Mali’s Imam Mahmoud Dicko and the Northern Nigerian Salafi Ulama, Briefly Compared

As the tension grows surrounding the June 5 protest movement in Mali, the protesters’ most prominent leader – Imam Mahmoud Dicko – is the subject of new and in some cases renewed attention from journalists and others (see here for one recent profile – h/t Andrew Lebovich, who adds his own observations here).

One thing I’ve been thinking about with Dicko is the comparison, or mostly the contrast, between him and some of the northern Nigerian Salafi scholars I wrote about in my first book. Dicko and some of those figures – the late Jafar Mahmud Adam, the late Muhammad Auwal Adam Albani Zaria, Abdulwahab Abdallah, and others – belong to roughly the same generation, born in the 1950s and 1960s, and their careers all included time in Saudi Arabia, especially at the Islamic University of Medina.*

The two contrasts that stand out to me are (a) the relatively much denser field of prominent Salafi scholars in northern Nigeria versus Mali, especially Bamako; and (b) the more clearly pedagogical focus of the northern Nigerian Salafi scholars in comparison to Dicko.

That there would be more prominent Salafi scholars in northern Nigeria than in Mali makes mathematical sense. Say just for the sake of argument that there are 100 million people in northern Nigeria and 20 million people in Mali. One might expect to find five times as many major scholars in northern Nigeria than in Mali. Yet in Mali, there appears to be less than one-fifth of what one finds in northern Nigeria. In terms of fame and influence among Salafis, Dicko appears to stand in a tier by himself, with a sharp drop-off after that in terms of what other Salafi scholars have a mass presence; the name Ibrahim Kontao comes to mind, and there are a few others whose Friday sermons attract massive crowds in Bamako but who probably wouldn’t appreciate having their names published on this blog. Meanwhile, the northern Nigerian sphere is different not just quantitatively but qualitatively – northern Nigerian Salafi shaykhs have YouTube channels, Facebook pages, and a level of media presence that most Malian Salafi shaykhs appear to lack.

This brings us to the second difference: pedagogy. The major northern Nigerian shaykhs, even when highly active in politics and other domains, typically appear to keep a major focus on teaching, often teaching in a more or less classical mode of reading through entire books with students over long periods of time. There is even a Twitter account that I stumbled across recently consisting entirely of clips from Albani Zaria’s lessons, with some clips of Jafar Adam’s lessons as well – showing how the pedagogical dimension and the mediatization dimension intersect in northern Nigeria.

Now this is not a knock against Dicko, but it is not clear to me whether and how much he teaches. As you can see in the profile I linked to at the beginning of this post, there is no question that he has a solid scholarly pedigree and that he could teach – but unlike the northern Nigerian Salafis for whom teaching was not just a pursuit but also a core part of the infrastructure of Salafism in northern Nigeria, Dicko appears to operate less in that mode. Perhaps this is because he is too busy; again, there’s no other Salafi in his weight class in Mali, which probably reinforces what I take to be his absorption in organizational matters. He definitely gives Friday sermons, but this is different from teaching.

Admittedly, as I’ve mentioned here before, a good deal of the religious field of Mali lies outside my view; this may extend to my awareness of which books get taught, and by whom, in Mali – certainly an ability to deal with Hausa sources for northern Nigeria, and my inability to deal with Bambara, is probably making a big difference in what I pick up on and what I don’t. And Malian Salafism on the whole appears to be much less mediated than northern Nigerian Salafism, which also makes a big difference. But still – I haven’t found any videos on YouTube of Dicko teaching, whereas YouTube is replete with videos of the northern Nigerian Salafi scholars delivering lectures and courses.

A final question, then, concerns whether Dicko has clear successors or even close junior peers within the Salafi milieu. The question may seem absurd – anyone who can turn out tens of thousands to protest in Bamako must surely be grooming proteges, one would think. And yet Dicko, when stepping down as president of the High Islamic Council in 2019, appears not only to have been unable to impose a Salafi successor on the council, but not to have put forward a candidate in the first place. Perhaps that was a strategic choice, about picking battles, and not a sign that he lacks protégés, but it is striking that Dicko’s foremost allies and associates all appear either not to be Salafis or not to be shaykhs. Again this contrasts with the northern Nigerian milieu where, at least in my time in Kano, I had the sense that the Salafi scholars formed a real network, with both senior and junior members. And the pedagogical infrastructures in northern Nigeria gave aspiring star clerics a relatively clear path – study the books with the shaykhs.

*Albani Zaria perhaps never formally enrolled at the Islamic University – it is hard to tell from some of the biographies (Hausa) of him that circulate online; he at least studied with scholars in Medina.

2 thoughts on “Mali’s Imam Mahmoud Dicko and the Northern Nigerian Salafi Ulama, Briefly Compared

  1. You may need to visit the school built by the late Alhaji Zaria, interact more with his students and understand more about the pedagogy. His media presence, I think was informed by his passion for communication which led to his enrollment into the university to study Information and Communications Technology. The late Shaykh had a registered IT organization called SAFWA TECHNOLOGIES which was closed down by his disciples immediately after he was killed. A simple interaction with him (which I was opportuned to have) could have informed you alot about psychological differences that can tell more about his Fatwas and Dynamics.

    This is one major area that the late Shaykh Albani Zaria stood quite different from other Salafi Shaikhs in northern Nigeria. So, comparing them only on basis of simple pedagogical analogy and presence on social Media isn’t suffice. However, the piece is quite educative and well informed.

    Thank you

    • Thanks a lot, this is a great comment and very informative. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that all of the shaykhs are interchangeable – definitely there were/are major differences in their approaches.

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