On the face of it, there isn’t much to connect Sheikh Ibn Taymiyya of Turkey and the Church of the Brethren of America. One is a 13th century Islamic scholar, now considered one of the great-great-grandfathers of radical Islam. The other is a Christian Baptist Church that has its roots in the Protestant Reformation, and is noted alongside the Quakers for its support of pacifism.
Both, though, have spread their word to the globe’s more distant corners, and in the dirt-poor, sunbaked half-desert around Chibok in north-east Nigeria, their two very different world visions are now colliding.
Chibok, as the world now knows, is the town where more than 200 schoolgirls were abducted last month by the Islamist group Boko Haram, which has threatened to sell them in the slave markets of neighbouring Niger and Cameroon. The horror of the girls’ plight has now made world headlines through #BringBackOurGirls, and become a rallying call for the right of women to education. But it’s also the story of how the long arms of Islam and Christianity have historically vied for influence in Nigeria, and continue to do so today.
For centuries, northern Nigeria has been where Islam from the north has collided with Christianity from the south, a great civilisational faultline that extends right across west Africa, through Sudan and as far east as Indonesia. It’s a story vividly depicted in the book the “The Tenth Parallel” by the journalist Eliza Grizwold, who reveals how more than half the world’s Muslims and Christians live along this latitude just north of the equator.
Not surprisingly, the region has often seen conflict, with quarrels that are as much about access to water, grazing rights and land as much as religion. But in the northern Nigeria of today, it’s in the classroom that the two faiths are confronting each other.
Take Chibok, a dirt-poor region of mud-built hamlets in Nigeria’s north-east Borno state, where both Christians and Muslims eke out a living as maize and cattle farmers. Generally, the two groups rub along fairly well together, but one thing that distinguishes them is attitudes to education.
While both communities have many families who do not send their children to school, the take-up rate for school is generally higher among Christians than Muslims – partly due to the historic presence of missionaries, with their message of education as salvation.
“The Chibok people are all very poor, humble people, with very little money,” I was told last week by Dauda Iliya, whose niece, Monday, was among those abducted from Chibok school (and later escaped). “But they all send their kids to school, because missionaries settled their way back in the old days. They may be poor, but they take their education seriously.”
In Chibok, the main missionary presence was the Brethen, who first came to Nigeria in 1923, and who actually built Chibok school back in the 1940s.
Brethren communities in the US have been saying prayers for the girls in the last few weeks, and last week, a missionary couple who used to work at Chibok School gave this interview about their time there to their local newspaper in Kansas.
In a poignant article in the Hutchinson News, Gerald and Lois Neher talked of the fears that the grandchildren of their former students are probably among those who’ve been kidnapped.
Mr Neher recalls the villagers as “peace-loving people” who lived in harmony with the Muslims in the area. “There wasn’t any bitterness,” he tells the paper.
That hasn’t spared Chibok from the wrath of Boko Haram, however, which sees all Western education as sinful, and wants to rid the region of Christian influences. This worldview is informed partly by the teachings of its spiritual mentor, Sheikh Ibn Taymiyya, an early proponent of the idea that Islam should shun other faiths, and a man long considered as the inspiration for the Saudi-based Wahaabi faith that spawned al-Qaeda.
His other appeal, from Boko Haram’s point of view, is that he regards it as legitimate to wage jihad against fellow Muslims who govern in corrupt fashion. A fair few of Nigeria’s northern Muslim leaders fall into that category.
“If you read some of Taymiyya’s works, you’ll see how much it tallies with what Boko Haram are doing,” says Shehu Sani, a Nigerian civil rights activist who met senior Boko Haram figures during peace talks a few years ago. “Most members of the group read his books and literature, and they see him as their philosophical mentor.”
Islam, it’s true, has been around a lot longer than Christianity in that part of the world. North-east Nigeria’s Borno state, where Chibok is, was originally the Bornu Empire, which was one of Africa’s oldest caliphates and ran from the 14th to the 19th centuries. Its people moved around as far as Chad and southern Libya, and it was partly through them that Islamic thinking migrated from the Middle East across the Sahara.
For more than a century now, those ideas have rubbed up against Christianity along the 10th parallel. And today, northern Nigeria’s schoolchildren are still feeling the effect.