Suleman Agha AFIKPO, Musa Yusuf Owoyemi, SHUKRI AHMAD

Suleman Agha AFIKPO, Musa Yusuf Owoyemi, SHUKRI AHMAD



TOPIC: the Islamic threat to igbohood: myth versus reality in culturAL CONTEXT


Suleman Agha Afikpo - phd research candidate, uum

DR. Musa Yusuf Owoyemi - Visiting Senior lecturer, uum

dR. sHUKRI aHMAD - Associate professor, UUM



Contact address:

c/o dr. musa owoyemi, centre for general studies, uum-cas, universiti utara malaysia, 06010 sintok, kedah, malaysia

Email: &



There are considerable bodies of work on Igbo as a people, language and as a territory. Unfortunately, none of the past substantial research considered the Islamic dimension of the Igbo. Islam in uwa ndi Igbo has suddenly acquired attention in the academic realm due to the recent menace been perpetrated by the Nigeria terrorist group dubbed Boko Haram. Many opinions are being raised about a foreseeable Islamic threat in Igboland. Majority of these works are found in newspaper articles, magazines and on the internet, often influenced by political motivations, however, their credibility are questionable. Some highly academic exquisites are erupting, out of which numerous hypotheses are been raised, and most have delineated Islam from having anything in common with Igbo beliefs and culture (Omenala). Applying qualitative research methodology, in which data were drawn from books, articles, magazines and newspapers-both online and offline, this research re-examines the earlier divergent opinions on the compatibility of Islam with Igbo Indigenous Religion and Culture (Omenala). It investigates and analyses the theory of the two Cultures from three salient yet connecting headings, viz; belief, culture and morality. However, the paper found unprecedented affinities between Omenala and Islam’s socio-cultural traditions.


Igbo is both language and the dominant ethnic group located in the South-Eastern part of Nigeria. It is also spelt ‘Ibo’ against their wish. Eastern region or Igboland is generally used to connote the two geo-political zones that make up Eastern Nigeria; South-South and South-East. They extend on both sides of the River Niger and occupy an area, measuring well over 41,000 square kilometres. There are few other sub-ethnicities and tribes under their influence that are distinguished in accordance with clan, lineage, language and village affiliations. The major language or tribal compositions of South-Eastern Nigeria are Igbo, Ijaw, Efik, Ibibio, Ekoi, etc, (Uchendu, 2010). Unlike other ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Igbo people historically have no common tradition of origin or migration pattern (Okwu, 2010). Their past is still shrouded in mystery as Eleje (2008) articulated. Meanwhile, they did not experience any form of Islamic incursion and are largely regarded as homogenous Christian region. Before the influence of Europeans and Christian missions, Igbo indigenous religion was vastly practiced in south-east Nigeria. It was not wholly personal relationship with God or gods but communal in different stages (Elegalam, 1988), from family to clan and to the whole community (Okwu, 2010). From the late 19th century, the area came under heavy colonial missionary campaign that suppressed native religion. With the forced domination of Christianity, the area gradually adopted Christianity as a religion and identity, and considers abominable the acceptance of any other religion outside Christianity while Omenala (Igbo indigenous Religion and Culture) is tolerated and given second class citizenry, hoping it dies a natural death (Elechi 2006).

However, Omenala includes the various customs, practices, beliefs and traditions of the Igbo people. It comprises archaic practices handed down to the people by their ancestors, as well as new concepts added into the Igbo culture through evolution and outside influences. In the course of this study, consistent similarities are identified against some scholarship hypotheses that delineate Islam from having anything in common with Igbo Religion and Culture (Nnorom, 2003, Uchendu, 2010, 2011). This research however, re-examines the earlier divergent opinions on the compatibility of Islam with Igbo indigenous Religion and Culture. And for evidential purposes the investigation made some level of comparisons with other religions, as well as the use of Muslim Qur’an or hadith quotations for support.


African Traditional Religion believes in the existence of gods. Such believe is generally seen as pantheistic in nature whereby; each object has a separate god or creator. To the African, gods’ existence is in both material and spiritual. His belief assures him that gods exist, and the verification and validation of their existence is the fulfillment of their contractual obligations (Nze, 1981).

The Igbo on the same page believes in gods. The uniqueness of Igbo indigenous religion is, they recognize one supreme God who created heavens and the earth, as expressed in their name for God Almighty - Chi-na-Eke (pronounced Chineke) meaning ‘God the Creator’ or Chi-Ukwu (pronounced Chukwu), meaning ‘God the Almighty’. To a large extent Igbo still regard Chukwu to represent the one supreme God. For the fact chukwu has been compromised by identifying individuals with the name and considering some gods that were powerful as chi-ukwu, like the chukwu of the Aro people, the writer limits his reference to Almighty God to Chineke, which remains the only undiluted name for God (Allah) the Creator.

Like other African traditional Religions, Igbo indigenous religion however, has created small deities (chi) as media of communication with man in form of other natural objects, such as ‘trees, rocks, rivers, mountains, and so on’. They are regarded as intermediaries inhabited by unseen spirits that carries their message to Chineke. They are thought to be the spirit of the dead (ancestors). The ancestors on the other side occupy the last level of Igbo spiritual beings. They are among others, the closest to man and are custodians of law, customs and equally capable of playing the mediation role. To be inducted into the ancestral world, one has to fulfil a socially approved life in his earthly sojourn, died and was given befitting burial rites (Okoh, 2012). Their spirits are evoked through sacrifices and incantations. It is held that in order to gain success in this world, one must appease of the spirits of the ancestors. Some of the principal ways of showing respect for the dead was through sacrifices, participation in the secret men's society of the Ogo Cult, the Ichie grouping (red Cap age grade) and through the Mmowu, i.e. Masquerades (Amadiume, 1996). Mbiti (l977) carefully captured Igbo belief as cited,

“Although God is the Creator of the universe and man is at the centre of that Universe, there are other beings with intelligence, besides man. These include divinities, spirits, and the living dead (ancestors). In one way or another, they are all related to the world of nature: according to some African mythology, some divinities assisted God in the course of ordering the created world; others serve God by taking charge of departments of nature” (Elechi, 2006; p. 50).

Summarily, it is rightly stated the Igbo believe that "Chineke” is omnipotent and omniscient but not considered omnipresent since He is so far away in the sky and beyond full human understanding, as such the man-made oracles and other chi (deities) serve as His intermediaries (Ogbaa, 1999). A belief that corresponds to large extent with religion of the Arabs of pre-Islamic era, although replaced with unconditional belief in monotheism by Islam (Afikpo, 2004).


The coming of Islam to the South-East Nigeria, which is the homeland of the Igbo people, is being perceived by many Igbo as portending “danger to Igbo interests and survival” and therefore should be resisted (Nnorom 2003). Such perception should rather be viewed as a politically incorrect statement rather than theoretical or reality. Why should it be dangerous for Igbo people to embrace Islam if it was not dangerous for them to embrace Christianity? Is Christianity inherently compatible to Igbo culture while Islam is inherently incompatible? Then, would resistance to peaceful propagation of Islam in Igboland not be a violation of religious freedom guaranteed by the Nigerian Constitution? Islam has existed in Igboland since the early 19th century (Nnorm, 2003). It has peacefully been propagated in Igboland. It boasts of occupying the second largest religious group in the present Ala igbo or Igboland (Ajah, 2010). From inception, its presence has not endangered the existence of Igbo people, therefore, it should not be seen as Uchendu’s (2010) article posited; “portending a danger”, provided it maintains its peacefully status quo. In fact, the outcome of Islam’s spread in Igboland should be seen as a welcomed development, for, if many Igbo embrace Islam, sooner or later neither Islam nor Christianity would be exclusively identified with any particular ethnic groups in Nigeria. A development Prof. Maduagwu (2010) insists would eventually lead to more peaceful coexistence and tolerance among all the various ethnic groups, and positive for future generations of Nigerians.

Africa has always had contact with Islam from its advent till date. Islam came to African in early 7th century. Meanwhile, it took a century before it reached sub-Sahara Africa. The first half of 8th century ushered in Islam into west and central Sudan or “Land of the Negroes” (Ojukwu 1969), through the Trans-Sahara trade routes (Adam, 2011). By 9th century it was already been practiced in West Africa (Adam, 2011). Mali Empire, the Songai and Kanuri-Bornu empires flourished and were greatly influenced by Islamic civilization (Tuaraki 1997). Despite Islam’s grip on these kingdoms and empires their socio-cultural system were more or less preserved. Omotoso (2011) contends that they practiced a mixture of Islamic and indigenous Cultures. On that note, William Arens submitted that Islam appeared as a support to the African religions and not as challenge to their traditional way of life. Islam successfully provided standard of community morality like any other world religion, integrated existing traditional patterns within its framework or tolerated them when syncretism was not possible (Arens, 1975). It is debated by many scholars that the success of Africa is due to Islam, on the basis of its intrinsic quality which overcomes ethnic differences in culturally heterogeneous communities (Arens, 1975). Confirmed by Trimigham, one of the most ardent and dedicated observers of Islam in West Africa, in his critical conclusion that Muslim converts do not have to abandon entirely their tradition for Islam; within the framework of Islamic doctrine and practice such customary patterns can be contained. He added in the event the traditional system is in contradiction to Islamic cardinal beliefs, both doctrines co-existed side by side without apparent contradiction (Trimingham, 1964).

Robin Horton on comparative note contends that the adaptability of Islam cannot be over emphasized, that “Christianity… has been rigid in its insistence on the individual’s total acceptance of official doctrines” (Horton 1971, c.f. Arens, p.105). Rodney in his remark said the Church equated the African ancestral beliefs that were culturally correct with the devil. As the arbiter, Christians behaved as though there were two worlds, ‘Africa and Europe’, created by two different gods, an imperfect god and a perfect god respectively.

Scholars in the field lament a lot have changed in the modern Igbo socio-cultural and religious value due to Christian evangelization. Uncompromisingly, Okoh states, it is unfortunate that the influence of the ancestral heritage on the modern Igbo is drastically destroyed. A healthy means of social control, he opines its destruction resulted in the current moral lack in Igbo society, where armed robbery, Ritualism, bribery and corruption, embezzlement of public funds, sexual immorality, and cases of murder, indiscipline in schools and even desecration of holy places is widespread. Impact he owes to the colonial evangelization on the Igbo cultural value (Okoh, 2012).


Ala Igbo or the traditional Igboland is a society with rich and enviable structures in its religious and socio-cultural values. The values in no small measure helped to contain and organize the fragmented Igbo communities of pre-colonial era. In the course of this research, the writer in his utmost surprise found unprecedented affinities between Omenala and Islam’s socio-cultural traditions. However, Islam as a religion has its rules and regulations that moderate the social life of its adherents in what is popularly grouped under the larger container of Shari’a. Below are some of the Igbo cardinal regulatory values as it corresponds with Islamic way of life.

  1. Rites of passage:

‘Rites of passage’ is the English translation of its French origin, ‘Rites de passage.’ It was first used by Arnold van Gennep in his book of the same name in 1909. In his usage, it describes rites that accompany the passage of a person from one social status to another in the course of his or her life. It equally means the ‘rites that mark recognized points in the passage of time’, like New Year, new moon, end of a millennium, et cetera (Turner, V (n.d)). In the modern sense, rites of passage is defined to mean, “a ceremony or series of ceremonies, performed in some cultures at times when an individual change his status, as at puberty, marriage, and death or significant events in a transitional period of someone’s life, often very ritualized (Collins English Dictionary, 2003)

In Igbo tradition, rites of passage begin with stages of birth rites, as a welcome back ritual of a life that has re-incarnated from a life that departed. By “birth rites” the author is concerned with the rituals that a child passes through from birth before the next stage of responsibility in the passage, which is Puberty. In Igbo traditional culture, before reaching puberty stage, a child must have passed through naming ceremony, First hair and nail cutting and circumcision. Islam on the same pane approves of naming ceremony, first cutting of hair and nails, and circumcision based on the precepts of Prophet Mohammad during his life time.

  1. Hair/Nail cutting and Naming ceremony;

Naming ceremony is inherent in every religion. In Africa the forms are not universal, and even within the Igbo culture, naming ceremonies are diverse. Nevertheless, naming ceremony among the Igbo is the most vigorous and religiously connected of all the birth rites. In ancient Igbo tradition, before naming a child, it will take seven Igbo weeks after birth (there are four days in a week, which interprets to twenty-eight days). The first child is always named after the grandfather if boy or grandmother if girl. Predominantly, Igbo names always have a meaning or significance attached to the naming. Hair and Nails cutting are in most cases jointly performed with naming ceremony. The ceremony reintegrates the child back to human world from the spirit world after which he will realize the purpose of that particular turn of reincarnation. The Igbo believe that a child comes to the world with his spirit world hair and nails. As a reincarnate of departed member of the family, the child’s hair and the nails on both fingers and toes are regarded sacred, as such follow a ritual cutting and proper burying (Uchegbue, 2010).

Aqeeqa is the Islamic name for shaving of the hair of a newborn baby and the naming ceremonies, which entails sacrifice of animal. It was a practice in the pre-Islamic Arabia, which was moderated and it assumed essential requirement in Islam. Naming a child in Islam could take place on the first day or on the seventh day (Muslim, 3126). Predominantly, the seventh day is more authentic and wide spread among Muslim nations. For detail, see Abu Dawood 2:2137 & 2838; Al-Tirmidhi: 1522; and Al-Nasaa’i: 4220.

  1. Circumcision:

Circumcision has been a social custom in parts of Africa for many centuries. Actually, it is practiced by Jews, Christians as contained in Genesis 17, and Muslims. Igbo custom performed rite of circumcision on both boys and girls within the third and eighth day after birth. In some villages, however, circumcision could be postponed until the age of puberty and usually follow greater religious and social celebrations. The most common and preferred is the eighth day circumcision (Uchegbue, 2010).

In Islam, however, circumcision was not mentioned in the Qur’an, but is found in a report by some of Prophet Mohammad’s companions (reported in the hadiths by al-Bukhari and Muslim). It was also reported that the Prophet himself circumcised and also did his companions. Insofar Islam did not specify days for it after birth, large part of Muslim nations circumcise in the seventh day after birth, a day difference from the Igbo practice that is bridged by the Maliki fiqh or jurisprudence that suggests a new day commences after sun set. Others, however, delays it till the child is about puberty age. For example, the Malaysian Muslims prefer to circumcise late when the child is between 7 and 12 years old, with greater religious and social celebration. The question of; if Islam approved circumcision for females, in what is renamed in modern term as ‘Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)’, remains issue for debate. However, the popular opinion is that original Islamic literatures emphasized on male circumcision. The FMG is regarded as unauthentic custom in Islam. In a nutshell, communities that practiced FGM before Islam justifies the act with the foregoing open ended hadith of Abu Hurayra, and those that did not approve of it have maintained their proclivity, justifying their action with its absence in the Qur’an or it’s inexplicit in the hadith.