Profiles in blogging courage: Nigerian scholar Issah Tikumah
Yesterday morning, the Nigerian daily paper This Day published an alarming article about a Ghanaian-born academic called Malam Issah Hassan Tikumah, who had until recently been employed as a social studies lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria. Mr. Tikumah had written a desperate letter to the editor, reporting that he was “being hounded by security men and some ‘reactionary forces’ because of a book he wrote on the niqab,” the Muslim face veil for women. Publication of his controversial 2008 study, The Misuse of Niqab: The Abuse of Islam and the Dormancy of Islamic Scholars. Evidence from the Misuse of Niqab in the Nigerian Society, has since been canceled and Tikumah has been fired from his job at the university.
Tikumah’s troubles continue all the same. He claims that he has already been detained by the police and his Islamist enemies have begun a letter-writing campaign against him. “It is a book I have published with all the necessary facts,” he told the newspaper, “and yet I’m being treated like a hardened criminal just because some reactionary elements within the society are against that book. More than a month after my release [on] bail, I still have to report to the security everyday like a criminal whose run-away from prosecution is not unexpected – all this trouble for merely publishing a book some people are not happy with!” He says that the Nigerian security agencies have threatened to deport him, even though he has “lived in Nigeria for the last 12 years, received my higher education in Nigeria and three of my children are Nigerians by birth.” He says the police are now calling him a “CIA agent disguising as a Muslim” as an excuse to hang him. Tikuman goes on to protest that he has “been struggling for the cause of Islam for the past 31 years. … And how could anyone accuse me of threatening peace and security in Nigeria when I have spent a great deal of my time, energy and money over the years working to foster peace and security in Nigeria?”
News sites and blogs around the world have since picked up this story verbatim, but so far it doesn’t look as if anyone has taken the trouble to take a look at Mr. Tikumah’s divisive book. It would be well worth their while – after all, he has gone ahead and published it on his blog for the whole world to read, even though this step is hardly likely to improve his life expectancy, let alone do very much for his academic career. All the more reason to crack its digital cover, don't you think?
The Misuse of Niqab is a profoundly religious book. While it focuses on the Muslim veil, it amounts to a full-scale assult on modern-day political Islam itself. He opens his book with these words:
Nigeria is a country where religion is suffering from spiritual barrenness; that is, perceptions of matters of morality are conditioned and contorted by primordial ethno-religious sentiments rather than objective spiritual insights. … Where Muslims lack open-mindedness and sense of objectivity, “Islam” becomes no better than any other religion. Today’s Muslims are actively engaged in destroying fundamental principles of Islam in the name of the same Islam. On no account does Islam compromise the principle of justice or condone injustice. During the dawn of Islam thousands of people accepted the faith because they were enthralled by the unparalleled sense of justice of the Muslims – both among themselves and between themselves and non-Muslims.
None of this is really going to surprise readers in America or Europe, but Tikunah certainly challenges Muslim readers in Africa. He goes on to write:
Nothing causes more embarrassment – in fact, humiliation – to a true Muslim today than to hear that Muslims and non-Muslims are fighting over a particular issue, with the Muslims insisting on the issue while the non-Muslims are opposing it, but when the true Muslim eventually arrives at the scene of the fight and examines the case he discovers in his shock and disappointment that in the light of the plain teachings of their own faith the Muslims should rather have been the first to oppose what they are insisting on (while, ironically, the non-Muslims are opposing it). That is why if you hear news of a dispute between Muslims and non-Muslims anywhere in the world today, if only you view Islam as a principle and not as a social allegiance, you must approach the news with strict caution rather than rush headlong into supporting “fellow Muslims” - you may be supporting the opposite of Islam! Nothing can be more frustrating to a true Muslim today than that he comes into contact with his fellow Muslims who, instead of being his partners in faith, would rather become a threat to his faith by expecting him to do things most un-Islamic in the name of Muslim brotherhood.
Mr. Tikumah then devotes most of his book to refuting the supposed requirement for women to keep their faces and bodies completely covered in public, pointing out that “Islam has not prescribed any particular form of dress for the woman; Islam has only established a standard/code of dress for the woman, and so the woman can put on any form of dress that does not breach the Islamic standard/code of dress,” which is recorded in two verses of the Qur’an:
And tell the believing women to lower their gazes and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof. (24:31)
O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves their outer garments. That is most suitable that they should be known and not molested. (33:59)
His summary: The niqab is a purely optional symbol of Muslim devotion. Mr. Tikumah proceeds to challenge the notion of fundamentalism itself:
Every sincere Muslim believes that the validity of the Qur’an as a divine comprehensive guidance for mankind is permanent and eternal. However, even simple human reasoning dictates that a law that is meant to be permanent for the ever-changing and dynamic nature of society must of necessity be equally flexible and versatile. That, indeed, is the nature of the law of Islam – dynamic, flexible and versatile. In other words, although the law of Islam is permanent and unchangeable, its interpretation/meaning varies with time, place and circumstances.
And what has fundamentalism brought Islam, particularly Muslim women?
If the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) were to come back to life and see the plight of the Muslim woman in today’s Nigeria (and indeed in many other places around the world) he would weep unceasingly. The niqab that was ordained as a protection and safeguard for the pride and dignity of the Muslim woman has now become the symbol of her public ignominy instead. The Muslim woman, even the one in hijab without niqab, has completely lost her dignity in the eyes of both her fellow Muslims and non-Muslims. In the market places, hospitals and other public places the Muslim woman in hijab is viewed with suspicion and contempt, and her movement is restricted and closely monitored, because thieves and other kinds of criminals now operate effectively under the cover of the hijab/niqab. With all this happening, the innocent pious Muslim woman has no one to help her out of her public ignominy. The scholars whose duty it is to come to her defence are quietly sitting on the fence with folded arms.
After writing a whole book packed with statements like this, no wonder Mr. Tikumah is fearing for his life. I wish him well and hope that his book finds many Muslim readers via the Internet, if not in print. I also hope plenty of non-Muslims read it, since it painstakingly lays out the actual issues in the debate rather than merely echo the Western stereotypes we hear everywhere else.
But there’s a lesson in this story for the rest of us too: If you ever wonder about the value of such corporate-owned time-killers as Facebook, Myspace, Open Salon, Blogspot, and Wordpress, then here is your answer: Whatever else you can say about them, blogs are the last remnant of the free press, the voice of the voiceless. That’s why we can't stop writing. Although I have to admit that Mr. Tikumah’s performance is one hell of a tough act to follow.