The sharia debate and the shaping of Muslim and Christian identities in Northern Nigeria




Dr. Franz Kogelmann


Religionswissenschaft mit Schwerpunkt Afrika




2003 - 2004


Religions play a major role in the process of identity shaping both at the global and at the local level. The world religions Islam and Christianity offer international contacts to their adherents and at the same time help to identify the borders between the “foreign” and the “own” and sometimes also the “native” identity. Often they are perceived as more or less monolithic in themselves – especially when there are conflicts between Christians and Muslims. At the same time, however, the adaptation of the religious codes to a situation can often lead to the shaping of a particular outlook of either Islam or Christianity. The proposed research project analyses the process of the shaping of religious identities in the context of the sharia debate in Northern Nigeria. Since Nigeria as the state with the largest population in sub-Saharan Africa accommodates more Muslims and more Christians than any other African state, the debate is not confined to its boundaries but of much wider significance. Since Nigeria has regained international credit by its successful transition to democracy in 1999 , the various steps taken to implement sharia in twelve Northern states of Nigeria are also watched with anxiety. As the most significant and the most controversial changes in Nigeria’s laws in many years they have given rise to a very great deal of discussion - in the popular press, at conferences, and to a limited extent in the academic literature. However, there has not yet been a detached academic analysis of the steps taken to implement sharia and its impact on the shaping of identities. Since protagonists of the parties concerned tend to present their views in the light of a more or less monolithic tradition and to emphasise the complete harmony with the world-wide tenets of their respective religions, there has been a tendency to generalise and to perceive the situation as a conflict between two clearly defined antagonistic camps. There are numerous accounts which describe the events in terms of „orientalism“ – of „islamisation“ and „jihad“ against Christianity and/or democracy and/or secularism.

Most Western observers are in solidarity with Northern Nigerian Christians which are seen as suppressed by Muslims. On the other hand, many Muslims also tend to analyse the situation in Northern Nigeria in the line of a tradition of suppression (or of the suppression of a tradition). In an interpretation which may be termed “occidentalist” they see the introduction of sharia as the restitution of their rights which have been taken during the colonial period. “Orientalist” and “occidentalist” tendencies have been revived and become stronger since the debate has been overshadowed by the riots in Kaduna in February 2000 and in Jos in September 2001 as well as by the September 11 attacks in New York. However (as may be expected to be stated in a research proposal) the situation is more complex. It is the aim of the project to show that also in situations of crises the religious identities are not as static as it may seem, but that a constant and pluriform process is in progress, in which these identities are reshaped.

As will be shown, Nigerian Muslims (1) and Nigerian Christians (2) appeal both to global traditions of their faith and are interacting with the world-wide Muslim or Christian communities. At the same time, they are constantly redefining their positions and adapting them in different ways to different local conditions. This process of change and innovation also affects the interreligious relations (3). It is new and innovative to look at the shaping of identities through the sharia debate in an interreligious context and to analyse seemingly paradox developments: Muslims as well as Christians are “invoking traditions” in order to justify their views, but also something new and specific to Nigeria is developing. The speakers of the respective groups stress uniformity, but at the same time the situation is becoming more pluralistic. While the researches are not striving towards a final judgement on sharia which would tend to foster polarisation and would make it at least extremely difficult for Christian, Muslim and agnostic scholars to work together in a research team (–as individuals they hold different views -), they are united in their goal to analyse and to clarify the global and the local dimensions of these processes. In order to achieve this, six research teams will be formed, five in Nigeria and one in Germany. The research teams in Nigeria will collect material in the twelve states of Northern Nigeria which introduced sharia, in four states of the middle belt with a Christian majority and in Lagos and Abuja. They will analyse in which way Muslims and Christians are using their international links in the present situation and how they are adapting their respective traditions to the particular situation.

About 50 interviews will be conducted. The research team in Germany will look at the other side of the picture- how are Nigerian Muslims and Christians perceived in Europe and the USA. They will use internet material and also visit non-governmental organisations. The research will be divided into two periods á six months, and after each research there will be a workshop with experts organised – the first in Jos and the second in Bayreuth.