If you want to study the resilience of the Tijjaniyya Sufi order in Nigeria, you, perhaps, don’t need to expand your search beyond the fraternity’s ability to churn out outstanding scholars, year in and year out. From the generation of Sheikh Wali Suleiman to Malam Tijjani Usman Zangon Barebari and until the baton was bequeathed to the likes of Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi, Tijjaniyya was never short of intellectual giants. These are the leaders who inspired their followers and defended the creed through dialectics and, on occasion, polemics.
And, at the time when the colossuses like Sheikh Bauchi and Sheikh Ibrahim Salih had paid their dues, Prof. Ibrahim Makari and so many others entered the scene. The Tijjaniyya seems to have them on the conveyor belt. These intellectuals do not only distinguish themselves with their learnedness but also their fearlessness in telling the truth to the powers that be—factors that endear them to the grassroots.
Thomas Hodgkin draws some parallels between early Methodism and the history of the Tijjaniyya Sufi order in Nigeria by underlining efficient local organization; insistence on austerity, prohibition of smoking; and honesty in business dealings, “as a means to ensure prosperity in this life, as well as bliss in Paradise; and its opposition to the Establishment—which gives Tijjaniyya a special appeal to the discontented and oppressed”. This is by no means a theological comparison.
While Tijjanism in Nigeria has undoubtedly undergone various stages of evolution and still remained resilient in preserving most of these virtues, it would be preposterous to assume that some of the tenets have not suffered from the vagaries of time. We cannot safely argue that the creed is not calling for some kind of resurgence. However, this is by no means a radical reform proposal.
But whatever agenda one wants to set for Tijjaniyya in Nigeria, it is encouraged by the fact that it’s currently led by Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II, a man of tremendous intellect but with a paradoxical history of rebellion against the establishment, making him a perfect fit to lead a reawakening initiative.
Likewise, Sanusi’s era is also witnessing a boom in proselytization activities by Tijjaniyya clerics, with Prof. Makari among the most visible standouts. While Makari appeared to be a self-effacing scholar, that still fails to mask the tinge of revolutionary flavor in his oration. Both Sanusi and Makari are revolutionary.
Yet, like the history of other Muslim societies elsewhere, Tijjaniyya in Nigeria is not remarkably different, as it is also a story of rebellious leadership and submissive followership–apologies to the late Prof. Ali Mazrui. It was he who boldly claimed that, “The rebelliousness of the leader and the enthusiastic submissiveness of the followers go back to Muhammad (pbuh) himself and his own original following.”
Now the task before the charismatic Calipha of Tijjaniyya is even better cut out for him. If Sanusi II would insist that his aspiration for Gidan Dabo’s throne was not just for the cornucopia of lavish royal treats that attracted many a prince, but that he was there to use the position to influence much needed societal reform, galvanizing the large submissive Tijjaniya followers to a greater renaissance could not be less appealing. Without a doubt, the platform is even broader than Gidan Dabo, and the readiness of the followership to submit could even be more encouraging for the Calipha.
No doubt, the shrewdness of Kaolack in choosing a man of his standing and reputation to lead its sea of followers in Nigeria is becoming increasingly clearer for all to see, one year after his anointment. Nonetheless, making astute decisions like that is not new to the Senegalese. Apart from being a master of managing delicate balances in dealing with politicians of diverse shades and ideologies, like what we saw in his managing the overtures of both the NEPU and the NPC in Nigeria, Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse was meticulous in choosing Emir Muhamamdu Sanusi I as his Calipha in the 1960s. Beyond the theory of placating the disgruntled followers, Shehu was not oblivious to the late Muhamamdu Sanusi I leadership qualities. Because of his distinct leadership qualities, the late Sanusi, even as Kano’s Chiroma, was the obvious choice of Kano’s intelligentsia to succeed his father, Emir Abdullahi Bayero.
Therefore, beyond outstanding Islamic scholarship, a man of significant leadership experience in statecraft— or other remarkable qualities– has always been a factor in Senegalese decisions. Emir Sanusi II, like his grandfather, ticked all the boxes of what appealed to Kaolack.
One of the notable young Tijjaniyya scholars in the country, Dr Saleh Kaura recently wrote a tribute on the one-year anniversary of the appointment of Calipha Sanusi II. He particularly pointed out the untiring efforts to entrench unity among Tijjaniyya followers and the visitation to North African countries to study, among other issues, the reformed almajiri school models, among others.
The almajiri conundrum has been a perennial concern for northern Nigeria. The involvement of Tijjaniyya as a major stakeholder in the push to modernize the system, would undoubtedly be central to the solutions. Hodgkin might have seen the inclination to asceticism in Tijjanism, but the sect is also at home with modernism. The late Prof. Dahiru Yahaya put this into perspective, when he argued that the progressive nature of Nyas’ fatwas was what endeared him to the Kano people.
“The reconciliation of Islamic ethos with modern ideas in the career of Shaykh Ibrahim Nyass al Kawlakhī of Senegal fascinated Kano intelligentsia more than his spirituality ab initio. In fact, his worldliness made Shaykh Ibrahim Nyass al Kawlakhī an enlightening forces in Western African Islam and in Kano, especially.
His frequent journeys created useful links that the French, the dominant colonial power in West Africa, recognized and respected. His invigorating ideas uplifted the intimidated Muslims of West Africa and helped them to benefit from modern technology and contemporary methods,” he wrote a brilliant essay, Nuzha.
Thus, with the likes of the erudite Prof. Ibrahim Makari as one of the most important “first followers”, Tijjaniya’s “efficient local organization” can be harnessed not only for organizing Mauluds alone, but for other beneficial societal initiatives as well. If Tijjaniyya could be highly successful in fighting tobacco addiction, there’s currently an even more pressing concern about drug addiction that’s becoming a pervasive concern in northern Nigeria.
It would also be fulfilling to see if the Tijjaniyya becomes a vehicle for implementing the Waqf endowment model that Prof. Makari proposed in this year’s tafsir.
Similarly, Tijjaniyya followers can be an example of soul force in Nigeria. Muslims are fast losing their reputation for honest business dealings, which Tijjaniyya was renowned for. And, at a time when a debate on the validity of Muslims’ involvement in interfaith dialogue is raging, Tijjaniyya followers can draw inspiration from the history of Nyass, who was an influential adviser to the late Kwame Nkrumah.
Indeed, Tijjaniyya should start modernizing Zawiyyas across the nation to teach young followers both spirituality and 21st-century skills. But like Oliver Twist, who became famous for asking for more, we can also ask for the Tijjaniya University of Science and Technology.
On balance, this is by no means a list of some easy tasks to accomplish as there are enormous challenges ahead. For instance, Tijjaniyya, like other religious communities in the country, is vulnerable to the various interests of Nigerian politicians who will not hesitate to apply their divide- and- rule formula in their desperate bid to get endorsement for votes. This is, perhaps, the biggest threat to any quest of unification. In a similar vein, changing the mindset of a people has historically proven to always be a herculean task. It took more than 2 decades for Islam, a religion revealed piecemeal, to be completed.