Takfir: The Anchor Ideology of Boko Haram

By Sh. Ramadhan Aula Juma

Nigeria has suffered insurgency from violent extremist group, Boko Haram, as Kenya has been from al-shabaab. The group has carried out suicide attacks on soft targets especially in public places including villages, on travelers, places of worship, and Government installations. In view of this, Nigerian Muslim scholars and professionals converged with an aim of developing a strategy – alternative narratives – to counter Boko Haram extremist’s narratives thereby to curb recruitment.

Jama’ah alAhlu al-Sunnah Li al-Da’wah wa al-Jihad (the Group of People of Sunnah for Proselytization and Jihad) popularly known as Boko Haram, is a violent extremist organization in northern Nigeria, founded in Maiduguri in 2002. The organization was branded Boko Haram because of their violent opposition to western secular education as they consider it a systematic conversion to Christianity. They also consider Muslims partaking in this system of education as kafir.  ‘Boko’ is a Hausa word meaning Western culture including education, while ‘Haram’ is a borrowed Arabic word meaning prohibited. The founder, Muhammad Yusuf, used charismatic leadership and a number of other factors to recruit members and sympathizers. The relative weakness of local traditional institutions and lack of mitigating measures during the formative stages, and support from the political class facilitated the growth of the group. When Nigerian security forces engaged the insurgents in 2009 and killed many of them, including their founder leader Muhammad Yusuf, the most adversely affected by the deaths (e.g. family and friends of the slain) sought to take revenge against the Government. Consequently, this group served as a fertile ground for new recruits, sympathizers and fighters for Boko Haram as it reconstituted itself under their new leader, Abubakar Shekau notwithstanding their current wrangles in leadership between Shekau and the son of the founder, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, in an affiliation contest either to al Qaida or ISIL.

The fundamental problem of Boko Haram is construction of fatwa and misinterpretation of Islamic concepts that may easily confuse unsuspecting Muslims. Their ideology of hate of religious-other is anchored on the concept of ‘al walaa wal baraa’ (allegiance and disassociation) which is the driving force of their atrocious campaign. Al walaa in Shari’a means ‘love of Allah and His messenger, love of Islam and Muslims and helping in the cause of goodness so as to attain the pleasure of Allah through defense of religion and serving Muslims’. ‘wal baraa’, on the other hand, means ‘disassociation from that which is being worshiped beside Allah, disassociating from what Allah abhors. Boko Haram’s interpretation of this concept is skewed to refer to love Islam and all that is associated with it, and hate everything that is considered, in their yard stick, as un-Islamic. This is where the name Boko Haram is derived from since, to them, anything that emulates the West including secular education is haram (prohibited in shari’a). This leads to the takfir ideology of Boko Haram where any Muslim in Perceived as complicit in Western culture is considered kafir. With the concept of al walaa wal baraa, it is an obligation of their members to kill any non-Muslim and, by extension, any Muslim who associates with boko. Other ideologies include Jihad against non-Muslims. What should be remembered here is that a kafir in their interpretation also includes those Muslims who disagree with their interpretations. , Secular education, is another are where they believe its aim is to Christianize Muslims. The other one is democracy and democratic practices that are viewed as a western invention (boko) and lastly, working for non-Islamic governments is in contradiction with ‘al wall wal baraa’ ideology.

Ironically, Islamic teachings warn against the use of takfir or the condemnation of a Muslim by another Muslim as a kafir and strictly prohibited it. The Prophet (SAW) says: “If a Muslim calls another kafir, then if he is a kafir let it be so; otherwise, he [the caller] is himself a kafir.” (Sunan Abu Dawud). A Muslim cannot be condemned to kufr because of a sin committed but turning what is expressly forbidden to permissibility, even then, this will be left to the discretion of a competent judge in sharia to determine that. What must be mentioned here, however, is that the differencein religion is not license to kill. Both the Qur’an and sunnah have permitted interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Sh. Ramadhan Aula is an expert in Islamic Law and Associate Director, Center for the Study of Terrorism, Violent Extremism and Radicalization at the HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies.


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