by Nwankwo Tony Nwaezeigwe, PhD, DD

 Much as we know, Islam came to Yorubaland not through the Jihad of Usman dan Fodio but through the means of informal contacts between Yoruba traders and their Nupe neighbors through who further connections with Hausa traders were made long before the arrival of the Fulani on Nigeria’s historical scene. The commercial connections between the Yoruba who supplied kola nuts to Hausaland and the latter who supplied horses to the former were, without doubt, the one possible means through which some Yoruba traders came into contact with Islam. Islam in Yorubaland, therefore, does not owe its origin to the tradition of Muslim conquest in Nigeria through the jihad of Shehu Usman dan Fodio, but through peaceful and informal means.

Dating back to the periods of the Old Oyo kingdom and Hausa States, these contacts with Islam might have started with the buying of Hausa slaves by the Old Oyo officials and the long-distance Yoruba traders. There is also the possibility that war captives from occasional wars between the Old Kingdom of Oyo and her Islamized neighbors might equally have boosted the knowledge of the religion of Islam among the Yoruba. Above all, the intermingling of the two peoples under peacetime situations leading to formal and informal migrations on both sides equally presented a strong factor. As T. G. O. Gbadamosi put it:

The date of entry of Islam to Yoruba land cannot be fixed with precision. It was unannounced and unplanned and, for the most part, the first Yoruba Muslims had to worship privately and secretly. What is fairly certain is that in the 17th Century, mention was made of Muslims in Yorubaland.

This manner of introducing Islam into Yorubaland was, therefore, bound to determine the nature and course of the religion among the people. In other words, since Islam entered Yorubaland through the back door, it is bound to remain a secondary religion to the traditional religion and culture on the ground before its emergence. This is the very reason why it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate Yoruba Muslims from their traditional culture complex, a feature which has been incongruously applied by Fulani Muslims of Sokoto tradition to stigmatize Yoruba Muslims as an inferior class of Muslims.

Islam, as we well know, is a religion that flows through the veins of Arab culture and tradition. Thus for it to gain a firm root in any new society, it must first confront the cultural identity of the host community in order to have it obliterated and consequently be replaced with what is defined of Islamic culture. However, among the Yoruba, this process of acculturation through identity re-definition could not have a headway for the reason stated above, especially where the existing culture presents a stronger force of sophistication than that of the Arabs. Under such a situation, Islam as the agent of culture change is bound to remain a secondary and peripheral element in the people’s general cultural outlook.

Odogwu of Ibusa

Dr. Tony Nwaezeigwe, Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria, seated in an auditorium of Cambridge University, UK in May 2014 during a lecture to memorialize the doyen of Igboukwu archeology, Prof. Thurstan Shaw

Unlike the situation among the Hausa, Nupe and Kanuri, Islam entered Yoruba land both as a weaker culture and inferior religion to Yoruba Culture and traditional religious complex. The new religion found the strong cultural and religious walls of the indigenous Yoruba people too strong for easy penetration as it did in other areas. Saburi Biobaku observed in his description of the encounter between traditional Yoruba religion and Islam that the earlier converts to Islam were generally mocked as former slaves of Ile-Ife who had an irrevocable curse upon their heads for which reason they were doomed to a lifetime of trouble. They were also depicted as thieves who entered the city gates at night and stole the people’s foodstuffs. Above all, they were regarded as a leisurely sect who wore grained clothes every day, searching everywhere for free gifts. Further evidence of the position of Islam in its early period of contact with the people is well described in the 13th Odu Otua Meji.

Islam has had the advantage or rather the practice of penetrating the political leadership of any community. It could not subdue by military means through subtle infiltration and propagation and exotic gifting by Muslim traders and clerics. This practice had often given the religion the advantage of watering its prodigious process of acculturation from the top down to the grassroots in a manner that paradoxically presents the faith as a culture-destroying religion. This characteristic destructive acculturation could be noted in the characteristic tendency of the Oluwo of Iwoland, Oba Dr. Abdulrasheed Adawale Akanbi, to adorn himself often with Muslim Turban in line with the Fulani culture of royal costume against his Yoruba culture of royalty.

In its contact with the Yoruba, Islam came face to face with a much stronger and sophisticated culture expressed through a highly sophisticated and ritualized political framework constructed on an equally sophisticated cosmology, all of which are joined together in a web of continuous steam of mutual interdependence. In what might better be described as the distinctive character of Yoruba Islam, the sociopolitical and religious doors of traditional Yoruba society were closed against Islamic cultural irredentism and imperial presumptuousness.

Culturally, the traditional Yoruba society remained intact against the characteristic disruptions which often trailed the introduction of Islam in several African societies. Islam in Yorubaland, as far as the average Yoruba are concerned, is an individual appendage that has nothing to do with their day to day relationship with one another or the organization of their ancestrally interlocking communities. It does not matter to them whether their Oba (king) or even an uncle is a Muslim, Christian, or Traditionalist. They render to every person his due respect, homage and obedience in line with the accepted principles of traditional communal cohesion. In like manner, the Oba cannot, in any form, abdicate his cohesive traditional responsibility in the name of one religion or the other.

Thus a proper Yoruba Oba installed by the unction of his ancestors and not through conquest by Fulani Islamic jihad and who is by faith a Muslim is bound on ascending the throne to play down his religious affiliation in the discharge of the roles of his exalted office, both in ritual and secular matters. This is because the heart of what constitutes the sacrosanctity of his throne is made potent not by the religion of Islam but by his ancestral heirloom. In essence, the Oba’s relationship with his co-ruling functionaries, like the Oyo-Mesi, and Ogboni in the case of the Oyo kingdom, cannot be influenced by the nature of his secondary religion. Islam, therefore, remained outside the orbit of the traditional Yoruba sociopolitical framework, only slightly affecting individual adherents socially when speaking of the umma (Muslim Community). As N. A. Fadipe indirectly pointed out:

What subsequently happened was not simply a replacement of old values by new ones throughout the entire society. Rather, we have the old and new existing side by side, while in between are compromise (integrated) values.

Fadipe may have given what is generally interpreted as the common situation in Yorubaland. Still, in reality, the relationship between the traditional society and the Yoruba Muslim umma cannot be so easily seen in the context of existing side by side and involving compromise. Even though Islam might be seen to have slightly keyed into the Yoruba cultural complex through the prominent roles some of its adherents play in the society, Islam remains a peripheral religion in the body of collective Yoruba identity definition.

In the first place, the two religions are not on equal footing. One is clearly on the dominant scale against the other, and in this case, it is the traditional religion that dominates. It is an error, therefore, that the interpretation tries to present the role and influence of Islam in Yorubaland as being equal in scale to that of the traditional faith and values. One thing is clear, the traditional Yoruba faith, more than any other religion of its kind, has been more accommodating to external religious incursions. It opposed neither Christianity nor Islam with the same determination the traditional Igbo religion did to Christianity. As Afolabi Ojo put it, “Yoruba traditional religion resisted the incursions of exotic religion more passively than actively.”

In its relationship with Islam, the Yoruba traditional religion’s better expression through its culture forced Islam into a state of compromise rather than the other way round as in most traditional African societies. Two factors clearly accounted for this characteristic situation. First, as earlier pointed out, was the inability of Islam to institutionally penetrate the Yoruba traditional political leadership through the force of imposition or conquest, as in the case of Ilorin. Secondary, the pattern of Yoruba kinship and lineage links as units of social organization remained quite unaffected by the incursion of Islam in the land. The nature of these ties is well described thus by William Bascom:

Every Yoruba is born into a patrilineal clan (Idile) whose members are descended from a remote common ancestor. Even when genealogical relations to the clan founder (Orisun) or to other clan members have long been forgotten, they are presumed on the basis of membership in the clan, of common clan names, taboos, and facial marks, of the rights to property and titles which clan members share, and of the reciprocal privileges and obligations which unite them.

This is the true picture of the Yoruba kinship and lineage ties, which transcends any relationship founded on Islam or even Christianity. The man who is a Muslim knows that while he awaits the coming of the Mohammedan Paradise, he has a lot in common to share with his kinsman, who is a traditional believer and who is equally on his own respect awaiting the time he would join his ancestors to assume the role of a deified intercessor to the living. The same relationship is equally extended to his Christian kinsman, who is awaiting the coming of Jesus Christ for the eventual rapture and subsequent transformation to eternal glory.

In all these situations, because the basic principles of this cohesion lie within the orbit of traditionalism, primary allegiance often goes to their ethnic nation against the intrusive influence of Christianity and Islam. For instance, in Yorubaland, traditional land ownership is vested in the community collectively. It is distributed among the families and households by the respective Heads of the associated social units under accepted traditional laws. Under such a situation, it becomes impossible for a Muslim member of the family or clan to insist on the distribution of the land in accordance with the Shari’ah or Islamic land laws.

There is,, therefore, no doubt that by the fact of this relationship, every member of the community is bound to adhere to certain cohesive traditional norms. One of these cohesive norms is the allegiance to common ancestors. Since a common ancestor is the basic root of the whole system of kinship and lineage ties, its allegiance remains an implicit part of these ties. Subsequently, it transcends any form of external religious influence. As William B. Schwab rightly put it:

It provides the most powerful sanctions reinforcing accepted social behavior. It generates a series of reciprocal rights and duties among members that are paramount factors in the corporate unity and solidarity of a lineage.

As the saying goes, “he who pays the piper dictates the tune”. Hence it is not impracticable that the traditional cultural setting which provides and directs the commanding forces of the society should dictate to Islam the form it should take in Yorubaland. This is the fundamental uniqueness of Yoruba Islam in contradistinction to that of Hausaland, which is Islam as dictated by Fulani immigrants.

Yoruba river goddess festival in full swing in Yoruba land. The average Yorubaabide by dictates of tradition, irrespective of one’s allegiance to Islam or Christianity.

Indeed one of the most outstanding uniqueness of Yoruba Islam is its submissiveness to the traditional forces of sociopolitical cohesion. In other words, because of the strong grip, that the traditional Yoruba cultural setting has on every Yoruba irrespective of the individual’s religious affiliation, the typical Yoruba Muslim is therefore bound to live within the sociological setting of his traditional community as his primary and principal social group, with partial membership of the Muslim umma as his secondary and subordinate social group.

A Yoruba Muslim is thus first a Yoruba in cultural and political terms before being a Muslim. To state the obvious, the concept of Islam as a way of life and total submission to Allah does not, therefore, necessarily apply to the Yoruba Muslims in strictly practical terms. This is sarcastically borne by the popular saying among the Yoruba: “The Muslim says he does not eat monkey; when Salawu is hungry he eats a baboon.” The Yoruba Muslim is, therefore, characterized by a submissive attitude to his customs and tradition before those of Islam.

Describing the dominance of Yoruba traditional cultural complex over the Yoruba Muslim umma as it regards the taking of traditional titles, Gbadamosi wrote:

The community neither forbade nor encouraged any Muslim to take up such titles, and those Yoruba towns did so with little or no reference to the Muslim community. To such title holders, the attitude of the Muslim community as a whole was generally ambivalent.

Furthermore, not only that the Muslim umma pays unquestionable loyalty to their non-Muslim Oba (king) and chiefs, such loyalty includes the whole range of traditional allegiances given to the Yoruba Oba by his Muslim subjects on specific formal and informal occasions. These allegiances often go with reciprocal gifts from the Oba to the Muslim umma during the annual Muslim feasts. One aspect of these acts of reciprocity is the practice of giving a gift of ram by the Oba or Bale (kings) of most Yoruba towns to their Muslim subjects during the annual festival of Idel-Kabir.

As part of this tradition of allegiance, Gbadamosi further describes in detail:

The Yoruba Muslim community also established, over the years, the custom of making a courtesy call on the political head during all important festivals. This call took place on a fixed day when the Muslims were formally received at the palace. They prayed for the Oba and the chiefs, the welfares of the town, and exchanged gifts with the political head. The result today is that in some towns like Ijebu-Ode, this is an established tradition called ‘Iwajude-Oba’. On the appointed day, the Awujale sat outside his palace in full regalia, flanked by his eminent court and town officials. The entire Ijebu-Ode Muslim community resolved itself into various groups, which in turn, came before the royal presence gaily dressed, and with some on horseback; each group then danced forward to pay their obeisance, pray for the Awujale, and exchange gifts….

The conclusion of the whole matter is that, far from being a conquering religion and culture, as it used to be elsewhere, Islam in Yorubaland is a conquered religion and culture. The result is that today among the Yoruba, there is relative unity in matters of customs and tradition among the Traditionalists, the Muslim umma and Christians. It is this unity that establishes the fact that a Yoruba Muslim remains first a Yoruba by ethnocultural identity irrespective of his Islamic religious inclination. It is on account of this that the Yoruba Muslim could proudly state with an air of traditional social flamboyance, Bo ti wu ni la nse ‘male eni’ (we do what we like with our Islam).

In the real sense of religious identity definition, therefore, the Islam we are describing is the Islam of Yorubaland and not the Islam of the Fulani or of the Arabs. It is an Islam planted on the soil of Yorubaland and watered by the interconnecting streams of Yoruba traditional cultural complex.  It is not an Islam dictated by the hazy doctrines of Fulani-driven fundamentalist Islam constructed on the compulsive impulse of jihad. For this reason, the Yoruba Muslim umma, with the exception of those of the Ilorin Caliphate, has no historical basis to regard the Sultan of Sokoto as their Caliph and amir al-muminin because they were never conquered by the Fulani.

For the Yoruba Muslim, therefore, it was a case of submissiveness to the traditional political order, which in turn bred a critical sense of accommodation. It was this critical sense of accommodation that led to further accommodation with the emerging trends of Western civilization founded on Western education. As Dr. Walter Miller – the renowned energetic Anglican Missionary to Northern Nigeria rightly put it: “The dense ignorance which breeds disloyalty will only break down in this country through two means: Christianity and education.”

The Yoruba Muslims strongly appreciated this fact and went ahead to submit to the two trending factors of positive change at that moment – Christianity and Western education. For even though there was no outright forced conversion to Christianity from Islam, the breeze of toleration, freedom of thought and love for humanity built on the moral principles of Jesus Christ, which pervaded the teaching environment at the time, brought the Yoruba Muslims out of the dark age of moribund Islamic fundamentalism that still pervades the terrains of present Northern Nigeria.

It should be borne in mind that at that moment of Yoruba Muslim confrontation with Christianity and Western civilization, there was no Saudi Arabia as a nation and no Middle East as they are constituted today. The Ottoman Empire was the Patron nation of the Muslim world. It was from the Ottoman Sultan that the Yoruba Muslims sought advice on the issue of their confrontation with Western civilization. As the Nigeria legal luminary Solomon Asemota succinctly put it:

An increasing equally strident voice appeared in the younger generation of Muslims, who preferred a ‘path of accommodation’ with the Colonial establishment and welcomed the opportunity to share in the positive attributes of Western education. By April 1894 arrival in Lagos of the Muslim scholar, Haron Al-Rashid, the emergent progress stance of the younger generation eventually won the day following the death of Shitta, who was by then developing a strong identification with a Pan Islamist worldview championed by the Sultan of Turkey. His brother, Yusuf, ultimately acquiesced when the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, in a July 1894 letter, urged the Muslims to embrace Western education for the betterment of the younger generation. ‘Many of the Saro Muslims in Lagos took the stance that education was the most assured route to a better life’ and thus assumed the role of an agency of modernity in advocating the establishment of schools in their communities.

Asemota further informed us that even before the arrival of the July 1894 Sultan’s letter of advice, there were already by 1893 forty-two Muslim students in Government-assisted schools, which accounted for about twelve percent of the total enrolments in Lagos schools at the time.

The consequence of this accommodation stance was that the Yoruba Muslim umma moved from accommodation to imitation in line with the Islamic concept of ijidtad— defined under Islamic theological doctrine as “strict imitation.” From ijidtad, the Yoruba Muslims moved further to the higher level of mutual competition; and from mutual competition came innovation, which is most notable in Asalatu – a Sunday Prayer and worship session that operates on the line of Christian worship.

Perhaps, the observation and subsequent approach of Professor Saburi Biobaku, a renowned Yoruba historian of Muslim extraction, would serve to justify the foregoing positive stance or approach of the Yoruba Muslims to Christianity and Western education:

My immediate concern, however, was wrestling with my religious belief. I had come from Government College, Ibadan, as a committed Muslim in keeping with my grandfather’s injunctions. I had, nevertheless, been acutely conscious of the deficiencies of Islam as practiced by the generality of Nigeria Muslims as represented by the Ulema and their followers.

His response to the obvious shortcomings of his Islam was instructive. Having made up his mind to abide by his grandfather’s injunction not to convert to Christianity, for he claimed that at a point he contemplated converting to Christianity, he did not either decide to develop inveterate hatred for Christianity or seek its destruction. He opted for the most civilized approach – reforming the religion. But to reform, one should have a platform from where to operate; and since he had no resources at his disposal at that point in time to establish his own platform, he decided to marry his thoughts with existing platforms. As he conclusively summed up:

I could not join the Ahmadian Movement-in-Islam as my grandfather had declined to help its adherents to establish a branch of the Movement in Abeokuta because it was believed to have raised the status of its ‘Indian’ founder, Ahmad Gullam of Quadian (Now Pakistan), to that of a Prophet whereas Mohammed (May the Peace of Allah be upon him) was according to Islam, ‘the seal of Prophethood’. The Ansar-u-deen Society was doing well, but it was essentially a Muslim friendly society at the time, well known for its zeal to establish schools for the education of Muslim children, who were being converted to Christianity in Missionary Schools. The Islamic Society of Nigeria was then elitist, striving to practise Islam in a way acceptable to the educated, with the advantage of the distinguished leadership of lawyer L. B. Augusto, its Chief Imam.

As a young man and student of the prestigious Yaba Higher College (Yaba College of Technology) – then the only institution of higher learning in Nigeria, it was not, therefore, surprising that Biobaku opted to join the elitist-driven Islamic Society of Nigeria, where he eventually developed close acquaintance with the Chief Imam Augusto and his family. Ironically, short of fulfilling the object of his mission in the Society, which was to reform Islam, he instead went ahead to reform his social status by marrying Chief Imam Augusto’s eldest daughter Sade.

However, the fact cannot be denied that the spirit of innovation was there and lived with him, which indeed propelled him to attain the pinnacle of his academic profession, even though he failed to fulfill it within the circle of Islam to the letter of his expectations. There is, therefore, no gainsaying the fact that this spirit of innovation in Islam driven by the twin forces of accommodation and mutual competition has remained the commanding feature of Yoruba Islam. Against this, therefore, one could compare the approach adopted by the Sokoto Caliphate in their encounter with Christianity and Western civilization, which is, however, outside the purview of the present work.

To the Fulani Muslim leadership of Northern Nigeria, therefore, this perception of accommodation by the Yoruba Muslim umma and their unrestricted culture of innovation in Islam driven by Islamic Ijidtad through customary accommodation with their ancestral community is as unacceptable as they are clear acts of apostasy, which serve to obstruct their age-long ambition to dip the Quran in the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed to Sokoto Caliphate, a true Yoruba Muslim believer should play Afonja conspiracy and support the Caliphate in its bid to recreate the Ilorin episode in every major Yoruba city, with a Fulani Emir installed as their king and, not an Oba as it stands today. It is against this background that the body of Yoruba Muslim umma should critically view the political concubinage between Alhaji Bola Ahmed Tinubu and the Fulani Caliphate in the context of the Afonja episode of the nineteenth century.

Since the Fulani conquest of Ilorin in the 1820s, the Sokoto Islamic Caliphate has ruled over the ancient Yoruba city of Ilorin. All the Emirs of Ilorin have been Fulani since the assassination of the former Yoruba ruler/warlord, Afonja, almost 200 years ago.

It is instructive to conclude by stating that from all available body of historical evidence, there is no supportive reason why a Yoruba Muslim of true Yoruba ancestry should regard himself as a spiritual appendage to the Fulani fundamentalist principles of Islamic practices or for any Yoruba Muslim Oba of true Oduduwa ancestry to present himself as an inferior or vassal king to the Sultan of Sokoto and his Northern Fulani Emirs in the name of being a Muslim, in the bid to curry favor from them or seeking political relevance among the Nigeria Muslim umma. To do such in any form, either by omission or commission, is to willingly accept the fact that such an individual is not a true descendant of Oduduwa but an offshoot of those early Yoruba Muslim converts described by Professor Saburi Biobaku as “former Slaves of Ile-Ife, who had an irrevocable curse upon their heads for which reason they were doomed to a lifetime of trouble.”

Nwankwo Tony Nwaezeigwe, PhD, DD
Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria
Director, Nigerian Civil War and Genocide Research Network
Odogwu of Ibusa Clan, Delta State, Nigeria
E-mail: nwaezeigwe.genocideafrica@gmail.com