Salafism in Nigeria

Islam, Preaching, and Politics

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Alexander Thurston
The International African Library
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , September
     300 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Alexander Thurston’s book, Salafism in Nigeria, is an important work on the modern study of Islam in Nigeria. Indeed, the work is a pioneering publication on the research of the Salafi movement in that country. The author chose Nigeria as his case study given its position as one of the most populous Muslim countries in the world, also focusing on Salafism—a phenomenon which is the most topical aspect of Islamic movement in the contemporary period. Therefore, Salafism and Nigeria, provides a wider spectrum for understanding the challenges and dynamics of radical Islamic ideology in the Muslim World and Nigeria in particular. 

The main aims of this book are to study and provide insights into how Nigerian Muslims are “negotiating their relationship with one another, and with the contemporary Middle East especially Saudi Arabia.” Similarly, the book seeks to examine the role of “core texts” read and referenced to by both current and prospective members of the Salafi movement, and how such literature provides a “key tool for understanding the many geographically disperse, decentralized religious activities and network that are helping to shape the world today”. Thus, the book aims to clearly show Nigeria and Salafism in the broader framework for understanding how contemporary religious activities engage textual tradition (1-4). The book is an invaluable resource in the discourse, presenting a unique narrative and injecting new impetus in the field. 

The book is divided into three main parts and an introduction. In the introduction, Thurston defines Salafism by demonstrating what Salafis are, and what they are not; by analyzing some of the features and characteristics of the Salafis which made them distinct from others. The text reveals that the Salafis are given to “Literalism” in their understanding of Tauheed (monotheism) and Aqidah (creed), as opposed to a speculative and philosophic tinge in their interpretation and practice of monotheism. The author tries to trace the origin of Salafism in Nigeria, with the establishment of the University of Medina in 1961, and the enrolment of Nigerian students into the institution, which began in 1980. Thurston shows the impact that Medinan students such as Shaikh Mahmud Adam, Sani Umar Rijiyar Lemo, Shaikh Abduawahhab Abdullah, Bashir Aliyu Umar, and host of others primarily in Kano, Nigeria, had in the making of the Salafism in Nigeria. 

Similarly, in dealing with “Salafism and its Transmission,” Thurston attempts to identify the sources used as reference, proof, and evidence in the process of establishing a case or debunking other claims by the Salafis. The crux of the discussion in this section identifies Saudi Arabia as the hub and spring from which Salafi ideology originates. The combination of Saudi institutionalization of Salafi ideology, as well its new foreign policy of targeting Africa and Africans for extension of its ideas and ideology, allows the ideological experiment of the Salafis to resonate with the Nigerian students who studied in Medina. Under “Canon in Action” the writer presents the textual engagements among the Salafis as a unique intellectual exercise of the Salafis, a source of their strength, and a unique method that attracted followers into the fold. 

The Salafis described in the book use media culture—news and print as well as social media—and internet facilities to overshadow their opponents; in the similar manner it also examines the internal crisis between the Salafis, especially with one that the author identified as “Jihadi Salafi” who, though claiming to be a Salafi, turned his aggression against them. The most prominent Salafis in Nigeria, such as Shaikh Mahmud Adam and Shaihk Muhammad Awwal Albani Zaria, were both assassinated by a “Jihad” militant group. This group is known as the Boko Haram in the Nigerian context. The basis of the Boko Haram’s contention is that the main Salafis condemned the Boko Haram as Khawarij—a heretic people—and thus, not as far from Salafi ideology as they had claimed, never mind the wider Sunni ideology.

Some fundamental issues raised in the book with regard to Salafism in Nigeria need further consideration, as the Salafi themselves counteract this view. Thurston notes the rejection of Madhhabor Madhahib, School(s) of Thoughts and that “this rejection of Legal Schools distinguishes Salafis from the Wahhabi Movement that is dominant in the present day Saudi Arabia” (7). In this reviewer’s opinion, what the Salafis in Nigeria reject is not the Madhhab, -Legal Schools, but the blind inclination to a particular Madhhab to the detriment of others. Again, Thurston demonstrates that the Salafis consider themselves as the “only true Muslims,” which he disagrees with: “I do not endorse their [Salafis] view of themselves as the only true Muslims” (6). Another issue raised by the author that needs further clarification are the Salafi/Izala relations. According Thurston, “the Salafi graduates of Medina emerged from Izala but distanced themselves from it” (21). What is plausible now is that the Izala—especially the Kaduna faction—provides an umbrella and a platform for unifying all Sunni adherents. In fact, people such as Rijiyar Lemo, Abdulawahhab, and Abdullahi Pakistan—who , according to Thurston, are the main pillars of Salafism—are on the list of Izala and conduct their annual tafsir sessions in the Izala mosque. Lemo conducts tafsir at Gwallaga mosque in Bauchi and Pakistan and is currently the Izala leader for Kano State, though he is a Medina graduate, and a Salafi. Ibrahim Jalo, obtained his degrees from Medina and is the Chief Mufti- Grand Jurist of the Izala, and among its National Executive Council.

The categorization of Salafi into “Quietists/Purist,” “politicos/activists,” and “Jihadis” (10), “as well as Thurston’s “proto-Salafi” and “fully Salafi” (8), also need to be revisited, especially in reference to Nigerian Salafis. This categorization could hardly be believable and tenable in Nigeria. A more serious issue was the author’s citing of 1880-1950 as the period for the “emergence of thinkers who provided framework for Salafism that ‘claimed universal applicability’” (17), as well as the 1960s—with establishment of the University of Medina—as the negation for an entire discourse about the ideology and the movement. Salafism refers to the observance and practice of religious tenets as done by the Prophet and the Companions. It then is awkward if the origins of this belief and ideology could be as recent as the 1880s. This point should be critically re-examined by the author. 

Another conflicting premise offered by the author is that Salafi and their scholars were the “incubators” of Boko Haram, and that the Boko Haram were Salafi (193-218). However, the Salafi Ulama’—especially Shaikhs Ja’afar Adam, Albani, Pantami, as well as several others—were the main criticizers of Boko Haram ideology, and consequently both Adam and Albani were assassinated by the Boko Haram. In the purview of the Salafi in Nigeria, the Boko Haram were never a part of their faction, and belong to the Khawarij,and not the mainstream Sunni. Another area of concern is the author’s cyclic theory of becoming Salafi: “Go to Saudi Arabia, study in the Medina University, read Ibn Taymiyah’s text, take your path back to Nigeria” and “you are a Salafi” (97-105). This concept needs further examination. There are Salafi who have not studied in Medina, just as there are Medina graduates who are not into the Salafi polemics. This reality should be addressed by Thurston in future editions of this text. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mukhtar Umar Bunza is Professor of Social History in the Department of History at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto and Commissioner of Higher Education for the Kebbi State, Nigeria.

Date of Review: 
April 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alexander Thurston is visiting assistant professor of African Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He has conducted field research in Nigeria and Senegal, and has published in African Affairs, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the Journal of Religion in Africa, and Islamic Africa, as well as with the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Carnegie Endowment.


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