The Haram Operations of Boko Haram

[ 0 ] May 23, 2014

by MOHSEN KADIVAR for ISLAMiCommentary on MAY 23, 2014: 

Mohsen Kadivar

Mohsen Kadivar

Boko Haram or the Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad (Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad) and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) are two sides of one coin. Both of them have been accused of widespread human rights violations, including murder, kidnapping, and child-slavery. Both are seeking a theocratic state, the former based on shari’a and the latter based on Ten Commandments. Boko Haram is a rebel group based in northern Nigeria, and LRA is a militant movement operating in north Uganda and South Sudan. Both of them use religion (Islam or Christianity) as a political weapon.

Formerly a British Colony, Nigeria gained its independence in 1960. While Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy, with oil a dominant source of revenue since the 1970s, it is also well known for government corruption – consistently ranking near the bottom of the Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index. The country is inhabited by a couple hundred ethnic groups and is the most populous country in Africa. At least half of Nigeria’s population is Muslim (the highest concentration is in the North); with 40% Christian (mostly in the south) and 10% native religions. Muslims have experienced deep economic and sociopolitical discrimination under the government of Nigeria’s Christian president and his administration.

Boko Haram Roots

Nigerian-born Muhammad Yusuf (1970-2009), the founder of Boko Haram, joined the Nigerian Muslim Brotherhood (Yan Brothers) when he was a youth. The leader of this Islamic organization at that time was Ebrahim al-Zakzaki. According to Ahmad Murtada (professor of Islamic Studies, University of Bayero, Kano), the Nigerian Muslim Brotherhood later split into three branches. The first branch was inclined to Iranian Shiite Islam including the leader al-Zakzaki; the second was inclined to Salafism of which Muhammad Yusuf belonged; and the third branch espoused the doctrine of the original Muslim Brotherhood. Yusuf became very close to a Salafi group of Izalat al-Bid’a wa Ighamat us-Sunnah (The Removal of Innovation and Establishment of Islamic Tradition Group) for a while. In 2002 Yusuf established his own offshoot group called the Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad (Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad) – now commonly referred to by outsiders as Boko Haram.

According to Yusuf, Western education was the tool of Anglican missionaries in the colonial age bent on destroying Islam in Nigeria. Yusuf preached that all kinds of western education, from primary school to the university, were prohibited. Because of this teaching his group has been referred to as “Boko Haram” or “Western education is prohibited.” Yusuf also fought against the oppression and corruption of the Nigerian government and the religio-political discrimination against Muslims by the Nigerian government. He also believed that shari’a should be implemented as the law of Nigeria. It seems that many Nigerian Muslims in the first decade of 21st century supported Boko Haram for its general aims of defending Islam, justice and resistance against westernization.

Yusuf’s understanding of Islam was a mixture of the teachings of Ibn Tyymiyyah, Ibn Abi Zaid, Muhammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab, al-Albani, and Fawzan. He did not look at himself as a mufti (a high religious authority among Muslims) and often followed the fatwas of Bin-Baz the official ultra close-minded mufti of Saudi Arabia. In keeping with early Muslim Brotherhood teachings (such as Sayyed Qutb) he believed that the Hakimiyyah (sovereignty) belongs to Allah, democracy is evil, and governing with man-made laws in place of shari’a is ignorance. Like many conservative believers (in Christianity and Islam) he denied Darwin’s theory of evolution, the roundness of the earth, the existence of the solar system, and the scientific explanations for the sun and why it rains. His understanding of the power of God in nature and human society was a supernatural one.

Boko Haram on a Haram Path

Although Boko Haram was considered a Jihadi Salafi group under Yusuf, his group did not use or advocate violence and terror until 2009 when there was a serious escalation of violence between security forces and Boko Haram that ultimately resulted in hundreds dead and thousands displaced. (For more information about provocations by Nigerian security forces including the massacre in 2009 of Boko Haram members at a masjid used by Yusuf, and the arrest and subsequent killing of Yusuf by police without standing trial, see this account by Murtada: Boko Haram (2013))

Following Yusuf’s death, Boko Haram retaliated with bombing, terror and kidnapping under Yusuf’s replacement – a poorly educated leader AbuBakr Shekau (born in 1960 in Nigeria).

Shekau had reorganized Boko Haram’s operations and goals and made it into a terrorist group. Since 2010 Shekau has moved far away from the tenets of shari’a — by subjecting Christians to violence, terrorizing moderate Muslim clerics, bombing and kidnapping. Kidnapping those 300 schoolgirls (both Muslim and Christian) last month, threatening to enslave them, force them into marriage, and sell them is prohibited strongly under Islamic law. These actions are tantamount to muharibah (fighting against Allah). The Sunni Muslims of Nigeria do not support these haram operations of Boko Haram.

The way to resolve this civil war in Nigeria is not with violence. Amnesty International, as recent as 2013, accused the Nigerian government of human rights abuses after 950 suspected Boko Haram militants died in detention facilities run by Nigeria’s military Joint Task Force. The solution, which is the responsibility of the Nigerian government, is justice, fairness, omission of any kind of discrimination, reform of governmental corruption, promotion of public education with the right of religious schools for Muslims and Christians according to their traditions, gaining the citizens trust in public education and most importantly “fair distribution of the public wealth.”


Mohsen Kadivar is Visiting Research Professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University, an Iranian dissident in exile since 2008, and a global ethics fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison in Iran in 1999 because of his political criticism of the Islamic Republic, and was released in July 2000. He remains active in the opposition Green Movement. He is also core faculty with the Duke Islamic Studies Center. His personal website is


Kadivar appeared on VOA Farsi this week (May 21), along with Prof. Jonathan Reynolds of Northern Kentucky University and others to talk about the rise of Boko Haram. WATCH the interview here (mostly in Farsi, with some English) 


This article was made possible (in part) by the Transcultural Islam Project, an initiative launched in 2011 by the Duke Islamic Studies Center — in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies — aimed at deepening understanding of Islam and Muslim communities. See and for more information. The Transcultural Islam Project is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s). 

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Category: Education, History and Anthropology, Human Rights & Gender, i-Comment, Islamic Theology & Law, Politics & Current Events, Security & Civil Liberties, Sub-Saharan, East, and West Africa

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