Nigerian Scholar Finds Hope In American Muslim Community

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Imam of Lagos State University Visits Prince George's Muslim Association.


Recently, Professor Amidu Sanni visited from Nigeria and lectured at the Prince George’s Muslim Association in Lanham, MD. He is the Chief Imam of Lagos State University and a professor of Arabic.  Here is TML’s exclusive interview with him.

Recently, Professor Amidu Sanni visited from Nigeria and lectured at the Prince George’s Muslim Association in Lanham, MD. He is the Chief Imam of Lagos State University and a professor of Arabic.  Here is TML’s exclusive interview with him.

TML: Who were your teachers and what is your academic background, Islamic and secular?

AS: My first teacher was my late father Sheikh Yusuf Sanni (d. 2007) under whom I studied the Qur’an and rudimentary Islamic and Arabic sciences from childhood, about 58 years ago. Then I studied Arabic Islamic sciences under my senior sister Haolat who was the first female teacher employed in my father’s Arabic-Islamic College (Madrasat al-Nahda al-‘Arabiyya, Ibadan, Nigeria. The school celebrated her Golden Jubilee Anniversary in June 2013. I attended Olubadan Primary School, Ibadan, Ahmadiyya Grammar School Eleyele, Ibadan, and University of Ibadan, Nigeria for my first degree where I came out with First Class in Arabic Language & Literature in 1980. I got my M.A. in Arabic and Islamic Studies also from the University of Ibadan and a PhD in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 1989 as a British Commonwealth Scholar.

One comes across many teachers in secular and Islamic learning, and Sheikh Jum’at Kolawole Mustafa was one of my mentors, but Dr Sheikh Barihi Aremu Adetunji is my most influential tutor in Arabic and Islamic sciences. In the secular training, Haj Ganiyu Mosuro, my Agric Science teacher in the secondary school was remarkable. But my most influential teachers at the university level were late Professors M. S. El-Garh, Musa O. A. Abdul and Professors Isaac Ogunbiyi and Ayo Bamgbose all at the University of Ibadan. Professors Owen Wright, Harry Norris, and late Wansbrough of SOAS were of great influence in shaping my scholarship, although Wansbrough didn’t impress me due to his sceptical approach to facts and Islam.

TML: Why did you choose to become an imam and can you tell us what being the Chief Imam of a major university entails?

AS: A Muslim doesn’t choose to be an Imam; he is appointed/selected, based on the approved criteria in Islam, namely, sound knowledge of the Qur’an and its related sciences, high moral standards, physical qualifications among others. When the Lagos State University came into being in 1984, the Muslim community leaders chose me to be the University Imam, and I have been so, Alhamdu li-llah since then. I must confess it is a great challenge. The University environment is by its nature very complex; it harbors students and adults with various orientations, backgrounds, focuses etc. What I have since done as an Imam is to inject academic quality into the leadership of the community, and expand the circle of imamship through the creation of an Imam-in-Council which I chair. The council includes student leaders with sound religious and moral training. I have also ensured that we take interest in social aspects and personal needs of our community members. Alhamdu li-llah we are making progress.
TML: In your lecture you responded to a question about Boko Haram, we hear about them too; who are they and what does their movement mean to the people of Nigeria?

AS: The Boko Haram phenomenon is principally not a religious problem in Nigeria or a conflict between Muslims and Christians. The local and international media has ignorantly or mischievously painted the scenario all along, inaccurately.  Let me just say that the Boko Haram is another expression of social and economic deprivation in Nigeria where the country’s enormous wealth has now reduced poverty, poor infrastructures, corruption, youth unemployment among other socio-economic disequilibrium.  A Western writer Jacob Zenn has published extensively about Boko Haram in CTC Sentinel over the past 4 years, and I would advise access to his write-ups. Nigerian Adam Higazi’s 2013 “Les origins et la transformation de l’insurrection de Boko Haram dans le nord du Nigeria [The origins and transformations of the Boko Haram Insurgency in Northern Nigeria], Politique Africaine, 130, pp. 137-164 recommends itself as well.

TML: We constantly hear stories of attacks on churches coming from Nigeria; how big is the divide between the Christians and Muslims? Are there any peace initiatives?

AS: Attacks have occured on churches and masajid by political and social malcontents. Even the United Nations office, State Police Headquarters, Muslim and Christian, and of course political and security leaders have not been spared of the violent expression of anger against deprivation, marginalization and denials which all Nigerians, Muslims and Christians, are currently suffering from: the culture of prebendalism, that is, using political positions to grant political and economic favours to cronies, oil cartels, and members of the corrupt estate of the realm. There are no [major] problems between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria at communal or individual levels. The Nigerian Interreligious Council among other interfaith initiatives is working very well to ensure harmony and peaceful cohabitation. What Nigeria is suffering from is poverty of leadership. How do you explain the closure of the entire university system for 4 months running and no one seems to care at the leadership level? I was talking with Ms. Inge Andersen, Vice President of the World Bank (Middle East and North Africa) earlier this week, and a strong point she made was the lack of trust and transparency in governance which I think is the major problem in Nigeria and indeed in many African states.

TML: What grassroots level work is being done to tackle corruption and other social ills that regular Nigerians have to deal with on a daily basis?

AS: I have always been a strong advocate of the China option for corruption and corrupt public officers. Impunity is the norm rather than exception when it comes to corruption in Nigeria. If corrupt officials had been dealt with as being done in China (long prison sentences/execution), things would have been better. Jerry Rawlings of Ghana tried something similar in Ghana and the place is better for it now, which explains why Nigerians prefer to send their children to school in Ghana or do business there now.

The greatest financiers of politics/politicians are the corrupt war lords in Nigeria.

TML: What is the role of the masjid in Nigeria?

AS: The masjid in Islam is an all-embracing institution that takes care of not only the spiritual, but also the mundane. This is the traditional role of the masjid in Islam since the time of the Prophet when the masjid even promoted sport and social services. So all masajid should be a one stop centre albeit without compromising its sanctity as the foremost spiritual port of call.

TML: What are the main attributes of a daae in the West?

AS: High moral standards with a sound Islamic training are the first requirements of a ‘professional’ propagator (da‘iya/daae), not only in the West but everywhere. I have qualified this with the term ‘professional’, since every Muslim is necessarily required to be a propagator of some sort, even within his own family circle (Qur’an 66:6; 26: 214). But those who take da‘wah as a vocation have greater challenges by virtue of their public exposure. The need for their lives to be a true mirror of what they propagate of values and precepts is more pressing (Qur’an 2: 44).

The special challenge in the West is the highly permissive nature of the society here and the strong non-Muslim (I won’t call it Christian as such) cultural profile. For instance, issues like homosexuality, trans-sexuality and other forms of moral and religious perversions which are almost non-existent in non-Western Muslim or African societies are critical issues with which the Muslim (da‘iya/daae) has to contend here in the West, especially as they relate to the question of human rights. Again, Muslim children young adults etc. would have to interact with people having such orientations in various public places.

The issue of violence arising from liberal possession of guns, Islamophobia, racial issues are some key issues which the Western da‘iya/daae have to address within the orthodox and tactical/strategic Islamic model of preaching as contained in Qur’an 16: 125, that is, through the employment of wisdom and hope-inspiring corrective preaching methods.

TML: What can Nigerian Americans who live in harmony here do for their ancestral country?

AS: I would advise them to please help in empowering indigent Muslims at home through scholarships that would be channelled through credible individuals or organisations. For example, in the Lagos State University, many indigent Muslim students, exceedingly brilliant for that matter, have had to withdraw from the university because of inability to play school fees which now ranges between $1200 and $2000/ session, excluding living costs. So if PGMA and indeed North American Muslims in general can help us set up a fund to be administered by the Muslim community at the Lagos State University, we would be able to train more doctors, educationists, engineers etc.

In fact, I have been a strong advocate among Nigerian Muslim organizations that they should spend more on education and health, instead of sponsoring people for hajj or other individualistic programs. So I want to extend the same call to you here in America to assist in education and health for indigent Nigerian Muslim children and adults.

TML: What advice would you give to American Muslims to counter the Islamophobia they face over events that occur overseas?

AS: The stereotypes against Islam and Muslims in America and indeed in the West can only be remedied when Muslims are equally empowered in the field of education, commerce, law, and the media. Just as the Jewish lobby has been able to achieve over the years.

TML: What state do you find the American Muslims and their da'wah in?

AS: If what I have seen in PGMA here in Lanham, Maryland is anything to judge, I am very sure that by the next decade, the profile and status of Islam would have been further enhanced. I was at a reception ceremony in Maryland also for the new returnees from 2013 Hajj and I was quite impressed by the quality of leadership and followership, far removed from the flamboyancy and disorder we are used to seeing at home in Nigeria. I think with quality missioners and a better environment in which accountability and transparency prevails, the future of Islam in North America is very promising.

However, I want to advise very strongly that here in America, you need to involve the young ones more in your programs. Create such events that will attract them to Islamic gatherings without losing the essence of Islam and take it upon yourselves to match-make among the young ones that are ripe for marriage so that you do not lose them to the torrents of perversion.