By Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde
The Future of the Almajiri (1)
I am back from my two weeks break. I was surprised how the last issue, Meditations of Musa, the Almajiri generated a lot of sympathy for the almajiri and changed the view of so many about him. Many, including our Christian brothers, wrote to say their picture of the almajiri has changed completely; some promised to feed one or more; some came to recognize that the kids could be undergoing serious academic work; my permission was instantly sought to turn it into a film; not to mention the prayer for my gentle soul to be blessed by God. But it was meant only to introduce us to the thought of the typical almajiri himself, his dreams, his preoccupations and his problems.
Many things came to surface the following days. The very day the Meditations of Musa appeared on newspaper stands, a reader sent a text informing me that Malam Ameenuddeen Abubakar has on NTA Kano publicly declared that almajiri system is not Islam: "almajirci ba musulunci ba ne." That sounded bizarre to my ears. So I travelled to Kano to meet him on the issue and also meet Malam Ibrahim Khalil on the allegation made by a columnist in this paper that Islam has okayed looting public treasury if done on a small scale. I will report on my meeting with Malam Khalil separately but suffice it to highlight here that I left his house completely convinced that he never said so, just as I believe no scholar of any faith will ever say so. On my meeting with Ameenuddeen, I was glad to find out that what he abhorred was the begging aspect of almajirci to which we are trying to find a solution. We will now continue with our discussion. It is a very long one and I expect the editor to serialize it for the next three weeks.
First, let us appreciate how deeply rooted almajirci is in our culture. I disagree with the notion that almajiri phenomenon is a recent one brought about by circumstances that followed the British conquest of the Sokoto Caliphate. It is a remnant of our traditional educational system that has possibly lasted 1000 years, starting with the introduction of Islam in Borno. Today, there are remnants of almajiri's not only in Nigeria but also in Chad, Mali and Mauritania. This spread shows that the phenomenon is pan-Sudanic which is possible only if it predated the British conquest which was a 20th Century phenomenon.
Qur'anic schools have been the main, if not the only, schools of literacy in pre-colonial North. They have been voluntary throughout history because we cannot find anywhere in our history where any government undertook the establishment of such schools or voted for their maintenance. They have been part of our civil society, to use modern terminology. Of course famous universities were built during Mali and Songhai Empires, in Jenne and Timbuktu under such princes like Mansa Musa and Muhammad Azkia but they were for higher learning. Even under the Sokoto Caliphate, schools were only part of the civil society. They survived on the initiative of the individual malam and charity from Zakat, sadaqa from individuals, and, perhaps, contributions from the public treasury; I said perhaps because I have not come across the contrary from the archives of the Caliphate or read it in the books of Danfodio, Abdullahi or Bello. Moreover, it was absent from the expenditure of the Native Authorities; and if it were existent prior to colonialism, the British would not have rushed to cancel it given the suspicion that doing so will arouse. So all evidence, or lack of it rather, point in one direction that is important to our discussion on the almajiri: Qur'anic schools throughout our history have been voluntary and civil in origin.
The second fact is that almajiri system has been part and parcel of the Qur'anic school. It is hinged on the Islamic concept of migration which is widely practiced especially when acquisition of knowledge at home is either inconvenient or insufficient. In the former instance, even malams teaching hundreds of students send their children to other malams in distant places to learn the Qur'an especially to avoid domestic distractions. In the latter, migration was necessary particularly for parents who wished their children to memorize the Qur'an but are resident in such cities which, though well known for Islamic higher education (usually called ilm), are less concerned about memorization of the Qur'an. Almost all the cities like Zaria, Sokoto, Kano, Katsina, Bidda, Bauchi, Gombe, Yola, Jalingo, etc are cities of ilm while those under the domain of the former Borno Caliphate, or gabas (Northeast) as we know it in Hausa land, by contrast have managed right from the beginning to combine the two, and excel without dispute to date in the memorization of the Qur'an. So migration over the centuries in search of the Qur'an has been towards Northeast. This can easily be discerned from the preponderance of Kanuri terminologies in things related to almajiri and the Qur'an which are used even today in Hausaland. The peace and freedom of movement that came as a result of colonization has enabled Hausaland also to join in the art of memorizing the Qur'an, hence the drop in the significance of migration to Borno.
May God have mercy on Imam Shafi'i. He is the greatest proponent of migration for seeking knowledge which he also extended even to business and a number of things. He likened it to a precious stone which he said is nothing unless it is mined and transported away from its soil. He summarized everything in two verses: "Emigrate from your home in quest of excellence, and travel for in travel there are five benefits: relief from sorrow and earning a livelihood, then knowledge, good manners and friendship with the famous. (Tagarrab 'anil awtani fi dalabil 'ula, wa safir fa fis safari khamsu fawa'idi: Tafarruju hammin waktisabu ma'ishatin, wa ilmun wa aadabun wa suhbatu majidi.)" Shafi'i himself was born in Gaza. He travelled almost the entire Middle East seeking for knowledge until he finally settled in Egypt. Danfodio travelled to Niger to learn from Sheikh Jibril. The malams of ilm in Zaria city still receive students from distant places like Mali, Cameroun, Chad, Central Africa, etc. Musa the almajiri was not different. In his own little way, he sacrificed home and its luxury, like most almajiris, to become a custodian of the Qur'an. So any attempt to prevent migration of the child in quest of knowledge is likely to be met with resistance from our people due to its deep cultural roots. If you like, you can equate the almajiri to a student in our modern boarding primary or secondary school. They are not different.
Then, apart from its long history, the almajiri system carries a lot of significance in the culture and, ironically, the economy of the North. Apart from being responsible for the literacy of hundreds of millions of our children over a span of ten centuries, it today accords Nigeria especially a unique and enviable reputation in the entire Muslim World. Nigeria, due to the almajiri system, is undoubtedly among the leading countries in the number of memorizers of the Qur'an. Perhaps only Pakistan could come close to us. The other countries that still have almajiris – namely Mali, Chad and Mauritania – are not as densely populated as Nigeria. More importantly, the almajiri system is the only one today known in the Muslim World that has retained the reproduction of the Qur'an in writing direct from memory. Without looking at any copy, an alaramma studiously writes the entire Qur'an portion by portion, chapter by chapter, verse by verse, beginning with all its consonants, then he returns to add all its vowels, then its fullstops and commas, dilations and nunnation, and so many little things that vary from page to page. He does all these without a single mistake and despite the abundant minute differences in many verses or portions that appear similar. The Qur'an has, for example, given the story of Moses, (peace be upon him), in more than thirty different places and in more than thirty different ways, depending on the lesson God wants us to learn from the narration. The alaramma, who is a Masters Degree graduate in almajiri system, will produce everything with an astonishing degree of perfection. As he finishes it, it could directly be taken to Beirut for scanning and printing.
The counterparts of our alarammas in the Middle and the Far East, people like famous calligrapher Usman Taha of Syria who reproduced the most widely circulated Qur'an today, do so amidst luxury accorded by petrodollars. Yet, they can only place a copy of the Qur'an and copy from it one word after another, not from their memory. Nigerian alaramma who reproduces it direct from memory may not even be sure of his next meal but he is never bothered since he is already used to such hardship from his early days as a balla, kolo, tittibiri or gardi. That is how every indigenous Qur'an we come across in Kasuwar Kurmi or elsewhere in Nigeria is written. Thus, should anything happen to the Qur'an in the world, in Nigeria it can be perfectly reproduced off-head by hundreds of thousands of people. Which Nigerian would like us to lose this reputation? The modern nizamiyya schools which are gradually taking over the almajiri system in urban and semi-urban areas do produce memorizers of the Qur'an too, but I have never heard or seen any of their graduates reproduce the Qur'an in written form from memory. That is an exclusive preserve of the almajiri.
Now we move to the social and economic significance of the almajiri which is truly more fascinating. And this must catch the attention of policy makers and elite like me by surprise because we are used to looking at the almajiri as a miserable boy whose future is condemned to begging, poverty and liability to the nation. We often express the need to enroll him in primary school such that he can be empowered with the potentials of western education, potentials of being 'ABC' – army officer, bank manager or custom officer, the dream husband of our girls – or even become the President.
Last week, we saw the ambitions of Musa and his father after the boy graduates as a gardi. His father gave him the option of returning home to become a farmer, or go to Kano and become a trader, or proceed to train in higher education in Zaria to qualify as a learned religious scholar, etc. These are the typical ambitions of every almajiri. They are trained right from childhood to be productive members of the society, to become adults that are not only learned but also who can live on their own. Yes you will see some of them begging, but it is only during their childhood days. As soon as they grow they must choose a trade to survive on. Even in childhood, they accompany their malam to the farm; they gather firewood from the bush; and learn the humility of living at the bottom of the society, through thin and thick, not because their parents are poor but because they are in boarding school away from home. They carry this consciousness to their teenage days, each choosing to earn from one source or another. He later graduates, settles and become a fully self-employed adult.
Some of them have risen to become wealthy merchants of international repute like the richest person known in first half of 20th Century Northern Nigeria, the famous late Alhasan Dantata, or our contemporaries like Isyaka Rabi'u, Alhaji Garba A.D., etc. There is hardly any shop at the famous multibillion naira kantin kwari market in Kano without a former almajiri either owning or managing it. Millions are farmers; some become watchmen, craftsmen, teachers, and down to even nail cutters. Among scholars almajirci has produced hundreds of thousands in the past. Even today it has produced famous people like Ameenuddeen Abubakar himself – a PhD, on the one hand, and Shehu Dahiru Usman Bauchi, on the other. We have been mean to forget the collective contribution of the system that produced these people. Rather, we look at almajiri with disdain, something not worthy of continuity.
In our discussion next week, we will see which system needs salvation, our modern schools or the almajiri's. Then we will also start touching on the bad side of the almajiris, lest the reader thinks that everything is perfect with them. I decided to be lengthy in order give us the other picture, the positive one, which we hardly bring to focus when discussing the almajiri or try to find a solution to his problems. And since they do not have a voice, one of us, at least, should be kind enough to tell their good side on their behalf; more so when they are victims of our corruption and recklessness. I will cut the discussion here and request for your ears next week. I hope you will then lend them to me.
23 October 2009