Islamic systematic theology, or Kalm, is dominated by three focal topics: 1) Who is a Muslim? 2) the freedom of God as opposed to man's self-determination, and 3) God's unity and attributes. Let us look at teach of these topics and illustrate how they are debated in Nigeria.

Who is a Muslim

The first topic has been a central point of conflict in West Africa for centuries. A person's claim to Islam can be challenged on any of three levels.


The most serious is takfr, a declaration that the supposed Muslim is guilty of kufr or unbelief, and therefore should be put to death as an apostate. coups in Muslim states were usually justified by alleging that the former ruler had effectively abandoned Islam. A prominent example is the coup of Askiya Muammad of Songhay in 1493 against the dynasty of Sonni `Al, whose treatment of the clerics of Timbuktu earned him their unsparing takfr. (1) The jihds of 18th and 19th century West Africa were likewise justified by a takfr of the opponents. `Uthmn an Fodiye used it in 1804 as the basis of his rebellion against the Sarkin Gobir Yunfa and other Hausa kings, and likewise to justify the invasion of Borno. (2)

In the past few years takfr seems to have been invoked in attacks on unlicensed preachers in some of the northern states of Nigeria. The Jam`t izlat al-bid`a wa-iqmat as-sunna, a purist movement of Wahhb inspiration has been seeking to repress preachers of fism, particularly Tijns, charging them with not basing their teaching on the Qur'n and Sunna. Whatever their exact teaching is, these f preachers are effectively accused of kufr in the minds of the mobs who sometimes administer the death penalty to them. Recently only a quick summoning of the police saved such a preacher from being beaten to death in front of the Catholic cathedral in Sokoto.

To prevent such ugly incidents, the Sokoto and Kano state governments have required all preachers to be authorized by a state board, and the police are to prohibit anyone from preaching without a permit. (3)

The Kano riots of December 1980, in which several thousand people are estimated to have been killed, were led by a Mahdist fanatic. Even though political factions may have exploited the situation, the fundamental cry was for a radically pure Islam, with death to kfirs or so-called Muslims who opposed them.

An example of takfr without any violence in Nigeria is the pronouncement by the World Muslim League that members of the Ahmadiyya Movement are not Muslims. This is because they regard their founder, Guilam Ahmad, as a prophet, thus challenging the finality of the prophethood of Muammad. The only penalties Ahmadis have suffered in Nigeria are some attacks in the press and the refusal of the Saudi embassy to issue them pilgrimage visas.


A second form of condemnation, less stringent than takfr, is tabd`, the accusation of bid`a, or "reprehensible innovation". It does not put the accused outside the pale of Islam and make him subject to the death penalty, but makes him subject to lesser penalties for introducing something heretical in the secondary beliefs or practices of Islam.

In his interesting composition, Wakar bidi'a, Sa'adu Zungur attacks the magical use of Arabic to obtain divine help and insists on understanding the Arabic prayers one uses. He also attacks swearing by anything other than God, such as the f leaders Amad Tijn or `Abdalqdir al-Jln, `Uthmn an Fodiye or his tomb, or even the Prophet or the Qur'n. (4) For him all this is bid`a.

Tabd` also seems to explain the general practical attitude of Hausa to Yoruba Muslims. Political and cultural differences separate the two peoples, and these differences naturally find religious expression, even within Islam. The Hausa, with a long tradition of reformist Islam and Arabic culture, despise both Yoruba involvement in traditional religious practices, such as Ifa divination and medicine from the Babalawo, and Yoruba modernizing tendencies, such as mosque society weddings with bridesmaids, drumming, church-like ritual and all the paraphanalia of their Christian counterparts. Hausa-Yoruba cleavage is often glaringly manifested in celebrating the major feasts on different days, according to each community's own sighting of the moon, and in worshipping in separate central mosques not far from one another.


The third form of condemnation, weaker than either takfr or tabd`, is tafsq, and accusation of fisq, that is, immorality or sin in matters of belief. The Qur'nic injunction to "enforce what is acceptable and prohibit what is detestable" (al-amr bi-l-ma`rf wa-n-nahy `an al-munkar) binds every Muslim and is the characteristic mark of the Islamic community. (5)

This duty has been put into practice recently in Bauchi, Sokoto and some other towns and states through the drafting of legislation forbidding the sale or consumption of alcoholic drinks. In the early 1970s similar prohibitions were made, for instance by the Emir of Katsina, against the manufacture of burkutu, the home-brewed guinea-corn drink, but such edicts were quickly forgotten. The continued multiplication of breweries in the country, however, and the insatiably increasing demand for factory brewed beer is alarming to Muslims. In protest against the presence of alcohol on the campus, Muslim students of Ahmadu Bello University conducted a "jihd" in 1979 against the Kegite club, a quaint, traditionalist (and Yoruba) palm-wine drinking society, and burned the Vice-Chancellor's house down for his negligence in tolerating the society. (6) "If alcohol flows, blood will flow," they said.

"Enforcing what is acceptable and prohibiting what is detestable" is not peculiarly Islamic, and exists in the form of various uncodified sanctions in any society. Muslims sometimes apply sanctions that are not Islamic, but traditional ones common to many parts of Nigeria. An example is the beating to death of thieves and witches (maye). This penalty and its summary application exceeds the limits of the Shar`a. Hoe "traditional" such action is can be debated, but in modern society it is encouraged by the belief that it is futile to leave justice to the police and the courts. A Muslim may thus occasionally find himself in a conflict of three systems of justice: one traditional or spontaneous, another Islamic, and the third, that of the secular civil codes. Nevertheless Muslims generally succeed very well in striking a practical balance among the demands they face from different systems of justice.

God's freedom

The Qur'n refined and incorporated much of the traditional Arabian outlook on destiny (qadar), making all events and even human choice itself a matter of divine determination; the Qur'n also affirms human freedom but does not explain its relation to divine determination. Later Kalm embraced a radical occasionalism which takes away all causality from nature and vests it entirely in God. This attitude took root in popular religion in Arab lands, and is likewise reflected in the common Hausa proverb and inscription, "Ba mai yi sai Allah" ("There is no agent but God"). Strictly understood, this leaves no room for secondary causality.

A particular aspect of destiny is the decided limit of any man's life span (ajal). Once, going from Gusau to Sokoto, I came across the casualty of a conductor who had fallen off a mammy waggon. I carried him to the hospital and later heard from his parents that he died. They were perfectly calm in spirit and gave the occasionalist explanation, "If he had not fallen off the motor he would have died at that moment anyway, because he reached his life's limit (Ya kai ajalinsa)."

Another aspect of destiny is God's provision of man's needs (rizq = Hausa arziki, Yoruba aziki). In practice this amounts to an attitude similar to that enjoined in the Gospel, "Don't worry about food or what you are to wear..." (Mt 6:25 ff.). Processions and prayers for rain (istisq') are a normal feature in Hausaland around April and May of most years. This exemplifies the general view that material prosperity is a gift from God, although not necessarily an indication that the recipient is a good and grateful person.

A final aspect of God's freedom is his binding himself to reward or punish men for their actions. Theologians of the prevailing Ash`arite school are careful to explain that God is not bound by a standard of justice (`adl) obliging him to reward the good, but he does freely declare that he will do so. This concept is expressed in the terms "promise and thread" (al-wa`d wa-l-wa`d). Nigerian Muslims commonly have such a deep faith in God's promise and threat that they are not overly disturbed if someone does wrong and escapes human justice. They know he will face a worse punishment later. An effective way to retrieve stolen property is for the victim to declare that he leaves the case to God.

God's unity and attributes

The oneness of God, the Master of the universe, is proclaimed not only in official worship formulae, but also in popular refrains chanted by Hausa beggars, such as "Alldh widun" ("He who is one"). Hausa waka, or sung poetry, for at least two centuries has been a much more important form of proclaiming both God's oneness (tawd) and all other Islamic teachings. (7) Arabic religious poetry has also been popular among Muslims of culture. (8)

Islam has largely driven out overt traditional worship from Hausaland. Yet traditional beliefs are responsible for the widespread use of Islamic amulets against the dodo, or evil spirits, and for the continued practice of bori to exorcize spirits causing sickness. Various other cults survive among the Maguzawa, a non-Muslim group of Hausa, but they are mild compared with the elaborate cults prevalent in areas of Nigeria where Islam or Christianity is not predominant.

God's speech (kalm) is one of his attributes which stirred some of the greatest controversy in the history of Islamic theology. ash`arite theology came to define that it and other substantive attributes (ma`n) are neither distinct from nor identical with God's essence. Cautious comparison could be made with the Johannine teaching about the . Common Islamic teaching is that the Qur'n is the very speech of God projected onto paper or ink or sound waves. The sound, paper and ink are created, but the content is part of God's eternal speech.

The conviction that the Qur'n is God's speech, a divine attribute manifested on paper or in sound or thought, finds concrete expression in reverence for the Qur'n as something sacred and powerful. The Qur'n itself commends this practical attitude: "No one may touch it but the purified" (L yamassu-hu ill l-muaharn). (9)

In the Nigerian context this respect can be seen among sellers of Islamic literature who are not willing to allow any stranger who does not seem to be a Muslim pick up and examine their wares, particularly the sacred text. Yet once a Muslim sees that the stranger is coming with respect and a desire seriously to study the book in question, he is generally willing to sell, give or lend what he has. In Tunisia I met the more striking example of a cleaner in the student hostel who objected to using old Arabic newspapers for toilet paper. "It might contain the name of God or some Qur'nic quotation," he explained.

In Nigeria and all West Africa the Qur'n has been a strong competitor with traditional medicine because of the divine power believed to be operative in it. Muslim clerics have the practice of writing some verses on a slate, then washing the slate and giving the inky water to sick clients to drink. They also write verses on bits of paper, sew these in leather and sell them for people to wear as protection from any sort of harm. I have observed, however, that these amulets or laya (= al-ya, a "miraculous sign" or "verse" of the Qur'n) do not usually contain direct Qur'n quotations, but other prayers, magic figures or squares of numbers symbolizing various names of God. This practice, possibly stemming from a desire not to see the Qur'n profaned, goes back to a highly developed, but frowned upon, tradition of magic (sir) in the Arab world. (10) In Nigeria one of the common books whose pages are used in such amulets is the anonymous Umm Ms, available in most markets of the north of Nigeria.

Another medicinal use of the Qur'n is the recitation of certain sras for specific needs. The sra Y Sn (36) is frequently sold separately for use in obtaining many various needs, as an edition of it published by Gaskiya in Zaria explains in the introduction.

A current reform movement, reflected in the song-poem of Sa'adu Zungur referred to above, is opposed to all such medicinal use of the Qur'n. The tension between popular religion and orthodox theology, however, will not easily or quickly be resolved.


1. Cf. al-Maghl, Ajwiba as'ila al-Asky, quoted by `Uthmn an Fodiye in his Ta`lm al-ikhwn, ed. B.G. Martin in Middle Eastern Studies, 4 (1967), p. 65. Note, however, that the Ta'rkh as-Sdn, ch. 12, used the weaker terms lim and fsiq of Sonni `Al, but not kfir. The Ta'rkh al-fattsh, ch. 5, raises the question whether he was a kfir and offers evidence for the affirmative.

2. Cf. `Uthmn an Fodiye, op. cit.

3. See New Nigerian, 10 April 1979 with reference to police powers, 9 May with reference to Bauchi and Gombe, 23 May on the constitution of the Sokoto preaching board, 30 May for a statement of Yar'adua on religious conflicts, and 9 June on arrests in Kano.

4. Wakokin Sa'adu Zungur (Zaria: Gaskiya, 1968), pp. 1-6.

5. Qur'n 3:104-114; 9:71,112.

6. The students used the term "jihd" in their posters. On this incident see my article "Muslim-Christian relations in Nigeria," Islamochristiana, 5 (1979), pp. 171-192.

7. Cf. M. Hiskett, A history of Hausa Islamic verse (London: SOAS, 1975). Besides the Hausa publications he mentions on p. 260, note also the following, all published in Zaria, which contain religious songs: Madauci Ibrahim Bagudu, Gangar wa'azu (1969); anonymous, Makamar lada da fassara (1968); Akilu Aliyu, Fasaha Akiliya (1976); Ibrahim Yaro Muhammed, Wakokin hikimomin Hausa (1974); and Mudi Sipikin, Tsofaffin wakoki da sababbin wakoki (1971).

8. An early example is `Abdallh an Fodiye's Nam al-wus, a versification of M. ibn-Ysuf as-Sans's al-`Aqda al-wus, completed on 6 August 1792. The manuscript can be found in photocopy at the University of Ibadan's Centre of Arabic Documentation, CAD/42, and in the Africana Collection, Ib. 82/84. These two collections contain many more works of authors throughout the 19th century.

9. Qur'n 56:79.

10. The classical treatise is the book of Amad b. `Al al-Bn (d. 1225), Shams al-ma`rif al-kubr wa-la'if al-`awrif; cf. G. Anawati "Le nom suprême de Dieu," Atti del III Congresso di Studi Arabi e Islamici (Naples, 1967), pp. 7-58.