Transmission of Learning in Ilorin: A History of Islamic Education 1897-2012

Research Project (to be discussed at the Winter Academy) by Sakariyau Alabi Aliyu.

Sakariyau Alabi Aliyu is currently a PhD candidate at the Institute for History at the University of Leiden (Netherlands). His research interests include muslim education (particularly in the Nigerian context), Nigerian intellectual history and the philosophy of history.

Established as a citadel of Islam in the nineteenth century, Ilorin came under the colonial hegemony of the British at the end of the nineteenth century. Thenceforth the history of Islamic education became an unending dynamic of engagement with the challenges that the rival system of Western education has posed to Islamic education. Starting in the colonial period within Ilorin and lasting into the early decades of independence, also from outside Ilorin, the ulama responded to this challenge mainly in three ways, corresponding to schools of thought of Islamic education in Ilorin.

First, there is the tolerant Adabiyyah School favoring western education in conjunction with Islamic education, then there is the Zumratu Muminina (makondoro) school that was strictly against western education. The third school, Markaziyya, privileged Arabic/Islamic education as a standalone system; it tolerated Western education only independent from the Islamic system. From the colonial period thenceforth Islamic education followed this trifurcate system to a greater or lesser extent, even when a scholar does not categorically belong to any of these schools.

Although the ultimate aim of a positive hereafter for Islamic education, against material benefit, plays a crucial role in limiting the material strength of the system, this thesis argues that society’s attitude towards the system, absence of state support and the financial wherewithal unlike the Western system has been a major hindrance to progress in the system. Despite this limited capacity the scholars have been unrelenting, continuously adapting the system to the needs of the society, for example by transforming of the traditional Quranic schools into madaris from the colonial period, reforming the methods, curriculum and routes to be followed to running of the two systems with their madaris (sing. madrasah), especially since the government withdrawal from the provision of Western education from the late twentieth century. More than is credited to them the scholars have actually contributed to the development of western education even as the attention given to the Western system of education by the government and the society has been detrimental to its own development.

My research is into the history of Islamic education in Ilorin, Nigeria, since the advent of colonialism up to the twenty first century. The research explores the history of this education system and its response to the challenges of the new order. It includes the examination of the postcolonial development built on this earlier experience and how it has continued to adapt to changes in the society through to the twenty first century.

Ilorin is geographically located midway between the savannah north and forest region southwest of Nigeria. Her history has made her a unique melting pot of ethno-cultural identity between the cultures of both regions it is in between.  The city emerged in the early decades of the nineteenth century as an Islamic city founded by Muslim clerics of diverse ethnic backgrounds. In the religion of Islam they found a common index of identity. The language of  the Yoruba, among whom they are located and who form the majority of the population would become the lingua franca of the city.

The city, its rulers, elites, scholars and ordinary citizens thus have their legitimacy rooted in Islam; and its educational system is the engine house of the religion. This system of religious education developed gradually in the nineteenth century and at the point of flowering of Ilorin’s intellectual efforts, it encountered colonialism and modernity. Like in every other Muslim society, this would change the course of her history and that of the educational system. The colonial regime restructured the political and economic order of the city and introduced a new and rival educational system that would relegate the Muslim scholars and their institution to the background.

The scholars resisted this and not having equal power to the new regime, some of these scholars began to engage positively with the western educational system. The inequality of power between the two systems have been playing out from the early colonial period of stout resistance, then acquiescence through post-colonial accommodation to Islamisation of knowledge from the late twentieth century. The problematic of Islamic education system in the period covered by this research is rooted in its lack of economic power that would harness the potentials of the system. It lacks state support; this had root in the colonial period and once set in this groove it has been largely intractable. But that alone does not fully explain the problem.

Theoretically, at the heart of Muslim concept of education is the aim of producing good Muslims with an understanding of Islamic rules of behavior and a strong knowledge of and commitment to faith. Through this, the ultimate aim of a positive hereafter is to be achieved. Every other issue is secondary to this. This spiritual aim of Islamic education will always clash with the varied and largely secular aims of western education. The task of balancing and interweaving of aims have not been uniformly agreed upon and thus remains a big challenge to Muslims who must engage with both systems of education.

Noting the challenge the new system has brought before it, some of the Muslim scholars began to innovate by restructuring the informal system of Islamic education into some formal system beginning in the colonial period. When this was no match for the western system, they also began to establish the western system within their own system as a guard against the denuding effect of the government controlled western system on the Islamic system. The efforts of these innovative scholars would help in thawing the resistance of the general Muslim population to western education.

Mostly the children of the economically less privileged Muslims would be found in these schools. This has positively served to bridge the less privileged into middle and elite class of the society through higher education. Connections to the Middle East for higher education are one of the means for this social mobility and has been a corrective to the inequality of the two systems. Study in the Middle East has not only produced scholars of religion but also provided opportunities for some to branch into non-religious fields such as medicine, engineering, journalism and law. However, this emancipatory experience is limited only to some. Most of the scholars remained within the local Islamic education system that is financially constrained to achieve its potentials.

The emancipatory reforms of the traditional system of Islamic education into the more formal madaris (sing. madrasah) have been hampered by the structural inequalities between the two system. Economic input and output of the western system far outweighs that of the Islamic education system. As such the enormous efforts put into restructuring the system by the Islamic scholars have been overshadowed by the inadequacies of necessary economic buttress which it lacked. Its potential to correct the inequalities of the two systems is thus restrained.

The lack of direct state support predates the advent of colonialism but the system fared better because it had no rival system to contend with and its reproductions fits in with the social economic and political context it was operating in. It depended on patronage of the ruling class some of whom are also part of the ulama class.  This informal support for the system, largely ideological, never translated into structures upon which a colonial system could latch unto. Rooted in religion, a clash of ideology also made attempts to bridge the dichotomy between the two systems difficult, with mutual suspicion based on the bitter encounter of colonialism with the Muslim society of Ilorin.

As a pivotal system to the people, the Islamic system had to engage somehow with the colonial enabled western system. For example the colonial regime needed literate individuals to serve its administrative need; it was first from the cadre of the Muslim scholars that it recruited its clerical staff utilizing their Arabic literacy. Some of these were retrained into the western system and were the first teachers used to establish the western education system. Afterwards the services of the scholars were relegated to the background once new breed western scholars have been produced.

Western system of education came as powerful system, having state and missionary financial backing against the Islamic education system that is dependent largely on the personal efforts and financial support of the scholars. Religious in nature, the secular political order introduced since colonial time has little value for the knowledge being produced in the Islamic education system. The unequal economic dividends of the two systems further deepened the unequal structures between the two. Graduates of the western system have disproportionate advantage in employment especially in the formal sector against graduates of the Islamic system.

Society’s attitude toward the Islamic system has remained largely unchanged from the pre-colonial mindset regarding the institution as a charitable institution even as the structures of the system and the society have changed. This restricted mindset against a complex need helps to reinforce the structural inequality between the two systems.

Ilorin’s experience of the challenges of Islamic education has been unique, perhaps because of being culturally positioned between the north and the southwest of Nigeria. Unlike in the north where the structural inequalities between the two system has led to the development of street begging by students (almajirai sing. almajiri) in most northern Nigerian cities; Students of Islamic education system in Ilorin never descended this low. This lack of economic empathy has led to uncritical stereotyping of the weakened traditional system as breeding ground of fundamentalism in most of northern Nigeria. In Ilorin the absence economic empathy clogs potential and actual progress made in the Islamic education system.

Ilorin scholars were quicker to adapt to the western system of education than the rest of the Muslim north either through establishment of western schools as adjunct to their Islamic madrasah within the same premise; accommodation of some western subjects in their madrasah curriculum and encouragement of acquisition of western education outside of the madrasah system for the more wary of the scholars, not ready to risk the domination of their system by the western system.

Muslims find themselves in a modern world where education became a binary phenomenon of western and Islamic education and the challenge to follow one or the other of the two systems or combine both, often with a stronger leaning to one of the two. Out of this complex phenomenon; from the 1980s, a new ideological movement emerged from among largely western educated Muslims from around the Muslim world, known as the Islamisation of knowledge. It basically seeks the realignment of knowledge into Islamic epistemology in realms Muslims have not been powerfully represented in the modern western dominated world, most especially in the technical and science fields. By harking back to the glorious past of Muslim achievements in these fields, the purveyors of Islamisation of knowledge hopes to bring Muslims back into reckoning in the world of knowledge not limited to the religious sciences alone.

This movement however has failed to properly connect with the traditional Islamic education system which serves as the bulwark of the Islamic education system. Without giving it a name or overly harking back to a glorious past, the traditional reformers of Islamic education system have been doing the very Islamisation of knowledge the western educated elites have been largely theorizing about. Some western educated Muslims have made some practical attempts in this regard through Muslim owned and directed western schools, whereby Islamic ideas and cultural norms are privileged in the western system.

In the increasing government withdrawal from the provision of education from the 1980s; many madaris have also turned their madaris into bifocal schools providing both systems of education separately for Muslims within the same premise. They provide fee paying western nursery/primary education in the morning and mostly tuition free nursery through secondary equivalent of the Islamic education system in the afternoon. Two of such madaris have higher pre university program affiliated to a conventional university. For the most part, the story of Islamic education in the period covered by this research has been one of many successes. These are however stifled by its inadequate economic structures and society’s attitude.

1 thought on “Transmission of Learning in Ilorin: A History of Islamic Education 1897-2012


    Aliyu yunus is my name a phd student at university of kabangsaan malaysia . my area of interest is parental background and academic performance of student in north central geo-political zone .Nigeria but what prompt me to send to you is that one of my sub-heeding of my literature review is concept of Islamic education in Nigeria . if u have material that can useful for me pls help


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