Islam in Nigeria

Nigeria is one of the world’s most populous nations and has one of the largest Muslim populations in West Africa. The Pew Research Center estimates Nigeria’s Muslim population to be between 48.5% and 50.4%. The predominant muslim sect in Nigeria is the Sunni while the Shia sect make up the minority. About 60 million Nigerians identify as Sunni Muslims, spread across the northern and western regions of Nigeria. The Shia minority can be found in parts of Kano, Kaduna, Katsina and Sokoto states and are estimated to be about 4-10 million Nigerians. Till today, Islam continues to spread in Nigeria and the number of those practicing the religion increase by the day. The nominal head of Muslims in Nigeria is the Sultan of Sokoto; the president of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Nigeria.

Sultan of Sokoto, Saad Abubakar
Sultan of Sokoto, Saad Abubakar


Nigeria had first contact with Muslim traders as far back as the 9th century in northeastern regions such as Kanem and Bornu; however, Islam took a foothold in Nigeria in the 11th century through trade, migration and through wayfarers along trade routes. For quite some time, Islam was thought to be the religion of court and commerce, and was spread peacefully by Muslim clerics and traders. As Islam spread, West African Muslims became deeply involved with Islamic networks that stretched across North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Islam was also a key factor throughout the trans-Saharan network that enabled, fostered, and necessitated Arabic literacy as the lingua franca of trade. Later, Islam emerged in Hausa land, in the northwest of Nigeria, and its influence became evident in the Kano and Katsina regions.

After Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, marking the end of colonial times for Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the Northern region, injected fresh drive into the spread of Islam in Nigeria.

During the 15th century, the Malian Songhay Empire spread into Nigeria’s Hausa land, establishing a dynasty there under Askiyya Muhammad. The gold trade brought migrants in the region to flourishing central cities such as Kano, and the Hausa language became an important medium for Islamic literature and scholarship. However, for literary exchange between Nigerian Muslims and those from Mali, Sudan and other regions beyond, Arabic was the groundwork for religious scholarship. It formed the basis for classical Islamic education, and allowed Muslims to read foundational works of doctrine and jurisprudence. By the 18th century, the Hausa and Fulani tribes were well-connected to intellectual traditions in Islamic thought. This unified them and encouraged impressive local literate production, from poetry to linguistics.

Increasingly, trans-Saharan trade came to be conducted by Muslims. In the second half of the 18th century, a Muslim revolution took place in western Africa, in which nomadic Fulani people, who had settled and adopted Islam, played a central role. In northern Nigeria, a Fulani scholar and later founder of Sokoto Caliphate, Usman dan Fodio started a jihad in 1804 that lasted for six years. His goals and objectives were centered on the revival and purification of Islam. In order to achieve his goals, Dan Fodio focused on abolishing syncretistic beliefs and rituals, eliminating all innovations contrary to the Quran and Sharia (Islam’s legal system), and encouraging less devout Muslims to practice orthodox or pure Islam. Ironically, Dan Fodio, his brother Abdullahi, and his son Muhammad Bello are remembered as exceptional leaders and scholars whose writings include several hundred books that covered topics ranging from theology and jurisprudence, to literature and grammar, and created a scholarly movement known as the Sokoto School. Notably, the Sokoto School advocated women’s education, and Dan Fodio’s daughter Nana Asma’u became a remarkable scholar, educationalist, and writer in Arabic, Hausa, and Fulfulde.

However, the religious revolution led by Dan Fodio also had a political element concerning state formation and state conflict. It united the Hausa states under Sharia law. In 1812, Hausa dynasties subsequently became part of the Islamic State or Caliphate of Sokoto. The Sokoto Caliphate ended with partition in 1903 when the British incorporated it into the colony of Nigeria and the Sultan’s power was transferred to the High Commissioner. However, many aspects of the caliphate structure, including the Islamic legal system, were retained and brought forward into the colonial period.usman

After Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, marking the end of colonial times for Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the Northern region, injected fresh drive into the spread of Islam in Nigeria. His Islamization program led to the conversion of over 100,000 people in the provinces of Zaria and Niger alone. Unfortunately, the first military coup in 1966, which claimed the lives of many politicians including Ahmadu Bello, brought his Islamization program to an abrupt end. Nevertheless, successive governments in the 1970s continued government policy that favored the ascendancy of Islam. Nigeria’s history shows that Islamization was easier under military dictatorship and Islam spread quickly under the administration of General Ibrahim Babangida, who was the Military Head of State from 1985 to 1993.

Influence on Traditional Religion, Culture and Education

Islam played essential roles in the development of culture, education, and politics of the modern Nigerian society. Islam significantly permeated several institutions of the society and impacted everyday life in many parts of the country. As an institution in Emirate society, Islam includes daily and annual ritual obligations; the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca; sharia, or religious law; and an establishment view of politics, family and community life, and appropriate modes of personal conduct in general situations. The influence of Islam modified the core of culture and tradition in certain parts of Nigeria. These are some cultural areas influenced by Islam:

  • Religious Influence: Nigerians, and most African communities, even before their contacts with the Arabs and consequent introduction of Islam, strongly believed in the existence of a Supreme Being under different names. The belief was that this Supreme Being could not be approached directly by mortals. The traditional belief system required humans to communicate with the Supreme Being through deities. These ancient divinities are believed to have resided with the Supreme Being as helpers who assisted Him in works of creation. In some traditional societies, certain deities are believed to have been extraordinary humans who have lived on earth in the past and attained divine status after death. Some also believed that the personification of natural forces and phenomena helped them in one way or the other, and offering sacrifices to them constituted an avenue to offer worship to the Supreme Being.  The contact of Arabs with Nigerian people marked a new era in their religious life. The Arabs who were mainly Muslims, and were out to spread Islam, preached strongly against traditional religious practices of Nigerians. Polytheism which initially prevailed was replaced with monotheism, the central theme of Islamic teaching. Traditional rituals that paid homage or reverence to natural objects were regarded as acts of idolatry; the most heinous sin in Islam. However, for Islam to be widely accepted in Nigeria, it had to accommodate some traditional virtues which are equally valued by Islam. The traditional teachings of brotherhood, generosity, sexual discipline, honesty, orderliness, kindness and mutual love, were all encouraged by Islam.
    Zamfara State was the first state in Nigeria to introduce Sharia Law on January 27, 2000
    Zamfara State was the first state in Nigeria to introduce Sharia Law on January 27, 2000
  • Educational Influence: The Arabs who were the messengers of Islam to Nigeria introduced Arabic literacy to local new converts. This introduction was important because Arabic is regarded as the language of Islam, as performing some Islamic rituals required mastery of the language. As a result, many Qur’anic and Arabic schools sprung up in all places where Islam was launched. Before long, Arabic language became the official language of the northern states of Nigeria. The literary contributions of scholars like Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio, Sheikh Abdullah, Sheikh Muhammad Bello and Sheikh Adam Abdullah Al-ilory, and many others, are in Arabic.
  • Influence on Language: The adoption of Arabic language as an academic discipline in Nigeria paved the way for language diffusion. Some loan words in several Nigerian languages come from Arabic language, and were imported into Islam. The table below shows a sample of the words brought in from Arabic language into Yoruba and Hausa languages.
Yoruba Hausa Arabic Meaning in English
Alamisi Alhamis Al-Khamis Thursday
Jimoh Juma’a Al-Jum’ah Friday
Wakati Lokaci Waqt Time
Imoni Mani Iman Belief
Alujanna Alijana Al-Jannah Paradise
Alubarika Albarika Al-Barakah Blessing


  • Social Influence: Islam also influenced many other parts of social life of Nigerian communities. One feature common to several Nigerian communities’ culture is that they fully respect their traditional rulers. In Nigeria, an Oba (Yoruba for King), Emir (Arabic for Commander), or village leader should not be greeted while standing up. The removal of footwear, head ties or caps before acknowledging the presence of a leader was a sign of respect for that leader. Saluting kings while standing was indeed considered an act of arrogance and disrespect to the king. However, the acceptance of Arab civilization by Nigerians has altered this practice. Muslim clerics considered it as an act of undue elevation of a human being to the status of a deity. These days, a Muslim cleric who visits a traditional ruler in his palace is not expected to remove his turban, or hijab if female, and also he or she does not need to bow before the traditional ruler. The cleric only gets to bend and allows his or her palm to touch the ground as a mark of obeisance and respect for the traditional ruler. Also, Muslim leaders are more respected than traditional rulers, as Muslim leaders often oversee followers across ethnicities and geographic regions.  The prevailing practice of polygamy in the traditional Nigerian system was modified by Islamic laws, limiting it only to four at a time and with the condition of maintaining justice among the wives. In terms of funeral and burial rites, the adoption of Islam altered several traditional practices. Islam instructs quick burial of the corpse, discourages crying and wailing over the corpse as was the common practice at the demise of a young man or woman, and discourages the celebration of the death of an octogenarian or a nonagenarian. Islamic rules also guide laying-in-state process. Funeral prayers are offered on the corpse before it is buried. Mourning is observed for three days after which both the bereaved and sympathizers are expected to go their separate ways onto their respective daily activities.

Activities in modern times continue to show the influence of Islam in daily life. Public meetings begin and end with Muslim prayer, and most Muslims know at least the basic Arabic prayers and the five pillars of the religion required for full participation in public Islamic gatherings. Even, the political landscape in some parts of Nigeria reveal clear influences of Islam. Sharia law is in place in certain states and recognized in Nigeria’s judicial laws. Arbitration by local Muslim leaders with the help of religious experts, provide widespread knowledge of the basic tenets of Sharia law.

Impact on Nigerians

The influence and impact of Islam in daily life in Nigeria cannot be overemphasized especially when you consider how the religion has influenced the country’s culture. This evident association is shared with other Islamic countries and communities who find common grounds based on religion. Politically speaking, the religion of people vying for public offices continue to be a strong factor in swaying election votes. Several Islamic reform movements have emerged in Nigeria since the late 1970s, including the Izala movement, Maitatsine, and Darul Islam. Most of the participants in the early movements were interested in sectarian concerns such as guiding the Muslim community and acting as guardians of the faith.

The more recent movements Jama‘atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da‘awati wal-Jihad (JASDJ, also referred to as “Boko Haram”), which many see as arising out of the Maitatsine movement, has received international press attention because of its increasingly militant actions. However, many Muslims of different sects and beliefs vehemently reject Boko Haram’s ideas and methods. Over the last decade, the group has carried out deadly bombings in towns and villages, displacing more than 250,000 people, and shocked the world in April 2014, when it kidnapped 234 female students from Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State. Notable Muslim leaders such as the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, have come out to condemn the despicable acts of the fundamentalist group and a social media movement aptly names Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) have relentless put pressure on the Nigerian Federal Government to assist in locating and retrieving the kidnapped girls.

21 Chibok Girls were recently freed from Boko Haram captivity (October 13, 2016)
21 Chibok Girls were recently freed from Boko Haram captivity (October 13, 2016)


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