On the Controversy in Kano and the Planned Public Debate

Hausa-speaking Muslims are looking forward to a debate coming up in Kano later this month. This ‘debate’ appears to be the latest iteration of the historical encounter that has pitched those who have raised objections to the validity of Sunni Prophetic traditions and the narrative integrity of the Companions of the Prophet against those who have upheld same. The former includes orientalists, Shi’ites, Mu’tazilites and reformist/modernist Sunni Muslims while the latter are Orthodox Sunni scholars from both Salafi/Athari/Izala and Ash’ari/Sufi persuasions. The trustworthiness of the ultimate transmitters of hadiths and the validity of the recorded traditions of the Prophet constitute the bone of contention. In Sunni Islam, since al-Shafi’i, authentic hadiths have been regarded as revealed truth just like the Qur’an, and with similar legislative powers. They are considered unimpeachable.

There is absolutely nothing new about what Shaikh AbdulJabaar Nasir Kabara, the outspoken scion of the famous Kabara scholarly and Sufi dynasty of Kano, has been saying. He has articulated them in his books to which rebuttals have been penned by local scholars. The same arguments have been more eloquently articulated by orientalists like David Samuel Margoliouth, Ignaz Goldziher, Joseph Schacht, and GHA Joynboll; the Egyptians like Muhammad Taufiq Sidqi (of the ‘Qur’an only’ school), Mahmud Abu Rayyah, Ahmed Subhy Mansour, and Muhammad Abu Zayd; the Indians like Chiragh Ali, Aslam Jairajpuri, Abdullah Chakralawi who were mostly of the ‘Qur’an only’ school, and numerous scholars from the Shi’ite camp, chief among them being the Lebanese Shaikh AbdulHusain al-Musawi from whom Abu Rayyah took most of his ideas about Abu Hurairah. Muhammad Tawfiq Sidqi was engaged by Taha al-Bishri and Salih al-Yafi’i in a series of exchanges on the pages of al-Manar which culminated with his recanting. Prominent among those who have passionately written to defend the Sunnah, as enshrined in recorded hadiths, in modern times are the Syrian Mustafa Siba’i (he specifically incorporated a rebuttal to Abu Rayyah in his book) and Muhammad Ali Sabuni, and the Indian Muhammad Mustafa Azmi. The Yemeni Abdulrahman ibn Yahya al-Mu’allimi also wrote a definitive response to Abu Rayyah. Abdulmunim Sâlih al-Izzi also wrote a book in defense of Abu Hurairah. Even Joynboll has scrutinized some of the arguments of Abu Rayyah. These books are there for those who want to independently follow the arguments.

But can arguments, rebuttals and counter-rebuttals extensively articulated in numerous books be satisfactorily covered in public debates? How many hours or days have been earmarked for the debate? What is the possible outcome of an exchange in which the interlocutors differ fundamentally in methodology and hate each other’s guts? Can a debate already poisoned by hot polemics and ad hominem attacks really lead anywhere?

Shaikh AbdulJabbaar has impugned the characters of people considered by Sunnis to be beyond reproach like the Companions of the Prophet such as Umar (the second caliph), Anas (the personal attendant of the Prophet), Abu Hurairah (the most prolific transmitter of Prophetic traditions). He has also attacked hadith luminaries like az-Zuhri, al-Bukhari, and Muslim. He has pummeled Mu’awiyah, the first Omayyad caliph, whose historical legacy is mixed even by Orthodox Sunni accounts, but who is nonetheless counted among the Companions and given a pass. These are people held in high regard by Sunni Muslims. He has described them as deceivers, hypocrites, and liars. He has also castigated the illustrious exponents of the Salafi methodology such as ibn Taimiyyah, ibnul Qayyim, adh-Dhahabi, ibn Kathir. This is a frontal attack. Ibn Hajar, the great exegete of al-Bukhari’s collection has also not been spared. AbdulJabbaar has thrown spears at the very heart of Orthodox Islam. He has been boastful and confrontational, and frequently accuses his contemporary adversaries of insincerity, mendacity and ignorance.

I have personally observed that his translations from Arabic texts are sometimes tendentious, less than faithful to the original. He even interpolates words in translation in order to make his point. This is probably part of what has infuriated the other scholars and made them to impugn his motives.Meanwhile, the other scholars have also gratuitously labelled AbdulJabbaar with negative terms like zindiqi (unbelieving heretic), mulhidi (atheist), kafiri (unbeliever), jahili (ignorant), mahaukaci (lunatic), wawa (stupid, foolish), dan iska (worthless), la’ananne/tsinanne (accursed). He has been discursively kicked out of the fold of Islam. He has also been accused of plagiarizing the work of Mahmud Abu Rayyah in writing his own book while deceptively letting on that he has been conducting independent research. I have Abu Rayyah’s book, but alas I don’t have AbdulJabbaar’s text to compare.

He has been charged with insulting the Prophet, which to me seems a stretch, a long stretch, a part of the polemics borne out of mutual suspicion of evil motives. And he has stated several times that his object is to defend the sanctity of the Prophet that has, in his understanding, been subverted by some narrations. He asserts that it’s these problematic narrations that provide materials for the vituperations of the orientalists and iconoclastic artists like Salman Rushdie and the European cartoonists. His adversaries disagree. There seems to be an impasse here. They have indirectly instigated Muslims to attack him – many preachers and scholars have said that they would not stop the people from taking action against him. Pious sentiments got whipped up. Some people even say that Kano was on the verge of exploding. They finally got the State Government to ban him from further public preaching and close his centre.

Because of his actual attack on some revered Companions and the perceived attack on the inviolate personality of the Prophet himself, his condemnation has been near universal. Even the former Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II has lent his voice to the condemnation. I recall that he also chastised the Shi’ites in the aftermath of the 2015 Zaria Massacre. Notably, it has been mainly, but by no means solely, Shi’ite preachers and scholars who have been bold enough to speak in his support. Many sympathisers have self-censured and kept mum.

AbdulJabbaar and his supporters feel that he has been unjustly treated and has not been given a fair hearing. I also think that he shouldn’t have been gagged. I think this public debate being organized by the government is an attempt to address this perception of unfairness.So far, this exchange between AbdulJabbaar and his interlocutors, as seen in countless videos on Facebook and YouTube, has been acrimonious, polemical, and full of invectives in which the substantial arguments are often difficult to extricate.Will this public debate change anything? Will he even cooperate to have a real debate? Who will be the judge? How will the ‘winner’ be decided? Will it matter to the followers of the two sides?

AbdulJabbaar’s frequently expressed desire for a debate comes across as half-hearted. If his ‘debate’ with Alkassim Hotoro is anything to go by, I doubt if anything will come out of this one. In that much publicized debate, he surprisingly kept hedging and putting up caveats. He shirked from defending a book written with his own hand. He was less than brave. It is the same story in the well-circulated telephone conversation between him and Dr Rabiu Rijiyar Lemo. He caviled and quibbled about procedure. However, after the ban, he has reiterated his readiness for his views to be challenged and even disproved.

So, let’s wait and see.

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