Paper given at Conference on Sharî`a in Nigeria
Spiritan Institute of Theology, Enugu
22-24 March 2001
Islam has been, and will be for a long time to come, one of the major challenges to Nigerians in the development of peace,
justice and prosperity in the country.
A survey of the history of Islam in Nigeria should examine how and why Islam has made the gains it has made. This
involves its attraction to the religious sense of the people, its political and economic advantages, as well as the factor of
coercion. Our survey also needs to observe which social classes were primarily affected by Islam and for what reasons,
and why others were not affected. Islam also has many different tendencies. The one that threatens us most is that of
violent intolerance. In our history we have to ask how and why this has taken root in certain circles.
Islamic presence in the territory now comprising Nigeria can conveniently be periodized by its orientation first to the
Sahara and North Africa, secondly to the Atlantic, and lastly its ubiquitous orientation in the period of independence.
The period of trans-Saharan orientation
Trans-Saharan trade opens the way
The raids into the central Sahara by `Uqba ibn-Nafi` in 667, told by Ibn-`Abdalhakam, (1) opened the route to Kanem and
Borno. In each town he raided `Uqba imposed a tribute of 360 slaves. From that time until the end of the 19th century, the
central African trade route specialized in slaves taken from the hinterland of Borno.
Later, `Uqba's grandson `Ubaydallâh ibn al-Habhâb made a raid across the western Sahara and discovered gold. The demand
for gold led to the emergence of the Ghana empire and the predominance of gold in the western trans-Saharan trade up to
the 11th century.
The Muslim traders lived in separate quarters that were a transplant of Muslim life in North Africa. Yet the Berbers of
Sijilmasa and Tahirt (in Algeria) adopted Khârijite Islam because it maintained racial equality against the Arabs who
considered themselves superior. They therefore easily interacted with West Africans and promoted a more or less tolerant
Islam. The Arab Sunni Muslims, however, who followed Mâlikî law, had reservations about dealing with West Africans.
al-Qayrawânî states, "Trading in hostile countries or in the land of the Blacks is disapproved." (2)
Initial Muslim separatism soon gave way to a freeer mixing with West Africans. The Muslim traders needed African
trading agents and associates and thus a community of African Muslims grew up around them. Trans-Saharan trade was a
stimulus for state-formation in sub-Saharan Africa. African kings welcomed the presence of Muslim traders in their midst
for several reasons: The Muslims brought the economic advantages of long-distance trade; these advantages would be
greater or surer if the king accepted Islam himself, since it gave him citizenship in the Muslim umma with equality and
brotherhood with his trading partners far away. He could then expect respect and trust from them in his dealings, putting
to rest al-Qayrawânî's warning about trading in the land of the Sûdân. As Islam gained ground, large scale marketing and
transport became a Muslim monopoly and this put pressure on traders to join Islam to become part of the club.
The presence of Muslim scholars was welcome also because they provided an important element in the infrastructure of
long-distance trade, namely, written communication in Arabic, the only international language of West Africa until the
introduction of Portuguese on the coast in the 15th century and French and English in the 19th century. This made it
possible to order goods from a distance and maintain a system of banking or credit. At the same time, Muslims provided
the civil service in the expanding Sûdân kingdoms, because their literacy made them the only ones capable of
administration. As Muslims literate in Arabic spread throughout the Sahel with the traders, there were few places of
importance where a traveller might not find an interpreter and an introduction to the local society, thus eliminating the
necessity of the "silent trade" between peoples of different languages.
Complementing or competing with the traditional religion, Muslim clerics had a wide selection of religious medicine to
offer, with specific prescriptions for every conceivable disease or any other problem of life, in the form of drink (with ink
washed from a slate with Qur'ânic writing), talismans to wear, prayers to say, or other things to do. The Arabic text of the
Qur'ân was looked upon as something powerful and beautiful itself, whose secrets could be mastered with patient study
and initiation, as could the secrets of the traditional religion. Islamic rites of worship were also attractive for Africans
because they were done in common and had an atmosphere of both dramatic festivity and seriousness.
Muslims tolerated, temporarily, a king accepting Islam and at the same time continuing to practice the traditional religion.
The king would want to straddle the fence this way because he was expected to be the father and high-priest for all his
people. If a significant number of them or even a few prominent citizens adopted a particular religion that did not threaten
his power, he would be expected to lead them in their religious practice, thus providing religious leadership to all groups,
and not allowing it to go into political opposition.
The kings found Islam a convenient support to their imperial authority, since it was a unifying ideology bridging the many
tribes and presenting them with a wider brotherhood, citizenship or nationality. This produced the phenomenon of "state
Islam", whereby Islam was controlled and used to promote the interests of the rulers.
A psychological factor disposing people to convert to Islam is the international experience of those involved in
long-distance trade. Traditional religion was bound to a village political system and culture with its local deities, spirits and
ancestors, whereas inter-tribal economic and cultural interaction required a corresponding universalist social, political and
religious structure. The Islamic view of the universe as governed by one God who is to be worshipped in one way by one
world-wide community of believers explains why its champions were primarily the merchant class and the clerics who
accompanied them. The farmers did not opt for Islam at all, and their rulers straddled the fence, since their interests were
balanced between the traditional local society and the wider world that commerce and empire exposed them to. Pastoral
peoples, like the Fulani, were as ambivalent as the kings, because of their attachment to the kinship bonds of their clans on
the one hand, and on the other their exposure to a wider society which their migrations put them in contact with. (3)
Accepting Islam would also give the king legal immunity from attack by other Muslims. Since raids by desert nomads
upon the settled farmers were very frequent anyway, (4) and raids by Muslims upon unbelievers was encouraged by religion,
according to the common belief of Muslims, a Sûdân king would have strong motivation to become a Muslim as a
pre-emptory defence against attack.
The military factor
Largely because of this last factor, the kings across the savanna, from Senegal to Lake Chad, finally declared for Islam in
the 11th century. This was the result of the Murâbit (Almoravid) movement among the Sanhâja Berbers, a religious-military
movement which resulted in an empire stretching from Senegal to Spain. The Murâbits were Sunni Muslims, with no
respect for the lives or freedom of unbelieving Blacks. They themselves did not engage in warfare against them, but they
and successor North African states armed and supported the new savanna Muslim states who waged jihâd against their
pagan neighbours and either converted them or made them slaves, selling large numbers of them to North African
The Mali and Songhay empires were the Western source of Islamic influence upon Nigeria. The Hausa states were late on
the scene. Although Malian emisaries had come to Kano in the14th century, only in the 16th century did these states come
into prominence with their kings' acceptance of Islam. Kebbi, as far as Mokwa, for a time was part of the Songhay empire,
and Katsina was a tributary state.
The Hausa states were drawn into the orbit of trans-Saharan trade by the slaves they had to sell, as a result of the constant
wars among the numerous Hausa states. Besides skins, such as the "Moroccan leather" which comes from Sokoto goats,
they possibly had some gold from the Akan fields through their traffic with Gonja for kola nuts. (5)
During the period of trans-Saharan orientation, from the 8th to the 16th centuries, Islam had come straight across the Sahara
to Borno where, from the 11th century it had Muslim kings. It also came to the Western savanna and, from Mali and
Songhay, radiated to the Hausa states which had Muslim kings from the 16th century.
The period of Atlantic orientation
The disappearance of empires and emergence of jihâd states
The Songhay empire ended in 1591 with the Moroccan invasion. Afterwards the Moroccans ruled Tinbuktu for some
time, while a variety of other small Muslim city-states continued to exist. But for a long time no empire came to replace
Songhay, as Songhay had replaced Mali and Mali Ghana. Why? The problem was not in West Africa, but in North Africa.
The main reason for the political decline of the West African savanna at this period was the Turkish occupation of most of
North Africa, starting with Egypt in 1517 and Algiers in 1525. The northern coast, from Egypt to Algiers, became part of
the Ottoman empire, which extended around the whole eastern and northeastern Mediterranean to the borders of Austria.
The Mediterranean itself was an Ottoman lake and a self-contained economic zone. The Turks in North Africa, who
controlled only the towns and land along the coast, were interested only in the Mediterranean world and Istanbul, leaving
the Sahara to the bedouins and their shaykhs. (6) Trade on a small scale, however, continued with Morocco (outside
Ottoman control) and the desert tribes, especially with Senegambia, which exchanged horses for slaves. (7)
With the northern terminus of the trans-Saharan trade cut off, the sub-Saharan empires had no other choice but to die to
die, that is, until the Atlantic trade provided a sufficient substitute to cause a revival. The coastal empires were the first to
be born: Benin, Oyo, Dahomey, Ashante, the major ones, while the jihâd empires of the interior followed once they were
touched by the reverberation of trade routes to the coast.
In the mid-18th century the pagan Bambara set up a state based in Segu which expanded towards the Senegal river to tap
its rich trading links with the Atlantic. Slaves were abundant in the Bambara states, and Muslim communities under
Bambara rule took full advantage of the opportunity to supply slaves to European trading posts.
As for the Muslims, the widespread situation of their living under pagan rule did not suit Muslim religious sensibilities. If
occasionally they were penalized for the practice of their faith, more fundamentally they lived in a permanent state of fitna,
a situation in which rule by a law other than Sharî`a constantly invited or permitted the common people to slip away from
Islam. Classical Islamic theory allows only two choices for Muslims under such a situation, either to revolt and establish an
Islamic state or to emigrate, making a hijrato a land where Sharî`a prevails. In either case leadership is required, and the
widespread expectation that amujaddid, a divinely guided reformer, would come at the turn of every Islamic century
prepared the way for accepting the leaders that presented themselves.
The economic side of a jihâd was the chance to set up a state in response to a market attraction. The Atlantic trade
stimulated supply routes going far to the interior, organized mainly by Mande speaking Dyula. The traders, according to
Jobson in 1621, had free recourse through all places even in times of war. They also had some independent bases, as did
the Dyakanke at Conjour. Besides these precarious arrangements, the combination of new trading opportunities and
religious motivation resulted in a series of jihâds and full-fledged states in the western Sudan.
There were the Zawâyâ in Senegal in 1673, Mâlik Sî in Bondu in the 1680s, the Fulani in Futa Jalon in1725, and in Futa
Toro in 1776. From around 1800 Ahmad established a jihâd state in Mâsina, and Umar from 1852 established the Tukolor
empire which covered most of the Western savanna. From 1870 Samori established a Malinke empire at the headwaters of
the Niger, covering much of present-day Guinea and Ivory Coast. Again in Senegal Ma Ba in 1861 led a jihâd among the
Wolof and Serer.
All the earlier jihâd states had their economic basis in exporting slaves to Europeans on the Atlantic. After this market was
abolished, there continued to be a good internal market for slaves, who produced legitimate export goods. (8)
The Sokoto jihâd and the fall of Oyo
These jihâd states set the background for the Sokoto jihad. This can only be understood by first considering the Oyo
Whatever may be said of Ife as the "cradle of the Yoruba" or the greater early importance of other Yoruba states, old Oyo
was the paramount Yoruba power from the 17th to the early 19th century. The capital, called Katunga in the time of
Clapperton and otherwise known as Oyo Ile, was dangerously exposed to Borgu and Nupe enemies. In spite of its
destruction in the 16th century it was reoccupied because of its commercial advantages which outweighed the risk its site
presented. (9) It lay within the savanna zone where horses could be kept for easy communication with Nupe, Borgu and
other Sudanic kingdoms to the north, with the forest kingdoms to the southeast and the coastal kingdoms of Ardrah and
Whydah which were accessible through a corridor of savanna reaching to the sea.
Horses obtained from Borno gave the Alafins the military capability to secure their borders against raids from Borgu and
Nupe and to consolidate and expand their territory towards the south. The Oyo heartland supplied foodstuffs, notably
grains and cattle in the northern parts and yams and palm oil in the southern parts, iron tools and weapons, pottery, and
cotton cloth. (10) Such tribute enabled the Alafins to maintain a staff and an army; the populace, in return, enjoyed security
and the prosperity generated by a wider market.
In the second half of the 17th century Oyo began to expand to the southwest, all the way to the coast. The savanna
conditions permitted the employment of cavalry, but the tsetse fly and the problem of providing fodder for the horses
prevented Oyo from permanently conquering or occupying widespread territory in the south. (11)Yet some colonization of
the coastal routes did take place, first in the Anago area, west of the river Yewa between Badagry and Porto Novo, at the
beginning of the 18th century, then in the mid-18th century in the north of Egbado country, and finally in southern Egbado,
including the towns of Ijanna and Ilaro. (12)
Oyo's first dealings with Atlantic trade were through the independent kingdoms of Allada, Porto Novo and Hueda (=
Whydah). Oyo raided Allada several times in the late 17th century, (13) presumably to secure better conditions for its own
trading activity. Trade continued to be hampered, however, because Allada and Whydah were at war with each other from
1712 to 1722, (14) and in 1717-18 they declared royal monopolies over the slave trade in their respective ports. This action
provoked Dahomey to annex Allada in 1724 and Whydah in 1727. (15)Dahomian control of these port kingdoms was a
threat to Oyo's interests, and Oyo responded in two ways. First, it campaigned against Dahomey from 1727 to 1730 until
Dahomey agreed to become a tributary state, keeping the whole of Whydah and most of Allada except Ajase (a Yoruba
name for Porto Novo). (16) Secondly, because of the recurring instability of Whydah and Allada, it developed easterly trade
routes leading to Badagry and Lagos through Egbado country.
If we look for the motive of Oyo's intervention in or occupation of these coastal areas we find different opinions. For P.
Morton-Williams, the reason is simple; it was to "participate in the coastal trade in slaves with the Europeans". (17) The
same opinion was expressed by R. Smith: "The Oyo had become by the late seventeenth century exporters on a large scale
of slaves for the Atlantic trade." (18) In spite of the evidence which these authors offer, I.A. Akinjogbin rejects this view
altogether. He says, "While Oyo would have derived certain economic advantages from its conquests, it does not appear
to have benefited much from the slave trade with the Europeans in the 17th century... For Oyo at that date the coast was
really a backwater." (19) Akinjogbin does, however, admit that Oyo was heavily engaged in slave trading in the late 18th
century. (20) He says: "The Oyo derived their wealth largely from the export of slaves, a trade which, since the beginning of
the reign of Abiodun, seems to have been the main prop of Oyo economy." (21)
The more recent work of Robin law argues more closely the case that Oyo's expansion to the Atlantic was motivated by the
slave trade. The witness of Dapper in the 1640s, as well as documents of 1723, 1727 and 1753, refer to the kingdom of
"Olukumi" (or one of its variants), meaning a Yoruba kingdom, likely Oyo, as a supplier of the considerable volume of slaves
sold through Allada. (22) This evidence confirms the theory that Oyo had little local economic advantage to gain by
annexing or exerting influence over neighbouring states towards the coast, since the products of these states were not
significantly different from those of the Oyo heartland (apart from salt from evaporated sea water), all these states being in
a savanna region. The only advantage of any consequence from this reach to the sea was the booming Atlantic trade.
The slaves sold by Oyo were from four different sources: 1) native criminals, who were not so numerous, 2) war captives,
who were the majority, (23) 3) slaves given in tribute by vassal states, such as Dahomey, who were not so many, and 4)
slaves bought from Nupe, Borgu and even the Hausa states and Borno, especially in the late 18th century. Adams
(1786-1800) refers to the large numbers of Hausa slaves for sale at Porto Novo. (24)
Oyo paid for slaves and horses from the north with European goods obtained from the coast, particularly cowry shells, but
also iron bars, cloth, earthenware, beads, rum and guns. (25) Guns, however, were not of much use in Oyo which relied
mainly on cavalry and did not know how to use firearms effectively. (26) On the coast slaves were almost the only
commodity the European traders were interested in, although Oyo may also have sold a little cloth, ivory and palm oil. (27)
The main beneficiaries of Oyo's economic system were the Alafin, the trading magnates and their hangers-on. The majority
farmer people benefited from the empire mainly because its peace and security permitted local markets to prosper. They
were not heavily taxed, since the Alafin got food supplies for his retainers and the army from farms run by slaves. Ordinary
people also could obtain imported iron for tools and cloth in exchange for kola and palm oil. Some found their fortune by
joining the army or becoming retainers of big traders. As a powerful middleman between the north and the Atlantic, Oyo
had to maintain an efficient trading complex which we could name "Oyo Incorporated".
The jihâd which `Uthmân Dan Fodiye launched in 1804 to conquer large tracts of northern Nigeria had the religious
motivation of purifying the ruling society from its casual attitude towards Islamic practice and its continued patronage of
traditional religious practices. We can accept the fact that this was `Uthmân Dan Fodiye's motive for jihâd. Nevertheless
this does not exclude economic or social motivations, but rather presupposes them, since Islam purports to be not only the
right way to God but also the right formula for economic and social success. The all-inclusiveness of Islam makes Muslims
expect that its establishment will bring a better and more prosperous society and a greater enjoyment of the goods of this
life as well as those of the next. We may draw a comparison with the hajj, where along with its spiritual benefits, a pilgrim
can also legitimately aspire to come home richer, either by trading on the way or by God's special favour.
In the Sokoto federation, however, where slave raiding was important, slaves were used in much greater numbers to
augment the population of the emirates and thereby increase local production and revenue for the aristocracy. (28) Export of
slaves, nevertheless, was also important, both across the Sahara throughout the 19th century and to the Atlantic up to the
middle of the 19th century when the Atlantic slave market ceased to function. (29) The wars among the Hausa states, while
contributing to the slave market, in reality prevented the development of this market to any considerable extent, because
the fighting made the long-distance trade routes unsafe and prevented the tapping of richer slaving grounds further off,
especially in Bauchi and Adamawa, where pagans could be enslaved without any religious scruple. Any slave dealer could
see the advantage or necessity of uniting Hausaland and the surrounding areas into a single commonwealth, so that traders
and slavers could move freely. We can assume that these traders would be prepared to support any jihâd that promised to
effect the desired political unification. (30)
The jihâd of `Uthmân Dan Fodiye answered perfectly the aspirations of the slave dealers. Except for occasional rebellions
which the Sokoto authorities had to repress, security for trade movement was assured throughout the emirates. Raids
were systematically carried out against the "Middle Belt" pagan areas which provided all the centres of Fulani rule with a
rich supply of slaves. What was done with these slaves?
It seems the bulk of the slaves were absorbed locally, either in the cities for crafts or military service or in slave farm
villages, increasing the population and prosperity of Hausaland. (31) These slaves adopted the Hausa language and the
Islamic religion, and are estimated to have constituted the majority of the population of Sokoto and Kano. Exact statistics
are not available, but a rough estimate of this high number is furnished by the literature written by the Fulani of the period,
testimonies of European travellers, oral tradition and some studies of the city populations made at the beginning of the
Only newly captured slaves or refractory old ones were normally sold for export. Yet the number exported was
considerable enough for slaves to become a standard currency in Hausaland and the surrounding areas, replacing cowries
for any larger transactions. (32) Many slaves were exported through the Atlantic market. No doubt the profits and value of
this trade in the late 18th century were well known in commercial circles of the north, since northern Muslim traders
constantly frequented the routes to the coast. The same traders could report the advantage of securing control of these
trade routes and integrating them into the Sokoto caliphate once this was established. Thus, in spite of their proximity,
Sokoto and Gwandu made no serious attempt to conquer Argungu or the remnants of Gobir north of Illela. (33) On the
contrary, all efforts were expended for a thrust to the sea, by a Muslim-Fulani take-over of Nupe and Oyo. Successful coups
were engineered in both these states, mainly through the agency of local Muslim forces, but also with some assistance to
Ilorin from Gwandu, the headquarters of the western part of the caliphate. The jihâd thrust to the south certainly catered to
the demand for a workforce in the Caliphate heartland. But Samuel Johnson's phrase, "to dip the Qur'ân into the sea", (34)
summarized the attraction of the Atlantic market.
The mercantile party of the Sokoto confederation had every interest in pushing the conquest to the coast, since from the
beginning of the 19th century until 1830 the Atlantic slave business actually increased. This was the result of increased
demand from Brazil, Cuba and Southern United States, in spite of the stop of the slave trade by the British in 1810 and the
French in 1815. (35) The Atlantic slave trade dipped sharply after 1840, until it was completely stopped by 1860. So the
thrust of Sokoto to the sea was frustrated not merely by the intervening independent states and later British interference,
but more importantly by the evaporation of the major economic motive. Expansion to the coast was also blunted by the
rise of independent states in the former southern dependencies of Oyo, such as Ibadan, Abeokuta and the coastal city-states, so
that the southern end of the trade routes was still subject to the exactions of middlemen and periodic instability and
Slaves were also exported across the Sahara. Once the jihâd was consolidated, the Sokoto confederation rivaled Borno for
the trans-Saharan trade. Trans-Saharan trade increased throughout the 19th century, in spite of the growth of European
trade on the coast. (36) Trans-Saharan slave exporting thrived, especially after the Atlantic slave market vanished.
Yet the attraction of the Atlantic was later renewed because other advantages became apparent. One of these was the
supply of firearms, which in the 19th century became not only more common but also indispensable for survival. Even
after the British imposed their rule on the whole of modern Nigeria, the heirs to the Sokoto establishment continued to
show concern for the route to Lagos and took every available means to assure that it remained open and secure for their
The ongoing jihâd conducted by the emirates of the Sokoto federation was a systematic slave-gathering operation. Most
slaves were absorbed internally. But it is no accident that the Sokoto jihâd began at a time when the promise of a rich
slave-exporting economy looked brightest, and that the extremities of the jihâd farthest from Sokoto were on the one hand
the slave grounds of Adamawa and on the other hand the outlet routes controlled by Oyo.
Unfortunately for Sokoto ambitions, just as its hold on the North was consolidated and Oyo destroyed, leaving no major
obstacle to the sea, European demand for slaves ended. So the Sokoto confederation confined its attention to the North
and the Sahara until trade in other commodities sparked its interest in the Atlantic once more. (37)
The colonial phase
In the colonial period of Nigeria Islam was favoured by several factors: The first was the pax Brittanica which permitted
Muslims and everyone to move freeling throughout the country in pursuit of trade or livelihood. Muslims were thus able to
build mosques and interact with local people throughout the country, even though the system of sabon gari isolated them
somewhat from the local culture. This was not the same for Christians, who were free to move around the country, but
were restricted in building churches in Muslim areas and their priests were forbidden to evangelize Muslims.
The second was the system of indirect rule for the north of Nigeria, that is, the former Sokoto and Borno empires. The
closure of the Atlantic slave market explains the relative atrophy of the Sokoto caliphate in the second part of the 19th
century, so that it had little power to resist a British take-over. Instead of sweeping away these Islamic governmental
systems, as the French did in their territories, the British propped them up and increased their authority. This was notable
especially in areas, such as the Middle Belt, where most of the rural people were not Muslims
Outside the caliphate, Islam already had a foothold in Etsako and the Niger-Benue confluence area because of Nupe
raiding, and was present in the Yoruba towns along the route to Lagos, such as Ogbomoso, Oyo, Ibadan, Sagamu,
Ijebu-Ode and Abeokua. Hausa slaves in these towns became integrated in the social and political life of these towns, and
many of the chiefs declared themselves Muslims, although they continued to be actively involved in the traditional religion.
In these areas Islam came to symbolize the preservation of Yoruba identity against the intrusion of British culture. For the
same reason, many Yoruba Muslims resisted Western education and this left the Muslim community at a disadvantage
compared with Christians who were more progressive and successful in areas where education counts.
While northern Islam has been firmly reformist and separatist with regard to anything non-Islamic, Yoruba Muslims have
been more accommodating. The Yoruba people are first of all Yoruba, secondly Muslim or Christian and lastly Nigerian,
so that in one family you can find both Muslims and Christians and some involvement in the traditional religion. But
Yoruba Islam is more complex than it first appears. The liberated slaves returning from Brazil brought a rather progressive
Islam, and their descendants have not only distinguished themselves in their personal careers, but also have led the way for
development within the Muslim community. In the colonial period they led the way in building mosques, noted for their
Portuguese-Brazilian style. (38) Yoruba Islam is not organized by the local government as it is in the north. Consequently
there are innumerable societies that are the proprietors of mosques, and each has its own ideological orientation and style.
There are the Lanose and Bamidele movements which reject anything western and whose men wear turbans and beards,
while their women wear ileha or a black shroud covering everything, including their faces. There is the Ansar ud-deen
which is also conservative, but promotes Western education. And there are branches of the Muslim Students Society and
various other youth groups influenced by Saudi Wahhabi ideas calling for a reformed purist Islam.
There is little information about religious change during the colonial period, but it is a fact that Christian schools attracted
many conversions of Muslim students in the south of Nigeria. The only requisite in these schools was for all the students
to take classes in religious instruction and to attend opening school prayers. Conversions occurred where parents had no
objection or even encouraged their children. Some of these converts later reverted to Islam, while most Muslim students
retained their religion together with an appreciation of their education, including the familiarity they acquired of the
Throughout their colonies, the British were careful to limit Arabian influence which could stir up an Islamic insurgency.
The number of pilgrims was limited and official contacts were moderated. Independence changed that. To reward the
north for their cooperation and compliance, as opposed to the agitation for independence in the south, the British made
sure that the heirs of the Sokoto caliphate controlled the Northern Region. And the Northern Region was considered to
have the majority of the population, so that it could rule the Federation alone. (39)
Consequently the First Republic was headed by Tafawa Balewa, a northern Muslim. But real power was held by Ahmadu
Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of the Northern Region. 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.
In spite of this blow to the Church, Islam did not grow, and Christianity saw a new and rapid expansion in the north. The
temporary absence of a huge southern population in the northern towns permitted the Church to concentrate on the
millions of people who had not yet opted for Islam or Christianity. The Church's success was phenomenal, since now most
of these people are Christian. In the south as well, in spite of the loss of schools, and partly because of a rise of pentecostal
evangelism, Muslims continue to convert to Christianity.
Northern Muslims, however, continued to hold the reigns of government and make things difficult for the Church. 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.
Yar'adua in the background seemed to hold the real power. 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.
In the background to these political events, Abubakar Gumi, the influential spiritual heir of the Sardauna, was mentor to
the Izala society (Jamâ`a izâla al-bid`a wa-iqâma as-sunna).. These both espoused Saudi Wahhabism and spread
intolerant views and action, not merely against Christians, but also against traditional Muslims who belonged to the popular
Sufic brotherhoods, the Tijaniyya and Qadiriyya. (40) They were for full Sharî`a, not as enacted or administered by a
Nigerian government, but as the supreme and only law of the Islamic umma, which was their true nation. (41)
With the death of Gumi, the Izala dwindled and the radical side of Islam was captured by the Shî`ites, led by a one-time
student in Iran, Ibrahim Zakzaki. He did not press specifically Shî`ite tendencies but rather rallied people to the
sovereignty of an Islamic community ruled only by Sharî`a. The Nigerian nation meant nothing to him. His followers were
actively confrontational and he was imprisoned for sedition. His followers then became more violent and, together with
women with babies on their backs, assaulted police stations, even while being mowed down by machine gun fire. This
movement was an embarrassment for the northern Muslim establishment.
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.
Another radical manifestation of Islam was the Maitatsine movement, which erupted in Kano in 1980, in Maiduguri in
1982, in Jimetu in 1984 and Gombe in 1985. Much has been written about this movement, but there is virtually no first
hand information on what it and its founder stood for. Muslims were embarrassed about it and attributed all sorts of
heterodox beliefs and practices to it, but I have never seen an interview of a Maitatsine member on what the movement
stood for. I see it as a recrudescence of Khârijism, an egaltarian movement that holds that anyone who is unfaithful to the
practices of Islam has abandoned Islam and should be fought or killed. This phenomenon resurfaces in Muslim society
whenever there is widespread social injustice.
The 1979 election of Shagari, which many called a "selection", ensured a northern leadership committed to the promotion
of Islam. In the 1983 re-election, Muslim leaders openly called on Muslims to vote only for Muslims. Although he was
overthrown by a coup on 1 January 1984, the army leadership of Buhari, Babangida and Abacha continued to promote
Islam, even though their personal lives were unconstrained by Islamic restrictions. Babangida stirred up a hornet's nest by
introducing Nigeria to "full membership" in the O.I.C. (42) 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. 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. (43) Both Abiola and Obasanjo attracted the strong but long suppressed Hausa
opposition once led by NEPU and Aminu Kano.
Obasanjo, 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, on 24 February 2001 he went to Cairo to attend a meeting of
the "G8", another grouping of Muslim states (Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh)
which Abacha brought Nigeria into in 1997. (44)
The Sharî`a cause, always supported by Saudi Arabia, has long been 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
The proponents of Sharî`a in the north are loud in emphasising that Sharî`a is only for Muslims. They cannot be sincere,
because it is well known that the Sharî`a which they propose contains many provisions discriminatory against Christians.
Harassment of Christians in the North has been on the increase. Christians are fully sensitized to the danger Sharî`a poses
for them, since full Sharî`a puts them firmly in a second-class status in society. The case of St. Dominic's Church, Dashi,
outside of Gusau, is a case in point. The governor broke into the church and declared it an Islamic school. Under criticism
from CAN, he denied that he did so. Then the church was quietly destroyed one night. The Zamfara government defended
this action on the false basis that all the people there had become Muslims. (45) Besides frustrations of their right to
worship, Christians are forced to abide by the Muslim code prohibiting alcoholic beverages.
There is considerable debate within the Muslim world about the meaning of Sharî`a, and many Muslims are opposed to the
variety that is advertized by Saudi Arabia and pushed in Nigeria. (46) They see the Saudi call for God's rule as opposed to
man's rule as the antithesis of democracy. This is because the slogan "God's rule" is really a cover for rule by the Sharî`a
professionals, who dictate their interpretation of God's law, rather than allow people to follow their own conscience.
Moreover, religious people have yet fully to realize how religious agitation is often a cover for other non-religious
interests, such as economic, political and ethnic causes. (47) It may be that Nigerian Muslim society, like Iran, needs a heavy
dose of Sharî`a to get a taste of what it is really like. Then, as now in Iran, there will be agitation to throw off the rule of
Nigerian Islam first came with trade and ideas across the Sahara, then the Atlantic commanded attention with trade and
new ideas from Brazil, Europe and Ameria, finally, with Independence, Islam has a global exposure. Satellite TV and
internet open the most closed Sharî`a harems to a world of ideas, not all of them good. But interaction and consequent
evolution are inevitable.
1. Translated in chapter 3 of my Spread of Islam through North to West Africa (Lagos: Dominican Publications, 2000).
2. Risâla, n. 43.150, translated by Joseph Kenny (Minna: Islamic Education Trust, 1992).
3. Cf. Robin Horton, "On the rationality of conversion", Africa, 45 (1975), 219-235, 373-399.
4. Ibn-Khaldûn makes this nomadic habit almost a law of history; cf. The Muqaddimah, tr. F. Rosenthal, ed. N.J. Dawood (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), pp. 91-122.
5. Cf. Paul E Lovejoy, Caravans of kola. The Hausa kola trade 1700-1900 (Zaria: A.B.U. Press, 1980).
6. Cf. N. Levtzion, "North-West Africa: from the Maghrib to the fringes of the forest", Cambridge History of Africa, vol. 4, pp. 145-6 & 151.
7. Cf. James L.A. Webb, "The horse and slave trade between the western Sahara and Senegambia," J.A.H. 34 (1993), 221-246.
8. On the institution of slavery in Africa, both domestic and for export, see Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in slavery. A history of slavery in Africa (Cambridge U.P., 1983); P. Lovejoy & Nicholas Rogers (eds.), Unfree labour in the development of the Atlantic world (Frank Cass, 1994).
9. Cf. R. Smith, "The Alafin in exile", Journal of African History, 6 (1965), pp. 57-77.
10. Cf. R. Law, op. cit., pp. 201-205.
11. Ibid., p. 198.
12. Ibid., pp. 92-93 & 238; cf. also Kola Folayan, "Egbado to 1832: the birth of a dilemma", Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 4 (1967), pp. 15-34.
13. Cf. Law, pp. 93 & 238.
14. Cf. Akinjogbin, "The expansion of Oyo", p. 391.
15. Cf. Law, The Oyo empire, pp. 219-220.
16. Cf. Akinjogbin, "The expansion of Oyo", p. 397. For a general picture see R. Law, "Dahomey and the slave trade: reflections on the historiography of the rise of Dahomey", Journal of African History, 27 (1986), pp. 237-267.
17. P. Morton-Williams, "The Yoruba kingdom of Oyo", p. 37; cf. his "The Oyo Yoruba and the Atlantic trade".
18. R. Smith, Kingdoms of the Yoruba, p. 45.
19. Akinjogbin, "The expansion of Oyo", pp. 386-387. J.F.A. Ajayi & R. Smith, in Yoruba warfare in the nineteenth century (Ibadan, 1971), pp. 124-125, also try to minimize the fact and role of slave trade in Yoruba country.
20. Ibid., p. 409.
21. I.A. Akinjogbin, "The prelude to the Yoruba civil wars", Odu, 1:2 (1965), p. 28; cf. his "The Oyo empire in the eighteenth century - a reassessment", Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 3:3 (1966), p. 457.
22. Cf. R. Law, The Oyo empire, p. 219 and note 127.
23. These were from Oyo's northern and western neighbours, according to Law, who disputes the assertion of Morton-Williams that they were from Ekitiland. Morton-William's opinion is repeated by J. Smaldone, Warfare in the Sokoto Caliphate (Cambridge, 1977), p. 41.
24. John Adams, Remarks on the country extending from Cape Palmas to the River Congo (London, 1823), pp. 221-222; cf. also pp. 78 & 82-95; cf. Law, The Oyo empire, pp. 225-227.
25. Cf. Law, The Oyo empire, pp. 225, 227-228.
26. Ibid., p. 188.
27. J.F.A. Ajayi & R. Smith, Yoruba warfare in the nineteenth century (Ibadan, 1971), pp. 124-125; see also Paul E. Lovejoy, "Interregional monetary flows in the precolonial trade of Nigeria", Journal of African History, 15 (1974), pp. 563-585.
28. Cf. Paul E. Lovejoy, "Plantations in the economy of the Sokoto caliphate", Journal of African History, 19 (1978), pp. 341-368.
29. Cf. J. Smaldone, Warfare in the Sokoto Caliphate, pp. 12 & 147-149.
30. Cf. W. Rodney, "Jihâd and social revolution"; "African slavery and other forms of social oppression on the Upper Guinea coast in the context of the Atlantic trade", Journal of African History, 7 (1966), pp. 431-443; A. Bathily, "La traite
atlantique des esclaves et ses effets économiques et sociaux en Afrique: le cas du Galam, royaume de l'hinterland Sénégambien au six-huitième siècle", Journal of African History, 27 (1986), pp. 269-293. For the viewpoint of the present
Sokoto establishment, see Y.B. Usman, The Sokoto Caliphate, the Sokoto Seminar Papers (A.B.U. for the Sokoto State History Bureau, 1979).
31. Cf. Paul E. Lovejoy, "Plantations in the economy of the Sokoto caliphate", Journal of African History, 19 (1978), pp.
341-368; J. Hogendorn, "The economics of slave use on two plantations in Zaria emirate", The Int. J. of African Historical Studies 3 (1977), 369-383; D. Tambo, "The Sokoto caliphate slave trade in the 19th century", The Int. J. of African Historical Studies 3 (1976), 187-217.
32. Cf. Paul E. Lovejoy, "Interregional monetary flows in the precolonial trade of Nigeria", Journal of African History, 15
(1974), pp. 563-585. E.A. Ayandele, in Nigerian historical studies. London: Cass, 1979, ch. 4 "Observations on some social and economic aspects of slavery in pre-colonial northern Nigeria", contests the importance of slave trade to the Sokoto economy.
33. S.A. Balogun alleges Sokoto-Gwandu tension as a reason; cf. "The place of Argungu in Gwandu history", Journal of the historical society of Nigeria, 7 (1974), pp. 403-416.
34. The history of the Yorubas (Lagos, 1921), p. 288.
35. Cf. Flint, "Economic change", p. 392.
36. Cf. J.E. Flint, "Economic change in West Africa in the nineteenth century", p. 390; H.A. Gemery & J.S. Hogendorn, "The Atlantic slave trade: a tentative economic model", Journal of African History, 15 (1974), pp. 223-246; L. Brenner,
"The North African trading community in the nineteenth-century Central Sudan", ch. 7 in D. McCall & N. Bennett (eds.),
Aspects of West African Islam; Marion Johnson, "Calico caravans: the Tripoli-Kano trade after 1880", Journal of African
History, 17 (1976), pp. 95-117, and "By ship or by camel: the struggle for the Cameroons ivory trade in the nineteeenth century", Journal of African History, 19 (1978), pp. 539-549.
37. For more on the situation of slavery in the Sokoto caliphate, see Paul E. Lovejoy & Jan S. Hogendorn, Slow death for slavery. The course of abolition in Northern Nigeria, 1897-1936 (Cambridge U.P., 1993).
38. Cf. Folaranmi Taiyewo Lateju, Mosque structures in Yorubaland: their evolution, styles and religious functions, Ph.D. thesis, University of Ibadan, 1999.
39. The literature on the politics of Independent Nigeria is vast. One book to consult is Bola Ige, People, politics and politicians of Nigeria, 1940-1979 (Ibadan: Heinemann, 1995).
40. Cf. Y.A. Quadri, "Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya relations in Nigeria in the 20th century," Orita 16 (June 1984), pp. 15ff.; "A study of the Izala, a contemporary anti-Sufi organisation in Nigeria," Orita 17 (Dec. 1985), pp. 82ff.
41. On various Muslim and Christian radical movements in Nigeria at this time, see Pat Williams and Toyin Falola, Religious impact on the nation state (Aldershot: Avebury, 1995).
42. Cf. J. Kenny, "The O.I.C. in Nigeria: the press debate," Shalom 4:3 (1986), 130-150; "Sharî`a and Christianity in Nigeria: Islam and a 'secular' state," Journal of Religion in Africa, 26:4 (1996), 338-364; chapter 2 of Views on Christian-Muslim relations(Lagos: Dominican Publications, 1999).
43. On 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).
44. On this and other moves to islamize Nigeria since 1973, see Omo Omoruyi, writing in theVanguard and the Guardian of Friday, 16 March 2001.
45. Cf. The Punch, 23 Feb 2001, p. 9.
46. Cf, for example, Sayyid Ashmawi, Islam and the political order (Washington D.C.: C.R.V.P., 1994).
47. Cf. Yusufu Bala Usman, Yusufu Bala, The manipulation of religion in Nigeria 1977-1987 (Kaduna: Vanguard, 1987); E.E. Uwaizie, Inter-ethnic and religious conflict resolution in Nigeria (Lanham: Lexington Books, 1999), with chapters by J. Kenny and Ihenyi Enwerem.