The advent of Islam in Igboland was probably during the mid-nineteen century C.E. or even sometimes prior to that period. The Igala and Idoma people with whom the Igbo share border had cultural influence on the people of Nsuka who are considered as pioneer adherents of Islamic faith among the Igbo. The impact of Islam could not be felt among the Igbo until towards the end of the nineteen century. By the beginning of the twenty first century, a large number of Igbo around Nsuka began to embrace Islam. Before the establishment of the British colonial rule in Igboland, Muslim traders who came to the area won converts for Islam. Those traders include the Hausa, Fulani, Nupe people, and some Yoruba Muslims especially from Ilorin that joined the crusade later. During the British rule, most of the labourers used in road construction and as warrant officers assigned to look after some of the places around Nsuka were Muslims from Nupe and Hausa lands and they assisted the traders in disseminating of Islamic faith.
Many factors have contributed to the spread of Islam in Igboland at the initial stage and also during the twentieth century C.E., these include the intermingling of the Muslim traders with the people of the area through which the host tribe were fascinated by some admirable attributes of their clients such as: sincerity and honesty in business transactions, simplicity of life style as well as generosity and philanthropy. Through this relationship, the Muslims won prolytes to Islam from the ranks of their Igbo patrons and hosts.
It is also a general belief that the prayers and liturgical practices of the Muslims were efficacious. The Igbo were also attracted by the strict and pure monotheistic doctrines of Islam centered on the belief in the worship of one Immortal Omnipresent and Omnipotent Deity along with simplicity of the practices and teachings of Islam which is similar to their fundamental belief in Chineke the only One Creator.
The religion of Islam also lays emphasis on literacy. Prior to the arrival of the colonialists, it was only the Muslims that could read and write, though in Arabic language. The desire to acquire these skills attracted adherents to the religion. Polygamy practiced in Islam is not also in repugnant with the Igbo culture and custom.
These are some of the factors that facilitated the spread of Islam towards the mid 50s of twenty first century at the Nsukka area in places such as: Amufie, Olido, Umuogbo-Ekposhi,Ogurute and Ibagwa-Ani within the present Igbo-Eze North, South and Nsukka Local Government Area.
The greatest Jihadist that has left unbeatable landmark in Igboland was Shaikh Ibrahim Niasse Nwagui of Afikpo. Ibrahim started his Jihad after his historical journey to Senegal where he embraced Islam. He had changed his name to Alhaji Ibrahim. Born in 1929 in the Ezi Ewa compound of Anohia, Egwani studied at the Afikpo Primary School, worked in Calabar and on the island of Fernando Po (now Malabor), where learned some Spanish, and joined the Nigerian army in 1944. “After his discharge he stayed at Lagos where he claims to have had a dream about signs of God which made him to travel far, to Egypt, in West Africa, and to Gabon and the Congo… On his voyages he joined the Moslem sect of Tijaniyya, following the spiritual leadership of Ibrahim Nyas of Kaolak, near Darkar…He joined up after having a dream about this man, whom he then visited, and who converted him. He is currently succeeded by Sheikh Dauda Nwagui as Khalifah.
He used his Nnofia near Afikpo as center for his Islamic activities. Before his death he was able to convert most of the people of the area into Islam. He also toured round Igboland preaching his faith in native language. He was able to win strong people like Musa Udaemba Eme from Aberiba, Alhaji Tijani Akabuo of Orlu, Umar Isa from Ndibe, Alhaji Okpaloko of Oweri, Ibrahim Chukwu Idam including others into the fold of Islam. At Nnofia, his home town, he built a large Islamic center equipped with a large Mosque, library, primary school, hospital and residential apartment. He was reported to have burnt down all the houses of traditional worship in Nnofia on his return from pilgrimage to Mecca in 1966. If jihad means propagation of Islam, only few people could match Nwagui in the contemporary history of Nigeria.
Nwagui also established the Muslim Jama’ah in Igboland and issued identity card to member prolytes. His center at Nnofia was latter chose as operational office of the World Muslim League headed by Shaykh Amanatullah from India who served at the place for several years and upgraded it to the level of the best Islamic center in Nigeria.
The center has produced many young scholars of repute in Arabic and Islamic Studies who are at present propagators of Islam through Arabic, English and their various mother tongues. Other early Jihadists of Igbo origin include Shaykh Yusuf Awah from Owerri, Alhaji Sufyan Agwasim who embraced Islam in 1953. He propagated Islam actively and participated actively in laying the foundation of the Jama’atu ‘l-Muharriril Muslimin and other Muslim Organizations in Igboland; shaykh Abdul Gafar Emetuma the secretary general of the Jama’ah mentioned above, also traveled extensively throughout the Igboland preaching and gaining converts to Islam.
Among them also was Shaykh Alhaji Tijani Akpikpo based in Onitsha who embraced Islam in1950s. Though the Igbo Muslims were in the forefront in the crusade of propagating Islam in their domain, there were participants from other ethnic groups as well. They include Professor Babs Ali Fafunwa the former Minister for education who was reported to have assisted the cause of Islam in and around Nsukka through helping to organize the Islamic center of Nsukka division during the time of his service as Dean Faculty of Education at the University of Nigeria. The members of the center were predominantly Igbos.
The on-going National Conference presented a new dimension that reinforced Dr Egodi Uchendu research submission where Prof. Ibini Ekpe, an Igbo Islamic leader from Ebonyi State complained about the under-representation of Igbo Muslims at the Conference. He said, “I am sad. I am the only Igbo Muslim at this conference. We are not few as people think we are. We are grossly under-represented.” (Punch Newspaper, April 3, 2014).
In an important and prescient article entitled “A Moslem Igbo Village,” Prof. Simon Ottenberg wrote: “When I first carried out field research in Afikpo village group in Igbo country in 1951-1953, Anohia village seemed much like any other village there, well within the usual range of social and cultural variation. When I returned in 1959-60 the major portion of Anohia had become Islamic, a very unusual event among the Igbo.” He identifies two factors responsible for this unusual phenomenon as well as their consequences. According to him, the first was Anohia’s openness to change, which influenced its willingness to welcome both Christian missionaries and the British colonial authorities. The second was the conversion to Islam of native son: “In 1957 a son of Anohia, Okpani Egwani, who had been abroad for many years, suddenly returned. No one had heard from him for a long time… It is said that he was thought dead and that burial services had been performed for him. He returned a Moslem. Obviously there is no evidence of violence in the spread of Islam in Igboland. In the concluding Part 2, I will dwell on the basis on why Ike tagged Islam with the dictum “Islam is a violent religion!!!”(to be concluded in Part 2)
Contemporary Research Work of Dr Egodi Uchendu, University of Nigeria, Nsukka viz:
Current research on: The Emergence of Islam in Nigeria’s Eastern Niger Delta Region, 1890s till date.
• Uchendu, E. (ed.), New Face of Islam in Eastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin: Essays in Honour of Simon Ottenberg (Makurdi: Aboki Publishers, 2012).
• Uchendu, E. Dawn for Islam in Eastern Nigeria: A History of the Arrival of Islam in Igboland (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Publishers, 2011) / Special Nigerian edition (2012).
• Uchendu, E. “Conflict and Islam in the Eastern Niger Delta” in Uchendu, E. (ed.), New Face of Islam in Eastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin: Essays in Honour of Simon Ottenberg (Makurdi: Aboki Publishers, 2012).
• Uchendu, E. “Being Igbo and Muslim: The Igbo of South-eastern Nigeria and Conversions to Islam, 1930s to Recent Times,” Journal of African History 51, no. 1 (2010).
• Uchendu, E. “Evidence for Islam in Southeast Nigeria,” The Social Science Journal (Elsevier), 47, no. 1 (2010).
Simon Ottenberg, “ An Moslem Igbo Village, “ Cahiers D’Etudes Africaines, No. 42, Volume 11, 1971, p.231.
Punch Newspaper, April 3, 2014, “Confab: Muslims fault Christian leaders’ position on constitution”……Available online at [http://www.punchng.com/news/confab-muslims-fault-christian-leaders-position-on-constitution/].