Negotiating Relationships in a Mixed Religious Society: Islam among the Igbo of Southeast Nigeria

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The Igbo territory east of the River Niger is the major ethnic nation in Southeast Nigeria, the former Eastern Region. Located also within the region are the Efik, Ibibio, Ijaw, and a number of smaller ethnic communities. (1) Southeast Nigeria generally, and Igboland in particular, have been repeatedly described as a predominantly Christian region. (2) Only a few years back, a Catholic priest and scholar referred to Igboland as one of Africa's homogenous Christian regions. (3) The Igbo Christian identity at present does not derive from the total absence of other religious groups within it but the result of considerably few numbers of members of other faiths (indigenous Igbo religion, Eastern religions, and esoteric religions) vis-a-vis Christians in Igboland. While still retaining its profile as Nigeria's most populous Christian region, Igboland began after the Nigeria-Biafra war (the Nigerian civil war of 1967 to 1970) to manifest tendencies indicative of religious heterogeneity. Indeed, the Nigeria-Biafra war was an important catalyst in the development of an indigenous Muslim community in Igboland, having opened Igboland to a varied range of external influences especially those linked to religion. (4)

This paper considers an important issue relevant for understanding the development of Islam in Igboland since its emergence in the first quarter of the twentieth century: the nature of social interactions (actions, encounters, relations) between Muslims--both migrants and indigenes--and non-Muslims in Igboland. The paper begins with an examination of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in Igboland from the earliest indication of Islam in the area and proceeds to the nature of the relationship among the Igbo of different religious affiliations. In the process it shows the transformation of Igboland since after the Nigeria-Biafra war into a society embracing widely divergent religious philosophies.

METHODS OF DATA COLLECTION

Social interaction as used in this paper refers to the changing sequence of social actions between individuals or groups who modify their actions and reactions as a response to the actions of their interacting partner(s). In other words, they are incidents in which people attach meaning to the situation, interpret what they think others are meaning, and respond accordingly. This study utilizes individual and group narratives of daily encounters between members of different religious communities in Igboland. Integral to the discussion are the efforts at coexistence and the attempts to establish spheres of influence by Igbo indigenes differentiated by their religious identities. Archival records and oral data collected from February 2003 until June 2006 from Muslims and non-Muslims of Igbo and other ethnic groups played an important part in this construction. Few interviews were conducted after 2006. Over forty persons of Igbo and non-Igbo origins were interviewed. The majority of the interviewees had primary education. Quite an impressive number had post secondary school certificates. The few persons with no exposure to formal education had the privilege of Qur'anic education. Interviews were held privately at a convenient location to the interviewees. Follow up sessions were held in some cases to clarify issues. Interviewees freely used one of these three languages to share their knowledge: English. Pidgin English, and Igbo.

DATA PRESENTATION AND ANALYSIS

The Beginning of a Relationship

One parameter for determining group integration in a mixed society is by examining the nature of the interactions of the component units in their daily encounters. Muslims and non-Muslims in Igboland like Muslims and non- Muslims elsewhere are not monolithic communities that interact as blocs. (5) For well over a century the primary element defining and determining the Igbo traditional (conventional) practice was the Igbo religion, itself an important part of that traditional practice. …