Boko Haram: What’s in a Name? [Updated]

I’ve been thinking about how best to translate the names of the Nigerian sect known as Boko Haram.

Boko Haram

The sect’s unofficial, Hausa name – “Boko Haram” – comes from remarks by the sect’s late leader Muhammad Yusuf. This name is often rendered in English “Western education is forbidden.” That translation sacrifices some potential nuance and depth.

“Haram,” in Arabic and in Hausa, could be translated not just as “forbidden,” but as “something forbidden according to Islamic law and precepts.” This is the phrasing in Paul Newman’s A Hausa-English Dictionary. Translating “haram” as “Islamically forbidden” represents a middle ground between a one word translation and the longer phrase.

“Boko” is trickier. It can certainly mean “Western education” – this is the first definition Newman lists – but it can also refer to the Romanized Hausa script. There is some debate over the word’s etymology. Some say that “Boko” is a corruption of the English “book,” which would link the word strongly to educational contexts. Others say the word is of Hausa origin and means fake or deceitful, and appears in contexts other than just education. Some add that the usage of “Boko” in reference to Western education – even before the “Boko Haram” sect appeared – connoted a feeling that Western education could mislead Muslims into accepting false knowledge (including the feeling that Western education could serve as a gateway for Christianization).

Regardless of etymology, more than just education is bound up in the word “Boko.” The phrase ” ‘yan boko,” where ” ‘yan” means people, could be translated, “people/representatives of Western education,” i.e., people who have graduated from Western-style educational institutions. But the phrase could have a broader, cultural connotation – “people who operate within Western-style frameworks and institutions” or “representatives of Western culture” or even “Westernized people.” The idea of ‘yan boko, at least in the ways I have heard it used, also carries a connotation that these people are elites – that their particular credentials and experiences have placed them in positions of power because they can navigate Western-style institutions.

Put that all together, then, and you have “Boko Haram” meaning something like, “Western culture is Islamically forbidden” or “the Westernized elites and their way of doing things contradict Islam.” Recall that in addition to attacking Western education, Yusuf also forbade Muslims from working for secular governments.

Ahl al Sunna li al Da’wa wa al Jihad

Turning to the group’s official, Arabic name, we have “Ahl al Sunna li al Da’wa wa al Jihad,” or if you want the phonetic rendering, “Ahlussunna lid-Da’wa wal Jihad.” Let’s break that down word by word:

  • ahl=people
  • al Sunna=the normative tradition or model of the Prophet Muhammad
  • li=for
  • al da’wa=the call to Islam
  • wa=and
  • al jihad=jihad

Recently, the translation “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad” has spread widely. I think this translation conveys the sense of the meaning, but it misses a few nuances.

First, the translation takes the word “sunna” from the second position in the phrase and moves it to the penultimate spot. What you lose then is the compound meaning of “Ahl al Sunna.” That smaller phrase is one synonym for Sunni Muslims (“sunni” being the adjectival form of “sunna”). It is a fairly common phrase used by Salafis to describe themselves – the Salafis I met in Kano, for example, did not refer to themselves as Salafis or Wahhabis, but as “Ahl al Sunna wa al Jama’a” – “the people of the Prophetic model and the Muslim community.” But one must be careful – non-Salafi Muslims, including Sufis, can apply this phrase to themselves as well – as with, for example, a prominent Sufi militia in southern Somalia.

Given its appropriation by Salafis in the Nigerian context, Boko Haram may use the phrase “Ahl al Sunna” partly to affirm its own Salafi identity, and partly to reference its break with the “Ahl al Sunna” circle around the late Shaykh Ja’far Mahmud Adam of Kano (d. 2007). Shaykh Ja’far was at one time a teacher of Yusuf, but he publicly denounced Yusuf when Yusuf began to forbid Muslims from working for secular governments and pursuing Western-style education.

If we keep the phrase “Ahl al Sunna” intact when we translate Boko Haram’s name, we end up with something subtly different, something that emphasizes the Salafi identity that is a part of Boko Haram’s self-definition. We could translate the sect’s Arabic name as, “Salafis/Sunnis for Preaching and Jihad” – with “Salafis” being a somewhat neutral term imposed by the outside analyst, and “Sunnis” being, again, the adjectival form of the name the group calls itself. This is a tricky choice to make, because certain translations can imply tacit agreement with the sect’s claims to represent the Prophet Muhammad’s true legacy. The sect members might even wish us to translate their name as “Orthodox Muslims for Preaching and Jihad.”

Further variants: If “preaching” does not capture the full sense of a “call” embedded in “da’wa” (and, honestly, it doesn’t), we could try, “Salafis for Calling People to Islam and Engaging in Jihad.” Going a step further, my own preference, increasingly, is to leave as many complex terms untranslated as possible – perhaps that would leave us, then, with something like “Salafis for Da’wa and Jihad.”


There is no definitive way to translate either the unofficial Hausa name or the official Arabic name. I have experimented with these translations mostly out of intellectual interest in the translation problem, but I do want to reiterate a key point about each name:

  • Hausa: “boko” can signify more than just Western education, but also the broader cultural values and social positions that access to Western education can bring.
  • Arabic: the phrase “Ahl al Sunna” emphasizes Boko Haram’s self-definition as Salafis, i.e. as people who belong to Salafi traditions and employ particular methods of interpreting and applying Islamic scriptures.

UPDATE: Dr. Paul Newman, in a 2013 article available here (.pdf), conclusively (at least to my mind) settles the etymological questions around the word “boko.” From his conclusion (p. 11):

Hausa boko does not mean ‘book’ and it is not derived etymologically from the English word book. The phonetic and orthographic similarity between the two is purely coincidental. They are what the French call “faux amis” (“false friends”). The accidental similarity in spelling between the two words has no historical significance other than having served to lead us astray, where “us” includes political and social commentators with a modicum of knowledge about the Hausa language, as well as a host of well-regarded Hausa linguistic experts. We were all hoodwinked. Whereas the idea that boko came from book looked plausible from the outside, it was really shallow on the inside. In other words, we were all victims of biri-boko (‘monkey-fraud’)! Despite the many assertions regarding the etymology of Hausa boko reported above, the fact is that boko is a native Hausa word, originally meaning sham, fraud, inauthenticity, and such which came to represent western education and learning, and NOT a loanword coming from English book.


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.

French-Arabic Legal Training in Chad

One issue that I find fascinating in the study of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa is the position of the Arabic language in majority non-Arab societies. In academic literature on Islam in Africa, particularly on Francophone West Africa, one often reads about young scholars who have Arabic literacy (and, sometimes, degrees from Islamic institutes in the region or in the Arab world) but struggle to find employment because the state treats their credentials and skills as second class. (See, for example, Galilou Abdoulaye’s “The Graduates of Islamic Universities in Benin: a Modern Elite Seeking Social, Religious and Political Recognition” in the volume Islam in Africa.) As I discuss in my dissertation, Arabophones and graduates of Arab universities can sometimes attain considerable status and fame in countries like Nigeria, though it is true that governments’ and societies’ attitudes toward Arabophones can be quite mixed.

The former French colony of Chad is, according to the CIA, 12.3% Arab, although many non-Arab Muslim Chadians attain Arabic proficiency for religious and professional reasons. Given the background I mention above, I was intrigued to read about Chad’s newly opened, bilingual National School for Judicial Training, whose first class of sixty students includes thirty Francophones and thirty Arabophones. The School’s mission, if this source (French) accurately represents the text of the 2009 law that created it, is to produce magistrates, clerks, lawyers, and other judicial personnel.

I doubt that opening a bilingual school will reorient the Chadian legal system, which is, according to Wikipedia, “based on French civil law and Chadian customary law where the latter does not interfere with public order or constitutional guarantees of equality.” But with the school emphasizing linguistic training and admitting Arabophones, it will be interesting to see how the Chadian government moves Arabophone graduates into judicial positions, and what kinds of positions it gives them. In many Francophone West African countries there are “Franco-Arabe” primary and secondary schools, but post-secondary state institutions emphasizing Arabic proficiency outside the context of university Arabic departments are relatively rare in my experience.