Dissecting the Critique of the Critic

Abdulbasit Kassim
14 min readDec 29, 2017



On December 15, 2017, Professor Moses Ochonu wrote an article “Modernity and Morality in Northern Nigeria” as a contribution to the debate that engulfed the cyberspace of Northern Nigeria following the publicity of the viral pictures of two Izala clerics Shaykh Bala Lau and Kabiru Gombe in London. Professor Ochonu’s article touched upon the discourse of Salafism, modernity (a contested term), morality, and the historical, theological, and intellectual responses of Muslims of Northern Nigeria to the perceived appropriation of “western values”. As a Northern Nigerian Muslim with an academic interest in religion and politics, I carefully read the article of Professor Ochonu and I find none of his arguments to be neoteric rather he furthered an extant avant-garde analysis of a phenomenon that has been extensively studied. With the exception of a few errors, Professor Ochonu presented balanced arguments on each of the themes he discussed. Notwithstanding his style of presentation, his scholarly trajectory, specifically his scholarship on the pre-colonial and colonial history of Northern Nigeria has been unofficially tagged by some sections of the Muslim population in Northern Nigeria as the scholarship of the “Minority-Others against a Hegemonic-Majority”.


Professor Ochonu’s scholarship does not buy into the historical meta-pre-colonial, the colonial, and post-colonial narrative that has been transmitted from generation to generation about Northern Nigeria. His scholarship challenges the subtle obsessive hegemonic transmission of history that idolizes and glorifies “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of the forerunners of present-day Northern Nigeria. For example, as far as Northern Nigeria is visualized, for the majority either consciously or subconsciously, there is an affirmation that the narrative about the genesis of savagery in the region should only commence with British colonialism. Everything before British colonialism including Islamic Slavery and the violent occupation and subjugation of religious minorities is the “Golden Period” that was abruptly cut short by the British. This “Golden Period” should not only be presented in a good light and idolized for the successive generations (watakila ya hana bature karya) but there must be a constant reminder of the need for its resuscitation either in its pristine hegemonic form or a simulacrum.

As for the “Others”, the only way they can be touted by us “the Hegemonic-Majority” is by molly-coddling the meta-pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial narrative. Any contrary presentation or subtle critique will be screened through the lens of “cognitive bias” aimed at furthering a “pre-determined narrative”. This ideational framing explains the case of Professor Murray Last (University College London) and Late Professor Mervyn Hiskett both of whom molly-coddled with the first sets of their academic books on Northern Nigeria and were touted as the “good scholars” but when they reverse their molly-coddling and started asking unsavory questions that challenged the meta-narrative, they were described as scholars with “specific agendas.” It is within this context that I will like to dissect Adamu’s feedback to Professor Ochonu. By the way, this context also applies to the perennial intellectual debates in the scholarship of Matthew Hassan Kukah, Joseph Kenny, and John Azumah et al and my own mentors Mallam Ibraheem Suleiman, Dr. Usman Bugaje, and authors like Shehu Umar Abdullahi.

Adamu is one of my beloved brothers on this platform. I cherish his dexterity and I always open my heart to him each time we discuss. I seek his counsel regularly and we constantly advise one another. Nonetheless, we have a fundamental difference in the way we both view the subject of religion and history in Northern Nigeria. I was once like Adamu, I defended anything and everything about Muslims and Islam in Northern Nigeria including the ugly and appalling events. In that milieu, there are ready-made cheerleaders who will always tout you even if you have deficient knowledge of the subject you are speaking about. The simple formula is, just go out there and defend us against these “Minority-Others”.

This year ushered the defining moment for me. For the first time, I had free and unmediated access to the corpus of Arabic literature written by the forerunners of present-day Northern Nigeria. I read their books voraciously and I submitted multiple questions that muddled my thinking to the right authorities but most of my questions were left unanswered. I gradually became skeptical of this meta Hegemonic narrative specifically the way it is being appropriated and furthered by elements within Boko Haram in their attempt to recreate the defunct social order. My formula gradually changed from “defend anything and everything about Islam and Muslims” to defend only those things that can foster communal harmony irrespective of religious or ethnic differences and critique those things that reinforce supremacist and hegemonic tendencies in the region. This mantra shaped my critique of one of the articles of Professor Ochonu “Sexual Repression and Extremism in Northern Nigeria” where we both examine the available facts and eventually reached a compromise. Therefore, Professor Ochonu is not infallible and he can be critiqued but not with a siege mentality.



Now going back to Adamu’s critique, Adamu started his “setting the record straight” by addressing some misconceptions and historical inconsistencies in Professor Ochonu’s article. I will address each of his misconceptions and historical inconsistencies.


Abubakar Gumi started his formal education at the Dogondaji Primary School in 1933 then he proceeded to Sokoto Middle School and the Kano Law School where he was trained as Alkali between 1942 to 1947. In 1947, he began teaching at the Kano Law School. From 1950 to 1952, Gumi took courses at the School of Arabic Studies (SAS) in Kano, and in 1954 he took a teaching position at the same school. In the same year, he applied to study at al-Azhar University in Cairo but his request was declined by the British authorities. The reason for this decline was explained in the foreword of his book “العقيدة الصحيحة بموافقة الشريعة”, the fear that he might come into contact with the ideas of Ikhwan al-Muslimin in Cairo and be influenced by them. Gumi later enrolled at the Bakht ar-Ruda College of Education where he studied alongside Hassan Gwarzo, Haliru Binji, Shehu Galadanchi, and Ibrahim Bibi Faruq. In 1956, Gumi was appointed by Ahmadu Bello to the position of Deputy Grand Khadi of Northern Nigeria where he worked together with the Sudanese Shaykh `Awad `Abdallah al-`Arabi and he was also appointed as the first Nigerian Pilgrims’ Officer in Jeddah, a position that opened an opportunity for the development of his political links with the authorities of Saudi Arabia.

In 1962, after working on the reform of the system of Islamic Law, he was appointed by Ahmadu Bello as the Grand Khadi of Northern Nigeria. Although Gumi did not study in Saudi Arabia as Professor Ochonu claimed in his article and Adamu’s critique is accurate here, nonetheless, he had an extensive engagement with the Saudi Authorities which can also be interpreted as a form of education specifically his occupation of Ahmadu Bello’s seat in رابطة العالم الإسلامي (Muslim World League), an organization founded in Mecca in 1962 by Saudi Arabia Scholars and politicians. Gumi’s educational experience also extends to his membership of the Supreme Council of the Islamic University in Medina and the Legal Committee of the Muslim World League, a committee tasked with the duty of editing legal opinions of all aspects of Islamic Law. On March 8, 1987, Gumi received the King Faisal Prize worth 300,000 Saudi Riyal. His connection to Saudi Authorities also earned him the position of a councilor for the investment, allocation, and distribution of money from the Gulf states in Nigeria.

As much as I personally cherish my engagement with the works of Abubakar Gumi, his revival of the “Takfir debate” in the post-colonial period which further fragmented the Muslim community cannot be overlooked today when we discuss the Intra-Salafi debates between Muhammad Yusuf and his teacher Ja`far Adam. Gumi and his Izala followers restricted the “Takfir debate” to devotional acts of worship alone and they could not extend it further to the political system or call for the overthrow of the government like Muhammad Yusuf because they were beneficiaries of the system. If Gumi can declare those who recite Ṣalāt al-Fātiḥ as infidels, I see no reason why he cannot declare those who rule with other than the Shari`a as infidels like `Uthman Bin Fodio but this restriction can only be fathomed by examining Gumi’s accumulative trajectory of interactions with Wazirin Junaid Sokoto, Nasiru Kabara, Shaykh Said b. Hayatu, Sa`ad Zungur, and most importantly his close ties to those who were beneficiary of the post-colonial state apparatus including Ahmadu Bello, Aminu Kano, and the Kaduna Mafia such as Ali Akilu, Ibrahim Dasuki, Ahmed Joda, Hassan Lemu, Ahmed Talib, Yahya Gusau, et al.


There are two current paradigms in the discussion of the Intra-Salafi debates between Muhammad Yusuf and Ja`far Adam. In the first paradigm, Muhammad Yusuf and his followers are portrayed as the actors who made a gradual movement towards jihadism while the mainstream Salafis like Ja`far Adam are assumed to have maintained a stable quietist persuasion. But is this really the case? Was the Salafi community originally oriented towards non-jihadist Salafism? The scholars that support this paradigm may be right if they are referring to the fact that Yusuf was the first Salafi figure who preached the canons of jihadi ideology as espoused by other jihadi-Salafi scholars like Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Basir al-Tartusi, Abu Qatada Filistini et al. In his book “هذه عقيدتنا”, Muhammad Yusuf even went as far as citing Abu Mus`ab Az-Zarqawi in his criticism of democracy.

Nonetheless, the weakness of this paradigm lies in what appears to be the subtle dismissal of the oscillation of the mainstream Salafi clerics, particularly Yusuf’s mentor Ja`far Adam, in support of al-Qaeda’s global jihad against the far enemy and their call for restraint in the declaration of jihad against the near enemy (i.e. the Nigerian state), which was judged as a ‘hypocritical double standard’ by Muhammad Yusuf. The scholars who support this paradigm would have captured some of the nuances in the intra-Salafi debates if not for the fact that they mostly depend on sources that date after the mid-2000s (after the Kanamma episode) when the split between Muhammad Yusuf and the Salafi clerics had already clearly emerged. The attempt to remedy this weakness is the reason why the second paradigm seems plausible and more accurate.

The second paradigm in the intra-Salafi debates between Muhammad Yusuf and the mainstream Salafis is presented by scholars who argued that the rift between the two parties should be viewed “as a gradual process that probably involved complex strategic considerations as well as local and global negotiations.” The proponents of this paradigm argued that it was indeed the mainstream Salafis who withdrew from their flirtation with the jihadi project and Yusuf and his followers should NOT be viewed as the actors who abandoned the quietist strategy for jihadism. This paradigm is more plausible and accurate on account of an extensive analysis of the established connection between the Salafi network and the members of the Kanamma camp, a connection that was mediated by Shaykh Diyar Abdullahi in Damaturu with the knowledge of the Salafi clerics. While I personally await the publication of the book on this subject which I had the privilege of reading some chapters, some audio lectures that were recently unearthed also affirmed the fact that the mainstream Salafis previously preached the type of jihadism that would later be embraced by Yusuf and his followers.

Indeed, it is ironical that as early as 2001 when the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia Abd al-Aziz bin Abdullah Al Ash-Shaykh condemned the use of suicide bombing as a warfare tactic by Islamic countries subjugated through occupation, some Nigerian Salafi clerics like the Kano-based Aminu Daurawa who now serves as the Commander General of Kano’s Hisbah board preached vehemently in support of suicide bombing to the extent that he described God as a suicide bomber. By preaching in support of suicide bombing as early as 2001, Aminu Daurawa and his Salafi colleagues laid the ideological framework that Muhammad Yusuf would later implicitly sanction in his last public lecture in 2009. Whatever the case may be, by 2009 the majority of the mainstream Salafi clerics could rightly be described as ‘JIHADI REVISIONISTS” but despite their denunciation of jihadism and revisionism, Yusuf and his followers had already grown deaf to their counter-arguments and in fact in his lectures, Yusuf displayed a sense of betrayal towards the Salafi clerics for their withdrawal from the jihadi project.


This section of Adamu’s “setting the record straight” almost made me conclude that he did not read the article of Professor Ochonu thoroughly. Adamu said: “Contrary to the Prof’s insinuations that run throughout the essay (and for which there are an authoritarian claim and forceful conviction) that the criticisms sparked by the release of the innocuous photos of Sheikh Lau and Kabiru Gombe in London were borne out of hatred the Muslim conservatives north harbor for the West; the criticisms have less to do with Western-phobia and more with doctrinal contradictions.”

I had to go back to read Professor Ochonu’s article again and again after reading this paragraph from Adamu. I could not decipher where Professor Ochonu actually made that claim. Rather, Professor Ochonu like Adamu argued that “Given this policing of morality that conservative clerics thrive on, there is often a silent collection of Muslims waiting to call the same clerics out on acts and choices perceived to contradict their teachings.” How is this different from the doctrinal contradictions Adamu mentioned in his feedback?

Elsewhere, Professor Ochonu said “The debate that the photos of the two clerics produced was thus not a trivial conversation about dress and the recreational choices of two Salafi clerics. The photos were loaded with symbolism and contradiction, both of which online interlocutors mobilized in their interventions to make polemical claims, to critique or excuse the perceived tyranny and hypocrisy of a powerful Salafi establishment, and to express personal anxieties and fears.” How is this different from the doctrinal contradictions Adamu mentioned in his feedback?


Another important theme Professor Ochonu and Adamu touched upon is the ideational framing of the ‘West’ in Northern Nigeria. Whether we like to admit it or not, Northern Nigeria is still recovering from the vestiges of the forceful domination of British colonialism which has shaped to a certain extent the ideational framing of the “West”. Although youths like Adamu will want us to believe that “he has never been taught to hate the West, nor to be hostile to their practices”, but deep down his heart, he knows what he said is incorrect. Without even delving into the contemporary discourse of al-Walā’ wa-l-barā and the ideational framing of the Jews which is the field where virtually all the major sects in Northern Nigeria promote their polemical discourses against the West, a brief look at history tells a lot about how the ideational framing of the “West” influence the skepticism in engagement with the civilization even up to the present. In the advent of British colonialism, Muslims in Northern Nigeria responded in the form of four different arguments: Armed Confrontation or Resistance; Hijra; Submission and Alliance.

(1). Armed Confrontation or Resistance

Sultan Abd al-Rahman b. Abu Bakr Atiq (1891–1902) favored armed confrontation and resistance against British rule. In March 1901 when Lugard informed him that he had replaced the emirs of Bida and Kontagoro, the Sultan replied: “From us to you. I do not consent that anyone from you should ever dwell with us. I will never agree with you. I will have nothing ever to do with you. Between us and you, there are no dealings except as between Muslims and Unbelievers: war, as God Almighty has enjoined on us. There is no power and no strength save in God Most High.”

This narrative of resistance survived several generations in Northern Nigeria, and up to this present day, the narrative still shapes the ideational framing of the West in some quarters of Northern Nigeria. In my research, I came across a poem titled “Yau Kufr” written in 1930 which Muhammad Yusuf also alluded to in some of his lectures to establish credence for his Da`wa:

“Whoever wears suits with buttons, he has apostatized,

He has no religion at all, only pride,

His state os the state of the makers of silver dollars,

They are beyond our power to imitate,

One should not wear shirts with collars,

Whoever wears them, his unbelief is wide,

Khaki and pajamas, whoever it is,

Who wears them and prays in them, he has committed a crime,

Here they are, three things, do not use them,

All of them, avoid them, without arguing,

For to use them is not right, you have seen them,

Towel and washing-blue, and powder, whoever uses them,

Certainly, on the Last Day, the fire is his dwelling.”

(2). Hijra

On his part, Sultan Muhammad Attaihru 1 favored Hijra, a narrative that prevails till present specifically among reformist movements in Northern Nigeria. After the battle of Burmi, Attahiru’s followers later migrated to Hijaz and Sudan. Scholars like Qādi Abd Allah b. Ali wrote the book “Risāla wa-nasīha ilā `l-mu`āsirīn al-mu`tanīn bi-mā yudkhiluhum fī zumrat al-Muslimīn al-nājin” where he argued that Hijra had become obligatory upon Muslims because they could not effectively resist the British Invasion. And there are historical poems that supported this line of reasoning, for instance, this poem:

“Even if I have to leave Allah alone, I will not stay,

For, by Allah, I will not obey the Christians.

Between two alternatives one must be chosen:

Either Hijra or following the Christians.

Even the Emirs have left their towns

So- if not Hijra — what is there for a commoner

Other than to become Christian?

We are men, yet women have made it first before us

Fear of death, and the love of life, we too have.

But to refuse the predestined is to follow the Christians.

If you say it is difficult to leave,

The totality of lahan is with those who follow the Christians,

If you think you have power and refuse Hijra,

What power reaches the power of the Christians?

If they offer a gift, don’t accept it.

It is poison they will give you; toxic is the gift of the Christians.

They admonish us to stop oppression;

But they are themselves, oppressors, these Christians.

They have dark fitna and machination,

To spoil the religion of Islam — the Christians.

It is obligatory on everyone to prepare for the Hijra

O Muslims! Let us not accept obedience to the Christians

Let us be in constant remembrance of Allah, and Supplication,

With Justice, we shall overthrow the Christians.

Commoners and rulers are the same to them;

Contempt abounds with the Christians.

Rule has become impossible for those with authority.

What do we do to overcome the Christians?

If Almighty Allah shows mercy on us,

He will give us a mujaddid for us to overwhelm the Christians.”

Christians in the above poem refer to the British. But is there any difference between British colonialism and the colonialism spearheaded by `Uthman Bin Fodio?

(3) & (4). Submission and Alliance

For scholars like the Wazir of Sokoto, Muhammad Buhari, he wrote a book “Risālat al-wazīr ilā ahl al-`ilm wa al-tadabbur” where he expounded on his submission to the British colonial rule. He argued that there is no way he could make Hijra from this land owing to the scarcity of water along the roads or the total lack of it along some of them as well as the severity of heat and the presence of the Christians camped along all the routes. Other Emirs like Muhammad Nya, the Emir of Muri, and Umar Majigi, the Emir of Bida opted for an alliance with the British. These categories of Emirs laid the foundation for the Emirs in London Professor Ochonu talked about in his article “Northern Nigeria’s Islamic clerics and emirs eventually reconciled themselves to colonial institutions and modernity. They mastered imperial protocols and rituals, and constructed a productive relationship with metropolitan influences and modernist goods, all the while maintaining their traditional Islamic legitimacy.” So today when religious clerics portray the ‘West’ as the bastion of immoral modernity where cultural trends that are antithetical to the righteous Muslim living are extolled, they are not saying anything new.


In his discourse of modernity, Professor Ochonu embraced the common trope of scholars who believe that “everything modern belongs to one Enlightenment package”. With all sense of deference, modernity is diverse and complex and western trajectory to modernity is just one form of cultural modernity. As I read through Professor Ochonu’s article and the conclusion of Adamu’s feedback, I could not help but repetitively ask myself the question, what is modernity and what does the term ‘modern’ refer to? By the term ‘modernity’, are we referring only to the civilization that developed in Europe and North America in the last few centuries? Postcolonial studies offer alternative approaches to modernity. I will argue that there is an exigency to transcend the notion of modernity born in the West alone and also examine alternative modernities especially from the field of postcolonial studies.



Abdulbasit Kassim

Islam and Africana Studies. Ph.D. Candidate @RiceUniversity . Visiting Doctoral Fellow Northwestern University @NU_PAS @IslamAfricaNU