Conversion on Screen: A Glimpse at Popular Islamic Imaginations in Northern Nigeria

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Journal article published in Africa Today, a publication of Indiana University Press. Volume 54, Number 4. You can purchase a copy of this journal from IU Press at: http://inscribe.iupress.org/loi/aft This article discusses several northern Nigerian video feature films that depict stories about conversion to Islam. Based on three months of fieldwork in 2003 and a close reading of Hausa videos and video magazines, it suggests reading these films against the backdrop of the current process of religious and cultural revitalization associated with reformist Islam and the reintroduction of the shari’a legal code within the northern states of Nigeria since 1999. Video filmmakers have used religious themes—and foremost, conversion stories—to give a “religious flair” to their products, a flair that resonates with the permeation of public culture with fundamentalist Islam. Far from addressing potential future converts, conversions on screen are geared toward a Muslim Hausa-speaking audience. The invention of heroic jihads and successful conversion campaigns may have helped assert northern identities at a time when, on the national level, northern Muslim society felt politically and economically deprived at the hands of a federal government led by a southern born-again Christian president. In a wider context, the link between religion and media suggested by the material warrants a comparison with similar processes in southern Nigeria and elsewhere, where Pentecostal practices have migrated beyond the religious domain to become part of public culture.
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  To justiy the morallegitimacy o their videolms, several lmmakershave recast their work inreligious terms as admoni-tion or preaching, and likenthemselves to religiousteachers.  Conversion on Screen:A Glimpse at Popular IslamicImaginations in Northern Nigeria M K This article discusses several northern Nigerian video eature lms that depict stories about conversion to Islam. Basedon three months o eldwork in 2003 and a close reading o Hausa videos and video magazines, it suggests reading these lms against the backdrop o the current process o religiousand cultural revitalization associated with reormist Islamand the reintroduction o the shari’a legal code within the northern states o Nigeria since 1999. Video lmmakers haveused religious themes—and oremost, conversion stories—to give a “religious fair” to their products, a fair that resonateswith the permeation o public culture with undamentalistIslam. Far rom addressing potential uture converts, conver-sions on screen are geared toward a Muslim Hausa-speakingaudience. The invention o heroic jihads and successul con- version campaigns may have helped assert northern identities at a time when, on the national level, northern Muslim soci-ety elt politically and economically deprived at the hands o a ederal government led by a southern born-again Christian president. In a wider context, the link between religion andmedia suggested by the material warrants a comparison withsimilar processes in southern Nigeria and elsewhere, where Pentecostal practices have migrated beyond the religious domain to become part o public culture. Introuction More than ty years ago, Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna o Sokoto and Premier oNigeria’s Northern Region rom 1954 to 1966, toured the Nigerian MiddleBelt and other regions adjacent to the Muslim north with a mission toconvert to Islam the so-called “pagan” people, who had been let behind bythe spread o Islam during the nineteenth and the rst hal o the twentieth   C  on v e r  s i    on  on  s  C r e e n  4  6   af     r  i      c a t  o dA y  5 4  (   4  )    century. These public ceremonies were highly ormalized. Invited by a local authority, the Sardauna presided over the conversion o whole congregations, sometimes up to several thousand people. Ater lecturing about the tenetso Islam, he would distribute large numbers o copies o the Qur’an, prayerbeads, and booklets with prayer guidelines and other Islamic instructionswritten in Hausa (Paden 1986:566–569). Soon the press picked up the storyand provided “running scores o numbers o converts in the north,” and “literally dozens o eature stories” were delivered by northern media on the conversion campaigns in 1965 alone (Paden 1986:568). Today, still, AhmaduBello is remembered as a great lover o Islam, who led the last unbelieversrom their mountain hideouts, to which they had fed during the slave-raiding times o the nineteenth century. Until recently, these were the lastconversions to Islam in northern Nigeria to be mass-mediatized and delib-erately politicized within Nigerian ethnoregional politics. In the meantime,conversions among the same ethnic groups and Hausa-speaking Maguzawa,non-Muslims living in rural areas o Hausaland, are sure to have occurred(Last 1979), albeit in a quiet and publicly almost unnoticed manner. The latest mass-mediatized conversions are popular ctions on screen, which began to hit the video market in 2002. Products o the Hausa video industry, these conversions are told within the rameworks o dierent videolm genres. Within the epic, set in precolonial times, Muslim mujahids ght against pagan tribes and convert them to Islam, thus only vaguely relatingto the nineteenth century’s jihads. Within the ramework o the romanticmelodrama, pious Muslim boys have to choose between a pagan and aMuslim girl, and in a genre crossover o Western vampire, science-ction,and police lms, a poor pagan has to be cured rom vampirism beore he canconvert to Islam and return to his tribesmen on a proselytizing mission.These ctions, o course, are ar rom resembling historical or current pro-cesses o religious change; their recent occurrence, however, can be related to the current process o religious and cultural revitalization associated with the reintroduction o the shari’a legal code in many northern states o theNigerian conederation since the year 2000.In this context, conversions on screen may serve several purposes. Farrom addressing potential uture converts, these lms are geared toward aMuslim Hausa-speaking audience. Inventing heroic jihads and successulconversion campaigns on video may have helped to assert northern Muslimidentities at a time when—on the national level—large segments o thenorthern society elt politically and economically deprived at the hands oa ederal government that until the elections o 2007 was led by a southern born-again Christian president. In this regard, Muslim conversion videos canbe understood as a reaction to similar southern Nigerian lms that propagate Christianity. The videos serve both an inner and an outer religious mission,which somewhat mirrors the motivations or the reintroduction o shari’a .The Islamic reorm o the legal system was intended to serve as a basis or an all-embracing social and cultural reorm o the northern Nigerian Muslim society in religious terms. Since it aimed at religious reversion o nominal  Ma t t h i   a  s K r i   n  g  s  4 7   af     r  i      c a t  o dA y  5 4  (   4  )    Muslims, rather than at conversion o non-Muslims, it shares at lot with earlier movements o religious reorm dating back as ar as Dan Fodio’s jihad at the beginning o the nineteenth century. Under the new law, prostitutionand consumption o alcohol are sentenced with draconian punishments.Witchcrat and “worship or invocation o any subject other than Allah” arepunished by death (Peters 2003:41). Other regulations relate to dress codesand the conduct o women and men in public. Through reversion—the pious reorientation o their everyday lives—many Muslims expected Allah’s blessings and as an eect communal as well as individual prosperity (Last2000:147). In constructing an “evil other” o the pious Muslim, conversionlms may serve their Muslim audiences as proo that their own reversions,their attempts at becoming better Muslims, are the right option, lest theyturn “pagan” themselves.Since the logic o the shari’a project is based on binary oppositions,it stimulates the construction o religious and cultural boundaries through processes of radical inclusion and exclusion. Christians and other non- Muslims have to be excluded rom the community o the aithul underconstruction or included by conversion. 1 Thus, some o the videos containsequences that may serve as conversion manuals, didactic instructions onhow to win a non-Muslim over to Islam, and all lms reward Muslim piety,or it is always the most pious who successully proselytizes and thereoregains divine blessing.Apart rom that, lms about conversion can be understood as proo otheir producers’ religious commitment. Even beore the reintroduction o shari’a, Hausa lmmakers were accused o undermining the moral standards o Islam, and it is to this period o heated debates about the video industry Ishall turn beore exploring the conversion videos in more detail. Prelue: Shari’a an Censorship Ater the reintroduction o shari’a to Kano State in December 2000, radi-cally minded members o the religious establishment called or a total banon video production. Kano, situated in the heart o the Muslim north o Nigeria, was already the center o the Hausa video industry, which had taken o in the late 1990s; today, “Kanywood,” as the city is sometimes called, hosts plenty o small production companies specializing in the production oHausa-language eature lms, distributed as VHS cassettes or VCDs and con- sumed by Hausaphone audiences all over West and Central Arica (Adamu 2002; Adamu, Adamu, and Jibril 2004; Larkin 2000, 2004). In their ormative years, the dominant genres o Hausa videos were the romantic melodrama,and, to a lesser extent, comedy. Inspired mostly by Indian lms, video lm-makers, some o whom had a background as dramatists and writers o popu-lar prose, elaborated on the oreign concepts o “romance” and “love mar-riage,” which stand in sharp contrast to the traditional concepts o arranged and orced marriage. Since many lms explored novel gender and generation
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