The Kabara Debate | Dailytrust

The Kabara Debate

There are almost always two predictable outcomes in debating Islamic values or principles in northern Nigeria: a threat to life or an accusation of heresy by one’s challengers. The victim is almost always the minority-opinion holder, who has to endure dangerous labelling, ostracizing and characterization in wild conspiracy theories. The victim is also either dismissed as covert Kafir wired to destroy Islam (as though a religion that has survived a millennium and a half of such agenda can be deconstructed by one Danliti in Sabon Gari) or a mole of some Islamophobic organization or cult. There’s hardly room for nuanced arguments, and it’s pointless to debate a character whose most intelligent argument is a threat to life.

When Sheikh Abduljabbar Kabara emerged, I feared for his safety even though I do not subscribe to his views. He was the son of a renowned scholar, Sheikh Nasir Kabara, who led a movement that’s no longer fashionable among the northern elite. The older Kabara’s nemesis was Sheikh Abubakar Mahmud Gumi whose fierce criticism of Sufism, with Kabara-led Qadiriyya Sufi order also targeted, led to the formation of the Saudi-backed Izala movement. This doctrinal conflict peaked with the 1988 Hausa translation of the Qur’an, which was designed to counter Sheikh Gumi’s well-funded 1979 version. Although Sheikh Abduljabbar Kabara isn’t waging his father’s war, for their paths are unmistakably different and his older brother Qaribullah has also opposed him, his clerical rebellion is situated in a familiar history.

The trending Sheikh Kabara’s problem, according to his challengers, began with his refutation of ancient Prophetic narrations, even those transmitted by Companions of the Prophet. In doing so, he’s found himself at war with the Salafi establishment, and accused of dishonouring the legacy of vastly acknowledged exegetes, from Ibn Taimiyyah to Ibn Kathir. For his deviance from orthodox practices, Kabara has been, expectedly, declared non-Muslim—and this is the politest term.

In early February, the Kano state government, wary of this tension, sought and secured a court order to close Sheikh Kabara’s mosque in the state capital. Although Izala-privileging political elites dominate governments across the North and have always had their ways in such conflicts, Kabara hasn’t been consumed by the action. But he’s been openly opposed by Governor Ganduje, who likened him to the notorious Muhammad Marwa popularly known as Maitatsine, and threatened that his government “won’t allow the repeat of Maitatsine and we will not treat his threats with kids’ glove as was done in Zaria,” in veiled reference to the detained leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, Sheikh Ibrahim El-zakzaky.

In an unusual twist, the state government announced a debate between Kabara and the state’s Council of Ulama scheduled to hold on March 7. Reacting to this chance to tell his side of the story before a larger audience and his adversaries, Kabara said, “I consider it very sensitive, the issue of disrespecting the personality of the Holy Prophet (S.A.W) and his righteous companions and I have never and will never disrespect the personality of the Holy Prophet Muhammad PBUH or any of his righteous companions,” and that “In view of the above, I accepted this invitation and I will attend the dialogue with an open mind and I hope all the concerned parties will attend the dialogue with an open mind.”

But this long-awaited debate, which promises to re-establish healthy disagreement among the dangerously polarized Muslim clerics in the North, may never happen, or happen as intended. Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), which ought to have served as the neutral umbrella of the Muslim community in Nigeria and headed by the Sultan, has said it won’t participate in any debate with Kabara. The dispute, it said, has been “blown out of proportion by giving it undue publicity by the government and individuals, thereby making a hero out of a cowardly and disrespectful act on the most distinguished of Allah’s creatures, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).”

The alternative to debating Sheikh Kabara is catastrophic. In the same Kano, this idea has led to thousands of deaths between 1979 and 1980. In Zaria, it’s led to a series of extrajudicial mass killings. In the Northeast, it’s led to thousands of deaths and displaced millions of citizens. Kabara may not be a new idea, for he’s accused of propagating an agenda also attributed to Shiites, orientalists and Mu’tazilites, but he’s currently the man in the spotlight and has volumes of radicalizing views preserved in books and cyberspace. Anything less than facing him to deconstruct his idea would make him the very hero JNI fears he’s likely to become.

In the era historians call the Golden Age of Islam, Abu Sina, who’s known as Avicenna, in the West found himself at an intellectual war with the Asha’arite school, which was the mainstream theological school in his time and place, for promoting a philosophical concept perceived as a threat to the prophetic character of Islam. In his four-part books, especially The Incoherence of Philosophers, Al-Ghazali intervened to warn against the corrupting influence of philosophy; a position countered the following century, especially in the book The Incoherence of the Incoherence by Ibn Rushd—or Averroes as called in Western literature. Disagreeing with Al-Ghazali’s assertion that enlightenment is only attainable through divine intervention, Ibn Rushd argued that learning and mastering the methods of science and philosophy allows the individual to understand hidden treasures of the Quran.

The examples of these scholars who thrived between the 8th and the 14th century are guidance on the mortality of ideas, however fiercely marketed or antagonized. The resort to comparing ideas, in this case the friction and harmony of Islam and philosophy, served as a springboard for inquiry into the nature of things—and the Muslim thinkers and scientists were in the front seat of the evolving civilization, inventing new ideas despite the labelling of one another.

Today, the Islamic world has lost that leadership and it’s embarrassing enough that we rush to kill non-Muslim citizens in our country over an anti-Islam cartoon in faraway Europe. More than the Islamophobes, the poorly-indoctrinated Muslims who oppose civilized engagements over doctrinal differences, disfavours Islam. Sheikh Kabara may be a terrible idea but the easiest way to deconstruct it is unmasking its “deficiencies” as Al-Ghazali did to Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, in turn, did to Al-Ghazali. These examples aren’t to compare him to these ancient scholars, but to illustrate the point. Eventually, the audiences get to choose their teachers, even if a century later.

Debating Sheikh Kabara re-asserts the primacy of intellect over the sword. It repogrammes the minds wired to attack the idea they are incapable of countering, and challenges them to learn, unlearn and relearn the virtue that made the Ibn Sinas, the Al-Ghazalis, and the Ibn Rushds the interests of our quests for knowledge and superior ideas.

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