Why we profess Islam despite discrimination in S’East – Igbo Muslims

By Amarachi Okeh

AMARACHI OKEH writes about the growing popularity of Islam in the South-East and how Igbo Muslims are coping in a region largely dominated by Christians and adherents of the African Traditional Religion

It was about 49 years ago when Eze Amara 1 of Ovungwo, Yusuf Onumaegbu, a native of Isiala Ngwa South in Abia state, was transferred to help build schools in Kano State that he found salvation in Islam and embraced the religion.

It was simply a matter of coming to accept the religion after he read the Quran and interacted with the adherents in the northern state, he said.

Quitting his orthodox church and religion, a religion he had known for almost three decades of his existence, was not a difficult decision for him as the conviction he had about the Islamic faith was too strong for him to ignore.

“When I was in the northern region working, I associated with a lot of Muslims. Then I bought a copy of the Quran. After reading it, I saw facts that attracted me and I saw how people showed that Islam was an honest religion.

“The adherents were very honest in their dealings and never overcharged. When they tell you yes, it is yes and when they tell you no, it is no. So, I decided to embrace Islam,” he said.

The traditional ruler, who was already married at the time, said embracing Islam was a personal decision for him that he didn’t force his wife then or any of the two more wives he married later to adopt.

After 10 years of living in the North and practising Islam, he said he returned to Abia to relatives who didn’t understand his decision. They were muddled at ‘the strangeness’ when he finally returned to the South-East as a Muslim, but with time, they embraced him just as he is.

Being an Igbo Muslim in a society where the major religions practised are Christianity or African Traditional Religion was not without trials, he admitted,  but chose to remain undeterred, having chosen a part he was convinced was the right path.

He said he faced a lot of discrimination especially as most people did not have a good understanding of what truly Islam is.

“In a community where all persons are predominantly Christians, they look at you as a misfit but for me, I don’t care what people think about me, what I care about is what Almighty Allah will provide me with and make me strong.

“It was a herculean task. I faced a lot of criticism. I was called Boko Haram, Miyetti Allah. People kept telling me that Islam is a religion of war but it is not like that. When they say that, I try to convince them but some of them who are mostly ‘blind’ still stick to their own beliefs and what they think is right.”

Choosing Islam was a personal decision that Onumaegbuna made but two of his wives are Christians while only one followed his religion. He also gave his children the liberty to choose their religion and considers himself a liberal.

“Everyone should go their own way. As long as Islam is concerned, if you are convinced it is the true religion of Allah, you follow, if not, you follow what you think is good,” he said.

Being an Igbo Muslim and a traditional ruler is an uncommon combination in the region, but Onumaegbuna believes he wears the two caps with competence.

Speaking about Ramadan, a period where a Muslim’s faith is put to the test, he said, “It is a period where you ask Almighty Allah to assist you in whatever you are doing and forgive your sins. Then it is a test of your faith in Islam, the period where you have to give whatever you have as much as you can to the needy.

“As you do that, Almighty Allah will pay you back in 100 folds but you only do as much as you can. Don’t do more than you can do.”

‘Islam gave me freedom’

This is the fourth year Amaal Oluchukwu will be observing Ramadan. Choosing Islam at the age of 20 was a decision that matured after years of admiring the religion, their festivities, and way of life.

“Nobody preached to me. It was my choice. I decided to become a Muslim in 2020.

“I had always loved everything about Islam from when I was younger, then I travelled to Abuja to stay with my aunt, and there, I decided to convert to the religion when I was 20,” told our correspondent.

To her, there were similarities between Islam and Christianity that helped her to make that decision. Her family, she said, supported her decision and helped her to feel welcome among them.

“When I was a Christian, I didn’t like exposing my body and I reasoned that since both of them are similar and I loved Islam, I decided to go become a Muslim.”

“I love the idea of becoming a Muslim. It is no different. It is not hard being a Muslim girl because they (Muslim girls) dress decently and cover their bodies.

“For me, that’s the idea, being the girl you want to be and wearing all you want. Islam gave me liberty and peace of mind to be the kind of woman I want to be. I love my life as a Muslim woman.”

Although Oluchukwu told our correspondent that she had not faced any form of physical discrimination by the Igbo and others because of her religious affiliation, it is not the same on social media, especially on X (formerly Twitter), she said.

“I have never faced any discrimination in real life but I experience it a lot on social media. In real life, people are amazed to see an Igbo Muslim.”

 Nothing special about being Igbo Muslim – Lawyer

Uthman Isa Tochukwu from the Igbo Eze South Local Government Area of Enugu State, who was born into a Muslim family, believes there is nothing strange about being a Muslim of Igbo extraction.

The 33-year-old lawyer said, “As we know, religion is a free thing. We are surprised that when people see Igbo Muslims, they wonder because religion is a free thing.

“Tribe is one thing, religion is another. You can be from a tribe and be free to subscribe to another religion,” Tochukwu remarked.

“I was born a Muslim; I was never a Christian at any time. All my family members are Muslims even though we are from Enugu.

“There are other Muslims in my community; there are Muslims in all other eastern states; we can argue that the percentage is low, but there are Muslims,” he added.

Like every other Igbo, his life has been pretty normal, he said, except when he tells people his name and they express surprise at the combination.

Like Oluchukwu, he said the major discrimination he contends with comes from social media and people of south-eastern extraction.

“When I introduce myself, people ask with amazement about my name; it has become part of my life. Apart from Twitter (X) where I am bullied by some section of Igbo people who claim that my family was not originally Muslim but converted because of money.

“However, at home, we don’t get any sort of discrimination because I have family members who are Christians. People should know that religion just like any other free thing is a constitutional right and you mustn’t be a member of a tribe to subscribe to it,” he added.

 Islam in South-East

Nigeria is a secular state and freedom of religion is guaranteed, according to the Nigerian Constitution. However, some religions are more commonly found and practised in some regions than others.

The 2018 CIA data, as quoted by the European Union Agency of Asylum, found that Islam was the religion of 53.5 per cent of Nigerians and was the dominant religion in the North, with Christianity (45.9 per cent of Nigerians) dominant in the South.

The entrance of Islam into Igboland is thought to have been through Nsukka in Enugu State, considered the cradle of Islam in South-East Nigeria, with claims that the religion was extended to Nsukka in the 19th century, Prof Egodi Uchenna from the Department of History and International Relations, University of Nsukka, wrote in a paper titled, ‘Evidence for Islam in South-East Nigeria’.

It was recorded that around 1909, a Hausa Muslim trader from Bida, Ibrahim Aduku, introduced Islam to the eastern region.

Uchendu wrote, “Some myths have developed around Aduku with some alleging that militarily and with superior weapons, he conquered Enugu Ezike and its 33 villages, settled there against the wishes of the indigenes, and became their Eze or ruler.”

During the launch of the Igbo translation of the Quran by Muhammed Muritala Chukwuemeka in Abuja, 2022, Uchendu, in a paper titled, “Islam has a small presence in Nigeria’s Igbo region: what a new Quran translation offers,” disclosed that there were over 10,000 Igbo Muslims.

Yoruba make up about 21 per cent of the country’s population – estimated to be over 216 million – and about half that number are Muslims. The Hausa-Fulani make up about 29 per cent of Nigeria’s population and are predominantly Muslims.

“It is remarkable that Igbo has joined them because the Igbo population is estimated at 98 per cent Christian. There are only about 13,500 Igbo Muslims,” she wrote.

Delving into how Islam became established in the Igbo land, Uchendu wrote in an article published by The Conversation that in 1958, the first known group conversion to Islam among the Igbo occurred in Enohia in Abakaliki division, south-eastern Nigeria.

“Okpani Nwagui, a Roman Catholic Christian who had converted to Islam a year earlier, mediated this conversion. He assumed the name Ibrahim Niasse Nwagui.

“By the outbreak of the Nigeria-Biafra war in July 1967, the population of Igbo converts to Islam stood at roughly 200. In 1984, the scholar, Abdurahman Doi, wrote that there were 3,450 indigenous Igbo Muslims.

“The latest figure, collated from hajj records in 2013, puts the number at 13,500. With the rise of Boko Haram and its war against Christianity in Nigeria, Islam in Igboland faced a crisis and began to record desertions. But while some are leaving Islam, others are joining,” Uchendu, who is also a researcher, said.

 Tolerance in the South-East

For a religion that has seen extremists threaten the truth and its core beliefs, Igbo residents in the South-East are understandably concerned about its presence.

But religion is dynamic and should remain dynamic, a professor of Comparative Religion at Ebonyi State University, Isidore Nwanaju said.

The growth of Islam in the region is not something unusual, Nwanaju said. To him, there is no guideline on the tolerance of another religion in the region.

He said, “Christianity is also growing in some other places but this growth depends on the condition of the growth and how the growth is accepted.”

“I don’t think there will be any general guideline as to how it would be tolerated in the South-East. Some of these things are personal encounters occasioned by factors like marriage, cultural influence, political domination and economic domination.

“These things should operate in a personal realm and should not involve any kind of coercion.”

Prof Nwanaju further noted that dynamism and the absence of manipulation or coercion made any religion true and acceptable to foreigners. He noted that a bone of contention in Islam and its presence was the misrepresentation of the religion.

“There’s no compulsion in religion but when you feel it must go in one direction, you are getting it wrong. You should be able to distinguish between the correct teaching of Islam and the fanatic and fundamentalist teaching of Islam; they are two different things.

“When fundamentalism, fanaticism enters anything it is an extremist position, and when you derail from the normal situation of things, you cannot say this is real Islam. when you meet true Muslims, they are people who are truly enlightened and see religion as a way of attaining salvation but when you use the sword, the gun and other forms of manipulative means, it is not true Islam,” he added.

As Igbo Muslim, it was difficult for me to become traditional ruler – Abia monarch

Eze Amara I of Amaano Ovungwo Kingdom in the Isiala Ngwa South Local Government Area of Abia State, Yusuf Onumaegbu, talks to AMARACHI OKEH on his faith and reign

Can you share your journey into Islam?

I am Yusuf Onumaegbu, Eze Amara I of Amaano Ovungwo in the Isiala Ngwa South Local Government Area of Abia State. I embraced Islam about 49 years ago, I am 78 years old now but still very strong moving about. I performed hajj between 2009/10. Some of my children are Christians, I don’t object to that but six are Muslims like me.

What made you embrace Islam?

When I was in the northern region working, I associated with a lot of Muslims. Then I bought their books and a copy of the Quran. After reading them, I saw facts that attracted me so much. Then the Islamic religion was the most honest religion. You’d see the adherents, they are very honest with you, they can give you their bicycle, motorbike, or horse to use for one week and when you come back, they won’t charge you more than what they have taken from you. When they tell you yes, it is yes and when they tell you no, it is no. So, I decided to embrace Islam.

Was it an easy decision for you and were you married at that time?

I was married by then. I had my daughter then but even now, my daughter is still a Christian and I don’t object to that. One must fight their way so I am fighting my way just like everybody is fighting their way.

Did your wife join you in becoming a Muslim?

No, my first wife didn’t, but my second wife did. I brought her home on a Thursday and the next day, she followed me to the mosque. Glory be to Almighty Allah for that. My third wife has not embraced Islam. She is just about 35 years old, but she dresses in an Islamic pattern when going out, though she has never been to the mosque.

What was your job in the North?

I was involved in the establishment of schools in northern communities. During the time I was based in Kano, I travelled to several communities, even to Katsina, to establish schools.

How many years did you spend in the North?

I was there for almost 10 years

Can you speak Hausa?

Fluently, even better than I speak Igbo.

Why is that?

It is because I was living with people who couldn’t speak a word in English. I was forced to learn the language (Hausa) immediately

Are all your wives Igbo?

Yes, they are all Igbo.

How many children do you have?

I have about nine children.

Are all your adult children Muslims?

They are not. Everyone should go their own way. As far as Islam is concerned, if you are convinced it is the true religion of Allah, you follow, if not, you follow what you think is good.

Are you concerned that your daughters may be limited in the choice of husbands for them?

I have mostly boys. My daughter should be around 52 years old now, a senior civil servant. Then the three others are the latecomers: one is three years old; another is five or six years old, while the other is 11 years old. I don’t think about that, what I plan for them is that as soon as they finish (attending school in Nigeria), I will gather my resources and move them abroad. Whether someone is married or not does not matter.

Are your children treated differently at school?

They are strong-willed like me. I have very tough skin against criticism, they are like that. My first son is a medical doctor in Australia, then my second son is an engineer by profession. He read Atomic Physics; he is in Scotland lecturing. The one following them now is trying to gain entry into the Police Force although he is a tailor by profession. The other one is learning automobile mechanics. The others are still in secondary school.

Would you consider taking a fourth wife because it is allowed in Islam?

Yes. I know that Almighty Allah is going to keep me even in the next 50 years. Then when (my wives) become satisfied with me and look at the children as what God has done for them, I can go in for a fourth wife.

What is it like being an Igbo Muslim?

You will face a lot of discrimination. Before I was made a traditional ruler, it was a herculean task. They wondered how a Muslim could become a traditional ruler over Christians. I told them not to worry.

From the time I ascended the throne till now, many of them are even now adhering to the Islamic religion when they look at the way I handle things. The way I patronise everybody with my meagre resources, they feel it is necessary and wise to adhere to the Islamic religion but one will face a lot of criticism. One would be called Boko Haram, a member of Miyetti Allah, and say Islam is a religion of war but it is not like that.

I try to convince them but some of them who are mostly blind still adhere to their own beliefs and what they think is right but it is not like that because even in Christianity, there are fanatics. In Islam, we have fanatics. It is just because of political rancour that they say that. My subjects are happy with how my administration in the community is, so there is no problem with it.

Did it affect your ascension to the throne?

It was a battle and many attempts were made to eliminate me but they failed. I am strong-willed and asked Allah for protection. Whoever tries to kill me, I even beg Allah to forgive the person. Some of them even came to me to confess. At one point, three armed boys were sent against me, they fired shots against me and none went off.

Since I went into the circle of traditional rulers, I know what I have suffered. I have suffered terrible feats but Allah has not allowed me to quit rather those who try to terminate my life terminate their own lives for themselves.

When you returned to the East, what did your family say?

They saw me as a strange fellow altogether but gradually, they started adapting to my pattern of life. Even as I am now, we are in the fasting period. Now that I am fasting, they feel it is very cumbersome but it is not. I learned a lot when I went to Hajj. There, you will see elderly people trekking long distances and coming back. This is what I have incorporated into my life now. Every day, I walk, sometimes I cycle, I even leave my cars and walk. Some people even follow me to do what I do, though they are not Muslims.

The major thing about it is that in a community where people are predominantly Christians, they look at you as a misfit but for me, I don’t care what people think about me. What I care about is what Almighty Allah will provide me with and make me strong.

At 79, if you see me in person, you won’t believe I’m up to that age. Even now, I have a baby who is three years and five months old. I am still physically alright, I’m sexually okay. I don’t eat what people eat. My food is mostly fruits, and little white meat. I eat plantain and all that.

Where do you live?

I live in my village, Okpuala Ovungwo.

Is there a mosque in Isiala Ngwa?

Yes, we have. I contributed very well during the construction. If I make reasonable money, I can build a mini mosque in my compound so that every jummah, I’d go there and pray and not travel far again. Sometimes, I go to the naval base in Owerrinta to worship. Sometimes, I go to Aba, sometimes to Umuahia to worship.

Have you suffered any discrimination from fellow Muslims?

No, not at all. I have not experienced that.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was told that my mother went to help my sister with farm work but it was a very hot season. I was born premature, just six months, three weeks, and four days. Almighty Allah made it very possible for me to be alive. I was told an old woman took me, applied palm oil on my skin, and folded me with plantain leaves for another three to four months before I started acting like a normal human being.

I attended Alvan Ikoku College of Education and later attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. I taught English for many years in secondary school. I retired as a principal.

What does Ramadan mean to you?

It is a period where you ask Almighty Allah to assist you in whatever you are doing and forgive your sins. Then it is a test of your faith in Islam. the period you have to give whatever you have as much as you can to the need. As you do that, Almighty Allah will pay you back in 100 folds. Do as much as you can, don’t do more than you can.

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