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Sufism and Boko Haram in Nigeria: 10 Years on – Mawlana Dr Muhammad Ashraf E Dockrat

August 4, 2019


Sufism and Boko Haram in Nigeria: 10 Years on

by Mawlana Dr Muhammad Ashraf E Dockrat 

LanCSAL: University of Johannesburg  

Volume 7 (2019), Number 12 (August 2019)

Muslim-Christian relations in Nigeria is marred by the insurgency of the Boko-Haram who, since 2019, have separatist aims to establish an Islamic state in the region. It is not only inter-religious co-existence that has been the first victim of this plague, but also intra-religious relationships have suffered.

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. Nigeria has an estimated population of 194.746 million. According to a 2001 report from The World Factbook by CIA, about 50% of Nigeria’s population is Muslim, about 40% are Christians and about 10% adhere to local religions. With the largest Muslim population in sub-Saharan Africa, Islam has adherents in the north and a number of followers in the southwestern Yoruba part of the country. The Hausa ethnic group in the north is mostly Muslim, while the Yoruba tribe in the west is divided among mainly Christianity, Islam and traditional religions. The Igbos of the east and the Ijaw in the south are predominantly Christians (Catholics) and some practitioners of traditional religions. Other minority ethnic groups are to be found in the middle-belt of Nigeria. They are mainly Christians and members of traditional religions with some converts to Islam.

Abubakr Shekau, the leader of the the Salafi Boko-Haram group and Abu Usamah al-Ansari the leader of the Ansaru conservative faction of the Boko-Haram have focused on overthrowing the Nigerian government. They first emerged in 2009, and after defeats in 2015 during the West African offensive by a coalition of Nigerian led African and Western countries, they retreated to the Sambisa Forest and Lake Chad regions. Internal opposition to Shekau’s leadership emerged and a group called “Islamic State’s West Africa Province” (ISWAP) emerged. Shekau aligned his group with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in March 2015. Shekau’s leadership was challenged and a violent split emerged which resulted in the faction led by Shekau being referred to as the “Boko Haram” and those loyal to Abu Musab al-Barnawi linking to the ISIL and calling themselves ISWAP. After a period of defeat, Boko Haram and ISWAP launched new offensives in 2018 and 2019 and made some gains. President Muhammadu Buhari promised to put an end to Boko Haram and despite his claim that the armed group has been “technically defeated”, his army has struggled to contain the violence. According to al-Jazeera’s Eromo Egbejule (30 Jul 2019), “The fight against Boko Haram has been beset by many drawbacks, including delays to military funding and reports of extrajudicial killings by the army, which has led to the US government refusal to sell weapons to Nigeria.” He writes: “Borno state, like every other conflict zone in the world, is full of sadness and happiness – gut-wrenching stories one day and awe-inspiring stories the next day,” said Abubakar, the photographer.”

Sufism and Sufi tariqah’s (confraternities) are found mainly in Northern Nigeria. There are a few Shiah’s in Nigeria but the majority of Sunnis are either Wahhabi or Sufi. The Ikhwani (Muslim Brotherhood) also have a following amongst the middle class and professionals. There are two Sufi brotherhoods: Qādarīyyah and Tijāniyyah and Ilorin is home to both these Sufi tariqahs. Sufi leaders will back Christian presidential candidates instead of a Shia president or politician.

On Tuesday 23 July 2019, Nigerian troops and police clashed with Shi’ite Muslim protesters in the capital Abuja. Shi’ahs, under the flag of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) marched in protesting against the continued detention of its leader, Shaykh Ibrahim Zakzaky, who has been in detention since 2015, despite a court ruling that he be released. On the 22 July at least three people – including a journalist and senior policeman – were killed in a similar confrontation in Abuja. The death toll on Monday 22 July 2019 could have been at least 10. The army has used live ammunition and tear gas and there is the fear that IMN might turn to violent insurgency as did Sunni Islamist group Boko Haram after police killed their leader, Muhammad Yusuf, in 2009.

The Qādarīyyah order spread as a result of the influence of the charismatic leader Usman dan Fodio (r.‎1803–1815) who led a revolution in the 19th Century. Here Sufism became a practical way to institute political change and reform. Qādarīyyah have projects built around education with nursery, primary and secondary schools, and a college that is accredited to award diplomas. All classes are co-educational which is unusual in Northern Nigeria. Tijāniyyah scholars have also established educational facilities and promoted literacy and the study of the Qur’an amongst children and adults alike.

The tariqahs are concerned about the radicalisation of their people and engage with federal, state and local government. They have a good media presence and their leaders appear on television and radio. In this way they are able to continue fostering the respect that they have enjoyed over the last two centuries. As descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), they are seen as legitimate leaders.

Sufism in Nigeria can be traced to the 15th century. In the 1804 Usman Dan Fodio declared war against an oppressive and un-Islamic government. It took five years for Dan Fodio and his followers to bring most of the city-states in northern Nigeria, southern Niger and the western part of Cameroon under his wing. He established the biggest Islamic empire in the history of West Africa since the Songhai Empire of the the 15th century.

The strength of Uthman Dan Fodio’s Sokoto Empire was not its military or political power, but rather its broad-based socio-political system. Due to this version of the polity, Sufi Islam became more ingrained into the personal and public lives of the populace.

It was only in the 1970’s that Salafism, which was bankrolled by petro-dollars began to gain prominence in Nigeria. Mucahid Durmaz in an article titled “The Unknown Side of Boko Haram: How a Salafi Group Spread in Historically Sufi Northern Nigeria” writing in The New Turkey (24 February 2018) has this to say: “Essentially, social and economic developments, such as high population growth and rapid urbanization, helped Salafi thoughts to be planted in society. From 1960 to 2015, the country’s population quadrupled from 45 million to 182 million people. According to figures published by the World Bank, the number of people in urban areas also skyrocketed from just 6 to 87 million in the same period. The population boom in urban areas brought with it a huge number of young people who didn’t have traditional Sufi education. These socioeconomic developments undermined the traditional Sufi establishment and formed a basis for new religious movements and scholars to emerge.”

Salafi scholars such as Abdulkadir Gumi and Izala a popular Salafi organization publicly questioned and criticized Sufism and in fact, Izala and were able to reach large audiences. Degenerate Sufism also opened itself to criticism and middle-class Muslims were attracted to the Salafi da’wah (call). The Salafi movement was faced with factionalism and Boko Haram led by Muhammad Yusuf who preached his message from an Izala religious centre founded by Ja’far Mahmud Adam.

Durmaz also points our that it was in the 1980’s that “the city of Maiduguri, which is the capital city of northeastern Borno state, became a center for Salafi groups just in less than two decades. The city was where Adam – the Salafi scholar who hired Muhammed Yusuf into his network – was based, and where Boko Haram was born.” Abubakar Shekau, in a widely publicised video is seen, firing an AK 47 and pronouncing takfir (as heretics) the Naqshabandi Sufis and others.

Those who call for an Islamic state and shari’ah law will do well to learn from their own history and appreciate the way that Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodio was able to marry the tariqah with a reformist agenda based on the welfare of the masses.

4 August 2019


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