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Ghana: clashes between Sufis and radical Muslims




On 8 April 2007, members of the Wahhabi-oriented Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama'ah and members of the Tijaniyyah Sufi order clashed at Ejura, in the Ashanti region of Ghana, over doctrinal differences.

Demonstration in Accra, Ghana - © 2006 Peeter Viisimaa (via iStockPhotos).
The Tijaniyyah accused Ahl al-Sunnah of preaching against them. Soon after, they attacked the Ahl al-Sunnah members and inflicted various degrees of injury on ten of them, four of whom were in a critical condition. [1] This clash has been only one in a series of recent ongoing bloody clashes between missionary-minded Muslim groups inspired by Wahhabism, and the majority of traditional Ghanaian Muslim groups.

Ghana has an estimated population of 18 million people, comprising about 64 different language and ethnic groups. Christianity, traditional religions and Islam are the three dominant religions. According to the latest survey, conducted in 1993, Christians comprise approximately 62 per cent of the population, traditional religious practitioners comprise approximately 20 per cent, and Muslims comprise about 16-17 per cent of the population. These figures are highly criticized by Ghanaian Muslims, who place their version of this figure at closer to 30 per cent, and in some extremes, as high as 45 per cent. Broadly speaking, the Muslim population is more concentrated in the Northern region and in the Upper East and Upper West, while Christians are predominant in the southern regions. [2]

Amongst the Muslim population of Ghana there are various Islamic orientations, with different influences emanating from several sources. Sufism is the dominant form of Islam prevalent in Ghana, especially the Qadiriyyah and Tijaniyyah orders, which are prominent in the north and in the major cities of the south. Sufism was spread from other parts of West Africa, principally from northern Nigeria by the Hausa and from the Mali-Mauritania and Niger region by the Wangarawa, Mandi and Dyula. Hausa and Dyula cultures have especially influenced Islamic practices in Ghana. The Hausa influence is manifested in Islamic education, which is conducted in the Hausa language. Therefore, Hausa is the lingua franca of most Ghanaian Muslim communities. Zongos - the name by which satellite communities throughout Ghana, originally established by migrants from other parts of West Africa, are known - sustain some of the links to Muslims in other parts of the region, even though most inhabitants of these Zongos have now been in Ghana for two, three or more generations. [3]

The Qadyani faction of the Ahmadiyyah Movement is also very active in Ghana. The movement was invited into Ghana in 1921 by a section of coastal (Fanti) Muslim converts. Membership and leadership of the sect remains in the hands of the Fanti and Asante ethnic groups. Thus, this faction has come to be known locally as 'Fanti or Asante Islam', in contradiction to Sunni or mainstream Islam, which is dominated by northern Ghanaians and other West African nationals. The movement is known for its anti-Christian as well as for its anti-mainstream Muslim polemics in its public preaching. [4]

Since independence, however, the most significant focus on Islam in Ghana has been the strengthening of links with the Middle East. This came primarily with the opening of embassies in Ghana by Egypt in 1957, Saudi Arabia in 1962 and Iran in 1982. Thus, in the last three decades, there has been a significant increase in Islamist and Wahhabist activity in Ghana, resulting in a spread of radical Islamic organizations. Several organizations were established during the 1970s and 1980s to champion the cause of Wahhabism and Islamism. First and foremost among them was a Muslim missionary organization known as the Islamic Reformation and Research Center, which was founded in Accra in 1971. Activists of the centre refer to it as a Wahhabi-influenced missionary organization. It is financed by the Dar al-Iftaa of Saudi Arabia, and has since its founding produced hundreds of students who have studied at Arab universities. This and numerous other Muslim groups and organizations, such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and the Islamic Charity Center for Women Orientation, carry out missionary activities. They undertake to establish schools and other social services, and carry out public preaching within the urban centres in order to propagate Islam. In 1997, the Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama'ah was established as an umbrella organization for all Wahhabi organizations active in Ghana. [5]

Parallel to the increase in the activity of the Wahhabi-oriented organizations in Ghana was a similar increase in the number of Muslim non-governmental organizations (NGOs) active there. Muslim NGOs that have been involved in social and economic development have emerged in Ghana since the 1970s. The Islamic Council for Development and Humanitarian Services was founded in 1982 and is tied mainly to the Kuwaiti Zakat Fund. The Centre for the Distribution of Islamic Books was founded in 1988 and is the Ghanaian representative of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, a Saudi-based organization, as well as the International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations in Kuwait, and the Islamic Development Bank Scholarship Scheme. The African Muslim Agency (AMA) was also established in Ghana in 1988, and is an offshoot of Direct Aid International with its headquarters in Kuwait. [6] The Imam Husayn Foundation was founded in 1988, and comprises a branch of an international organization based in Iran. In 1992, the Kuwaiti government established the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society. Other international Muslim charitable organizations active in Ghana are the Saudi-funded and UK-based Muntada Islamic Trust, also known as al-Muntada al-Islami or al-Muntada Educational Trust, as well as the Saudi- and Kuwaiti-financed Al-Huda Islamic Society. [7]

The global dimension of Islam in Ghana is perhaps best manifested by the arrival in 1996 of the American Nation of Islam in Ghana. The movement was invited into the country in the early 1990s by the then Provisional National Defence Council military junta. In October 1996 the movement, which, however, has little following by way of membership in Ghana, organized a national convention. [8]

In light of the diverse Islamic orientations and influences mentioned above, there have been many cases of tension and violent clashes between different Muslim groups in Ghana, especially between Ahmadis and mainstream Muslims in the 1930s. These bloody clashes have largely given way to mutual suspicion, contempt and non-cooperation. Another level of tension is prevalent between indigenous Ghanaian Muslims and other West African nationals over leadership. The latter see themselves as the rightful custodians of the Islamic tradition and resent taking subordinate roles to indigenous Ghanaian Muslims. This has resulted in a number of violent clashes during Friday prayers, and the closure of mosques by the authorities. Another level of tension, which sometimes even becomes violent, is prevalent between Muslims with Tijaniyyah inclinations and those of the Qadiriyyah persuasion. In 1999 numerous public appeals from government officials, traditional rulers and leading Muslims have helped in reducing the tension between Muslim groups in the country. [9]

More recently, there have been a number of bloody confrontations between missionary-minded Muslim groups, comprising graduates from Arab universities, and the majority traditional Ghanaian Muslim groups. The most notorious of these groups is what is locally known as the Ahl al-Sunnah, a Saudi-trained Wahhabi-inspired group. Its members attack and publicly condemn traditional Muslim practices like production of charms and wearing of amulets as un-Islamic. The brand of Islam they see as 'pure' or 'orthodox' is Wahhabism or Salafism, to which they were exposed to in Saudi Arabia or other parts of the Arab Muslim world. [10]

In this context, it should be noted that despite all the abovementioned clashes and confrontations between the various Muslim groups, they comprise only a minority in Ghana, and their political impact is marginal. Another reason for this is the fact that the majority of Muslims live in the northern parts of the country. Northern Ghana has been functioning as a labour reservoir for the south and has remained an economic backwater since the colonial period. Islam has, on the other hand, had some impact at the cultural level. Islamic features like Muslim offices, festivals, calendar and certain ceremonies - especially those relating to naming, marriage and death - were added to the traditional system. Thus, in the north, some of the chiefs have become at least nominal Muslims and some of the ceremonies associated with the chiefs themselves were modified along Islamic lines. However, although a chief might recite the Muslim prayers, neither the chiefs nor any other member of the ruling estate would attend the Friday sermon in the mosque. Most chiefs have their own ritual practices, which are unacceptable to Islam, and they rule over Muslims and non-Muslims alike. [11]

Against this background, there has been a steady process of Islamization in contemporary northern Ghana, especially since the 1983 famine. Muslim countries poured aid into northern Ghana at that time, and thus strengthened the Muslim's position and organizations there. Muslim NGOs have since then established social and educational institutions, almost all of which have been financed through aid from foreign Muslim countries and organizations. As a result of their intensive welfare work, the word circulated in 1985 around the north that all Dagbambas, Gonjas, Mamprungus and Nanumbas who wished to succeed in politics and business had to convert to Islam. As a result, the Northern Region, and especially Dagbon, has since become known as a Muslim region. [12]

To sum up, the disunity of the Muslims in Ghana has been further stressed and enhanced through the entrance of various Islamist and Wahhabi-oriented groups, especially Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama'ah, into the north and other areas inhabited by Muslims in Ghana since the 1970s. It has further fuelled anti-Christian, anti-minority (stateless people) and militantly pro-Islamic feelings, as well as conflicts among the various Muslim sects, especially between the Sufis and Wahhabis. In the short run, it seems that disunity trends within the Muslims in Ghana are much stronger than unifying trends. That is why it is quite improbable that the Muslims in Ghana will be able to unite under one leadership in order to care for their own common interests. This applies even in circumstances where it is necessary for representatives from all the Muslim sects to unite for a particular Islamic purpose, as happens nowadays with the heated debate over the issue of who will be in charge of organizing the Hajj from Ghana this year. Last year, the National Hajj Council failed to organize the Hajj, and a new body, called the Ghana Pilgrimage Organization, was established by Ghana's chief imam to handle this issue more successfully this year. [13]

Moshe Terdman


Notes

1) See online at http://www.e-prism.org/images/islam_in_africa_newsletter-_no2_vol_2__april_2007.pdf.

2) See online at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/interreligious/cd36-01.html; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/islam_in_ghana; http://www.newsfromafrica.org/newsfromafrica/articles/art_7902.html; http://www.crise.ox.ac.uk/pubs/policycontext6.pdf.

3) See online at http://www.crise.ox.ac.uk/pubs/policycontext6.pdf; http://www.wcccoe.org/wcc/what/interreligious/cd36-01.html.

4) See online at http://www.crise.ox.ac.uk/pubs/policycontext6.pdf; http://www.wcccoe.org/wcc/what/interreligious/cd36-01.html; http://www.helsinki.fi/~hweiss/ghana_muslims.pdf.

5) See online at http://www.crise.ox.ac.uk/pubs/policycontext6.pdf; http://www.wcccoe.org/wcc/what/interreligious/cd36-01.html.

6) On the activities of the AMA, see the recent 'Islamization and Da'wah', PRISM African Occasional Papers, vol. 1, no. 2 (July 2007), online at http://www.eprism.org/images/prism_african_papers_vol_1_no_2_--_islamization_and_dawah_-_july_2007.pdf.

7) See online at http://www.helsinki.fi/~hweiss/ghana_muslims.pdf; http://www.helsinki.fi/project/wopag/wopag1.pdf.

8) See online at http://www.crise.ox.ac.uk/pubs/policycontext6.pdf; http://www.wcccoe.org/wcc/what/interreligious/cd36-01.html.

9) See online at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/interreligious/cd36-01.html.

10) See online at http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/interreligious/cd36-01.html.

11) See online at http://www.helsinki.fi/~hweiss/ghana_muslims.pdf; http://www.helsinki.fi/project/wopag/wopag1.pdf.

12) See online at http://www.helsinki.fi/~hweiss/ghana_muslims.pdf.

13) See online at http://allafrica.com/stories/200707170202.html; http://allafrica.com/stories/200707160084.html; http://allafrica.com/stories/200707120758.html.




This article was originally published in Islam in Africa Newsletter,
Volume 2 (2007), Number 3 (July 2007). Islam in Africa Newsletter is a publication of PRISM (www.e-prism.org).

© 2007 PRISM - Dr. Moshe Terdman. Republished with permission. Religioscope thanks Reuven Paz / PRISM for permission to republish.


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