknown among the Yoruba in the South and in other West African countries where members of the same family belonged to different religions and lived together peacefully.

The status of Sharîca in Northern Nigeria was first challenged in 1947 when an appeal trial prevented the imposition of a death penalty for homicide as provided by Sharîca but disallowed by the British Criminal Code. This decision was given legislative support by the 1956 Native Courts Law, which stated that “a native court [which included Sharîca courts] shall not impose a punishment in excess of the maximum punishment permitted by the Criminal Code or such other enactment”.   The status of Sharîca was affected by further court decisions, leading the British to review the entire situation.

The British were convinced that, as in most other parts of the Muslim world, Sharîca courts should deal only with personal status and family law, while civil courts would deal with criminal law according to a single code applicable to all Nigerians.  In 1956 a Native Courts Bill was passed which made a distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims and provided procedures for cases involving both categories.  In 1957 the Northern Muslim Court of Appeal was established and in 1958 a Northern Nigerian Government panel of jurists made recommendations, “some of which involved changes of the most radical nature for which, as many assured us, public opinion in Northern Nigeria seemed by no means prepared”.  Yet the Regional Government passed into law all but one of the proposals.

After three years the experiment was to be reviewed, and the panel was reconvened in May 1962.  Subsequently, the government published a White Paper which praised the success of the reform.   The strongest opposition had been feared against the new Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code which replace the Mâlikî law which had been entrenched for generations in the emirates.  Instead, except in “one emirate”, the new codes found overwhelm­ing popular approval and esteem.  The provincial magistrate courts set up in 1958 proved successful and were now to be extended to each of the major towns.  In 1962 the jurisdiction of the Northern Region Sharîca Court of Appeal was confined to cases of personal status and family law, a decision the Muslims accepted for the time being.

For the end of the colonial period, J. Cuoq, Les Musulmans en Afrique, gives the following estimations of the Muslim population of West Africa:

For the end of the colonial period, J. Cuoq, Les Musulmans en Afrique, gives the following estimations of the Muslim population of West Africa:

Senegal82.6%                        Gambia86%
Sierra Leone50%Liberia26%
Bourkina Faso17%Ivory Coast21.7%

Independent times

Throughout West Africa the independent period has seen a tension between traditional Islam, particularly in the form of Sûfic brotherhoods, and a reformist Islam of Arabian or Iranian inspiration.  Apart from these opposing groups, and sometimes manipulating them is the phenomenon of state Islam, whereby Muslim rulers control and use Islam to serve their own interests using pragmatic guidelines that have little to do with Islam.

In northern Nigeria state Islam goes back to the colonial period when, along with the system of indirect rule through emirs and chiefs, the British instituted regional and provincial governments parallel and superior to that of the “native authority”.  In the end the emirs were to lose all authority but the appearances. In the first twenty years of independence, the emirs were deprived of control of the police, courts, prisons and taxes, and were left with only ceremonial functions.  Real power passed to an amorphous conglomeration of business, political and tribal interests, sometimes competing with one another and sometimes in coalition.  Some power holders are high-profile holders of political office; others operate behind the scenes.  All of these are motivated by getting their share of the national cake.  They are secularists at heart, and use Islam only as a veneer.  The Jamacatu Nasril Islam and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs are vehicles of state Islam.

The latter days of the First Republic (1960-1964) were marked by a vigorous Islamisation campaign carried out by the Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of the North, Ahmadu Bello, an extraordinary character who straddled the interests of the ûfî brotherhoods, the reformists and state Islam.  He made numerous trips around the Arab world and was Vice-President of the newly formed, Saudi sponsored, Muslim World League (Râbit al-`âlam al-islâmî).  This brought him a lot of Saudi money to build mosques around the north and to distribute cloth to converts in his preaching tours.  In a short time he pressurised many chiefs and prominent people to join Islam.  At the same time his preaching rallies brought many thousands into the Islamic fold.

Yet the Sardauna stirred up the opposition in the south by his northernisation policy in the north where skilled southerners held many of the best positions, and by his manipulating Yoruba politics in favor of Akintola and imprisoning Awolowo so as to foster his plan of “dipping the Qur’ân in the sea”.   The Sardauna’s assassination in the 1966 coup effectively put an end to Muslim expansion in the North.   Yet the massacre of southerners in the north and the civil war, though led by the Christian General Gowon, had overtones of subduing Christian influence in the country. Missionaries were banned or prevented from entering.  Immediately after the war schools and hospitals were taken over, a Muslim demand fostered by sectarian rivalry among Christians.

Murtala Muhammad’s coup against Gowon in July 1975 and the Dimka coup against Murtala Muhammad in 1976 resulted in a purge of Christians from the army leadership, in spite of the fact that Obasanjo was allowed to take the presidency.  Throughout 1977 there was an intense debate about providing for a Federal Sharî`a court of appeal in the new Constitution. The Constitutive Assembly in April 1978 rejected this.  The Muslim minority walked out, but later agreed to abide by the new Constitution for the meantime.

The 1979 election of Shagari, which many called a “selection”, ensured a northern leadership committed to the promotion of Islam. The pragmatic politicians of the Second Republic, however, generally (1979-83) tried to quell any outward religious controversy or polarization.  They feared even worse intra-Muslim dissension, such as between the Sûfic brotherhoods, the Izala and the Maitatsine movements.  On the other hand, these politicians catered to reformists’s demands for the establishment of Sharîca and Muslim ascendency by many measures, such as banning of alcohol from Sokoto, President Shagari’s announcement of the establishment of a presidential advisory board on Islamic affairs.  In the 1983 re-election, Muslim leaders openly called on Muslims to vote only for Muslim N.P.N. candidates.

The military, who took over on 1 January 1984, continued to promote Islam, even though their personal lives were unconstrained by Islamic restrictions. Ibrahim Babangida (25 August 1985 - 1993) brought more strain by secretly carrying the nation into “full membership” of the O.I.C. There were several serious religious riots in the North between 1987 and 1992.

Another Constitutive Assembly under Babagida rejected once more the Muslim demand for a Federal Sharî`a court of appeal, and would have removed Sharî`a from all levels of government but for Babangida’s military over-ruling of this action by the Christian majority.

Babangida’s cancellation of the 12 June 1993 presidential election might have plunged the country into a bitter religious war, but for the fact that the elected candidate was a Muslim. The rallying of Muslims and Christians around Abiola and his lost cause in 1993 and their united opposition to the Abacha regime influenced the electoral success of Obasanjo in 1999.1   Both Abiola and Obasanjo attracted the strong but long suppressed Hausa opposition once led by NEPU and Aminu Kano.

When Obasanjo came into power in 1999, the old general realized the dangerous situation of the army, and in his first week in office retired all officers he thought could cause trouble.  The army lost its Muslim domination.  So too did many of the crucial ministries of the government. Northern Muslims began to complain of marginalization, and in response introduced full Sharî`a into many northern states.  Obasanjo did little to oppose this.  In fact, in March 2001 he went to Cairo to attend a meeting of the “G8”, another grouping of Muslim states which Abacha brought Nigeria into in 1997.

Popular Islam

The Sharî`a cause, always supported by Saudi Arabia, became a convenient device to rally popular support for politicians of questionable character.  But which popular support?  Sharî`a, understood in its most radical sense, has appealed to the young Muslim intelligentia, that is, university students and their academic leaders, many whom learned their ideas from studying in Saudi Arabia or going there on pilgrimage.  It also has appealed to the unemployed urban poor who have been persuaded that it is the simple answer to their problems.  Whipped up by religious fervour, they are willing to overlook the oppressive policies of their leaders once they don the mantle of a champion of Sharî`a.  The Muslim business community may support it under pressure, but their heart is against it, because it spells turmoil, and that hurts business.

Muslim rulers generally go out of their way to show that what they do is Islamic, but few are impressed.  In this situation Islamic jamâcas of every tendency flourish, expressing, channelling or exploiting the real religious feelings of the people.  The first of these are the Sûfî brother­hoods. In spite of opposition from purist, Wahhâbî movements, they have strong roots in African tradition and do not seem about to disappear.  They not only serve to welcome and integrate Muslim migrants to cities far from their homes, but also minister to the spiritual condition of the people as they are, offering amulets and other religious remedies against evil spirits, enemies, sickness, and obstacles to success in life.  There are even Muslim preachers who imitate Christian revival services, with dancing, singing, testimonies and advertisements that people should come and get their miracle.

Frustrated Muslims of the poorer class turned to the Maitatsine move­ment, which was influential in the 1960s and 1970s until its brutal sup­pression in the early 1980s.  Founded by Muhammad of Marwa, Cameroon, it took root in Kano, appealing to the unemployed, but also, because of Maitatsine’s reputation for spiritual power, attracted secret support from some influential people.  Combining an old Mahdist tradition with Khârijite-like fanaticism, it broke into frenzic riots in Kano in December 1980, Maiduguri in October 1982 and Yola in February 1984.  In the inquiries over the riots, however, it is significant that no represen­tative of the sect was ever interviewed to speak their own point of view.

The principal reformist opponent to the Sûfî brotherhoods is the Izala, founded by the late Abubakar Gumi.  This movement has gained many adherents, especially among youth who have nothing to lose.  There have been many violent episodes between Izala members and other Muslims throughout northern Nigeria for many years.  Lately this violence has been directed against Christians as well.  A similar group is the Nigerian Muslim Brothers, sometimes called Shîcites because of their Iranian support.

The Muslim Students Society was founded in Lagos in 1954. It grew into a national organization and is affiliated with the World Assembly of Muslim Youth which was founded in 1972 under the auspices of the OIC.  For a time the movement was radicalized by the Izala, rejecting the Nigerian Constitution and anything secular.  Now one meets a wide range of attitudes in this Society.

In West African countries outside Nigeria Muslim-Christian relations have remained cordial during the independent period.  People from these countries are shocked at what they hear about Nigeria and hope such inter-religious problems will not be introduced into their countries.

«— Chapter 14

The Spread of Islam
Through North to West Africa

Bibliography —»

1On the evil Abacha years, see among other works, Wole Soynka, The open sore of a continent, a personal narrative of the Nigerian Crisis (O.U.P., 1996).