A Yoruba Muslim Leader Denounces Boko Haram

In July, I examined the Senegalese musician/cabinet minister Youssou Ndour’s statement that the Islamists who destroyed saints’ tombs in Mali were not real Muslims. I wrote:

I think such statements merit reflection on two levels. First, these statements challenge us to think about who is and is not a Muslim. As an outsider, I prefer to avoid taking stances on such issues, but we should at least question our assumptions and our habits. It is odd and tragic how we sometimes rush to question the purity of someone’s Islam when they wear an amulet or put up a poster of their sheikh, but we don’t question it when they shed blood.

Second, and closely related to the preceding point, we are reminded that talk of excommunication can cut both ways. Even as the media sometimes presents Boko Haram and Mali’s Ansar al Din as some kind of ultra-Muslims, some other Muslims feel that these groups have forfeited their claims to the faith entirely.

Today I am pondering another example of what might be called, in a non-technical sense, “reverse takfir” – ie, a case where a non-violent Muslim leader or group denies that members of a jihadi group are true Muslims. This case comes from the Yoruba-majority Osun State in Southwestern Nigeria. Sheikh Salahudeen Olayiwola, president of the Osun State Muslim Community (OSMC), spoke this week at a conference to mark the start of the new year in the Islamic calendar. According to This Day, the Sheikh “described members of the Boko Haram sect as non-Muslims, saying Islam means peace among the human race” and “urged the sect to stop tarnishing the good name of Islam for genuine Muslims.”

The comments caught my eye for a few reasons. For one thing, there is the issue of excommunication that I mentioned above. Other Americans sometimes ask me, speaking generally, “Where are the Muslims who are willing to denounce extremists?” And people sometimes ask of Nigeria, “Where are the Muslim leaders willing to openly denounce Boko Haram?” Here is an answer to both of those questions.

Second, I am quite ignorant of Muslim perspectives and practices in Yorubaland. I take the blame for that, of course, but my own ignorance reflects larger divisions in media and scholarship that we would do well to fight. The scholarly sub-field I work in, “Islam in Northern Nigeria,” by definition excludes, or tends to exclude, Southern Nigerian Muslims. In media and policy settings, moreover, we tend to speak of a “Muslim North” and a “Christian South” in Nigeria – as though there were not substantial Christian minorities in the North and significant Muslim populations (by some estimates, approximately 50% of the Yoruba) in the Southwest. Going further, I would argue that there is a lack of rigorous writing on Northern Muslim communities’ reactions to Boko Haram – which means that goes double for Southwestern communities’ reactions to the sect, which receive very little attention in media and policy discussions.

Finally, the story itself gives those of us who are ignorant of Islam in Yoruba communities a chance to diminish that ignorance. We can start with a look at Islam in Osun State. Readers may be interested to read about the  OSMC’s cooperation with the Christian Association of Nigeria in the political domain, but also about Muslim-Christian debates in the State concerning female students wearing the hijab. Readers may be further interested in this study of Muslims’ demands in Osun State for the creation of shari’a courts, and the ensuing compromise that established “shari’a panels” to handle personal status issues among Muslims. Already from these stories, we can start to see that Islam is not “de-politicized” among Muslims in Osun State, but also that the issues at play there respond to the local context, and might not fit easily into reductive models of what “Islam in Nigeria” is said to be.

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8 thoughts on “A Yoruba Muslim Leader Denounces Boko Haram

  1. Let me help a little here (as I live in Yoruba land).

    The flavour of Islam practiced in the South West is very different from that practiced in the North. This figure you quoted is barely known outside Osun state and the Yoruba people have a strong ethnic identity that cuts across both the Islamic and Christian communities.

    Yoruba people are extremely tolerant of other religions. I have colleagues who were born into Muslim homes and converted to Islam and a neighbour is Muslim but his wife is Christian and the children choose what religion to practice.

    What I described is very common in Yoruba land.

    Let’s get back to that figure. His words won’t carry much weight in the North because there is a common (unfortunate) perception among Northern Muslims that Yoruba Muslims “are not true Muslims”. (Yoruba Muslims are also targeted during religious violence in the North).

    In summary, one can’t really say that a single “Nigerian Muslim community” exists. Ethnic identities are very strong and Boko Haram is primarily seen as a “Northern” not a “Muslim” problem.

    • This pattern of interreligious coexistence among the Yoruba is something I have heard a lot. But I am eager to get an even deeper understanding. I am familiar with the Ansarudeen Society and the Ahmadiyya, etc, and I have read some of Stephan Reichmuth’s work on education, but I would like to learn more about associational life and Islamic education in the region.

      I definitely agree that it is appropriate to speak of Nigerian Muslims communities in the plural, not the singular. That should go for the north too, of course.

      • I agree that Nigerian Muslim communities (in the plural) exist in the North, but a major difference between the practice of Islam in the South West and the North is the attitude to Christianity.

        In the North, Christianity is seen as a “competitor” that must be opposed (even violently). On the other hand, Yoruba Muslims very comfortable with Christianity and have a “live and let live” attitude.

      • Frankly, those are stereotypes. I have a Muslim friend in the North who sheltered Christian friends in his house in April 2011, for example.

      • Alex,

        Its not a stereotype that Christianity is seen as a competitor in the North. You just have to live in both areas for couple of months to find out.

        And one more point: you are a Westerner so your host or friend will most likely be of good behaviour when you are around and give you a guided tour just to let you see those part of his culture he thinks will appeal to you.

      • Alex,

        I’m sorry, it is difficult to argue with the evidence. Facts are facts and the thousands of Christians that have died (I’m not talking about ethnic competition disguised as inter-religious violence – a topic for another day) for being Christian or simply going to Church suggests otherwise.

        Are there splendid people in Northern Nigeria? Absolutely, and I’ve met quite a few. I have also met splendid people in the South West and many Southerners prefer to stay there because the Yorubas are much more accommodating and much less prone to violence than Northerners.

        I actually live in Nigeria and try to be as open-minded as possible, but Gideon Akaluka was beheaded for “desecrating the Quran” in the 90s, Christianah Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin was killed for the same “offence” in 2007, Amina Lawal was to be stoned to death for “adultery”. The list is long.

        It is no coincidence that all these events occurred in Northern Nigeria.

  2. Probably, another way to look at it is the origin of Islam in the North and Southwest. Islam came to the Yorubas through the islamised Mali/Songhai Empire whereas in the North Islam has its origin direct from the Arabs via the Trans-Sahara trade.

  3. Pingback: A Yoruba Muslim Leader Denounces Boko Haram | OSUN DEFENDER

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