Identity, Political Ethics And Parochialism: Engagement With Ja’far Adam (2)


Sanusi Lamido Sanusi




May 3, 2005


Many of the problems associated with public intellectual discourse on Islam in Nigeria have their roots in the failure of the academic faculties of Islamic studies in the universities that trained the participants, especially in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Modern research in Islamic studies has transcended the purely religious, and in most universities Muslim societies are studied from a solid base in the social sciences-anthropology, sociology, political economy and international relations. Because of the emphasis on theoretical and methodological issues, students with a social science background soon begin questioning the underlying myth of Muslim essentialism that is shared by those who aim to demonize Islam and those who claim to be its defenders in equal measure. What is presented as “Islam” or “Shari’ah” is promptly exposed as a grandiose political and ideological construct. In the one case, the objective is to portray the Muslim as essentially backward, violent, intolerant and despotic. In the other, religious symbolism serves as a cloak for the entrenchment of pre- and extra-religious social and political relations of exploitation and alienation- such as dominant and hegemonic capitalist or patriarchal discourses. Through application of the generic methods of  political economy, one is able to lift the veil of mumbo-jumbo and expose the implicit social and political violence to which the masses of Muslims are subjected, a violence that must thereafter be resisted irrespective of the religious affiliation of the perpetrators. Hence the first nodal point of tension, since the study of religion thus paves the way for an activist engagement with entrenched reaction.


The second approach to Islamic studies, the religious studies, or Islamology, approach, has not itself been immune from change. Long associated with the analysis of material and religious data, such as the reading and interpretation of sacred texts, it has been overtaken by developments in the field of hermeneutics that seek to arrive at a general theory of interpretation. The internal debates and the relative fluidity of this field not- withstanding, there is a general appreciation of the role of the knowing, epistemic subject in the construction of Muslim knowledge, a theme to which I have often returned in my writings. When a scholar labels someone, for instance, an enemy of “Shari’ah” or “Islam”, this begs the question, in whose view?  “Shari’ah” and “Islam” are not names for a human being walking on the face of the earth. So long as the Word of God is understood through the medium of human beings, each person can only speak of his understanding or interpretation of that Word, and this is the honest claim made by all those great Muslim jurists that interpreted the Law, including our own great Imam Malik. In our own generation, Muslims read those interpretations and try to arrive at their own understanding(s) and interpretation(s) thereof. The subject that understands and interprets is himself a product of a historical process of subjectivation, with all the cultural, political, social, intellectual and ideological baggage that brings. Unfortunately,  our politicized scholars lack the humility of Malik, and arrogate to their position the epithet of authoritative Islam, such that to differ with them is to attack the religion.


Perhaps the best summary of this position is in the title of a book written by the French academic Dounia Bouzar, “Monsieur Islam” n’existe pas (“Mr Islam” does not exist!). It sounds outrageous, but the following passage from the text explains the substance of the book: “Pour commencer cette reflexion, il faut abandonner certaines reflexes partages. D’abord, admettre que les musulmans sont des gens comme les autres. Autrement dit, on ne rencontre jamais des cultures ou des religions, mais toujours des individus qui s’en sont approprie differents elements en constante evolution et interaction pour se construire.”(Italics mine). A rough translation goes as follows: “To begin these reflections we must abandon certain shared reflexes. First, (we must) admit that Muslims are people like other peoples. In other words, we never meet cultures or religions, but always individuals who have appropriated different elements in constant evolution and interaction for its construction.” So if Ja’far argues that I do not have an Islamic identity, all that it means to me is that my interpretation of what Islam is differs in fundamental respects from his, because of differences in background, education and exposure. I cannot expect him to ever think like me or see things the way I do all the time, nor do I pray that I think always the way he does. But no one has a right to claim a monopoly of what is “Islamic”, and if such a claim be made it shall be contested. For me to abandon my own thinking and allow another human being to think for me is, to quote Kant, an exercise in intellectual immaturity, especially since God has given me the capacity to think for myself. Thus we have the second nodal point of tension, as those who are used to unquestioning subservience from the intellectually immature have to deal with independent thinkers, and suddenly find their claims to certain knowledge relativized and decentered.


We can now quote at length my January, 2001 paper, “Values and Identity in the Muslim North”: “…By placing these core "caliphal" values as the focal point for communal identity, Dr. Tukur addresses a fundamental problem facing many Muslim Northerners today: the question of a triple identity. Are they northerners, Muslims or Hausa/Fulani (whatever that means?). In effect, Dr. Tukur gives us a yardstick for definition of "self" in a state of political flux. The definitive basis for communal belonging is "cooperation with fellow members to achieve the higher values of society or service in the interest of the community's raison d'etre" (p. 40 - 41). The significance of this is that we consider an interest as worthy of defending, a cause as worthy of pursuing and a person as worthy of associating with purely based on conformity or otherwise to these higher values. Although Tukur does not explicitly say this, it also logically follows that since these caliphal values are "Islamic", the definitive basis for identity of the northern Muslim is Islam, as a corpus of teachings rather than of actions of persons. Thus the fact that a "northerner" or a "Muslim" or a "Fulani" is the subject of a political issue is not sufficient to make that issue a "northern", "Islamic" or "Fulani" one. The bottom line is how consistent is the issue at stake with the teachings of Islam as incorporated in the value-systems underlying the caliphate. In effect, every other identity is subsumed under our Islamic identity and the Islamic values are the ones worthy of defending. These are not to be sacrificed in the name of "nationalism" or "northern politics" or even "Muslims". Indeed even those Muslim States that seek to implement sharia are to be judged against the yardstick of these values. For those of us who write articles and comment on politics, this hypothesis is a refreshing balm, which we are able to appropriate as legitimation and validation of our sometime controversial position. It is very common for a writer to be labelled a "traitor" to "the North" or "Muslims" for taking a position at variance with the fantasies of a sentiment- driven eclectic consciousness. Language is a moral medium; writing an instrument of ethical illumination, political consciencisation and social mobilisation. The task of the intellectual is not one of blending into the opaque consciousness of the tumultous mob around him, his voice drowned in a cacophony of misdirected protests. His task is to remind them of who they are and what they ought to be. Our values are not to be taken from conduct of our adversaries but from the great heritage of our people.”


As mentioned earlier, the above quote is sufficient to rest my case in this debate, but even so, I would like to complete this paper with a discussion of Muslim political ethics. In the article quoted above, I engaged Dr Tukur in a debate on the question of the essentialism and uniqueness of his ethical postulates to Islam. My principal argument was that, the excellence of his exposition of political ethics notwithstanding, I was uncomfortable with the suggestion that these values were unique to Islam. This discomfort is best understood in the context of a wider philosophical debate on the foundations of ethics, including Muslim ethics. I referred to a basic philosophical question that has for me been fascinating for a long time. It is an old question, going back as far as Socrates in the dialogue Euthryphro, where the sage asks: “Are things good because the gods love them or do the gods love things because they are good?” The question keeps coming up in all discussions of philosophical ethics. In African philosophy, for instance, Mbiti, Idowu and Makinde ground African morality in religion, while Gbadegesin. Gyekye, Wiredu and Appiah demur. In Muslim thought, this question is known as the question of tahsin wa taqbih aqliyyain, and the main issue is whether good or evil exist independently of revelation, that is, if we can, as rational human beings, arrive at a judgment of what is good and what is evil. In Muslim thought the rationalist Mu’tazilites and Shiites answer this question in the affirmative. So do the Maturidites among Sunnites. The Ash’arites and other Sunnites tend to answer in the negative. As indicated in my article, I happen to think that Tukur’s Sunnite, Ash’arite training may have accounted for his position. For me personally, on this specific question, I believe the Mu’tazilites speak the truth.


This dispute has profound consequences for contemporary political discourse. In theology, the ethical rationalism of the Mu’tazilites and Shiites accounts for their emphasis on the principle of ‘Adl, or justice. Politically, this was reflected in their attitude toward unjust rulers, and specifically the Umayyads, including key figures like Yazid b. Mu’awiya and Hajjaj b. Yusuf. This was markedly different from the Sunni consensus against rebellion, (a position that  Ibn Taimiya, remarkably and to his credit, did not fully subscribe to). The question is also linked to the question of free will (qadar) and the extent to which humans are responsible for their actions. Indeed, many of those accused in the early days of Islam of the Qadarite( or “free-will”) heresy were subversive political activists who insisted that unjust rulers, and not God, were responsible for the injustice and corruption in the Caliphate.


 In contemporary Muslim political thought, the most exemplary writers in defence of justice and the ethical foundations of the state have been, on the Shiite side, the Iranian intellectual Ali Shari’ati (particularly in his collection ‘An al-Tashayyu’ wal Thawra)and on the Sunnite side the Egyptian martyr Sayyid Qutb, not in Milestones, but in an earlier, more profound work, Social Justice in Islam (al- ‘Adalah al-Ijtima’iyyah fil Islam). Any one familiar with the above works of Qutb and Shari’ati will understand that for them, Islam is about delivering justice, and not a simple politics of identity. The major problem is that when Muslims read Qutb, they read his late work, Milestones, which he wrote while traumatized on death row, a book that has become the handbook of destructive fanatics on the lunatic fringe, such as al-Jihad and Takfir wa Hijrah. His main work on social justice has also suffered because of his condemnation of the Umayyads as a group of power seeking, cruel rulers who established corruption and nepotism in the Muslim world. This does not sit well with many Sunnites. Among the Shiites, the long running debates between Shari’ati and establishment clerics, has beclouded the profundity of his revolutionary thought. The later condemnation of Shari’ati by clerics close to Khomeini, such as Murtadha Mutahhari, has served to divert attention from his essential message, that what Muslims need is not a new dictatorship or autocracy or theocracy by any name, but a political system founded on principles of justice and equity. Many Shiites who accept the  condemnation by clerics of Shari’ati on theological grounds fail to see that his political views were not only subversive to the monarchy, but a warning against the dangerous tendency and potential of an “Islamic revolution” to be hi-jacked by bazaar-owning scholars and turned into some sort of clerical despotism or “Islamic” capitalism.


In one of my earlier papers, “Shariacracy in Nigeria: The Intellectual Roots of Islamist Discourses”, I had stated my partisanship for the ethically grounded conception of Islam and Shari’ah propounded by Qutb and Shari’ati. Over the last few years, Ja’far has on various occasions  made me the personal subject of his Friday sermons and radio preaching sessions in a desperate attempt to incite the population of Kano against me, labeling me a hypocrite, lover of Christians  and enemy of Shari’ah. My first crime was to let Muslims know that the conviction of Safiya Hussaini and her sentencing to death by stoning was not Islamic-nor even Maliki Law- but a complete travesty thereof. Scholars like Ja’far who kept defending the judgment as consistent with the Law were not happy that I published references from authoritative sources-the Mukhtasar of Khaleel, the Mughni of Ibn Qudamah, the Muhalla of Ibn Hazm- showing them up as being either ignorant or diabolical. The problem, of course, is that ignorance and cruelty are not Shari’ah, and a man who fights them by whatever name is not against Shari’ah.


If a governor starts a legal and political project and calls it “shari’ah”, and is able to recruit some scholars who support him, that does not make what he is doing to be Shari’ah. To conclude, let me restate here my position on these issues, which has been and will remain consistent come what may. I do not accept what is happening in some northern states today, where poor thieves are amputated and poor women are harassed for adultery by incompetent and thieving politicians to be Shari’ah, I will never defend it, and I will not stop criticizing it until the governors change. I do not believe that every Muslim minister is good and every non-Muslim minister is bad, or that we will have a good government if we fill it with Muslims. In any case I doubt that many Christians consider Obasanjo or many of the Christians around him as good examples of Christianity. I believe Obasanjo’s government has failed the nation in many respects, and that it deserves serious sanction; but I do not believe it failed because it has a majority of Christian ministers. Each person is an individual with personal virtues and vices, and we must be fair in our judgment of fellow human beings.

And a final word, for those who care to listen. There are people who can be cowered, bamboozled or intimidated by glorified almajirai. I am not one of them. Period.