I have a forthcoming article in the journal Politics and Religion, and the article is now available in “first view” online. Titled “Sectarian Triangles: Salafis, the Shi‘a, and the Politics of Religious Affiliations in Northern Nigeria,” the article examines Salafi-Shi’i tensions in northern Nigeria – or rather, it explores how various Muslim third parties have reacted to those tensions. My micro-case studies of third parties are Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai, the Tijani Sufi Shaykh Dahiru Bauchi, the former Emir of Kano Muhammadu Sanusi II, and Boko Haram.
This paper went through a ton of revisions and I left a lot of material on the cutting room floor – including some valuable primary source material relating to how the Salafis and the Shi’a talk about each other in Nigeria. Below I have pasted partial translations of three polemics, one by the Shi’i group called the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), and two by prominent Nigerian Salafi scholars.
Translation 1: A 2008 IMN Polemic Relating to Sokoto State, Northwestern Nigeria
Sokoto has periodically been a flashpoint for tensions between the IMN and Sunnis, as well as between the IMN and the authorities. In one 2008 polemic, the IMN depicted a series of setbacks for the Sokoto elite as divine punishment. These setbacks included the accidental death of then-Governor Shehu Kangiwa in 1981, the military regime’s dismissal of Sultan Ibrahim Dasuki in 1996, and the death of his successor Muhammadu Maccido in a 2006 plane crash. The polemic concluded:
At the end of this commentary, we want society to look at the history of persecution and intimidation that they spent years doing against the Muslim Brothers in Sokoto State, so that they’ll see – who had a happy ending? Let’s expose the history a little in order to see. A court in Sokoto State was the first to prosecute Mallam Zakzaky and some Muslim Brothers in the time of Governor Kangiwa’s rule. So, today where is he? He died. He left the Islamic Movement to keep on developing! … History is telling us that the persecution suffered by the Muslim Brothers during the present Sultan and the serving governor is just temporary and will never last long. And the same thing that happened to their predecessors will happen to them, with the permission of God Almighty. So it doesn’t matter that they are still oppressing the Muslim Brothers. It is clear: the prayer of the one who was oppressed will not go unanswered [literally, “fall to earth in vain,” faduwa kasa banza]. So better watch out!
Translation 2: A Salafi Argument that Shi’ism Is Un-Islamic and Chauvinist
In northern Nigeria, the most basic Salafi argument against Shi’ism charges the Shi’a with heresy and heterodoxy. One prominent example of this approach is the pamphlet Qalubale Ga ‘Yan Shi’ah: Tambayoyi 70 Waɗanda Ba Su Da Amsa (Challenge to the Shīʿa: 70 Questions For Which They Have No Answer). The author, Muhammad Mansur Ibrahim of Sokoto, is a well-known preacher and a graduate of the Islamic University of Medina. His pamphlet, published in 2008, is an edited transcript of a lecture he delivered in Sokoto in December 2006.
Much of the pamphlet portrayed Shi’ism as incoherent – or deceitful – in its presentation of early Islamic history. The pamphlet attempted to prove that it was inconceivable to believe that ‘Ali bin Abi Talib had considered himself an Imam in the Shi’i sense, or that parts of the Qur’an had been suppressed by the Companions, or that the Prophet Muhammad had intended ‘Ali to be his primary spiritual heir. The pamphlet’s core arguments are captured by the very first question: citing Qur’an 5:3, “This day We have completed your religion for you,” the pamphlet asks, “Is Shi’ism part of the religion that was completed on the day of Arafat? … If indeed it is part of it, then why did the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace, not say so?” Such arguments are useful to Salafis because they not only attack Shi’ism, they also provide an opportunity to rehearse the premises of Salafism: to wit, that Islam contains only what was explicitly authorized during the foundational period.
In addition to casting Shi’ism as un-Islamic, Salafis raise questions about the motives of the Shi’a depicting Shi’ism as a front for the interests of other groups. One of the pamphlet’s questions concerned the Persian language: “What is the relationship between your religion [i.e., Shi’ism] and the Persian language? Because we have noticed that the Arabic language has no value with you. You favor Persian and Persians over any language and any kind of people.” This line of argument again sets up a contrast between Salafism (here, presented as authentic due to its affinity for the Arabic language) and Shi’ism (here, presented as a vehicle for Persian culture masking itself in Islamic garb). Dismissing IMN leader Ibrahim al-Zakzaky as a fraud, Mansur Ibrahim recounted the story of an Al Jazeera interview where “they were translating Arabic for him so that he could answer in English!” Casting aspersions on the allegedly Persianized Shi’a is not unique to Salafis, of course, but for northern Nigerian Salafists – who present their Arabic fluency as a marker of their claim to mastery of Islamic sources – the dismissal of al-Zakzaky as a Persian stooge takes on a particular edge.
Translation 3: A Salafi Rejoinder to the Idea of Shi’i Anti-Imperalism
In a 2008 lecture entitled “Musulunci a Jiya da Yau (Islam Yesterday and Today),” Muhammad Sani Umar Rijiyar Lemo, a prominent Salafi scholar and Islamic University of Medina graduate, argued at length that the Shi’a perennially ally with non-Muslims against Sunni Muslims. He challenged the audience, rhetorically, to name a Shi’i force that helped Sunnis. Anticipating possible counterexamples, he cautioned the audience against glorifying Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Rather, he argued, Hezbollah undertook the kind of self-defense that any normal person would:
Any person, when you enter his home, when you attack him, he will try to defend himself. It has no relationship with his faith, with his character. Whatever creed he has – pagan, Christian, whatever – if you attack him in his home, he will try to defend himself and his children and his wealth and whatever he owns … But if he goes somewhere to help others, then he has some spirit in him.
Then Rijiyar Lemo turned to some of the foremost conflicts of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s in the Muslim world, again challenging the audience to name a place where the Shi’a had helped Sunnis against a foreign enemy.
If you say “Afghanistan” – there was not one Shi’i who brought help to Afghanistan…At the time that the Soviet Union was trying to impose its Godless rule [mulkin ba Allah] in Afghanistan, Sunni Muslims everywhere [went]. There was no place from which they did not go. Even from Nigeria, here, there were some who went.
But the Shi’a, he said, merely stood by and “waited eagerly” to see what share of Afghanistan’s cake they would get after the Soviets withdrew. Then, after the Taliban set up their state, Iran provided “logistics support” to the American invasion: “They helped them defeat the Taliban.”
“In Chechnya, Palestine, and other sites of struggle,” he added, “the Shi’a were also absent.” Iran’s declarations against America as the “Great Satan” were mere “political propaganda” – in reality, he argued, Iran was willing to cooperate with America in the destruction of Sunni Iraq. For thinkers such as Rijiyar Lemo, the Shi’a – and the IMN – are not revolutionaries but troublemakers and traitors.
Congratulations Dr. Thurston. This is an excellent and a timely article.