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“Who Is a Muslim?”: Mubi Mosque Attack, Masjid ad-Ḍirār, and the Historical Attempt at Defining a Muslim in the 19th, 20th and 21st Century Hausaland and Bornu
By Abdulbasit Kassim
Nigeria has once again made the global headlines and this time the place of interest is not Chibok, but the town of Mubi in Adamawa state where Abu Bakr Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram conducted a suicide attack in a mosque in the early hours of the morning prayer on November 21, 2017, killing up to 50 people. Mubi is home to the famous International cattle market “Kasuwa Shanu” and was previously renamed by Abu Bakr Shekau as “Madinat al-Islam” alongside Gwoza in Yobe state which was renamed as “Dar al-Hikmah” in his August 23, 2014, video titled “إعلان الخلافة الإسلامية” (Declaration of the Islamic caliphate). As usual with most commentaries after Boko Haram’s attacks, the larger question about what exactly spurred the incessant attacks on mosques, specifically by Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram, is disregarded in place of superficial analysis and specious judgments that obscure the underlying body of ideational thought that undergird the justification of attacks on Mosques or to use Shekau’s obnoxious parlance the attacks on “Masjid ad-Ḍirār,” a reference to the “Mosque of Dissent” whose destruction was ordered by the Prophet Muhammad after his return from the battle of Tabuk (see Qur`an 9:107-110). The little attention paid to the corpus of books and lectures Shekau delivered on this topic which contributed to the schism in his group with Abu Mus`ab al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur has confounded our understanding of this trend which is due to continue unabated.
Before the next mosque attack, this short piece is an attempt to answer the following questions: What are the underlying ideational thought that undergird Shekau’s justification for mosque attacks? How does Shekau’s understanding of this subject differ from the interpretation of his rivals in the Islamic State’s West African Province, Abu Mus`ab al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur? And finally, how does the theological debate of “who is a Muslim,” a debate whose historical precedent dates back to the 19th century in Hausaland and Bornu contribute to Shekau’s justification of mosque attacks. This short piece is set to provide a panoramic view of the landscape that must be properly understood for insightful judgment on the current trend on mosque attacks in Northeast Nigeria.
In their Arabic letter of protest against Shekau’s leadership written in 2011 to the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Shari`a advisor `Abdallah al-Shinqiti, the future leaders of Ansaru [Abu Muhammad al-Hausawi, Abu Ahmad al-Kishnawi, Khalid al-Barnawi, Abu al-Bara`a al-Nurini al-Akinawi, Abu `Ubayda al-Kanawi, Abu `Abdalla al-Imam, Abu Muslim al-Ibrahimi, Abu Khalid al-Yerawi, Abu Nusayba al-Bushawi, Abu Maryam al-Ya`qub, and Abu `Asim al-Hasani] raised the first objection against Shekau’s excessive use of takfīr against other Muslims. In the letter, they wrote: “al-Shekawi uses takfīr for all those who participate in elections disregarding the principles and rules of takfīr. He makes things worse by not stopping at this point, but adding to this the permissibility of bloodshed and confiscation of possessions as clearly explained at the beginning of this letter as if he was a graduate from the school of Antar al-Zouabri (the leader of the Algerian group, GIA).”
Shekau is not the first person to be accused of using excessive takfīr against other Muslims. The genealogy of the doctrine of takfīr in Hausaland and Bornu can be traced to Shaykh Jibril `Umar, one of the teachers of Shaykh `Uthmān Ibn Fūdī who was also the first to pledge allegiance to him before the Jihad in 1804. In his book “نصائح الأمة المحمدية لبيان الفرق الشيطانية التى ظهرت في بلادنا السودانية,” after praising his Shaykh and warning against having bad thoughts about him, Shaykh Ibn Fūdī went further to exculpate his teacher from the charges of being a Khawarij: “It may be that he had an explanation for this which we are unaware of because he was a great sea of knowledge. O Brethren! Do not think ill of this great Shaykh, I do not know if we would have been guided to the way of the Sunna and the quelling of evil practices had it not been started by this Shaykh. For it was him who began to destroy evil practices in this Sudan land of ours and it is for us to complete that works.”
Although Shaykh Ibn Fūdī respectfully declared that his teacher erred in his declaration of takfīr on Muslims who engaged in grave sins (kabā`ir) or indulge in local customs that do not contravene the dictates of Islam, he would later apply a more orthodox interpretation that limit takfīr to major polytheism (Shirk al-Akbar) to the Hausa rulers whom he accused of practicing syncretism and also on the Borno Muslim rulers whom he argued allied themselves with the Hausa rulers. In his book “نجم الإخوان يهتدون به بإذن الله في أمور الزمان,” Shaykh Ibn Fūdī stated the three reasons for fighting the ruler of Kanem Borno and his followers: 1. their partial acceptance of Islam; 2. their hostility towards those who embrace Islam; and 3. their support and assistance to infidels (Hausa rulers) fighting against the Muslims: “The reason we considered the ruler of Bornu and his follower as unbelievers is because of their partial acceptance of Islam. There is no doubt that these people are overtly infidels. But with regards to those who embraced Islam among them, we still declared them to be infidels and this is similar to what al-Maghilī said to Sonni `Ali and his followers in his books `Ajwibat al-Maghilī `an asilat al-Amin al-Hajj Muhammad Askiya’ and Miṣbahu al-arwāh fī usūl al falāh’.”
Takfīr does not only excommunicate a Muslim from Islam, it also makes permissible the shedding of the blood of a Muslim accused of unbelief even before the killing of an original infidel (Kafir al-asl). For a detailed discussion of the concept of Takfīr and how it applies to the Jihadis read Nelly Lahoud’s book “The Jihadis Path to Self-Destruction”. Most of the books of Shaykh Ibn Fūdī where the discourses of takfīr were discussed are frequently cited in the books authored by Shekau to justify his declaration of takfīr on present-day Nigerian leaders ruling by the secular constitution and also on Muslims who support democracy and “man-made legislation.” To be fair and objective, even though the historical periods are different, the charges leveled against the Hausa rulers and the present-day Nigerian rulers are analogous, the charges of unbelief (Kufr) for ruling by other than the Shari`a. But even with his expansive list of what constitutes major polytheism including voting in elections and condoning democracy, Shekau did not stop at the declaration of takfīr alone, he further make permissible attacks on those who flee from his caliphate for the Nigerian state, which he described as “Dar al-Kufr” (most attacks on IDP camps are carried out by Shekau’s faction) and he also legalized attacks on mosques attended by those whom he declared as infidels under the guise of “Masjid ad-Ḍirār” i.e. in his words, the mosques were not built for the purpose of piety but for the purpose of combining the worship of God with the polytheism of calling for the support of democracy, secular constitution and man-made legislation all of which according to him constitute unbelief (Kufr).
Before explaining how Shekau arrived at his reasoning, it is important to explore the second epoch of contestation over the doctrine of takfīr which took place in the post-colonial period mainly between the Izalas and the Sufis of the Tijaniyya order. In his book “العقيدة الصحيحة بموافقة الشريعة”, Shaykh Abubakar Gumi declared a subtle takfīr on the Sufi leaders whom he compared to the Jews and Christians who knew the truth of Islam but refused to follow it. Shaykh Gumi went further to declare that the use of Ṣalāt al-Fātiḥ excommunicates the Sufis from Islam. In his response to the polemic of Shaykh Gumi and his critic from the Tijaniyya order, Ibrahim b. Sidi Muhammad b. Muhammad Salma who accused him of secretly supporting the Izalas, Shaykh Ibrahim Saleh wrote the two books “التكفير اخطر بدعة تهدد الوحدة بين المسلمين في نيجيريا” and “المغير على شبهات أهل الأهواء وأكاذيب المنكر على كتاب التكفير.” In the first book, Shaykh Saleh wrote a rejoinder to Shaykh Gumi’s subtle takfīr on the Sufi leaders specifically his notion that members of the Tijanniya order revere Ṣalāt al-Fātiḥ more than the Qur`an which he countered by emphasizing that Shaykh Ahmad Tijani never sanction such comparison. The second book was written in defense of Sufi beliefs and a re-examination of some doctrines of the Tijanniya order. At the second epoch, the takfīr debate was mainly restricted to devotional acts of worship and there was little or no connection of the debate to the issue of politics and governance like the time of Ibn Fūdī. This restriction will radically change in the third epoch.
The takfīr debate was furthered in the third epoch by new actors, the Saudi returnees who furthered the arguments of the Izala clerics but with a more refined Saudi-influenced theology and the firebrand students who were mostly the students of the Saudi returnees and who refused to abide by the limitation set forth by the Saudi returnees. According to the firebrand students whose leading figure was Muhammad Yusuf, the takfīr debate should not be restricted only to the polemics against the Sufi clerics but it should also be extended to the discourse of politics and governance like the period of Ibn Fūdī. In his Markaz Ibn Taymiyya, Muhammad Yusuf and his followers pitched their discourse of takfīr on the political rulers who govern by qawānīn wad`iyyah (man-made laws) and he argued that their Kufr is not different from the Kufr of the Sufi leaders, therefore if the Salafi establishment can condemn the Sufi leaders as infidels, they must do the same for the political rulers. While often citing the book of Imam Sharastani titled “الملل والنحل,” Yusuf convincingly refuted the Kharijites appellation penned on his group. In his debate with Mallam Isa Ali Pantami on June 25, 2006, Yusuf laid out his understanding of takfīr:
“All the followers of Sunna have reached a consensus on the principle of declaring a Muslim as an infidel. Anything that constitutes unbelief, if an unbeliever does it; he is already an unbeliever, no query. He does not have to do it to become an unbeliever. But if a person is a practicing Muslim and he performs the actions of unbelief, then we need to follow the principles [of apostasy]. First and foremost, it should be that the person does not have an interpretation that he hides behind, whether it is a verse or ḥadīth, even if it is weak, as long as he does not know it is weak. Second, it should be clear that he does not have doubt that makes him see his action as good and there is no reason to eliminate that doubt. Third, we also need to be clear that he received no message at all notifying him that his action is wrong. Fourth, there is also the case of doubt, misinterpretation, and coercion.”
In order to prevent the political rulers from the excuse of ignorance (al-`udhr bi-l-jahl), Yusuf declined the declaration of Jihad when Muhammad Ali gave the green light during the Kannama episode, a decision that led to the declaration of takfīr on him. He spent the years after he returned from exile in 2004 establishing what he called “iqāmat al-ḥujja” (establishing of the evidence) on the political rulers, a condition he viewed as necessary before the declaration of jihad. In his lecture on the history of Muslims, Yusuf said:
“We establish iqāmat al-ḥujja for them (Political rulers) but you might not know since you have never gone to the presence of the Divisional Police Officer to discuss this issue. On the other hand, I have been called several times to their office. There was a time I was invited by the Director-General of the State Security Service—look at Ibrahim and others were the ones who escorted me. I went to their office and we sat with him to discuss the mission of our preaching towards Islamic reform. […] Anyone about whom we are certain to have established evidence upon is an apostate from Islam. If it is the ṭāghūt, you should present evidence to him, but once you present your evidence it is over.”
In his last lecture “Open Letter to the Nigerian Government” delivered on June 12, 2009, Yusuf displayed satisfaction with the reaction of his followers and their level of preparedness for the stakes of jihad ahead. He said:
“Glory be to God—this is a lesson to us. We had initially thought that our brothers have not reached this stage, but I can confirm they have reached it. When I approached the brothers, I asked each of them when they were shooting where were you? One of them replied me: “I was here, I took this brother and that brother.” I asked him: “Did the brothers flee?” He replied me that no, rather than fleeing they were advancing towards them [the security forces]. You never know when brothers have reached this level except in a state of oppression. This is a lesson and a gift from God. It is a sign of progress.”
After the death of Yusuf, Shekau took the takfīr debate further. This time he extended it beyond the political rulers ruling with man-made laws to the general populace who show support for the political rulers, vote during the elections, and support democracy. Prior to the group’s territorial control in Northeast Nigeria, Shekau’s beliefs were fiercely debated at the theoretical level by other members of his group, a debate that led to the formation of Ansaru through a video debut issued on June 2, 2012, after the letter of protest was sent to the two Shari’a advisors of AQIM `Abdallah al-Shinqiti and Abu Hassan Rashid al-Bulaydi. However, after the declaration of a caliphate in 2014, Shekau took his interpretation of takfīr from the theoretical level to the practical level. His excesses were managed until his reign of leadership was substituted by the Islamic State with the son of Muhammad Yusuf, Abu Mus`ab al-Barnawi. The back and forth exchanges which spurred the internal schisms in the group exploded when the two-part audio lecture of Mamman Nur titled “Exposé: An Open Letter to Abubakar Shekau” was uploaded online by Saminu, a crony of Nur and al-Barnawi. In the lecture, Nur said:
“According to his (Shekau’s) ideology, whoever is not with him are unbelievers and shedding their blood is permissible. We do not agree with such an interpretation and never have we understood Islam in that way. I hope it is understood. Just like that they appropriate their property; they also find and kill little children. In some cases, they will find the yam-sellers in the towns and detonate bombs amongst them. We are not bothered by the yam-sellers. Rather, we are bothered with killing the ṭāghūt for now. When we finish with the ṭāghūt, the yam-sellers will even fetch water for you. O Shekau! You don’t have to kill them. Likewise, look at the way they are planting explosives and bombing the people even in the mosques! Look at the churches [as targets]! Look at the [military] barracks! This is a waste of God’s property because we are not the ones who bought those explosives with our money. That is God’s property, and He will ask us how it was utilized. God will ask you because we have disassociated ourselves from your actions unless you repent. Today, if you say you repent and withdraw from those obnoxious misunderstandings, we will come back and say: “Shekau, we are with you, and you are our leader.” Before now you were a leader, so do not start calling us rebels. No, you are indeed the rebel, because you refuse to follow the instruction of your leaders in Iraq [ISIS].”
In a lecture titled “السكنى في دار الكفر” (Living in the land of unbelief), Shekau responded to Nur’s criticism. He said:
“We believe that it is impossible for a Muslim to reside in the unbelievers’ land without the public manifestation of his religion, and still claim to be a Muslim. This is not the practice of the Prophet [Muhammad]. Likewise, it is impossible for a Muslim who has not fought against an illegitimate ruler (ṭāghūt), who rules by means of a constitution, to claim to be a Muslim or for him to not be labeled an unbeliever. This is also not possible. These are the type of creeds they wrote to us with the claim that they emanated from the caliphate [Islamic State]. They said I should agree and work with these creeds because that is how the caliphate is governed. Afterwards, I said that these beliefs, if I did not hear them directly from the spokesman of the caliphate, I will not accept them as truth nor will I agree to them or work with them. Whoever accepts these beliefs has committed apostasy (ridda). This is my creed. Let me explain clearly from now: women, men, and my brothers, it is the Qur’ān I will follow.”
Shekau reiterated the same claim in his two authored books “هل_يعذر_بالجهل_في_الشرك_الأكبر” and “معنى الإسلام وضده والطاغوت,” which was published by Maktaba Wādi`u al-Bayan. It is only by understanding these historical attempts at defining a Muslim in the 19th, 20th, and 21st century Hausaland and Bornu that we will understand the current trends of mosque attacks in Northeast Nigeria. According to Shekau, the attacks are legitimate because it is an attack against infidels in “Masjid ad-Ḍirār” i.e. the mosques built not for the purpose of piety but for the purpose of combining the worship of God with the polytheism of calling for the support of democracy, secular constitution, and man-made legislation all of which according to him constitute unbelief (Kufr). Abu Mus`ab al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur do not subscribe to this understanding of Shekau. In a recent two-part audio lecture titled “سلسلة علمية. في بيان مسائل منهجية,” which was uploaded on October 21, 2017, Abu Mus`ab al-Barnawi decried Shekau’s extreme interpretation of takfīr. As long as Shekau holds to his interpretation, mosque attacks and attacks on IDP camps will continue as the new norm of this insurgency.
This is how we got here. And everything we see today is a product of history.
Abdulbasit Kassim is a Ph.D. student on African Studies, Islam, and International Relations in the Department of Religion at Rice University