This is a guest post by Alex Thurston. Alex is the author of Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics, and is an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. Alex was an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations from 2013-2014.
Internationally, the jihadist sect Boko Haram has become the most famous manifestation of Salafism in Nigeria. Yet Boko Haram is merely a fringe offshoot of a much larger Salafi movement in the northern part of the country. Mainstream Nigerian Salafis often use strident and confrontational rhetoric toward other Muslims and toward Nigerian Christians, but they are not jihadists: mainstream Salafis do not generally engage in violence, they do not advocate the overthrow of the secular state, and they do not reject Western-style educational institutions. In my recent book, I argue that the mainstream Salafi movement has had a much larger impact on shaping how northern Nigerian Muslims think about Islam than Boko Haram has, or will have.
Salafis are Sunni Muslims who describe Salafism as an “approach” – in their eyes, the only correct approach – to being Muslim. This approach involves a literalist creed and a conviction that every issue in contemporary human life can be resolved by consulting and applying the Qur’an, the Sunna (model or tradition) of the Prophet Muhammad, and the example of the first three generations of Muslims (the salaf). Salafis are hostile to the Shia, to Sufism (a mystical approach to Islam), and to various theological sects. For Salafis, Salafism represents the pristine Islam of the early community, but historians increasingly argue that what we call Salafism took its present shape in the twentieth century when Saudi Arabian Wahhabism intersected with various Islamic currents from Egypt, India, and elsewhere.
Salafism is a global movement, but it is loosely organized. Saudi Arabia is a stronghold of Salafism, but Saudi Arabian leaders and scholars do not control everything that other Salafis do. Most Salafis around the world subscribe to what is sometimes called “purist,” “scholarly,” or – misleadingly – “quietist” Salafism. A minority, albeit a deadly and highly visible minority, of Salafis are “Salafi-jihadis,” who embrace jihadism and try to impose Salafism by force. Boko Haram, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and al-Qaeda are Salafi-jihadis.
Salafism in northern Nigeria emerged in the 1960s and 1970s with Abubakar Gumi (1924-1992), who served as the north’s top Islamic judge from 1962-1966 and afterwards became a prominent radio preacher. Influenced by his time in British colonial schools, where he came to view most local northern Nigerian scholars as backward, Gumi became an outspoken opponent of Sufism.
In 1978, followers of Gumi formed the Society for the Removal of Heretical Innovation and the Establishment of the Sunna, better known as Izala (Arabic for “removing”). Izala became a powerful force for disseminating anti-Sufism. Yet there were tensions within Izala, particularly after Gumi died. In the 1990s, Izala split into two main factions, based respectively in Kaduna and Jos.
Meanwhile, young Izala preachers who had studied at the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia were returning home. Some graduates of Medina were dissatisfied with Izala: they considered it parochial and insufficiently attuned to global Salafi scholarship. In the 1990s, some Medina graduates began to present themselves as independent – as ahl al-sunna wa-l-jama‘a, “the people of the Sunna and the community,” a synonym for Sunni Muslims. These Medina graduates wanted people to think of them not as mere Izala members but as the representatives of a pure kind of Sunni Islam.
The most prominent such Medina graduate was Ja‘far Adam (1961/2-2007), who rose from poor origins to become the most famous Salafi preacher in northern Nigeria after Gumi. After returning from Medina in 1993, Adam promoted a style of Salafism that was both scholarly and political. Adam’s involvement in politics grew after northern Nigerian states began implementing “full sharia” in 1999. Adam served in government in Kano State, although he resigned in disgust in 2005, claiming that sharia was not being properly implemented. Adam was assassinated in 2007, and the crime remains unsolved.
When Adam’s name is heard in the United States, it is often mentioned in connection to his mentorship of – and then estrangement from – Muhammad Yusuf (1970-2009), the founder of Boko Haram. Adam’s conflicts with Yusuf were a watershed moment for Salafism in northern Nigeria. Yusuf took advantage of the networks and preaching style that Adam had developed. Yusuf sought to bend those resources to his project of denouncing Western-style education and secular government. Adam fought back by attacking Yusuf’s scholarly credentials and personal integrity. Adam also made the case for why preaching was better than armed jihad, and why Western-style education could benefit the Muslim community.
But the story of mainstream Salafism in northern Nigeria does not end with, or revolve around, the conflicts between Adam and Yusuf, or between mainstream Salafism and Boko Haram. Looking beyond Boko Haram, one finds that mainstream Salafis wield tremendous influence today.
Unlike in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, Nigeria’s Salafis have not formed a political party of their own. But many of them are deeply involved in politics. They sometimes publicly support candidates for office (one can even find Salafis on opposite sides of elections in the same state). Some of them hold government positions. The most prominent such figure is Aminu Daurawa, who has been Commander General of the Hisbah, a kind of morality police, in Kano State since 2011. Under Daurawa, one signature Hisbah initiative has been mass weddings for widows and divorcees – a project that blends social conservatism (marrying off the unmarried) with a form of progressivism (caring for the vulnerable). As that example shows, Salafi politics are hard to put on a “left-to-right” spectrum.
Other preachers remain outside of government and do not endorse candidates. Nevertheless, some preachers intervene in politics by offering “advice” to politicians. Such advice is not always heeded. For example, in 2015, Ahmad Gumi (Abubakar Gumi’s son) sought unsuccessfully to discourage current President Muhammadu Buhari from seeking the presidency. But Salafis can make headlines with their advice, whether or not is it followed.
For its part, Izala remains a strong force. The organization’s Jos and Kaduna branches formally reunited in 2011 under the leadership of Sani Yahya Jingir, who is – with Abdullahi Bala Lau, the National Chairman – a major figure in northern Nigerian Salafism. Izala reaches mass audiences through events such as its annual “Wa’azin Kasa (National Preaching),” where Izala preachers give lectures in cities throughout Nigeria and neighboring countries. Izala now works closely with the graduates of Medina and many other independent Salafi preachers, projecting a considerable degree of unity in the face of challengers, including the challenge of Boko Haram.
Salafis are also prominent in media. Some Salafi preachers have radio and television shows. The sermons and lectures of virtually every major Salafi leader circulate widely as cassettes and MP3 files, and followers can now listen to MP3 files on their phones. Salafis are increasingly savvy about using the internet to disseminate their messages – Facebook and YouTube are key media for them. Use of Twitter is growing as well. Salafi blogs have also appeared in recent years, featuring audio and video of Salafi preaching, original blog entries and fatwas, biographies of Salafi shaykhs, and .pdf files of books in Hausa, English, and Arabic.
All of this Salafi activism in politics, preaching, and media adds up to a major vehicle for social and religious change. One of the biggest effects of Salafism, in northern Nigeria and around the world, is a change in how Muslims talk about authority and debate religious questions. The question “What is your evidence?” is heard more and more. Often, the only kind of evidence a questioner accepts is texts from the Qur’an and the collected statements and deeds of the Prophet Muhammed. This kind of question does not befuddle Sufis and other non-Salafis – Sufis in particular often have a deep tradition of immersion in scholarship and scripture, and can often answer the Salafis verse for verse, text for text – but it does mean that intra-Muslim debates occur more than before on Salafis’ terms. Other forms of authority, such as charisma, hereditary, scholarly pedigrees, and even university degrees, are increasingly open to challenge.
Boko Haram will, one day, fade away. But the spread of Salafism is a longer-term phenomenon. Salafism is reshaping how many Muslims – Salafis and non-Salafis – think about Islam. And that represents an even deeper change for northern Nigeria than does Boko Haram’s violence.