President Goodluck Jonathan at the opening of one of the first Almajiri Integrated Model schools in northern Nigeria. Source:

by Alex Thurston

In March, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan launched a policy of opening religious schools for Muslims in Northern Nigeria. The policy came in response to the militant movement Boko Haram, which has been burning government primary schools in Northern Nigeria as part of its campaign of violence against the government, Christians, and other designated adversaries. Government officials suspect Boko Haram, whose name is often literally translated “Western education is Islamically forbidden,” of using some Islamic schools as recruiting centers, and of drawing recruits from Northern Nigeria’s large population of itinerant, and often desperately poor, Qur’anic students (Hausa: almajirai, singular almajiri). Government-run Islamic schools, then, are to be a source of “counter-radicalization” as well as a means of moving almajirai into more “productive” schools. But the policy is unlikely to succeed.

This post is the last installment of a series on Islamic education in Northern Nigeria. The series has covered Qur’anic schools, traditional advanced Islamic education, modernized “Islamiyya” schools, and Islamic Studies at Nigerian universities. I hope something of the diversity of Islamic education in the region has emerged. Studying Islam is a central part of practicing Islam for millions of Muslims in Nigeria, but Muslims undertake those studies in varied settings.

The long and diverse history of Islamic education in Northern Nigeria points to two conclusions: First, when change has come in Islamic education, it has often come from the bottom up, as Muslims experiment with new ways of teaching and learning. For example, although the colonial government arguably pioneered the Islamiyya format with two of its schools, already by the 1950s there were dozens, and today hundreds, of Islamiyya schools founded and run by Northern Nigerians themselves.

Second, top-down efforts to control Islamic education often fail, or they produce unintended consequences. Fears that certain kinds of Muslim schooling breed “extremism” are longstanding. The colonial government, the government of the Northern Region of Nigeria, and various state governments since Nigeria gained independence in 1960 have tried to supervise, coopt, manage, restrict, and otherwise affect Qur’anic schools and other types of institutions. To some extent, they have succeeded, particularly with higher education: Thousands of adult students pursue Islamic knowledge in government-run colleges and universities. But state control is limited. Even though the tens of thousands of Muslim schoolchildren who attend Islamiyya schools do often study government-mandated curricula, Islamiyya schools have flourished in part because of the failure of the state-run primary school system (Universal Primary Education, which the government introduced in 1976 during the oil boom, ran into funding shortages and logistical problems by the early 1980s). Much Muslim schooling, and especially Qur’anic schooling, continues to elude state control altogether.

Writing boards used in a qur’anic school, Jos, Nigeria. Source: University of Cape Town.

In Northern Nigeria, debates over the role of government in Muslim education are often circular. Many state governments talk about the problem as though they are the first to deal with it. Northern Nigeria is not alone in this. In Senegal, news outlets and human rights groups publish roughly the same article or report on the problem of Qur’anic students or “talibes” every year or two (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012). One Senegalese blogger recently wrote, “This is not a new phenomenon and despite past ‘best’ efforts of the Senegalese government and NGOs in the country, there is a real fear that the problem is actually growing rather than easing.” Legislation goes unenforced, and the Senegalese government – like the Jonathan administration – balks at the challenge of trying to regulate every Qur’anic school in the country, preferring to introduce a few of its own schools in the hopes of luring children away from the unregulated institutions.

Qur’anic study is, simply, hard to control. The base of people who want to study scripture (or want their children to study scripture) is so wide, the pool of people with some teaching competency in the field so deep, and the minimum infrastructure necessary to have a Qur’anic school so light, that the schools can exist anywhere there are Muslims. I do not mean to denigrate these schools, nor the efforts of activists who have made a difference for many individual children. But here, too, lies part of the problem: the two sides of the debate, government and human rights activists on the one hand and the proponents of certain styles of Qur’anic schooling on the other, have very different understandings of the purposes and goals of education. To grossly simplify a complicated debate, defenders of the talibé or almajirai systems often stress the importance of education for forming character and imbuing children with knowledge and values necessary for salvation, while opponents of these systems often believe that education should teach, among other things, skills critical to economic survival. Oppenents also sometimes argue that there are more effective ways to teach children religion. The debate seems intractable and circular.

Policymakers, then, should view education as part of a broader social context, recognizing that problems in education have multiple causes, especially poverty. I have met many Nigerians who view education as the most promising vehicle for transforming their society. Many non-Africans also see education as the solution for Africa’s poverty and underdevelopment. My own view is that education is both a force for societal change and a reflection of existing social and political conditions. Changing an educational system will not change a country, in other words, unless other forces are working toward that change as well. I believe this principle holds for issues of radicalization. Introducing “counter-radicalization” programs in schools, while identifying other schools as centers for “radicalization,” might help prevent future violence. But bringing peace to Northern Nigeria will require paying attention both to the specific grievances driving Boko Haram in the present and to the long-term trends that produced a movement like Boko Haram. The problem cannot be solved, in other words, just by blaming or changing certain types of schools.

As a final note, while the tragedy of Boko Haram has put Islamic education in Northern Nigeria in the news, there is more to be said about Islamic education than questions of radicalization and counter-radicalization. As I hope this series has shown, Northern Nigeria possesses a deep, dynamic, and fascinating tradition of learning that extends back centuries. Boko Haram may speak loudly, but it has not – and will not – destroy the rich intellectual life of the region.


Alex Thurston is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. For 2011-2012, he is conducting dissertation fieldwork in Northern Nigeria. Alex has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, and The Guardian. He blogs at Read Alex’s previous posts on religion in Nigeria and the Sahel region here.

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