Changing religious affiliation

At present the two world religions are approximately equal in their strength among the Yoruba. Islam predominates in Ibadan and Oyo, but there is also a large Christian minority. In Egba, Ijebu, Ife, and Igbomina the religions are more equally balanced, while in Ondo, Ekiti, Ijesa and Kabba there are large Christian majorities.

The western areas where Islam is now strongest are those with which it had made contact before 1800. In eastern kingdoms like Ondo, on the other hand, the missions arrived before Islam had made much of an impression. When the missions started work in Ekiti, there was already a nucleus of Christians who had been converted elsewhere. Ijebu is unusual in that, during the 19th century, it remain aloof from both religions. After 1892, conversion was rapid. One of the attractions of Christianity was the mission monopoly of education, but the proximity of Lagos and Epe, both Muslim strongholds, meant contact with Islam as well. Almost alone of Nigerian ethnic groups, the Ijebu have succeeded in combining Islam with high rates of western education.


The history of Islam among the Yoruba probably goes back to the 17th century, when it was introduced, probably from Nupe. Slaves passing into Oyo from the north included Muslims, and a number of itinerant Muslim preachers were travelling in Yorubaland in the late 18th and early l9th centuries: the most important of these was Mallam Alimi. The Fulani coup in Ilorin created difficulties for Muslims in the other towns. Many were killed and others fled to Ilorin for safety. Some of the towns with large Muslim communities such as Oyo-Ile, Ikoyi and Igboho were destroyed, but Islam started to revive with the foundation of the successor states and the reabsorption of many of the refugees (Gbadamosi, 1978).

A number of Owu Muslims found their way to Abeokuta and they were joined there by Muslim Saro. In Lagos, Islam was established in the early l9th century, and there were a number of Muslim traders in the town. It was strengthened during the reign of Kosoko: after his expulsion from Lagos, he founded an important Muslim settlement at Epe in the east. The proportion of Muslims in Lagos itself rose from 17 per cent in 1871 to 44 per cent in 1891, and the indigenous Lagosians have been predominantly Muslim ever since.

In the interior, Muslims and Muslim sympathisers began to have more political influence. Alafin Atiba had stayed at Ilorin himself and was well disposed to Muslims, and Iwo had a Muslim oba by 1860. Towns like Iseyin, lwo, Epe, Ibadan and Abeokuta developed reputations as centres of Islamic learning, and under the influence of itinerant teachers a standard form of Islamic leadership started to develop (Gbadamosi, 1972; 1978). During the wars, the teachers were also in demand for their skill in preparing amulets for protection in battle.

The expansion of Islam was most rapid in the period around the turn of the century. With the end of the wars, the return of Muslims to other parts of Yorubaland helped the religion to spread, even in the eastern areas where it had previously made little impact. Resistance was strongest in Ekiti, and the most rapid progress was made in Ijebu, partly thanks to the conversion of Seriki Kuku, the leading military chief after the British invasion (Abdul, 1967: 27ó38).

The two religions differed in their attractions. Islam was better adapted to Yoruba social structure because it permitted polygyny. Christianity had a monopoly of western education. In 1894 there were 32 schools in Lagos, all run by the missions. Muslims constituted 44 per cent of the Lagos population, but only 13 per cent of the schoolchildren. Muslim antipathy to western education was widespread. School attendance left little time for learning the Koran, and there was a (justified) fear that Muslim children sent to mission schools might be converted. After 1896 the Lagos government founded Muslim schools in Lagos, Epe, and Badagry, but the further development of Muslim education had to wait another twenty years (Gbadamosi, 1967). The educational imbalance between the two religions still remains.

Islamic life in the Yoruba town centres around prayer: the five daily prayers, the weekly prayers in the Friday mosque, and the two great annual festivals. Some Yoruba Muslims perform the daily prayers in private, but many pray at small mosques attached to their own or to a neighbouring compound. These range from a simple concrete slab covered with grass mats at the side of the house, to a separate building with a courtyard and a supply of water for the congregation to wash.

Near the centre of most towns is the large central mosque where the Friday prayers are held. This is often the largest building in the town and has often been financed by migrants living abroad. In Igbeti in 1970 the Friday mosque was a small temporary structure: the old mosque has been demolished to allow an extension of the market, and the new mosque was only partly completed. Igboho had been more successful: there had been rivalry for many years between two areas of the town, and by 1970 they had both completed imposing mosques. Attendance at Friday prayers has political implications and a dispute over other issues will often result in one group of Muslims withdrawing to pray on its own. The prayers for the annual festivals at the end of the Ramadan fast and at the climax of the pilgrimage season are held in a separate praying-ground, usually a large open space outside the town.

In most towns, a standard hierarchy of Islamic officials has developed, headed by the Imam of the Friday mosque, and his deputies, led by the Naibi. Other leading Muslims may be given quasi-military titles like Balogun Imale (Balogun of the Muslims) though these are often given on the basis of seniority rather than knowledge of Islam. The appointment of a new Imam in the large towns can also become a political issue. In some, there has been controversy over whether the title should remain within a single descent group, or whether it should go to the most qualified candidate in terms of learning (Gbadamosi, 1972). In the larger towns, there are Imams for each quarter under the authority of the chief Imam.

Most towns have koranic schools, run by local scholars known as alufa or mallams. Children attend these either before or instead of primary school, and the main instruction consists of learning by heart passages of the Koran. Some of the students may later carry on to learn Arabic, but most stop after the elementary training.

The income of the alufa comes from three main sources: gifts from the parents of his koranic pupils, offerings made for prayers at rites of passage which he attends, and income from divination and the preparation of charms and amulets. Islamic divination among the Yoruba has many similarities with Ifa (Abdul, 1970). The alufa makes a series of double or single marks in a tray of sand and then interprets them. Amulets consist of appropriate passages of the Koran written out many times and wrapped in cloth or leather. In other cases, the verses are written on a writing-board in ink, which is then washed off and drunk by the client. The dividing line between Islamic ritual and Yoruba magic may be narrow. In Ogbomoso I met a young alufa who had been to secondary school in Ghana. He was preparing a charm to send to one of his clients, a Ghanaian army officer. It consisted of an egg, covered in Arabic writing, and set in black Yoruba soap in a calabash.

Even though an alufa’s income is irregular, many are wealthy men. An important investment for an alufa, or for any Muslim wanting to improve his standing in the Muslim community, is the pilgrimage to Mecca. Influential men who can afford it may pay for their relatives or political followers to go as well. The pilgrim gains the title of Alhafi and is recognisable by his distinctive style of hat. Many Yoruba women also make the trip. With the advent of charter flights in the 1950s and 1960s, the number of Nigerians making the pilgrimage has steadily increased. In 1970ó1 it stood at around 40,000 annually.

Despite the apparent unity of the Muslim community during the Friday prayers and the annual festivals, there are sectarian divisions. In Ijebu Ode, for instance, neither the members of the Ahmadiyya movement nor the followers of a local prophet attend the central mosque (Abdul,1967). The Ahmadiyya movement originated in India in the l9th century, and has become well established along the West African coast (Fisher, 1963). Though regarded as unorthodox by other Muslim groups, it has taken a lead in the development of Muslim education and in raising the status of Muslim women. There are similar divisions in Ibadan (Mitchell, 1970a: 263ó4; El-Masri, 1967: 254). As well as the central mosque at Oja Iba, there are two Friday mosques belonging to the Ahmadiyya, a Friday mosque belonging to a local reformer, and the Tijaniyya mosque in the Hausa quarter at Sabo which has a few Yoruba in its congregation.

The two main Islamic brotherhoods in Nigeria are the Qadiriyya and the Tijaniyya (Fisher, 1963: 22ó3; Trimingham, 1959). The Qadiriyya is the longer established, but the Tijanis have grown more rapidly in recent years. Tijani Muslims are rather stricter in their attitude towards women. Yoruba women are generally extremely independent, and few Yoruba Muslims seclude their wives: in the Hausa areas of Nigeria this is extremely common. In Igbeti, the only secluded wives belonged to two Tijani alufa. The most distinctive Tijani ritual is the dhikr in which the members of the brotherhood sit around a white cloth in the mosque each Friday, chanting the name of Allah several hundred times (Cohen, 1969: 10). In Igbeti the Tijanis celebrated Friday prayers in their own neighbourhood mosque. The separation of the Hausa Tijanis in Ibadan was due to complex political reasons, but normally the members of the order worship in the central mosque along with the other Muslims. So do members of Muslim associations like the Ansar-Ud-Din, though in Ibadan even the AUD has its own Friday mosque. It was founded after a dispute with the rest of the Muslim community, and was kept going after the dispute was solved because it was useful in fund-raising (Mitchell, 1970a: 263ó4).

Islam among the Yoruba has had little effect on the social structure. In inheritance, it is Yoruba customary law rather than Islamic law which is followed, and the same is true in other areas of law. While many descent groups are now almost entirely Christian or Muslim, the rapid spread of the two religions has meant that often pairs of full siblings belong to different religions, and yet they are able to live together amicably. In public affairs, some care is taken to accommodate both religions. In meetings, if the opening prayers are made by a Muslim, the closing prayers will be made by a Christian. A Christian organising a funeral or a naming to which Muslims are invited will often have the animals slaughtered by a Muslim. It is difficult to predict how far religion will create a major cleavage in Yoruba society in the future. In the towns where we worked, the groups had become virtually endogamous. As residential units become smaller, it will probably become less common for people of different religions to live together, at least in their home compounds, though rented accommodation will remain heterogeneous. Egbe are now formed mainly along religious lines, restricting friendship networks to members of the same religion. On the other hand, schools cut across religious boundaries, and the growth of a literate subsulture has tended to obscure religious differences. Given the Yoruba’s instrumental attitude to religion and their tolerance of religious pluralism and innovation, it is not surprising that members of both religions are quite prepared to use the services of other religious specialists when need arises: prominent alufa often have a number of Christian clients

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