Arabs, Islam and Nigeria

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Patrick Dele Cole

In many places, including Nigeria, that which are Arabic and Islamic have been conflated and even combined to mean the thing – the clothes and robes, the hijab, purdah, etc., in a way that is not common to other religions and everyday aspects of life in other parts of the world with different religions.

In Europe Islamic schools have been established in an aggressive display of what it is to be Islamic or Arabic – exhibiting these differences in culture, clothes, etc. Even so the Islamic schools have to conform to the laws and regulations covering the education institutions and systems. In short, you may, in the United Kingdom or Germany, have chartered educational Islamic schools but the students still do the same examinations and learn from the same syllabuses as all other schools in order to get state recognised educational standards e.g. GCSE, A-Levels, etc., which are requirements for entering universities and tertiary institutions.

Arabic knowledge is built on foundation of Greek, Roman, Chinese and Indian knowledge. Its legacy was the foundation it laid for the remarkable explosion and spread of knowledge which was the Renaissance – (a rebirth after the Dark Ages), and the birth of the modern nation state.

Islamic/Arab knowledge was seminal to human development (and whatever ISIS or Boko Haram is doing is not knowledge – indeed it is based on lack of Islamic/Arabic knowledge – a total regression and denial of the essence of knowledge – debasing the heights of human development for the capture of a few boys and girls and the enthroning of self-immolation in the name of “religion”.

It has become fashionable to trace all of the problems of Nigeria to the machinations of all Islamic cult-like grips on the levers of power: appointments to political and administrative cadres in all branches of government. The North is accused of importing millions of Fulani Muslims from as far as Burkina Faso into Nigeria – fully armed to support the North.

There is an explosion of conspiracy theories beginning long before Usman Dan Fodio and his jihad, culminating, as the conspiratorialists insist, in the perfidy of the British in the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria in 1914 under Lord Lugard so that the Islamic element and programme can continue inexorably.

Every single problem now arising in Nigeria is looked at from this trajectory – a deep-seated Arabic/Islamic/Northern playbook that has polluted our body politic, our Constitution, or political institution, etc. Since the origin of this playbook is Arabic/Islamic, perhaps we should look at the originators – Arabs and Islam. What do Nigerians know about Islam, Arabism, etc?

Arabs, horses, camels, language: Chronic disunity was the Arab curse, (their hamartia). It was a tragic flaw which sealed Arab destiny. Nevertheless, the military innovation of horses in war spread rapidly among all Arabs, while giving them great mobility and power, it also ensured that none of them gained an upper hand for long. It perpetuated an almost rebellious streak and sparked an explosion in Arab inter and intra raiding.

Every tribe was open to raid and insecurity. This vulnerability attracted larger and better-organised nations who soon discovered that, but something ran underneath the Arab mind: a spirit, indefinable but powerful, a latent base self-awareness, an inchoate nationalism. Arabs are most empowered when there is more than one dominant power in their area.

They did well when the Roman and Persian Empires were against each other; they prospered when Britain and France were at war, when United States and NATO faced the other Warsaw power. For example, Rome took over Palmyra in 272 and thus brought two great powers (of Rome and Persia) face to face. During that face-off between the two lions of Rome and Persia, Imra al Quays, a fearsome Arab, led raids as far as 1700 kilometres while engaged in the building of the Himyari Empire.

Arabs in their phonetic language described themselves as the ‘Rat with Iron Teeth’. Their land saw empires come and go. Sharmar, Ethiopia, Persia established Empires in Arabia.

Rodent with iron teeth describes the various garbs the Arabs put on: first as mercenaries, then power brokers, metamorphosing into power breakers – then power grabbers. Even then throughout all this; the Arabs continued to display their inherent “dynamic disunity”, a central feature even which continues to play out till today. For the rest of humanity life is a journey: for Arabs, life is the road.

Mobility was always another theme in Arab history and was prophesised as such. “You shall be fugitives – You shall love your children’s land”. This mobility syndrome manifested itself as late as the 1950s and 1960s in restless Zeitgeist of those periods now known as the Arab Spring. The word, this restless impulsive mobility, equally applies to the super raids of early Islam, to the early migrations that preceded them as well as the flood of refugees of the 21st century.

Added to this military prowess of constant mobility, the Arabs were endowed with a language that was deep in meaning, difficult to master. Its mastery was celebrated by poets, orators and speakers who gathered to compete for who was most adept in the use of language: they travelled throughout Arabia.

These were the word gatherers. The rhetoric of these “word gatherers” united their tribes, creating “asabiyyah” … spirit of solidarity, which powered the revolution of the wheel of fire that is the spread of Islam. The Romans and the Persians and the Arabs themselves played deadly musical chairs but the Arabs believed that they never will be more unfortunate than when their kings were Persian. They hated the Persians with visceral passion.

They also hated the Turks. Both Persia and Turkey returned the sentiment of hatred of the Arabs in full measure. Arab legitimacy was entrenched in their language – it rested above all in their control, not of institutions but in rhetoric of their language. Thus, by the time the Quran came out it was, therefore, not only the Scripture of Islam, it was also the founding text of Arab as we know it with all the historical weight of the Pentateuch, a Magna Carta and a Declaration of Independence, all rolled into one. The foremost Arabic scholar Ibn Khaldun said that Muhammad “gathered the Arabs together upon the word of Islam”.

This is a similar saying in St John chapter 1: “In the beginning was the word and the word was God. The word of God was made flesh”. The day Muhammad was born is called ‘Day of the Elephant.’ Riyadh (Arab) and Teheran (Persian) are physically separated by the Gulf of Hormuz but are also separated by an abyss of antique antagonisms older than Islam and deeper than the Persian Gulf. Arabic independence was sustained by their language, which Byron, the poet, described as a form of oratory, a transformation of speech from the audible to the visible. “Recite… by the pen and what they write”.

The Kahins travelling from town to town, settlement to settlement were the poets (orators, poets, rhetoricians,) didacticians – early Arabic rappers and custodians of the language “The old oral magical world of the Kahims come together to the new era of recording technology” as one Arab historian put it.

There are copious examples of these descriptions of Arabic as etherealising speech and vision and hearing the script that fills the ears of him that sees it. In Arabic letters are not just phonetic, they are phonic, acoustic: Arabic is not a dictation, it is a notation like that of music, according to another Arabic scholar.

Legitimacy for the Arabs rested on their control not of institutions but of rhetoric, of language. Was this a similar experience in Nigeria when the Fulanis through language controlled the Hausas? Thus control of Northern Nigeria is not based on control of institutions but control of rhetoric Hausa language.

In Bonny, the ruling houses virtually abandoned their language of Igbani, and adopted Igbo as the controlling language). (Yoruba – the language of the Ifa priests – is substantially different from spoken Yoruba; in Igbo the language of the controllers of the society of the Aros, is unique, so also is the Jeli families of West Africa.

Babalawo and other Yoruba deity priests in Yoruba speak a higher or different form of Yoruba, not easily or commonly understood. In Igbo the opi praise singers use a language not common to most Igbos. Among the Ijaws, the priest of Akaso speak a dialect unknown to most Ijaws. Till recently, devout Catholics preferred mass said in Latin which seemed holier to them.

The Catholic choristers sang in Latin, which they did not understand. Today the most non-Arabic Moslems worship in Arabic, which they do not understand in much the same way as old Roman Catholics used to pray in Latin. The Ogala masquerade in Igboland sings in a falsetto voice and in a language which the followers do not understand. The Pipilibo masquerade in Ijaw Kalabari also sings in a falsetto unknown to the followers.

The one force that brought the separate Arabs together was language – not the everyday speech but a rich, strange, subtle, suavely, hypnotic, magically, persuasive, difficult “high” Arab language that evolved from the larger Arab identity – a reversal of the divinely inflicted disunity of Babel in the Bible. Wisdom according to popular folklore descended in three organs of the people of the South – the brains of the Greeks, the hands of the Chinese and the tongues of the Arabs.

The Arab spring has shown how words – slogans, chants, propaganda, mis and disinformation which are mesmerisingly magical can still shape the course of history. The Arabs had had a long history. As early as 853 BC – Arabic was known. Mohammed produced in AD 582 the seminal works of the Koran: the beginning of the Arabic information technology establishing new ways to use and control language and shape identity. Language coarsed and strengthened a 3000 year past, making the Arabs legible and visible into their historic present and the establishment of an empire, taking over settled states and becoming the new rulers.

Reparations

*Islam/Arabism came to Africa via Berbers of North Africa, down into the Sahara and across it to Nigeria and other West Africa countries. When blacks ask the West for reparation, why do they not ask the Arabs for the same? The latter having a history of black exploitation starting from 600AD i.e. if the first slaves arrived in the US in 1619; black slaves have been in Arab lands and empire and other Arab nations before 600AD.

*Reconstructing Arab society on a democratic political basis and reconciling Islam and the modern world remain the greatest tasks confronting the contemporary generation.

*To say western education is haram is similar for the Pope to say Latin is haram, anathema – a language that suffices every pore of Catholicism. Knowledge is universal: and is studied as such. The study of Islam trends over all the information above and more; it includes Medicine, Mathematics, and Algorithms etc. So is the study of Chemistry. This is not to say that there is no ideological or spiritual difference between religions.

The positioning of Islam and Christianity is Political, not spiritual. People use religion for political gains. But fundamentally all religion inspires the spirit; reaches out to others because the journey to spiritual bliss is the same no matter which religion you espouse. More fundamentally, knowledge is one: the more you learn, the more you know.

Moslem leaders must appreciate the Universality of Knowledge. It is not a steak you can cut up and divide: this is good knowledge, this is bad knowledge. In fact the very process of acquiring knowledge does overwhelm those unhelpful distractions of western or Islamic knowledge. They are not polar opposites. They are inextricably intertwined.

Our Moslem, Christian, atheist leaders know this. To the purveyors of Islamic hate in Boko Haram, Moslem clerics must open their eyes to the contribution of Arabic knowledge in all its myriad forms to the body of human knowledge. No amount of hatred could possibly justify the seizing of school boys and girls from school – what is that supposed to prove? That Islam is an uneducated religion? Incidentally in Saudi Arabia no woman who is below 18 years can marry.

*Islam Arabism is not a clog of progress and development as simply been demonstrated by fantastic strides made in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, even Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Indonesia. When Abu Dhabi started their incredible transformation they had nothing except the will to succeed and dig itself out of poverty. Nigeria has many more resources but could, with benefit, borrow the will to succeed, coupled with a readable plan to do so – getting our people, all our people out from the trough of debilitating poverty and iconoclast analogous backwardness.

*The economy of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Kuwait-work. They are successful, they invite foreigners to invest in their countries, their economy is buoyant; Jews, Christians and Muslims flock there. Each of these groups work with the others to keep the economy buoyant. Switzerland is a Christian country, having one of the highest standards of living, the economy is booming. Religion has nothing to do with the economic power Switzerland has become.

*Israel is a successful economic and military power; it is also the IT headquarters of the world producing more startup operation companies than any other. This was achieved without the admittedly fractious religious underbelly disrupting its meteoric impressive growth. Economically Nigeria has all the conditions to be economically successful but it is held back by religious primitivism; Some Archbishop and some Islamic cleric will find some reason to stop a clear economic advantage. Religion must not be used to slow or impede Nigeria’s march towards its destiny.

*Nigeria has a Space Agency. It cannot fly a drone from the international airport to local airport. United Arab Emirate (UAE) has a Space Agency and their rockets, piloted by a woman has just flown round the planet Mars. Both countries are massive Islamic countries. Pakistan, Malaysia, India have put men in Space. Malaysia is progressing. Pakistan has the nuclear weapons. All these countries have cows and camels but someone political discourse and progress and development move on as a fast chip while we regress to cow head mentality. We are better than this. At least we ought to be.

*Let’s surprise ourselves by choosing these countries as our models. If Nigeria had 5 or 6 cities like Dubai, then we would have left poverty behind and hopefully a nativist religiosity which is the chain and ball holding us back.

But to get to be Switzerland, Dubai, Israel, we must really badly want to do this. That decision has consequences: it implies we are willing to change our ways.

*Abridged

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