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Sayyed Ibraheem Yaqoub Zakzaky, Islamic scholar and activist, is the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria. He attended the famous School for Arabic Studies (SAS), Kano and the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, where he graduated with a first class degree in Economics in 1979.
Since then, he has been engaged in learning, teaching and Islamic activism. Due to his Islamic activism, he was jailed severally by all successive Nigerian regimes from Olusegun Obasanjo to that of late Sani Abacha/Abdulsalami Abubakar regime. The Islamic scholar’s total prison experiences spanned nine years in nine different prisons across the country – the most famous being Enugu (1981-1984), the Interrogation Centre of the National Security Organisation, Lagos (1984-1985), Kiri-Kiri Maximum Security (1985), Port Harcourt (1987-1989 and 1996 -1997) and Kaduna (1987 and 1997-1998). In this interview, Sayyed Zakzaky, who clocked 60 recently, spoke about his life, his activism, post elections violence, among other sundry matters. Excerpts:
You have just marked your 60th birthday. How has life been in the last 60 years?
I have to first say that I am 60 years-old according to the lunar calendar. In the Islamic calendar, we use the lunar even though we have also the Islamic solar calendar. People hardly know about it but we know both calendars. So, according to the lunar calendar, I am now 60. But if it is the solar, I was actually born on May 5, 1953. That would mean that I am about 58 now. So, I am 60 according to the lunar calendar. Of course, most of the counting we do in Islam is lunar.
My life from birth till the age of 16 was characterised by two things: attending Islamic school and helping my father in the farm. But at the same time in 1969, this time I am using solar calendar, I came into contact with what you might called formal education. I was attending a provincial Arabic school, where the then Native Authority (NA) used to train Arabic teachers for its primary schools. From that school, I went to the School for Arabic Studies (SAS), Kano, from 1971 to 1975 and the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, from 1976 to 1979. All these were years of learning only, not like helping anybody in the farm.
Afterwards, from 1980 up to this time, it has been engagements in learning, teaching and da’awa. And some of the years were in incarceration. Some might say they are the years of struggle. This struggle contains learning, teaching and of course, calling others. Perhaps, it is calling others that the authorities do not want. If I may confine myself simply to learning and teaching, maybe there would be no problems.
Having graduated with a first class degree in Economics, it was expected that you would get a good job, fat salary, official car and beautiful office. But you didn’t do that. Instead you turned out to be an Islamic scholar. What informed this decision?
Well, I must say that it was more or less the will of God and of course, the actions of those who thought they were bringing me down; destroying me so to speak. In doing so, they made me what I was not thinking that I would be. When I was interviewed for scholarship by the defunct North Central State Scholarship Board, they asked me what I would be doing after I finish my studies in Economics. I said that I would like to become a civil servant. Truly, that was my thought actually during my ordinary level ‘Government’ studies. I read about a civil servant being anonymous. So, I like anonymity. I don’t like to be known. Whoever knew me before, knew that I am somebody who didn’t like to be known. I thought that civil service was the best thing for me. I would be somewhere, may be in the GRA where nobody knows me; from there to the office and that is all. I wanted that kind of a silent life.
But when I went to the university, I found out also the life of lecturers was far more attractive than that of the civil servant. He too is anonymous. I thought that I should be better in the university environment than in the civil service. That was my thinking. Also, that time, there were so many challenges against Islam. There were those with communist ideas in those days. Nowadays, they are no longer there, neither in the campuses or anywhere at all. In those days, they were attacking anything Islam stands for or even religion generally.
But with my good background of Islamic knowledge, I know they were accusing Islam of what it is innocent of. There was this idea that religion was the opium of the people and it was an instrument of oppression. They were always citing examples of the emirs who have so many wives and concubines as if these were the precepts of the Islamic religion. We found out that we couldn’t be silent in the face of these accusations. So, we started to defend the religion and that was how the da’awa started: defending the religion, at the same time teaching people what it truly stands for.
We found out that there were Muslim children who themselves are ignorant of the Islamic religion and might be taken away by the propagators of those ideas. In fact, many of them, if not majority, were children of Muslims, who turned to accuse Islam of oppressing mankind. While in the whole history of mankind, there is no ideology or theory that has liberated man than Islam. One other area they capitalise on is on the woman. They accuse Islam of downgrading women. But with our own background of knowledge, we know that it is not true even though practically it might seem so. But that doesn’t mean that it is the Islamic religion that taught those ideas they postulate.
I must say during the university days that was how it started. Of course, it appeared that they didn’t want the development that was taking place. That is our own teaching of Islam and so, the persecution started during the days of studentship. It culminated with us even being arrested at one time and we were detained for about three – four days. We were finally released. That was how it started. I might say it was the will of God. This is because in the history of Musa (AS), he was trying to protect his kinsman and he pushed the Pharaoh’s guard who happened to die. That made Musa (AS) to migrate and then on his way back, he was bestowed with the messenger ship. It was the will of God that would have happened. In my own case, I can say it was the will of God that happened but it was never thought of. I never thought of becoming an Islamic scholar. The only thing I thought was to either be a civil servant or a lecturer in the university. Now, I saw myself doing what I am doing.
Sometimes, when I was kept in Kiri-Kiri maximum prison, I thought that I didn’t do what I should have done. I didn’t know that they would go to the extent of taking me to that kind of detention. So, I thought that I would have done better than what I did. So if it is death, then I would die as a martyr in the course of what I believed in. One thing is clear; we might say that nobody is out of the death list. Everyone must naturally die. Definitely, everyone would die. It is a question of how do you die. That is what matters most, not when will you die. Dying in the course of what you believe in, is itself a source of pride.
After all, we have confidence in Allah (SWT) that our protection is from him. Throughout my life, I have had so many challenges even before I started da’awa. There was for example, just after I finished my college before going to the university, I was involved in an accident in which even somebody sitting next to me died. I would have been dead in that accident because our car somersaulted about five times. Death could have come any time. The best thing is just for one to focus on what he believes in and leave what is in the hands of Almighty Allah.
We want to know how you feel about your aggressors, those who arrested and jailed you and even those who went to the extent of demolishing your house.
I would answer you the way I answered someone who was a director of prison in the then Rivers State (Bayelsa State was not created then; I was there when it was created.) He came and said someone like you shouldn’t be misunderstood by the government. You are somebody whom the government should seek advice from. He said we need advice of people like you; but why this misunderstanding? I told him clearly that there is no misunderstanding. The government was doing what it was doing because it understood but they don’t want it. There is a difference between someone who doesn’t understand and someone who doesn’t want. But they don’t have the guts to say “we don’t want you.”
Instead, they want to blackmail us and called us bad names, saying these are the trouble makers; these are people who want to plunge this country into chaos and so on. But if they had the guts, they would have said yes we understood that these are the only people who would give this nation a direction but we don’t want that direction. They should have said also that these are the only people who think of the future of this nation but we don’t want that future. They don’t have the guts to say so. But the perpetual propaganda against us only helps in bringing us to the knowledge of the people. Officially, they want to say that these are the trouble makers. But we are not in trouble with the people. The people know us. We live with the people and we are part of them.
You also asked me how do I see them (aggressors). They are people who actually do not want the change because they think that it would affect them. But on our own part, we are trying to win them. But they want to destroy us. They think that to destroy our call, they have to kill us. That is how they think. That is to say, we shouldn’t be there anymore. On our part, we don’t hope for any one of them to die. We want them to survive and we want them to come to terms with what we are saying. We want to win their hearts but they want to destroy our bodies. We want to win their souls.
We want an insight into your life as a contemporary scholar in a conservative society. Part of this is your preachments that the 2011 general elections was never a Jihad (holy war) as many Islamic clerics have been advocating in their sermons. Also, during the post election violence, you reportedly protected and helped many Christians in your neighbourhood and so many of them were seen trooping to your residence for a thank you homage. What is the dividing line between you and these other clerics?
One needs to understand the religion and understand his time. A lot of these so-called Islamic scholars seem to live in about one and a half century ago. Their minds are two centuries-old but they live in this complex time which they don’t understand. Thus, the interpretation of the Qur’an and interpretation of religion generally becomes so cumbersome and complex to them because they hardly understand their time. There is a hadith which says an (alim); a scholar who knows his time, things would not be complicated for him.
Those who know the time would agree with us that we know the time but they may not know the religion. Thankfully, we are also students of the religion. And those who study the religion may agree with us also that we know the religion but they may not know the time. So, the combination of these two make things clearer, God willing. Of course, it is not only knowledge, practicing it is also very important. You practice what you say so that you become part of what you are saying.
You warned prior to the elections that politicians who are secular were trying to instigate Muslims against their Christian neighbours. After the polls, your prediction became manifest.
That is true. They knew that they were not going to win the elections. So they wanted a sort of crisis that would take away the mind of people from the results of the elections to the crisis. So, that the call now would be for peace rather than the results. So also they become legitimate rulers even though they were illegitimate and they were not elected. Actually, it (post elections violence) was planned. You would remember that at the end of Olusegun Obasanjo’s second term, he wanted some crisis to allow him declare a state of emergency in the country. But he didn’t want an ethno-religious crisis. That became very difficult for him to foment. He wanted only one form of crisis, between Muslims themselves in the north. And he was not able to get it.
It is easier to foment trouble along religious or ethnic lines. These politicians, this time around, said they don’t care, they want trouble anyhow. So, they got it. We believe that some of the security agencies had engineered these crises. They were behind it. These politicians should consider that much as they may be rulers courtesy of the crisis they caused, but the crisis would consume them one day. This is because religion is a very sensitive issue. They shouldn’t play with it because it will end up dividing the security apparatus. You remember that you become a member of an ethnic group by birth not by conviction.
Similarly, a lot of people, perhaps, are just practicing religion in that same way. They just become Muslims or Christians by birth. This can divide the security apparatus-be it the police or the non- uniformed security agents. They might fight each other and it would be very difficult to reconcile. It is better for them not to bring religious and ethnic differences into the political fold. It is better for them to capitalise on issues of ideological differences rather than differences by region, ethnicity or religion.