Religious Education in Nigeria – A Case Study
by B. Aisha Lemu, Islamic Educational Trust, Nigeria
Printed in Teaching for Tolerance and Freedom of Religion or Belief. Report from the preparatory Seminar held in Oslo December 7-9, 2002 (prepared by Lena Larsen and Ingvill T. Plesner, published by the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief)
The presentation gives a brief overview of religious education in Nigerian public schools as it relates to the concerns of the seminar. Emphasis is on Islamic Education.
National curricula for religious education do not spring from nowhere. They evolve over time as a reflection of the needs, perceptions and historical development for the societies concerned. Nigeria is a country with a population believed to be over 120 million, of various ethnic groups. Religion often coincides with the ethnic group, but not always. Basically most Hausa-Fulanis in the north are Muslims, and most Ibos in the south-west are Christians. However, Yorubas in the south-west are both Muslims and Christians with Muslims slightly in the majority and there is a fair amount of inter-marriage. Exact census figures are hard to come by, but it would be safe to say that Muslims are over 50% of the population, the remainder being Christians and followers of African traditional religions.
Islam first entered West Africa through trans-Saharan Trade in the 9th/10th century. It spread among the rulers and the urban population and then gradually into the rural areas. Scholars established Qur’anic schools and for many centuries up to the colonial period, Islamic schooling was the formal educational system in Northern Nigeria. The north was solidly Muslim apart from pockets of African traditional religion in the remote or mountainous areas. With better transport and communications during the colonial period. Islam also spread faster in the south, particularly into Yorubaland down to Lagos and the sea.
The pattern of education in the south and the north has been different. Christian missionaries were allowed by the British colonial power to set up mission schools in the south from the early days, and Government schools also were generally Christian-oriented. Any Muslim student in these schools would be forced to study Bible Knowledge and in most cases attend church. Conversion was frequently a condition for admission. No teachers were provided for Islamic Studies. Muslim parents had a difficult choice – to allow their children to get a modern education at the risk of losing their faith, or to keep their faith and to lose the opportunity to rise high in Government or the modern administrative system. This gave rise to the establishment of private Islamic schools for Muslims in the southwest. However, their medium of instruction was usually Arabic, so their products were equally unable to join the mainstream of higher education unless they went to Arab countries for further studies. For these reasons the Christian missionaries and their students in the southwest went far ahead of the Muslims in western education, and tended to look down on the Muslims as backward. There was, and in some cases, still is, serious abuse of their educational and religious rights and marginalization of Muslims in national development.
In the north, the situation was different. The British here came face to face with the Northern Emirates – the legacy of the Sokoto Caliphate established by the great religious reformer Sheikh Uthman Dan Fodio in the late 18th/early 19th centuries. After subduing the northern region by military conquest the British established good relations with the Emirs and their people, and adopted Indirect Rule through the Emirs. Change in education came slowly with the gradual establishment of a few modern Government schools and Teachers Colleges for boys and later for girls. In order to make these schools acceptable to the people, Islamic Studies were taught with a farily traditional syllabus. The teachers were almost always the product of the traditional Qur’anic schools and the syllabus emphasized memorization of the Qur’an and Hadith, Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence), the articles of faith and basic moral education.
For a long time Christian missionaries in the north confined their educational and evangelical activities in the remote, rural and predominantly pagan areas to avoid confrontation with the Emirs. The British even set up the old Sharia Law School in Kano for the training of Shari’ah Court Judges and Islamic teachers as early as 1933. Some of its graduates were subsequently given scholarships to study Arabic, Islamic Studies and Islamic Law at the University of London in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
I was privileged to teach at the Law School in Kano under its new name, School for Arabic Studies in the 1960’s after Independence and later to be the Principal of Government Girls College in Sokoto for 8 years in the 1960’s and 1970’s – one of the earliest girls’ secondary schools in the North.
By that time, missionaries had been free for some years to evangelize all over the north, but their converts were mainly among the pagan tribes on the plateau and other remote areas. My college which drew students from all over the north usually had a sprinkling of Christian girls, perhaps three or four per class. While the Government trained and provided Islamic Studies teachers, the missionaries used to send in their own teachers so that the classes divided for Islamic and Christian Religious Knowledge lessons. The school provided the books for both classes. Christian girls were taken to church on Sundays and there were no religious tensions unless the Christian girls insulted Islam, which happened only rarely.
As far as Muslims were concerned, Islam was the religion. Christians were regarded to have deviated from the truth, but as “People of the Book” their right to learn and practice their religion was recognized and there were generally peaceful relations with them in spite of the political stresses following the murder of the Muslim Prime Minister and the Muslim Premier of the Northern Region by Ibo and other southern Christian officers in the 1966 coup. These northern Muslim leaders had been very tolerant towards Christian missionaries from the late 40’s and thereafter, and even encouraged them to open schools for which they were given Government grants in aid.
In later years more and more Christian denominations piled in and in addition to the older churches – Catholic, Anglican etc. based overseas, numerous Nigerian based evangelical churches in due course began to spring up. Any member of a flock who fancied that he had prophetic or charismatic qualities would form a breakaway church of his own (from which he would derive substantial financial benefits).
This is why if you enter the town where I live you will see the approach road through the suburbs is fringed by hundreds of signboards directing people to these churches with titles like “Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries” and others offering hope and temporary escape from the harsh realities of life. Most of their religious services consist of singing, dancing, clapping, speaking in tongues and generally disturbing people in neighboring houses. Therefore when we picture Christianity in Nigeria we have to take into account these thousands of autonomous breakaway churches as well as the older denominations.
It is well known that Nigeria has periodic religious riots, but it is worth mentioning that these are not usually prompted by religious differences as such, but more by ethnic historical and political rivalries or grievances in which religious difference is a secondary issue. Even apparently religious issues such as the extension of Shari’ah into criminal cases only led to violence in areas where there were already ethnic/political problems. Otherwise Nigerian Muslims and Christians are quite used to living side by side as neighbors in peace and cooperation as long as they do not insult or throw scorn on one another’s sanctities. Even in the midst of recent violence in Kaduna, some Muslim and Christian neighbors protected one another from the rioters.
It is against this background that we turn to the syllabus for the teaching of religion in Nigerian Schools.
The Syllabi for Religious Education:
Syllabi for Islamic and Christian Religious Knowledge were drawn up by State and Federal Ministries of Education since the 1950’s. These syllabi prepared students for the subject in the West African School Certificate Examinations. The subjects were very popular.
In the case of Islamic Religious Knowledge there were no textbooks in English until about 1968 – 1970. The teachers, who were mostly traditional mallams (scholars) who passed through Arabic Teachers Colleges would use Arabic books, from which they would translate to the students.
With the production of books in English written to the syllabus, Islamic Religious Knowledge became much easier to teach. The Government-run post-secondary Advanced Teachers Colleges and Colleges of Education ran three year courses in Islamic Studies (as well as Christian Religious Knowledge) and the subject became widely available in the universities. Gradually the Arabic speaking Mallams were replaced at secondary level by English-speaking young teachers who were products of the mainstream educational system.
Around 1984 Nigeria changed to the 6-3-3-4 system (6 years primary, 3 years junior secondary, 3 years senior secondary and 4 + years university) and at the same time all syllabi were reviewed by subject panels set up by the Nigerian Educational Research Council, affiliated with the Ministry of Education.
I happened to be a member of the panel for Islamic Studies (as it was re-named). We were given a completely free hand to draw up new syllabi for schools, together with detailed lesson formats. Whereas previous syllabi had been quite traditional, we took as our guiding framework the question “what should a young Muslim know about Islam in order to live as a Muslim when he leaves school, on the assumption that he will not thereafter receive any more Islamic education?”
We therefore gave much more time to issues such as the rights of women in Islam, the rights and duties of the husband and wife, and to the moral teachings of Islam. We gave less time to the historical details of battles and dynasties and more to the civilizational values of Islam, as well as its impact on West Africa.
The way of teaching Islam and Christianity in Nigeria is expected to be confessional, that is, students are taught how to practice their religion as well as being taught about their religion. Muslim students are therefore expected to memorize portions of the Qur’an and Hadith and their meanings, to know how to perform the duties of prayer, fasting, zakat and hajj, to evaluate the evidence for the authenticity of the Qur’an and so on, as well as learning essential historical information.
The syllabus covers 3 sections as follows:
1. Hidayah (Guidance)
Sectioni A: The Qur’an
Section B: The Hadith
Section C: Tahdhib (Moral Education)
2. Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence)
Section A: Tawhid (Belief)
Section B: Ibadah (Worship)
Section C: Mu’amalat (Human Transactions) This includes Shariah, Marriage, Divorce, Custody of Children, Inheritance etc.
3. Tarikh (Historical Development of Islam)
Section A: Sirah (The Life of the Prophet Muhammad) plus the leadership of the 4 Righteous Caliphs
Section B: The Spread of Islam to Western Africa
Section C: Contributions of Muslims to World Civilization
With regard to the relationship between Islam and other religions, or between Muslims and non-Muslims, these are not treated as a separate topic. However, under Tawhid (literally the Oneness of God) the matter of unity, trinity or multiplicity of God/gods is taught. The rights of “the People of the Book” to retain and practice their religions within an Islamic polity is also covered.
Under the section on the Prophet’s Da‘wah in Makkah (i.e. conveying the message of Islam to non-Muslims) emphasis is placed on the Islamic injunction: “Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching and argue with them in ways that are best…” (Qur’an 16:125)
Under the section on Da‘wah in Madinah the emphasis is given to the practice of peaceful da‘wah, “no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256), friendly relations with Christians in Ethiopia and with the Christian delegation from Najran, and the Qur’anic instruction not to insult the idol-worshippers or abuse their objects of worship. The section also covers the political rather than religious reasons for the breakdown of relations with the Jews of Madinah. The conditions under which the Qur’an allowed the Muslims to defend themselves against the Makkan idol-worshippers are explained, with the Qur’anic warnings against committing aggression and the directive to revert to peace if the enemy inclines to it (Qur’an 8:61 – 62).
Jihad is also allocated a section where its basic meaning is shown to be striving or struggling with one’s own self, or for social justice, or any righteous cause, or under certain conditions, an armed struggle or just war.
The syllabus also covers Islam and culture. It emphasizes respect and acceptance of the admirable aspects of pre-Islamic cultures (whether Arab, African, Asian, Western etc.) and rejection or reform of those aspects of pre-Islamic or modern culture which conflict with Islamic values.
This covers what may be regarded as an outline and highlights of the Nigerian National Syllabus in Islamic Studies at secondary level. The Christian Religious Knowledge syllabus likewise covers mainly doctrines and moral teachings, with a little on the early spread of Christianity.
Could these Syllabi go further in Promoting Tolerance?
I would say that they could, but with caution because of realities on the ground. It would be useful to have a component on Christianity in the Islamic Studies syllabus and a component of Islam in the Christian Religious Knowledge syllabus. However in the light of the rather low standard of teacher training and declining standards of education generally in Nigeria, as well as existing tension between Muslims and Christians, one must beware of opening a can of worms. If the teachers themselves are staunch Muslims or Christians, would they really be ready and able to explain the other religion objectively? Or would they take it as an opportunity to say why you should not be a Muslim or Christian? If on the other hand one were to invite a Christian teacher to tell the Muslim students what is Christianity, or a Muslim teacher to tell Christian students what is Islam, there would likely be an uproar from parents and religious bodies complaining about proseletisation in schools.
We already have this problem in some Government schools of mixed Muslims and Christians where some Christian teachers of “secular” subjects take time during the lesson to preach Christianity to all, and where some evangelical students particularly in boarding schools target individual young Muslim students and exert pressure on them to convert. This leads to a lot of ill-feeling and occasionally to riots which could even spread on occasion to the outside community. There are also parallel cases of Christian students converting to Islam, but there is no doubt that there is a lot more active evangelization by Christian staff and students than active Da‘wah by Muslim staff and students. The Government has therefore been very cautious in this area and has put the teaching of religious tolerance within the syllabus of Social Studies rather than within the religious syllabi. (It may be noted that under Nigerian Educational Law it is not permitted for a school child to change his/her religion without permission from the parents. However this is difficult to enforce, especially in boarding schools where the parents can not monitor what goes on. If a minor does convert, whether to Islam or Christianity it is quite common for the parents to cast him or her off, and refuse to continue paying schools fees or even paying for the maintenance of the young person.)
However these limitations of the National Syllabus do not stop private schools from doing what they see fit to promote a broadening of religious understanding and peaceful co-existence. In New Horizons College, Minna, run by the Islamic Education Trust with which I work, we have addressed this issue through a new subject which we have called “Islamic Perspectives”. This subject is designed to help students who are often confused by their exposure to the modern media as well as to some local traditional cultural influences. The objective is that they should be able to think as Muslims and view the modern world from an Islamic perspective, accepting what is good and leaving what is harmful.
Towards this objective we use books that present an Islamic perspective on life and on scientific knowledge and discoveries, and video cassettes on the history of civilization and religious belief, on the environment and on natural history (usually from BBC/ITV television series) that form the basis of discussion. One of the books studied has a chapter “Face to Faith” on relations with other religions.
In addition, all senior students do a course over two years called “Da‘wah and Dialogue for Peaceful Co-existence”. In the context of Nigeria this means peaceful co-existence with Christians. Students learn what is the Bible and how it was compiled, basic Christian beliefs and the early history of Christianity. They also learn how to treat other people’s beliefs with respect even if they disagree, and to discuss religion objectively without giving offence. The aim is not to convert but to develop a better mutual understanding. The students also learn how to discuss popular misconceptions about Islam held by some Muslims as well as non-Muslims.
However, it must be stressed that these approaches are being tested in a private Islamic School. It would not be easy to transfer them into Government secular schools as they do not have the funds or the ability to buy imported books and video cassettes from Europe, nor do they have resource persons of the right caliber and broad education to teach them. Moreover it is most doubtful that Federal or State Ministries of Education would recognize a non-formal subject that is not a part of the School Certificate Examination syllabus.
It may also be mentioned that, generally speaking, Muslim students know more about Christianity than Christian students know about Islam. This is because Muslims are taught to respect and revere all the Prophets from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to Jesus to Muhammad (peace be on them all). They are accepted as true messengers of Allah and role models. Muslim students are also aware of areas of difference between Christianity and Islam in respect of Christian beliefs in Trinity, divinity or divine sonship of Jesus, original sin, vicarious atonement and on. There are also numerous Christian programmes on television sponsored by the churches which are also seen by Muslims. This knowledge does not flow both ways however. For example in the South-Eastern part of the country where Muslims are very few, the Christians know very little about Islam, which is seen as a Hausa religion that has nothing in common with Christiantiy.
Would Changing the Syllabus Help?
In the mid 1980’s a group of agnostic humanists in some of the southern universities tried to replace Islamic and Christian Religious Knowledge with a syllabus called “Moral Education”, detached from religion so that Muslims and Christians could be taught in the same classes. This however raised the question of who would determine what was “moral” or “immoral” and what would be the religion or belief of the teacher of the subject. Both Muslim and Christian organizations protested against it on the grounds that religion is the source and ultimate sanction of moral values in this world and on the Day of Judgment. They advised the agnostics that if they wanted they wanted their syllabus for the small minority of unbelievers they could campaign for it, but that the vast majority of Nigerians are believing Christians and Muslims who want morality to be embedded in the context and teachings of religion. The Government accepted this position.
Religion is a very emotive issue in Nigeria and whatever change may be considered to make the teaching of religion in schools promote religious harmony, it must be done with sensitivity and in full consultation with all the stakeholders, otherwise it may backfire.
The teaching of the current syllabi in Government schools is in no way a part of the problem of religious friction. On the contrary, they help, in however small a way, to enlighten Christians and Muslims about the true teachings of their own respective religions and thereby protect them from false information. Religious friction is generated by adult chauvinists and bigots on both sides who are generally not a part of the school system. The children involved are mostly street children and other unemployed youth who probably never went to school or dropped out.
While there are ways to build bridges to foster tolerance and pluralism through schools, there is also a great need for a serious campaign among adults through effective use of the media by respected and responsible religious figures. There is growing resistance to UN-sponsored programs being fed into the educational system without due consideration of existing moral and cultural beliefs. In recent months it has been a Sexuality Education syllabus introducing children to various sexual practices and deviations. Details were reported in the press which caused uproar among parents and religious bodies and suspicion of who is really in charge of our educational system. Whatever is to be done in respect of religious plurality must be handled with the utmost care and consultation in order to promote mutual understanding, which cannot be achieved by fiat or force.