Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, is home to what may be the continent’s largest Shi‘i community. Estimates for its size range as high as three million people, or somewhere between two to five percent of Nigerian Muslims.
The most visible, and controversial, form of Shi‘ism in the country is the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), led by Ibrahim al-Zakzaky (b. 1953). Shi‘ism is spreading in northern Nigeria, despite government repression and Sunni opposition. The opposition is particularly strong from the Salafi movement. Ironically, even though they are rivals, both the IMN and the Salafis benefit from the conflict. Both movements thrive on having enemies as they compete – with each other and with other groups – for the loyalties of Nigerian Muslims.
“The most visible, and controversial, form of Shi‘ism in the country is the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), led by Ibrahim al-Zakzaky.”
Shi‘ism in Nigeria and IMN
The IMN emerged out of al-Zakzaky’s student radicalism in the 1970s. At Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Nigeria’s largest university, al-Zakzaky helped lead the Muslim Students Society (MSS). The MSS became increasingly Islamist and confrontational in the late 1970s, when tensions rose between Nigeria’s Muslims and Christians as well as between different Muslim constituencies. In the late 1970s, some Nigerian Muslims began to call, more loudly than in the previous two decades, for the Islamization of public life.
The Iranian revolution, coming in 1979, inspired many Nigerian Muslims. Into the 1980s, most of the Nigerian activists inspired by Iran’s example were Sunnis – for them, Iran symbolized what Muslims in general could accomplish. Al-Zakzaky, courted by Iran, took a sectarian path. Over time, he adopted religious markers of Shi‘ism.
The IMN follows the kind of “Twelver Shi‘ism” dominant in Iran, rather than the Isma‘ili Shi‘ism that exists in East Africa or the Zaydi Shi‘ism prevalent in Yemen. The IMN celebrates Shi‘i holidays such as Ashura, which commemorates the death of the Prophet’s grandson Husayn, whom the Shi‘a consider one of their Imams. Shi‘ism is only one aspect of the movement, however: in some ways, al-Zakzaky acts as a conventional Nigerian Muslim religious leader, answering followers’ practical questions (such as whether an ulcer sufferer should fast during Ramadan). In question and answer sessions, he discourages some Shi‘i practices, such as praying for the Imams to intercede with God on one’s behalf.
Zaria, al-Zakzaky’s hometown, remains his base. But due to his repeated clashes with authorities, he spent years in prison: 1981-1985, 1987-1989, and 1996-1998. Across northern Nigeria, al-Zakzaky’s followers were seen by authorities and mainstream society as troublemakers. For example, in 1991, al-Zakzaky’s follower Yakubu Yahaya led a violent protest in the northern city of Katsina, targeting the newspaper Daily Times over alleged blasphemy. In 2007, the IMN clashed with authorities in Sokoto, far northwestern Nigeria, sparking a legal battle that lasted until 2015. In addition to al-Zakzaky and Yahaya, other prominent IMN leaders include Imam Kurna in Kano and Kasimu Umar in Sokoto. All of them remain controversial.
The IMN is the face of Shi‘ism in Nigeria, but it is not the only expression of Shi‘ism there. The IMN and its predecessors have been prone to schisms. In 1994, some of al-Zakzaky’s followers broke away, rejecting his turn to Shi‘ism; the group called itself Jama‘at Tajdid al-Islam (Society for Renewing Islam). Meanwhile, there are Shi‘i currents that are partly or completely distinct from the IMN. One is the Rasulul A‘azam Foundation, led by Nura Dass and Saleh Zaria; the Foundation’s leaders have an on-off relationship with al-Zakzaky, but during the current crisis (see below) they have distanced themselves from him and affirmed their loyalty to the Nigerian state.
“The IMN is the face of Shi‘ism in Nigeria, but it is not the only expression of Shi‘ism there. The IMN and its predecessors have been prone to schisms.”
Tension Between the Nigerian State and the IMN
In recent years, the Nigerian military has responded harshly to the IMN. In June 2014, the IMN’s Quds (Jerusalem) Day procession in Zaria, which had a strongly paramilitary flavor, turned violent. The IMN blocked a military patrol, leading soldiers to open fire on marchers. The soldiers killed several dozen individuals, among them three of al-Zakzaky’s sons.
The latest cycle of tensions between the IMN and the Nigerian state began in December 2015. During a ceremony in Zaria, the IMN blocked a highway and halted a convoy carrying Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai. The general’s men fired upon Shi‘i youth. The military, treating the incident as an assassination attempt, arrested al-Zakzaky. The resulting violence caused an estimated 300 deaths and dozens of arrests. Some of al-Zakzaky’s senior associates were charged with supporting Iranian-backed terrorism. They are pleading not guilty. Among the dead were three more teenage sons of al-Zakzaky.
Al-Zakzaky remains in prison. The IMN, believing the state is unjustly persecuting them, has mounted vigorous “Free Zakzaky” protests in the capital and northern cities. In December 2016, a Federal High Court ordered authorities to release al-Zakzaky, holding that his detention without charge was illegal. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, whose health is shaky and who faces numerous urgent demands on his attention, has declined to release al-Zakzaky, eliciting outcry from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. Vice President President Osinbajo, who has been in charge during Buhari’s absences, has also declined to set al-Zakzaky free.
Amid the crisis, state governments are acting against the IMN. In Kaduna, home of Zaria and the IMN, the movement has been banned. In Plateau, a hotspot for intra-religious clashes, and in Kano, the most populous northern state and a hub for Shi‘i activism, authorities have restricted the IMN’s activities. Nigerian pro-democracy activist Jibrin Ibrahim has criticized Kaduna’s proscription of the IMN, writing, “Banning the organisation would be understood by its members as banning their constitutional right to practice their religion.” As state authorities crack down on the IMN, however, other Muslim constituencies are questioning the organization’s religious credentials.
“As state authorities crack down on the IMN, however, other Muslim constituencies are questioning the organization’s religious credentials.”
Anti-Shi‘i sentiment is strong, and growing, in northern Nigeria. To some extent, Shi‘ism and anti-Shi‘ism grow in tandem, because some Sunni actors stand to benefit from decrying the alleged Shi‘i threat.
The most vocal anti-Shi‘ism comes from the Salafi movement, which holds a literalist theology and considers itself the purest form of Sunni Islam. Around the world, Salafis are stridently anti-Shi‘i. At best, Salafis in Nigeria and elsewhere consider the mass of Shi‘a deeply ignorant. At worst, they consider the Shi‘a traitors, de facto unbelievers, and purveyors of “terrorism.” Salafis often label the Shi‘a “rafida” – “rejecters,” referring to the Shi‘i antipathy toward certain Companions of the Prophet.
Salafis argue that the Shi‘a are fundamentally dishonest. Salafis take elements of Shi‘ism – the notion of zahir (apparent) and batin (hidden) realities, and the practice of taqiya (denying one’s religious affiliation when facing persecution or compulsion) – and turn them into reasons for saying that the Shi‘a have a perverted understanding of Islam.
“The most vocal anti-Shi‘ism comes from the Salafi movement, which holds a literalist theology and considers itself the purest form of Sunni Islam.”
For example, Nigerian Salafis accuse the Shi‘a of denying the completeness of the Qur’an. This is a controversial topic around the world. Many Shi‘is insist they accept the same Qur’an Sunnis do. Others say the Prophet’s Companion and son-in-law Ali had a version of the Qur’an that was arranged differently and was accompanied by extensive commentary by the Prophet, but that Ali’s version was lost or suppressed. Others even say that the Angel Gabriel erred in giving the Qur’an to Muhammad instead of to Ali. Salafis treat the most radical Shi‘i views as though they are representative of the entire Shi‘i community.
Salafis claim that they, rather than the Shi‘a, are the true defenders of the Prophet’s Companions and descendants. This involves not just defending the first three caliphs, Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman, from Shi‘i criticism. It also entails arguing that the Shi‘i view of ‘Ali – whom the Shi‘a regard as their first Imam and as the rightful heir of the Prophet – is grossly inaccurate. To counter Shi‘i devotion to the Prophet’s family (Ahl al-Bayt) and descendants, Nigerian Salafis seek to prove that Sunnis esteem such figures in the most appropriate way. Thus Sokoto’s Cibiyar Ahlul Baiti da Sahabbai (Ahl al-Bayt and Companions Center) is a Salafi, not Shi‘i, organization.
For many years, Nigerian Salafis mainly criticized Sufism, which Salafis view as dangerously prone to polytheism. But anti-Sufism brings Nigerian Salafis into conflict with forces stronger than themselves, given the influence Sufis have among hereditary Muslim rulers, elected officials, and the masses. Salafis have won many adherents through anti-Sufism, but confronting Sufism remains an uphill battle for them. The Shi‘a are a more vulnerable target. Anti-Shi‘ism helps Salafis as they seek to ensure that any Nigerian Muslim who abandons Sufism will gravitate toward Salafism, and not toward Shi‘ism or another minority movement.
“For many years, Nigerian Salafis mainly criticized Sufism, which Salafis view as dangerously prone to polytheism. But anti-Sufism brings Nigerian Salafis into conflict with forces stronger than themselves, given the influence Sufis have among hereditary Muslim rulers, elected officials, and the masses.”
Emphasizing anti-Shi‘ism also aligns Nigerian Salafism even closer with global Salafism, where sectarian polemics often overshadow anti-Sufism. Nigerian Salafis have been close to Saudi Arabia for decades, benefiting from Saudi funding and sending promising young Nigerian preachers to study at the Islamic University of Medina. For Nigerian Salafis, anti-Shi‘ism is part of a master narrative that interprets global politics in sectarian terms. Tapping into long-standing Sunni accusations that the Shi‘a are eager to help the “infidels” against the Sunnis, Nigerian Salafis argue that “the rafida of Iran helped America and the other infidels of Europe to make war on Afghanistan and Iraq” (p. 14). As Iranian influence in Nigeria attracts more controversy, Salafis are increasing their anti-Shi‘i rhetoric and presenting Saudi-style Salafism as the only alternative. When the IMN protests Saudi actions (for example in Yemen), Salafis denounce Shi‘i regimes (including Bashar al-Asad’s Alawi regime in Syria). In this way, global conflicts become localized and local ones become globalized.
Nigeria’s Shi‘a have responded vehemently to Salafis’ attacks. In 2006, the publication of the Salafi tract “A Challenge for the Shi‘a: 70 Questions for Which They Have No Answer” evoked a heated Shi‘i response. According to the Shi‘a, Nigerian Salafis are nothing more than “Wahhabis,” pawns of Arab governments and vicious purveyors of “takfir” (declaring other Muslims unbelievers). Salafis have responded by arguing that “among all religious groups, there is no group that surpasses the Shi‘a in pronouncing takfir against Muslims.”
Anti-Shi‘ism long predates the current conflict between the IMN and the Nigerian state. But the current conflict allows Salafis to reiterate their criticisms. When Kaduna State banned the IMN, one Salafi leader called the decision “a good step to clean Islam from the hypocrites people who called [themselves] Muslims and are not practicing the correct teaching of the religion.” Salafis appear to hope that state governments will both promote Salafism (already, Salafis serve in prominent appointed positions in Kano and elsewhere) and curtail Shi‘ism.
The conflict is also escalating tensions at a grassroots level. In October 2016, Sunni youth in Kano armed themselves with machetes and sticks and attacked an IMN procession. It is unclear whether such youths are mobilized by Salafis, but one of northern Nigeria’s most prominent Sufi leaders sees things that way, warning that Salafi youth are “taking the law into [their own] hands.” He fears that anti-Shi‘i violence by Salafis could escalate into anti-Christian and anti-Sufi violence. Growing anti-Shi‘ism is not translating into intra-Sunni unity either: mistrust between Salafis and Sufis runs too deep.
What is the future of Shi‘ism in Nigeria? Some analysts fear that state crackdowns will push the IMN to go underground and wage an insurgency in the manner of Boko Haram (a Salafi-jihadi group). For now, such fears remain unrealized: the IMN continues to use street protests, the courts, and public opinion, rather than clandestine terrorism, as its tools for attempting to get al-Zakzaky released. If the situation worsens, however – if al-Zakzaky dies in custody, if more leaders are killed or detained without charge, and if more states ban the movement – then more violence will result. Such violence, however, would not be a copy of Boko Haram’s terrorism. Most likely, it would involve serious riots.
“If the situation worsens, however – if al-Zakzaky dies in custody, if more leaders are killed or detained without charge, and if more states ban the movement – then more violence will result.”
The war of words between Salafis and the Shi‘a in Nigeria is another trend to watch. At best, such debates might be one tricky step on the rocky road to a more diverse Muslim landscape in northern Nigeria; perhaps rising generations will soften the rhetoric and explore dialogue. But that possibility seems remote at present: intra-Muslim violence, state authorities’ evident difficulties in navigating the challenges posed by the IMN, and the tendency for the Shi‘a and the Salafis to use the language of takfir all suggest that the two groups will not agree to tolerate one another any time soon. Polarization will likely persist.