It is not in the tradition of a sitting aristocrat to revolt, more so if he is an Emir in an era when the institution is stripped of all its major functions but saddled with the enormous task of ensuring security of life and property. So when some royal fathers decided to breakaway from the tradition of waiting for the Sultan to announce the sighting of the crescent during the last Ramadan and do it themselves, little did they know that we the masses were watching with keen interest.
The revolt, if we may call it so, is more surprising when it came from emirates that are the closest to the Sultan in history, geography and government, given their long standing mutual associations under the Sokoto Caliphate, the defunct Northern Nigeria, Northwestern State and Sokoto State. In all these, the Sultan served as their Chairman. More importantly, the Sultan is their leader under the national Muslim umbrellas of Jama'atu Nasril Islam and Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs. If there would be a revolt, we the masses would expect it to come from quarters more distant to the monarch than from these direct cousins of his.
To be fair to the dissenting Emirs, however, the practice of a Sultan announcing the commencement or ending of Ramadan is a recent one. It was not possible, administratively and logistically, for him to carry out that role in the pre-colonial era. The Sokoto Caliphate was a loose confederation of states. The centre at Sokoto did not have direct administrative influence over the periphery. Its authority was largely moral, as an acknowledgement of the founding role played by Usman Danfodio. Hardly did any Sultan dictated who would become an Emir or what expedition would he carry out. Annually, the Emirs would pay him a tribute, represented by a delegation carrying a number of gifts to Sokoto.
It was the loose link between Sokoto and the Emirates or, say, the lack of a strong federation that made it easier for a handful of soldiers under the command of few British officers to bring the caliphate to its knees in the last quarter of the 19th Century before they capped it with the subordination of Sokoto in 1903. If there were a strong federation, possibly – possibly – the contemporary history of Northern Nigeria would have been different today.
But what could not be done during the pre-colonial era became possible after the British conquest. Roads were opened and communication became enhanced. The entire North came under the authority of the British as a Protectorate. The British, for the purpose of indirect rule, decided to reinforce the authority of the Sultan not only by bringing the Fulani Emirs from Kebbi to Adamawa under his ceremonial leadership but also those in the old Kanem-Borno Caliphate and some hitherto independent Emirates like Yauri and chiefdoms that are not even Muslim. The Sultan thus became the Chairman of the Council of Chiefs in the defunct Northern region.
Regarding religious matters, the Sultan's authority was further armored through Jama'atu Nasril Islam, the organ that Sardauna created to oversee the interests of Islam separate from the official administrative machinery of the regional government. The Sultan became its President. When the Supreme Council of Islamic affairs was later created as a sort of an expanded Jama'atu Nasril Islam, the domain of Sultan's influence on religious matters now went beyond the North to include Muslims throughout the federation.
It is from these roots that the Sultan derived his present moral authority on matters of Islam in Nigeria. In all these functions and positions, the Sultan is deputized by the Shehu of Borno, then followed by the Emir of Gwandu, then of Kano and so on.
So the decision of some Emirs to announce the moon sighting independent of the Sultan can be seen as a reincarnation of their jurisdiction during the pre-colonial era, which is supported by the fact that the authority of the Sultan over Nigerian Muslims today is simply moral, not political. When authority is spoken of in terms of rights, one cannot help but conclude that they have the right to do so.
However, a judicious mind will not fail to discern that sometimes exercising a right may not be in the best interest of it's owner. He lends it to someone, if he is wise, in order to reclaim it with profit in the long run. In my view, this is just one of those times.
It is in the best interest of Islam and the Emirs themselves to be seen to speak with one authority, in this case to follow the ruling of the Sultan. Unity is a fundamental principle of Islam. It does not make any sense, no matter the level of disagreement, for different emirates in the same country to observe Ramadan and the Eid on different days in the 21st Cemtury. It was possible under the Sokoto Caliphate only because of the absence of effective means of communication. In fact the entire idea of the Caliphate being a loose federation was a child of necessity. If Danfodio had cars, planes, tarred roads, emails, and telephones in addition to the military hardware that we have these days, he would have adopted a system that accords the centre of the Caliphate greater power. It was just impossible for the ordinary Fulani man he was to effectively administer a territory so vast as the Sokoto Caliphate directly from the centre. He understood his limitations and abided by them. May God bless him!
Today we live in an environment where not only Nigeria but also the whole world is on the verge of becoming a small village. Muslims all over the country, nay, throughout the world, are increasingly becoming aware of happenings around the globe with great ease that was never contemplated by their ancestors. The communication gaps, geographical challenges and military handicaps that allowed the Emirs their independence in the days of the Caliphate have ceased to exist. In their place, a fused community of Muslims stretching from Sokoto to the Atlantic has emerged with a moral leadership that is no longer flat but hierarchical with the Sultan at the top. Nigerians have become used to that notion. Reverting to the olden pre-colonial order brings some discomfort amongst us – the followers.
The revolt especially is coming at a time when the unity among the traditional rulers in the country is needed most. Security is fast deteriorating; discontent among us – the masses – is at record high; yet, belief that the traditional rulers can fix some of the problems, despite their financial and political limitations, is prevalent. A crack in their ranks at this time would certainly be ominous.
So far we have discussed the political aspect of the problem. The religious one is more contentious. While the Sultan is working hard to see that Nigerian Muslims – from both North and South – unite in matters of their religion, there is a tremendous pressure on him and the Emirs that is coming from some ulama who want the status quo to be maintained. On the other when it comes to moon sighting Such ulama do not give a hoot if Northern Nigerian Muslims always find themselves on one side and the rest of the world. This cannot just be correct. The moon is one, whether in Nigeria or elsewhere. There cannot be one crescent for Northern Nigeria and another for the rest of the world. This defies common sense. Period.
The problem we have been having in this part of the world for decades now is that of false testimonies. Since Islam bases the moon sighting on the testimony of two people, Nigerians being what we are, there has never been a shortage of people that would come over claiming to have sighted the crescent even when it cannot there. The Sultan would thus announce the Ramadan moon always 29 for over 40 years, until some Emirs started to revolt a decade ago against what appears to be clearly irrational. When he was enthroned, the present Sultan started to introduce caution into the matter and some sanity started to prevail. It is an irony that another set of Emirs is now crucifying him for doing exactly what we earlier called for.
Some ulama use the secular nature of the country to undermine the moral authority of the Sultan. This started during the Sardauna era, given the cold war that existed then between him – a Sokoto prince – and the then Sultan. This year some of the ulama said the sultan should not be obeyed because he is violating the rules of God: "nobody should be obeyed in violation to God." Such ulama and their groups exert pressure on their emirs who then became tempted to abandon the cause of unity and assert their independence from the Sultan.
I have followed the debate on moon sighting that took place this year on an Internet forum called the Nigerian Muslim Network which went on for some weeks after Sallah. There were testimonies from two reliable people that attempted to verify the reports of moon sightings in Zuru for example. One of them said the person he met was not steady in his testimony. The second, upon his failure to get to a specific person that will categorically affirm that he saw the new moon, passed what I regard as indicting statement about the behaviour of some Muslims in this country.
This is with the benefit of hindsight, though. The damage has already been done. People have sworn by Allah before the Emirs that they have seen the crescent and the Emirs announced that the moon is sighted, only for the rest of the universe to report the contrary. Rather than swim in such murky waters, if I were an Emir, I would prefer to enjoy the comfort of riding on the boat of the Sultan.
The issue of announcing the sighting of the crescent in Islamic tradition, like all collective obligations, is the jurisdiction of the authorities, not the ulama. Some scholars of the past insist that even the person who saw the moon must continue fasting until the authorities declare the moon sighted. This has been the practice throughout history and it is reiterated in recent literature – like the scholastic declarations in Fatawa al-Lajnatul Da'imah Lil Buhuthil 'Ilmiyyah Wal Ifta made by reputable Saudi ulama.
Given the difficulties posed by our widespread dishonesty in the contemporary world, many countries have resorted to supporting human vision in moon sighting with astronomical aids in form of calculations and equipment – like telescopes. The calculations give an idea of the days the moon is most likely to be seen while the telescopes support vision directly.
Despite these attempts there are still controversies in those countries, proving that the issue of moon sighting even in the Information Age is far from simple. The dilemma is that, on the one hand, we lack the honesty to unreservedly implement the prophetic tradition of accepting the testimonies of any two "trustworthy" people. Where people are many, knowing who is reliable becomes difficult. On the other, scientific methods themselves cannot be totally – 100 per cent – faultless.
In Nigeria, the Sultan is trying to draw his conclusions from various sources, including common sense. His task can only be made more difficult when other royal fathers decide to go their own ways.
Lastly, we must not forget that Sallah is not only for the Muslims. It is one of our public holidays and the nation can declare it only once. The need for harmony is therefore more imperative. Supporting the Sultan, from the foregoing, will definitely take us closer to the solution, which we hope to arrive at one day. Dissent can only take us backwards, perhaps centuries ago, when we have the capacity to leave that to our ancestors.
17 October 2011