The Boko Haram Reader

From Nigerian Preachers to the Islamic State

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Abdulbasit Kassim, Michael Nwankpa
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It would not be an exaggeration to say that The Boko Haram Reader: From Nigerian Preachers to the Islamic State, edited by Abdulbasit Kassim and Michael Nwankpa, is in many ways the most helpful and wide-ranging resource on Boko Haram yet published. It provides an excellent complement to some of the more recent studies of the group, such as that of Alex Thurston, Boko Haram: The History of An African Jihadist Movement (Princeton University Press, 2017) and the many journal articles, and popular and scholarly essays that attend to various issues relating to the group. The key merit of this work lies in its providing access to materials which are otherwise quite difficult to lay hands on and, in any case,are scattered all over the internet. Even when found, they are not readily accessible, as the video and audio recordings and writings of the group and its affiliates are often in Hausa, Kanuri, or Arabic. Through this book, Kassim, Nwankpa, and David Cook—whose name does not appears on the front cover of the book, but is included only in the copyright attribution of authorship—make available to all the opportunity to gain first hand understanding of the rhetoric, evolution, theological underpinnings, and the internal dynamics of the group.  

The book is divided into five parts. The first part comprises materials of the group dating from 2006-2008; the second part covers 2008-2009; the third part translates materials from 2009-2012; and the fourth and fifth parts cover the periods from2013-2015, and 2015-2016, respectively. Each section istitled, and orients the reader to the key theme which ties the materials together. It is a benefit of the book that each of the five parts isprefaced with analytical essays (one by Cook and four by Nwankpa), which attempt to give perspective and wider theoretical context to the translated texts. Many readers would find Cook’s general introduction helpful, not only for the overview of the texts which it provides and attempts to situate within the broader context of the evolution of the group, but also for the helpful remarks that touch on points about the location of the group’s activities, global comparative aspects of the group’s Jihadi-Salafism, and the intellectual sources of the group’s ideology. 

Part 1, which covers materials from 2006-2008, is titled “Nigerian Preachers” and is comprised of ten translated texts. Like others in the book, each of the translated texts includes an italicized introduction of one or two paragraphs, providing the immediate context of the translated text, and also noting the specific date, or probable dates, on which it was filmed, taped, or written. There is also a link to the source material. In this first section, which is situated in the period when the group had yet to begin its more violent confrontation with the Nigerian state security apparatus, one is able to gain insight into the key convictions which separated the group, at least in this early period, from the rest of the Nigerian Muslim community (especially the Sunnis). Its rejection of Western education, democracy, and Nigeria’s secular constitution are made plain. One is able to imagine, to a good extent, the persona of Muhammad Yusuf. His eloquence, charisma, and wide-ranging—though “selective,” as Cook points out—knowledge of Nigeria, aspects of world history, and most importantly, the Quran and the Hadiths, comes through clearly in these early texts.

Part 2, comprised of texts 11 through 20, is titled “Reaching a Verdict.” These group of texts, although sharing similarities with the texts in part 1—with regards to their focus on the themes of rejection of Western education and secularism—evidence the group’s increasingly radical separationist tendencies. This is clear through most of the texts (particularly text 11, “History of the Muslims by Muhammad Yusuf”), but is especially so in text 19 (“Open letter to the Nigerian Government or Declaration of War by Muhammad Yusuf”). We are also able to have a first look into Abubakar Shekau (text 14), who would become the central figure of the group after the murder of Yusuf in July 2009, and whose audio and video recordings will be the chief focus in subsequent parts of the book.

With the death of its leader in the July 2009 uprisings, Boko Haram underwent a serious transformation, not in its theological outlook per se, but in its strategy of implementing its vision of Sharia and an Islamic state. After a brief period of retreat following the clampdown of the group by Nigerian security forces, the group would resume its Jihad.  If the first and second parts of the book were essentially translations of the preachings of the leadership, the third (“Making Nigeria ungovernable, 2009-2012”), fourth (“Boko Haram State, 2013-2015”) and fifth (“West African Islamic State, 2015-2016”) parts are primarily translations of the group’s violent rhetoric against the Nigerian state and the wider world, and are entirely set within the warfare phase of the group.  Here, some of the texts may prove emotionally difficult for some readers as they have the potential to trigger tragic memories, but they also provide rich textual material crucial in making sense of the group’s sinister acts. Boko Haram’s first documented links to other Jihadi-Salafi groups—Al-Qaeda, in this instance—are provided (text 22 A), and the beginnings of the later, full-blown schism within the group can be discerned in the period covered in part 3. 

Part 4 concentrates on the years in which the group can be said to have been in its heyday, and the texts cover, among others, the translation of the recording of Abubakar Shekau’s speech in the aftermath of the group’s abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls in April 2014, as well as other such similar speeches intended to rectify misconceptions and “false allegations” against the group. The final part of the book includes 14 translated texts. The texts reveal the changing circumstances within the group, from its peak years in 2014 and early 2015, to its twilight—beginning from the mid to later months of 2015 and into 2016. The internal crisis within the leadership ranks, and the bolstering of military efforts against the group—which the introductions to some of the texts and Nwankpa’s essay at the beginning of part 5 help make clear—are prominent undertones in these latter texts.

The Boko Haram Reader is indeed a goldmine of primary resources for those seeking an understandingof Boko Haram, and the authors and editors deserve commendation for finely executing this brave project. It is hard to be critical, but attention may be drawn toa few typographical errors, which hopefully, should be corrected in subsequent reprints or editions, but these slight editorial errors do not take anything away from this masterful work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Wemimo B. Jaiyesimi is a doctoral student in Interfaith Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Abdulbasit Kassim is a doctoral student at Rice University, focusing on African Islamic movements and international relations in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Michael Nwankpa is a doctoral candidate at the University of Roehampton, focusing on the dilemma of security, development and human rights. David Cook is associate professor of religion at Rice University and author of Understanding Jihad and Martyrdom in Islam.


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