A new translation of the Quran into the Igbo language was launched on 1 July 2022 at the Ansar-Ud-Deen Mosque in Abuja, Nigeria. According to the translator, Muhammed Muritala Chukwuemeka, the project to produce this Nso Koran began five years ago.
This is the third of Nigeria’s main languages to have its own version of the Muslim scripture. The Quran is also available in Yoruba and Hausa, which are spoken by large populations of Muslims. The Yoruba make up about 21% of the country’s population – estimated to be over 216 million – and about half of the Yoruba are Muslim. The Hausa-Fulani make up about 29% of Nigeria’s population, and are predominantly Muslim.
It is remarkable that Igbo has joined them because the Igbo population is estimated at 98% Christian. There are only about 13,500 Igbo Muslims.
I have been researching Islam in southeast Nigeria, the Igbo homeland, for two decades. I published a book which tells the story of how Islam was introduced in Igboland, how the Christian majority responded and what it’s like to live as an Igbo Muslim. It considers the factors that compelled conversions to Islam among the Igbo, the contestations over conversions, and some developments that followed the emergence of Islam in southeast Nigeria.
While researching the book in 2009, I became aware of another Igbo Quran but it was not commonly accessible to the average Igbo Muslim. The Igbo Muslims may also have chosen not to associate with that version of the Quran because it came out of a project sponsored by the Ahmadiyya Movement. The movement is considered heretical by the mainstream Islamic denominations.
The existence of a new translation into Igbo means that more Igbo Muslims have access to their scriptures. They can read for themselves what their religion prescribes. Non-Muslims in southeast Nigeria could also learn more about Islam. If Nso Koran becomes widely available, and not restricted only to Muslims, it could facilitate inter-religious dialogue. This could aid better understanding of the main religions in Igboland and promote peaceful coexistence in a region that perceives itself as marginalised by more powerful Muslim groups.
Islam in Igboland
Islam was introduced into Igboland, southeast Nigeria, during the colonial period. I have studied the historical development of Islam in this region using oral, archival, and written sources and as far as I have been able to establish, the earliest known Muslim migrant was Ibrahim Aduku. He came from Bida in Nupeland to trade horses with communities in Enugu-Ezike in northern Igboland. Aduku’s grandson told me his grandfather started visiting Enugu-Ezike “around the time the British station (outpost) was established in the town.” Comparing colonial records with trade reports, along with interviews conducted between 2003 and 2009, I estimate that Aduku would have arrived in the area around 1909. Through Aduku, other itinerant Muslim traders and Islamic marabouts entered northern Igboland from north-central Nigeria. A different stream of Muslim migrants began to arrive in 1918 from the Yoruba town of Oshogbo in southwestern Nigeria. Some also came from Ilorin, north central Nigeria. They settled at Ibagwa.
In 1958, the first known group conversion to Islam among the Igbo occurred in Enohia in Abakiliki Division, southeastern Nigeria. Okpani Nwagui, a Roman Catholic Christian who a year earlier had converted to Islam, mediated this conversion. He assumed the name Ibrahim Niasse Nwagui.
By the outbreak of the Nigeria-Biafra war in July 1967, the population of Igbo converts to Islam stood at roughly 200.
In 1984, the scholar Abdurahman Doi wrote that there were 3,450 indigenous Igbo Muslims. The latest figure, collated from hajj records in 2013, puts the number at 13,500.
With the rise of Boko Haram and its war against Christianity in Nigeria, Islam in Igboland faced a crisis and began to record desertions. But while some are leaving Islam, others are joining.
Factors aiding Islam growth
Since the 1909 arrival of Ibrahim Aduku, Islam has been advancing gradually in southeast Nigeria. Almost all major towns in Igboland have converts to Islam; and many more Igbo now know about Islam than was the case in 2003 when I started researching the subject.
Over these decades, several factors have aided the growth of Islam in Igboland.
They include mixed religious marriages and dissatisfaction with existing religious groups. Another factor is the desire for integration within established Muslim financial and political networks. This was heightened by the political and economic marginalisation of the Igbo since the Nigeria-Biafra war.
Growth has been aided by proselytising among the Igbo by Muslims intent on gaining converts, who equally hope that their growing numbers will bring about political unity in the country. There is also the pull of financial and other inducements in bringing the Igbo into Islam.
In my research on conversions to Islam in the region, few identified genuine spiritual quest and religious conviction as the reason.
Relations between Christians and Muslims in Igboland have generally been peaceful and tolerant, after initial tensions around conversions.
Islam’s future in Igboland
Islam’s future in southeast Nigeria will depend on the factors above and also more recent developments. Coming into play will be the existing relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, regional dynamics that affect the political and economic realities of the people, and individual convictions.
At the centre of this is the poor relationship between the Igbo and the federal government since 2015. This is especially evident in the perceived exclusion of the southeast from government’s infrastructural and other development projects. This and the Boko Haram insurgency have lately heightened anti-Islam sentiment in Igboland.
It’s hoped that at least the new Nso Koran will guide Igbo Muslims in what the religion prescribes, facilitate dialogue and aid peaceful coexistence among all religious communities.
*Uchendu is professor of History and International Studies), University of Nigeria