The Sharia: A Moslem intervention

By Lamido Sanusi

THE announcement by Zamfara State governor of his intention to broaden the
scope of application of Sharia law in his state has provided once more all
those who thrive on controversy with the opportunity to bare their fangs.
Arguments have been put up, for or against the decision, ranging from the
sublime to the ridiculous. Commentators, pretending to be knowledgeable,
have continued to unleash invectives and slander on fellow citizens with
little effort at understanding not only the content of the Sharia but also
the explicit statement and clarifications given by the governor himself.
The Guardian Newspaper, in particular, seems committed to waging a "holy
war" against Zamfara State. A column, titled "Sharia Debate" and sometimes
even "Sharia Debacle" is designed to sensitise Nigerians on the threat
posed by Sharia to our corporate existence as a nation. Having strongly
questioned the constitutionality of the governor's moves and endorsed
Obasanjo's dismissal of the state's action as "unconstitutional", a recent
Guardian editorial then urged the nation to ignore the "attempt to elevate
the Zamfara State government action to the status of a great constitutional
issue requiring adjudication by the courts " as the relevant constitutional
provisions appear sufficiently clear." In other words the constitution
should be interpreted by the executive, by the press, by CAN and by Shiites
and the Zamfara government should be obligated to adhere to this
interpretation rather than insist on the legality of its action unless
overruled by a court of competent jurisdiction.
In a similar view, Christian leaders have continuously asserted that Sharia
will lead to oppression of non- Moslems. Islamic society has never been
known to oppress members of other faiths in the manner that the Christian
church, for instance, oppressed Jews and those considered as belonging to
heterodox sects. The destruction of Jewish synagogues by Christians with
the full support of St. Ambrose of Milan during the reign of the Emperor
Theodosius, the exploitative claims of Catholic Popes like Boniface VIII,
the repressive content of papal encyclicals like Quanta Cura and Syllabus
of Errors promulgated by Pius IX, the persecution of Aryans and
Protestants, the oppression of scientists like Galileo and Copernicus, the
crusades launched by the church against Islam which ended in scandalous
defeat, all of these have left Christian leaders with a sense of fear and
paranoia when it comes to other faiths, and a feeling that others will
treat them using their own methods.
it is the paradox of our times that the greatest defenders of the rights of
religious minorities and secularism today in Nigeria are the fathers of the
Catholic Church. Secularism as an ideology is antithetical to Christian
teachings and papal encyclicals. It grew as a reaction to the ignorance and
tyranny of the Catholic church and is a direct product of the revolution
called "enlightenment". That a Catholic Archbishop should now be the
ideologue for secularism is indeed remarkable.
The fear of Christians is understandable. They have not read the Quran and
Hadith, the sources of Islamic law and seen where Allah and His prophets
explicitly enjoined Moslems to ensure that they respect the religious
rights of others and to treat adherent of other faiths with kindness and
justice unless they commit an aggression against Moslems on account of
their faith. Christians have not been allowed to read the history of
Islamic states, to know the position of Jews and Christians in the Abbasid
and Ottoman Empires, for instance, and to compare this with the position of
even "non - Orthodox" Christians under the system run by the Fathers. In
his classic historical text Bosnia: A Short History, for example, the
Christian writer Noel Malcolm had this to say:
"Although Bosnia was ruled by Moslems" it was not state policy to convert
people to Islam or make them behave like Moslems " The Christian and Jewish
religions were still allowed to function " and they were also permitted to
apply their own religious law to their people in their own courts at least
in civil matters" (P.49).
No historian has ever recorded such a level of tolerance in church history.
It is significant that this treatment was given by Islam to a conquered
people. How can anyone expect Zamfara State which is only implementing
Sharia in a democratic setting to be seeking the oppression of Christians.
This policy of letting non-Moslems go to their own courts in civil matters
did not start with the Ottoman State. It is also not being complied with
because of the Nigerian Constitution. It is an explicit injunction in the
Qur'an, that only when non-Moslems voluntarily seek Moslem law in civil and
personal matters should they be subjected to that law. And even then
justice and fairness must be the guiding principle.
The fact is that prejudice is always built on a foundation of ignorance.
Those who seek to criticise Sharia should at least understand what it is
they are criticising. Unfortunately, too many "experts" know nothing about
the topics they approach. A classic example is one M.C. Thompson, President
of the "International Federation of Conscience" who wrote an article in The
Guardian of November 5, 1999 titled "Sharia: matters arising". In the
article, Thompson who cloaks his ignorance with half-understood concept,
declares that "most Moslems of Northern Nigeria are Shiites of the
aggressive type who even consider Sunni Moslems as nominal for not being
fundamentalist enough." The display of total ignorance by the writer (and
the editors) is indeed baffling. Nigeria is a bastion of Sunni Islam.
Nigerian Moslems in their history have never been Shiites. A small group of
young Moslems, inspired by Khomeini's revolution in Iran, (some of who
spent some years studying Islam in Iran) adopted Shiite ideology but these
are generally considered a noisy and half-educated fringe group. Thomas
also asserts that because the Saudi government ban on women from driving is
an example of Islamic law. The clear position of jurists is that the Sharia
makes no such provision and indeed women rode horses and camels in the time
of the prophets so the law has no Islamic basis. This much is common
knowledge. The suggestion that women are "bottled up" is also reflective of
ignorance not only by Sharia but of Moslem history in Nigeria. It is common
knowledge that Shehu Dan Fodio's Islamic movement liberated women from the
so called purdah and this was one of the areas of misunderstanding between
him and scholars of his generation. Also, the guidelines issued by the
Qur'an on how Moslem women should dress when coming out is a clear enough
indicator that they are not supposed to be "bottled up. M.C. Thomas also
claims without any reference to sources that Saudi women were executed for
demanding the right to drive cars.
It is this attribute of injustice, this tendency to give a dog a bad name
in order to hang it that will destablise Nigeria, and not the introduction
of Sharia. When Archbishops hold press conferences and spread
unsubstantiated rumours of amputations, it is they, not the Zamfara State
government, who threaten the peace. Christians should judge Sharia by what
the Sharia is. The historical church is not the yardstick for measuring
It is time for The Guardian to listen to the Zamfara State government. It
is time to know that the Qur'an and Sunnah enjoin the creation of a just
and honest society, and protect freedom of religion and conscience. It is
time to ask those who feel there are legal problems to go to a court of
competent jurisdiction. Alhaji Ahmed Sani has repeatedly said his priority
is good government, education, poverty alleviation and moral rebirth. He
has assured non- Moslems of the full protection of their rights. He has
never declared Zamfara an Islamic state.
There is need for caution, for enlightenment and for sensitivity. Those
charged with the responsibility for interpretation and implementation of
the Sharia themselves need time to be fully trained. They need to be
sensitive and to recognize economic and other conditions which should serve
as extenuating circumstances when applying the penal code. The government
must resist the temptation to exploit the potential propaganda value of
religion for political gains. But by far the greatest problem facing the
country is prejudice and ignorance, and the inordinate desire to cry wolf
where there is none.
Sanusi is an assistant general manager with UBA Plc, Lagos