The Sharif-Aminu Blasphemy Case in Kano, Nigeria: Some Context

On August 10, an upper sharia court in Nigeria’s Kano State handed down a death sentence for a singer named Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, who was convicted of insulting the Prophet Muhammad in one of his songs. Kano is the most populous state in northern Nigeria and one of the states where a version of “full sharia” (including penalties for what are considered criminal offenses in most interpretations of Islamic law) has been on the books since the turn of the millennium.

Here is a bit of context:

  • Sharif-Aminu belongs to the Tijaniyya Sufi order, one of the most popular Sufi orders in northern Nigeria and across much of North Africa, West Africa, and the greater Sahelian band (and internationally). Within the Tijaniyya, he belongs to what is sometimes called the Niassene Tijaniyya or Tijaniyya Ibrahimiyya after a Senegalese shaykh named Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975), who played a pivotal role in spreading and reviving the Tijaniyya from Senegal to Sudan. Sharif-Aminu’s song reportedly (I have not heard it) stated or implied that Ibrahim Niasse was greater than the Prophet Muhammad, a sentiment that violates a core tenet of Islam, namely that the Prophet Muhammad was the ultimate human being.
  • It is very important, however, for Western journalists or others not to conflate Sharif-Aminu’s (purported) comments with the Tijaniyya as a whole.
    • First, other representatives of the Tijaniyya are already taking pains to distance themselves from Sharif-Aminu, even to the extent of saying (Hausa) they find the death sentence justified.
    • Second, there has been a millennium and more of efforts by Sufi intellectuals and ordinary Sufis to make the argument that Islamic law and Sufi spirituality are not just compatible but mutually reinforcing. Most members of the Tijaniyya, even as they consider figures like Niasse (or the order’s founder, Ahmad al-Tijani, who died in 1815) to be exceptional human beings, would never suggest that any person was greater than the Prophet Muhammad. Indeed, there is a long tradition of Sufi literature – including specifically West African Sufi literature – praising the Prophet Muhammad, as a new book by Oludamini Ogunnaike documents.
    • Third, there is a long history of tensions between Sufis and anti-Sufis, or we could say between Sufis and Salafis, in northern Nigeria and in other parts of Africa and in other parts of the Muslim world. I think it is crucial for journalists and Western academics not to take sides within those conflicts – and it is very easy to inadvertently adopt the anti-Sufi/pro-Salafi position by using phrases like “the Sufis say X, while the Sunnis say Y” or by creating binaries such as “Sufism versus orthodoxy.” Observers need to keep in mind that most Sufis consider themselves (a) Sunnis and (b) orthodox. And bluntly speaking, your average journalist or commentator is not really qualified to decide who represents “orthodoxy” within Islam and, moreover, I don’t think it’s appropriate in a journalistic (or Western academic) context to make that call in the first place. Meanwhile some Salafis will be eager, amid this case, to make the equation “Sharif-Aminu=Tijaniyya=Sufism,” and that’s a problematic equation to make, to say the least.
  • In my view there are patterns to how cases of alleged blasphemy have tended to play out in recent years: authorities, even in Muslim-majority societies, tend to be very quick to give death sentences and very slow to carry them out. The Sharif-Aminu case has deep similarities to a previous case in Kano, and indeed directly builds on that case because the exact same core issues are at play. Notably, the death sentence pronounced in that previous case has also not yet been carried out. By responding quickly, authorities can react to and shape local pressures; by delaying actual executions, they can allow international outcry to fade.
  • The popular mobilizations demanding the death penalty in such cases are worth examining closely – they raise questions that I’ve never been able to fully explore to my own satisfaction, whether in the Nigerian context, the Mauritanian context, or elsewhere. To wit: Are such mobilizations spontaneous and bottom-up, or are they shaped by elites? If so, by which elites, and for which motives?
  • The role of Kano’s Hisbah Board and its Commander, Dr. Harun Sani Ibn Sina, will be worth following closely in all this. The Hisbah is a sharia-related moral enforcement body whose role has evolved in complex ways since its creation in the early 2000s in Kano (there are Hisbah Boards in some other states as well, but Kano’s is the most sophisticated and powerful). As Commander, Ibn Sina is relatively new in his role, having taken over from longtime Commander Aminu Daurawa in 2019 after the re-election of current Kano Governor Abdullahi Ganduje. Ibn Sina is reportedly very close to Ganduje, but other than that I don’t know much about him. Daurawa was/is one of Kano’s leading Salafis, but when I asked a friend in Kano who is very knowledgeable about the religious scene, he said that Ibn Sina* has no obvious affiliation to the Salafis or to any other specific constituency. I will see what I can find in the coming days. In any case the Hisbah Board can function as a focal point for mediating between the top political authorities and “the street” (or segments of it) when it comes to issues involving Islam in Kano.
  • The protesters who mobilized against Sharif-Aminu do not necessarily speak for all Muslims in Kano. There is a sizable Christian minority in the city and the state, and moreover the Muslim population is diverse, with a substantial presence of Sufis (and note that there are multiple orders as well as prominent leaders within each order), Salafis, and a notable Shi’i minority. Again, the vast majority will recoil from any perceived insult to the Prophet Muhammad, but it does not automatically follow from that that they want Sharif-Aminu to die – some will see him as a wayward boy (he is reportedly just 22 years old, an age often considered to be still a boy in northern Nigerian society).

We will see how this plays out. Again, I would be surprised if Sharif-Aminu is executed any time soon.

*It is possible that Ibn Sina is a nickname referencing the medieval philosopher (d. 1037), but I’d be a bit surprised if that were the case, actually.