Biographies of Contemporary Sahelian Ulama 2: Shaykh Ibrahim Saleh

(This is a series of short biographies of Sahelian and nothern Nigerian ulama from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and may broaden later to include some nineteenth-century figures. The selections and order are determined entirely by whim. See below for previous entries.)

Last month, BBC Hausa put out an interview with Shaykh Ibrahim Saleh, sometimes called Shaykh Sharif Ibrahim Saleh al-Hussaini, who is from Borno in northeastern Nigeria.

The clip provides a good opportunity for me to do a second entry in this nascent series.

Shaykh Saleh is extremely prominent within Nigeria and within various parts of the Muslim world, including Morocco and Egypt, and he has been discussed in some Western academic literature (as I note below) – so I will not try to reconstruct his whole biography here. What stood out to me most about the interview was the range of educational experiences he has had, especially two features of his career and profile that have not been given much attention in other biographies I’ve read of him: (1) his formidable expertise in the study of Hadith, or narrations of actions and statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammad; and (2) his connections to scholarly circles in Mecca, including West African and North African scholars there. For further context, Hadith was often not the central subject in West Africa’s classical Islamic centers of learning, where the study of Fiqh (jurisprudence), grammar, biography, and other subjects was often more central. So being a muhaddith (expert in Hadith) gives Shaykh Saleh a kind of profile that not every senior scholar in West Africa has. Another part of the context, then, is that I’m increasingly struck by how reductive it is, in the Western study of Islam in Africa, to gloss figures such as Saleh as Sufis. Of course he is Sufi and this is arguably the defining aspect of his career and profile – yet when looking at those Meccan networks, for example, at least from the names, what stands out is the shared affiliation to the Maliki legal school (widespread in West and North Africa), rather than the Sufi connection. Worth noting is that Salafis do not have a monopoly over the study of Hadith – indeed, Malikis will often brag (not without justification!) that their founder was distinct in being equally strong in fiqh (jurisprudence) and Hadith.

Turning to the interview, the interviewer asks the shaykh about his biography and his career (as well as some lighter questions such as “What is your favorite food?”). To start with his name, as one often finds in northern Nigeria, what might at first look like a surname (Saleh) is in fact his father’s name – using the Arabic style, he introduces himself as Ibrahim bin Saleh, or “Ibrahim, son of Saleh.” Ethnically, he is Shuwa Arab, a group that is a minority but significant group in his home state of Borno, where he was born in 1938.

He began his education by studying the Qur’an with his father. After his father passed, he studied with his father’s students. He studied with many shaykhs, partly in order to collect salasil (singular silsila), or chains of oral transmission stretching back to the Companions of the Prophet and thus to the Prophet himself – he mentions a book he wrote later detailing more than 100 such chains reaching from Nigerian scholars back to the Prophet. After completing the memorization of the Qur’an, he turned to what is called in Hausa “karatun ilimi,” or Islamic education. He names numerous teachers, among them Abu Bakr al-Waziri and Ahmad Abulfathi (d. 2003), both in Borno. Shaykh Ibrahim Saleh refers to the latter as “my teacher (malamina).” He was a major figure in Borno, and you can read his biography here. Both Saleh and Abulfathi are known as shurafa’ (singular sharif), meaning descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Shaykh Saleh also studied with some of the most prominent scholars of the mid-20th century in Kano, namely Shaykhs Tijjani Uthman (d. 1970) and Abu Bakr ‘Atiq (d. 1974). To some extent one can see the outlines of a Borno-Kano axis here, given that Shaykh Tijjani Uthman was of Kanuri descent, the Kanuri being the dominant ethnic group in Borno. Many of Shaykh Saleh’s teachers, meanwhile, were leading figures in the Tijaniyya order, specifically the branch associated with the Senegalese Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975); with the two Kano teachers he studied Sufi texts. Shaykh Saleh is himself a major leader within the Tijaniyya and perhaps, along with Shaykh Dahiru Usman Bauchi, one of the two most famous living leaders of the order within Nigeria.

Shaykh Saleh also spent time, as I mentioned above, in Mecca, largely focusing on the study of Hadith or narrations of actions and statements attributed to the Prophet. There he first studied with Shaykh ‘Alawi bin ‘Abbas al-Maliki (d. 1970, per my conversion from the hijri date listed on his Wikipedia page). That Saleh could travel to Saudi Arabia and study with a Maliki shaykh is a reminder to me, and perhaps to readers, that one could find major non-Hanbali scholars in contemporary Saudi Arabia and especially in the Hijaz. He then studied with the Algeria-born, Mecca-based Shaykh Muhammad al-Arabi al-Tubbani (d. 1970 as well; see his Wikipedia page here, where ‘Alawi al-Maliki is listed among his students). Interestingly, one of his teachers in Mecca was the Nigeria-born Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Kashnawi (d. 1977), who came to Mecca in 1922/1923 and studied with the previously-mentioned al-Maliki, among others; Kashnawi is the Arabic adjective for “from Katsina,” and al-Kashnawi was from Kusada, Katsina according to this biography. Relevant here is Chanfi Ahmed’s book on West African shaykhs in the Hijaz, though I do not recall Ahmed discussing these figures in particular. The list goes on from there…Egyptian scholars, Pakistani scholars, and more. Turning back to the question of the silsila, Roman Loimeier writes a great deal about different Nigerian shaykhs’ efforts to collect salasil in his book Islamic Reform and Political Change in Northern Nigeria; Loimeier discusses some of Shaykh Saleh’s salasil, particularly within the Tijaniyya Sufi order, on p. 272.

Saleh also did some correspondence courses with Imperial College London, to improve his English,

In terms of his institutional roles, they are almost too many to list, both in Nigeria and at the level of the Muslim world as a whole. Three stand out to me (and here I am drawing on this essentially official biography, along with some background knowledge):

  • Chairman, Fatwa Council, Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs (NSCIA, an umbrella body for Nigerian Muslims);
  • Chairman, Fatwa Council, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam (The Society for Victory of Islam, another umbrella body, though more northern-focused);
  • A prominent member of the Mohamed VI Foundation of African Oulema, a Moroccan governmental effort. You can read the Shaykh’s speech at the Foundation’s launch here.

He also comments frequently in Hausa, English, and Arabic media.

Shaykh Saleh is mentioned in numerous Western academic works but the main references that come to mind now are the following:

  • Rudiger Seesemann’s article “Three Ibrāhīms: Literary Production and the Remaking of the Tijāniyya Sufi Order in Twentieth-Century Sudanic Africa,” in which the other two Ibrahims are Ibrahim Niasse and Ibrahim Sidi (d. 1999) of Sudan.
  • Gunnar Weimann’s book Islamic Criminal Law in Northern Nigeria, where Saleh and one of his books are the subject of Chapter 4.
  • John Hunwick’s compilation Arabic Literature of Africa, Volume 2, where he comes up frequently. The biographies of Shaykh Ahmad Abulfathi, Shaykh Tijjani Uthman, and Shaykh Abu Bakr ‘Atiq can also all be found in this volume.

Previous Entries in the contemporary Sahelian ulama series:

  1. Shaykh Mohamed Salim Ould Addoud of Mauritania.
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