Almajiri: Beyond the Rhetorics


Muhammad Mahmud


Recently there are media reports about a bill sponsored by some northern members of the senate to abolish or eradicate the present day almajiri (or qur’anic) system of education. Ostensibly the bill is geared towards modernization of the almajiri schools, but reported contributions by the sponsors of the bill as well as earlier utterances by some members of the lower chamber betrayed the cover. The bill did not come as a surprise to anybody for obvious reasons.  The only thing that is surprising is that the move the sprang from the upper chamber instead of the lower chamber to which belongs Saadatu Sani who informed the public, earlier, that they will do everything possible to eradicate the almajiri schools.

The bill seeks to establish a National Commission for the Eradication of Child Destitution. If the bill scales through all the almajiri schools must register with the proposed Commission. Failure of this will put the Alaramma in prison for two years without option of fine. An alaramma who also sends his students to beg will attract the same punishment.

From the reports, it is clear that the bill is prompted by the need to do away with grievous challenges facing effective implementation of the child right act to which Nigeria is a signatory, not by humanitarianism and the need to save our people from quandary. It is, also, clear that the sponsors of the bill are either confused or cannot differentiate between almajiri (student) and almajiri (destitute or beggar). Maybe this informed the glaring mix-ups in the senate’s reported contributions and the bill itself. It is, however, not clear whether bill is to eradicate beggars or almajiri or both.

The word Almajiri emanated from an Arabic word Almuhajir meaning “immigrant”. The name was given to qur’anic pupils, in most of the present day northern Nigeria, for they left their home towns usually to other places or to a popular teacher to obtain sound qur’anic education.

Almajiri is a general name given to both student and destitute but with different meaning to each. Whereas almajiri (student) is meant generally for qur’anic student, almajiri (destitute) is simply a beggar (whether child or adult). Almajiri (student) too, begs for alms and food, but only at a specified time, that is after school break or on school-free days, unlike almajiri (beggar) who only stops begging when he falls asleep.

In the pre-colonial era, the almajiri system of education was indomitable across the caliphate. Qur’anic schools were everywhere. Children and adults all attend the schools to acquire qur’anic knowledge which is the root of all Islamic education. When the British came they characteristically decided not to scrap the schools as they foresee the adverse consequences that will befall their interests if they do that. Instead, they decided to establish their own schools and established a system in which only their graduates will be eligible to run. The desired result is to technically knock out qur’anic schools, and other Islamic theological schools, and it nearly worked. Circumstantially all the learned people who were at the helm of affairs in pre colonial north, in one fell swoop, became illiterate or uneducated, (at least to the govt.), in the new status quo, making them not only unemployed but unqualified to be employed. The learned and knowledgeable find their positions upturned by this development. It is thought provoking that almost all the beggars in the north are those who possess some amount of qur’anic or Islamic knowledge. Most of the beggars are reciting some portion of memorized Islamic scripts, until when begging took another dimension.

Damning, painful and totally unacceptable as the issue of beggars in the north is, the need to carefully and sincerely examine and appreciate the real problem should, as well, not be compromised. The hypocritical and demagogic approach to this problem will only fuel it as it has been doing before. Perhaps among the reasons for north’s inability to solve the problem of beggars is that the fight against it was not informed by the sincere and self motivated urge to do away with begging as a problem itself. Rather the move to check the menace was prompted by the incessant insults and ridicule the region’s elite are subjected to by the southern press who finds the almajiri phenomenon as a handy weapon. The menace of begging is mendable only if it is given a sincere, thorough and unprejudiced study and a coherent tackling. It is clear that the senate limits the problem of beggars to the almajiri schools only. But a farther scrutiny will reveal the mendaciousness of this assertion.

Thought there is no way one can totally exonerate the almajiri schools from  being one of the remote and/or immediate causes of begging largely for their present nature of existence, it is totally wrong to blame them the whole hog. In the present day north not only the almajiri (student) begs, but also some household who couldn’t find food to feed their children send them to far away quarters, where they could not be identified, to beg! In some years back children are sent from villages to towns and cities as almajirai under the care of an alaramma, but now some villagers simply send the children to the towns and cities, under the care of nobody, to beg. These are the people who are known for their strong resistance to even send their children to a nearby primary school on the grounds that their kids are for farm.  Today there are children roaming the streets begging in the guise of almajiris but they are none. They neither have a school nor an alaramma. The influx of different kinds of beggars (both children and adult) from rural areas to cities who are impoverished by the steady diminishing of farming in the agrarian north is another problem to take into consideration. Inside the cities people turns beggars at the slightest provocation. There are some special kinds of beggars who only beg once a week, on Fridays in jumu’at mosques. People pay the same bus pares with businessmen to go to other places just to beg! Now tell me for God’s sake what has all these got to do with makarantar allo? Which of these is caused by almajiri schools? Even the pretentious almajiri antagonists knew very well that the problem lies somewhere else.

The problem is largely caused by injustice, wickedness, and all sorts of evil and immorality which the north is silently writhing in. As you are reading this piece, each senator received about one hundred million naira, in less than a month, supposedly for the betterment of his constituency. This does not include his remunerations and all other  benefits he enjoys in the senate as people’s representative. It, also, does not include the millions he will be given every quarter of the year for his constituency. How many of respective constituency members even know about this talk less of even benefitting from it? In my state a particular senator simply used the money to start campaigning for an executive chair. He, among other things, bought and distributed pots and likkafani which are used to bury the dead! One has to wait till he dies before he gets this dividend. The remaining two didn’t even bother to pretend anything.

It is very regrettable that the north is yet to have parliamentarians that will even stand to its cause talk less of aptly conveying the so called dividend of democracy to it. Admittedly there are some few who are different but a tree can’t make a forest.  While the southern parliamentarians are busy trying to ensure dividends of democracy to their constituencies our own are simply napping or misrepresenting the region. The issue of onshore/ offshore dichotomy which transmuted to the imbalance and injustice to the north was fully supported by the northern members, and it is still fresh in our minds.

Come to states. How many billions are sent to states as federal allocation each month? How many million are looted, squandered, embezzled and despoiled every day? All these are monies that are supposed to be used to better the lives of the populace. It is their money not the government officials’. Government officials across the states behaves as if the monies in the public coffers is theirs and not a kobo belonged to anybody but them, and worst the public seems (or is cowed) to believe so. Ditto the local governments. The most important thing here is that the destitute as well as all other Nigerians have rights in the nation’s wealth but they are deprived.

But besides corrupt and bad leadership the society itself plays a significant role in the rise and rise of beggars in our midst. The psychological approval enjoyed by beggars no doubt encourage begging. We tend to help only those who beg us. Perhaps this is why the Kano state initiative of “feed one almajiri” simply didn’t work. Because apart from the abject poverty suffered by the people which was compounded by the food crises(which we were groaning under long before the WHO declaration), individualism have surely taken its toll on us.

A person will take alms and other necessities to a beggar by the roadside who is no worse than the giver’s neighbor. In some cases the neighbor might be extremely more in need of the charity than the beggar who might be a charlatan. This contradicts the teaching of Islam clearly. We simply see nothing wrong in begging hence we seldom discourage it. Another unfortunate thing about it is the erroneous religious coloring given to it by some people.

The modernization of almajiri schools if done with good intention for the betterment of the children, but not just to pave way for the controversial child right act, will surely be a step in the right direction. But it should be noted that the modernization will in no way solve the problem of begging completely. Pragmatic approach is the surest means of ending this problem. The states should work together. In my state, government has been doing what it considers as the solution to the almajiri problem but it is clear that it  attracts more almajirai, (some from neighboring states), into the city instead of convincing them to stay and learn at home. I don’t know how far they have gone and I can’t speak for them, but it will be better if the senate contact them.

My intention for this piece is to draw attention to some raw facts about begging which did not start and end with almajiri schools as erroneously believed by some.

Pragmatic approaches which include empowering the destitute and banning of street begging, and so on, should be enforced after necessary groundwork. This was what one of the Islamic leaders did as narrated by Assuyudy in his book tarikh al-khulafa,u.