Muhammad Yusuf: Teaching and preaching controversies

This article was first published in the Dailytrust, in February, 6 months before the first BokoHaram crisis in July, 2009.

He was arrested six times. And each time he was in detention, many in Borno state, especially in Maiduguri, the state capital, wished that Muhammad Yusuf would never get another chance to see the light of day or, if he did, he would be banished to somewhere far away. But, unfortunately for these people, the authorities that arrested him always said there was no compelling evidence enough to jail him long for those irked by his activities to forget about him.

Why do many people in Maiduguri, especially Muslims, detest this man and his group? One resident of Maiduguri said: “It is because he asked all our children to withdraw from western oriented schools. According to this man, if we want them to be doctors, engineers, pilots, etc., the schools must not teach certain subjects or have both sexes in the same environment; a male teacher must not teach a female student and vice versa. He also teaches that parents should not participate in politics or work in any government establishment that is not based on Islamic laws. The group sees any person who acts contrary to this teaching as a kufr (i.e. an infidel)”, said the resident names withheld.

In a recent press release signed by its Shura (Consultative) Council, the group said: “Islam permits us to subsist under a modern government like Nigeria but has explicitly prohibited us from joining or supporting such governments in so far as their systems, structures and institutions contain elements contradictory to core Islamic principles and beliefs. Consequent upon that, we maintain a position and principle of non-violence and non-cooperation towards the government until our demand for the eradication of such contradictory elements are due and promptly met.

“It should, nevertheless, be noted that our stand should not be interpreted or misrepresented to mean a negation of the Islamic concept of Jihaad which we always believe to be valid upon the attainment of three basic prerequisites: an Islamic leader, state and flag which are largely not obtainable in the current Nigerian setting. However, we believe that Jihaad for the defence of Islam and Muslims when attacked at any time is always valid and does not require the mentioned prerequisites”.

Many lawyers who spoke to Sunday Trust argued that as long as the constitution, which the group doesn’t regard in any way, grants every individual freedom of expression, “they cannot be charged for any wrong doing”.

But the Chairman, Nigerian Bar Association, Borno state chapter, Barrister Haruna Mshelia, argued to the contrary. According to him, freedom of expression is subject to certain limitations: “One can criticise the constitution as being bad or not comprehensive, but to impeach the authority of the constitution or disregard it smells like rebellion. The fact that no force was used cannot remedy the situation and it will be irresponsible of any authority to wait for the occurrence of violence before it acts in the face of impending threat to law and order”.

Interestingly, investigations conducted by our correspondent revealed that many people, including over 100 youths that dropped out of tertiary institutions where they were studying Engineering, Law, Medicine and other courses, have abandoned their respective workplaces in response to the teachings of the group. Many of them have, apparently, retired to “total devotion to the Will of Allah and are contented with the menial jobs” they do that can only keep them slightly above water, said a former medical student who spoke to Sunday Trust.

The former student added that he left school on his own volition after considering the following issues: The curriculum, as it was, contradicted his faith and the amount of time he spent on his studies did not give him enough room to acquire knowledge of Islam. Unlawful interaction with the opposite sex, mostly clad in indecent clothing, was responsible for his decision to drop out of school. “I have to choose between these and the life in the Hereafter and I preferred the Hereafter to this one that is short and only looks sweet to unbelievers”, he said.

For thousands of adherents, the continuous arrest of their amir (leader) And harassment of members of the group is reminiscent of the sufferings of the prophets. This, they believe, confirms to them that they are among “those promised direct entry into paradise” if they persevere in their belief. With them, compromising orthodox Islam would lead to hellfire if they die. It is this notion that formed the substrata of the moral courage this group is known for within and outside the state, said many non-members of the group in Maiduguri and Bauchi.

A close look at the activities of this group revealed that the bone of contention between Muhammad Yusuf and the rest of the Islamic community is his ultra conservative brand of Islam or, as others put it, his rigid interpretation of the teachings of Islam that has resulted in thousands of children and youths dropping out of schools at all levels.

Like other Muslims who strive to emulate the Prophet (PBUH) in  appearance and action, such as by keeping beards, wearing turbans, trousers slightly below the knees, using miswak (chewing stick) to brush the mouth, etc, members of the group also practise these strictly while their women wear niqab (a covering for the face), with hijabs (gown) that reach to the ground; to these women,  any display of beauty must be restricted to their mahrams while some of the men have on several occasions shed tears whenever their eyes sighted a female dressed in a seductive or indecent manner.

Members of the group are struggling to adapt their lives to a more conservative lifestyle. Many of them sleep on mats, eat only with their bare hands, do not watch TV or listen to radio, which they see as a distraction in attaining salvation. Interestingly however, they use mobile phones, take car and motorcycle rides, and some are seen with laptops. They also take passport photographs for the purpose of boarding planes to perform pilgrimage, etc.

Analysts wonder why, if this group claims that it is haram (forbidden) to attend western oriented schools, they use facilities that are products of these schools. Most members of the group go to hospitals to be treated for their illnesses, yet they say it is haram to go to the university to study Medicine.

In an interview with Sunday Trust, Malam Yusuf said by saying schooling and working with government was haram, they meant the manner in which the system was being operated could make a person to commit haram or shirk (ascribing partners to Allah). One of Malam Yusuf’s lieutenants, Abubakar Shekau, explicitly summed up the group’s position in 2006: “Western education is like a pot of honey and, when everyone tasted it, a tray of faeces was added onto it and many Muslims decided to lick the filth with the hope that, eventually, they may live to taste the bottom and benefit from the honey”. But members of the group, he said, refused to partake in this because they feared that if they were “caught up in the process by death, hell fire will be inevitable”. In Maiduguri, this group is feared mainly because it brings back horrific memories of the 2003/2004 insurgent attacks that resulted in the loss of many lives and properties in Kanamma and Gwoza in Yobe and Borno states. Although the insurgents, a renegade group that called itself “Taliban”, led by one Malam Muhammad Alli, fiercely disagreed with Malam Yusuf when he refused to subscribe to the idea of hijra (migration) for the entire group, many of them who escaped that armed struggle with the police are believed to have rejoined their estranged amir.

The group’s mild condemnation of Israel and the Western world, directing their blames at the shortcomings of Muslims as the main reason for the plight of the Muslim Ummah instead, has made many in the state to speculate that Malam Yusuf is being sponsored by Zionists to undermine the capacity of the Ummah to withstand any intellectual and physical challenge posed to them by the western world. His huge finances are also seen to be a basis for such speculation. However, the group insists that the daily tithe each member contributes is their major source of revenue. “I am a successful crop and livestock farmer,” Malam Yusuf said.

Another cause for concern in Maiduguri about this group is the rate at which it wins converts, particularly youths, on a daily basis, which many think is mystifying. The way Malam Yusuf always celebrates the increasing number of his devotees has made many clerics in the region to say, in the words of one of the critics, “It is political Islam”. Many say that if care is not taken, there may be another breakaway faction, like the so-called Taliban because, among members of the group, there are those who see Malam Yusuf as being too moderate for giving in to “unwarranted arrests” by security operatives and condemnations by “infidels”. Although these elements see Malam Yusuf as too meek, they are left with no option but to follow him because he is the most knowledgeable person in the group.

The number of members of the group with their families is estimated to be over 300,000 in Maiduguri alone, “and about twice this number exists in rural areas in the state”, said a member of the Shura of the group. They are also found in their thousands in virtually all the northern states of Nigeria, including Abuja, the neighbouring countries of Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

Sheik Abba Aji, a Maiduguri-based Muslim scholar considered to be moderate, once attributed the rate of convertion to this group to the level of joblessness and hopelessness in the present generation of youths. “The situation is so bad. People are hungry, people are suffering. People see clearly that leaders are cheating. Today you are with a local government chairman or commissioner who has nothing prior to his election or appointment; tomorrow, he builds a big house and owns fleets of cars. So the people see these acts and they are beginning to revolt”, he said.

The late Sheik Ja‘far Mahmud Adam of Kano and Malam Isa Ali Fantami in Bauchi, amongst others, have dissociated themselves from the teachings of this group. According to these scholars, many scholars of Islam since time immemorial, from most of whose teachings Malam Yusuf has benefited tremendously, lived under kings and regimes that were not practicing Sharia, and many Islamic states, even during the time of the Prophet, cooperated with non-Islamic or secular states.

These scholars agreed with Malam Yusuf’s interpretations only in part; that a lot needed to be done to overhaul the educational system, which negatively affected young Muslims in their quest to practice their religion, especially in areas where Muslims are predominantly found. The late Jafar was reported to have said he was shocked after deliberating with Malam Yusuf in Saudi Arabia.

It takes an educated person to understand an educational system and the ills in it; it also takes an educated person to know to what extent education can affect the life of a Muslim. “I think Malam Yusuf is incapable of making such a judgment,” said Malam Isa during one of his debates with Malam Yusuf in Bauchi.

“Malam Isa is a typical example of how a Muslim can try to gradually change a bad system”, said Alli Grema, a student of the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU) in Bauchi, who cited a number of measures taken by the institution to make the university attractive to those who are keen on seeing their children practising Islam. “Some of these measures were introduced by Muslims like Malam Isa”, said Grema, “and I think this is a starting point. But Malam Yusuf has never provided an alternative means by which Muslims could contribute to the global intellectual exercise let alone they could learn to improve their wellbeing. Instead, he has advocated a total boycott”.

The insistence of Malam Yusuf for total boycott of schools made many to conclude that the group was faced with two fundamental problems: an incapable scholar, who was short on the rudimentary experience required to become a scholar, like receiving tutelage from any notable Islamic cleric or school, and the group’s apparently ignorant followers who were said to lack basic knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence. Malam Yusuf, 39 is said to have memorised the Qur’an at the age of 20. Prior to his ascendancy to become amir of this group in early 2000, he was (and still is) admired by many for his depth of knowledge, oratory and honesty.

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