The global hashtag #bringbackourgirls was launched when 276 young school girls, who were preparing for their exams, were kidnapped in April 2014 from the Nigerian village of Chibok by the radical Nigerian movement Boko Haram. Sixty of them had escaped, twenty-one released in 2016, and eighty-two freed in May 2017. There are still 113 missing school girls! This kidnapping had preceded several bloody attacks carried out at Nigerian schools by this movement. Since 2009, Boko Haram has targeted and killed teachers, students, and education workers. Consequently, more than one million children have left school. About 600 teachers have been killed in Nigeria, and more than 2,000 schools have been closed in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon[i]. These attacks against schools are deeply rooted in Boko Haram ideology which completely rejects Western education. This post focuses on the ideological dimension of Boko Haram’s rejection of the Western schooling system. In other words, why does this movement reject Western education?
Boko Haram, in Nigerian Hausa language, means “Western education is forbidden in Islam”. However, this name was not chosen by the members of the radical Nigerian movement but was attributed to them by the population, and the Nigerian media because the founder of this movement, Muhammad Yusuf (1970-2009), rejected the Western educational system. The name “Boko Haram” is composed of two foreign words, boko and haram. Boko, in the Nigerian Hausa language, means “Western education”. This word is derived from the English word “book”. The word boko entered Hausa lexicon in the 19th Century when the British brought their educational systems to northern Nigeria. This word is often used with the term illimi, derived from the Arabic word ‘ilm which means “knowledge” or “science”. The expression illimi boko literally means, in the Hausa language, “the knowledge taught in Western textbooks” (Western education). The Hausa people used this expression to distinguish it from the expression of illimi islamiyya (Islamic education), which was widespread during this period in northern Nigeria where the majority of the population was Muslim[ii]. As for the word haram, it is an Arabic word which means “illicit”. So, Boko Haram means “the Western education forbidden in Islam”.
The founder of Boko Haram, Mohammad Yusuf believed that the British had introduced their education system in north Nigeria in order to fight Islam. Consequently, the Nigerians who studied in the official education system were committing a sin[iii]. It should be emphasized that Yusuf adopted this negative position towards Western education under the influence of a Wahhabi Shaykh. In order to argue his rejection of boko, Yusuf always referred to the book “ Al-madâris al-‘âlamiyya al-ajnabiyya al-isti‘mâriyya: târîkhuhâ wa makhâtiruhâ “ (The International Colonial Foreign Schools: their History and their Dangers[iv]). This book, about 80 pages long, was written by Bakr Abû Zayd, a Wahhabi religious scholar (1944-2008). The author strongly criticized the establishment of the Western education system in Muslim countries. According to Abu Zayd, the enemies of God (the Westerners) had introduced these schools to intellectually colonize Muslims. This intellectual colonization, according to him, was worse than armed occupation since it aimed at removing Muslims from their religion by pushing them to adopt Western thought and culture[v]. According to him, the adoption of these foreign values was incompatible with the Wahhabi principle of walâ` wa al-barâ` (alliance and breaking), which states that Muslims should only ally with their fellow Muslims and reject non-Muslims.
Abu Zayd argued that these schools and universities sowed discord between Muslims educated in Islamic schools and those who studied in Western schools[vi], and promoted apostasy from Islam[vii]. He concluded that these schools were lairs of the enemies of Islam[viii]. Consequently, it was forbidden, haram, to establish them in Muslim countries. Muslims were also prohibited to work for or register their children in these educational institutions[ix]. As a result, the founder of Boko Haram adopted these ideas, considering Nigerian school and university education as illicit. He accused Nigerians who studied or taught in these schools of being sinners. He also opposed the curricula of these institutions, which taught ideas like Darwinism that contradicted the Quran. He believed that Muslim children adopted Christian and Jewish values through Western schools, and that these types of schools promote fornication, lesbianism, and homosexuality by mixing children of different genders[x]! He accused Nigerian Muslims of loving Western schools due to the prospect of material gain[xi]. It is important to emphasize that Muhammad Yusuf did not advocate the use of armed violence against official educational institutions, as he was still in the first stage of Wahhabi doctrine known as preaching (da`wa) which consists mainly of criticizing society.
However, Boko Haram later attacked hundreds of Nigerian and neighboring countries’ schools and universities during the stage of jihad, especially under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau. He claimed that his movement had the right to kill Muslim people who supported Western education even if they do not know that this system has been forbidden in Islam, as they become polytheists[xii]. It is important to stress here that Shekau justifies to kill these Muslims accused to be polytheists since according to his ideology, all infidels should be killed included Muslims unbelievers! That is why, in 2014, Boko Haram murdered the leader of the Salafi movement in Nigeria, Muhammad Awwal Adam Albani, who openly expressed a strong need for Muslim youths to acquire Western education in order to be competitive in the modern world. Boko Haram is also accused of assassinating Ja’far Mahmud Adam[xiii], ex-mentor of Boko Haram’s founder, who disagreed with him on his rejection of Western education. Thus, the main ideological arguments of Boko Haram against the establishment of Western educational system in Nigeria have been based on Bakr Abu Zayd’s viewpoints. However, Bakr’s position against Western schools does not represent the Wahhabi mainstream. Wahhabis learn and use Western knowledge and languages. In addition, the current violent Wahhabi-Salafi movements do not adopt Boko Haram’s position against Western education. For example, many members and leaders of Al-Qaeda and ISIS have been educated in Western system and they don’t consider themselves to be sinners or polytheists as Boko Haram posits. Consequently, the fact that Boko Haram has joined ISIS, which also uses Western languages in its communication, might soften Boko Haram’s position against Western schooling. In my opinion, Boko Haram’s rejection of the Western educational system was just the beginning of a series of disapprovals of the Nigerian political, religious, and social systems but this position might change in the future. Is the release of 82 kidnapped school girls after joining ISIS a sign that Boko Haram’s position against official schools has started to change?
[ii] Jacob Zenn, Atta Barkindo & Nicolas A Heras, “The Ideological Evolution of Boko Haram in Nigeria: Merging Local Salafism and International Jihadism, Rusi Journal, August/September 2013, vol. 158, n° 4, p. 48.
[iv] Loimeier R., “Boko Haram: The Development of a Militant Religious Movement in Nigeria”, in Africa Spectrum, 47, 2-3, 137- 155, p. 149.
[v] Abû Zayd, B., Al-madâris al-ʻâlamiyya al-ağnabiyya al-istiʻmâriyya : tarîḫuhâ wa-maḫâṭiruhâ, Cairo, 2006,
[vi] Ibid. p. 75.
[vii] Ibid., p. 74.
[viii] Ibid., p. 75.
[ix] Ibid., p74-76.
[x] Yusuf, M., Hadhihi ‘aqidatuna wa-manhaj da‘watina, (This is our creed and the strategy of our preaching), date and place of publication unknown, p. 93.
[xi] Ibid., p. 79.
[xii] Thurston, A., The disease is unbelief: Boko Haram’s religious and political worldview, Brookings Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, Analysis Paper n° 22, January 2016, p. 14.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 13.