Nigeria and the Islamic University of Medina’s Dawra: An Interesting Anecdote

Last week, while doing a quick Google search to confirm the life dates of Umar Fallata (see below, I came across this obituary for the Nigerian Muslim religious leader Isa Waziri (1925-2013). The obituary contains an interesting anecdote about the dawra (tour), a kind of educational and recruitment initiative by Saudi Arabia’s Islamic University of Medina. The dawra, as I discuss in my book, was a key mechanism for recruiting Nigerian students to Medina; worldwide, Nigeria was one of the countries where the University conducted the most tours. The dawra was a key early step in the careers of several prominent Nigerian Salafis.

But as the anecdote makes clear, the Saudi and African scholars who ran the dawra took pains to make sure that it was not just a Salafi affair:

I saw one great quality with Shaikh Isa Waziri around 1994 during the annual Dawra, which is a course for Arabic teachers organized by the Islamic University of Madina under the leadership of Shaikh Abdalla Zarban Al-Ghamidi.  A dinner was organized at Da’awah Group of Nigeria in which almost all the Islamic Scholars in Kano were present. Equally present at the dinner was late Shaikh Umar Fallata, a highly respected Islamic scholar who teaches in the Mosque of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

It was an interesting event, because despite all the differences between Izala and Tariqa, many prominent Islamic scholars from Tijjaniyya, Qadiriyya, and Izala were present. But one thing you cannot miss during the dinner was that Shaikh Isa Waziri was the rallying point among these scholars, some of whom do not get along publically. On that day, I saw some wonders, because some of the scholars that members of the public thought would look away when they meet each other were so respectful of one another. You wouldn’t be completely wrong if you suggest that sometimes our scholars dribble the followership.

Not only was Waziri a prominent shaykh from the Tijaniyya Sufi order, but the dinner included figures from both the Tijaniyya and the Qadiriyya, the two most prominent Sufi orders in northern Nigeria. This is not to say that there are no tensions between Salafis, who are often vehemently anti-Sufi, and Sufis – it would have been quite fascinating to attend that dinner! – but it is to say that sometimes stereotypes don’t hold true. Moreover, as the author of the obituary points out, sometimes public hostility can give way to private cordiality.

The anecdote raises two other points:

  1. African scholars who took up residence in Saudi Arabia and became part of the Saudi Arabian religious establishment also, often, became key links between Saudi Arabia and Africa. One can see that in the case of this anecdote and Umar Fallata. The best English-language source on Fallata is Chanfi Ahmed’s 2015 book on West African scholars in the Hijaz. See also here (Arabic) for an official Saudi Arabian biography.
  2. I think a lot about the idea of a “fragmentation of sacred authority” in the Muslim world (see here and here). That’s on display in this anecdote too, as the author of the obituary argues that no scholar in northern Nigeria today can play the unifying role of someone such as Waziri. No one wants to fall prey to a distorting nostalgia about the past – it’s not like there were no intra-Muslim conflicts during the twentieth century! – but it does seem like the Muslim world, and various Muslim communities, are much more internally fragmented than they were even a generation ago.

Senegal: A New Khalifa for the Tijaniyya of Tivaouane

Within Senegal’s Sufi orders, the Sy family of Tivaouane is one of the most important (usually observers consider the Tijaniyya of Tivaouane, the Mouridiyya of Touba, and the Tijaniyya of Kaolack to be the most important Sufi communities in the country). The family recently had a change of leadership with the passing of Cheikh Ahmed Tidiane Sy Al Maktoum and the succession of Abdoul Aziz Sy Al Amine. The position is known as Khalifa, but means “successor” rather than “caliph,” or at least it means something different from the connotation that “caliph” has taken on in English.

A brief biography of the new khalifa, who was born in 1928, can be found here (French). He is the sixth khalifa of the Sy family, and is the son of Serigne Babacar Sy (1885-1957), the first khalifa, and is the grandson of Al-Hajj Malik Sy (1855-1922), the founder of the family and of this branch of the Tijaniyya. The new khalifa has been a longtime counselor to past leaders of the community.

A Case of Alleged Blasphemy in Kano, Nigeria

Around May 15, a Muslim preacher named Abdul Nyass gave a controversial sermon in Kano, the most populous city in northern Nigeria. Nyass belongs to the Tijaniyya Sufi order. He allegedly stated that Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975), a Senegalese Muslim who revived and popularized the Tijaniyya across West Africa in the mid-twentieth century, was greater than the Prophet Muhammad. The remarks were made at a celebration of Ibrahim Niasse’s birthday. The incident set off an extended and ongoing intra-Muslim controversy in Kano.

Here is a timeline of events:

  • Circa May 15: Abdul Nyass’ alleged sermon glorifying Ibrahim Niasse over the Prophet. Conflict breaks out and Nyass, together with some of his followers, is arrested.
  • May 20: Two major Nigerian leaders of the Tijaniyya, Shaykhs Dahiru Usman Bauchi and Isyaku Rabiu, dissociate themselves and the Tijaniyya from Abdul Nyass and his statements.
  • May 22: “Thousands of youth” burn down the court in the Rijiyar Lemo neighborhood of Kano where Abdul Nyass and his followers are set to appear; other youth burn down Nyass’ house in Kano; other youths attempt to storm Government House and Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II’s palace.
  • May 29: Inauguration of Kano State’s new governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje
  • June 25: The Upper Shari’a Court in Kano sentences Abdul Nyass and eight of his followers to death for blasphemy; four others were acquitted.
  • June 29: Governor Ganduje announces his support for the court’s verdict.

Some context and reflections:

  • Kano is a significant site of inter-religious and intra-Muslim disputes. Such incidents do not happen on a monthly or even yearly basis, but this case is not the first: one example of Muslim-Christian conflict is the October 1991 riot that occurred in response to plans for a visit to Kano by the controversial Christian preacher Reinhard Bonnke, and one example of intra-Muslim conflict is the 2007 arson at Freedom Radio station.
  • The Tijaniyya is one of the largest Sufi orders in the world and one of the most important Muslim constituencies in Nigeria as a whole and Kano in particular. Emir Ado Bayero (1930-2014, ruled 1963-2014) belonged to the Tijaniyya, as did several Emirs before him. The order as a whole is mainstream in the Nigerian context. If Abdul Nyass did utter the remarks attributed to him, that would make him a fringe voice in the order. Many of his opponents have referred to his group as “yan hakika” (people of the truth, i.e. people who aspire to reach a mystical state), a Tijaniyya offshoot with some fringe beliefs. The mainstream Tijaniyya leaders are taking the case very seriously. Shaykh Dahiru Usman Bauchi essentially called Abdul Nyass an unbeliever (Hausa), and took pains to say that Tijanis are mainstream Muslims.
  • Even though the Tijaniyya as a whole is mainstream, there is a long history in Nigeria of opposition to the order, particularly among high-placed scholars. Shaykh Abubakar Gumi (1924-1992), who was Grand Qadi of Northern Nigeria (an administrative unit at the time of colonialism and decolonization) from 1962-1967, authored a harshly anti-Tijani book in 1972. Critics of the Tijaniyya have long accused the order of elevating its own texts and leaders over the central texts and leaders of Islam. The blasphemy case this year, then, activates long-standing suspicions of the Tijaniyya among some Nigerian Muslims, particularly Salafis.
  • Given this anti-Tijani precedent, the current case may allow some public officeholders to impose their views about what constitutes Islamic orthodoxy. For example, a major figure in this case is the Salafi leader Shaykh Aminu Daurawa, head of Kano’s Hisba, a governmental law enforcement body charged with upholding public Islamic morality. Daurawa has commented frequently on the case, including in terms that go beyond Abdul Nyass himself. In one Facebook post (Hausa), Daurawa wrote, “This is the truth of the [Sufi] order. There is a need to get rid of all [Sufi] orders, because the Prophet (Peace and Blessings Upon Him) is being insulted among them.” One important question about the case, then, is whether it and its aftermath will further empower the opponents of Sufism in Kano.
  • Many analysts in the West have come to believe Sufis are good and their opponents are bad. It’s never that simple. To my mind the analyst should neither caricature Sufis nor demonize their opponents. I don’t see this case as a sign of some “creeping radicalization” in northern Nigeria: I see it as the latest incident in a long-running intra-Muslim struggle to define doctrine and practice in Kano.
  • The case is also important because it will test the limits of what punishments shari’a courts can impose. As AFP writes, since the new shari’a penal codes were implemented starting in 1999, shari’a courts have sentenced various people to death – “but to date, no executions have been carried out.” Federal authorities may pressure Kano’s authorities to overturn the sentences. However, given that both Kano’s new Governor Ganduje and Nigeria’s new President Muhammadu Buhari are very new to their offices, they may decide to either drag their feet or even let the sentences stand. The sensitivity of the questions involved (blasphemy, intra-Muslim relations, public order, etc.), combined with the overall tense atmosphere (including because of Boko Haram’s violence), puts both state and federal authorities in a tricky position. That makes this case one to watch.

Varieties of Selecting Muslim Leaders in West Africa

When it comes to Sahelian countries such as Mali and Niger, I tend to think of strong national-level, top-down Muslim clerical bodies as a phenomenon of the period before liberalization, and especially as a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s. There are still bodies like the Islamic Council of Niger, but they don’t seem to have the monopoly over religious decision-making that their predecessor organizations enjoyed.

That’s why this link from Ghana caught my eye, especially the role of the National Chief Imam:

Sheikh Abdul Wadud Haruna, a Kumasi-based Islamic cleric, has been appointed the President or Zaeem of the Tijaniyya Sufi sect in Ghana.

The conferment of the title and the presentation of a certificate of honour were performed by the National Chief Imam, Sheikh Osman Nuhu Sharubutu, during the 47th annual birthday of Prophet Mohammed held in Kumasi last weekend.

Until the elevation, the appointee was the regional head of the Tijaniyya sect in the Ashanti Region.

The appointment was done with the consent of clerics responsible for such decisions and based in Madina Kaolak, Senegal, according to a release.

President John Dramani Mahama, who was the guest of honour at the activity, promised to promote religious tolerance in the country after making a presentation of GH¢12,000, 50 bags of rice and 10 bags of cooking oil to the organisers.

Also present were Sheikh Tijani Aliyu Cise, the Grand Imam of the Tijaniyya sect worldwide, who is also the Imam of Madina Kaolak.

The Tijaniyya is one of the most important Sufi orders in West Africa. Although founded in North Africa in the early nineteenth century, the Senegalese Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900-1975) was responsible for much of the order’s spread in places like Ghana. Kaolack was Niasse’s home and is the seat of his successors. Worth mentioning is that Ghana’s Chief Imam is himself a member of the Tijaniyya. So it’s interesting that the selection of a new representative of the Tijaniyya in Ghana is a decision made jointly by the National Chief Imam and the shaykhs in Kaolack (presumably with some input from other Tijanis, but nevertheless presented as a top-down selection).

I’ve been strongly influenced by Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori‘s notion of a “fragmentation of sacred authority” in the Muslim world, a concept Ousmane Kane uses quite effectively in his book on Nigeria. But this Ghanaian example reminded me that top-down selections of new Muslim leaders are not always a thing of the past. On the other hand, some Ghanaians are worried that when the current National Chief Imam passes (he is over ninety years old, and has served since 1993, when he succeeded his cousin), the Ghanaian Muslim community will divide bitterly over the question of succession – not all Ghanaian Muslims are Tijanis, to say the least. So perhaps further fragmentation is in store.

Did Senegal’s Sufi Leaders Convince Wade to Drop His Constitutional Amendment?

This week, tension mounted in Senegal as President Abdoulaye Wade moved to introduce two major constitutional changes: the creation of a vice president position and a reduction in the threshold (25%, instead of the previous 50%+) necessary for a presidential candidate to win a first round victory. Protests broke out in major cities. Youth burned the homes of ruling party members. The EU and the US expressed concern. Then yesterday, the day that the amendment was due for a vote in parliament, Wade withdrew the plan to change the electoral threshold.

These developments have been well covered by Reuters, the BBC, VOA, the New York Times, and other outlets. What hasn’t received as much international coverage is the role of Senegal’s Muslim leaders. In a country that’s 95% Muslim, and where most of the Muslim belong to large Sufi brotherhoods legendary for their political influence (when they choose to wield it, that is), how did these leaders react to such a major political crisis?

A little background: the two largest Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal are the Tijaniyya and the Mouridiyya (with which Wade is publicly affiliated). Leadership of the brotherhoods is passed from one relative to another, typically from brother to brother before passing to the next generation. This structure in some ways encourages younger leaders, or marabouts, to build their own constituencies – younger marabouts who know that their turn as khalifa (head sheikh) is far off, or will never come, have some incentive to seek other avenues for exercising influence. These young marabouts don’t go so far as to create their own orders, but some have created their own distinct movements that exist (sometimes uneasily) within the larger brotherhood. This gives rise to a significant difference in style between the older marabouts, who have largely ceased giving explicit political directions to their disciples,* and the younger marabouts, some of whom do speak out.

The role of the older marabouts in the current crisis was potentially decisive. Wade’s Minister of Justice, Cheikh Tidiane Sy, cited the influence of religious leaders (Fr) as one reason Wade backed off his plan. The khalifas of the Mouridiyya and the Tijaniyya both called, through spokesmen, for calm. According to one source, both khalifas also sent emissaries to privately dissuade Wade from pursuing the amendment, and the Tijani leadership publicly condemned the amendment (Fr). These efforts, and particularly the appeal from the Mouride leader, are seen as the main factor in Wade’s retreat.

Meanwhile, some of the younger marabouts spoke out on the amendment who spoke out made headlines. A young Mouride sheikh (Fr), grandson of the order’s founder, expressed his support for the law, and in doing so said he was speaking for all of the Mouride leadership. If comments on the web version of this article are any indication (and they may not be), his support – and his claim to speak for others – were greeted with derision, including by Mouride youth.

Another young Mouride marabout with his own proper political following and a tendency for outspokenness, Modou Kara (Fr), contented himself with counseling his followers to stay home.

A Tijani sheikh who has built his own movement, Moustapha Sy (Fr), openly condemned the law.

Looking at the younger marabouts, I would point to both genuine religious beliefs and some element of political calculation in explaining their positions. There is theological support, both within Islam and within Sufism, for all three of the positions – supporting the leader in power, abstaining from political involvement, or speaking out against perceived injustice. I would not discount belief as a factor here. But political calculation plays a role as well: openly supporting or opposing Wade could have consequences both for a marabout’s relations with the state and his relations with his own disciples, and staying neutral has implications as well.

It might be tempting to read a Tijani-Mouride split into the behavior of the marabouts, and argue that it is politically easier for a Tijani marabout to attack the ambitions of a Mouride president than it would be for a Mouride marabout to do so, but I don’t see enough data yet to draw that conclusion. In any case, it will be interesting to watch how the younger marabouts of both orders intervene in politics during the months between now and Senegal’s February 2012 presidential elections, and interesting to see whether there are more discernible signs of older marabouts working behind the scenes to promote stability.

*Indeed, some opposition youth are warning Muslim leaders this year not to issue explicit voting instructions to disciples (Fr).