Shari'ah on Trial

Northern Nigeria's Islamic Revolution

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Sarah Eltantawi
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , March
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Shari’ah on Trial: Northern Nigeria’s Islamic Revolution, Sarah Eltantawi contextualizes sharia within the larger concerns of colonial history, politics, and gender. Her study focuses on the study of a specific case—the multiple trials and eventual acquittal of Amina Lawal (a Nigerian woman accused of adultery, for which the penalty was stoning)—that is described through an impressive variety of sources, from colonial documents to works by Nigerian scholars, illustrating Eltantawi’s expertise in anthropological fieldwork. Due to the subject and style, which is both academic and accessible, this monograph is suitable for the classroom—in particular, for students taking courses in Islam and gender, colonial history, and sharia.

The book is organized in a useful manner, beginning with the front matter, which includes a chronology of events (beginning with the advent of Islam and concluding with the rise of Boko Haram) and a map of the Nigerian states that have implemented sharia since the late 1990s. The chapters consist of an introduction, in which Eltantawi lays out the scope of her project, followed by chapters on sharia in Nigeria, Islam and modernity, the origins of stoning in Islamic history, colonialism and its responses in Nigeria, the trial of Amina Lawal, and the reactions of foreign NGOs and others to the Lawal case. 

In the first chapter, Eltantawi makes a distinction between “idealized shari’ah” and political sharia, which reflects Nigerian concerns with economic and social justice. As she states, “‘Idealized shari’ah’ is what was demanded on the streets of northern Nigeria in 1999; it is a constructed shari’ah imbued with what Nigerians most urgently want to see in their societies—an end to poverty and corruption” (14). The linking of sharia’s popularity (which has arguably waned in recent years due to more pressing concerns with Boko Haram, political stability, and personal security) with Nigerian history, colonialism, and corruption is a compelling theme in this book. This first chapter provides a detailed history of the sharia revolution in Nigeria, which provides important context for the case of Amina Lawal. 

Eltantawi’s scholarship is evident through her meticulous use of sources and historical detail. However, there is another strength in her work that deserves attention—her vignettes of Nigerian life. Not only do these interludes provide necessary context, they are evidence of Eltantawi’s intimate knowledge of Nigeria, her careful analysis, and her respect for the subject. In one case she writes, “Dr. Aliyu Tilde’s well-kept farm, one of the most pleasant places I visited in northern Nigeria, was a relatively unusual sight; bushes replete with violet flowers dotted the perimeter of sprawling green grasses where Dr. Tilde can be found sitting with his laptop, writing his weekly column about Nigerian political, religious, and social affairs” (18). Images of Nigerian life are interspersed throughout the chapters, detailing everything from Nigerian cuisine to the streets of Kano. 

Eltantawi’s discussion of the history of Hausaland and its Islamic traditions, including literacy, is detailed in chapter 2. As the author states, literacy is connected to sharia, alongside other matters: “Islam’s emphasis on literacy and its political ensconcement in the palaces of power laid the important groundwork for cultural and political fealty to Islamic law. Hausaland was also exposed to other genres of Islamic learning in the Arabic language, including Sufi theology, rhetoric (balāgha), and Arabic poetry” (41). Particular attention is given to Uthmān Dan Fodio, his brother, their followers, and the foundations of the Sokoto Caliphate (1807-1903). One of the important points raised in this chapter is the identification of Nigeria with Islam in general, an “epistemological” move that includes the elevation of Arabic as the primary scholarly language (61). Related to this is a fact seen in the more recent popularity of sharia—a move that links Islamic institutions with power, precolonial independence, and, as discussed elsewhere in the book, notions of masculinity.

Chapter 3 focuses on the history of stoning (rajam) in Islam, including discussions of its origins in the ancient Near East in Judaism and other traditions. As Eltantawi reminds us, stoning as a punishment is viewed as problematic among Islamic scholars and has been rarely used. In her analysis of rajam, the author provides an extensive literature review that includes famed scholars like Patricia Crone, Uri Rubin, and Wael Hallaq, once again demonstrating the extensive care taken by Eltantawi. The notion of the “perfect society,” Prophet Muhammad’s early Muslim community, is discussed in reference to sunnah and the desire for a better political life in Nigeria. The proper conduct of Islam is very much at the center of contemporary debates surrounding sharia in Nigeria. As Eltantawi states, “I found this notion of the ‘perfect society’ to be essential for northern Nigerians struggling with their own societies’ challenges—the Medinan model offers a hopeful, divinely assisted benchmark for progress” (95).

The next chapter is dedicated to colonialism in Nigeria, its effect on current politics, and in particular, the effects of the British legal code on Nigerian perceptions of justice. This chapter is especially apropos for students looking at colonial histories in Africa, but it also serves as an introduction to chapter 5, which examines the case of Amina Lawal in detail. As in other chapters, Eltantawi is detailed in her methodology, interviewing Lawal’s attorney Yauri, providing quotes from the testimony, and including Nigerian legal codes and findings. In the final chapter, Lawal’s case is discussed in the context of international politics and Western feminism, where some of the thorny issues surrounding debates about Islam and gender by non-Muslims, including the white savior complex and the bifurcation of complex issues into pro-women and pro-Islam categories, are introduced. To her credit, Eltantawi includes a wide variety of voices in this discussion, including those that see the education of females as a necessary part of Africa’s survival. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sophia Rose Arjana is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Western Kentucky University.

Date of Review: 
August 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sarah Eltantawi is assistant professor of comparative religion at Evergreen State College and an analyst of the Muslim-majority world on major media outlets.



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