11 February 2020
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Ibandan Mosque

Islam in Nigeria

Nigeria’s Muslim population continues to grow. Estimates suggest 80-85 million Nigerians identify as Muslim (roughly 50% of the total population),

of which the majority are probably Sunni (60 million),

though this is not a unified identity and includes a wide variety of different viewpoints. For example, members of Sufi orders, members of the Jama‘atul Izalatul Bid’ah Wa’ikhamatul Sunnah (or Izala) movement, and members of Boko Haram might all identify as Sunni, but the Izala and Boko Haram movements have had strong anti-Sufi components. Estimates suggest 4-10 million Nigerians are Shi’a, mostly based in Sokoto, and there is also a significant Lebanese Shi’a diaspora. In Nigeria, the most prominent Sufi orders are the Tijaniyya and Qadiriyya, and a 2012 Pew Research Center survey showed 37% of Nigerians identify with Sufi orders (19% identified specifically as Tijaniyya and 9% as Qadiriyya).

Islam arrived in Nigeria in the 11th and 12th centuries through trade, migration, and through the travels of the scholar-mystic-wayfarer along trade routes, through the regions of Kanem and Bornu had been in contact with Muslim traders as early as the 9th century. As Islam spread, Muslim West Africa became deeply tied in with Islamic networks that stretched across North Africa and the Mediterranean to the Middle East, as well as an important trans-Saharan network that enabled and necessitated Arabic literacy as the lingua franca of trade.

During the 15th century the Malian Songhay Empire spread into Northern Nigeria’s Hausaland, establishing a dynasty there under Askiyya Muhammad (d. 1538). The gold trade brought migrants from around Hausaland to flourishing central cities such as Kano, and the Hausa language became an important medium for Islamic literature and scholarship. Arabic continued to provide the groundwork for religious scholarship that facilitated exchanges between Muslims in Mali, Sudan, and beyond, 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 were well-connected to intellectual traditions and currents in Islamic thought, leading to impressive local intellectual production, from poetry to linguistics.

In the 19th century, Usman Dan Fodio (d. 1817), founder of the Sokoto Caliphate (1804-1903), led a reformist jihad  against religious syncretism and perceived injustice throughout Hausaland and several other states, thereby expanding Islam’s influence in what would become Nigeria. Dan Fodio, his brother Abdullahi, and his son Muhammad Bello are remembered as exceptional leaders and scholars whose writings include several hundred books ranging from theology, jurisprudence, and mysticism, to literature and grammar, and spawned 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 prodigious scholar, educator, and writer in Arabic, Hausa, and Fulfulde. The Sultan of Sokoto, currently Muhammadu Sa'ad Abubakar III (b. 1956), is the inheritor of the Sokoto legacy and a prominent spiritual leader of Nigeria’s Muslims.

Several Islamic reform movements have taken place 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 “correcting” its faith. The more recent movements Jama‘atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da‘awati wal-Jihad (JASDJ; also referred to as “Boko Haram”) and , which many see as arising out of the Maitatsine movement, has received international press attention because of its increasingly militant actions. Meanwhile, many Muslims of different strands and beliefs reject Boko Haram’s ideas and methods.


"Chapter 1: Religious Affiliation," Pew Research Center, August 9, 2012, accessed March 12, 2014.

“Nigeria,” World Christian Encyclopedia, eds. David B. Barrett et al, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 549-555.


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