Cleric advocating use of charms against Isese worshippers not a Muslim – Ali-agan

rof Imam Abubakr Ali-Agan, an Islamic scholar and Head of Department of Religions, University of Ilorin, Kwara State, tells FATTEH HAMID why Isese traditional worshippers have continued to face stiff opposition from Muslim faithful in Ilorin, amid the controversial issues

Muslims faithful in Ilorin have continued to maintain that Isese worshippers in the town are not allowed to practice in some areas. Why do you think they took that position?

I think the question that needs to be addressed first is: was there ever the practice of Isese in Ilorin before this current agitation? If we can address that question, then we will know who the transgressor is. We all know that the Constitution gives freedom of worship to everybody but where your freedom ends, that is where some other people’s freedom starts. Ilorin has been very peaceful and you can’t pinpoint a situation where there was a religious problem in Ilorin even though we are the host community for other religious classifications. We have Christians living with us; they have churches and that has not been a problem. All of a sudden, Isese worshippers went from one house to the other, and stayed at the gate of the entrance of the Central Mosque; that was where they started and we kicked against it. We are not denying them.

Contrary to the beliefs of all and sundry, Ilorin people are not saying they should not worship their Isese but we cannot open our eyes, allowing some people to poke our eyes with sticks. What we are saying in essence is that if you belong to Isese, so be it. We are told in the Qur’an that unto you your religion and unto me mine. But you cannot try to impose their religion on the community as followers of Isese or whatever they call it. It is like the people of Ilorin going to Abakaliki (in Ebonyi State), or going to the remote parts of the South-East and deciding to observe some of our festivals by moving around the town. It would be very strange to the community. We have been living peacefully with people of other religions but we cannot wake up on a particular day and some people will now attract the attention of the world to their way of worship as if we are in Osun State, which is where they are from, so Ilorin would now be seen as another centre for the Osun-Osogbo festival. This is what we are saying: if you want to practice your Isese, practice it, but don’t make it a social or community event. In this place, you need not tell anybody before you know our identity; we are Muslims. We are the host community and wherever you are, the host has the right to dictate what your limitations are. This is what Ilorin people are doing.

Many have argued that Ilorin is a town that consists of different ethnic groups and tribes with different beliefs, and the residents practice their religions peacefully in the town. Why are the Isese worshippers different and not welcome?

We are not even restricting them to a certain area. Ilorin is alien to the Isese culture, that is what we are saying. As you put it, Ilorin is composed of people of different tribes. We have the Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Gibiri, Beriberi, etcetera. What unites all these ethnic groups to be together as one is the Islamic identity. Among our traditional rulers, we have the Gambari leaders, the Fulani leaders, etcetera. People of different ethnic groups formed what we know today as Ilorin and what unites us all together is the Islamic identity. So, it is those who are practicing Isese that are alien to the customs of our land. They are people from other places that want to make Ilorin a centre for their idol worshipping. This is what we are saying, Ilorin has an identity and the identity is Islam which must be respected. Is it because we use Yoruba as our lingua franca? Can the Isese people go to Kano? Can they go to Sokoto or Maiduguri to provoke their religion? This is nothing more than a provocation of a peace-loving community that is known all over the world that these are people of different tribes but united under one umbrella, Islam, despite their differences. We cannot run away from the fact that Ilorin is synonymous with Islam, so whether we like it or not, we will follow the dictates of the religion. Therefore, how can we wake up one day, I mean, just in recent weeks or months, compared to our hundred years of history and they are claiming Isese? This is a provocation. We are not saying they should not worship. There are people worshipping dogs, monkeys, cows, etcetera. We are not forcing them to be Muslims. We are saying that do not bring your idol worshipping into this peace-loving Muslim-dominated community.

Some clerics in Ilorin were reported to have gone on social media to state that they would use all means to stop the Isese worshippers, calling on other clerics with charms to join them in the cause. If Ilorin is against the use of traditional charms and ways, why are some clerics encouraging the use of charms to drive these worshippers out?

You see when you are in a war, you use all strategies that you think will draw the attention of those who are supposed to have waded into the issue. However, I’m not in support of those who are saying people should bring out charms. The government is supposed to have waded in and let people know their limitations but they are keeping quiet which is why we have these noises here and there. If the government comes out to state its stand to foster peace and it is not to support anybody but to maintain the status quo and when you’re talking about the status quo in Ilorin, then let everybody remain the way they were. Meanwhile, for those saying that people should bring out charms, Islam is strongly against the use of charms. The usage of charms itself belongs to the Isese worshippers. Any cleric that is saying that charms should be brought to fight Isese worshippers is not a Muslim but a part of those idol worshippers. Where do you get that (charms) in Islam? Islam has its ways, customs, and traditions, and anything outside the Sunnah (traditions and lifestyle of Prophet Muhammad PBUH) is shirk (idol worshipping). We as Muslims do not reckon with those who are calling for the use of charms because they are not Muslims but idol worshippers.

This issue was blown out of proportion due to the social media propaganda against Islam and Muslims, which is why it is being presented this way. These Isese worshippers in Ilorin can be counted on fingers. However, because of social media which everybody now has access to, the issue is being presented as if thousands of people are gathering somewhere and Ilorin people are denying them. No! That is not the issue. It is only a woman and her supporters but because of the propaganda that is being presented on social media, the issue is being magnified and amplified as if it is something that will bring religious war. We should ask one another the question: who are we warring with? A woman? It is some of those people that went there that made it seem like an issue that is out of control. No, it’s not! We gave her the land where she built her house and if she is disturbing the peace of our community and need be, we can take back our possession and let her go somewhere else. It is as simple as that. The issue is not out of control as people see it.

The name of the said river that is being used for worship is called Odo Yemoja. Why are Isese worshippers not allowed to worship at a river named after their god? Or don’t you think they have the right to worship the way they want?

I asked a fundamental question earlier if you know the history of Ilorin? I had never heard of the Yemoja River in Ilorin until recently when this propaganda started and they said the river is Odo Yemoja. It is Odo Oko-Olowo; that is the way we have referred to it for many years before the recent weeks that they (Isese worshippers) came with their propaganda. However, because it was presented on social media as Odo Yemoja, people started saying that it was logical for the place to be known as Odo Yemoja, then it means that it (the river) belongs to them. Let them answer the question about the origin of the name. It is not anywhere! I challenge anybody to state whether the history of Ilorin written by Samuel Ajayi Crowther has in it a place referred to as Odo Yemoja. So, it is just a recent development that is not part of our history.

There are also claims that Ilorin is historically a land of the Yoruba and, therefore, the tribe should not have restricted the freedom of the Yoruba to practice their religion in the town. What is your view on this?

What is the religion of the Yoruba? We have Yoruba in Ibadan. Do they worship rivers? There are Yoruba in Ile-Ife, and there are Yoruba in Oyo. Do they worship rivers? Ilorin, as it is, does not belong to the Yoruba or any tribe at that. Ilorin belongs to Islam because it is Islam that unites us. That is why the town is called Ilu Awon Alfa or Geri Alimi (the land of Islamic clerics). We have Yoruba, Fulani, Nupe, Beriberi, and Gobiri in the same town. For argument’s sake, again, what is the religion of the Yoruba? If the religion of the Yoruba people is Isese, why do they not have a day for Isese in Ibadan? Why not in Oyo or Ogbomosho, which are close to us here (in Ilorin)? You can see that it is a provocation. It is just a provocative plan to set the town on fire. Let them do it in Osogbo, Ibadan, Oyo, or Ogbomosho; they are pure Yoruba land.

Nobel Laureate, Prof Wole Soyinka, while criticising the Emir’s action said it was sad to see the ancient city of Ilorin, “a confluence of faiths and ethnic varieties, reduced to this level of bigotry and intolerance”. What is your reaction to that?

Mr Wole Soyinka mastered the English language and English literature. You might not quote me because I called him a mister but he doesn’t have a PhD but I do and I’m a professor. There is a difference between someone grounded in a particular subject, it doesn’t make you know everything. Wole Soyinka’s agenda is always anti-Islam and we know this. He’s never been objective so we don’t reckon with him. You cannot criticise somebody’s way of life simply because it doesn’t tally with your way of life. He doesn’t know what he was saying. His outburst is to show his normal way of life and pattern which is anti-Islam. So, you can’t call such a person intellectual. Intellectualism means objectivism, it means that you should be very objective in your comments and once you take a side, you cannot be objective in your assessment. So, Soyinka’s outburst and even casting aspersions on our Emir is something that reasonable academia will never engage in. You cannot provoke the sensibility of a community and think you are presenting yourself as ‘Mr All-Know’. We decided not to join words with him because that has been his trademark and we know him for that. Wole Soyinka’s comment doesn’t hold water as far as we are concerned. Who is Wole Soyinka? If he mastered the English Language then so be it. If he comes to Ilorin, a boy who has not come of age will render him useless if he starts speaking Arabic but he claims to know everything. Everyone should know their limitations and stand where they belong. Wole Soyinka or no Wole Soyinka, we do not reckon with him.

Some consider the view of the Ilorin emirate on Isese worshippers as religious extremism. Do you think they are wrong?

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. You said Ilorin emirate. Do you know what an emirate means? Ilorin is deep-rooted in Islamic culture and there’s no doubt about it that Islam is the direct opposite of idol worship. If there’s anything that Islam stands against, it is idol worship, which is to join gods or other deities with Almighty Allah. Those who are making this criticism should honestly ask themselves the reason why Ilorin people are living peacefully with Christians. Are they people of the same religion? Why do we have churches in Ilorin? If a good count is to be made on the number of churches we have in Ilorin, I’m sure we’ll triple that of Ile-Ife or Wole Soyinka’s town, wherever he comes from. What we are saying is that we are Muslims and we don’t owe anyone any apology. That is our way of life and we are proud of it. Fundamentally, what Islam has come to do is to uproot idol worshipping and that is our way of life and we don’t owe anyone an apology for that.

Muslims believe Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. Will the actions to forcefully stop their practice in certain areas in the emirate and proposed destruction of their properties by some clerics on social media not be against the teachings of Islam as a religion?

Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has threatened to destroy anyone’s property. And the Yoruba have an adage that states that one won’t allow their eyes to open and allow them to be poked by a dangerous object which means that we won’t be here and allow this to happen. It is not a part of who we are. That the Nigerian Constitution gave freedom of religion does not mean that you can use your way of life, your religion to antagonise the religion of others, or cause problems where there is none. Is there a day in Lagos set aside for the celebration of Isese? Then the question now should be that since we do not have this in these states, why should it be Ilorin? That is the question to be addressed. Why not in other towns? Why Ilorin? That is the question the people of Ilorin are echoing. I don’t think there’s a problem in asking that question.

 As a way to make peace, do you think the Emir should call Yeye Ajasikemi OIokun Omolara, make peace with her and make restitution in whichever way he can for the “grievous insult” to the Yoruba race, as recommended by Prof Soyinka?

Forget about Soyinka! Do you want to bring our revered Emir down? To talk with who? Did the Emir reply to Soyinka? The Emir occupies a revered position. He doesn’t even know that anybody is saying anything. It is we that are meant to silence the people that are raising dust. What one expects from Soyinka and his likes is to address a point that why Ilorin people live peacefully with Christians and say no to those Isese worshippers. If Soyinka can answer this objectively, then he’ll also know why the Ilorin people are saying no to Isese.

What is the lasting solution to the current crisis?

There’s no crisis. A crisis with who? There’s no crisis. We are saying we do not want something in our community and you’re saying there is a crisis. You’re bringing something alien to my community and as the host community, we are saying that we do not want this in our community. Is that a crime? So, what crisis are you talking about? Till tomorrow, we say no to Isese!