Boko Haram: What’s in a Name? [Updated]

I’ve been thinking about how best to translate the names of the Nigerian sect known as Boko Haram.

Boko Haram

The sect’s unofficial, Hausa name – “Boko Haram” – comes from remarks by the sect’s late leader Muhammad Yusuf. This name is often rendered in English “Western education is forbidden.” That translation sacrifices some potential nuance and depth.

“Haram,” in Arabic and in Hausa, could be translated not just as “forbidden,” but as “something forbidden according to Islamic law and precepts.” This is the phrasing in Paul Newman’s A Hausa-English Dictionary. Translating “haram” as “Islamically forbidden” represents a middle ground between a one word translation and the longer phrase.

“Boko” is trickier. It can certainly mean “Western education” – this is the first definition Newman lists – but it can also refer to the Romanized Hausa script. There is some debate over the word’s etymology. Some say that “Boko” is a corruption of the English “book,” which would link the word strongly to educational contexts. Others say the word is of Hausa origin and means fake or deceitful, and appears in contexts other than just education. Some add that the usage of “Boko” in reference to Western education – even before the “Boko Haram” sect appeared – connoted a feeling that Western education could mislead Muslims into accepting false knowledge (including the feeling that Western education could serve as a gateway for Christianization).

Regardless of etymology, more than just education is bound up in the word “Boko.” The phrase ” ‘yan boko,” where ” ‘yan” means people, could be translated, “people/representatives of Western education,” i.e., people who have graduated from Western-style educational institutions. But the phrase could have a broader, cultural connotation – “people who operate within Western-style frameworks and institutions” or “representatives of Western culture” or even “Westernized people.” The idea of ‘yan boko, at least in the ways I have heard it used, also carries a connotation that these people are elites – that their particular credentials and experiences have placed them in positions of power because they can navigate Western-style institutions.

Put that all together, then, and you have “Boko Haram” meaning something like, “Western culture is Islamically forbidden” or “the Westernized elites and their way of doing things contradict Islam.” Recall that in addition to attacking Western education, Yusuf also forbade Muslims from working for secular governments.

Ahl al Sunna li al Da’wa wa al Jihad

Turning to the group’s official, Arabic name, we have “Ahl al Sunna li al Da’wa wa al Jihad,” or if you want the phonetic rendering, “Ahlussunna lid-Da’wa wal Jihad.” Let’s break that down word by word:

  • ahl=people
  • al Sunna=the normative tradition or model of the Prophet Muhammad
  • li=for
  • al da’wa=the call to Islam
  • wa=and
  • al jihad=jihad

Recently, the translation “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad” has spread widely. I think this translation conveys the sense of the meaning, but it misses a few nuances.

First, the translation takes the word “sunna” from the second position in the phrase and moves it to the penultimate spot. What you lose then is the compound meaning of “Ahl al Sunna.” That smaller phrase is one synonym for Sunni Muslims (“sunni” being the adjectival form of “sunna”). It is a fairly common phrase used by Salafis to describe themselves – the Salafis I met in Kano, for example, did not refer to themselves as Salafis or Wahhabis, but as “Ahl al Sunna wa al Jama’a” – “the people of the Prophetic model and the Muslim community.” But one must be careful – non-Salafi Muslims, including Sufis, can apply this phrase to themselves as well – as with, for example, a prominent Sufi militia in southern Somalia.

Given its appropriation by Salafis in the Nigerian context, Boko Haram may use the phrase “Ahl al Sunna” partly to affirm its own Salafi identity, and partly to reference its break with the “Ahl al Sunna” circle around the late Shaykh Ja’far Mahmud Adam of Kano (d. 2007). Shaykh Ja’far was at one time a teacher of Yusuf, but he publicly denounced Yusuf when Yusuf began to forbid Muslims from working for secular governments and pursuing Western-style education.

If we keep the phrase “Ahl al Sunna” intact when we translate Boko Haram’s name, we end up with something subtly different, something that emphasizes the Salafi identity that is a part of Boko Haram’s self-definition. We could translate the sect’s Arabic name as, “Salafis/Sunnis for Preaching and Jihad” – with “Salafis” being a somewhat neutral term imposed by the outside analyst, and “Sunnis” being, again, the adjectival form of the name the group calls itself. This is a tricky choice to make, because certain translations can imply tacit agreement with the sect’s claims to represent the Prophet Muhammad’s true legacy. The sect members might even wish us to translate their name as “Orthodox Muslims for Preaching and Jihad.”

Further variants: If “preaching” does not capture the full sense of a “call” embedded in “da’wa” (and, honestly, it doesn’t), we could try, “Salafis for Calling People to Islam and Engaging in Jihad.” Going a step further, my own preference, increasingly, is to leave as many complex terms untranslated as possible – perhaps that would leave us, then, with something like “Salafis for Da’wa and Jihad.”

Conclusion

There is no definitive way to translate either the unofficial Hausa name or the official Arabic name. I have experimented with these translations mostly out of intellectual interest in the translation problem, but I do want to reiterate a key point about each name:

  • Hausa: “boko” can signify more than just Western education, but also the broader cultural values and social positions that access to Western education can bring.
  • Arabic: the phrase “Ahl al Sunna” emphasizes Boko Haram’s self-definition as Salafis, i.e. as people who belong to Salafi traditions and employ particular methods of interpreting and applying Islamic scriptures.

UPDATE: Dr. Paul Newman, in a 2013 article available here (.pdf), conclusively (at least to my mind) settles the etymological questions around the word “boko.” From his conclusion (p. 11):

Hausa boko does not mean ‘book’ and it is not derived etymologically from the English word book. The phonetic and orthographic similarity between the two is purely coincidental. They are what the French call “faux amis” (“false friends”). The accidental similarity in spelling between the two words has no historical significance other than having served to lead us astray, where “us” includes political and social commentators with a modicum of knowledge about the Hausa language, as well as a host of well-regarded Hausa linguistic experts. We were all hoodwinked. Whereas the idea that boko came from book looked plausible from the outside, it was really shallow on the inside. In other words, we were all victims of biri-boko (‘monkey-fraud’)! Despite the many assertions regarding the etymology of Hausa boko reported above, the fact is that boko is a native Hausa word, originally meaning sham, fraud, inauthenticity, and such which came to represent western education and learning, and NOT a loanword coming from English book.