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Islam In Nigeria [Part III]: Islamic Education In Nigeria – An Evolution Across Three Generations



How colonization derailed the course of Islamic education in Nigeria was covered previously in Part 1, and in Part 2 we discussed the recent trends, future possibilities, and the social impact of said Islamic education.

In Southern Nigeria, especially in the southwest, the waleematul-Qur’an is a Muslim traditional socio-religious party-type gathering. It can be as modest or as lavish as the socio-economic status of the celebrant’s family, depending on their perception of how important the milestone is. This celebration is held when a person (usually a child) completes the recitation of the Qur’an in
Arabic, under the tutelage of a teacher.

From independence, increasingly until the 1990s, especially among upper-middle-class families, the waleemah represented the socially acceptable pinnacle for Islamic knowledge for a ‘civilized’ person. Children from such families attended the local Qur’an classes as often as they didn’t, on weekends or in the evenings, around the schedule of their western education schools. Those children bright, diligent, or interested enough to master the recitation of the Qur’an in Arabic, were celebrated with the waleemah before the obligatory dropping out stage: usually about the end of primary (grade) school or a few years thereafter. Beyond that ceremony, beyond that age, knowledge of Islam was firmly the purview of the local Islamic scholars, called Alfas, who were – for a long time, as a by-product of colonization and the western model of education – relegated to the ranks of the lower class.

Islamic Sciences and Western Education – A Merger

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“No one understood why I went back to Qur’an school,” Salma*, a female student of Islamic knowledge, confided. One of the kids who defaulted before waleemah, she had begun her journey in her late teens, after graduating from high school. “There were only a handful of the Muslim kids in my elite boarding secondary school who could recite the Qur’an in Arabic. The general lack of basic religious knowledge among us was so appalling, it was unsurprising that by our graduation six years later, at least half of those kids no longer identified as Muslim. I knew I needed to do better”

When Salma finally had her waleemah ceremony, eight months after she joined the classes, she was in her first year as an undergraduate, the oldest of her cohort. An oddity to her family and friends, she continued to learn branches of Islamic knowledge for many years.

The decline in Islamic education was not confined to Southern Nigeria. In the North, upper and middle-class families no longer sent their children to gain Islamic knowledge through the traditional system. According to Tahir*, a millennial now based in the US, his own tsangaya style education ran concurrently with homeschooling. He learned western-style subjects at home, taught by his mom and aunts until he finished the middle school (JSS 3) syllabus. Afterward, he was registered in a regular school for senior secondary, and attended the university to study engineering.

His pathway is similar to many of his contemporaries, as more Northerners emphasized western education for their children, rather than –or alongside– Islamic education. Even those trained fully in Islamic sciences find means to obtain western-styled qualifications. Ahmad Usman, a recent graduate of Usul-Deen (Fundamentals of religion) from Islamic University In Niger Republic, gained admission to the university after starting his Islamic knowledge journey via the more traditional path.

An Upswing of Perception towards Islamic Education

By the mid-2000s though, perception towards Islamic education in Nigeria was back on an upswing, due in no small part to the efforts of educated Muslim millennials. Using their many youth and student organizations as vehicles, these young people – mostly university and high school students – began promoting a culture of seeking Islamic knowledge beyond knowing how to recite the Qur’an. Pushing the discourse further than the ritualistic aspects of Deen like the how-to-pray and fast lectures they had grown up with, this generation of learners held discussions on the inner dimensions of Islam – aqeedah, tadabbur, tafsir, tafsir, the significance of the sunnah – and the importance of seeking Islamic knowledge.

Emphasizing the individual obligation of seeking knowledge of the religion, they organized educational programs and study circles, book discussions, and Qur’an memorization circles. They invited local scholars to give talks on their campuses, schools, and other meeting places. They learned classical Arabic and promoted the tradition of taking knowledge from scholars teaching classical Islamic texts. Hearing the clamor for more scholars and students of the Islamic sciences, many of these young people went through considerable effort and cost to gain access to local scholars and their classes, undergoing intensive studies of traditional Islamic subjects.

The local scholars and other traditionally trained students of knowledge, too, rose to the task, holding formal and informal classes targeting these knowledge seekers. Soon, there were no shortage of short courses and longer immersive programs on disciplines ranging from hifdh to mastering the Arabic of the Qur’an. Some of the scholarly classes who had studied in Islamic universities as far as Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia had returned to the country to set up schools and semi-formal classes specifically targeting this new demographic. The long-held dichotomy between Islamic and western education was further blurred by the increasing numbers of classically trained students of Islamic knowledge who subsequently gained admission to universities, both within and outside the country, to study a wide range of courses.

Ahmad and Tahir argue that students of knowledge, even those like them who end up in a non- religious sector for work, still contribute immensely to promoting a culture of Islamic education in the country. Most northerners, they claim, realized they could not sustain the region on Islamic education alone.

“Although I still have plans of furthering my master’s and Ph.D inshaAllah, and teaching Islam in the future, I am currently running my own business.”

Parents would not discourage their kids from studying Islam, both of them reason, if there are examples of people who studied Islam extensively in childhood, rather than or in addition to western schooling, and are able to hold their own in other academic or professional fields as adults.

“I continued to study Islam, even after I was in university. Even now,” Tahir assures, weaving tales of private classes at masaajid, offices, and homes of local scholars in Bauchi, Kaduna, and Jos, to study various classical religious texts.

Such access was not equally available to all, of course. Some of the scholars, especially in the North, did not venture outside of their immediate community, some of which could be in more remote parts of the country. In addition, a proportion of interested learners, educated from childhood in English, could not engage in the local languages critically enough to study at an advanced level. Women learners faced the greatest hurdles, limited by the dearth of women scholars and social norms around female-male interaction.

“We could only join the general classes,” Salma sighed. “Even in those, we were more constrained, compared with the males. Male students interact freely with the asaatidhas, in class and out of it. They attend private teachings of texts not on the syllabus, and get to travel to some shaykh in far-off places, even accompanying the shuyukh on their travels. We have to contend with regulations concerning mahrams and seeking permission, as well as the realities of marriage and childrearing.”

A Positive Evolution of Islam in Nigeria

Salma, who stopped attending classes after her own nuptials, agrees that the state of Islamic education and knowledge in Nigeria are legions better than they were in her childhood. “There are even female only schools of Islamic sciences in the South now!” She laughs. With two teenage haafidh high schoolers – the girl currently pursuing an ijaazah – her family is a textbook illustration of how Islamic education evolved in Nigera over the past three generations. Many hope this evolution will continue favorably.

For Nigerian Muslims, especially in the South, who still have memories, recollection, and experiences from the not-too-far past when Islamic education was an anathema -first for our colonizers, then our own collectively colonized minds-, this evolution is a source of joy. The writer in particular cannot get over how commonplace the hijab among schoolgirls has become, or the relative determination of young Nigerian Muslims to learn about the Deen.

While acknowledging the long way ahead, and issues that still need to be dealt with -including the restructuring of the almariji system in the North and the epidemic of losing Muslim youth to the lures of pleasure-seeking lifestyles- Nigerian Muslims can nevertheless look back and celebrate how far they have come in handing down Islam, its knowledge and practices, through generations.


Related reading:

Islam In Nigeria [Part I]: A History

Islam In Nigeria [Part II]: Recent Trends, Future Possibilities, And The Social Impact Of Islamic Education

Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Muti'ah is an Obstetrician-Gynecologist, homeschooling mother, writer and multiple-award winning author. Her books, mostly contemporary Islamic fiction, write to the Nigerian Muslim experience.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Nabil

    February 26, 2023 at 1:55 AM

    Excellent series, was really quiet informative and educational for me. It seems more needs to be down to further the access to education, but the new generation can build on the success of the past ones in this regard.

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