On Arabic in Northern Nigeria and Breaking the “Muslim=Arab” Equation

I’ve felt more aware recently of how some people see the Middle East as the “core” of the Muslim world, and other Muslim population centers as less relevant to Islam and even less “Islamic.” The equations “Arab=Muslim” and “Muslim=Arab,” which many people seem to accept, are hard to break. Certainly Mecca is the ritual center of the Muslim world, and Arabic the language of the Qur’an. But this does not mean that non-Arab Muslims are second-class believers, that they are less versed in Islamic sciences, or that they are less central to the trajectory of Islam in the contemporary world.

Arabic grammar is one of the classical Islamic sciences, and I think it is especially important to point out that many non-Arab Muslims can more than hold their own in this area. I think many students of Islam who have not traveled to sub-Saharan Africa might be surprised at the high standard of Arabic that some African Muslim scholars possess. During my field research in Northern Nigeria I routinely met people who spoke flawless Arabic (fusha, typically), even people who had never left Nigeria. This does not mean that advanced Arabic literacy is widespread among the population – although many people possess some ability to, at a minimum, sound out Arabic writing – but people with an advanced religious education, including advanced training in Arabic, are not rare.

One anecdote may help demonstrate the depth of such people’s command of Arabic. In Arabic textbooks in the United States, you will often find that what we call in English the “passive voice” is called in Arabic “al mabni lil majhul,” a classical grammatical term that translates, “the construction for the unknown [subject].” I was sitting with a friend one day when the term came up. He ventured that the “passive voice” would be better rendered “al mabni li ghayr al musamma bihi” – “the construction for the subject that is not named.” After all, he pointed out, just because the subject is not named does not mean that it is unknown. Maybe that won’t seem like a big deal to you, but it blew my mind. This man’s knowledge of Arabic was so deep, and he had spent so much time thinking about the grammar of the language, that he was able to point out an untenable assumption in a common grammatical term. I would put that man up against nearly any native speaker, or grammarian, and expect his knowledge of Arabic grammar to equal or surpass theirs.

How do such people get to that advanced level? Oftentimes, even for people who have university degrees (as he does), what we might call “traditional education” has given them a strong foundation. In the US, we frequently view memorization by rote as the lowest form of learning. We exalt “critical thinking,” as though one can think critically without a foundation comprised of details – details that must be memorized. We also tend to read widely, reading many texts, instead of deeply, reading one text closely or repeatedly. In Northern Nigeria, the memorization of texts is widespread, as is their close and repeated study. Grammarians in the region will often study in depth, and possibly memorize, texts like the Alfiya of Ibn Malik. That memorization can bring a powerful command of the language, especially in its classical form.

The memorization of the Qur’an itself can also offer a tremendous grounding in Arabic. A professor from Maiduguri (which is, or was, renowned as a center for the memorization of the Qur’an), told me once about an impromptu competition he had held in Syria between Syrian students and a few Nigerians who were there. The competition was to write out the fatiha – the opening sura of the Qur’an – from memory without making mistakes in voweling and other linguistic features. He said that the Nigerians were able to reproduce the Qur’anic text perfectly, while the Syrians stumbled. One may disbelieve the story, but it at least shows the confidence that he felt in Nigerians’ command of Arabic and of scripture.

There is much more to say on the subject of outsiders’ perceptions – and the realities – of the depth of religious commitment and religious knowledge among Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa. I plan to return to the subject. But I hope these quick anecdotes have shown that just because a Muslim is not an Arab does not necessarily mean that their Islam – or their command of Arabic – is second-rate.


6 thoughts on “On Arabic in Northern Nigeria and Breaking the “Muslim=Arab” Equation

  1. I’d guess that the general mistaken assumption of Islam = Arab stems from both the origins of Islam, economics and recent history (which are very closely tied together).

    Obviously Islam is spread across all of the continents now, but just as Roman Catholicism it originated from a region and thus, again like Roman Catholicism, will have a cultural association with that region. That association is strengthened because the center of the Ottoman Empire was in Turkey which, while not Arab, is still Middle Eastern*.
    After that the Middle East has been a major site of conflicts and political tension both among the peoples and nations of the Middle East and the great powers outside the Middle East. Consequently it features much more often in the minds of outsiders than Nigeria, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia or other nations and regions do and so when we think of Islam we immediately remember the latest big news about it, probably having to do with the Middle East.

    In other words an easy, and unfortunate, mistake to make just as it is probably easy for a Saudi Muslim to hear the word ‘Christian’ and think of North America and Europe without thinking of South America or Africa. I remember being shocked as a boy when I was looking up facts on the Balkans and finding that Albania had a Muslim population.

    *And to be honest I don’t expect most people who aren’t Muslim to quickly remember the difference between Turks and Arabs.

    • Nicely said. I think a lot of people make the equation “Christian=of European descent” without thinking that through either.

  2. Here’s something odd out of Sudan. Reportedly the Sudanese military (including tanks) has carried out an operation in Khartoum to deal with an alleged plot by opposition leaders and military figures. Hard to say what it could be. As the article points out, protests have already weakened with the arrests of opposition leaders earlier. It might be a purge of unreliable military figures or perhaps there really was a plot (possibly from dissatisfaction over South Sudan and the Sudanese economy).

    Clearly the BBC has no idea, maybe a third or more of the article is repeating facts we already know about Sudanese-South Sudanese issues.


  3. I also think that the Muslims in the ‘borders’ are more innovative and think more deeply than the Middle East minority. Case in point: the abolition of slavery was taken up by Muslims in South Asia and Africa, whereas slavery was not outlawed in Saudi Arabia until the twentieth century! Granted, many of these Muslim majority countries are in harsh dictatorships and intellectual inquiry will always be dampened under authoritarian conditions. However, this should also make Muslims re-think Islamic “authenticity” when the so-called ‘upholders’ of Islam are simply reiterating the party line of an authoritarian tyranny.

  4. I would just comment that to be an Arab as defined by the prophet is to have learned or mastered the language, whereas to be Arabian would be to be ethnically from the Peninsula by that name. I would argue that these Nigerian scholars are in fact more Arab than the common ‘Arabs’ of the Middle East. Perhaps I’m wrong.

    Also, it’s interesting to note that the majority of the greatest Muslim scholars throughout history were not Arabian at all, although we would consider them Arab by the above definition. Gazali and Tabari are two that come immediately to mind.

    Thanks for writing and sharing this observation.

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