The Making of a Colonial Islamic Law in Northern Nigeria

[This post is a sequel to part 1, addressing secularism and Nigeria’s colonial legacy]

Situated within a broader research project aimed at disentangling the complex struggles over religion-state relations in colonial Northern Nigeria, my article, “Secularizing Islam: The Colonial Encounter and the Making of a British Colonial Islamic Criminal Law in Northern Nigeria, 1903-58” tells the story of the transformation of Islamic criminal law in colonial Northern Nigeria.

There are two prominent (and divergent) narratives of the fate of Islamic law in colonial Northern Nigeria. The first account insists that the colonial state elevated Islamic law even beyond its pre-colonial status while the second tells the story of Islamic law’s tragic abolition. Neither narrative reflects and accounts for the trajectory of Islamic law in the colonial state. The central puzzle of colonial governance is this: on the one hand, the colonial state governed through ‘Islamic law’ and its institutions, including Islamic criminal law, a situation that brought a great deal of infamy to Northern Nigeria and was labeled “Muslim sub-imperialism.” On the other, the colonial state insisted on its secularity. Both the narrative of Islamic law’s elevation and that of its tragic abolition ignore the colonial state’s claim of secularity and consequently, neither unravels this central puzzle in the state’s relationship to Islamic law.

“Secularizing Islam” contends that the understanding the state’s governance of Islam and Islamic law requires engaging with the state’s assertion of secularism. To do so, the article asks three questions: (1) Who had (and exercised) the power to decide what Islamic law was? (2) How was the exercise of this power justified? (3) How did the exercise of this power fit within the broader colonial project of governing religious difference? Contending with these questions draws attention to the peculiar evolution of siyāsa (‘discretionary authority of the political rulers’) in the colonial state. From the pre-colonial understanding of siyāsa as subject to the constraints of the Sharīʿa (siyāsa sharʿiyyah), the exercise of siyāsacame to be shaped by the goals of the colonial administration with its contours as wide or as narrow as the administration required it to be. It was through this conversion of siyāsa sharʿiyyah to expansive statist siyāsa that the state was able to radically reform Islamic law while claiming fidelity to it. This story of the transformation of siyāsa illuminates a crucial dimension of the complex interactions of religious and political authority in the colonial state.

The article’s account of the making of a colonial Islamic law challenges the postcolonial framing of the struggles over religion-state relations discussed in my previous post. Today, constitutional struggle over religion-state relations is entrenched in a secular-religious binary that heavily invokes the colonial past. This memory of a colonial sacred-secular binary is, at best, fictitious. As the article reveals, the colonial state’s “secularism project was deeply imbricated with religion” and the relationship between political and religious authority in colonial Northern Nigeria was one of sustained entanglement. Since the memory of that relationship continues to deeply influence constitutional debates in the state, it is imperative to understand the terms and meaning of that entanglement. “Secularizing Islam” is an attempt to parse out that entanglement in the domain of criminal law.

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