Wahhabism is a word I hear a lot in reference to Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. The original word refers to a movement centered on the eighteenth century reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, who lived in present-day Saudi Arabia and whose descendants have helped dictate the interpretation of Islam that prevails in the Kingdom. There’s always been some level of exchange between Africa, including West Africa, and Arabia, but in the twentieth century there began to be talk about West African “Wahhabis” – that is, Muslims who allegedly emulated a “harsh, Arab Islam” and rejected “peaceful, tolerant, African Sufi Islam.”
The “Wahhabis” were often, indeed, reformers who criticized certain practices, like making protective amulets, as un-Islamic, but “Wahhabism” in West Africa has looked a lot different than its cousin in Arabia. The label, in West Africa, was also used far more by reformers’ opponents – French colonists and African Sufi leaders, for example – than by the reformers themselves. The label had the effect of blurring complexity then, and because it’s still in use today, it still does.
Boko Haram is an Islamic sect in northern Nigeria that rejects Western-style education, secular governance, the authority of the Nigerian state, and Islamic interpretations that run counter to its own teachings. Muhammad Yusuf, the group’s leader until his death in 2009, could potentially be labeled a “Wahhabi” – except that other “Wahhabis” in northern Nigeria rejected many of Yusuf’s ideas and were horrified by Boko Haram’s use of violence. The label “Wahhabism” can’t capture even the main thrusts of these debates.
These problems of terminology came to the fore yesterday, when news agencies reported Boko Haram’s assassination of a local cleric, Ibrahim Birkuti. “Radical Cleric Gunned Down in Nigeria,” one headline read. How was he radical? The article doesn’t say, except to tell us he was a “Wahhabi.” But read on:
Ibrahim Birkuti was shot by a motorcycle-riding gunman thought to be a member of Boko Haram sect outside his house in the town of Biu, 200km south of Maiduguri where the sect has carried out most of its attacks in recent months.
Birkuti, a Wahabbi cleric and an imam of a mosque in the town has been critical of Boko Haram ideology, especially its rejection of Western education and its resort to violence, his neighbours said.
The BBC does not label Birkuti a “radical,” but it does speak ominously of his membership in the “Saudi Arabian-inspired Wahabbi group, which has been gaining ground in the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria in recent years.” AP goes further:
Birkuti had been critical of Boko Haram’s violence and belonged to the Wahabbi group, a splinter faction of Sunni Muslims.
Wahabbi members advocate for the implementation of Shariah law in Borno state through peaceful means.
The final sentence makes no sense on two counts: First, Borno State did adopt shari’a, in 2000. Second, many Muslims in Northern Nigeria advocated for the peaceful implementation of shari’a – we need another criterion, then, in order to say how and why “Wahhabis” are “a splinter faction of Sunni Muslims.” There are differences that set reformers like Birkuti apart from Sufis, other sects, and Nigeria’s many “non-aligned” Muslims, but the news agencies have not identified them satisfactorily. They have not even said what Birkuti and his group called themselves – and a good guess might be that Birkuti labeled himself simply a “Sunni” (another loaded term, in this context, but for different reasons). What then?
The salient points about Birkuti’s ideological/sectarian affiliation are, for me, Boko Haram’s continuing campaign of violence against rival clerics, and also the fact that many Muslims of different strands and different beliefs reject Boko Haram’s ideas and methods. The ferocity and the complexity of the theological debate in northern Nigeria is precisely what Boko Haram is trying to shut down in with a killing like this – it is too bad that the press also works, in a much different way, to obscure that same complexity.