muslims homeportraitsthemesinterviewsfaqsdiscussion

portraits of ordinary muslims: nigeria
photo of muzzammil hanga
videovideo (cable/dsl)video (modem)

Why Harsh Sharia (Islamic) Law Returned to Nigeria
In 2000, after Nigeria's military dictatorship was defeated, a resurgent Islamic movement re-implemented Sharia criminal law in the country's predominantly Muslim north. Sharia's cruel penal code -- calling for punishments such as amputations, floggings, stonings and executions -- had been outlawed since 1960. In this videoclip, Nigerian attorney Muzzammil Sani Hanga defends Sharia law, analyzes why Westerners find it troubling, and explains its importance to his community where moral values are being eroded.

Note: Video no longer available.

Explore what Muslim scholars have to say about Sharia law and how it can be interpreted differently based on local culture.
Related Links and Readings

Background on Islam and Nigeria

Islam came to northern Nigeria over 700 years ago. Sharia penal codes were enforced until 1960, when punishments such as amputations and floggings were outlawed.

Then, two years ago, following the defeat of Nigeria's military dictatorship, a resurgent Islamic movement backed the re-implementation of Sharia criminal law across 12 states in the predominantly Muslim north. Sharia criminal law is practiced in only a handful of Muslim countries, including Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Muslim leaders who arrived in the city of Kano to announce the implementation of the new penal code were met by a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters.

According to local attorney Muzzammil Sani Hanga, corruption and crime had reached such high levels that the implementation of a Sharia penal code -- with its harsh punishments -- was an urgent necessity. "Armed robbery was always increasing in this country, the disparity between the rich and poor is always there," he says. "I believe the clamor for the implementation of Sharia is like an open show of defiance against the government, which is perceived by the Muslims as the sole agent of corruption in this country."

The Islamization of Northern Nigeria has increased tensions between the Muslim majority and Christian minority communities that were already divided along tribal lines. Christians are not subject to Sharia law, but there have been deadly riots where Christian restaurants and bars serving alcohol have been destroyed. And in October 2001, the city of Kano witnessed religious clashes that were triggered when Muslims protesting U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan went rampaging into a Christian neighborhood. No one knows exactly how many were killed in these clashes: estimates place the death toll at around 200.

Although no reliable statistics have been compiled, Dr. Datti Ahmad, the president of the Supreme Council that oversees the implementation of Sharia law, claims that Sharia is working because the crime rate has plummeted.

Attorney Hanga says he believes Westerners find Sharia law troubling because of the values Westerners place on individual freedoms. "The overall emphasis in Islamic law is on communal harmony," he explains, "the freedom of a community to live, without one rough element destroying life for them, just because he wants to live happily."

Hanga also says that he believes the West is using the events of Sept. 11 to set up a contrast between "the free, civilized, forward-looking Western worlds and the backward, uncivilized, Islamic world." He declares, "I believe that the West always wanted to show that this notion of barbarism with Islamic law is actually true."

However, Hanga believes that such a reaction will only strengthen the faith and resolve of Nigerian Muslims. "People have to be allowed to believe what they want to believe."



  • As of July 2001, the population is estimated at approximately 126 million.
  • Approximately 44 percent is age 0-14.
  • Approximately 53 percent is age 15-64.
  • Approximately 3 percent is age 65 and over.
  • The population growth rate is 2.61 percent.
  • There are more than 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria. The three largest are the Hausa-Fulani, the Igbo, and the Yoruba.
  • The Hausa-Fulani are predominant in the northern two-thirds of the country. They comprise approximately 29 percent of the population, and are predominantly Muslim.
  • The Yoruba are predominant in the southwest, and comprise about 21 percent of the population. Approximately half of the Yoruba are Christian and half are Muslim.
  • The Igbo (or Ibo) are the largest ethnic group in the southeast of Nigeria. They comprise approximately 18 percent of the population and are predominantly Catholic.


  • 50 percent of the population is Muslim.
  • 40 percent of the population is Christian.
  • 10 percent of the population follow indigenous African religions.


  • Type: Republic. Nigeria is transitioning to an elected civilian government, following 15 years of military rule. The new government took office on May 29, 1999.
  • Executive Branch
    • The president is both chief of state and head of the government, and is elected by popular vote for no more than two four-year terms. President Olusegun Obasanjo was elected in May 1999.
  • Legislative Branch
    • Senate (109 seats; three from each state and one from the Federal Capital Territory; members elected by popular vote to serve four-year terms) and;
    • House of Representatives (360 seats, members elected by popular vote to serve four-year terms)
  • Judicial Branch
    • Supreme Court (judges appointed by the Provisional Ruling Council); Federal Court of Appeal (judges are appointed by the federal government on the advice of the Advisory Judicial Committee.)
    • The legal system is based on English common law, and traditional law. Sharia law is followed in some of the northern states.
  • (Sources: CIA World Factbook 2001; State Department Country Background Notes: Nigeria;)


    · Islamic Africa Today

    This map, produced by Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American research, shows present day Islamic areas of Africa.

    · Islam Meets Africa and Africa Bows

    This January 2000 New York Times article offers an overview of Islam in Nigeria. The writer notes that while religion in Nigeria often can be exploited by politicians, most Nigerians identify themselves first by ethnicity, and that ethnic, not religious, conflicts traditionally have proven the most bloody.

    · Conference on Sharia in Nigeria

    This site was produced in conjunction with an April 2001 conference entitled "Restoration of Sharia in Nigeria -- The Benefits and Challenges." It contains papers presented at the conference, including "The History of Sharia in Nigeria and Dynamics of Its Restoration," and "Women, Secularism and Democracy: Women's Role in the Regeneration of Society." The site also contains links to other Sharia-related materials on the web, including the "Establishment of Sharia" booklet produced by the state of Zamfara, the first state to implement Sharia law.

    · Nigerian Laws

    This site contains Nigerian statutes and case law, as well as articles about the Nigerian legal system.

    · Sharia Marches On

    From the BBC, a short report on how Jigawa became the sixth northern Nigerian state to introduce Islamic law and why there is real enthusiasm for it.

    · Nigerian Muslims Welcome Sharia Law

    From the BBC, a short background report on the return to Sharia law in Zamfara State in northern Nigeria.

    home · portraits of ordinary muslims · introduction · major themes · interviews · faqs
    readings & links · discussion · teacher's guide
    producer chat · tapes & transcripts · press · credits · privacy
    FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbsi

    web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation