By Femi Abbas
It should not be strange to readers of ‘The Message’ that this column is coming up, today, with such a memorable title as presented here. A newspaper columnist, who is also a veteran Journalist, is like a human octopus that deals with issues and occurrences from different conceivable angles just as he relates to those issues according to his perception. Thus, sharing any experience garnered from such perception, with the readers of this column, is, essentially, one of the fundamental indices of the profession called journalism. It is also a major ingredient of the beauty of that profession.
Chief Richard Osuolale Abimbola Akinjide, who died early this year, was a Nigerian frontline lawyer and a politician of prominence. He was also one of the most ardent readers of ‘The Message’ column when alive.
On a particular Saturday in 2010, the iconic political juggernaut and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) called me by telephone and requested me to please see him at his Idi Isin residence, near NIHORT in Ibadan. On entering his living room, a ‘hill’ of newspaper cuttings sitting on one of the stools by his side, caught my attention. The sight of that ‘hill’ was a confirmation of the fact that the man was truly an ardent newspaper reader. After exchange of pleasantries with me and offer of drink, Chief Akinjide asked me to formally introduce myself to him, which I promptly did. He then decided to play the role of a journalist by interrogating me in a cross-examination manner with which lawyers are typically renowned in a law court. And, when he started quoting copiously from the various articles in my column, and picking out copies of those articles from the ‘hill’ of newspaper cuttings by his side, It became clear to me that the ‘hill’ was deliberately placed on that stool in readiness for my coming.
By Chief Akinjide’s disposition in the course of our conversation, I noted a double edged impression which he created. One of those impressions was for me while the other was for him. On my side, I noticed a very sharp, juvenile brain with a uniquely active memory in him despite his octogenarian age.
This man, who had become a Federal Minister when I was in the elementary school, so much dazed me with his analysis of my writings that I felt he would have been one of the best newspaper columnists in Nigerian history if he had chosen journalism as a profession. He vividly reminded me of the quality of Western education which his generation acquired during the colonial rule in Nigeria. In fact, Chief Richard Akinjide was Allah’s special gift to Nigeria even if Nigeria did not appreciate that gift as much as expected. One of the pungent questions he threw to me, which warranted the writing of this article, was about my educational background. He said: “which secondary school did you attend?” And, in answering that question, I simply told him that it was MARKAZ. He asked me to repeat the answer and I proudly told him once again that it was MARKAZ. And, from his inquisitively agitated visage, I could see that he never heard that name before. There and then, he asked me to tell him the language by which that name was coined, its meaning as well as the location of the school.
It was during my explanation that he discovered that I could speak, write and comprehend Arabic language very well.
I told him that MARKAZ was the name of an Arabic school (madrasah) established by the late Sheikh Adam Abdullah Al-Ilory, in Agege, Lagos State. And when I also told him that I was not privileged to attend a conventional secondary school because my father could not afford it, he was highly surprised. His next question was: “then, how did you come about the high standard English language with which you are writing your column?”. My explanation on how I learnt English language privately, after I left the Arabic school, sounded so much unbelievable to him that he confessed that he had thought that I attended either Oxford or Cambridge University in UK, for my degree course, perhaps after completing my secondary school education at King’s College, or St. Gregory’s College in Lagos. However, in response to that guess, I told him that I attended King’s University, Jeddah, for my degree and I read English. But he was still surprised that I obtained my first degree in English Language and Literature in the Arab World. He did not know that virtually all my lecturers at King’s University were Britons and Americans. There and then, he tactically left that angle and asked me to tell him something about Arabic language and its usefulness. But to my amazement, Chief Akinjide’s surprise became heightened when I told him that all science subjects that brought about technology and the modern civilization originated from Arabic language. For instance, I told him that such subjects like Chemistry (Kaymiyau), Physics (Fisiyau), Algebra (Aljibrau), mathematics (Ar-Riyadiyat) and several others in sciences were originally Arabic. I also told him that the very first University ever established in human history was University of Cordoba which was established by the Muslim Arabs of the second Umayyad dynasty in Spain, in the 9th century. I did not stop there. I added that it was the Muslim Arabs that invented figure zero (0) which paved way for digital system in mathematics made technology possible. That conversation lasted about three hours but from his body language, Chief Akinjide needed more information about Islam’s contribution to human civilization. He then told me that he would continue to invite me for further discussions on that subject whenever the need arose for it.
About four weeks after that first encounter, Chief Akinjide called me again, by telephone, to his residence. I then thought of getting a witness to that intellectual conversation because of the future. I asked my brother, Dr. Wole Abbas (now a Professor and Head of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, University of Ibadan, to accompany me to Chief Akinjide’s residence. I narrated to him what had transpired between us in our previous meeting. And, being an intellectual rendezvous, my brother was ready to be a witness.
On reaching the place, the conversation began again. And for another period of over three hours, the conversation continued with the active participation of Professor Wole Abbas. At the end of that second conversation, the man asked a puzzling question thus: “where were people like you when we were rigmarolling in search of religious right path? Or don’t you know that I was born a Muslim and I was given the name Rasheed at birth? It was because I did not understand the meanings of the Arabic recitations to which I was subjected that I later decided to become a Christian”. “And, now, is it possible to combine? And, is it not too late to change? That last question clearly showed the confused situation of Chief Akinjide’s mind on religious matter. But the opportunity of another meeting with him, thereafter, did not come. From that conversation, I discovered that, unlike molst Nigerian politicians, Chief Akinjide was a serious-minded realist whose lifestyle was a template of emulation by today’s Nigerian politicians.
The above related episode came to throw a challenge to Nigerian Muslim clerics over two conspicuous issues that jointly put a question mark on the practice of Islam in Nigeria today. One is about the Qur’anic schools in Nigeria. The other is the Mosque affair. The two are closely interrelated.
Informed Muslims will recall that Islam first reached some parts of what is now called Nigeria in the 11th century CE. That was over 1000 years ago when no one could have dreamt of a country to be called Nigeria. Even the colonialists who caused the emergence of Nigeria as a country were, at that time, still wallowing in total ignorance as they foraged wildly and aimlessly in the darkness of life. It took about 500 years after the arrival of Islam before Christianity came to Nigeria in the 16th century. Today, if the two religions are compared in terms of education and material progress in this country, one will be found obviously ahead of the other by far. As a matter of fact, it will seem as if Christianity preceded Islam in Nigeria by 500 years. There is a fundamental question here not yet asked let alone answered. Where did things begin to go wrong for the Muslims?
It is only logical that a question like this is asked at this stage before any answer can be provided. From a Yoruba adage we learn that “when a kid suddenly slips and falls down he looks forward to someone who can lift him up. But when an adult slips and falls down, he looks backwards to see the cause of his fall”. After over 1000 years in Nigeria, Islam is eminently qualified to be called an adult. Thus we can jointly look back to see where things started going wrong for Islam to remain a crawling adult?
If the past generations of Nigerian Muslims did not ask the above question, it wasn’t because they lacked intellect or foresight that could ginger them into asking such a question. Even if they asked a similar question, their political and economic hindrances would have posed as lack of wherewithal to answer it effectively. They could therefore be pardoned. The circumstances in which they embraced Islam and practiced it were quite different from those of today. That they even stood firmly by Islam in those days at all, despite the implacable persecutions they faced, was an impeccable testimony to their steadfastness in faith.
Unlike Christianity which was escorted down to Nigeria by its European propagators and was strengthened by the colonialists after assuming power, Islam only migrated to Nigeria unaccompanied. That it emerged as a force to be reckoned with was only due to the grace of Allah. Nothing beyond education encouraged certain great scholars like Usman Dan Fodio and his brother, Abdullah Dan Fodio and Sultan Bello to rise up and embark on vigorous propagation of Islam which enabled that divine religion to retain its vitality till today. It should be remembered that both Usman Dan Fodio and his son (Muhammad Bello) made such complex linguistic, theological, scientific and legal studies that the one wrote 93 books while the other wrote 97 books.
Clapperton’s Encounter with Sultan Bello
It is on record that Hugh Clapperton, a British colonial agent, once had an interesting intellectual encounter with Sultan Muhammad Bello in 1824. After the historic intellectual encounter that took both of them through a compex web of knowledge display, Clapperton had to admit thus: “He (Muhammad Bello) continued to ask me several other theological questions, until I was obliged to confess myself not sufficiently versed in religious subtleties to resolve those knotty points”.
And when Clapperton returned to Sokoto two years later (1826) and presented Sultan Bello with a complete copy of Arabic Euclid he (Clapperton) was shocked to learn that his host already possessed one. (Euclid is an ancient geometry book of 13 volumes named after its Greek originator).
Literacy in Northern Nigeria
When the Europeans first came to the territory now called Nigeria in the 16th century, the north was the only part that was literate. And, that was because Islam had reached that part of the country since the 11th century, with its Arabic literacy. The English colonialists confirmed this on their arrival in Nigeria for colonization in the 19th century. And that was why they were much more cautious in their dealings with the northerners than they were with the southerners.
That the colonialists did not retain Arabic literacy in the north was due to the fact that they could not communicate in that sophisticated language. If they (the Europeans) had not ignored Arabic literacy, the north would not have been perceived as backward literarily today by the southerners. At least by 1919 when the South was just beginning to embrace literacy, in the Western way, the North already had about 25000 schools where students were taught various subjects through Arabic language.
Today, however, over 80% of Nigerian Christians are conveniently lettered either in English which is the official language of Christianity in this country or in their vernacular languages through the Roman alphabets. That has enabled them to translate the Bible into about 21 Nigerian languages.
But on the contrary, less than 5% of Nigerian Muslims can be said to be realistically familiar with Islam through literacy in Arabic. And, without adequate literacy in Arabic language, there can be no thorough understanding of Islam which is the total way of life for any serious Muslim.
Today, despite the age of Islam in Nigeria and the population of the Muslims, the Qur’an has just been translated into about than five Nigerian languages. Even that was only possible because the two initiators of those translations (the late Sheikh Abubakar Mahmud Gumi and Sheikh Adam Abdullah Al-Ilory) were well educated in the language of the Qur’an. They were later emulated by some scholars from tribes other than Hausa and Yoruba.
Problems of Qura’anic Schools
Many Nigerian Muslims who passed through the Qur’anic schools in Nigeria and care now claiming to have graduated (through celebration of Walimah) have ended up being serious embarrassments to Islam because of the shallow depth of knowledge they possess. The problem of Qur’anic schools in Nigeria is not just about faulty curriculum but also about anachronistic teaching methodology still being used.
Language is the prima facie of any culture. A culture that is not entrenched in a language is only bidding its time of oblivion. Islam is a foremost culture with a foremost language. But with due apology, the attitude of some of Nigerian clerics who are teaching in Qur’anic schools has virtually changed the colour and the taste of Islam, as a culture, in Nigeria for the worse. Rather than being an attractive place of learning, most Qur’anic schools have been turned into scaring centres for our children. And, only a very few of those children are now willing to attend Qur’anic schools. The result is that no seriousness is attached to those schools in our society any longer.
Qur’an is the encyclopedia of Islam. It is not meant for recitation alone. It is the final source of all researches in all fields of learning for those who know its value. Anybody who wants to claim authority in Islamic knowledge must, of necessity, be able to read, write and comprehend Arabic language very well.
In Islam, Qur’an is the house in which the Muslims’ minds reside. The foundation of that house is Arabic language. Without understanding Arabic language, it is impossible to comprehend any literature written in Arabic, be it the Qur’an or Hadith. Only modernization of Arabic schools can change the situation of Al-majirai in Nigeria.