Towards an Islamic Intellectual Premium Nigerian Non-Muslim Political Leaders Need to Understand Islam

Due to Islamic regulations uniquely governing the lives of Muslims even in the public sphere, more non-Muslims need to understand and engage with Islam.

Notwithstanding what Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals in Nigeria have in common (the most obvious being a shared national identity), the orientations of both groups are largely different. Whereas non-Muslim intellectuals look to Thomas Hobbes, W.E.B. Du Bois and John Rawls for foreign political theory, the latter additionally look to Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyya, Abd al-Rahman Ibn Khaldun, and Muhammad Al-Albani. Whereas the former look to Western Europe and the Americas for its foreign cultural and religious power and diplomatic relations, the latter additionally look to North Africa and the Middle East. Whereas the former attend Oxford, Harvard and McGill, the latter also look to centres of learning in Cairo, Medina, Istanbul and Khartoum.

Yet it can be argued that there is a major fault-line in Nigerian, and perhaps global, Christian-Muslim affairs. On one hand, there are continuous propositions by Muslim political and religious leaders to include Islam-related institutions and practices within the public sphere. On the other hand non-Muslim political, religious and intellectual leaders were integrated into a common nationhood with Muslims without adequately understanding the nature of these Islamic political, economic, legal and social institutional ideas.

Some of the consequences of this lack of adequate understanding are the systematic misuse of language (such as labeling terrorists jihadists); the misidentification of illiteracy (in ignoring the use of native languages written in Arabic script); the simplification of Islam (such as binary classifications like moderate and fundamentalist Islam); a neglect of the ‘Islamic form of permanent revolution’ (referring to the tendency for religious, political or violent dissent to emerge in the face of widespread injustice and oppression); and a neglect of Muslim redistributive ethos in framings of social democracy. There is, therefore, a case to be made for an ‘Islamic intellectual premium’—the increased pressure to understand Islamic political, economic, cultural, social and legal thought and dynamics faced by non-Muslims who are in close political involvement with Muslims.


Islam is a ‘total religion’, providing religious regulation not only for personal morality, but also for political, economic, legal and social institutions and relations. In other words, there is no easy separation between the private and public spheres—a principle which neither colonial occupation nor decolonization politics eradicated or replaced with uncontested normative secularism. Due to Islamic regulations uniquely governing the lives of Muslims even in the public sphere, more non-Muslims need to understand and engage with Islamic political, social and economic ideas, such as hudud (fixed)punishments, jihad, and Islamic finance when they are proposed at the national level.

Nigerian non-Muslim intellectual, political and religious leaders do not fully understand the ideological tendencies of their Muslim counterparts when it comes to political, economic, cultural, social and institutional thought. This is problematic when one considers both the Islamic legacy of many areas of the country and the perpetual propositions for Islam-related institutional modifications in the public sphere.

Northern Nigeria is the location of Bornu, which initiated with Tripoli in the 13th century, ‘the earliest diplomatic “embassy” known between distant Muslim states in Africa’ and was the second most powerful Muslim state while the Songhai Empire was still intact up to the 16th century. Northern Nigeria is where, in the 19th century, the largest and most successful jihad took place in pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa. It saw the establishment of the largest and most populous state in nineteenth-century sub-Saharan Africa; and held Kano, tropical Africa’s largest industrial and commercial centre.

Colonial conquest of northern Nigeria did not fully undermine its Islamic basis. Research by scholars like Muhammad Umar, Zachary Wright and Olufemi Vaughan shows that among the Muslim political and religious leaders of the North, surrender to colonialism, decolonization and post-colonial nationhood happened along Islamic lines. Responses by Muslim leadership to colonial conquest were justified through Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence), entailing either jihad (war) as in Caliph Abdulrahman dan Atiku’s warfare, taqiyya (dissimulation) exemplified by Waziri Muhammadu Buhari’s surrender to the British; or hijra (emigration) exemplified by Caliph Muhammad Attahiru I’s emigration to the east. Northern Nigeria’s response to British colonization was, thus, in continuity with a pre-colonial religious tradition. It was also in colonial northern Nigeria that Islamic law was applied ‘more widely than in any other part of the British Empire, except the Aden Protectorate’.

While many of the non-Muslim political leaders of the nationalist and anti-colonial era maintained expectations of a secular nationhood, many Muslim leaders such as Alhaji Ahmadu Bello and Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse were more critical of this. This is not well-known because the thoughts of the ulama (Muslim religious scholars) during the period of decolonization remain heavily ignored. Given the coastal penetration of missionary education for most West African societies, the dominant and most heard anti-colonial nationalists from Nigeria, at least in the English-speaking world, were typically southern Western-educated elites (such as Nnamdi Azikiwe and Herbert Macaulay).

In general, Nigerian Muslim leaders seem to have been ‘reluctantly acquiescent and cautiously hopeful’ about the Northern Nigerian Settlement of 1960. The Settlement conceded to the non-adoption of sharia-based penal law in exchange for the allowance of a Sharia Court of Appeal. The involvement of the North’s leading ulama, native authorities, political and religious leaders gave legitimacy to the settlement. However, the complexity and conditionality embedded in their thoughts on post-colonial Nigeria are heavily under-researched. Therefore, as David Motadel argues, the notion of secular decolonization must be challenged to include the Islamic anti-colonial movements which embedded piety and religious upheaval. This must be taken seriously if we are to have a fuller understanding of anti-colonial movements and Islamic movements in the modern age. These pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial dynamics among Muslims continue to apply today. With rates of religiosity among Nigerian Muslims remaining high, many Muslims still base their legal, political, social and economic thought on Islamic principles.

For these reasons, it may be argued that non-Muslim intellectual, political and religious leaders in Nigeria, and generally in Muslim-populated countries, face an ‘Islamic intellectual premium’ for knowledge about Islam that is above the global average for non-Muslims leaders in other countries, albeit lower than the average for Muslim leaders. This arises from the combination of high levels of religiosity and perpetual Muslim propositions for social, legal, political, economic, cultural and institutional reform. This is not something that can simply be reduced or avoided by calling for an Islamic form of a protestant reformation to secularize the public sphere. This is partly because, as Mushtaq Khan notes, the reformation occurred under specific historical and political economy contexts: the conflict between rising productive capitalist forces and a state expanding territorial jurisdictions on one hand, and declining social forces such as the Church which advocated and enforced theologies and systems (such as usury, sumptuary laws and feudal structures) and territorial ambitions opposed to the expanding forces. Such conflict does not arise within Islam.


The non-adherence to an Islamic intellectual premium produces (or perhaps worsens) a range of negative consequences. One is the systematic misuse of language and classifications (such as labeling terrorists jihadists and using binary classifications like moderate and fundamentalist Islam). Terms such as ‘jihad’ are often misused by many, such as the Christian Social Movement of Nigeria (CSMN), in communicating about Boko Haram and other armed conflicts and forms of sectionalism in Nigeria. Jihad is not something that any Muslim can simply declare based on their ijtihad (independent reasoning).

Non-Muslims are generally aware of the politics of the adoption of Shariah for the Penal Code within Zamfara State’s legal and judicial system in 2000. However, they are largely unaware of the Nigerian debates around Shariah, such as that between Jafar Mahmoud Adam and Sanusi Lamido Sanusi concerning the unconditional acceptability of hudud (fixed) punishments of flagellation, amputation and lapidation without prior establishment of an egalitarian socio-economic regime. This would, perhaps, have been a point of engagement for non-Muslims to pursue social democratic ideas and institutions if intellectuals had been more attuned to that line of inquiry.

Another consequence is the misidentification of illiteracy (in ignoring the use of native languages written in Arabic script). In 2014, when the central bank revealed a new 100 naira bill which replaced the Hausa Ajami (Hausa written in Arabic script) imprint with Roman letters, some, including Cletus Alu of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) praised it as they misconstrued it as a means of ‘de-Islamizing’ the currency. There is also the de facto official labelling of a majority of Hausa-speaking Ajami literates as ‘illiterate’ since national statistics define literacy only in English language and Roman script terms.

Additionally, there is a history of religious dissent in northern Nigeria, which adds additional pressure upon policymakers to foster national economic development and nation-building. The Sokoto Caliphate faced multiple religiously motivated rebellions, colonial rulers had to contend with religiously-motivated revolts, and postcolonial rule has also been characterized by revolts, threats of revolts, or anti-national movements from Abubakar Bawanke in 1965, Ibrahim El-Zakzaky’s movement from 1979, the Maitatsine riots of the 1980s, to Boko Haram and its splinter groups in the 2000s till today. Ernst Gellner has called this an ‘Islamic form of permanent revolution’ (referring to the tendency for religious violent dissent to emerge in the face of widespread injustice and oppression).

Part of the problem with northern Islamic commentary on national social and political affairs arises from a translation deficit. Roman-Hausa and Ajami commentary on Nigeria’s social, political and economic conditions and ideals are often not translated into English and, consequently, are not accessible to non-Muslims. This is despite non-Muslim English literature being more accessible to Muslims, albeit not entirely, since the North has a very low English literacy rate. It is not coincidental that the most publicized critic of northern political elites in the media in recent years has been Sanusi Lamido Sanusi. Sanusi participated at a high level in the secular state as governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and many of his speeches and writings available online are in English.


The basis of the Islamic intellectual premium is not the population share of Muslims per se, it is the social, political, security or economic costs of having erroneous or simplistic views of Islam. These costs rise with a higher population share of Muslims, but also with a country’s degree of influence in Muslim-majority countries. Therefore, the United States, which is heavily geopolitically involved in the Middle East, and whose actions therein affect the Islamic relations in Muslim-populated countries, also faces an Islamic intellectual premium as a result of its hegemony.

On the other hand, non-Muslims in Muslim-populated countries cannot externalize the costs of ignorance since they are directly and protractedly impacted by the emergence of khawarijian/khajarite movements, regressive ‘neo-fundamentalist’ movements, and localized inter-religious conflicts and tensions. Reacting on an ad hoc basis only when such frictions emerge, and often with over-simplifications and homogenizations, is a tendency that needs to be corrected

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