The Sheikh Who Defied the Judge

As he stepped out of the mosque where he had been preaching for the last hour and a half, Sheikh Abduljabbar Kabara instinctively knew it would be his last. He had been reported to the state government by Islamic scholars, including those of the Izala, Salafiyya, and Tijaniyya sects. When his followers saw him being escorted by members of Kano state’s religious police force, they huffed and puffed at the perceived injustice meted out to their leader because of his alternative Sufi beliefs. This was July 16, 2021.

Kabara, who is a member of the Qadiriyya Sufi order has been at odds with the other Sunni Muslim clergy in northern Nigeria, most notably the ultraconservative Salafis. Within Islam, there are two main schools of thought. Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims are the two groups (also spelled Shiites; remember El-Zakzaky of Kaduna?). Sunni and Shia identities formed for the first time not long after the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 C.E., with the discussion about leadership succession serving as the key cause. Sunni (followers of the Prophet’s example — Sunnah) were those who followed the Prophet’s closest associate (Abu Bakr). Shi’a (the followers of the Party of ‘Ali — Shi’atu Ali) were those who supported the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law (‘Ali).

Sufism straddles the two worlds. In some cases, Sufis accept teachings from both traditions. They obey the five pillars of Islam. They affirm their faith in Allah, the one and only God, and Mohammed as his messenger. They pray five times a day, give to charity, fast, and make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. However, while most Muslims believe that they are on the pathway to Allah and hope to become close to God in Paradise — after death and the Last Judgment — Sufis also believe that it is possible to draw closer to God and to more fully embrace the divine presence in this life. Sufis believe that inner purity and reflection can bring them closer to Allah. They accomplish this through meditation and with direction from their spiritual masters, or “murshid” (guide).

Sufism emerged after Mohammed’s death in 632, although it did not mature into orders until the 12th century, when their closeness to the ruling powers, such as the Ottoman Empire, helped their spread and influence. Mainstream Islam says that music and dance are not good ways to worship God, but Sufis think that music and dance are better ways to worship God.

Some Sufi orders take their beliefs to such interesting dimensions that Christian Pentecostals would recognize themselves: The feeling that their perfect love for God and connection with Him freed them from the constraints of the law, which they believed were only for those who needed some form of force to motivate them to act. “What need had Sufis for the five daily prayers, which are basic to Islam in all of its forms, when they were constantly in prayer to God, day and night?”, some sub-sects in Sufism ask.

These practices and more have made them objects of persecution in the broader Islamic community. According to Pew Research, 50% of other Muslims in Middle East and North Africa believe Sufis are not Muslims. It is worse in other regions; in Southern and Eastern Europe, a median of 68% recognize Sufis as not Muslims, while in Southeast Asia and Central Asia the comparable figures are 76% and 82%. When a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai region was bombed by affiliates of the Islamic State armed organization in November 2017, leaving over 300 people dead, the assailants declared they were targeting what they termed as ‘heretics of Islam’. Those were the Sufis. In 1925, the Republic of Turkey outlawed all Sufi orders and dissolved their institutions. The Islamic Republic of Iran has purportedly persecuted Sufis for allegedly opposing the government doctrine of “governance of the jurist” (i.e., that the supreme Shiite jurist should be the nation’s political leader).

Therefore, when Sheikh Kabara was arrested on that sunny Friday, it was done under the guise of his supposed heretical teachings. The disagreement sprang from his perspective on Islamic history and theology, which he argues is riddled with myths, lies, distortions, and concoctions. Kabara’s detractors accused him of blaspheming the prophet and his companions, some of whom Kabara accused of lying about the prophet and purposely putting him in a negative light. The prosecution pointed to exact dates when the infractions were committed: Aug. 10, Oct. 25, and Dec. 20, 2019; while conducting his sermons at his two mosques.

Kabara is the son of Sheikh Nasiru Kabara, a former leader of the Qadiriyya sect of West Africa. After schooling in Iraq majoring in Islamic theology for 25 years of his life, he finally returned to Nigeria to take over from his father. His Sufi order is more inclined towards Shia, as he said in a 2020 interview with the BBC:

“After conducting extensive research on my own, I discovered that the Shi’a have more scriptural evidence than the Sunnis. I will not bother myself if you call me a Shi’a, but I’ll be concerned if you call me a Sunni.”

In the first days of 2021, scholars of the other sects reported him to the state government, stating that if care is not taken, Kabara’s blasphemy will lead to bloodshed and chaos in the state. On February 4, the government banned Kabara from public preaching. The embattled preacher did not relent, disputing the claims and requesting a public debate with his colleagues, whom he accused of completely misrepresenting his sermons. On July 10, 2021, a debate between him and four other Islamic scholars who represented the Izala, Salafiyya, Tijjaniyya, and Qadiriyya sects was arranged. Professor Salisu Shehu of Bayero University Kano presided over the debate, which was overseen by the Kano State Ministry of Religious Affairs.

After the debate, Professor Shehu said that Kabara did not answer a single question posed by the other scholars. Kabara defended himself by saying there was no time to make references from the over 500 books he brought to the debate. Shehu disagreed, arguing that Kabara had no excuses considering the numerous aides he brought to the debate. He referred to the swift and direct answers provided by his opponents. Kabara maintained he did well at the debate. He responded that the 10 minutes given by the moderator were not enough for him to respond adequately and that he needed more time to prepare himself.

In a matter of days after the debate, Kabara was arrested, precisely on July 16. He was charged by the Kano State government with blasphemy, incitement, and various offenses. The trial lasted for 15 months. The prosecution counsel, Suraj Sa’eda, accused Kabara of contravening sections 382(b) and 375 of Kano State Shari’a Law 2000.

“The defendant made a blasphemous comment about Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his marriage to Nana Safiyya in Hadith 1365, 1428, 2326, and 5120 in Sahih-Bukhari and Muslim. He posted it on his Facebook page, Ashabul Kahfi.”

The 52-year-old Kabara rejected the accusation, countering that he only translated the meaning of the hadith and was actually the one protecting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) based on the comment against him in the hadiths. He opined that the testimonies against him were based on discrepancies in their interpretations of Islam. During the trial, Kabara fired his lawyers after he accused them of conspiring against him. And, at one point, he chose to defend himself without a lawyer, to which the court objected and appointed one for him due to the gravity of the claims against him.

Yesterday, the judge, Ibrahim Sarki-Yola, reviewed the court proceedings from last year for almost four hours. The testimony of witnesses and the accused’s objections were among the proceedings examined. Following a psychiatric certification, the court stated that it is satisfied that the accused is medically fit. After quoting various texts, the court decided that the cleric’s words were blasphemous against the Holy Prophet Muhammad. The court was further convinced that the accused purposefully misinterpreted religious texts and made up the blasphemous words against the Holy Prophet Muhammad.

As the judge spoke, Kabara sat quietly in the courtroom packed with lawyers and journalists, with scores of armed police and other paramilitary personnel on guard outside. Before reading the final judgment, the judge asked the defense attorney if he had anything to say to the court. Abubakar Ado, the defense lawyer, asked the court to be lenient, saying that his client said the words by mistake and that the accused was a breadwinner with wives and children who needed him.

However, as the defense attorney was presenting his client’s plea, the accused, Kabara, interrupted. He stated that he did not hire a lawyer to represent him and that anything the lawyer said did not reflect him. He requested that the court allow him to speak for himself one last time before the verdict was read. His request was granted by the judge. Kabara verbally attacked the judge. He accused him of being unjust and challenged him to execute him.

“You, Ibrahim Sarki Sani Yola, changed the entire story of the case; go ahead and sentence me to death; I will die honorably, meeting my God.”

“And I am pleading with my followers not to worry about the sentencing as I will die as a righteous person,” Kabara said while returning to his seat at the accused box.

The judge, Sarki-Yola, then had a brief break before returning about 1:10 p.m. to give his judgment. He ordered the seizure of all the 189 books used by the cleric to defend himself in court. He also prohibited the use of the clerics’ religious sermons and the use of his photographs throughout Kano State. The judge also ordered the state to seize the cleric’s two mosques, where he made the comments against the prophet.

Then he sentenced Kabara to death by hanging.

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