Schooling Muslims in Northern Nigeria: Politics, Policies and Conclusions

by Alex Thurston Government-run Islamic schools, then, are to be a source of “counter-radicalization” as well as a means of moving almajirai into more “productive” schools. But the policy is unlikely to succeed. Continue Reading →

Nigerian Universities: Islamic Studies in Secular Universities

By Alex Thurston

Nigeria has around 100 universities, most of them public, and many public and private colleges. Various tertiary institutions in Northern Nigeria offer Islamic Studies, sometimes conjoined with Arabic. Continue Reading →

Nigeria's Islamiyya Schools: Global Project, Local Target

By Alex Thurston

This is the fourth post in a series on Islamic education in Northern Nigeria. The first post gave an overview of the series, the second discussed Qur’anic schools, and the third talked about “traditional” advanced Islamic education, noting that traditions change over time.

This post examines “Islamiyyaschools, a format that combines elements of the traditional curriculum with educational models inspired by Western and Arab models. That there has been outside influence on the Islamiyya movement does not mean that Islamiyya or “Nizamiyya” (a term that comes from the Arabic nizam, “system”) schools are “imports” from outside Northern Nigeria; rather, they represent interactions between local and global, new and old. Islamiyya schools are found by different names elsewhere in West Africa; in former French colonies such as Senegal and Mali, one finds many “Franco-Arabe” (French-Arabic) schools, highlighting the important role that languages play in questions of education. Islamiyya schools have not necessarily replaced “traditional” schools; many students attend both kinds, just as many teachers teach in both. Islamiyya schools do compete directly with secular primary and secondary schools, and feed into the same system of universities, but between these two models there is overlap as well. Continue Reading →

Nigeria’s Islamiyya Schools: Global Project, Local Target

By Alex Thurston

This is the fourth post in a series on Islamic education in Northern Nigeria. The first post gave an overview of the series, the second discussed Qur’anic schools, and the third talked about “traditional” advanced Islamic education, noting that traditions change over time.

This post examines “Islamiyyaschools, a format that combines elements of the traditional curriculum with educational models inspired by Western and Arab models. That there has been outside influence on the Islamiyya movement does not mean that Islamiyya or “Nizamiyya” (a term that comes from the Arabic nizam, “system”) schools are “imports” from outside Northern Nigeria; rather, they represent interactions between local and global, new and old. Islamiyya schools are found by different names elsewhere in West Africa; in former French colonies such as Senegal and Mali, one finds many “Franco-Arabe” (French-Arabic) schools, highlighting the important role that languages play in questions of education. Islamiyya schools have not necessarily replaced “traditional” schools; many students attend both kinds, just as many teachers teach in both. Islamiyya schools do compete directly with secular primary and secondary schools, and feed into the same system of universities, but between these two models there is overlap as well. Continue Reading →

"Traditional" and Reformist Practices: Advanced Islamic Education in Northern Nigeria

This post is the third in a series on Muslim schooling in Northern Nigeria. The first post gave an overview of the series, and the second discussed Qur’anic schools.

by Alex Thurston

In Nigeria, advanced Islamic education–the step following one’s basic instruction in the Qur’an–takes various forms. Here, I’ll examine the traditional settings for advanced Islamic education. The term “traditional” is a problematic one, as “traditions” are sometimes much more recent – and more consciously invented – than outsiders might assume. But the term has some use for describing systems that have evolved over time and were not directly created by colonial or postcolonial governments or by postcolonial reformist movements. “Advanced Islamic education,” meanwhile, refers here to training beyond the memorization of the Qur’an and instruction in the basic ritual requirements of Islam.

This kind of training has occurred for centuries, and still occurs, in the homes and schools of individual teachers. Many Northern Muslims begin (as do their counterparts elsewhere in West Africa) by studying the Qur’an and basic religious instruction with their fathers or with other family members, but advanced training usually necessitates outside mentors. Religious seekers most often proceed from the Qur’an to introductory texts of Maliki fiqh (jurisprudence). The Maliki School, one of four main Sunni schools of legal thought, is the most widespread in North and West Africa. Introductory Maliki texts (some of which are available in Arabic and in translation here) treat similar issues, ranging from the requirements of prayer to the rules of inheritance. The curriculum proceeds not thematically, but in levels of complexity; each text deals with the same issues in greater depth, meaning that the student who advances to the level of mastering the Risala (Epistle) of Ibn Abi Zaid al Qayrawani or the Mukhtasar (Compendium) of Khalil ibn Ishaq has a deep grasp of fiqh. Sheikhs often teach by parsing Arabic texts line by line in local languages until students have mastered each lesson; even at this stage, memorization can play a large role in learning. Continue Reading →

“Traditional” and Reformist Practices: Advanced Islamic Education in Northern Nigeria

This post is the third in a series on Muslim schooling in Northern Nigeria. The first post gave an overview of the series, and the second discussed Qur’anic schools.

by Alex Thurston

In Nigeria, advanced Islamic education–the step following one’s basic instruction in the Qur’an–takes various forms. Here, I’ll examine the traditional settings for advanced Islamic education. The term “traditional” is a problematic one, as “traditions” are sometimes much more recent – and more consciously invented – than outsiders might assume. But the term has some use for describing systems that have evolved over time and were not directly created by colonial or postcolonial governments or by postcolonial reformist movements. “Advanced Islamic education,” meanwhile, refers here to training beyond the memorization of the Qur’an and instruction in the basic ritual requirements of Islam.

This kind of training has occurred for centuries, and still occurs, in the homes and schools of individual teachers. Many Northern Muslims begin (as do their counterparts elsewhere in West Africa) by studying the Qur’an and basic religious instruction with their fathers or with other family members, but advanced training usually necessitates outside mentors. Religious seekers most often proceed from the Qur’an to introductory texts of Maliki fiqh (jurisprudence). The Maliki School, one of four main Sunni schools of legal thought, is the most widespread in North and West Africa. Introductory Maliki texts (some of which are available in Arabic and in translation here) treat similar issues, ranging from the requirements of prayer to the rules of inheritance. The curriculum proceeds not thematically, but in levels of complexity; each text deals with the same issues in greater depth, meaning that the student who advances to the level of mastering the Risala (Epistle) of Ibn Abi Zaid al Qayrawani or the Mukhtasar (Compendium) of Khalil ibn Ishaq has a deep grasp of fiqh. Sheikhs often teach by parsing Arabic texts line by line in local languages until students have mastered each lesson; even at this stage, memorization can play a large role in learning. Continue Reading →

Northern Nigeria: Qur’anic Schooling and the Almajirai

by Alex Thurston

This is the second post in a series on Muslim education in Northern Nigeria. Read the first post here.

Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, a revelation that corrects and completes earlier Messages to Prophets such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muslims throughout the ages have considered study of the Qur’an one of the greatest forms of religious devotion. Memorizing portions of the Qur’an is important for performing the required daily prayers and is relevant to various domains of religious life. Muslim scholars I knew in Kano often quoted the Qur’an in the course of conversations about law, politics, and other topics. Memorizing the Qur’an, beyond its applications in daily life, is also seen to have transformative spiritual value. The Prophet’s wife A’isha, when asked once after his death what he had been like, replied, “His nature was as the Qur’an.” Her statement testifies to the idea that the Qur’an can be embodied, or internalized, in human beings, and manifested as virtue and piety.

The central position of the Qur’an in the spiritual life of many Muslim communities helps explain why Muslim parents in Northern Nigeria and elsewhere send their children to Qur’anic schools. In the archetypal Qur’anic school, children under the supervision of a scholar and his older students first learn the Arabic alphabet, and then proceed to learn the Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Qur’an, before moving on to other chapters, often beginning with the short chapters at the end of the Qur’an (the Qur’an’s chapters are arranged roughly from longest to shortest). In Northern Nigeria as in some other West African Muslim communities, portions of the Qur’an are often written out on wooden slates; verses can be erased and replaced as students progress. The master and the older students check in with the students frequently to evaluate their progress and correct their mistakes, sometimes using corporal punishment as a deterrent for errors and perceived laziness. Depending on the school and the student, students may complete portions of varying lengths before they graduate. Continue Reading →

Northern Nigeria: Qur'anic Schooling and the Almajirai

by Alex Thurston

This is the second post in a series on Muslim education in Northern Nigeria. Read the first post here.

Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, a revelation that corrects and completes earlier Messages to Prophets such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muslims throughout the ages have considered study of the Qur’an one of the greatest forms of religious devotion. Memorizing portions of the Qur’an is important for performing the required daily prayers and is relevant to various domains of religious life. Muslim scholars I knew in Kano often quoted the Qur’an in the course of conversations about law, politics, and other topics. Memorizing the Qur’an, beyond its applications in daily life, is also seen to have transformative spiritual value. The Prophet’s wife A’isha, when asked once after his death what he had been like, replied, “His nature was as the Qur’an.” Her statement testifies to the idea that the Qur’an can be embodied, or internalized, in human beings, and manifested as virtue and piety.

The central position of the Qur’an in the spiritual life of many Muslim communities helps explain why Muslim parents in Northern Nigeria and elsewhere send their children to Qur’anic schools. In the archetypal Qur’anic school, children under the supervision of a scholar and his older students first learn the Arabic alphabet, and then proceed to learn the Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Qur’an, before moving on to other chapters, often beginning with the short chapters at the end of the Qur’an (the Qur’an’s chapters are arranged roughly from longest to shortest). In Northern Nigeria as in some other West African Muslim communities, portions of the Qur’an are often written out on wooden slates; verses can be erased and replaced as students progress. The master and the older students check in with the students frequently to evaluate their progress and correct their mistakes, sometimes using corporal punishment as a deterrent for errors and perceived laziness. Depending on the school and the student, students may complete portions of varying lengths before they graduate. Continue Reading →

Education as Battleground: Schooling Muslims in Northern Nigeria

by Alex Thurston

This post is the first of a series on Muslim schooling in Northern Nigeria.

Steady acts of violence carried out by Northern Nigeria’s rebel movement Boko Haram, whose name is often translated in the press as “Western education is forbidden,” has put issues of Muslim education in the region into the international news. Coverage of these issues has intensified with Boko Haram’s recent campaign of torching government schools in Maiduguri, the movement’s home base.

Boko Haram’s targets range well beyond schools – indeed, it has focused more on assassinating state security personnel, politicians, and rival religious leaders than on burning down schools. But the anti-schools campaign raises a set of questions about Muslim schooling in Northern Nigeria: What kinds of schools exist? How has schooling in the region changed over time? And what attitudes do Northern Muslims hold toward these different schools? These questions are critical for understanding Boko Haram but also, if one moves beyond headline-grabbing violence, for grasping more broadly what it means to be Muslim in Northern Nigeria, one of the largest Muslim communities in the world.

Schools are some of the main institutions where religious knowledge is shaped and transmitted and where attitudes toward society are formed. Schooling often stands as a powerful – and fiercely contested – symbol for community values. For Boko Haram, Western-style education seems to stand in for a whole complex of issues, including the perceived political dominance, corruption, and failure of Nigeria’s Western-educated elites. Other Northern Nigerian Muslims see Western-style schools as a pathway to future success for their children and transformation for Nigeria. Still others see Qur’anic schooling as an absolute necessity for forming moral Muslim children. Yet others send their children to hybrid “Islamiyya” schools, where students spend part of their time on religious studies, and part on subjects like English, science, and mathematics. Then again, some Northern Nigerian Muslims place their children in multiple different kinds of schools. All of these choices reflect different viewpoints about the spiritual and material value of schooling. Continue Reading →

Identity, Crisis: Shari'a Law in Nigerian Politics

by Alex Thurston

In 1999, Nigeria made global headlines when Northern states began re-implementing “full shari’a,” i.e. Islamic law codes that included criminal penalties for acts like theft, adultery, and drinking alcohol. The shari’a project in Northern Nigeria caused further controversy when shari’a courts sentenced two accused adulteresses to death by stoning – sentences that higher courts, under domestic and international pressure, later overturned.

As the rebel movement Boko Haram again puts Nigeria back in the headlines, the country’s relationship with shari’a is attracting new attention. Boko Haram’s overall platform remains vague. One of its few stated demands, however, is for broader and stronger shari’a not just in Northern states, but across all of Nigeria. What does this mean? And what historical factors have made shari’a loom so large in Northern Nigerian politics? Continue Reading →