The exclusive interview granted the Voice of America (VOA) in June 2018 by a woman simply identified as Falmata may perhaps be the most far-reaching insight into the early life of her son, Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Boko Haram terror group. Speaking to VOA from the village of Shekau in Yobe State, North-East, Nigeria, Falmata said of her son: “I don’t know whether he is dead or alive, only God knows. I have not seen him in the last 15 years.”
Abubakar Shekau is from a family deeply rooted in Islam, whose father was the Imam of the local mosque in Shekau village. She also revealed Abubakar Shekau was an “Almajiri” who left the village of Shekau in search of Islamic knowledge in Maiduguri town, the capital of Borno State. Like most Almajiri lads, Shekau ended up roaming the streets of urban centres begging for alms and food. It was in Maiduguri that Shekau came in contact with Mohammad Yusuf, the founder of the Boko Haram sect, and got indoctrinated.
The Falmata narration appears to give credence to an already entrenched narrative, which provides a nexus between issues of illiteracy, poverty and general social deprivation that defines the Almajiri scourge and the menace of Boko Haram insurgency. It is as though the Almajiri menace birthed the scourge of Boko Haram insurgency.
In this sense, the Almajiri menace laid the foundation for Boko Haram by churning out socially displaced young men like Shekau for recruitment into the Islamist terror group. This appears simple and straightforward enough only as long as the narrative remains on the surface of deeper fundamental issues. Like still waters that run deep, the nexus between the Almajiri menace and the scourge of Boko Haram insurgency is deeper than the often simplistic narrative of the former preceding the latter.
A careful reflection on the history of Muslim Northern Nigeria from the preceding century reveals a deeply embedded animosity towards Western ideals, values and norms associated with British colonialism. The native population of this region, with a rich Muslim heritage and robust Islamist revivalism associated with the 19th Century western Sudan, did not make a clear distinction between religion (Christian missionaries), government (colonial authorities) and enlightenment (education), all of which were the complexities of purpose associated with British colonial rule.
The conquest of the Sokoto Caliphate in 1903 and the deposing of Sultan Attahiru by British forces led by Frederick Lugard, working in concert with rival local emirates to the West of Sokoto, deepened this animosity. The military conquest rekindled in the native population the centuries-old rivalry between Christian and Muslim powers in their mortal struggle for supremacy throughout the ages.
Following the British conquest of northern Muslim lands, there was a subsequent determination by the natives to preserve their rich Muslim heritage from the conquest of civilization through the instrumentality of modern education, which was regarded as a Western Judeo-Christian heritage.
The suspicion that education was a British ploy to convert Muslims to Christians birthed the reactionary ideology of Boko Haram (‘Western education is sin/forbidden’) among the native Muslim populace struggling hard to conserve their Muslim traditional ways of life. It was this deep-seated belief that planted the original seeds of the Boko Haram ideology as a protectionist tool against the onslaught of westernization, which was denounced to be in conflict with northern Muslim culture.
This reactionary attempt to conserve the culture and tradition of the Muslim North was enhanced by a relatively high level of literacy that was associated with the Islamic faith. The pre-existence of a unique form of rudimentary education among the native Muslim population, which was fundamentally the study of Arabic texts of classical Islamic works that were largely limited to theological jurisprudence, was, however, elevated to the status of education. This created a dichotomy between rudimentary Islamic education and what was considered Western education. The far-reaching effect of this dichotomy was the unwillingness to embrace modern education and the consequent institutionalization of the Almajiri Islamic educational system in the Muslim North of Nigeria.
Due to the inherent inadequacies of the Almajiri system, a rudimentary form of Islamic religious studies that does not equip its millions of subscribers with the requisite skills to be socio-economically relevant in the modern world, it has been reduced to a menace in the form of millions of socially displaced youths with high affinity for terrorism and criminality as survival strategies. Like millions of other socially displaced youths in the Muslim North, Shekau was a product of a conservative society steeped in the culture of mistrust for what is considered Western education (Boko Haram).
Shekau’s parents, like millions of other parents in the Muslim North, did not enrol him in formal education institutions and he was left to roam the streets of urban centres as an Almajiri in search of rudimentary Islamic knowledge and basic sustenance. This peculiar form of Muslim culture, which holds education in contempt as Western Judeo-Christian heritage, is uniquely Northern Nigerian, as no parallel can be drawn anywhere across the Muslim world.
Historically, the Muslim world had always been receptive of education from whatever source and by whomever. As far back as the 9th Century AD, Abbasid Caliph Al-Mamun established an academy, famously known as Dar al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) for the purpose of learning, in Baghdad. The study of medicine, philosophy, mathematics, geography, alchemy and other forms of natural sciences was appropriated from earlier works of preceding Greco-Roman civilizations. From the world of Hellenism came the works of Aristotle, Socrates, Euclid, Plato and Galen that were studied and translated into Arabic with the invaluable help of Arabic-speaking Christian scholars from the Levant and Asia Minor. This period in the history of the Muslim world was regarded as its golden era and has continued to inspire successor Muslim nation states into rapidly adapting modernity without reservations.
The current Boko Haram insurgency is only a manifestation of a determined attempt to forcefully obliterate every imprint of a widely despised Western Judeo-Christian heritage, in this instance, not limited to education alone, but including the entire concept of a modern, democratic and plural Nigeria. The Boko Haram insurgency is a reinforcement of the Boko Haram ideology now given impetus by a global Islamist revivalist movement that seeks to re-establish a unified Islamic State.
As a result of a ground made fertile from a deep-seated animosity towards whatever is considered as Western Judeo-Christian heritage, northern Nigeria easily got entangled in the raging clash of civilizations between radical Islam and Western civilization. In addition to the raging insurgency, the status of the Muslim North as the most educationally disadvantaged part of Nigeria, with resultant ranking as the lowest in every available index of human development, is a direct consequence of these unique religious and cultural choices.
To reverse this self-inflicted incendiary trend, education should be declassified as a Western Judeo-Christian heritage and reclassified in the consciousness of the Muslim North as a universal body of knowledge, which is considerably enriched by Muslim scholars of the golden age of the Islamic world of pre-renaissance Judeo-Christian Europe.
In the field of medical sciences, the contributions of the scholarly works of Ibn Sina [980-1037AD], a leading Muslim scholar of the Islamic golden age, was so profound that historians remember him as the father of early medicine. His famous work, “The Canon of Medicine,” was a standard textbook in the study of medical sciences in medieval universities right into 17th century Europe. In the field of mathematics, several Muslim scholars like Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Kwarizmi [780-850 AD], Omar Khayyam [1048-1131 AD], and Sharaf al-Din al-Tusi [1135-1213 AD] made immense contributions through their extensive works in algebra, trigonometry, geometry and quadratic equations. Other Muslim scholars like Ibn Khaldun, Muhammad al-Idrisi, the Banu Musa brothers and Ibn Rushd made pioneering contributions in the fields of sociology, geography, engineering and philosophy.
Education is neither Western nor Islamic but a universal body of knowledge drawn from all of mankind for the benefit of humanity. Therefore, there is no such thing as Islamic education as distinct from Western education. Islamic religious studies are only an integral part of the universal body of knowledge (education).