Two Salafi clerics visit London. It sparks debate on modernity and morality in Northern Nigeria

The innocuous photos of two Nigerian Islamic clerics in suits shopping and relaxing in London circulated in Northern Nigerian social media communities in early December, 2017. The photos sparked immediate debate. The debate in turn opens a window onto an ongoing but little noticed ideological struggle over modernity, morality, and piety in Muslim-majority Northern Nigeria, which is in the throes of Islamist group, Boko Haram’s violent insurgency.

Why were the images so controversial, and why did they become touchstones for contestations in online communities of western-educated Northern Nigerian Muslim men and women? In a Muslim-majority region in which Islamic clerics seek to define the boundaries of private and public morality as well as Muslims’ engagements with modernity and western goods, there is a ever-present cloud of judgmental scrutiny on the conduct of the clerics themselves.

This reverse judgmental gaze is sharpened by the fact that the clerics routinely espouse a neat moral binary between supposedly Muslim and western ways of life, leaving themselves open to accusations of hypocrisy when they appear to make choices perceived to contradict their teachings.

Salafi clerics in particular have come to wield an outsized influence over the body of Northern Nigerian Muslims, and to act as enforcers of an increasingly puritan religious order. It is thus understandable that the sartorial choices of the two clerics — they were wearing what in Northern Nigeria are considered western clothes — touched off disputations between Muslim youths who long resented the growing intrusions of the clerics into their lives and those who continue to look upon the religious figures as revered exemplars of piety.

The sectarian affiliation of the two clerics exacerbated the controversy. Sheikh Kabiru Gombe and his mentor, Sheikh Bala Lau, are Salafi clerics belonging to the Izala sect. This fact carries much significance in a region in which the puritanical Wahhabi-Salafi literalist creed of Islam is on the ascendance at the expense of the traditional Sufi brotherhoods, an ideological confrontation in a volatile religious marketplace that plays out in several arenas and has now traveled online to social media, blogs and web forums.

Sheikh Gombe in particular is known for his ultra-radical Salafi theological positions and pronouncements. He is one of many Salafi clerics who have captured the imagination of some Muslim youths in Northern Nigeria with a blend of populist interventions in local and global sociopolitical debates and an edgy, rejectionist theology of puritan Muslim living. A staple of their teachings is hostility towards a plethora of western institutions, practices and goods considered capable of polluting the piety of Muslims.

Northern Nigeria’s Salafi Islamic wave, as I call it in my ongoing research project on the historical antecedents of Boko Haram, began with the slow but well-funded entry of Wahhabism into Northern Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s. The Wahhabi-Salafi wave’s most visible face was and still is the Izala sect, with which Sheikh Gombe and Lau are associated. The sect was founded in 1978 by followers of the late Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, who declared the movement’s commitment to the task of eradicating what they regarded as sacrilegious innovations.

Gumi had been a critic of the region’s Sufi brotherhoods in the 1960s and 1970s, and an advocate for a return to what he considered the puritan fundaments of the faith: the Qur’an, the Sunnah, or prophetic example, and the examples of the first generation of Muslims, the al-Salaf. Gumi rejected existing Sunni Muslim organizations as infected by syncretism bid’ah (heretical innovations) and subsequently led his anti-Sufi reformist Izala insurgents through an explosion in their followership.

The Izala group set up schools, whose graduates were shepherded through multiple layers of Islamic instruction. The best graduates of these schools were then sent, on generous Saudi Arabian scholarships, to the University of Medina for advanced study of Islam under a Wahhabi curriculum grounded in an ultra-radical Salafi theology.

In the 1990s, Sheikh Ja’afar Adam, who mentored Boko Haram founder, Muhammad Yusuf, before the two fell out over doctrinal differences, returned to Nigeria upon the completion of his studies, along with several other Saudi scholarship recipients. Equipped with a radical reformist agenda, the University of Medina graduates inaugurated a new Salafi era in Northern Nigerian Islam.

In the 2000s, Medina-trained Salafi clerics, backed by Saudi Arabian money and patronage, succeeded in ideologically upstaging the old Izala clerical order and Sufi clerics through a mix of youthful charisma, theological novelty and populism. These clerics also began to reproduce themselves, taking on and mentoring students. The current proliferation of Salafi clericalism in Northern Nigeria, and the vocal domination of the Northern Nigerian Islamic public sphere by Salafi clerics and their theology are products of that ideological moment.

Along with the dominance of Salafi puritan and literalist theologies came an insistence on the private and public implementation of a strict moral code conforming to the Islamic Sharia law. Although unevenly and sporadically implemented, the Sharia criminal codes adopted by several Northern Nigerian states in the 2000s further polarized the society, deepened sectarian fissures, and, paradoxically, caused clerics who accused politicians of lacking a commitment to the Sharia to clamor for further reforms.

The mainstreaming of Salafism in Northern Nigeria has proven to be suffocating to Muslim youth desirous of a more pragmatic engagement with the West, whose cultural products saturate the region, conveyed by ubiquitous satellite television, western music, dance fads, the educational curriculum and sartorial trends. Many youths believe that these accouterments of modern global youth culture can be reconciled to their Islamic devotion. Salafi clerics and their followers often disagree and see no acceptable compromise. This disagreement sets the stage for ideological friction and for debate.

Increasingly, a determined group of Salafi clerics has occupied the public arena of morality, reaching into the intimate domains of individual life and dictating the limits of personal moral and bodily conduct. The Salafi clerics routinely condemn conducts that they associate with a decadent, permissive western modernity. Notably, this regime of morality has extended to the arena of dress, with Salafi clerics and their followers pronouncing with certitude and righteous indignation on what Northern Nigerian Muslims are wearing, how they are wearing it, or what they are not wearing.

In 2016, Hausa movie actress, Rahama Sadau, received a ban from the Hausa movies section of the Motion Picture Practitioners of Nigeria (MOPPAN) for “indecent” dressing and for hugging a Hausa pop music artist in a music video. The ban was instituted to mollify online critics, mostly followers of influential Salafi clerics, who argued that Sadau had insulted the Islamic values of Northern Nigeria. Prior to that incident, Kannywood, as the Nigerian Hausa movie industry is known, had been routinely criticized by Salafi clerics for debasing Islamic values. In Kano state, a catchall censorship regime banned films with secular and romantic themes and also went after nightclubs, games centers and other forms of entertainment that the enforcers attributed to the corrupting influence of western modernity.

In the context of this new, Salafi-mediated anti-western moral imagination, the sight of Sheikhs Gombe and Lau in western sartorial ensembles smiling giddily to the camera in London’s recreational spaces was a seminal, revealing visual for many Northern Nigerian Muslim youths. For some, the pictures capture a karmic moment that reveals the clerics to be hypocrites who preached an anti-western creed, only to embrace the West and the physical and symbolic accessories of its modernity.

The contentious conversation that the photos triggered was not a trivial one about dress and the recreational choices of two Salafi clerics. The photos were loaded with symbolism and irony, both of which online interlocutors mobilized in their interventions to make polemical claims, to critique or excuse the perceived tyranny and hypocrisy of a powerful Salafi establishment, and to express personal anxieties.

The democratic and relatively anonymous character of the internet has given a platform to supporters of Salafi clerics and their moral agenda, as well as to opponents of the clerics’ moral intrusions and prescriptions. This is the reason that the debate about modernity, Islam and morality has migrated largely to online platforms.

The ongoing ideological struggle in Northern Nigerian Islam, which this debate encapsulates, is partly one between those entrenched in a modernist ethos and thus defensive of it and those suspicious of modernity and the unmediated influence of western education and culture. The direction in which this tension is resolved will have profound implications for the struggle against Boko Haram, a violent anti-modern, anti-Sufi jihadi-Salafi group that thrives on opposition to western education and secular institutions.

Moses E. Ochonu

Moses E. Ochonu is Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in African History, Vanderbilt University.

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