Time for reforms – The Nation

Almajiri is a socio-religious practice gone seedy. It’s time to fix it

The mendicant Almajiri order needs urgent reforms.  Its riveting public image is child-beggars roaming northern streets. No thanks to progressive decay over the years, Almajiri has sunk from its pristine symbol of Islamic scholarly piety, to a contemporary symbol of rot, poverty and social decay. The system therefore needs urgent reforms, lest it continues to give Islam a bad name.

Yet, given the conflicting reactions to the Federal Government’s hint at some reforms, there would appear no pan-northern unanimity on the matter. But the debate is clearly fired by contrasting visions of modernists and traditionalists.

The Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), clearly modernist in its view, backed the Federal Government’s intentions, insisting the begging aspect of the system was plaguing its Islamic essence. “In fact, most Nigerians are confusing the real Almajiri system of learning with the children that are out of schools roaming the streets and begging in the name of Almajiri,” ACF rued, in a release, in Kaduna, by Alhaji Muhammad Ibrahim Biu, its publicity secretary. “This is a misrepresentation of the concept in the Islamic doctrine of learning.  Almajiri means going to Islamic schools to learn the reading of the Holy Quran and its teachings that will benefit the child morally, economically, socially; and also instill the fear of God as the creator.”

But the Sheikh Dahiru Usman Bauchi Foundation, in a release by Alhaji Ibrahim Sheikh Dahiru, disagreed with the ACF, insisting the Almajiri practice had existed for over 1,000 years. Besides, he added, the Almajiri had never been a security threat to anyone. “They are pupils learning recitation and memorising the Holy Quran,” he explained.  “They are not criminals; they are the ones praying for peace and stability in the country”, adding that the government should provide an alternative before thinking of moving against the system.

Of course, the Federal Government had thought of an alternative, before President Muhammadu Buhari made the announcement. That was why the president called on state governors to take advantage of the universal, free and compulsory basic education (the first nine years of schooling, from primary school to JSS 3) to get most – if not all – of the Almajiri children to school, with the Nigerian state bearing the cost.

That the Sheik still called for “an alternative” only showed the president’s visions did not quite tally with the Sheik’s traditional Islamic view. To resolve the Almajiri question to the mutual satisfaction of all, therefore, both views must meet as some point. That is why it is imperative that those who want to fix the system must not only first understand it, it is even more crucial they empathise with the practitioners, to get the best result.

To start with, isolating and pillorying the begging part of Almajiri is clearly begging the question. That could well mean the point at which charity feeds piety, in that particular faith equation. The famous 20th century Catholic, Mother Teresa (1910-1997), now Saint Teresa of Calcutta, founded the Missionaries of Charity, made up of more than 4,500 nuns, active in 133 countries, all sworn to chastity, poverty and obedience. Yet, out of her holy poverty, Mother Teresa blessed the globe with the most touching and Christ-like of compassion and kindness.  Apart from Mother Teresa, the Catholic faith boasts other mendicant orders, all sworn to begging: Augustinian and Carmelites (white friars), Franciscans (grey friars) and the Dominicans (black friars). They all beg to keep holy; and shield themselves from the carnality of materialism.

As much as the traditional Yoruba society decried beggary, the mother of twins had traditional approval to beg for alms, believing that giving alms to twins was blessing the Yoruba traditional society. In some oriental faiths like Buddhism, many a rich youth often shunned their family wealth, and swear themselves to poverty to evangelise and perpetuate their faith. Therefore, the Almajiri’s begging component is not peculiar, though it is distinct because only the young pupils beg for alms, as charity, to sustain selves and their scholar-masters.

Still, even the most ardent Almajiri believer would agree the practice has been abused over the years, leading to its present decay. Not a few even allege that it is a faith-backed caste system, which subjects the children of the poor to perpetual begging and therefore no future.  Others blame the decay on irresponsible parents, having more children than they can cater for; and thereafter unleashing them on the society to beg, under the cover of faith. Yet, others have accused the scholar-masters of child abuse, turning leeches and unconscionable parasites on their own wards.

Whichever of these allegations is true calls for deep concerns, for the future of these children, without any especial skill in a competitive modern society, ought to be paramount to any government. That is why northern governors should avidly avail themselves of the presidential window; and seize the country’s universal and compulsory basic education (UBE) policy to draw in most of these kids, even if there should still be windows to continue with their Islamic learning.

Since faith-ingrained change is not easy and is open to emotive blackmail by lobbies that feel they might lose out, President Buhari, as a towering figure in the northern social-cultural-faith universe, should urgently consider mounting the moral bully pulpit. He should summon all the northern Islamic clerics to explain the Almajiri reforms; and appeal for government-faith partnership, in the crucial tasks ahead, to the benefit of all.

That would be a win-win for all. A future Nigeria would thrive, if the scorned Almajiri kid of today morphs into a future master of Islamic scholarship; and yet boasts specific skills to navigate and compete in a modern world.  But the tragic reverse would be the case, if Almajiri is not reformed.

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