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NIGER. More than 90 percent of the 7,469,000 people of the Republic of Niger are Muslim (national census, 1988). Niger is situated in the Sahel region of Africa; its northern half is Sahara desert. Agriculture, including livestock rearing, is the primary economic activity of 85 percent of Niger’s population. The two major droughts of 1973-1974 and 1984-1985 caused significant population displacement, forcing many nomadic groups to take refuge in towns. This accelerated Islamic reform as formerly marginal groups established links with Islamic associations or communities in the urban centers.

Niger is strongly multiethnic: the Hausa comprise 35 percent of the population, the Zarma-Songhay 21 percent, the Tuareg (Berbers) II percent, the Fulbe 10 percent, the Kanuri-Manga (Kanem-Bornu) 5 percent, and the Tubu, Arabs, and Gourmantche each less than one percent. All these ethnic groups have played major roles in the diffusion of Islam in the western Sudan. The Hausa, Songhay, and Kanuri states contributed significantly to early conversions to Islam (c.1100-1200 CE) during the course of territorial and political expansion. Much was also achieved through the establishment of local madrasahs in the spirit of tajdid, or peaceful reform. Although some individual Fulbe were known for their contributions as `ulama’, the Fulbe and their affiliate group the Tukolor (or Torobe) are most noted for the reformist jihad movements that they carried out throughout West Africa in the early to mid-eighteenth century.

Some communities in Niger have historical ties to ancient Muslim communities such as the Dyula, Soninke, and Lamtuna Berbers who traveled the Saharan-Sahelian trade routes from the seventh to ninth century. Others were swept into Islam by forces unleashed by the Fulbe jihads in the early nineteenth century. The region’s first contact with Islam, however, occurred around 665 CE when the Arabs conquered the Berber territories under Uqba ibn Nafi al Fihri, who had founded Qayrawa at the northern edge of the Sahara desert and later traveled south to Kaouar.

In the eighth century the Iberkorayen, Berbers who had been islamized in the preceding century, began moving south. Approximately two centuries later, longdistance trade through the Soninke state of Ghana extended the influence of Islam through the western Sudan. The Songhay empire was first established along the eastern portion of the Niger River at Dendi, and today the eastern region of Niger is populated by many groups from Songhay who fled during the Moroccan invasions there in 1492-1510. Islamic theory and practice had already been diffused throughout the region before the invasion, and many communities had already drifted eastward into present-day Niger. During the era of the empire of Mali, founded by Sundiata Keita around 1200 CE, Islamic practice spread, especially among the elites. The Mali expansion encouraged the eastward movement of Songhay communities. Merchant/missionaries are said to have traveled eastward from Niani to the Hausa kingdoms to establish the practice of Islam there. Today more than 98 percent of Hausa people in Niger are Muslim. Among some contemporary Songhay and Zarma people in Niger, Islamic practice is syncretized with that of spirit possession, but this is not accepted by more purist Muslims in the country.

At the other geographical extreme of present-day Niger, the king of Kanem, Mai Houme, is reported to have encouraged the practice of Islam during his reign (c.1085). He established the Saifawa dynasty, which later expanded to Bornu. Under Mai Idris Aloma the Tuba populations came under the Islamic influence encouraged by the state. Many Islamic reforms were established during his reign, and there was also great commercial activity. By the fifteenth century, scholarly communities were established throughout Kanem and Bomu.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century the Qadiriyah was introduced in Katsina (a Hausa area), Gao (Songhay), and the Air (Tuareg). Although Katsina now lies in northern Nigeria and Gao in eastern Mali, their influence as centers of Islamic philosophy and education are still felt in Niger today. An Islamic teacher from Touat known as Al Majhili is credited with introducing Maliki tenets during this period, and this school is the most widely followed in the region now. With the fall of the Songhay empire to the Moroccans in 1591 and the extension of Malinke influence over the eastern Niger River area under the Mali empire, successive migrations took place from the Macina plains (including those of Fulbe dissenters with Shaykh Ahmadou) and from Gao and Koukia to the town of Say, which has since been a religious center. Say in southwestern Niger enjoyed a religious and cultural renaissance at the beginning of the nineteenth century with the arrival of the famous wala Alfa Mahamane Diobbo, who had in 1804 proclaimed a jihdd against the Hausa king of Gobir in present-day Niger. He also supported similar jihads in what are now northern Cameroon, northern Burkina Faso, and in Niger at Say, Lamorde, Torodi, and Lamorde Bitikiinkobe. This renaissance was encouraged by the great Fulbe Islamic leader Shaykh Usuman Dan Fodio, a member of the Qadiriyah.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the Qadiriyah was the only Islamic brotherhood among the nomads of Niger, as well as among the sedentary communities of Maradi, Dakoro, Tahoua and Zinder. During the later nineteenth century, the Tijaniyah brotherhood supplanted the Qadiriyah. Shaykh `Umar Tal, a native of Senegal important in Niger’s history, is remembered for his promulgation of the Tijaniyah there. His influence was unsuccessfully resisted by the son of Usuman dan Fodio, Muhammad Bello, who died in 1837.

Today the Tijaniyah remains the most popularly represented order in Niger; its principal centers of adherence are in Say, Tessaoua, Zinder, Maradi, Goure, and Dosso. There is also a brotherhood that derives from the Tijaniyah, that of the Mamalists, in Say and Lamorde. The Sanusiyah has its largest membership among the Tuareg of Air and the Tubu of Bilma. Other brotherhoods include the Shadhiliyah, which has followers among the Tuareg of InGall and Zinder, and the strict sect of the Yan Koble, with followers near Zinder and among the Fulbe of Goure.

In 1981 an Islamic university was built in Say to commemorate its long history in Islamic learning, with funding contributed from numerous Islamic countries throughout the world. Muslims in Niger remain closely linked to the rest of the Islamic world; in fact, Niger hosted an international Islamic conference in 1982. Current international trends toward Islamic fundamentalism and other reformist movements are apparent in Niger today. Recently some dissent occurred in the Dosso region of Niger between adherents of the Association Izalatoul Bid’a wa Ikamatou Sunnah (Association for Elimination of Innovations in the Religion and for Reinforcement of the Sunnah, called “the Izal”) and the Tijaniyah of that area. (The former association is believed by some observers to derive from the nineteenth-century reformist philosophy of Shaykh Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab.)

In the early 1990s there continued to be some unease among the various Islamic groups in the country. In Maradi major groups like the Tijaniyah, Qadiriyah, Zarruqiyah, and Shadhiliyah experience less conflict among themselves than occurs between these orders and the Izal. The greatest reported difference between the Izal and the other groups is the emphasis among the Izal on prayers offered in homage to the Prophet Muhammad, specifically what is locally called the “Salatoul Fatih” (prayers of the Fatih).

The coincidence of Islamic practice and philosophy with public ideology and state policy is not new in Niger. One of the major challenges is the development of a coherent judicial process that does not ignore customary and Islamic law on the issues of judicial rights, privileges, the protection of women and the family, and land tenure rights.

[See also Qadiriyah; Tijaniyah; and the biographies of Dan Fodio and `Umar Tal.]


Dunbar, Roberta Ann. Islam, Public Policy, and the Legal Status of Women in Niger. Washington, D.C., 1992. Probably the most upto-date information available on the status of women and Islamic practice in Niger.

Fugelstad, Finn. A History of Niger, 1850-1960. Cambridge, 1983. Presents a very good overview of Niger’s history.

Hiskett, Mervyn. The Development of Islam in West Africa. New York, 1984. Excellent detailed accounts of the introduction of Islam in the western and central Sudan. Contrasts the views of various scholars. Klotchkoff, Jean-Claude. Le Niger aujourd’hui. Paris, 1982. Not a scholarly work, but a good reference for important dates and figures of Islamic history in Niger.

Levtzion, Nehemia. Ancient Ghana and Mali. London, 1973. Concise and readable narratives of the history of the western Sudan, based on primary sources dating to the tenth century, including most of the well-known Arabic documents from the relevant historical periods.

Lovejoy, Paul. “The Role of the Wangara in the Economic Transformation of the Central Sudan in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.” Journal of African History 19.2 (1978): 173-193.

Republic of Niger, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Plan. National Census, 1988, 1992.

Smith, M. G. “The Beginnings of Hausa Society.” In The Historian in Tropical Africa, edited by Jan Vansina, Raymond Mauny and L. V. Thomas. London, 1964.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/niger/

  • writerPosted On: June 15, 2017
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