In recent months, Iran’s foreign minister blamed “fanaticism from the Dark Ages,” exported by Saudi Arabia, for sparking extremist movements around the world. Defenders, meanwhile, have argued that blaming Saudi Arabia for global terrorism is a mistake. Both of these arguments are wrong, because they either attribute too much or too little influence to Saudi Arabia. So how far does Saudi Arabia’s religious influence extend beyond its borders? Let’s look at northern Nigeria, home to a huge but diverse Salafist movement and the extremist group Boko Haram.
There is no question that Saudi Arabia had significant influence over the development of Salafism in northern Nigeria. One of the key movers in early, proto-Salafist activism in northern Nigeria was Abubakar Gumi, a senior judge and skilled preacher who supervised the creation of the mass-based, Salafist-leaning Izala movement in 1978. Gumi had a lifelong relationship with Saudi Arabia, representing northern Nigeria at meetings of the Saudi-founded Muslim World League in the 1960s, serving on the consultative council of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic University of Medina in the 1970s and receiving the King Faisal Prize in 1987. Gumi and Izala received significant financial support from Saudi Arabia as well, which helped Izala to mount a serious campaign against Sufism, a form of organized Islamic mysticism that was, and remains, widespread in northern Nigeria.
Another, more recent Salafist leader in northern Nigeria was Jafar Mahmud Adam. He began his career as a young preacher in Izala, graduated from the Islamic University of Medina in 1993 and returned to Nigeria to pioneer a more independent and more globally attuned form of Salafism. In the process, he won a mass audience and helped propel a circle of other preachers, many of them also graduates of Adam’s alma mater, into influential positions as preachers and government officials. Adam regularly invoked his learning in Medina as part of the foundation for his religious authority. For much of his later career, he also received financial support from al-Muntada al-Islami Trust, a London-based charity with ties to Saudi Arabia.
Yet neither Gumi nor Adam was a Saudi puppet, and both men adapted their preaching to the context of northern Nigerian society and politics. Intellectually, Gumi remained deeply immersed in the world of North and West African Islamic scholarship, professing admiration for core thinkers in the Maliki school of religious law until the end of his life, even though Salafists largely reject adherence to any such school.
Although Adam was more in tune with global Salafist thought than Gumi was, he and his companions were also pragmatic actors who made compromises with their environment. Despite his reservations about the fairness and viability of democracy, Adam briefly served as an official in the government of Kano state, where he lived. Gumi went even further in his political activism, at one point urging Muslim women to vote by arguing that “politics is more important than prayer” — a position that would horrify many Saudi scholars. Adam was also open to compromises with Sufis, suggesting in one speech that Salafists and Kano’s two major Sufi orders should have equal shares of an annual, public Ramadan service.
If the Salafist movement in Nigeria has relatively strong ties to Saudi Arabia, it may be surprising that Boko Haram has extremely weak organizational ties to the kingdom. Whereas Gumi and Adam had lifelong, public contacts with the kingdom, Boko Haram has been led by figures who were trained almost entirely within Nigeria.
The group has some intellectual ties to the kingdom. Boko Haram’s founder, Muhammad Yusuf, visited Saudi Arabia for pilgrimages and spent a brief period of self-imposed exile there in 2004, but no evidence has shown that he enrolled in an institution or had contact with senior Saudi scholars and officials. Yusuf’s successor, Abubakar Shekau, had even less contact with Saudi Arabia — there is no evidence that Shekau has ever left Africa. Meanwhile, Adam – although he had mentored Yusuf during the early 2000s – publicly repudiated Boko Haram by the mid-2000s, drawing on his credentials from Medina to paint Yusuf as an ignorant opportunist.
There has been some suspicion that al-Muntada al-Islami Trust funneled money to Boko Haram in the early 2000s to help the group prepare for jihad, but the evidence for this is inconclusive. Even if it is true, this would indicate only an indirect tie between Boko Haram and Saudi Arabia itself. At the same time, though, Yusuf claimed religious authority partly on the basis of his interpretations of senior Saudi scholars’ views. It would be false to say that Saudi Arabia supported Boko Haram, but it would be equally false to say that Saudi Arabia had no influence on the movement’s worldview.
The careers of Gumi, Adam and Yusuf all involved multiple factors. It is unlikely that Gumi would have embraced anti-Sufism without his long experience in British colonial schools; he began to question the religious authorities around him by the late 1940s, well before he ever left Nigeria. It is unlikely that Adam could have become so prominent and independent without the broader transformations that occurred in Africa’s politics and media landscape in the 1990s, which allowed young Muslim preachers to build mass audiences by distributing their sermons through technologies such as cassettes and CDs. Yusuf, meanwhile, probably benefited from the early patronage of political elites in Borno, his home state. For all three men, local ties were just as important as transnational ones.
Saudi Arabia’s influence in Africa, then, should neither be exaggerated nor minimized. Support from Saudi Arabia has boosted the careers of certain religious leaders on the continent, increasing their opportunities, funding and stature. But such support has not determined the content of what those leaders say.
There are also profound limits to the influence of Saudi Arabia’s African partners. Despite decades of anti-Sufism from Gumi and others, Sufism continues to remain vibrant and influential for millions of Muslims in northern Nigeria and beyond. Sometimes, Saudi Arabia is neither arsonist nor firefighter, but simply one factor among many in shaping the religious lives of Muslims around the world.
Alexander Thurston is an assistant professor of teaching for the African studies program at Georgetown University. His first book, published in September, is “Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics.”