Notes on Nigeria, Borno, and Qur’an Recitation Competitions

The other day a Facebook post from outgoing Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima caught my eye. In the post, Shettima’s office discusses the governor’s substantial gifts to Borno men and women who had won state, national, and international rankings at Qur’an recitation competitions. Such competitions can be major events in Nigeria and throughout the Muslim world – as you can see in the documentary “Koran By Heart,” which I show in some of my classes. The competitions often center on (a) thoroughness of memorization, e.g. the judges/moderators will begin a verse and then ask competitors to complete it, and (b) beauty/technical perfection of recitation.

Qur’an memorization and Qur’an schools in West Africa are an increasingly prominent topic of academic study, with recent books on the topic by Butch Ware (2014, on Senegal) and Hannah Hoechner (2018, on northern Nigeria).

Within Nigeria, Borno in particular has high repute as a center for the memorization of the Qur’an, and so it is no surprise to see the governor recognizing high-performing competitors from the state. Nevertheless, the gifts are notable, both the ones that competitors won outside the state and the ones that Shettima added:

The Governor announced the rewards on Monday [October 15] in Maiduguri when he received the participants, accompanied by members of the Qur’anic Competition Committee led by the Chief Imam of Borno, Imam Laisu Ibrahim Ahmed.

Beneficiaries of the scholarship award include; Al-Bashir Goni Usman who was last year’s 1st Position at the Kwara State Qur’anic Recitation Competition. He got 2nd Position at the International Competition held in Saudi Arabia where he was awarded SR100,000 (equivalent to N10,000,000), Amina Ali Mohammed who was this year’s overall winner in the female 1st category in Katsina State. She won a car (G.M.) costing about N4,900,000 and a cash prize of N500,000 by the Katsina State Government.

Others are Sale Abubakar Sale (1st position in male 4th category) who won a Hyundai car worth N3,600,000 and awarded N500,000 cash prize, Idris Abubakar Mohammed (2nd in the 3rd category recitation), who won one tricycle worth N600,000, a deep freezer, and N250,000 cash, and Aisha Hamidu (4th in 2nd category) who won a motorcycle worth N190,000 and a cash prize of N150,000.

The remaining six participants were given N50,000 each by the Katsina State Government.

Impressed with their performance, Governor Kashim Shettima directed the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education to process their scholarships immediately, adding that six of the remaining participants will get One Hundred Thousand Naira each.

Some quick comments, in no particular order:

  • The imam-ship is essentially hereditary in Borno. A eulogy for the current imam’s father, who may have been the longest-serving imam in Borno history, can be found here. In a way, an event like this showcases a kind of “government Islam” in Borno, where elected politicians and hereditary, largely traditionalist figures cooperate in an attempt to define and shape Islam for the public.
  • I really enjoyed Obi Anyadike’s recent African Arguments piece on a decline of Islamic religiosity in Maiduguri, but the attention Borno authorities are showing to this competition – and the strong performances Borno-ans are delivering in competitions in Nigeria and around the world – would be data points against that narrative.
  • Qur’an competitions attract participants from diverse backgrounds, including Sufis and Salafis. During my dissertation research in Kano I met two prominent brothers from the Tijaniyya Sufi order who organized Qur’an competitions through their schools.
  • Ja’far Mahmud Adam (1961/2-2007), the most prominent northern Nigerian Salafi of his generation, won a national competition and then placed third at a Qur’an recitation competition in Saudi Arabia in 1988 (see here, p. 5). These performances helped him secure admission to the Islamic University of Medina and helped accelerate his preaching career back home. So competitors who perform well are (a) sometimes positioned for success in religious leadership generally and (b) not just automatons with good memories; they can also have broader religious profiles and knowledge.

Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa’s New History of Itself, Part 1

Last month, the Islamic State’s West Africa Province released a book by “the two brothers, the two sons of the Shaykh Abu Yusuf al-Barnawi.” This “al-Barnawi” (the name just means “from Borno”) is Muhammad Yusuf, who is widely considered the founder of Boko Haram. The book, available in .pdf at Jihadology, is entitled Khadh’ al-Waram min al-Khawarij al-Shikawiyya bi-Bay’at Ahl al-Karam, or “Taking Out the Tumor of Shekau’s Khawarij Through Pledging Alliance to the People of Benevolence.” As the title indicates, it’s a polemic against Abubakar Shekau, who succeeded Yusuf as Boko Haram’s leader in 2009. Shekau now heads a faction of the group, the “Islamic State West Africa Province” being a fancy name for the other main faction.

To me, from an intellectual standpoint, the main interest of the text is in what it says about Boko Haram’s early years; part one is an auto-history from the anti-Shekau perspective. In many ways, what appears here is not new, but it does lend weight to some of the claims made in other sources – see below. The text’s silences, or the places it contradicts other sources from/about Boko Haram, are also interesting.

The second part, the polemic against Shekau, is less interesting to me. Maybe this is merely a sign of boredom on my part with this whole topic, but it may also be a sign of Boko Haram’s overall intellectual/doctrinal stagnation. Even amid the pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015 (under Shekau), and the factional split in 2016 (between Shekau and Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi, who appears to be one of the “two sons” who authored this book), I had a sense that Boko Haram’s most energetic thinking was behind it. The differences between Shekau and al-Barnawi may be real enough, as spelled out from al-Barnawi’s perspective here (.pdf), but the core issues by now are very familiar and the arguments are somewhat repetitive.

In a way, once Salafi-jihadis or even just Salafis or even just Sunnis in general start debating each other over how far to go with takfir (calling other Muslims non-believers), the conversation often devolves into more or less sophisticated versions of the ultra-hardliners calling the hardliners murji’a (i.e., too soft), and the hardliners calling the ultra-hardliners khawarij (i.e., too extreme). Either way, such intra-Salafi or even intra-Sunni debates often devolve into people accusing each other of leaving the theological fold, given that the murji’a and the khawarij were both early Islamic sects not considered part of the Sunni mainstream. Ironically, of course, many Sunnis, including many non-jihadi Salafis, love to accuse all Salafi-jihadis of being khawarij, so it’s ironic to see someone such as al-Barnawi (whom many Sunnis who call a Khariji) calling Shekau a Khariji.

I don’t really like using a “right-left” spectrum to describe Islamist or jihadist movements, but it’s too tempting to pass up here. One could even formulate a theorem: “Any given Salafi, when pressed, will call someone significantly to their ‘right’ on takfir a khariji, and anyone significantly to their ‘left’ on takfir a murji’i.” Daniel Lav’s book is, obviously, quite relevant to cite here.

In any case, here are a few of the interesting parts from the historical section. This post has gotten a bit long, so here in part 1 I’ll summarize some passages connected to the lifetime of Muhammad Yusuf, and in part 2, tomorrow, I’ll summarize some passages connected to Shekau. I may add a part 3 at some point, but likely not this week.

  • p. 9: The basic biographical information given here about Muhammad Yusuf (born in January 1970 in Jakusko to a Tijani Sufi father, etc.) lines up with what most other sources say and with what Yusuf said about himself.
  • p. 10: The book confirms what various other sources have claimed, namely that Yusuf belonged to Ibrahim al-Zakzaky’s “Muslim Brothers” until 1994, when he “noticed portents of rejectionism and Iranian Shi’anization” and left the movement. That Yusuf belonged to the movement is plausible – that it took him until 1994 to detect Iranian influence seems very hard to believe. It seems to me, then, that the hagiographers are here trying to acknowledge a widely known reality (that Yusuf was once Shi’i-leaning, an accusation his critics leveled at him), but then spin it to try to preserve his Salafi bonafides. The book then goes on to describe his affiliation with the Salafi sect Izala, an affiliation also widely reported in other sources. It puts the date of his break with Izala as 2002, a plausible date and the year widely cited as that of Boko Haram’s founding. (Elsewhere I have seen dates ranging from 2000 to 2003 as years when Yusuf began to distance himself from/become unwelcome in Izala circles).
  • p. 11: Here the writers, as in other Boko Haram sources, emphasize the impact of 9/11 on Yusuf’s thinking. Stating that he was on hajj at the time, the writers say, “Among the effects of this blessed raid was that it awakened in his spirit that which had been passive (khamidan).” The writers go on to quote from one of Yusuf’s lectures on how he became outraged over events in Nigeria such as the interreligious clashes in Kafanchan (1987) and elsewhere – essentially, the writers paint a portrait of someone radicalized by both domestic and foreign events. The authors describe the year 2001/2002 (1422 hijri) as the start of his strident preaching, particularly against “the democrats and their devil-scholars,” and they put the year of his complete break with democracy and his call for “monotheism and jihad (al-tawhid wa-l-jihad)” in 2003/2004 (1424 hijri).
  • p. 16: Here is an interesting and detailed overview of Yusuf’s mosques/centers/teaching sites, including the well-known Ibn Taymiyya Markaz and Al-Ta’ifa al-Mansura Mosque but also two sites that are new to me, namely the lessons he gave in Lawan Bor neighborhood and the Abu Hurayra Mosque in Gomari Airport neighborhood.
  • pp. 24-25: This is the fullest glimpse that I have seen into Boko Haram’s administrative structure in the time of Muhammad Yusuf. it contains details about Yusuf’s various committees, including a Hisba force charged with “commanding right and forbidding wrong,” for example by trying to close shops that remained open during Friday prayer time. He also had a military committee, initially responsible for guarding the movement’s leaders and sites, but that developed into something stronger over time.
  • pp. 21-22, p. 26, etc.: Boko Haram is still very angry at the Salafi and Salafi-leaning scholars who debated and denounced Yusuf during his lifetime – figures such as Ja’far Mahmud Adam and Isa Pantami.
  • p. 23, pp. 26-28: These passages essentially confirm the now widespread account of how Boko Haram came into increasing conflict with authorities, particularly in Borno, during the years leading up to the July 2009 uprising. These passages add new (at least to me) details, such as disputes between Boko Haram and the Borno State government over the timing of Eid al-Fitr (perhaps 2008, since Yusuf was dead by the time of Eid al-Fitr 2009?). But essentially the events are the ones we already knew, particularly the conflicts between the Borno State Government’s “Operation Flush” and Boko Haram. One notable section (p. 23) describes how Yusuf was  imprisoned on “false accusations with no basis: they imprisoned him once on the charge that he had connections with ‘the al-Qa’ida Organization’ and that he had a link with the ‘Taliban of Kanamma’ group, which was headed by the so-called Muhammad Ali, and which killed Ja’far Mahmud Adam, the taghut of the murji’a.” I suppose one could draw various conclusions from this passage, but to me there are two: (a) Yusuf had only very weak if not non-existent ties to al-Qa’ida, a conclusion supported by other sources; and (b) ISWAP, or whatever we call it, still has an odd relationship with the Kanamma group. It is known that Yusuf did have some ties to them, since he himself said that they had studied with him. So it’s odd that ISWAP would imply that there was no relationship whatsoever between Yusuf and Ali, or that the mainstream of Boko Haram had nothing to do with killing Adam (in 2007). If you’re not familiar with the events at/around Kanamma (the meaning of which is still heavily debated), here is one contemporary account and here is a scholarly analysis that I don’t fully accept.
  • p. 29: This section describes Boko Haram’s preparations for war under Yusuf, who ordered his followers to sell their belongings and arm themselves with the proceeds. He delegated a man named Abu ‘Amir al-Barnawi (who would die during the fighting) as head of the army, with three commanders under him, four leaders under each of them, and a thousand fighters under each of them (obviously that last part sounds wildly aspirational – Boko Haram may never, even at its height, have had 12,000 fighters). The account goes on to say that Nigerian customs intercepted some of the weapons that were smuggled in, and that this helped precipitate Nigerian forces’ strike on Yusuf’s Ibn Taymiyya Markaz. The account of the preparations and the battle, which goes on until p. 33, does not mention where the weapons came from, nor does it mention al-Qa’ida here.

Overall, one thing that stood out to me was that in reconstructing Yusuf’s life and thought, the authors rely very heavily on his publicly available videos and writings. I find it credible that the authors are indeed his sons, but that status wouldn’t necessarily mean that they have privileged information about their father or about events that occurred when they were children, teenagers, and very young men. At times I had the impression that they were following the same kinds of techniques that a Western analysts would in generating this account; one wonders how much first-hand knowledge about Yusuf really remains within Boko Haram’s ranks, and particularly within the ranks of “Islamic State West Africa.” After all, the guy has now been dead for nine years.