History is a living testimony to the fact that Islam in Bilad’u-Sudan has indeed come along way. In short, Islam is an integral part of the history of West Africa. As you are well aware, Sunni Islam is the dominant current that has found its way to West Africa since the emergence of the religion in the Arabian Peninsula. However, Shi’a Islam has only existed in pockets and clusters across Africa. That has been the situation until its massive gains lately with the eruption of 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, which was engineered by Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomaini.
The two broad doctrinal divisions of Islam have been around with us in Africa for centuries, except of course if someone is now going to erase the history of Fatimid Muslims in Egypt, a history that is responsible for even the birth of Al-Azhar University. The Fatimids were almost wiped off the historical map of Islam by the forces of Salaudeen Ayubi (the Kurd) who was in the neighboring Palestine to confront the crusaders. There are also the Shi’a communities of East Africa that have been with us since the Shi’a migrations from the Middle East as they ran away from the persecution of Omayyad Caliphs. In this article, however, I will be concerned with both the history and sociology of Islam in contemporary northern Nigeria, a region that has all alone been of a mosaic of faiths, characterized by plurality religions, doctrinal differences and variegated ideological formations.
As elsewhere described by Mervyn Hiskett, the elitist and exclusivist Qadiriyya Sufi Order, which has historically triggered the emergence of more populist and pragmatist Tijaniyya Sufi Order, is as old as Islam in Africa. Qadiriyya is one of the forerunners of West African Islam that inspired the growth and development of Islamic reform movements and revolutions in the 19th century. Islamic revolutionary upheavals have historically swept large swathes of land across Sahel West Africa. The Sokoto Jihad in Hausa land under the leadership of Sheikh Usmanu bin Fodio is one typical example. The ideological superstructure that nourished the Sokoto Jihad is drawn from Qadiriyya Sufi ideas with its Mahdist streak that motivated such a revolution in Hausa land. Since the conquest of Habe dynasties of the ancient Hausa kingdoms by the forces of Islamic Jihad, Sokoto was established as the new capital of what Murray Last described as Sokoto Caliphate. Henceforth, the city of Sokoto becomes the new spiritual nerve centre of the Caliphate or what is subsequently dubbed the Emirates of Northern Nigeria. Throughout the colonial period, the efforts of British colonialists to undermine the sovereignty of the Sultan or Caliph of Sokoto, as the case may be, did not much affected the spiritual significance of Sokoto, especially amongst the adherents of Qadiriyya Sufi Order.
The tombs of the Sheikhs, the founding fathers of the Sokoto Caliphate, appropriately named the Hubbare, has for more than one hundred years been attracting people magnetically to the place. It has become the centre of perennial visit of Muslims of Qadiriyya extraction from all corners of West Africa and beyond. On annual basis, Qadiriyya Muslims from all parts of Nigeria and Niger Republic have been coming for a mini pilgrimage to Sokoto to offer prayers at the Hubbare, and to seek Allah’s blessings through the agency of the wali (saint) that was buried there. A tradition has since been established in which Qadiriyya adherents would have to pay homage to the tomb of the saints of Sokoto at least once in a life time. I myself could vividly recall how Sheikh Nasir Kabara himself would make a detour to spend the night in our family house before proceeding to the Hubbare in Sokoto. That was between late 1960s and the 1970s. It used to be an annual event especially in those days. This is however the context of Sheikh Musal Qasuyin Nasir Kabara’s aborted visit to Sokoto. Sheikh Qasuyin is not new to such visits to Sokoto. Decades ago, he used to accompany his late father to Sokoto to pay his respect to the tombs of the leaders of Sokoto Jihad resting at the Hubbare.
For whatever curious reason, Sheikh Qasiyun was denied entry into Sokoto to visit the Hubbare. Heavily armed military personnel and mobile police were mobilized to refuse Sheikh Qasiyun access to the city of Sokoto. What could have been the reason behind the drastic measures adopted by Sokoto authorities? In the letter he couched in Hausa language, Sheikh Qasuyin Kabara claimed that for two months he made efforts to secure permission from the officials of Sokoto Emirate to pay visit to the Hubbare together with his followers, but to no avail. Authorities had refused to even respond to his phone calls. As usual with everything that borders on faith in Nigeria, Sheikh Qasiyun decided to damn the consequences by attempting to visit Sokoto without the express permission of the officials of Sokoto Emirate, as reckoned in his letter. On this journey, Sheikh Qasiyun’s followers mobilized slightly over fifty vehicles for the journey. He received the shock of his life when he met heavily armed mobile police at the entrance of the city of Sokoto. Worse, at the premises of the Hubbare a contingent of army personnel were stationed to prevent him from coming there. Sheikh Qasiyun alleged that he was denied access to the Hubbare by the officials of Sokoto Emirate Council because he and his followers were said to be professing Shi’a Islam. He was also said to be intent of violently forcing his way to the Hubbare. A charge he flatly denied elsewhere in his letter.
The letter also unequivocally expressed Qasiyun’s reservations on the conduct of the Sultan whom he has chosen to address directly. The opening section of the letter alluded to how the Emirate Council in Sokoto decided to take sides in the battle of supremacy raging between Sheikh Qasiyun and his elder brother Sheikh Qaribu Nasir Kabara. He proceeded from there to exhort the sultan to always investigate issues before he takes sides or jumps to conclusions. For the avoidance of doubt, Sheikh Qasiyun outlined three key components distinguishing his fundamental concerns in his proselytization activities. First, he describes himself as a specialist on the history of Prophet of Islam vis-à-vis the establishment of Islamic faith. He particularly calls attention to the spiritual proximity of the Prophet to the almighty God. In addition, he specialized in recounting the exquisite sterling qualities and impeccable virtues of the Prophet from authentic Sunni sources. Second, he sees himself as an indefatigable activist of Qadiriyya Sufi Order rather than the Shi’a he was alleged to have been. Third, he was not known to be someone who minced his words over the conditions of Muslims in Nigeria and other parts of the world. All these concerns, according to him, he inherited from his father Sheikh Nasir Kabara of blessed memory. So, if anybody sees Shi’ism in these concerns he should blame his teacher and father for giving him such orientation.
The next section of his letter was his unabashed defense of Shi’a Muslims and their creed. He wondered why the Shi’a Muslims in Nigeria were so hated to the extent of justifying their brutal dehumanization and killings. He posed a question to the effect that if Shi’a Muslims were so hated because of the allegation that they are in the habits of discrediting the companions of the Prophet of Islam, why were non-Shi’a creeds ignored in their own type of excesses? He further asked, how could any sensible person welcome those (their identity is not disclosed in the letter) that are also in the habits of raining torrents of abuse on the personality of the Prophet and his family or even the most compassionate God? How could anybody accept those kinds of people that would turn around to hypocritically claim the defense of the integrity of the companions of the Prophet? More so, he could not understand the rationale of a Sultan that would be running from pillar to post calling for inter-faith unity in Nigeria while at the same time ignoring the persecution of Shi’a Muslims, especially whenever their fundamental human rights as Nigerian citizens were violated, despite the constitutional guarantees of rights and liberties of all citizens irrespective of their choices of faith systems. He then concluded his letter with strings of advice to the Sultan on the need for him more than any other person in Nigeria to exercise justice and equity dispassionately in his handling of the affairs of all Muslims no matter their doctrinal differences.
Obviously, it is very difficult to fault the position of Sheikh Qasiyun in his letter to the Sultan of Sokoto. To begin with, as he categorically denied it in his letter, he is not a Shi’a Muslim or clergy. He is of course a thoroughbred Qadiriyya brotherhood member in the footsteps of his late father. However, authorities are a little bit edgy because of his style of preaching which, to them, sounds too Shi’itesque in its expression of the esteem and virtues of the Prophet of Islam and his progeny, which some latter-day Islamic denominations are not happy with at all. In fact, more than many scholars of his own kind, he establishes his justification exclusively from Sunni sources and references in his analysis of events in Islamic history. And in case we don’t know, Sufi Orders share lots of things in common with Shi’a Islam, at least in the adoration of the Prophet of Islam. We need to read more the history of our faith with open mind to understand the nature of what we think we are fighting, as he rightly inferred in his entreaty to the Sultan of Sokoto. Furthermore, if you can stop Shi’ism, you can as well stop some sections of Muslim from expressing their love for the Prophet.
To this end, I will join Shekh Qasiyun in saying that intimidation, persecution and threats of death cannot stop the spread of Shi’a Islam here or elsewhere. If that approach did not work in the past, I can’t see how it will work in the present. The earlier we understand this the better for everybody. If persecution were efficacious, it would have worked for Saudi Arabia against its significant Shi’a adherents in not just the Qatif region, but in Medina and Mecca. Again, now that our own kids are trooping into atheism en masse due to our refusal to be tolerant and broadminded, what are we going to do to them? Are we going to kill them, too? My dear people, intolerance and threats to ideas and differences are not going to take us anywhere. We should have understood that by now anyway.
Mr Liman is a professor of Comparative Literature and Popular Culture at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria
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