International Conference on Comparative Perspectives on Sharia in Nigeria
15th - 17th of January, 2004
University of Jos, Nigeria
This conference was the culmination of a year-long research project of scholars from the University of Jos, the University of Bayreuth and the Luther Seminary of St. Paul, Minnesota, under the title “The Sharia Debate and the Shaping of Muslim and Christian Identities in Northern Nigeria”. The Jos conference was one of two that were part of the project; the other was held in Bayreuth in July 2003. The entire project, including both conferences, was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation.
In 1999-2000, the leaders of twelve predominantly Muslim states of Northern Nigeria undertook a program of “implementation of Sharia”, which in practice principally meant the enactment of new Sharia Penal and Criminal Procedure Codes and the establishment of new Sharia Courts to apply them. This extension of the Sharia to the realm of penal law was the most significant and also the most controversial change in Nigeria’s laws since independence. The goal of this research project has been to document these changes in the law, to collect data on their implementation so far, and to study the effects the new developments are having on the shaping of Muslim and Christian identities in Northern Nigeria.
The basic idea of the conference in Jos was to bring new concepts and ideas into the Sharia debate in Nigeria. To reach this objective the organisers pursued two strategies. First, they declared the conference open to the public and advertised it widely. As a result over nine hundred people signed the attendance registers and there were six to seven hundred people in the hall most of the time. Second, as main speakers, the organisers primarily invited members of the international (i.e. Western) academic community and to a lesser extent representatives of minority positions in the Sharia debate in Nigeria and elsewhere in the Muslim world. But every main paper was commented on by two Nigerian scholars, one Christian and one Muslim.
The audience included academics from many disciplines, experts in Islamic law, Muslim and Christian dignitaries and clerics, students, and miscellaneous members of the interested public. The discussions were sometimes heated and some tension arouse from the encounter between academic analysis and popular arguments from the audience. Particularly the concept of secularism and the secular state became recurring and weighty issues. Many Nigerian Christians and Muslims alike regard these concepts – i.e. the separation of state and religion, and of public and private spheres – as inappropriate and even evil. Muslims regard them as Western and ipso facto Christian concepts. Some Christians on the other hand equate secularism with anti-religiousness or even the coming of some sort of Anti-Christ. Several times during the discussions parts of the audience criticized the whole setting of the conference: Western academics talking about issues which should or could only legitimately be discussed by Nigerians or even by Nigerian Muslims. However, this kind of criticism could not be made against the two most controversial panellists of the conference, both of them Muslims, one Nigerian and the other Sudanese. In his sharp criticism of the current mainstream interpretation of Islamic law in Nigeria, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi – a well-known Nigerian writer on Islamic topics – kept well within the admissible spectrum of debate about Sharia in Nigeria. It was otherwise with the final speaker, Abdullahi an-Nacim, of Sudanese origin and an internationally respected scholar of Islamic law. An-Nacim fundamentally questioned the legitimacy of any codification and enforcement of Sharia by the state. Some members of the audience found these ideas so repugnant that they started a walkout while the speaker was still replying to comments and questions.
The conference in Jos constituted the first occasion giving a global dimension to the current Sharia debate in Nigeria. Even if parts of the audience did not appreciate some of the ideas discussed during the conference, there is still a well-founded hope that much of the information and many of the views presented have fallen on fertile ground and will inspire future debates on this controversial topic. It is envisaged that the proceedings of the conference will be published soon.
By Franz Kogelmann
First published in NAB Newsletter of African Studies at Bayreuth University, Vol. III/1 2004, p.15,