Sharia in Nigeria: a Reflection on the Debates


Hauwa Mahdi


A Paper Presented for A World in Transition: New Challenges for Gender   Justice


13 – 15 December 2006

Indian International Centre, New Delhi



Introduction and objective

On 29 May 1999 the long reign of the military regimes in Nigeria came to an end with the swearing in of a civilian government. Almost five months to the day, the Zamfara state government passed into law the sharia penal code to take effect from 27 January 2000.  Zamfara became the first state of the country to pass into law the sharia penal code. The code, for the first time, allowed a state government to carry out the death sentence and mutilation as punishments under Islamic law. Zamfara was followed in quick succession by other states of the northern parts of the country. Buba Bello Jangebe became the first man to be prosecuted for stealing under the law in Zamfara, and his right hand was amputated on 22 March 2000. Safiya Hussaini, an ordinary rural Hausa woman from Sokoto state, became the first woman to be accused of getting pregnant outside marriage in contravention of the new law. Since then many more have had their hands cut off and a few women have been prosecuted for getting pregnant outside wedlock although none has been stoned to death.[1] This paper takes its cue from the debates that followed the sentencing of Safiya Hussaini to death by stoning by the Upper Sharia Court of Gwadabawa in Sokoto state on October 9, 2001.


The objective of this paper is to analyse the main theme of the debates, which is the validity of sharia in Nigeria today. It is a discussion of the application of the law in some states of the country. All the points of view represented in the paper are of those who, implicitly or explicitly, consider the application to be the way forward for Nigerian Muslims. When the law was introduced hardly any Muslim holding a political office in northern Nigeria objected to the new laws. Among the few Muslims who questioned it was a senator who said, “Sharia is not compatible with modernity.”[2] The majority of the Muslim politicians resisted declaring a clear position either for or against the new laws. The Vice President, Alhaji Abubakar Atiku for example when asked to confirm whether he had urged the sharia states to rescind the law said, according to a newspaper, “It is not true, we did not say so.”[3] He did however go on to say that he objected to the capital punishments in the law.


I have grouped these opinions into two: those which see the present sharia penal codes of the states’ appropriate, whom I have termed pro-sharia of the Right; and those which recognise the application in principle but believe the application of the law needs to be based on better knowledge than is the case at present – the pro-sharia of the Left. The division of the Muslim debate is based on a simple observation. The Right presents its case in terms of replicating an uncontested Islamic/sharia past. The Left expects a critical analysis of all the Islamic past and all its texts before sharia can be applied. In other words, my intention is to analyse some of the points of view of the debaters who see the legal aspect of sharia as an appropriate and applicable law in Nigeria.


A recent history of Islam in Nigeria

Islam has been a significant part of politics in the northern parts of Nigeria for more than two hundred years, and has been for the whole of country since colonial rule. The Sokoto Caliphate, founded in 1804 on the ideals of an Islamic state, became the largest part of Nigeria with its occupation by the British in 1903. Since the colonial period, the demand for sharia as law has risen with every constitutional debate since the 1950s.[4] Some historians have established a direct connection between the first ethno-religious violence in Kano in May 1953 to the attempt by the conservative local elite to defend its interests.[5]


Before the 1980s, the demand for sharia was mainly a bargaining chip for the political elite. Since then it has acquired a popular appeal even among ordinary Muslims.[6] At the same time as the popularity of sharia has grown, religious violence too has become a regular feature of Nigerian society, especially in the northern parts of the country. The growth of this trend has been well recorded by researchers. What both research and the media debates about sharia in Nigeria show is the rich diversity and contestations within Islam. Each position is supported by a combination of Islamic texts, history and the diverse traditions of the peoples that compose the Islamic world. With a few exceptions the dominant position is in each case drawn from the stance of the male elite in each movement, state or whatever unit it is being presented.  Ousmane Kane has for example divided the Muslim movements into two based on the type of “objectification” of the religion they seek. By objectification he means the process by which Islamic groups pose the basic questions about their religion. In other words, he means the way in which Muslims associate their belief to their existence by asking fundamental questions about its meaning, such as what the religion is and why it is important in their lives.[7] Based on how they objectify Islam, Kane has grouped them into two, where one is concerned firstly with “reforming religion and society”, and the other is concerned with “islamizing the state”. Thus, Kane has arrived at that division of the Islamic movements mainly based on the method by which each group hopes to achieve an Islamic ideal of societal harmony.  It is based on this method that he considers the Jama’at izalat al-bid’a wa iqamat al-sunna popularly known as Izala, in Nigeria, as a reform movement.[8]  According to Kane, the Izala movement, which is his main concern, arose in 1978 as an opposition to the established Sufi sects – the Tijaniyya and the Qadriyya. The Izala do not even recognise these Sufi sects as Muslims.[9]


Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im has taken a different stand point to understanding the Islamic movements from that of Kane. Na’im seems to categorise the movements from a cultural perspective. Since his main examples are from movements in the African continent he seems to distinguish them based on their interpretation of Islamic texts in African contexts. For example, the Sufi Orders, whose practices of Islam the Izala movement considers heretic, Na’im calls “African Islam”. According to him, Sufism is a form of Islam that is “culturally and religiously flexible and accommodating.”[10] The movements that seek to control state power are the Islamist movements. Islamists do not only identify “Islam with Sharia, but also actively seek to transform the state and society … into conformity with that model.”[11] Neither of the two trends is however mutually exclusive of the other. Both trends follow an already established pattern of religious revival experienced all over West Africa through many centuries.[12] Yet, since the Izala movement is closely associated with Wahabbi (Saudi Arabian) Islam, could they be termed reformist in relation to the practice of Islam in Nigeria? Could Izala be a reform movement considering their position and conflicts with the established Sufi orders? Since none of the Islamic movements precludes controlling the state apparatus as an objective, is the debate about their perception of the Nigerian state mere semantics?


A brief history of their conduct in Nigeria might clarify why the Islamic movements may defy labelling into either reformists or Islamist as opposites. Both the Sufi and Izala may seem to be mainly social reform movements.  What might make them both appear to be reformist movements is the fact that their leaders have been associated with the governments of Nigeria since independence and their leaders tend to be incorporated into the state. However, with the success of the Islamist movement and the growing influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran, another radical movement was born in Nigeria. Since the late 1970s a student leader, Ibraheem Yaqoub Zakzaky, has led a new wave of radical Muslim youths into a Shiite sect based in Zaria. The organisation he leads called, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), has published an article by the Iranian Mullah Hazarath Ali Khamenei, in which he is claimed to be the “leader of the world Muslims.”[13] On the silver jubilee of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria on 10 April 2005, the organisation declared that “The main aim of this movement is barely calling for the establishment of an Islamic system and state, no more no less.”[14] While Izala and the Sufi clerics have tended to get incorporated into the state structure, the IMN Shia sect seems to belong to “state Islamist” category and is determined to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria. This sect hopes to lead an Islamic revolution and establish an Iran-type of state in Nigeria.[15] According to Falola, “Each year there has been at least one violent incident involving Shiites”.[16] Each of these sects is aligned to one or another of the various Middle Eastern Islamists groups or their governments.  The first two tend to be funded and trained by Saudi Arabia or Libya, and the last by Iran. We can also see through the changing rhetoric of some clerical leaders the underlying interest they represent.[17] Led by Izala and IMN, religion has become a persistent cause of much strife and violence between the Islamic groups, but increasingly between them and Christian movements.[18] 


What is clear by the conduct of all the Islamic groups is the complexity of their position and consequently of the implication of the sharia debate on Nigerian society. My division of the sharia debaters into those of the Right and those of the Left is partly based on the difficulty of categorising the Islamic groups. Other methods of dividing the movements and the debaters seem to suffer from either imprecision or overlap. The Right/Left division is made by centring the arguments in the debate on which social groups are more likely to suffer from this law – the poor and women, as most of the cases in brought before the sharia courts indicate.


The emergence and expansion of these Islamic movements in Nigeria form the foundation to the introduction of sharia law and the debate that has ensued. In 1999 the Muslim elite capitalised on the Islamist rhetoric and channelled the frustrations of exclusion and poverty of ordinary Muslims to the sharia laws.  Each of the governments operating sharia anchors its claim to apply it in this past - of sharia as a popular demand. The immediate past that set the debate in motion is of course the application of the sharia laws in Nigeria. But there are also some leading discourse analysts whose thoughts about women and sharia have generated the intensive debates about Islam and women. One of the leading persons in this group is Sanusi Lamido Sanusi. What has drawn the most attention to his person and the sharia debate is his article titled, “The Adulteress’ Diary”, which he wrote after the sentencing of Safiya. What issues has he raised in the article? What are the critiques against his position?




The intra-Muslim pro-Sharia debate in the media

Pro-sharia of the “Left

In the diary Sanusi assumes the identity of Safiya and in a satirical style addresses the world about her predicament. The central issue in the paper is justice and women in Islam, in a society steeped in corruption, as reflected by Safiya’s sentence. Since no man has been apprehended as a co-culprit in the offence, Sanusi wonders whether Safiya’s crime was adultery rather than that of being a woman. Where is the evidence for the conviction? Where are the four witnesses to the crime? Can pregnancy be an evidence of extra-marital sex? He ridicules the ignorance or abuse of office of the governors and judges who were implementing the Sharia. He does this, among other things, by quoting the Quranic verses about the punishment for sexual partners who are not married to each other. He shows the complexity of the problem in the distinction made between fornication and adultery by Islamic lawyers. He juxtaposes the verse to the disagreement of the early jurists and Caliphs on the matter.[19] He also discusses some of the historical and theoretical issues in the definition of fornication, adultery and pregnancy in other articles.[20] Many comments have been written by other observers against the sentence on Safiya or in support of Sanusi’s satire.[21] Among these is the concise comment by Abdulsalam Ajetunmobi. Firstly, he shows that the law that prescribes the death sentence contradicts the Qur'anic recommendation, since the only punishment mentioned in the Qur’an is flogging. Further, he shows that by the historical sequence of events, stoning as punishment for the offence has been invalidated by the Qur’anic verses, if that was the practice previously. He shows why there must have been either a mistake in the recording of the tradition of stoning, or that the verse of the Qur’an came later to stem the practice of stoning.[22]


What the variety of articulations about the sentence represents is disappointment with the way the courts singled out the poor and women to test the new laws. Arguing within the historical, legal and theological traditions of Islam, they question the basis of stoning and amputation as punishments in Nigeria.

Pro-Islam of the “Right”

The Right Islamists were incensed by the content as well as by Sanusi’s style of presentation. In itself the reaction to any proposed appraisal of sharia and/or Islamic law and its courts is not new. In the 1950s when some Muslims wanted to advance the cause of women by proposing a change of policy in Northern Nigeria or other changes, they were similarly treated with contempt or threats.[23] Among the Right Islamists, their arguments just like that of Left, is based on the fundamental sources of Islam. Using the same sources they come to a completely different conclusion from those of the Left. The arguments of the Muslim Right are usually built around Islamic texts but also on the political history of Islamic states as opposed to that of Nigeria.  For example, Professor Auwalu Yadudu justifies the sharia laws in response to the constitutional questions being raised about some of the punishments in them. The President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria had doubted the constitutionality of some sections of the new laws, as had the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).[24] The Vanguard newspaper quoted the Attorney General saying the federal government had wedged into Safiya’s case because “this type of thing will not happen in Nigeria of 2001.”[25]  Yadudu therefore says, “section 38 of the 1999 constitution guarantees freedom of religion. A Moslem firmly believes that his submission to the Will of Allah is inchoate if he were to chose or be made to follow some part of His Allah’s injunctions, the personal law, and abandon others, the penal systems.”[26] While his point here seems aimed at individual obligations of a believer, Yadudu sought for justification for sharia as state law in the history of the Sokoto Caliphate. He says, initially the British allowed the application of sharia to continue “including the penal aspects without any hindrance” as it had done in the Caliphate. However, in the long run “British colonial rule curtailed or otherwise totally uprooted the application of Shari’a to Muslims”.[27] These statements imply two things. Firstly, that the penal system is a Divine law, which is what the states seek to apply today; and secondly that the judicial system of the Caliphate had operated this law before the British occupied Nigeria. Since the current debates are about the punishments rather than about sharia per se, he also means by extension, that before the establishment of the Nigerian state the sentence of death by stoning and amputations were carried out in the Islamic state.


The arguments of the Left concern the extent of the divine legitimacy of stoning and amputation. As Yadudu says himself, sharia “embodies the totality of Islamic guidance, which seeks to govern every aspect of a believer’s life.”[28] In doing that the need also arises to debate the contexts and practices of the law. Because of the extensive nature of sharia, distinctions and choices are always made by states as to what aspects of the Islamic guidance should be left to the individual, and what aspects the states appropriated. Thus, it is only aspects of the guidance that states appropriate that become law. Sharia as law is a state law that is derived from Islam but also the traditions and judicial debates through many centuries, often influenced by the culture of the jurists and the time. The second implication of Yadudu’s statement is about the application of the sharia-based penal laws in precolonial Nigeria. He says, apart from the dysfunctional state of the Nigerian legal system, “the public in the North has historical antecedent to fall back upon ....”[29] He is by that referring to the Sokoto Caliphate which was the largest state in the northern parts of Nigeria in the nineteenth century. He attributes the collapse of the sharia legal system to the British.[30] The role of the British in the elimination of sharia law is persistently made without much substantiation by others as well.[31] The most important records for understanding the terms of the British occupation of the Caliphate are those left by the Caliphate’s Vizier Buhari and F. D. Lugard the commander of the British forces. Since the Caliph had fled immediately after the battle of Sokoto in 1903, the Vizier and Lugard ‘negotiated’ the terms of the British occupation. Yet, in neither of their records is it stated that the British would not interfere with the laws and legal practices of the Caliphate. If the current debaters have read how Waziri Buhari understood the agreement with more than a cursory glance, the specific nature of the promise Lugard made is clear. The promise the British made not to interfere with Islam was specific to the five pillars of the religion, with which the Vizier seemed satisfied.[32] The Vizier’s acceptance of the terms is fully understandable if we take into account how crimes were defined and punishments applied in the Caliphate before the occupation. As I have shown elsewhere with factual examples, while Sokoto was an Islamic state, it applied neither the penal laws regarding stoning nor that of amputation.[33] 


The Muslim Right’s motivations are made clearer by their interchangeable use of terms while responding to the parochial organisations based in the southern parts of Nigeria and in search of religious purism. Both Yadudu and Dr M. K. Banu Az-Zubair for example, refer to Northern Nigeria (NN) and its derivative the North in the same breath as they speak of Islam and Muslims in Nigeria.[34] The terms are often used as interchangeable entities and/or identities. For example Yadudu argues, “Muslims in Northern Nigeria firmly believe that the Islamic character of the area was firmly established by the 19th century.”[35] Similarly, Az-Zubair states, “The North’s desire for, and demand to fully implement the Sharia’ah is not a new phenomenon.”[36] A. A. Basgamah even claims that sharia “has been in practice in what is today Kano, Borno, and Sokoto States as far back as 1684.”[37] It is a mindset fraught with undefined presumptions. The facts about the history of Islam in Nigeria should not be distorted for the sake of political expedience for two reasons. Firstly, a distinction needs to be made about sharia as state law and sharia as guidance for personal behaviour. It is implicit in the Vizier’s reaction to the British that the Caliphate made such a distinction. I have already pointed out where the Muslim Right can obtain the facts that clearly show that sharia as state law did not apply as they have presumed it to have done in precolonial Nigeria. In addition, the arguments of the Muslim Left against those punishments, show that the sharia is more complex than the Right presents it in Nigeria today.


Secondly, there is also a need to extricate the political facts from the claims in the history of Nigeria. The history of NN as an administrative unit cannot be traced beyond colonial Nigeria, unless the Muslim Right can prove that the Caliphate and NN were congruent entities. While the Caliphate might have been nearly as large as Nigeria is today, not all the areas in colonial NN were in fact within the effective control of the Caliphate. In addition, the administrative unit which the British called NN ceased to exist with the creation of the twelve states of Nigeria in 1967. In fact, the basis of the existence of the 36 governors and states’ Assemblies is the break-up of the regional system in favour of the state-based system. It is understandable, if the idea of the Muslim-cum-Northern Right is to create or sustain a political NN. For, the idea can be contested but it is also a negotiable proposition based on the collective interests of all the residents in the area. It is divisive for the Muslim elite to assume that the Muslims in the northern parts of Nigeria should constitute and lay claim to northernness unilaterally. It is in this regard that the Muslim Right has misunderstood the politics of Nigeria and of Northern Nigeria in spite of their profuse use of Sir Ahmadu Bello the Sardauna of Sokoto and Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s names.


I will return to the content of sharia law, based on the Zamfara State of Nigeria Shari’ah Penal Code Law – January 2000 later.  Some researchers have approached the problem from the history of the Islamic legal system in Nigeria while others have dealt with the inequalities that exist in these states.[38] The latter group of researchers have analysed in detail why social and economic justice must form the basis of an expanded sharia application by any government. They show that where the loudest voices for sharia are heard also have the worst record of economic and social justice. They concluded with a reminder of the warning by Shehu Usman dan Fodio, the erstwhile father of the “Muslim North” that, “A kingdom can endure with unbelief, but it cannot endure with injustice.” The next section is a follow-up of their concern that Islam has been used in other places to entrench injustice and the same might be happening in Nigeria.


Office-holding and the reconstitution of Sharia

As we can see from its full title the “Shari'ah Penal Code Law” in Zamfara, as in the other so-called Shari’a states in northern Nigeria, is a general law affecting all aspects of life. What makes it different from the penal laws of the non-Sharia states is that it derives its inspiration from a religious source – Islam. What has drawn notoriety to the Governor of Zamfara state is the introduction of capital punishment on certain acts in the state. The particular sections of the law that have drawn global attention are those that define crimes in inter-personal, sexual and theft matters and their punishments. Thus, the sections of the law in the sharia debates are in Chapter VIII of the Code called “Hudud and Hudud Related Offences.”


Governor Ahmad Sani of Zamfara state and other Islamist office-holders and seekers begin their arguments for the implementation of Sharia based on the claim that the demise of the religious law was brought about by the British. In other words, until the occupation of the Sokoto Caliphate by the British in 1903, the “coded” religious law was being applied in the state.  In most cases the anti-colonial position of policy-makers can be proved by the conduct and effects of the colonial policies. In this instance, using it to support the introduction of penal sharia in Nigeria in the year 2000 is, however untenable. The anti-colonialist rhetoric has simply become an instrument of control. It can be conceded that the strategy might have been devised out of ignorance or the fact that historians have glossed over the distinction between claim and fact of the judicial system in both the Caliphate and in Borno. The failure to distinguish between claim and fact has been particularly true of gender-related history of these states, whether the failure is deliberate or not.   Whether the Muslim Right stance can be justified by ignorance of the past or not, what the position does, is to distort some aspects of the history of those states. Consequently, they also fail to grasp how the Muslim elite and Islam stood vis-à-vis the colonial government. Sometimes, without sufficient evidence, claims are made that colonialism favoured Christianity against Islam. Islamists in particular, tend to justify their demand for Islamic law in Nigeria as a return to what were glorious days of sharia application before British rule.


I have argued in Gender and Citizenship: Hausa women’s political identity from the Caliphate to the Protectorate, that the penal sharia as its proponents advocate it today, was not applied. Let us reiterate some of the information about the law and punishments in the Caliphate. A collation and analysis of evidence about the definition of antisocial conduct, their punishments and the resolution of conflicts has shown that the Islamist claim cannot be proved.[39] In that work, issues of slavery, the definition of theft and its punishment, and the management of conflicts arising from extra-marital affairs in the Caliphate are examined. It is further shown that the Caliphate neither had the inclination nor the ability to apply penal sharia as contemporary proponents claim. Apart from that, does the Muslim Right know that the women of both Hausaland and Borno went bear-headed (and sometimes to the waist) in the nineteenth century?[40] Do they know that for example Staudinger says “brandy (cognac) would always find ready buyers” in Kano? He adds, “Here I must mention that this pious Muslim was a great lover of this particular drink … [and] was disappointed that we could not give him any.”[41] Or that alcohol was brewed in Gwandu?[42] Do they know that both prostitution and extra-marital affairs were carried out before the British occupied Sokoto?[43] In the case of Borno, which had had a longer history of Islam too, those punishments were not being applied. Were the Muslim statesmen of those empires any less Muslim than those of today are? Contrary to the Islamist claim, colonial rule in fact expanded the structures and application of sharia than was possible in the Sokoto Caliphate.


What the Caliphate elite tried to do in the 19th century was to focus on the need for security, for productivity as well as maintain a moral probity above that of those they ruled.[44] That elite did not codify the wide body of the sharia nor select its penal aspects, but rather left its application to individual Muslims and their local communities across the country.


By the content of sharia in Zamfara one can see where the new elite lay its emphasis: to threaten the poor and women to acquiesce to their will. The point will be made by juxtaposing two kinds of theft and the punishment of each today. The Zamfara sharia law says,


The offence of Theft shall be deemed to have been committed by a person who covertly, dishonestly and without consent, takes any lawful and movable property belonging to another, out of its place of custody (hirz) and valued not less than the minimum stipulated value (nisab) without any justification.


Whoever commits the offence of theft punishable with hadd shall be punished with amputation of the right hand from the joint of the wrist; [when he/she has had their two hands and feet amputated, they shall] for the fifth or subsequent thefts, … be imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year.[45]


In the application of this law, it seems the key phrase in the definition of the crime is “movable property”, which led to the amputation of Buba Jangebe’s right hand.  Two further clauses of this section could have been used if the judges in the case of Jangabe had wanted to. It says amputation should be staved off, “(c) Where the offence was committed under circumstances of necessity and the offender did not take more than he ordinarily requires to satisfy his need or the need of his dependents”.  As Abubakar and others have shown, before the new sharia came into effect, millions of Nigerians suffer from the poverty, illiteracy and exclusion. In view of the burden of poverty borne by Jangebe, does he deserve that punishment for the theft of one cow?  Or was the intention of the elite merely to frighten the citizens of Zamfara into silence?  The punishments for those “entrusted with property or with any dominion over property” who breach that trust is mentioned in Sections 161 and 165. The first says, “Whoever dishonestly misappropriates or converts to his own use any movable property, commits criminal misappropriation”. The second says, “Whoever commits criminal breach of trust shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years or with fine or with both”. In the Zamfara sharia law, there is no instance where the misappropriation of public wealth invites any punishment which exceeds 15 years. For example, Section 295. For a public servant dishonestly receiving money or property not due, the clause states that they “shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years and shall be liable to caning which may extend to twenty lashes”. Thus, although the value of what might have been ‘stolen’ may be much higher than in what is defined as theft, the offender who converts to their benefit in the case of breaching only gets a prison sentence while the thief loses her/his limb.


At the time the new sharia was passed into law by the states, the federal authorities had not created the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) or the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC). Six years after sharia law, most of the governors are currently under investigation for the misappropriation of public funds. According to an EFCC information document, “the commission will next week arraign 15 serving governors on charges ranging from money laundering, diversion and embezzlement of state funds”.[46] The governor of Zamfara is one of those the Commission accuses of misappropriation. The Governor now accuses the Commission of witch-hunting.[47] What happens to the public servants who appropriate public wealth whether the wealth is physically moved or otherwise, for example by writing or internet transfers or other forms of money laundering? How do we compare the value of such stolen wealth to the theft of a cow based on its impact on the public good and sums embezzled by public officers?


Sharia: how should it be debated?

From the articles and comments written about sharia so far, it would seem the Muslim Right and Left have similar but different conceptions of how the debate should be conducted. It is not however so simple, is it? On the one hand, the position of the Right is, at the discursive level, covert but clear. The debate must be conducted only within the traditional sources of Islam by Muslims and its application in the earliest past of Islam. For them the application of sharia is a revival of a clear definite past available in the texts of Islam ready for replication. This understanding of Islam affords little recognition to the historical context of the texts and practices of the law in Muslim societies. Further, by implication only those who are literate and knowledgeable in the sources of Islam can partake in the debate in the sharia states of today. As Abubakar and his co-authors have shown, the majority of the people in Nigeria are both illiterate and ignorant. Thus, the Right’s position is based on assumptions that have two important implications. Firstly, it is based on the assumption that there is an immutable definition of what being a Muslim is. If that is the case then implications and meanings of the contestations about Muslimness carried out by various organised Muslim groups, splinters and sects, need to be explained. It is well known that the definition of a Muslim was a political question that was debated between Muslim states before the British occupation. In the Sokoto Caliphate specifically, it has been shown that the elite adhered to their own definition of the status only when it was economically or socially expedient for them.[48] The second assumption is that Nigerian Muslims live in an insular environment, perhaps in NN, where what they choose for themselves does not affect others. Where does the rest of Nigeria fit into the equation? Do the laws not affect the non-Muslims living in these states?


The Muslim Left has a broader perception of the debate, but its position seems to get narrowed on some aspects. For example Sanusi whom I have categorised in the Left group, has in a recent contribution proposed that there is a need for “critical analysis … a necessary corollary to the reification of …Shariah as objectified fields of study.”[49] He points out the dogmatic position of the Right where on the basis of “dubious labels of authenticity and tradition [they] insist on the authority of sources that are the site of theoretical debate”. In the same paper he criticises Muslim feminists for using “normative frames” in which, for example “the particular conception of human rights is conveniently neglected.”[50] Sanusi’s critique raises a number of problems for the sharia debates, including to his own invaluable contribution. The most important problem is the idea that feminists could/should excise Western norms/thoughts from their perception of their position in Muslim societies. Expecting the feminists to account for the source of their arguments or to excise it is tantamount ahistoricising the contemporarily of their struggle as believers. Neither should locating the Muslim feminists concerns in the present imply an uncritical adoption of the Western norms. Neither the Muslim Right nor the Left conducts the debates outside the contemporary context of the West-dominated world, in which we function. In fact the concerns of Muslims about sharia and the debates are steeped in the politics and values of Western ‘projects’ – of the 500-year-old global capitalism. For example, the Islamist preoccupation with women’s dressing and sexual conduct are based on and often posed as contrasts to Western decadence. Yet, if one was to look at Muslim women’s dressing in Nigeria before the occupation, the scantiness of their dress would have shocked Victorian England for example; and would have had more in common with contemporary Western women’s dressing. Very few Muslim women could or would have dressed in the ideal mode demanded by Islamists today. Textile production in 19th century Nigeria was advanced, but the industry did not have the capacity to drape all women in the garb currently being proffered by Islamists. Nor did the Muslims of that time have the cultural fixation about women’s dressing today’s Muslims seem to have. Another example is that of the Kanuri people, who might have been Muslims long before the peoples of the Sokoto Caliphate. In their traditions, female hair-styling was an important feature of distinguishing the civil status and age of females. The open head played an important role in their traditional courting system, where the hairstyle distinguished females by age and by marital status. Draping the head was a status symbol, mainly of having performed the recommended pilgrimage to Mecca or that of class. Clearly, the debate today is as far as the demands on women are concerned located around Western norms and values.


Further, as Sanusi pointed out, the legal status of women, slaves and non-Muslims in Islam “were historically and culturally determined, and reflected an essentially patriarchal, muslim-dominated polity.”[51] Thus for example, the struggle against slavery was mainly carried out through the Western conception of justice rather than that of the Islamic. It can well be argued that since the “the conception of justice [which facilitated the end of slavery in the contemporary Muslim world] originates in the tradition of modern western scholarship and European projects”;[52] there is no intrinsic aversion to adopting Western values.  As Sanusi has said too, the early Muslim and Western philosophers have used and exchanged ideas for centuries. Muslim feminist might use the concept of justice as a group which, as he has pointed out, suffers a disadvantage in how Islamic states have been organised. The “women rights are human rights” slogan of feminists is not different in origin to the anti-slavery movement. 


As Sanusi mentioned elsewhere that “separating the reading of Islam from the reading of the real life of Muslim people (including its tensions, its class conflicts, its needs and its priorities – all of which differ in time and space), Islamists / /are able to master / /literary stupidification / /and intellectual paralysis”.[53]  What Muslim feminists do is based on the recognition of their reading of women’s real interests in Muslim societies. Their contribution to the debates could be seen as one of the ways of reducing the intellectual inertia of Islamists, rather than as a front for any Western interest. As Hussaina J. Abdullah has shown while discussing the role of the Federation of Muslim Women’s Association in Nigeria (FOMWAN), keeping to the Islamic texts alone poses insurmountable problems too. The contradictions FOMWAN faces are rooted in its refusal to contextualise Muslim women in the Nigeria in the global village. 



The discourse of religion and politics in Nigeria is complex. However, in the debates that came with the introduction of the sharia laws in 2000, a trend seems to have emerged. The trends can broadly be grouped into two. I have named the two groups the pro-sharia Muslims of the Right and those of the Left. The distinct difference of the two seems to be the extent to which each perceives sharia as law. While the Right sees the sharia as Divine immutable law, or conceive of the judgements of the leading jurists immutable; the Left believes that the early Muslim jurists defined offences and applied the punishments based on the emphasis each jurist has put on one or the other of the varied practices of the early Caliphs and the Prophet of Islam. The Left’s logical conclusion is that sharia is more complex than the Right portrays it and cannot be reduced to simplistic interpretations and/or applications of ancient practices of the law and harsh punishments.


It is an open secret that there is a fierce global battle of ideology going on among Muslims about how to understand and apply sharia as a guide to personal conduct and as state law. The debates must continue, but they must include all points of view - all the shades of Islam, Muslim men and women’s, as well as that of non-Muslims. In Nigeria the “victims” in the war of words, which sometimes spills into the streets, are ordinary Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The sentence of stoning to death passed on Safiya and the amputations carried out are the battle grounds - the legal extension of those two ideological positions.  Jangabe, Saifya and others are casualties of a war the magnitude of which they barely understand.


The sinister dimension of the new sharia in Nigeria is the pretence of the Muslim political elite that it is in fact a battle over the rights of Muslim rather than of power. As the victims of the laws mount, the truly unIslamic conduct might well turn out to be neither Safiya’s sexual behaviour nor Jangebe’s theft of a cow. If the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) succeeds in its mission, the diversion of the resources meant for medical health services, education, poverty alleviation, stemming desert encroachment, etc into private pockets, might turn out to be the biggest crime in the public eye yet. It is in the interest of the poor and women that the debates continue as part of the process of democratisation, whether in the short-run the EFCC succeeds or not.


Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999.

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Falola, Toyin, Violence in Nigeria: the crisis of religious politics and secular ideologies, New York 1998.

Hodgkin, Thomas Nigerian Perspectives: an historical anthology, London, Oxford and New York 1975.

Hussaini, Safiya & Masto, Raffaele (trans., Helena Monti), Dömd att Stenas, 2004.

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Kirk-Greene, A. H. M., Barth’s Travels in Nigeria, London & Ibadan 1962.

Kirk-Greene, A. H. M., The Principles of Native Administration in Nigeria: selected documents 1900-1947, London 1965.

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[2] Senator Mohammed Aruwa in  3 April, 2000.

[4] Alkasum Abba, “The Misrepresentation of Nigeria by Nigerians and others”, Paper presented at a workshop organised by CEDDERT on behalf of the Nigeria UN Reform Committee, Assembly Hall, ABU, Zaria, Saturday, 11 June, 2005. Hauwa Mahdi, Gender & Citizenship: Hausa women’s political identity from the Caliphate to the Protectorate, Gothenburg, 2006.

[5] Alhaji Mahmood Yakubu, An Aristocracy in Political Crisis, Brookfield USA, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, 1996, pp. 130.

[6] Whether the elite’s view of sharia and that of ordinary people is the same, is outside the scope of this paper.

[7] Ousmane Kane, Muslim Modernity in Postcolonial Nigeria: a study of the Society for the Removal of Innovation and Reinstatement of Tradition[SRIRT ], Brill, Leiden & Boston, 2003, p. 7.

[8] Jama’at izalat al-bid’a wa iqamat al-sunna translates as, Society for the Removal of Innovation and Reinstatement of the Tradition.

[9] See, Kane, p. 84.

[10] Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, “Islam and Human Rights in Sahelian Africa” in David Westerlund and Eva Evers Rosander (eds.), African Islam and Islam in Africa: Encounters between Sufis and Islamists, Hurst and Company, London, 1997, p. 79.

[11] An-Na’im, 1997, p. 80.

[12] Holger Weiss, Obligatory Almsgiving: an enquiry into Zakat in the Pre-colonial Bilad al-Sudan, Helsinki, 2003, especially pp. 87 – 151.

[13] and their online Hausa newspaper,

[14] “The Declaration of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria: a prosperous silver jubilee” in

[15] For more on the Shia see, Falola, pp. 194 – 203.

[16] Toyin Falola, Violence in Nigeria: the crisis of religious politics and secular ideologies, New York, 1998, p.203.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Sanusi L Sanusi, “The Adulteress’ Diary”, 6 November, 2001,

[20] See, for example, “The Politicisation of Ontological Questions: discourses,  subjectivities and Muslim Family Law in Nigeria”, 2002 in

[21] Abdulrahman Muhammad Dan-Asabe, “Safiya Husseini, Sanusi and the others” in, 26 November 2001. Toyin Kinoshi, “The Adulteress’ Dairy: to those who may have a problem with it” in, 26 November, 2001.

[22] Abdulsalam Ajetunmobi, “The Ruling of Death on Safiya Tungar-Tudu”,, 26 November, 2001.

[23] See for example, Nigerian Citizen, 6 February, 1957.  Nigerian Citizen, 9 February, 1957, pp. 2 & 6.  Nigerian Citizen, 10 August, 1957, p. 5. Nigerian Citizen, 6 September, 1958, p .5.  M. A. Ahmad, “Lift that Curtain Covering Way to Women’s Emancipation” in Nigerian Citizen, 25 October, 1958, p.5.

[24] , 14 March 2000., 22 March, 2000.

[25], 15 November, 2001.

[26] Prof. Auwalu Yadudu, “Sharia Debate in Nigeria: time for reflections”  in, 7 March, 2000.

[27] Prof. Auwalu Yadudu, “Sharia Implementation in a Democratic Nigeria: Between Deference to Popular Will and Libertarian Challenges” in, 15 April 2002

[28] Prof. Auwalu Yadudu, 7 March, 2000.

[29] Professor Auwalu Yadudu, 15 April, 2002. Also see, Dr. Auwalu Yadudu, “We Need a New Legal System” in Ibrahim Sulaiman & Siraj Abdulkarim (eds.), On the Political Future of Nigeria, Zaria, 1988, pp. 2-7.

[30] Yadudu, 2002

[31] For example see, Malam Ibraheem Zakzaky, “Application of Shariah in the Contemporary World: lessons from some Muslim countries” in,, 19 September, 2000. Alhaja Lateefah Okunnu, “Women, Secularism and Democracy: women’s role in the regeneration of society” in, 20 April, 2001.

[32] Lugard’s speech is in A. H. M. Kirk-Greene, The Principles of Native Administration in Nigeria: selected documents 1900-1947, London, 1965, p. 43-44. Waziri Buhari’s text is in Thomas Hodgkin, Nigerian Perspectives: an historical anthology, London, Oxford and New York, pp. 392-394.

[33] Mahdi, 2006.

[34] Yadudu, 2002. M. K. Banu Az-Zubair, “Federalism, Sharia and Nigerian Constitution” 18 January, 2000 in

[35] Yadudu, 2002.

[36] Az-Zubair, 2000

[37] A. A. Basgamah, “National Discourse: the Kaduna holocaust II” in, 28 April 2000.

[38] Allan Christelow, “Islamic Law and Judicial Practice in Nigeria: an historical perspective” in Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, vol. 22, No. 1, 2002. Abubakar Siddique Mohammed, Sa’idu Hassan Adamu, and Alkasum Abba, “Human Living Conditions and the Reform of the Legal Systems: the talakawa and the issues of the Shari’ah in contemporary Nigeria, 17-18 November, 1999 in,

[39] Mahdi, 2006

[40] Major Denham, Captain H. Clapperton and the Late Doctor Oudney, Narrative of Travels and Discoveries  in Northern and Central Africa in the Years 1822, 23 and 24, 2 vols., London,1985 (1826  ), vol. 2, pp. 267 & 269. A. H. M. Kirk-Greene, Barth’s Travels in Nigeria, London & Ibadan, 1962, p.109 & 164.  Paul Staudinger, In the Heart of the Hausa States, 2 vols., J. Moody (trans.), Athens – Ohio, 1990, vol.1, p.305.

[41] Staudinger, p. 225.

[42] Ibid, p. 312.

[43]  Ibid, p. 239.

[44] See Y. B. Usman (ed.), Studies in the History of the Sokoto Caliphate: the Sokoto seminar papers, Zaria, 1979. Murray Last, The Sokoto Caliphate, London, 1977. Paul E. Lovejoy, “Plantations in the Economy of the Sokoto Caliphate” in Journal of African History, vol. 19, 3, 1978. Murray Last, “An Aspect of the Caliph Muhammad Bello’s Social Policy” in Kano Studies, no. 2, July 1966. M. Last, “Aspects of Administration and Dissent in Hausaland, 1800-1968” in Journal of the International African Institute, vol. xl, no. 4, 1970.

[45] All the quotations of the law are from, The Zamfara State of Nigeria Shari’ah Penal Code, January 2000, Section 8.

[46] “Corruption: EFCC names 31governors. 15 in court next week”, 28 September, 2006 in

[47] In a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) interview with Governor Ahmed Sani printed in, September, 2006. See also an interview with Dr. Mohammadu Tahir, “A Daidaita Sahu Not a Corrective Measure” in, September, 2006.

[48] Mahdi, 2006.

[49] Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, “Thinking Aloud: how not to debate the Shari’ah”, June 2005 in

[50] Ibid.

[51] Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, “Non-Muslims in a Contemporary Islamic State” in, July 2002.

[52] Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, June 2005.

[53] Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, “In the Eye of the Storm: Critiquing the Critics of The Adustress’ Diary”, 30 November, 2001. The emphasis is mine.