Of Abiola Irele and Mustapha Zuglool: An evaluative engagement with two literary traditions

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Nigeria currently mourns two literary giants of different traditions. One of them is Abiola Irele, renowned Professor of French and African Literature and the other, Shaykh Mustapha Zuglool, a world-class and arguably the most prolific traditional Arabic literary writer in Southwestern Nigeria, after Shaykh Al-Iluriyy.

While Abiola Irele passed on in faraway Boston in the United States of America on the Saturday, July 1, 2017, Mustapha Zuglool breathed his last in Lagos on Wednesday, July 5, 2017. Incidentally, they both passed on, around the ripe age of 80. It is noteworthy that teaching, writing and public presentations are among the several common denominators in the two literary icons. While Abiola Irele had his roots in the Western literary tradition which he explored and exploited to the fullest in France, Spain, Italy, United States of America and other parts of the globe, Mustapha Zuglool attained both eminence and prominence in the estimation of worthy Arab and non-Arab Arabic scholars and was able to earn acceptance and reverence in the consciousness of men with elegant learning and sophisticated scholarship.

He penetrated and bestrode like a colossus several hitherto impregnable learned arenas in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia during their heydays and zenith of Arabic literary glory.

The news of their deaths was received with heavy hearts, gloomy faces and melancholic looks, at least, in some quarters. Rain of tributes and encomiums has trailed the passage of these uncommon literati and towering scholars. Also, there have been commiserations with their relatives, friends, associates, students and acquaintances.

However, while Abiola Irele’s scholarship and literary achievements find central place in the condolences attracted so far by his death obviously owing to the nature of his legacy and bequest, such utterances as “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rāj’ūn” (meaning, from Him we are and unto Him is our return); “Odaju n’Iku” (meaning, soul-taking agent is callous), “Imo lo” (meaning, scholarship is gone, the learned one is lost), have since assumed a clicheistic fashion in the expression of the bereavement occasioned by the transition of Mustapha Zuglool.

But, what exactly does this portend for Arabic literary scholarship in Nigeria? This question shall be engaged shortly. For instance, Odia Ufeimun called Professor Irele Egbon Teacher while Niyi Osundare characterized his death as a product of a conspiracy between serendipity and fate which ultimately culminated in “a combination of astonishment and eye-popping bewilderment” whereas to Biodun Jeyifo, Irele may be well viewed through the lenses of Africa in the World and the World in Africa.

How on earth can one appreciate the literary scholarship of Abiola Irele or any of his contemporaries like Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimu, Biodun Jeyifo, Femi Osofisan, or Kole Omotoso without situating it appropriately in the scholarship of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, or Christopher Okigbo? It is not out of place to remark that no critical evaluative undertaking concerning Shaykh Zuglool and his contemporaries among scholars could not be well understood by Arabic scholars with skewed learning.

However, the versatile ones shall find no strain in decoding and comprehending the variables involved. In a similar token, we may not determine well the worth of Wole Soyinka until his literary scholarship is situated in that of Neil Simon, Peter Abrahms, Leroi James or James Baldwin. It is unfortunate that the Arabic literary tradition in Nigeria is immature as yet in this reckoning. This obviously is strongly connected with the quality of Arabic learning around us. Across the border, Taha Hussain, Mustapha Rafii, Abbas Mahmood Aqqad, Najeeb Mahfuz, Shakeeb Arsalan, Zaki Mubarak and other notable and international award-winning literary icons of the Arab world have taken on one another in what culminated in publication of several volumes.

Accordingly, it should be pointed out that a scholarship can be bad, it can be sub-standard, it can be a failure, and can even be non-sensical. But, have Arabic scholars in contemporary Nigeria been developed well enough to cultivate a good taste or valid instrument for this? This explains why literary criticisms bring about both enmity and animosity. It was through a critical literary undertaking that we determine the degree of J. P. Clark’s indebtedness to T.S. Eliot especially with regard to his indirect allusions or portrayal of the Greek vision of tragedy. Similarly, what makes Chinua Achebe’s first three novels namely Things Fall Apart, No Longer At Ease, and Arrow of God, somewhat repetitive as kinds of sociological document maynot be figured out and deciphered without situating the works in the expansive work of other African writers. No judgmental view of Amos Tutuola or Cyprian Ekwensi can be meaningful without a reference to his literary cohorts. Abiola Irele was unrepentantly critical of Soyinka and we are quite aware of Odia Ofeimun’s The Poet Lied, in connection with J.P. Clark. While this is also the case in the Arab world, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and others, where Arabic writers are already winning Nobel Prizes, a large section of the traditional Arabic scholars are still heavily soaked in the tradition of “Don’t insult my shaykh” and hold rather unrepentantly to their belief in the literary infallibility of such shaykhs! I resist the temptation to digress further.

An elaborate intercessory prayer session was held in Lagos for the repose of his soul, on Saturday, July 8, 2017. Yes, there have been commiserations from various quarters. Although, there were a particular short but biographical note and few appreciable attempts at offering an Arabic elergy on him, on Facebook, this towering scholar and public intellectual has not been rewarded in death, as yet, in a measure that is commensurate with or approximate to his worth especially with regard to his own rewards or tributes to his teacher and other benefactors, at their funerals.

There also has not been an unambiguous articulation of the place of Shaykh Zuglool among his contemporaries. The closest to this was Prof. Lakin Akintola’s statement on the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), on Friday that “Shaykh Zuglool shared the same pedestal with his teacher, Shaykh Al-Iluriyy”. Yet the revered Professor’s view may not be generally acceptable as accurate altogether, as shall be demonstrated shortly.

Also remarkable in this connection were the words of the Director of Markaz, Shaykh Habeebullah Al-Iluriyy who made stunning revelations in his impressive tribute to Shaykh Zuglool on the occasion of the third day intercessary prayer session held at Daru-d-Da’wah, as noted earlier. In his remarks, Shaykh Habeeb impressively underscored the coveted place of Shaykh Zuglool anong the students and disciples of Al-Iluriyy. Yet, the enviable rating of the scholarship of Shaykh Zuglool among leading scholars of his time seems obscure or totally obliterated in all those interventions. The purpose of the present piece is therefore to locate the Shaykh in the universe of Arabic Islamic scholarship and offer a deserved framework for a scholarly engagement with the present bereavement.

Accordingly, Shaykh Zuglool’s scholarship may be appreciated in the context of the scholarship of his teacher, Shaykh Al-Iluriyy, as well as that of Shaykh Kamaludden Al-Adabiyy and Shaykh Murtadha Abdus-Salam of Ibadan. Shaykh Ahmad Rufai Oke-Are shall be exempted from this list in view of the fact that the reign of Shaykh Zuglool’s teacher, Al-Iluriyy did not commence until far after his (Shaykh Ahmad.Rufai’s) demise. Besides, Shaykh Ahmad Rufai did not establish a modern Arabic school as was the case with the other three. In order to attain a considerable level of engagement with the subject of this piece, I shall categorise the activities of these leading traditional Islamic leaders to eight foci namely teaching, preaching, sermonisation, prosification, versification, local history, political comments, international relations analysis.

In specific terms, I shall demonstrate how Shaykh Zuglool fell short of attaining or matching the performances of his three senior contemporaries in four of these foci. I shall equally demonstrate how he surpassed their achievements in three foci and competed rather casually with one of them on a particular front. The ultimate purpose here is to highlight where Shaykh Zuglool matched or overtook any or some of them and expose where he failed to meet their achievements.

The best teacher award may be a matter of contestation among the trio of Al-Adabiyy, Al-Iluriyy and Abdus-Salam. An easy way of determining this is to assess the quality of their students, at the time of their transition. It is obvious that there were few professors and several Ph.Ds among such students, in the case of each of them. There also were numerous public Islamic and Arabic scholars. Prof. Musa Ajetumobi and Prof. Abdul-Ganiyy Oladosu are among the notable university professors of Adabi orientation while Prof. ‘Deremi Abubakr and Prof. Murtada Bidmos are among professors of Markazi background whereas Prof. Muhib Opeloye and Dr. Isa Ade Bello are just two of the numerous graduates of Ma’had, to become university professors. The highest ranked of Shaykh Zuglool’s is no more than an Associate Professor in a Nigerian university. There are two other ones at the rank of Assistant Professor (Senior Lecturer) in two foreign universities. There is yet another one who is a Master’s degree holder and an Assistant Lecturer in a Nigerian university. Although there are four or five other Ph.Ds among them, some of them cannot stand shoulder to shoulder with those established academic scholars enumerated earlier. The issue involved here may even be settled by considering that one of the students of Al-Iluriyy, Ishaq Oloyede, is immediate past Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ilorin and current Registrar of the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board (JAMB). It may also be settled by reckoning that the students of Al-Adabiyy out-number those of any of his peers in public service and the professions, especially in Kwara State and its environs. Shaykh Abdus-Salam recorded almost the same level of achievement through his enviable representation by his students in public service and the professions across the Southwest and are already a force to reckon with in the politics of Oyo State.

The best preacher award may be earned by Al-Adabiyy! Sermonisation may be subsumed under preaching which has both a purpose and a culture. He arguably is closer to the preaching tradition than the other three who also attained varied degrees in public recognition and acceptance. This claim finds support in the ubiquitous nature of his students among the reputable public Muslim preachers in Southwestern Nigeria. Where content and character of as well as commitment to preaching count, Al-Adabiyy is much likely to tower higher than his peers in the traditional Islamic setting. Al-Iluriyy who arguably ranked next to him in this regard was indubitably head and shoulders above the trio in both prosification and versification. He wrote many Arabic books to compete with the sand of the seashore and also had to his credit several Arabic poetical compositions. Yet, Al-Iluriyy was more of an essayist and prosifier than a poet and versifier. It is remarkable that there is a wide gab between him and the man in the second position who was Mustapha Zuglool. The quality of Al-Iluriyy’s first position as a writer may be better appreciated if viewed against the backdrop of the fact that the second man is very rich in prose but was not known to be a notable contributor to poetry. Besides, an author of only seven books may not be considered as a credible match to one who published more than twenty books and several booklets.

Although Zuglool’s sermons and public presentations are characteristically rich in literary value, a sound evaluative examination may not position him shoulder-to-shoulder with Al-Iluriyy especially in connection with the volume of such outputs. However, wherever impact factor really counts, Zuglool may emerge a better and more effective user of the language.

For instance, one can easily recall the impact of his presentation at Al-Iluriyy’s funeral in 1992. Equally memorable was his earlier epoch-making performance at the 40th Anniversary of his alma mater, in 1990. Mental pictures of over one hundred instances of such presentations come to mind at this juncture. It should be pointed out that these are evaluative remarks that may not be well understood by scholars who are bereft of skewed learning. I must hasten to remark that Shaykh Murtadha Abdus-Salam was by all standards the best of them all in Islamic Jurisprudence and Arabic Syntax! None of the trio was known to have ventured so boldly and confidently in pronouncing on technical questions on these two subjects in the manner in which this revered man of learning did. He, in fact, had had course to deconstruct and reconstruct Al-Iluriyy specifically on a juridical matter, at a session held in Ibadan and attended by the two of them alongside their students and other leading Yoruba Islamic scholars and imams, as captured in a video clip in the possession of this writer. The present writer who pupilled to Zuglool, hopes to further underscore and elaborate upon some of these dimensions in an Arabic book to be published soon.

For the wheel to come full circle, the three areas where Mustapha Zuglool’s prowess and achievement surpassed the attainments of all the traditional Arabic scholar of his time are local history, political comments, and international relations analysis. I am not familiar with any Arabic scholar, dead or alive, in the Southwestern geopolitical zone of Nigeria, who engaged with any of these three foci – which seemed to Zuglool as a set of conjoined triplet – with a more incredible dexterity. I stand to be better educated on this assertion. The outstanding nature of his performance in these areas lies in his effortless recollection of casual allusion to, as well as appropriate application of historical, political and global facts and figures, with an incredulous accuracy and precision. Instances of this are numerous in his life as a public Islamic intellectual.

I am also not familiar with any of his contemporaries that is close to his level of usage of Standard Arabic. I must hasten to clarify a possible ambiguity by stating that the scope of the claim covers only traditional Arabic scholarship. I certainly am not oblivious of the fact that it is not impossible to find better users or writers of Standard Arabic in the Southwest let alone the northern parts of the country. Such eminent Arabic scholars may be found in the academic setting in the North. However, I am not familiar with any of such scholars in the field of Arabic in any university in the Southwest. I am also not familiar with any scholar of that intellectual stature and linguistic status in Lagos and its environs, whether in the university academic or traditional Arabic setting, excepting, of course to an arguable extent, a particular genial Yoruba-speaking Professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies!

To be more specific, no Yoruba-speaking Arabic writer has demonstrated an equal virtuosity in pen portraits, handling of ideas and images, admixture of prosification and versification, overtones and undertones.

Now that Mustapha Zuglool is gone, who is that Islamic scholar that is left to take us on historical excursions across Yorubaland especially where religio-cultural and socio-political history is required? Who is that versatile Yoruba-speaking shaykh that is left to provide us some Islamic-based critical perspectives on political events as they unfold in Nigeria? Who is that public Islamic speaker of Yoruba ancestry capable of offering us eye-opening analyses on international relations in connection with the Middle East? Who is that Yoruba traditional Islamic leader left to address us in Standard Arabic in an impromptu but creative and elegant fashion? Who is that Nigerian traditional Arabic Islamic scholar capable of arresting the attention of his audience and holding them spell-bound, through the instrumentality of his presentations.

These are among the uncommon characteristics of Shaykh Mustapha Zuglool. These are what make him towering and unique. These indeed are some of the areas that should be highlighted while mourning him. Let’s immortalize how beloved literary icon by composing elegant prose and verse as intercessory prayers and elegy. An uncommon wordsmith deserves all that and more. What Professor Francis Abiola Irele did in French and English was what my teacher, Shaykh Mustapha Zuglool Sunusi recorded in Yoruba and Arabic. Nigeria and the world of scholarship have lost the duo at about the same time and age. What a coincidence! Adieu!

• Ahmad Rufai, (Ph.D Curriculum and Pedagogy; Ph.D History and Security Studies; Ph.D in-view Comparative Literature), is Dean, Faculty of Education, Sokoto State University).

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