Shariah in Zamfara
Zamfara is by no coincidence at the center of the Shariah controversy today. There is nothing new about it, after all. For hundreds of years, the kingdom has been a famous center of Islamic scholarship. Legacies of that scholarship have remained an invaluable treasure for succeeding generations. A good example is a small book called Fundamentals of Monotheism popularly known in our traditional school a Kawa’idi. Unlike our present day writers who are quick launch their shallow books amidst the pomp and pageantry of rulers and the rich, the author of Kawa’idi put his in a pot, sealed it and buried it in the soil over two hundred years ago. He prayed that if God accepts his intention as good, might it be unearthed some day and become beneficial to later generations. After about a century, the book was accidentally discovered by a farmer and became, to date, the first title on the syllabus of Islamic jurisprudence in Northern Nigeria. Scholars in Saudi Arabia have tried to write a similar book known as al-Mukarrar, but theirs is no where close to Kawa’idi in being both concise and simple.
In the eighteenth century, Zamfara also saw the birth, growth and struggle of the famous revolutionary, Usman Danfodio. In concert with his brother Abdullahi and his son Bello, they have left behind a literary legacy that has been widely acknowledged both in the East and West. They also left behind at the time of their death, a society that has reached unbelievable heights in ideals of governance, social justice and security.
Since this is not a piece on the historical contribution of the kingdom of Zamfara, let me just sum up this introduction by saying that in the ongoing imbroglio over the application of the shariah, the state is only occupying its natural position in the history of Western Sudan. I have no doubt that were the Shehu to arise from the grave today, he would express delight with the leadership role of his original home, Zamfara, more than his latter day settlements, Sokoto and Kebbi, who are dragging foot on the issue. He would definitely chide his grandchildren, who have named themselves elders, for wanting to be consulted before the shariah is implemented by the state government.
It will be overstating the obvious to say that I support the application of shariah in states that are predominantly Muslim. This is something that I have cherished for about twenty years now, with good reason. It is just unfortunate that most people know very little about the tangible social benefits derivable from the correct application of the shariah. Given our adoption of European style of governance and the training that most of us had in western scholarship, layers of ignorance have impeded us from appreciating the necessity of applying the provisions of Islam to our social lives. Also, since Europeans were the founders of present-day Nigeria, its secular nature, majority of our elite believes, must be preserved as a religious duty we owe our colonial masters. Any attempt to search for values in our indigenous past is seen as retrogression, fanatical and suicidal. It is surprising that even in a democratic setup and the provision of the shariah in the constitution, the elite would wish that the issue would never gain public recognition.
Unfortunately, such people are daily losing ground. Shariah is now on the curriculum of our faculties of law nationwide. It is now a provision in the constitution. The masses in predominantly Muslim areas have massively supported the recent bid to apply it in their communities. Even some Christian clergy have supported it.
In the remaining part of the discourse, I would like to discuss certain areas that should be given consideration. This is necessary because I have heard disturbing news about some steps taken by the state government that makes me question both its intention and qualification to implement the shariah. At a time, I even wondered whether it knows what the shariah is all about. I started to imagine if the whole issue is not a CIA plot to discredit Islam as was done in the Sudan during Numeiri. However, Islam demands that I still give the government the benefit of the doubt and accept its intention for now as genuine. It is in light of this that the following observations were made.
Areas that I would like to be given serious consideration are those that are fundamental to the purpose of the shariah and are bound to create more problems than it could possibly solve.
First is the scope of government involvement in the shariah itself. Would its adoption be restricted to the court of law or is it intended to serve the wider purpose of establishing social justice, the main goal of Islam? Is the government for example ready to give the word ‘shariah’ a more inclusive and liberal definition that would affect all legislation on government policy and conduct? Is the government ready to address, as the shariah demands, the equitable distribution of wealth, privileges and opportunities irrespective of social status and differences in sex, religion, state of origin and so on? Is it ready to fight against the antithesis of shariah like nepotism, bribery, and class or gender segregation? Are its officials and the elite, including the governor and members of his family and political party, ready to be equal with the common man before the law, accepting the paramount supremacy of the judiciary?
If the shariah would be practiced, then no official property (cars, photocopiers and so on) should be used, even for a minute, outside an official engagement, by any government official for his personal reason. All government officials must also patronize government schools, clinics and other social services as everybody does in the society, except at their own cost. The governor will forfeit his constitutional privilege of immunity. If he were Tinubu, Gani would have headed to the courts confidently because every citizen has a locus standi under the shariah. If this is the shariah that Zamfara intends to implement, we welcome it, 100%.
I raised these issues because it is common knowledge that, unlike western laws, the shariah does not operate in a vacuum. It is not just a catalogue of provisions that could be picked any day and applied anywhere without cultivating the requisite environment to match it. If I was a Qadi, and an unemployed graduate is brought before me charged with theft for example, I will not chop off his hand. With over seventy percent of the population living below the poverty level in this country, the responsibility of the shariah first is to create jobs, tax the rich heavily in addition to zakat. It is also necessary to suspend the shariah injunction for chopping off the hand of the thief under such circumstance as Caliph Omar did once when they experienced a poor harvest in Medina.
This point is pertinent especially if we realize that punishments for crimes were revealed only in Medina, after the first Islamic community has been formed and consolidated under the egalitarian leadership of the Prophet. Even where prohibitions were legislated, as we saw in the case of intoxicants, the legislation was gradual to allow the society prepare for the cultural accommodation of the prohibition. There was also a gap between prohibitions and the attendant punishments on their violations. Adultery for example was prohibited in Mecca but its punishment was revealed only later in Medina. All this was to allow some time for adjustment.
I therefore urge governments that are bent on applying the shariah to exercise some patience and build the necessary foundation necessary its the application before applying its punitive measures. Let them tackle the social roots of crime first. So instead of chopping off the hand of the graduate, I would recommend that he be immediately found a job. In addition, I will summon the governor to explain why he left a graduate unemployed, or why he left the poor hungry during hard economic periods. If the graduate is employed but not paid by government for the past three months or he is paid a paltry sum, I will hold the governor responsible for his failure to honor the shariah provisions regarding labor rights and relations.
There is also the problem of encroachment on personal liberty of citizens. For example, what has the government got to do with beards and turbans? Jurists have never considered these matters and many similar ones as falling within the jurisdiction of government. That is why the entire Muslim world condemned such measures by the Taliban when it introduced them in 1996.
Let us consider two extremes. One is prayer which is obligatory on Muslims, five times a day. Attending its congregation, except for the Friday early afternoon prayer, is not compulsory as held by the majority of jurists. Also, no one should be spied upon to see whether he prays or not. Where government will come in is when someone renounces prayer publicly, then the law would treat him accordingly. I find it unnecessary the injunction on closure of shops at prayer times practiced in Saudi Arabia for example. It makes the whole concept of Ikhtiyar (choice) on timing of prayer rubbish. Only the Friday congregation could be accorded such status. We have not seen this in the ideal Medinite society of the Prophet or in the days of his guided Caliphs or even in the Sokoto caliphate. That is why we do not see such government interference in the Sudan or Iran.
The other extreme is the abolition of alcohol. There is no ‘Abolition Act’ in Islam as we had in America in 1930s. I see no reason why beer parlors should be scrapped entirely in the state, so long as non-Muslims exist therein. Again, when we go back to ideal Medinite community of the Prophet or when Islamic civilization reached its peak in Damascus, Baghdad, Cordoba or Fatimid Egypt, we find no such over-zealousness. Beer was sold in Medina during and after the lifetime of the Prophet. In fact, alcohol and Islam have always coexisted because Muslims have throughout their history lived with Jews, Christians and polytheists. It must be noted that alcohol is only prohibited to Muslims. Non-Muslims in an Islamic state are free to consume it. Let them be intoxicated with it one thousand times a day, if they choose. It is no business of any Muslim individual or government. If it requires a license to brew and sell, the non-Muslims have the right in an Islamic state to demand for one from the governor who must issue it, unfailingly. Of course, the Muslims have the right to protest its unrestricted consumption in their midst. A compromise over the centuries was always reached by restricting its sale to areas away from town centers where the majority of the population reside.
This has been the nature of the Muslim states of Hausaland after the Jihad. No one ever stopped the likes of Alu Na-Bagara, Shehu Na-Soba and their ancestors from brewing and consuming alcohol in their communities or in the outskirts of our cities. In my 400-year-old village, Tilde, which is located just outside the city of Jos but in Bauchi State and under the Bauchi emirate, we live here together with non-Muslims. The consumption of alcohol however has always been in the outskirts of the city either in the houses of some non-Muslims that served as mini-markets in the past or in the open theatre of bauda on the market day. Now bauda is dead. The trade is modernized. Beer is now sold in parlors at a neighborhood called zango where non-Muslims form the majority today. My house is directly neighboring zango and we live cordially in mutual respect. On Tuesday nights, the atmosphere may smell bad for members of my family, but we tolerate it since my father who was by far more stringent on issues of Islam also tolerated it. In fact, the entire zango and beyond was his land. He gave it mostly free to his Christian and polytheist friends early this century when they came down from the surrounding Shere hills to settle in the valley. The following morning, we are together, with the drinkers of last night, building my house, planting and weeding my lawn, chatting in the garden or pursuing one productive venture or another.
After reading the history of Islam, I now find it repugnant whenever our youth in Kano or Katsina for example attack beer parlors or hotels in the name of Islam. If we want to implement the shariah in our states, we have to respect the recognition that Islam gives to the diversity of human culture and creed. We have to know who has what right and who has not. We have to also delineate areas of government jurisdiction and define its extent under the shariah. Areas that are exclusive preserves of the individual must never be tampered with.
That is why I am alarmed at the patronage the Zamfara State government gives to some foreign scholars. This is totally needless. We have the caliber we need in this country. Our able teachers, like Malam Isa Talatan Mafara, are there, well read and accommodating. Also, our society differs substantially from others, a fact that will engender differences in views on jurisprudence. Codes that infringe on the freedom of the individual, that entrench class discordance or gender emasculation will never gain our support. I, in particular, will be most vociferous in attacking them. Islamic jurisprudence of monolithic Muslim societies differs from that of mixed societies or where Muslims are a minority as in Europe and America today.
A lot of caution therefore has to be exercised on issues of individual liberty particularly for the fact that many religious governments have been prone to abuse of liberty of its citizens. It is however my belief that such encroachments are avoidable if the principles of Islam are followed. Social psychologists believe that religion, that ‘hypothetical stranger’, is more of an enemy than a friend. Finally, we must not forget that the yardstick of social justice with which any society is measured is by how fairly it treats its weak and minorities.
Let’s touch on the important issue of dynamism of Islamic jurisprudence. The shariah as described in the Quran and the authenticated Traditions lays the foundation of jurisprudence. Details to be built on this foundation would vary from one society to another and from one time to another. Scholars have over the centuries shouldered the responsibility of meeting the jurisprudential demands of their societies based on their understanding of those fundamentals in the shariah and against a background of their experience, knowledge and wisdom. When following generations like ours come across those texts, they must read them with the understanding of the social peculiarities in which their authors lived. No opinion of a jurist should be regarded as divine, but only an option among a variety opened to us today. We are free to choose for purposes of adaptation, whenever the need arises, that which is in the best interest of our community without being dogmatic about one school of thought or another.
There is difference between the social set up of our society and others, between our past and the present. Virtually all leading Islamic scholars in the world have touched on this aspect of fiqh. Our scholars however have largely remained out of touch with, sometimes even contemptuous of, such views. This is surprising because Usman Danfodio also shared the view that fiqh is dynamic and that scholars of a given generation are the best qualified to comment of matters relating to its jurisprudence.
Let me illustrate my point. An Islamic scholar interviewed by Weekly Trust flatly declared Chief M. K. O. Abiola’s will as un-Islamic because according to his understanding, Islam does not recognize anything like DNA test. To me the scholar is impervious to scientific development. If I were a Qadi, given my acquaintance with science, I will recommend DNA test in all paternal disputes. I believe if such a technique was available at the time of the Prophet, he would have used it. Areas of scientific discoveries that cannot be adopted outright in Islamic jurisprudence are those that are liable to error. Genetic tests are incredibly perfect just like fingerprints.
Both government and citizens today are faced with challenges posed by the ever-increasing complexity of societies and advances of scientific knowledge and technique. The ulema, in particular, have to standup and re-formulate jurisprudence in light of such developments. To close their eyes against them would lead to social stagnation and repugnance.
One obvious area of conflict would be how the shariah would be subjected to the superceding powers of federal laws and constitution. Who will enforce the shariah? The present police force? Which prisons? The present dehumanizing ones? For example, the shariah does not accept government spying and burgling into offices, homes and telephones. How does Mr. President apply his anti-corruption bill in Zamfara State using these anti-shariah means?
Again, what happens to the whole shariah project in Zamfara if the National Assembly that is under the armpit of the President reviewed the constitution throwing out its provision? What happens if the Federal government takes Zamfara State to court arguing that its understanding of the shariah is totally different? What happens if an anti-shariah governor or legislature takes over Zamfara in the next election?
The following few months will definitely be a test for both the Federal government and the Zamfara state government. Those who are against Muslims practicing their religion, or those who feel that Muslims, as a majority in their home states, have to abandon their rights for the sake of their minority guests, will press the Federal government to scuttle the noble efforts of Zamfara State. The state government, and indeed many other states in the North will on their part count on the massive support they enjoy from millions of their citizens and a constitutional provision that could be abrogated.
It seems the field is gradually getting ready for the mother of all battles. The southern press that could not have the moral courage to expose Tinubu has quickly mustered the guts to attack the application of the shariah in Zamfara State using all sorts of lies. But when the dust settles finally, the result would either be Zamfara regaining the glorious position of its ancestors or the present Federal government would succeed in making us believe that the country belongs to only a section of the elite.