Students learning Qur’anic recitation, West Africa. Source: Louie Palu.

by Alex Thurston

This is the second post in a series on Muslim education in Northern Nigeria. Read the first post here.

Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, a revelation that corrects and completes earlier Messages to Prophets such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Muslims throughout the ages have considered study of the Qur’an one of the greatest forms of religious devotion. Memorizing portions of the Qur’an is important for performing the required daily prayers and is relevant to various domains of religious life. Muslim scholars I knew in Kano often quoted the Qur’an in the course of conversations about law, politics, and other topics. Memorizing the Qur’an, beyond its applications in daily life, is also seen to have transformative spiritual value. The Prophet’s wife A’isha, when asked once after his death what he had been like, replied, “His nature was as the Qur’an.” Her statement testifies to the idea that the Qur’an can be embodied, or internalized, in human beings, and manifested as virtue and piety.

The central position of the Qur’an in the spiritual life of many Muslim communities helps explain why Muslim parents in Northern Nigeria and elsewhere send their children to Qur’anic schools. In the archetypal Qur’anic school, children under the supervision of a scholar and his older students first learn the Arabic alphabet, and then proceed to learn the Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Qur’an, before moving on to other chapters, often beginning with the short chapters at the end of the Qur’an (the Qur’an’s chapters are arranged roughly from longest to shortest). In Northern Nigeria as in some other West African Muslim communities, portions of the Qur’an are often written out on wooden slates; verses can be erased and replaced as students progress. The master and the older students check in with the students frequently to evaluate their progress and correct their mistakes, sometimes using corporal punishment as a deterrent for errors and perceived laziness. Depending on the school and the student, students may complete portions of varying lengths before they graduate.

Many outsiders who witness Qur’anic schools take away an impression of disorder: a cacophony of children’s voices, bodies swaying over slates, etc. Proponents of the system see order: each child moves through assigned texts in a method that aims to guarantee mastery of them.

Qur’anic schools have existed for centuries in Northern Nigeria in both rural and urban areas. When the British colonized the region at the dawn of the 20th century, they estimated that 20,000 Qur’anic schools existed in the North with 250,000 pupils. Although reliable estimates for the present are unavailable, the number of schools has undoubtedly increased in the past century. And while the British and successive postcolonial governments in the North sometimes worked to co-opt, regulate, subsidize, control, or otherwise interact with Qur’anic schools, most of the schools have retained substantial independence from federal, state, and local governments.

Almajirai on the set of the film Duniya Juyi Juyi, Kano, Nigeria. Source/copyright: Hannah Hoechner.

Qur’anic schools attract various criticisms. Some Muslim modernizers, as well as some outside observers, criticize the methods used in Qur’anic schools as time-consuming, inefficient, and of dubious value to students. A common charge is that students do not learn to comprehend Arabic, but merely to pronounce it. Other critics denounce funding structures wherein masters are supported by alms the students receive from begging. Further condemnations concern the use of corporal punishment. Finally, there are growing concerns regarding the potential for radicalization among Qur’anic students. The boy who begs in the street and ekes out an existence at age eight, the argument runs, may find himself at age twenty without job prospects, support networks, or the sympathy of those who used to give him alms – such young men, the argument continues, become prey for organizations like Boko Haram. Both Nigerian leaders and outsiders take this issue seriously. Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso of Kano State, who returned to office in 2011 after eight years out of power, was moving to address the issue of Qur’anic students, or almajirai, while I was in Nigeria; Kwankwaso’s proposals included offering vocational training to almajirai. Such developments can bring optimism or pessimism; after all, Kwankwaso’s predecessor Governor Ibrahim Shekarau also tried to tackle the issue.

Proponents of Qur’anic schools answer the above criticisms in a variety of ways, for example by asserting the spiritual merit of memorizing the Qur’an (with or without comprehension of the Arabic) and the importance of strict discipline, humility (which, they say, is acquired in part through begging), and religious study for producing moral Muslim individuals and communities.

As of late, the voices of almajirai themselves have started to feature more widely in some of these debates, sometimes in ways that fit into neither the standard humanitarian line (“child begging is deplorable”) or the standard line of defenders of the schools (“the schools are essential for producing good Muslims”). One recent film project, created by almajirai, dramatizes the experience of attending Qur’anic school in an effort to call attention to ways in which the almajirai feel maltreated by other members of the society. (You can watch the film here).

Amid these complex debates, one thing is certain – the Qur’anic school will remain an important institution in many Northern Nigerian communities for some time to come.

Alex Thurston is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. For 2011-2012, he is conducting dissertation fieldwork in Northern Nigeria. He blogs at Read Alex’s previous posts on religion in Nigeria here.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.