Bokonism and the Colonial Past

I recently found myself wondering about the name Boko Haram, and did a bit of rummaging on the internet. Like many people, I had rather assumed that it was a crude translation of ‘Books are haram,’ which was then loosely paraphrased as ‘Western education is forbidden,’ the battle-cry of the book-burning, student-killing obscurantists of north-eastern Nigeria. But it turns out to have a more intricate and interesting etymology than this; and one that is culturally less clear-cut than one might expect.

Boko doesn’t have anything to do with books – it is a ‘false friend,’ as linguists say.  It seems to mean something much more like counterfeit, or inauthentic, or fake, and refers to the idea that any culture or literacy, or indeed writing, that is not traditionally Islamic, is a pale and blasphemous parody of ‘real’ knowledge. I think of the Caliph ‘Umar’s famous (and perhaps apocryphal) reply to the question put to him by ‘Amr ibn al-‘As in 642, about what to do with the library of Alexandria: If what is in it contradicts the Qu’ran, it is blasphemous: if it accords with the Qu’ran, it is superfluous. Destroy it. Boko Haram’s apparent nihilism has a caliphal pedigree. Muhammad Yusuf, Boko Haram’s leader, told the BBC that they are opposed to any education that runs counter to Islam, “Like rain. We believe it is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain. Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it. We also reject the theory of Darwinism.” What we think of as intellectual modernity is rejected as a whole. All that is worth knowing is in the Book: anything not there is untrue and ripe for destruction.

As so often, it seems that apparently universal claims like this have local origins. After the fall of the Sokoto caliphate in 1903, the British colonial power began slowly to impose secular education. This became known in Hausa as ilimin boko, or ‘fake education,’ and finally by familiar contraction, just boko. That’s what’s forbidden. Though the distinction may be a fine one, it’s not so much ‘Western education,’ qua Western that evokes outrage: it’s inauthentic, non-Islamic, non-traditional education. Purveyed, of course, by the western colonial power.

Before the British conquest, northern Nigeria was a mish-mash of small kingdoms and little empires. Its educational heritage was that of the koranic school, of traditional Islamic learning beaten into small boys by the mallam. The longstanding traditional legacy, in other words, of much of the Muslim world. What little non-traditional education there was came from missionary societies. By the beginning of the Great War, however, Britain had severely restricted missionary activity in the north, though not in the south, where education developed faster. A gap in educational achievement opened up between north and south of Nigeria. Government funding to schools, when it came, was directed to the voluntary agency schools and the few CMS mission schools, but not to the koranic schools.

It’s hard to imagine a simpler way of discrediting the whole concept of state education. Schooling in northern Nigeria lagged behind the south (with all the implications that that had in a modernising state); the traditional form of education was not respected or funded by the government; and the largely southern, and often low-status, convert beneficiaries of mission education began to form a dominant class whose educational capital propelled them up the social scale in relation to the traditionally educated. One scholar, A I Nwabughuogu , writes that

Western Education, itself a product of missionary activity and colonial government reinforced the divisive tendencies in African societies. There were noticeable divisions between those who had acquired western education (usually called the educated) and those who had not (called the illiterates). The educated often treated illiterates as inferior and this created enmities between the two. Even among the educated, there were still discrimination centered on the type of school attended, the level of education attained, the type of course pursued and the quality of certificates obtained …

It’s not hard to see how education became a running sore in the relations between northern and southern elites, symbolising for traditionally educated Muslims an attack on their status, their knowledge, their religion and their prospects. That resistance to the education that seemed to have undermined traditional society became a touchstone, should probably not surprise us. The resistance is as much to the dominance of the south, to the social elevator provided by Christianity and to the dissolution of traditional social and authority structures by the colonial and independent state, as it is about the flat-ness of the earth or the falsehoods of Charles Darwin.

And so, when Wahhabi-inclined preachers began to appear preaching their cultural and religious poison, there was a natural confluence of old resentments and new doctrinal justifications. Boko was indeed Haram. And this complicated, self-imposed obscurantism is what Kurt Vonnegut (perhaps) lampooned in Cat’s Cradle as Bokonism, a religion based entirely on more or less harmless lies, known as foma, Flat earth again, but no longer harmless.


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