Negotiating relationships in a mixed religious society: Islam among the Igbo of Southeast Nigeria.

Author:Uchendu, Egodi
Position:Case study


The Igbo territory east of the River Niger is the major ethnic nation in Southeast Nigeria, the former Eastern Region. Located also within the region are the Efik, Ibibio, Ijaw, and a number of smaller ethnic communities. (1) Southeast Nigeria generally, and Igboland in particular, have been repeatedly described as a predominantly Christian region. (2) Only a few years back, a Catholic priest and scholar referred to Igboland as one of Africa's homogenous Christian regions. (3) The Igbo Christian identity at present does not derive from the total absence of other religious groups within it but the result of considerably few numbers of members of other faiths (indigenous Igbo religion, Eastern religions, and esoteric religions) vis-a-vis Christians in Igboland. While still retaining its profile as Nigeria's most populous Christian region, Igboland began after the Nigeria-Biafra war (the Nigerian civil war of 1967 to 1970) to manifest tendencies indicative of religious heterogeneity. Indeed, the Nigeria-Biafra war was an important catalyst in the development of an indigenous Muslim community in Igboland, having opened Igboland to a varied range of external influences especially those linked to religion. (4)

This paper considers an important issue relevant for understanding the development of Islam in Igboland since its emergence in the first quarter of the twentieth century: the nature of social interactions (actions, encounters, relations) between Muslims--both migrants and indigenes--and non-Muslims in Igboland. The paper begins with an examination of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in Igboland from the earliest indication of Islam in the area and proceeds to the nature of the relationship among the Igbo of different religious affiliations. In the process it shows the transformation of Igboland since after the Nigeria-Biafra war into a society embracing widely divergent religious philosophies.


Social interaction as used in this paper refers to the changing sequence of social actions between individuals or groups who modify their actions and reactions as a response to the actions of their interacting partner(s). In other words, they are incidents in which people attach meaning to the situation, interpret what they think others are meaning, and respond accordingly. This study utilizes individual and group narratives of daily encounters between members of different religious communities in Igboland. Integral to the discussion are the efforts at coexistence and the attempts to establish spheres of influence by Igbo indigenes differentiated by their religious identities. Archival records and oral data collected from February 2003 until June 2006 from Muslims and non-Muslims of Igbo and other ethnic groups played an important part in this construction. Few interviews were conducted after 2006. Over forty persons of Igbo and non-Igbo origins were interviewed. The majority of the interviewees had primary education. Quite an impressive number had post secondary school certificates. The few persons with no exposure to formal education had the privilege of Qur'anic education. Interviews were held privately at a convenient location to the interviewees. Follow up sessions were held in some cases to clarify issues. Interviewees freely used one of these three languages to share their knowledge: English. Pidgin English, and Igbo.


The Beginning of a Relationship

One parameter for determining group integration in a mixed society is by examining the nature of the interactions of the component units in their daily encounters. Muslims and non-Muslims in Igboland like Muslims and non- Muslims elsewhere are not monolithic communities that interact as blocs. (5) For well over a century the primary element defining and determining the Igbo traditional (conventional) practice was the Igbo religion, itself an important part of that traditional practice. It is often represented with the word omenani. The Igbo religious worldview set the precepts for interpersonal and communal relationships in pre-colonial Igbo towns and villages. It was within this structure that Christianity was introduced in Igboland in 1857. (6)

Following years of successful proselytization, the Igbo in greater numbers acceded to Christian teachings, partly or partially relinquishing their original belief systems and aspects of their conventional practices. Scholars such as Ekechi, Isichei, and Bersselaar (7) have detailed the contestations that ensued from the late nineteenth, to the early twentieth century, as members of these two religious constituencies--Igbo (traditional) religion and Christianity--sought a place for themselves in the homeland despite the goodwill displayed by traditionalists towards Christians and Christianity when the latter was introduced. (8) Christians sought the right to coexist with the traditionalists who were in the majority. The traditionalists, on their part, were determined to preserve the purity of their beliefs and preferred their members to be united under that banner. For about a century there were frictions but these were gradually decreasing in intensity, as Christianity was emerging dominant all over Igboland right into the middle of the twentieth century. With the Christian success, the traditionalists became a minority that nonetheless found some mutual grounds for cooperation with Christians in every day living as the latter borrowed or retained aspects of the social practices, including some religious practices, of the traditionalists. Hence from the early twentieth century the Igbo omenani alongside the Bible concurrently determined the worldview of Igbo Christians.


Just before the frictions triggered by the introduction of Christianity fizzled out, Islam emerged as yet a new religion in the Igbo horizon when the village of Amufie in Enugu Ezike in the old Nsukka Division in northern Igboland adopted a Muslim of Nupe origin known as Ibrahim Aduku. (9) This incident will be discussed later. Suffice to say that the journey of Islam into parts of Igboland was encased in frictions that were caused largely by cultural dissimilarities between the Igbo and Muslim migrants to Igboland. The earliest known cases of friction revolved around local displeasure with Muslim migrants from Northern Nigeria. The issue at stake was their involvement in the British conquest of Igboland. Groups of elephant hunters from Hausa and Nupeland (both in Northern Nigeria), Yorubaland (in Western Nigeria), and some Sierra Leoneans and Ghanaians, had operated at intervals in the jungles of Elele, Onitsha, Ogoja, Enugu, and Abakaliki between 1890 and 1910. (10) In Elele the hunters came at the invitation of the indigenes whose crops were routinely ruined by bands of elephants while in Abakaliki they were invited by Hausa soldiers quartered in the town. Abakaliki rural farmers nonetheless welcomed the hunters as elephants also damaged their crops. (11) By 1910 most hunters had returned home. Few, led by the popular hunter Diko from Kano, settled in the region. Diko was described by the British Resident of Ahoada Division as one of the Africans who took part in the military subjugation of Arochukwu, Bende, Ahoada, Aba, and parts of Ibibioland between 1901 and 1902. He also took part in the "Expedition of Gun Destruction," a colonial subjugation offensive by which the British relieved communities in Southeast Nigeria of their firearms or weapons after military conquest. (12) Dodo, a member of Diko's party, was credited with acting as a guide for the British expeditions to Allua, Igrita, Mbodo and Ebeda, all Ikwerre (Igbo) communities of Ahoada Division, now in Rivers State.

In addition to the involvement of former migrant hunters, the presence, also, of soldiers of Northern Nigerian origin in the 1901-1902 Aro expedition that was christened "a war to end all wars" is significant to our discussion. From the time colonial rule was established in Southern Nigeria, then a separate protectorate from Northern Nigeria, the colonial administrators depended on Hausa soldiers as well as on Yoruba soldiers to bring Igboland under British rule. (13) One would expect afterwards some interactional distance between the Muslim migrants, soldiers included, and the Igbo for the various expeditions had been instructed "to suppress barbarous native customs; to collect all rifles and cap-guns from natives." (14) Burning of houses, farms, barns, and seizure or killing of domestic animals characterized these expeditions. Ottenberg shows indeed that in Abakaliki there was very little contact between the Igbo indigenes and migrants from Northern Nigeria right up to 1960. (15)

Unlike the Nupe and some Hausa, the Igbo fished on a very moderate scale. Fishing was done in few communities such as Onitsha, Ossomari, and Oguta, which were situated along major rivers--the Niger and Oguta Lake. Various Igbo traditions showed that it was a taboo to fish in many villages because of the belief that the fish embodied the souls of the people's ancestors. C. K. Meek reported instances of keen resentment "frequently expressed against itinerant Hausa fishermen who disregarded the feelings of the local inhabitants in this matter." (16) Such disregard of local custom, which occurred at a time when indigenous converts to Christianity displayed similar insensitivity to traditional beliefs and totems became a sore point in the early stages of the Igbo--migrant Muslim relationship in Igboland. This particular grievance was cited among the factors that led to the (Aba) women's war of 1929. (17)

As these incidents were playing themselves out in Owerri and Ahoada Divisions in southern Igboland, a totally different scenario was emerging in northern Igboland with the arrival of Ibrahim Aduku. Aduku was a horse trader from Nupe in the defunct Sokoto Caliphate who first visited Amufie...

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