Sharia, an Arabic word translated as “way” or “path,” is the code of conduct or religious law in Islam, and has been the subject of a number of recent hate rallies and growing prejudice against Muslims in the U.S. and around the world. A few countries with significant Muslim minority populations have experimented with various ways of integrating sharia into their legal systems, often using it in civil law situations involving divorce, inheritance, etc. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with 156 million people, is a good example of the diverse forms of sharia implementation.
In a recent public lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, scholar Phillip Ostien discussed his time teaching at a Nigerian law school and the evolution of diverse sharia court structures within the country. Following the end of a 16-year military dictatorship, democratic elections were held in 1999 throughout Nigeria, and there was a significant push for sharia law in parts of northern Nigeria, where the majority of the country’s Muslims live. Religiously and ethnically diverse–50% Muslim, 40% Christian, 10% from indigenous traditions; 29% Hausa-Fulani, 21% Yoruba, 21% Igbo, 18% Ibo, and a smaller percentage of 200 other ethnicities–Nigeria’s political movements are especially challenging to understand. In his talk, Ostien focused on the differences in public opinion and sharia implementation and how both factors influence the structure of courts in some Nigerian states.
In Oyo state, where Christian-Muslim interfaith marriages are especially common, Ostien suggests that the sharia courts play a more informal role, with sharia scholars–not judges–offering rulings that are largely unenforceable. In the state of Lagos, sharia legal decisions are made by men with degrees in civil and Islamic law, and respondents are required to sign a consent to arbitration form. All rulings in Lagos are openly published in English and include Qur’anic references in Arabic supporting the decisions. In both Oyo and Lagos, funding for sharia courts is limited, and judges are rarely paid.
Overall, while many differences between sharia court systems in Oyo, Lagos, and other states remain, all proponents of the sharia system in Nigeria see their efforts as a step forward in demonstrating the successful functioning of sharia courts. They base their legitimacy on the fact that Muslims are being discriminated against, since both Christians and Pagans already have their own separate civil court systems.
Despite the efforts of some politicians, imams, and activists throughout Nigeria to establish a national sharia system for civil matters, there is not a consensus of support from the country’s Muslim population. Ostien believes that the Hausa-Fulani majority in the north is largely not supportive of a sharia court system, possibly because Yoruba-speaking politicians are advocating for such measures. Other reasons relate to unfamiliarity with the sharia system among Nigerian Muslims, and their uncertainty of outcomes from court rulings. At this point, sharia courts in Nigeria cannot force anyone to come before them, but some are afraid that they may be liable under sharia just because they have a Muslim name. Another complication is that there may be substantial financial advantages for certain parties in using the customary Nigerian court system, as the sharia system is seen by many as having a much clearer standard for allocations related to inheritance, divorce, and financial disputes.
“At the end of the day, religion is important and culture is important… but what often matters more than theology or doctrine is politics,” says Brandon Kendhammer, a UW-Madison graduate and Assistant Professor of Political Science at The Ohio State University. He argues that how people talk about sharia and what that would entail affects how people perceive democracy and what they expect from democratic regimes.
“Just like in America or any other country, or any other religion or cultural system in the world, people often aren’t quite sure what the implications of their faith are for new political issues… It’s not that doctrine or theology determine how people think about politics, it’s that a political process in which religion is part affects how people think about politics.”
The future and nature of sharia courts in Nigeria is far from clear, and the diversity of the political, ethnic, and religious landscape will continue to make any predictions difficult. Despite Nigeria’s heterogeneity, it is an example of the tensions related to creating parallel sharia court systems in countries with significant Muslim minority populations.
For more information about Islam in Nigeria and to see an Inside Islam interview with Brandon Kendhammer, click here.
What do you think about the sharia court in Nigeria or elsewhere? Have you ever witnessed or been a part of a sharia law proceeding?