A Yoruba Muslim Leader Denounces Boko Haram

In July, I examined the Senegalese musician/cabinet minister Youssou Ndour’s statement that the Islamists who destroyed saints’ tombs in Mali were not real Muslims. I wrote:

I think such statements merit reflection on two levels. First, these statements challenge us to think about who is and is not a Muslim. As an outsider, I prefer to avoid taking stances on such issues, but we should at least question our assumptions and our habits. It is odd and tragic how we sometimes rush to question the purity of someone’s Islam when they wear an amulet or put up a poster of their sheikh, but we don’t question it when they shed blood.

Second, and closely related to the preceding point, we are reminded that talk of excommunication can cut both ways. Even as the media sometimes presents Boko Haram and Mali’s Ansar al Din as some kind of ultra-Muslims, some other Muslims feel that these groups have forfeited their claims to the faith entirely.

Today I am pondering another example of what might be called, in a non-technical sense, “reverse takfir” – ie, a case where a non-violent Muslim leader or group denies that members of a jihadi group are true Muslims. This case comes from the Yoruba-majority Osun State in Southwestern Nigeria. Sheikh Salahudeen Olayiwola, president of the Osun State Muslim Community (OSMC), spoke this week at a conference to mark the start of the new year in the Islamic calendar. According to This Day, the Sheikh “described members of the Boko Haram sect as non-Muslims, saying Islam means peace among the human race” and “urged the sect to stop tarnishing the good name of Islam for genuine Muslims.”

The comments caught my eye for a few reasons. For one thing, there is the issue of excommunication that I mentioned above. Other Americans sometimes ask me, speaking generally, “Where are the Muslims who are willing to denounce extremists?” And people sometimes ask of Nigeria, “Where are the Muslim leaders willing to openly denounce Boko Haram?” Here is an answer to both of those questions.

Second, I am quite ignorant of Muslim perspectives and practices in Yorubaland. I take the blame for that, of course, but my own ignorance reflects larger divisions in media and scholarship that we would do well to fight. The scholarly sub-field I work in, “Islam in Northern Nigeria,” by definition excludes, or tends to exclude, Southern Nigerian Muslims. In media and policy settings, moreover, we tend to speak of a “Muslim North” and a “Christian South” in Nigeria – as though there were not substantial Christian minorities in the North and significant Muslim populations (by some estimates, approximately 50% of the Yoruba) in the Southwest. Going further, I would argue that there is a lack of rigorous writing on Northern Muslim communities’ reactions to Boko Haram – which means that goes double for Southwestern communities’ reactions to the sect, which receive very little attention in media and policy discussions.

Finally, the story itself gives those of us who are ignorant of Islam in Yoruba communities a chance to diminish that ignorance. We can start with a look at Islam in Osun State. Readers may be interested to read about the  OSMC’s cooperation with the Christian Association of Nigeria in the political domain, but also about Muslim-Christian debates in the State concerning female students wearing the hijab. Readers may be further interested in this study of Muslims’ demands in Osun State for the creation of shari’a courts, and the ensuing compromise that established “shari’a panels” to handle personal status issues among Muslims. Already from these stories, we can start to see that Islam is not “de-politicized” among Muslims in Osun State, but also that the issues at play there respond to the local context, and might not fit easily into reductive models of what “Islam in Nigeria” is said to be.