Shari'ah on Trial: Northern Nigeria's Islamic Revolution

Shari'ah on Trial: Northern Nigeria's Islamic Revolution

by Sarah Eltantawi

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In November of 1999, Nigerians took to the streets demanding the re-implementation of shari'ah law in their country. Two years later, many Nigerians supported the death sentence by stoning of a peasant woman for alleged sexual misconduct. Public outcry in the West was met with assurances to the Western public: stoning is not a part of Islam; stoning happens "only in Africa"; reports of stoning are exaggerated by Western sensationalism. However, none of these statements are true. 
Shari'ah on Trial goes beyond journalistic headlines and liberal pieties to give a powerful account of how Northern Nigerians reached a point of such desperation that they demanded the return of the strictest possible shari'ah law. Sarah Eltantawi analyzes changing conceptions of Islamic theology and practice as well as Muslim and British interactions dating back to the colonial period to explain the resurgence of shari'ah, with implications for Muslim-majority countries around the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520293786
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/28/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Sarah Eltantawi is Assistant Professor of Comparative Religion at Evergreen State College and an analyst of the Muslim-majority world on major media outlets.

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Shari'ah on Trial

Northern Nigeria's Islamic Revolution

By Sarah Eltantawi


Copyright © 2017 Sarah Eltantawi
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96714-4


A Revolution for Shari'ah


O Lord of the worlds help our nation
To get rid of the scourge of debilitating corruption
By day and night from top to bottom
People are aware of this rotten disease
That the rich and poor suffer without
Cure and solution like AIDS epidemic. ...
Looking at the police man as of now
Standing as wretched as a hungry cow
With uniforms so dirty and tattered like crow
From top to bottom unwieldy lined in a row
Never smart never alert or battle ready with a bow ...
A man in the street in Nigeria
Is like a man on death roll
As a common man everything is like hell fire
For there is nowhere for him to get cool
Everywhere is suffering he has to suffer
Its corruption left and right in every pool
Its corruption up and down and everywhere ...
This is our home we have nowhere to go
And our poverty is never alleviated not even near
And yet we are kept in a hell of suffering
Now we resort to looking for the MESSIAH to come ...

M.M. Abdulkarim, "The Poems for the New Generation" (found in a bookshop in Kaduna, Nigeria, 2010)

On any day, tashar motaci (transport stations) across northern Nigeria are bustling with commerce: hawkers sell pirated Hausa videos, sliced papaya and watermelon, the day's newspaper, or hard-boiled eggs as travelers wait with impressive patience — often in extreme heat — for bush taxis to fill to maximum capacity before setting out on potholed roads that the drivers have a special knack for maneuvering. But in November 1999, northern Nigeria's tashar motaci saw something remarkable: tens of thousands of Nigerians crowding in to make their way, mostly westward, to Zamfara State to witness Governor Ahmed Sani Yerima's special "launching" of Shari'ah. Some sold their belongings to afford the journey, and in a widely remarked-upon development, taxi drivers reduced their fares in celebration. Governor Yerima — known for his sharp political instincts, if not for his special Islamic piety — had struck a geyser of popular support with his announcement that Zamfara State was to restore full Shari'ah penal law for the first time since British High Commissioner for the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria Lord Frederick Lugard issued a native courts ordinance in 1900 declaring some aspects of Islamic penal law — including stoning and hand amputations — antithetical to "natural justice, equality, and good conscience." Lugard's announcement came just a few years before Kano's clay city walls crumbled under British cannons in 1903, signaling the death-knell of the Sokoto Caliphate and marking the beginning of direct colonial rule.

In the same year that Yerima launched Shari'ah in Zamfara, 1999, the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Nigeria the second-most-corrupt country in the world. Ordinary Nigerians had suffered under the weight of corrupt military rule and then, starting in 1999, corrupt civilian rule. Conditions had never been worse since Nigeria won its independence in 1960, and in recent decades Nigerians had seen their standard of living fall to heretofore unseen depths, particularly after the adoption of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural adjustment program that significantly withdrew the government from the public sector, affecting, amongother things, food and education subsidies. Many therefore remarked with some irony that the trouble began when the military-backed government yielded to democracy, which had done nothing to quell the government's ritual dipping into the public coffers. Against this backdrop, Nigerians greeted Yerima's news of the restoration of God's law with exuberance, calling him a mujadid and declaring Zamfara State "holy." By 2002, twelve reluctant governors of northern states, chastened and pressured by massive grassroots support for Shari'ah, introduced Islamic penal codes under their jurisdiction. Among these was Katsina State, whose then governor, Umaru Musa Yar'adua, would later become president of Nigeria (2007–10) following controversial elections in 2007.

On January 15, 2002, Corporal Idris Adamu of Nigeria Police Bakori, on behalf of the Katsina State commissioner of police, arraigned a peasant woman, Amina Lawal, and her lover Yahayya Muhammad Kurami before the Shari'ah court in Bakori for committing the crime of zina, or illegal sexual activity. The day before, on January 14, one Police Corporal Rabiu Dauda and another officer of Nigeria Police Bakori had arrested Lawal and Kurami and charged them with the offense. Kurami was shortly thereafter released upon swearing his innocence before the court, while Lawal, who had given birth nine days earlier, was held, in accordance with Maliki law, on the basis of her confession to the crime and because of her pregnancy. Almost two years later, on September 25, 2003, Lawal, whose case had since attracted unprecedented international attention, was acquitted before attentive eyes worldwide.

This chapter is an ethnography of what I call idealized versus political Shari'ah, based on my own research in northern Nigeria in 2010. "Idealized Shari'ah" is what was demanded on the streets of northern Nigeria in 1999; it is a constructed Shari'ah imbued with what Nigerians most urgently want to see in their societies — an end to poverty and corruption. An end to poverty and corruption thus became synonymous with idealized Shari'ah. "Political Shari'ah" is a phrase developed by Nigerians on the ground to describe what happened when Shari'ah took hold in the same corrupt political process that had prompted the revolution to begin with. While the ideal persists, the political manifestation of the ideal brings with it great grief — and, in the age of Boko Haram, grave dangers for ordinary Nigerians. The following section describing idealized Shari'ah makes up the first and outermost layer of the sunnaic paradigm described in the Introduction.


In 2000, Shari'ah spread — and the impossible happened.

Dr. Haruna Wakili


On a very hot day in February 2010, I sat in the office of Aliyu Musa Yauri, in Nigeria's capital Abuja, awaiting my appointment to discuss his work as the lead attorney in Amina Lawal's trial. His staff were not only good enough to offer me an ice-cold malt soda — a precious commodity when electricity shortages often hamper refrigeration — but also provided me great amusement as I eavesdropped on a young Hausa boy's valiant attempts to explain the virtues of conversion to Islam to his pretty, female Igbo colleague, no doubt so he could have a chance to marry her. The girl's witty, unmoved retorts to the boy's evermore-tenacious flirting were interrupted by Mr. Yauri's emergence from his office. A kind-looking man, stout and wearing brilliant royal blue and white traditional Hausa clothing, he breathlessly asked me if we could hold the interview in his car, as he had to mediate a 15 million naira land deal immediately. A few minutes later, I leaned with relief into the air conditioning of his car and the soft murmur of BBC Hausa.

"I would even say that we are willing to see our sons die before we are willing to see the name of Islam touched," he said while maneuvering Abuja's sophisticated highways in the midst of our easy conversation. "When our sons die, we know God has a plan — but Islam ... you can do what you like to do in the north, but if you touch Islam, you are in trouble." Yauri would know. Some who repeatedly threatened him, accusing him of being a non-Muslim, viewed his representation of Lawal with extreme suspicion. They were convinced that his representation of her and her subsequent release were the direct result of Western intervention in the form of money and unwelcome, imposed values. Yauri defended against these accusations by arguing that his defense of Lawal was in fact an expression of his love of Islam. As an attorney and a proud Muslim, he considers it his duty to expand the outward limits of what legal precedents for harsh punishments such as stoning and flogging should be. His words recalled a point that Hauwa Ibrahim, another of Lawal's prominent attorneys, had made to me in Cambridge, Massachusetts, some months before: "The trouble is, once stoning starts, it doesn't stop."

Yauri's predicament indicates how important it is for political actors in contemporary northern Nigeria to foreground "Islam" and Islamic identity in their activism. Any agitation for change that does not cloak itself in the rhetoric of "Islam" stands almost no chance of gaining any popular support — and now, given the northern governors' widespread adoption of Shari'ah in their states, no chance of elite support either. It was not always this way in northern Nigeria, where the Northern Elements Progressive Union, formed in 1950, championed socialist ideas against a backdrop of general Islamic ethical values. But today, a specific conception of Islam that includes an uncompromising fierceness of Islamic penal law (called colloquially "Shari'ah") is the currency of social change. In classical Islamic accounts, Shari'ah is the ideal of God's law, the perfect law. In classical Arabic, the word encompasses meanings including "the way to the watering hole [for camels]" and the ultimate mercy and redemption. This notion stands in contrast to fiqh, which are man-made manifestations of the Shari'ah ideal, incorporated into jurisprudential schools of law that are subject to debate and refinement over time.

While the substance of some of Nigeria's Shari'ah laws may have been hard to defend constitutionally, the populist power that brought them to the north is unquestionable. In the face of dwindling hope in the federal state structure, Hausaland dug deep into its history and collective memory to find an identity that would ground its passion for change. This identity was "Islam." The power of Islam as a proper noun is powerfully buttressed in Hausaland by the memory, now legendary for many, of the Sokoto Caliphate (r. 1809–1903 C.E.), which marked one of the most important periods of rule in African modernity. "Islam" in this construction carries the symbolic value of strength and perseverance, and a sense that all — rich or poor — are equal before God.

An eminent historian of the Sokoto Caliphate, Ibraheem Sulaiman, writes in one of his essays that "In Islam, you are born today and tomorrow you start fighting." But is it all Muslims who fight against the fundamental injustices of our human predicament? Or is it Muslims who find themselves under direct attack, who are therefore commanded to defend their theological and physical borders? I believe that, for Sulaiman's part, "Islam" is a proper noun that connotes self-determination for northerners who want independence on their "own terms." His essay makes it clear that the enemies to be fought are corruption, poverty, and helplessness.

But "Islam" is not simply the fight against the social problems that plague the region; Islam, here, is fundamentally oppositional. "Islam" resists powers that interfere with the subjective sense of self-determination and confidence a people need to confront their problems. According to Sulaiman, "Islam will always have to fight to survive. ... Americans will always look for an excuse to fight Islam." Adamu Adamu, a weekly columnist for the Daily Star in Nigeria, added, "There is not [a] time in Islamic history that Islam has been practiced 100%. It is always a struggle." This notion that "Islam" is always a struggle stands in for the qualities of self-determination and dignity expressed in a distinctly masculinist flavor. Dr. Usmanu Bugage, a well-known Nigerian public intellectual, said this to me of the Sokoto Caliphate: "The Hausa kingdoms were all about strong men before — but Islam says, they [the powerful] are men — and we are men." "Islam" levels the playing field among "men." This contemporary iteration of Sokoto Caliphate "Islam" is understood to confer dignity to men because their allegiance is to God rather than any worldly, political force; and God — the unseeable, that which is so powerful that it cannot be apprehended by the sensory limitation of human beings — is always a greater force to direct one's allegiance to than one's mortal enemies. This God is bigger and more powerful than any Hausa ruler, modern federal republic, or geopolitical force. This masculinist account of dignity levels the playing field of power to one that is mano a mano — the common man at last on a par with his rulers.

Law as Natural Order

Dr. Aliyu Tilde's well-kept farm, one of the most pleasant places I visited in northern Nigeria, was a relatively unusual sight: bushes replete with violet flowers dotted the perimeter of sprawling green grasses where Dr. Tilde can often be found sitting with his laptop, writing his weekly column about Nigerian political, religious, and social affairs. He interrupts his thoughts to move the table against the direction of the sun to sit in constant shade. Dr. Tilde, who has a PhD in botany from the University of Sokoto, described the Sokoto of his student days as quiet and peaceful; he used to read the Qur'an outdoors until sunset, after which he would begin reading fiqh until late into the night. His favorite author is Abu at-Tayyib 'Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Mutanabbi (d. 353 A.H./965 C.E.), who is known as one of the greatest Arab poets, and who was called a heretic in his time for his religious skepticism. But Tilde, who has flirted with such unorthodox ideas himself, emerges unconvinced of their wisdom. The reason can be found in his studied observation of the dozens of cows he keeps on his property, whose delicious, sweetened milk we enjoyed while chatting as the afternoon sun slowly turned to dusk. "Unless you have law," Tilde reflected,

Man is an animal. The law is supplied by religion, which raised man from the animal level to the human level. We must continue to refine God's law to keep man in check. Law keeps man at a high level with its potential energy. Once that energy is law, [the status of man] will drop down. As society changes, that law is modified. Our primary lawgiver comes in the form of a prophet, like Muhammad. Shari'ah is an obligation on Muslims. Shari'ah is there to regulate virtually everyone. The government [of Nigeria] is not founded on Shari'ah but on the secular governance of the West. People look back to the pre-British period and they wish they could go back to the times in which they were deprived. Having said that, a Muslim society that is living in the twenty-first century has to give an interpretation of Shari'ah that is better. Shari'ah is unchangeable, while fiqh is a changeable concept. If there is an argument that can be used to save someone's life, the jurist should use that argument.

That religious law is necessary to regulate man's passions is a trope I heard often in northern Nigeria, and I believe it is one of the chief instincts motivating the clamor for Shari'ah. The power of Shari'ah to order and cleanse society lies in its "authenticity," as both Sulaiman and Tilde indicated — an authenticity expressed as opposition to Western forms of government, economic policies, and colonial histories that are considered to be at the root of many of Nigeria's contemporary problems.

Dr. Abdulkareem Sadiq, who directs an Islamic institute in Zaria, explicated idealized Shari'ah in more detail. On the surface, the ideal is simple, and part of what makes it ideal is its simplicity — the model for northern Nigerian society is the Prophet and the four rightly guided caliphs, what is known in the Islamic tradition as the sunnah, or following the example of the Prophet Muhammad. The following stories relayed to me about the Prophet particularly illustrate the ideal. During the Prophet's time, a lady from a wealthy background was caught stealing and was brought to the Prophet. "This woman was from a noble background ... and no one had never seen the Prophet so angry when the people wanted her set free because she was of noble birth. The Prophet swore by Allah that if his own daughter Fatima was to be caught stealing he would cut off her hand." Here is an example of a great leader of Muslims, who presumably enjoyed privileges over laymen, subjecting his close family to the same rules and laws as anyone else. This moral stance is extremely attractive to northern Nigerians. A similar situation happened under the reign of the second caliph, 'Umar ibn al-Khattab (d. 23 A.H./644 C.E.), who reportedly said to his flock: "If I do anything wrong, please set me right: we'll set it right, even if it means this" (and he shook his sword). Another story is of Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 40A.H./661 C.E.), the third caliph, from whom something was stolen. When Ali took the case to court, he was found guilty. The acquitted Jew accused of stealing embraced Islam, declaring it a just system. Dr. Sadiq's next statement, which jolts us into the particularities of Nigeria's present, was a bit startling: "Hence if we follow the shari;ah, there will be no more immunity in the Senate. In the Prophet's time, when you followed the Imam and he did something wrong, he would have immediately been told he was wrong. You only follow someone when he does something right." Dr. Sadiq continued:

In Islam, the leader has to comply with the rights of Muslims because he can be immediately removed. That's what makes shari'ah so ahead. Historically the people have heard about shari'ah and how it is all about justice. The world over, the leader is worshipped. In Islam, the leader has to comply with the rights of Muslims. People saw 'Umar crying when he was recalling that the Islamic empire has expanded and some of the unkept roads might cause a camel to stumble and fall — but look at our roads, they are stumbling blocks, and no one cares. But 'Umar was afraid of the Day of Judgment.


Excerpted from Shari'ah on Trial by Sarah Eltantawi. Copyright © 2017 Sarah Eltantawi. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Note on Transliteration
Map of Northern Nigeria


1. A Revolution for Shari'ah
2. Hausaland’s Islamic Modernity
3. Origins of the Stoning Punishment
4. Colonialism: Then and Now
5. The Trial of Amina Lawal
6. Gender and the Western Reaction to the Case



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