The innocuous photos of two Nigerian Islamic clerics shopping and relaxing in London sparked a fierce debate on social media platforms in northern Nigeria in early December 2017. The photos were quite unremarkable. One showed the two men sitting on a park bench; another showed them in a clothing store wearing cowboy hats. In both, they were dressed in suits. And they were wearing gloves and scarves to protect themselves from London’s cold, wet weather.
The pictures caused a fierce online debate about piety, hypocrisy, morality, the sartorial prescriptions of Islam, and the tyranny of religious authorities in Muslim-majority northern Nigeria. The violent Islamist group, Boko Haram, is active in the region, which has become a hotbed of extremism.
So, why were these ordinary images so controversial? Why did they spark heated debates among educated northern Nigerian Muslim men and women?
The answer is simple. The two men are Salafi clerics, members of a clerical order that has come to wield outsized influence over Muslims in northern Nigeria. The clerics act as enforcers of an increasingly puritan Islamic order. They are uncompromising in defining what is moral and permissible and what is haram or sacreligious. They often equate Muslims’ engagements with modernity and Western ways of life with immorality and sinful innovation or bid’ah.
This leaves them open to charges of hypocrisy when they appear to make choices seen as contradicting their teachings. And this is what happened in London. The two clerics were wearing what in northern Nigeria is considered western dress. This touched off debates between two camps of young Muslims: those who resent the growing intrusion of the clerics into their lives and are eager to criticise their adventures in a Western city, and those who continue to look on the religious figures as revered exemplars of piety.
Wahhabism and the roots of Salafi Puritanism
The Islamic sect to which the two clerics belong heightened the controversy. Sheikh Kabiru Gombe and his mentor, Sheikh Bala Lau, are prominent clerics of the Izala sect, the most visible face of a growing community of Nigerian Salafism, a branch of Sunni Islam which holds to a strict, uncompromising doctrine.
Leaders of the sect are gaining popularity and displacing mainstream Sufi clerics in the region. They accuse traditional Sufi Muslims of hobnobbing with modernity and failing to practice Islam in its pure form. Sufis are vulnerable to these accusations because their creed focuses on individual mystical paths to God rather than on outward, political and authoritarian expressions of piety.
This difference has led to an increasingly intense contest between the two sides. The photographs of the two clerics catapulted the contest onto social media, blogs and web forums.
The personalities and profiles of the two clerics contributed to the intensity of the debates.
Sheikh Gombe is known in the region for his ultra-radical Salafi theological positions and pronouncements. He has made his voice heard in local and foreign settings, capturing the imagination of some young Muslims in northern Nigeria. He presents an argument that being a pure Muslim means eschewing association with Western modernity. He is against modern and Western institutions such as secular film making, mixed gender socialisation and goods such as Western clothes. All, he argues, can pollute the piety of Muslims.
In my ongoing research on the historical roots of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria I call the rise of this branch of Islam the Salafi Islamic wave. Tracing its roots, I have found that it began with the slow but well-funded arrival of Wahhabism in northern Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s. Wahhabism is the puritan strain of Sunni Islam birthed in Saudi Arabia by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.
At the time Gumi was travelling throughout the Muslim world and spending time in Saudi Arabia as a member of both the Supreme Council of the Islamic University in Medina and the Legal Committee of the Muslim World League. He returned to Nigeria in 1986 and was recognised as the spiritual leader of the Izala anti-Sufi reform movement. The movement’s following expanded dramatically under him.
The Izala group set up schools and the best graduates were sent – on generous Saudi Arabian scholarships – to the University of Medina to study Islam under a Wahhabi curriculum with a tinge of ultra-radical Salafism. They returned in the 1990s and inaugurated a new Salafi era in northern Nigerian Islam.
In the 2000s, Medina-trained Salafi clerics, backed by Saudi money and patronage, succeeded in upstaging the old Izala clerical order through a mix of youthful charisma, theological novelty and populism. They began entrenching their strict moral code conforming, according to them, to the Islamic Sharia law.
Beyond photos and suits
Western culture and lifestyle dominate popular culture in Nigeria. For many young Muslims in northern Nigeria, Salafism’s prescriptions and prohibitions are suffocating, particularly for those who want a more pragmatic engagement with a Western lifestyle. Many believe they can pursue these lifestyle choices and still practice their religion.
But Salafi clerics and their followers see no acceptable compromise. They are increasingly making themselves custodians of public morality. They routinely condemn conduct that they associate with decadent, permissive western modernity. For example, they dictate what northern Nigerian Muslims can and can’t wear.
The debate around the two clerics was therefore not a trivial conversation about the dress and the recreational choices of two Salafi clerics. The photos were loaded with symbolism and contradictions. Participants in the online debate used the opportunity to criticise – or excuse – the perceived tyranny and hypocrisy of a powerful Salafi establishment. And to express personal anxieties and fears.
The debate about modernity, Islam, and morality has migrated to online platforms because the internet is relatively anonymous. This has given both sides greater freedom to express their views. The debate encapsulates the ongoing ideological struggle in northern Nigerian Islam between those who live and defend a modern lifestyle, and those suspicious of Western modernity and the unmediated influence of Western education and culture.
Moses E. Ochonu, Professor of African History, Vanderbilt University