Notes on Nigeria, Borno, and Qur’an Recitation Competitions

The other day a Facebook post from outgoing Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima caught my eye. In the post, Shettima’s office discusses the governor’s substantial gifts to Borno men and women who had won state, national, and international rankings at Qur’an recitation competitions. Such competitions can be major events in Nigeria and throughout the Muslim world – as you can see in the documentary “Koran By Heart,” which I show in some of my classes. The competitions often center on (a) thoroughness of memorization, e.g. the judges/moderators will begin a verse and then ask competitors to complete it, and (b) beauty/technical perfection of recitation.

Qur’an memorization and Qur’an schools in West Africa are an increasingly prominent topic of academic study, with recent books on the topic by Butch Ware (2014, on Senegal) and Hannah Hoechner (2018, on northern Nigeria).

Within Nigeria, Borno in particular has high repute as a center for the memorization of the Qur’an, and so it is no surprise to see the governor recognizing high-performing competitors from the state. Nevertheless, the gifts are notable, both the ones that competitors won outside the state and the ones that Shettima added:

The Governor announced the rewards on Monday [October 15] in Maiduguri when he received the participants, accompanied by members of the Qur’anic Competition Committee led by the Chief Imam of Borno, Imam Laisu Ibrahim Ahmed.

Beneficiaries of the scholarship award include; Al-Bashir Goni Usman who was last year’s 1st Position at the Kwara State Qur’anic Recitation Competition. He got 2nd Position at the International Competition held in Saudi Arabia where he was awarded SR100,000 (equivalent to N10,000,000), Amina Ali Mohammed who was this year’s overall winner in the female 1st category in Katsina State. She won a car (G.M.) costing about N4,900,000 and a cash prize of N500,000 by the Katsina State Government.

Others are Sale Abubakar Sale (1st position in male 4th category) who won a Hyundai car worth N3,600,000 and awarded N500,000 cash prize, Idris Abubakar Mohammed (2nd in the 3rd category recitation), who won one tricycle worth N600,000, a deep freezer, and N250,000 cash, and Aisha Hamidu (4th in 2nd category) who won a motorcycle worth N190,000 and a cash prize of N150,000.

The remaining six participants were given N50,000 each by the Katsina State Government.

Impressed with their performance, Governor Kashim Shettima directed the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education to process their scholarships immediately, adding that six of the remaining participants will get One Hundred Thousand Naira each.

Some quick comments, in no particular order:

  • The imam-ship is essentially hereditary in Borno. A eulogy for the current imam’s father, who may have been the longest-serving imam in Borno history, can be found here. In a way, an event like this showcases a kind of “government Islam” in Borno, where elected politicians and hereditary, largely traditionalist figures cooperate in an attempt to define and shape Islam for the public.
  • I really enjoyed Obi Anyadike’s recent African Arguments piece on a decline of Islamic religiosity in Maiduguri, but the attention Borno authorities are showing to this competition – and the strong performances Borno-ans are delivering in competitions in Nigeria and around the world – would be data points against that narrative.
  • Qur’an competitions attract participants from diverse backgrounds, including Sufis and Salafis. During my dissertation research in Kano I met two prominent brothers from the Tijaniyya Sufi order who organized Qur’an competitions through their schools.
  • Ja’far Mahmud Adam (1961/2-2007), the most prominent northern Nigerian Salafi of his generation, won a national competition and then placed third at a Qur’an recitation competition in Saudi Arabia in 1988 (see here, p. 5). These performances helped him secure admission to the Islamic University of Medina and helped accelerate his preaching career back home. So competitors who perform well are (a) sometimes positioned for success in religious leadership generally and (b) not just automatons with good memories; they can also have broader religious profiles and knowledge.
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