Sheikh Nuru Khalid and the problem of religion

By Abimbola Adelakun

The letter informing the Chief Imam of Apo Legislative Quarters Mosque, Sheikh Nuru Khalid, that he had been sacked following a sermon where he criticised the government provides an intriguing study of what religion looks like when God has been removed from its contents. From a practice that should ideally demonstrate conscience, all you see is soullessness and instincts sharply honed to preserve an oppressive status quo. When religion lacks a moral core, it espouses a rigid conservatism and an impulse to defend people of power at the expense of God’s people. A godless religion might have all the structures and infrastructures that keep it functioning, but without God within its mix, it is just another bureaucratic machine satisfying the motions of required activities.

There are few sights one would ever behold as hideous as a religion that lacks a moral conscience. Without it, the architecture of faith practice functions like a sophisticated robot. As compelling and entertaining as such a contraption can be, it faces the practical limits of its usefulness when you need it to respond to life experiences.

By now, we have all heard what happened with Imam Khalid. Following the incidences of bombing attacks and consequent abductions of some people, he delivered a sermon where he came down hard at the government. He lambasted the state for failing to effectively tackle the country’s insecurity problems and asked people to refuse to vote for any politician who cannot guarantee the safety of lives and properties. According to those that sacked him, he should not have asked Muslims to withhold their votes. In a country where politicians rely on blocs of ethnicity and religion to guarantee their electoral victory, it is easy to see why that part of the sermon made them uneasy. Considering also how much some people have been panicking over the recent decision by the Redeemed Christian Church of God to set up a department to mobilise people toward the 2023 election, asking Muslims to refuse to vote means power might change hands. Those who gave the Imam the boot would rather watch them perish than let them be “woke” enough to use their votes to demand better governance.

But such soulless indifference is precisely what a religion that has excised its God from its component looks like. Such religion cannot muster a fellow feeling for the poor victims of a debilitating social order. It is unscrupulous, a mere gigantic tool of manipulation that coldly calculates its bottom line. All it ever looks out for is accruing more power and consolidating its selfish interests.

The sack letter by the mosque steering committee (chaired by one Senator Saidu Dansadau) stated that the Imam did not show remorse after his initial suspension and that was why they sacked him. But one needs to ask this committee playing God, what remorse and to whom? What does “remorse” look like in this context and whose purposes will it serve? Any servant of God that gives a sermon on people improving their material conditions but later rescinds it on the orders of some powers-that-be has only implied to his congregation that their lives do not matter and their worth is negotiable. No self-respecting parishioner should remain within such a fold! If your religious leader cannot stand up for you in difficult times, you are better off just praying at home.

Still, according to the steering committee in that letter, responsible religious leadership should use words to serve the larger interest of the public and not harm them. You have to wonder how these people define “the good of the public” which they claimed to be preserving by sacking the Imam. If they cared that much about collective interests, would they not have seen that the good of the public can actually be realised through the democratic means that the Imam advocated? There is no point mincing words; this is pure self-interest masquerading as a corporate agency. They will rather have a religious leader that serves the usual opium of asking people to pray their way out of the country’s trouble rather than point at the practical means by which they might achieve such goals.

It is amazing how those who wrote the sack letter put more moral responsibility on the Imam than Nigerian leaders—who also double as their paymasters anyway—who have the political power to change anything. They wrote, “You are an influencer; your words carry a lot of weight, and your words can make or mar our situation.” (Please pay attention to the pronoun and whose interests are being implied here). If they believe the Imam should be restrained in using words because they are powerful enough to influence the country’s destiny, why not put the pressure on the people who have the actual instruments of political authority to change things? It is not enough to tell an Imam criticising the country’s leadership failure that utterances are powerful and must be carefully wielded while neglecting the responsibility of the people who actually have all the legal and political power to enact those changes.

This religiosity sans conscience is why a proclaimed atheist, Mubarak Bala, was unjustly sentenced to prison for 24 years. There is no day I think of his story, and I am not overwhelmed by despair at Nigeria’s moral degradation. In 2020, Bala was arrested following a petition written by one lawyer called S.S. Umar of Zoo Road. This lawyer, otherwise of no professional or social consequence, wrote a petition to the Police Inspector General threatening Muslim violence if Bala was not silenced. In a society where there is respect for the law, the IG would have been dignified enough to tell Umar that if he truly made his way through law school, he would at least be aware of something called freedom of speech. But no, the police swiftly picked up Bala and incarcerated him. On Tuesday, he was sentenced to 24 years imprisonment for blasphemy. You look at such gross abuse of power and moral spinelessness of people who head Nigerian institutions and wonder, what manner of country is this? What was the judge, Faruk Lawan, truly defending when he handed down that harsh sentence? I wonder if he went home justified that he did it on God’s behalf. Religion that lacks virtues is a sheer monstrosity!

Bala is a victim of religious violence that is not only legitimised but also drawn out as crudely and cruelly as possible. Previously, religious violence played out through decapitations, arson and mass slaughter. But it is self-evident that with the multiple cases of terrorism and banditry in northern Nigeria, it is no longer prudent to intimidate and repress other people using those means. The army of youths they typically activated to run those errands has grown up, grown restless, and turned against their masters. One interesting example of the falcon no longer hearing the falconer is exemplified by Katsina Governor Aminu Bello Masari’s recent confession that he was duped twice by bandits who reassured him by swearing on the Qur’an. Masari said he negotiated with the bandits and sealed the deal by asking them to swear. They swore but continued their criminality.

Think about it: if in a region of Nigeria where people have been slaughtered for perceived disrespect to the holy book, the youths are using that same potent symbol of their religiosity to swear falsely, it means they too have learned to use religion manipulatively as their leaders do. The fact that it happened to Masari more than once means it took him some time to understand that those youths can no longer be as easily bound by the religious instruments that previously controlled them. That such people threatened violence if Bala was not silenced demonstrates the sheer lack of self-awareness that typifies unconscientious religiosity.

For Imam Khalid, the good thing coming out of this episode with his ex-employers is how each party has now discovered whom they truly serve. He should be thankful he was excommunicated from an assembly of religious men whose self-interests long superseded that of God. Now that he has come out from among them, he is free to open his mouth and let the voice of God inside him come through without being muzzled by ardently religious men who do not even fear God. They did him a favour by sacking him.

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