Islam in Nigeria: From Arabs and Berber Traders to Boko Haram

Amos Luka — November 12, 2021

The Nigerian context has six geo-political regions with religious variations. The religion of Islam that emerged in the Northern region of Nigeria in 1804 rejuvenates in the 21st century with similar religious features, even though reconstructed and supported by the religious ideologies of the contemporary Islamic fundamentalists. Islam and Muslims have a dominant presence in the Northern part of the country. The first Muslims were Arabs and Berber traders from North Africa and the Senegalese basin who came to Nigeria around the 9th century and introduced Islam. Substantially, Shehu Uthman dan Fodio (1754–1817), a Fulani devoted scholar of the Maliki school of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), introduced a so called Sunni Islam. Then in the 19th century, Dan Fodio launched jihad (Fulani Islamic War) in the Northern Region and successfully established the long-standing Sokoto Caliphate or Sultanate. Dan Fodio served as the first Sultan. He implemented sharia (Islamic law) and social reforms throughout his Sultanate. The reign of Dan Fodio ended with the emergence of British and French colonialism in 1903.

Today, the total population of Nigeria is estimated at more than 200 million, with Islam as one of its major religions. The country has the largest population of Muslims in West Africa. The 2018 International Report on Religious Freedom shows that the religious demographic of Nigeria consists of 49.3% Christians, 48.8% Muslims, and 2% indigenous religions. Remember that Muslims are dominant in the Northern region because Islam was started in the North by Uthman dan Fodio.

The Nigerian State recognized the Islamic sects that hold to the religious views of Sunni and Shiite. Sufism is also a reflection of the Islamic religious beliefs of Nigerian Muslims. According to the 2010 Pew Report, Nigeria has 38% Sunni Muslims, 12% Shiite Muslims, 5% unidentified or something else Muslims, and 42% “Just Muslims.” The Sunni Muslims include Sufi Muslims, i.e., Tijaniyyah (Sufi tariqa) and Qadiriyyah (Sunni Qadiri tariqa), Ahmadi Muslims, and the Izala society (JIBWIS), known as Jama’atu Izalatil Bid’ah Wa Iqamatus Sunnah (Society of Removal of Innovation and Re-establishment of the Sunnah). Therefore, religious culturalism in Nigerian Muslims’ religious views and practices is an existential reflection of Nigerian Islam.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, heretical groups like Maitatsine emerged. Muhammad Marwa Maitatsine, the founder of the group in Kano, a Northern State, claimed to be superior to the prophet of Islam. So, he opposed the traditional Islam that is widely practiced and doctrinally became antagonistic to other Muslims. In 1980, Marwa Maitatsine’s purported heresy led to his murder and the murder of other key leaders of the group. Hence, the elimination of the critical leaders of Maitatsine affected the existence and continuity of the group.

The rise of Christian-Muslim religious tensions and crises in the Northern region became the unfortunate standard of living. Christian-Muslim encounters emerged from mainly secondary and tertiary institutions through the activities of the Muslim Students’ Society of Nigeria(MSSN). The MSSN was founded in 1954 and became known for its defense of Sharia. Agitation on the implementation of Sharia in the Nigerian State by MSSN led to a widespread suspicion of an agenda of Islamization of the country.

In 1999, there was an acute rise in religious fundamentalism and tension, which led to the persecution of Christians. Islamic Fundamentalists implemented Sharia in Northern Nigeria and proceeded to burn down several churches and kill several Christians in religious crises, mainly in the Northern region.

Afterward, the trajectory of Islamic fundamentalism morphed into an Islamic religious movement called Boko Haram. The name is a derogatory name given because of their anti-Western education or westernization campaign. Boko Haram is a Hausa name which means Western “Education is Forbidden.” In its latent stage, the group was started in 2002 by an Islamic cleric named Muhammad Yusuf (1970–2009), who claimed to be a Sunni Salafist. Yusuf became a staunch defender of Sharia and opposer of bida’a (religious innovation/heretical doctrine). He opposed democracy, secular governance, westernization, in addition to specific aspects of science and reasoning. Yusuf countered anything that is against the Islamic injunction according to the Qur’an and sunna. Ultimately, he called for an Islamic State in Nigeria.

Boko Haram reached its escalation stage in 2009 when the Nigerian security forces killed Muhammad Yusuf because of his opposition and rebelliousness towards the Nigerian government and the constitution. His murder led to major guerrilla warfare between the Sunni jihadi-Salafists and the rest of Nigerian society. Afterward, Boko Haram was under the leadership of Yusuf’s lieutenant, Abubakar Shekau (1969–2021), who pledged allegiance to caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in March 2015. Boko Haram became an affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL). The name Boko Haram subsequently morphed into an affiliate of Islamic State of West African Province (ISWAP), which makes the group have a dual name. Hence, Boko Haram is known by its derogatory name and sometimes called ISWAP. Shekau was the first leader of ISWAP from 2015 to 2016.

ISWAP dethroned Shekau from leadership because of disagreement with his concept of takfir. Immediately, Shekau led a faction of Boko Haram that is not affiliated with ISWAP. He continued to lead the unaffiliated faction of Boko Haram and practiced takfirism. Takfirism is the ideology of declaring other Muslims to be apostate who deserve excommunication from the umma (Muslim community). Shekau acted beyond simply declaring other Muslims to be apostates by advocating for the assassination of takfirs. Shekau’s continuous ideology generates opposition from the faction of Boko Haram that affiliates with ISWAP known as ISWAP. This faction was under Abu Musab al-Barnawi (d. August 2021), who served as the spokesperson of the previous united Boko Haram. In a gun battle between ISWAP and Boko Haram, ISWAP overpowered Shekau and his fighters, so he killed himself by detonating a suicide vest on May 21st, 2021. Afterward, Bakura Modu known as Sahaba, took over leadership as a top commander of the unaffiliated faction of Boko Haram. He urges members of his faction to be committed and loyal to their religious ideology, even though they lost their historic commander, Shekau. The group is still committed and loyal to their religious ideology and practices, even though facing opposition by the ISWAP affiliated Boko Haram faction.

Today, Boko Haram is one of the most lethal terrorist organizations in the world. The characterization of Boko Haram emerged because of their Salafi jihadi ideology and modus operandi. First, they stand against other Muslims who do not support their religious ideology and accuse such people of takfirism. Second, they are against Christians and other indigenous religions and address them as kafirs. And third, they are against the Nigerian government and constitution because they are not in submission to Sharia. The impact of Boko Haram in the Nigerian State echoes into the world a nation with fundamentalist Muslims and Salafi jihadi Islamic religious ideologues.

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Thurston, Alexander. Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2016
Turaki, Yusufu. Tainted Legacy: Islam, Colonialism and Slavery in Northern Nigeria. McLean,
VA: Isaac Publishing, 2010.

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