Sitting cross-legged on a white mat in the corner of a bare concrete room, Sheik Isa Waziri, the chief Imam, or religious leader, of Kano, Nigeria's largest Islamic city, rocks back and forth and cools himself with a colorful leather and plastic fan. The elderly cleric wears large tortoise-shell glasses, a white turban and apricot robes. He pauses and lets out a deep, throaty cough. "The Islam that is practiced here is an Islam based on wisdom and common sense; one that changes with the times," he says, choosing his words carefully. But not all is well. Nigeria is falling apart, he says. "The level of corruption and immorality has escalated beyond control. Normal laws will not fix things. We need a return to Islamic law, to Shari'a."
He will soon get his wish. Nigeria's Muslims, who make up roughly half of the country's 115 million people, lived under Shari'a law for most of the last century. But before Britain granted independence in 1960 it instituted a penal code for Muslims that included many aspects of Islamic law but pointedly omitted some of its harsher punishments, such as stoning for adultery and amputation for theft. In the past year, four northern states have reintroduced Shari'a in its entirety. Kano's state government says it will follow suit in a few months with a ban on gambling and the sale and public consumption of alcohol, and restoration of the full range of punishments. "What we are trying to do is cut down on the social problems, the economic problems and mobilize people to be better than what they were," says Governor Rabi'u Musa Kwankwaso. "Already we have passed a bill stopping prostitution. We hear so much about aids and the best way to deal with it is through Shari'a."
"This thing scares me," says Emmanuel Nnatuanya, a Christian from Nigeria's east who has run a bookshop in Kano for 25 years. "We don't know how it will affect us. We may do something that we think is O.K. but they will take as wrong. If I see things are getting bad I will pack up and leave. That's what my friends are doing." Many of Kano's Christians, who comprise less than 10% of the city's population, fear a return to Shari'a will lead to violence and riots. A few remember the religious strife in the city in the late 1960s, which helped spark the disastrous civil war in Biafra. This year, Christians and Muslims have clashed in Kaduna, another northern state planning to reintroduce Islamic law.
Christian leaders say that the real reason for the move to Shari'a is not religious but political. Northerners have controlled the government since soon after independence. But last year, following more than 15 years of military rule, southern Christian Olusegun Obasanjo was voted in as President. Though Obasanjo, who will meet with President Clinton later this week to discuss trade, defence and other issues, was initially backed by the northern elite, he has failed to "dance to their tune," says Chief Goddy Emeka Ejiofor, a senior lay Christian leader in Kano. "Now they are creating confusion to try to bring down the government."
Not true, says Ibrahim Datti Ahmad, president of the Supreme Council for Shari'a in Nigeria, a recently formed group that aims to promote the peaceful introduction of Islamic law. He argues that the reintroduction of Shari'a is a people-led reclamation of a purer past. "The beauty of Shari'a is that the Muslim believes in it from inside. He knows the authority is just and fair," says Ahmad. "This is bigger than politics." Indeed, Shari'a has near universal support among Kano's Muslims, but this may be as much for practical reasons as philosophical. Kano's many small businessmen and traders — the city's slogan is "Center of Commerce" — hope the new laws will end corruption and leave more money to rebuild the decaying infrastructure. "We need job creation, schools, hospitals," says Badamasi Garba, who sells chickens, guinea fowl and pigeons in a central market. "With Shari'a we have a fresh chance."
In the cool shade of the Central Mosque's courtyard, Muktar Sarki, 25, prepares for afternoon prayers. The Islamic legal studies student wears a simple white robe and holds a string of black prayer beads. "We had moral corruption because we abandoned the old ways," he says. "People sometimes need moral orientation and at times even coercion to make them change." Depending on who is listening, that is either sound advice or a cause for fear.