The Islamic Movement: The Real Issues A response to Yola


Sanusi Lamido Sanusi  


Strictly speaking, Dalhatu Sani Yola’s comment “flaws in Sanusi Sanusi’s thesis” (Weekly Trust 13/11/98)   does not provide one with the basis for a response. First, Yola fails to define what my “ thesis” is although he does suggest that it is on the “ideals and realities of the Islamic crusade in Nigeria. I certainly did not use those words and perhaps the choice of the word “crusade” is sufficient as an indicator of the dividing line between different categories of Muslim Activist. For me, the Islamic struggle is, on the political plane, a struggle aimed at the revolutionary transformation of society such as to bring it closer to the Islamic ideals of justice, honesty and fairplay and create a society that respects the liberty and dignity of its citizens irrespective of creed. To some others, it is a crusade whose ultimate objective is to subdue other Nigerians and “impose” upon them the Islamic law and religion and turn them into willing or unwilling subjects of a government run by dictators in Islamic garb. I do not say this is what Yola means, but the word “crusade” certainly conjures in the mind a picture of Muslim forces waging a war against non-Muslims. My thesis, on the other hand, was and remains that Islam requires Muslims to join hands with other Nigerians in the struggle to create a better, more religious and humane, more liberal, honest and fair political environment  in which all Nigerians can improve their lives-economically, culturally, intellectually, spiritually and morally. The struggle  is for me, a revolution  against our collective – oppressors rather than a crusade against our fellow-oppressed. This thesis was not addressed.

The second reason Yola’s comment does not deserve a response is that it was essentially a criticism of a paper which had opened by stating clearly that it was a continuation of an earlier paper (The Muslim Activist and Multi-Religious Opposition, Weekly Trust 5 & 12, June, 1998) and which Yola seemingly did not bother to read. In consequence, Yola writes a rejoinder which seeks to “straighten the fundamental flaws” in a thesis he did not read, or if he did, did not properly digest. This response would have been more useful and the debate altogether richer, had the critic allowed himself the opportunity of academic rigour, and pitched his intellectual effort at a somewhat higher level than seems to have been the case. It is all the more sad because from the tone of Yola’s article, he strikes one as a person of more than modest intellectual endowments and who can thus hold out on his own in the field of academic discourse.

The result is that Yola spends his time quoting back at me verses of the Qur’an which I had quoted in the first article. He accuses me of not acknowledging “conceptual and institutional arrangements in-built in Islam that not only guarantee democratic politics but inspire good governance and justice in the polity.” This is indeed a baffling charge considering that I had gone out of my way in the earlier paper to argue that only those who do not read the Qur’an and Sunnah need to be taught these same principles by Americans or Europeans and I had quoted much the same verses quoted by Yola.

Yola next proceeds to defend the Islamic Movement against two allegations that I was supposed to have levelled against it: The first is that Islam is being unduly “politicized” literally in the process of its becoming responsive to political forces or issues. Again, it is a shame that such a charge could be leveled by one who read my paper. For, in the paper to which Yola was responding, (Islamisation of Politics) I had stated clearly what I meant by “politicisation” of Islam: that is, its use or abuse for selfish political ends. I gave this definition precisely to avoid confusion, as I am aware that some Orientalist and Middle-East scholars like Nazih Ayubi have sometimes used the term to mean giving Islam a political character which it does not intrinsically have.

The second allegation is that the Islamic Movement has kept itself apart from the very processes that need to be controlled if society is to be changed. I did make that allegation and I stand by it.  Yola makes broad, unsubstantiated claims to show the great success of the Islamic Movement in the field of education, publishing and public affairs. The facts give the lie to this assertion and principal leaders of the Islamic Movement, including its “moderate” arms, would be the first to admit that they have failed. I will expatiate on this point but first I ask the reader to recall, incidentally, that the thesis Yola is critical of was written in support of Dr. Uthman Bugaje, a well-known activist. It was not primarily an attack on the Islamic Movement.

Be that as it may the Islamic Movement, as a political movement, is to be judged primarily on the basis of its success in formulating an ideology, articulating a programme and implementing, (successfully), strategies that promote the interest of the Muslim Ummah. By Ummah, I do not mean Muslim Emirs and Chiefs, or Qadis and Imams, or petit-bourgeois academics and middle-class elite, even though each of these rightfully belongs to the Ummah. I mean rather the bulk of the Ummah, those poor people called masses whose illiteracy, ill health, penury, degradation and despair cry out for a liberator. What strategies have been adopted to protect their  interests? What publications have addressed their plight? Where is their voice in public discourse? What education has been given them that can help them change their pathetic circumstances?

The “moderate”  wing of the Islamic movement speaks like an elite, in the interest of the elite. It is interested in having a “Muslim Brother”  as an Adviser, or a Minister, or a Vice-Chancellor and regards these as the signposts of its success. Progress becomes a chance to share, to be part of the system rather than to change it.

The radical wings are more “revolutionary”. Their members are generally uneducated, poor people who find outlets for expressing their anger in confrontation with real and imagined opponents of Islam. A large number of them have the death-wish, the love for martyrdom which may be equally a reflection of complete faith in God or total despair in this world, leading to the search for a quick way out. Yet the courage and revolutionary character notwithstanding, these groups are hampered by limitations which are a necessary feature to their composition, primarily a pedestrian intellect and a simplistic, metaphysical approach to political reality. They want an Islamic State (which they define largely the way Yola did in his paper) but do not go beyond forms and externalities to substances and realities. Somehow, if they continued demonstrating and rioting, they believe the government of Nigeria, the state machinery, will collapse. Somehow, they feel they can forget the existence of tens of millions of non-Muslims and presume that these human beings will willingly submit themselves to an Islamic government or a dictatorship of Mullahs rather than the secular military dictatorship to which they currently object. So we have groups who try to replicate the Iranian Revolution in Nigeria without reference to differences not just in historical experience but in the objective realities of the two nations such as demography, cultural/religious homogeneity/diversity, distribution of economic and military power etc.

The net result of their activity is that a whole generation of Muslim Youth has been rendered completely purposeless while Islamic struggle, being exclusive, has raised fears and animosities on the part of non-Muslims who consider themselves (their lives, properties and freedoms of worship) at risk. The poor are divided, the weak kill each other, Muslims and Christians prepare the ground for sectarian strife  while the oppression, corruption and injustices perpetrated by the status-quo continue. I stand to be corrected on these points.

My thesis is that those strategies are counter-productive and reactionary. My thesis is that there can be no programme for change, for transformation of the life of the Muslim Ummah (if we mean by Ummah the majority of the Ummah) unless  it is an integral part of a general programme of national transformation which recognizes that the Muslims are a sub-set of the Nigerian Political Economy who share the same traumas and deprivations as other sub-sets and that progress lies in addressing this reality rather than chasing shadows.

Any one who seeks to find a flaw in this thesis will need to go beyond Yola. Yola merely presented a “model” of an Islamic polity, an ideal much the same as Plato did in the  Laws or the Republic; much the same as the Utopia of Karl Marx. To quote verses of the Qur’an and show that an Islamic ideal exists is to state an obvious fact and participate in an exercise that is at best, glorified and enlightened plagiarism. What we want to know is how the Qur’an can be applied to Nigeria in 1998 and how we can liberate the Muslim masses and change their objective, concrete and material conditions. This is where dialectics comes in. Yola’s thesis was an exercise in metaphysics, a description of opposites without searching for interconnections.

It is ironical that Yola concludes his paper with a reference to Hegelian dialectics. But is dialectics not what my thesis was all about? When I quoted Russell on the necessity for a marriage between ideals and reality was I not asking for a dialectical approach? Engels wrote, in explaining this approach in Ludwig Feurbach: “the world is not  to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes.” Lenin  wrote that dialectics was concerned with “the concrete analysis of concrete conditions”. Even Hegel sees dialectics as “the study of the connections of opposites” leading to examination of things “ in their own being and movement”. If Yola understands the meaning of dialectics he certainly does not apply the dialectical method in his discourse. Practically everything I have said here quoting Russell, Engels, Hegel and Lenin, I had said in “The Muslim Activist” quoting purely Islamic sources.

Islamic thought and civilization and the laws of motion governing Islamic Society, can not be entirely separated from human thought and civilization and the laws of motion governing human society in general. As Marx said in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”

Those who believe they can have a Political Economy for the Nigerian Muslim separate from a general political economy of Nigeria are dreamers. This is why Yola is unable to offer anything concrete. His conclusion says it all and I quote: “Sanusi Sanusi’s antipathy over the seeming failure of the movement to produce a political game plan could be rationalized within the context of Hegelian philosophy on dialectics (sic). For whilst their complexities and unlimited range might very well appear antithetical, I am confident their common baseline (sic) not minding the discordant false starts, would one day facilitate the arrival of that eventful day of reckoning. Soon enough, hopefully.”

The stupefying banality of this conclusion should be obvious. The Movement has failed to produce a “game-plan”. Its “false starts” are “discordant”. However, the answer is not critical re-examination of these “discordant” “false-starts”. Rather, it is a fatalistic anticipation of that  “eventual day of reckoning”  which will come out of these, “soon enough, hopefully”.  This is the net result of the Metaphysical mode of thought which, as Engels wrote in  Anti-Duhring, consists in “ the habit of considering objects and processes in isolation, detached from the whole vast interconnection of things; and therefore not in their motion but in their repose; not as essentially changing, but as fixed constants….” Fundamentalists, far from representing a correct Islamic perspective, are guilty of engaging in a quasi-science called metaphysical discourse. The seemingly unassailable nature of their position lies in the fact that there is literally no intellectual effort on their part, just quotes from the Qur’an arranged to form a sterile utopia depriving the Word of God of historical content and its revolutionary social and political character. Scholarship lies in defining the ideal, understanding reality, and exerting the intellectual effort to study the dialectical interconnections- between both. It is this that marks the difference between a fundamentalist and a revolutionary.

Today, political scientists would consider it amusing that the debate between Metaphysics and Dialectics is still raging. Both natural science and philosophy have moved on and the “study of things in their interconnection"  is the rule of the game even in bourgeois political and economic thought. However, there are still those who operate from a metaphysical framework and the majority of these tend to be religious fundamentalists.

I say “religious fundamentalists”, not “Islamic fundamentalists”, because fundamentalism and metaphysics are not peculiar to Islam. Just as Islamic fundamentalists see society as either Islamic or Jahili, we have Christian fundamentalists who probably take their inspiration from the words of Christ (Matt 5:37) “ Let  your communication be Yea, Yea, Nay, Nay, for whatever is more than these cometh of evil.” Thus Muslim and Christian fundamentalists talk and act in terms of political formulas, and have a set of ready-made labels to stick to everything so as to judge it in accordance with its label, regardless of actual changing circumstances.

The fundamentalist Christian group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has for years been waging a civil war in Uganda aimed at establishing a “Godly” government run on the basis of the Ten Commandments. Unfortunately, since in war you have to kill, the LRA has obviously had to suspend the commandment “thou shalt not kill”. Because in war you need sustenance, the LRA when it raids a poor village will have to suspend the commandment  “thou shalt not steal”. Since the Army is made up of young, virile men holed up for months in the forests of Northern Uganda, it is also reasonable to presume that when a village is raided and prisoners captured, especially young women, at  least some LRA members will temporarily suspend the commandment “thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife”. Thus we have these professed Christians struggling to establish a Christian state through very unChristian  methods. Such is the fate of any revolution that does not have a popular base, no matter what its ideals are. Such is the fate of those who think of their ideals in isolation, without connecting them to objective reality.

The dialectical approach, as Engels wrote in Dialectics of Nature is the “science of interconnections, in contrast to metaphysics”. It is the basis for what Muslim Jurists refer to as Ijtihad  or independent reasoning which only arises because of the recognition that society is in constant motion and political issues in a state of flux. What was good politics two centuries ago for  Uthman b. Fodio in Hausaland may be bad politics in today’s Nigeria. What is good for the Iranian Muslim as  a political strategy  does not necessarily apply to the Nigerian Muslim. This is the essence of dialectics, a term fundamentalists should learn to understand and apply rather than casually use without comprehension.

Ijtihad, of course, is not unassailable knowledge. That is the preserve of the Qur’an and Sunnah. But it is also not to be easily dismissed as error. It is in that realm which theorists of knowledge (epistemologists) call “probable opinion”. It may be established or disproved. There will be flaws in it. But those who wish to find flaws have to rise to its level of intellectual rigour and beyond. It is for this reason that I have ignored references to my person by Yola, a man whom I have never met, such as the claim that I have only recently started participating in “ebullient public discourse in contrast to (my) past attitude of idly watching events …” It is an old trick. If you can not demolish a man’s argument or match his intellect, attack his character. Meletus charged Socrates with corrupting the youth of Athens and believing in false Divinities. Aristophanes  presents Socrates in his play, Clouds, as an expert  in sophistry and as a believer in physical (pre-Socratic) philosophy.

If it was a bait, I am not biting. Those who cherish their work know better than to advertise it. Those who respect their own intelligence know better than to allow themselves to be distracted from issues by swipes taken at their personalities. They insist that those who wish to engage them in debate rise to their level.

In sum, my thesis (to borrow from Hegel) is that the Muslim Ummah’s logical path to success lies in its integration as a Vanguard of a national democratic revolution, in co-operation with other Nigerians, but without losing sight of the great Islamic values which our decadent political system requires. This is what will lead to what I called the “Islamisation of Politics”,  as opposed to the “Politicization of Islam”.

Yola sought a negation of that thesis not by postulating an anti-thesis but by seeking imaginary flaws and engaging in pseudo – academic metaphysical discourse.

The only reason I wrote this essay is because Yola speaks not for himself alone, but for a vocal minority of self-styled puritans who pretend that their lack of intellectual rigour and their political naivete are really reflective of a complete and superior loyalty to the sacred texts. In this, they imply that those who formulate pragmatic, progressive ideologies that take full cognisance of the objective reality we seek to impact on have somehow compromised Islam and its ideals.

Those who break away from traditional thought forms must learn to expect a back-lash. They must also have the courage of their own convictions and relentlessly pursue their objectives. This essay serves as a negation of the negation.

The thesis stands.           

You can read more about my article from my web page at