Islam, according to historic reports in the country’s archives, dates as far back as the 8th century. Unlike Christianity however, it was introduced into the Northern part of today’s Ghana by traders instead of priests. For that reason, converts were only taught short surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an to enable them pray etc. Whenever events like marriage ceremonies, naming of new born children and the death of a member of the faith occurred, these converts relied mostly on their wits and customs to perform the religious rituals they felt was necessary giving them as much Islamic touch as their knowledge could allow.
As the religion grew, the Makaranta system of Islamic education emerged. Under this system, children are sent to the house of a mallam (Islamic teacher) who teaches them the recitation of the Holy Qur’an without translation enabling the children not only to be able to read the Qu’ran, but actually commit a great portion of it to memory without understanding a word of what they read. Those who were patient enough to serve their mallams for longer periods ultimately learnt the meaning of the Qu’ran without understanding Arabic, the language with which the Qu’ran was written.
Because of the absence of formal education during the pre-colonial days, some of these makaranta graduates became clerks in the courts of Kings using the Arabic alphabets to document information in Hausa.
Others became sorcerers and soothsayers employing largely traditional methods - which hinged on superstition- and using portions of the Qur’an as bait to attract and cheat unsuspecting clients who believed the Qur’an was a supernatural book which could be employed for good and evil. Sometimes they wrote verses of the Qur’an on black wooden slates tinged with diagrams affixed with superstitious numbers and symbols and washed them with water for clients to drink. Another method was the writing of words on paper, folding and binding them with white or black thread to serve as neck or waist talismans for protection. Others were the recitation of portions of the Qur’an and the calling of jinni’s (spirits) through whom they demanded items raging from rams, goats, cloths, calico, cowries, coins and other superstitious materials for the performance of rituals.
Others became Imams. Most of these Imams used the above-described methods to wield a lot of influence on their congregation thereby extorting wealth from them at will.
It must be acknowledged that those who stuck to only the Imamship became very poor. Some of them in their desperation to find a way out of poverty skillfully instituted after burial rites relying on the African’s love for such rites. They believed the death of a relative is the best period for conciliation. These rites begin with rituals before the burial especially if death occurs during the night. There would be pre-burial wake keeping.
Other funeral rites are :
-After burial gathering,
-3rd day prayers for the dead,
-7th day prayers for the dead,
-40th day prayers for the dead and,
-Anniversary prayers for the death.
On each of these occasions, all the moneys donated for prayers line the pockets of the presiding Imam who has the sole power to disburse part of such monies to some of the Imams who come to assist him. Widows and orphans are always relegated to the background. In fact, it is made compulsory for them to donate towards the prayers for their departed husband/wife or father/mother .These days a new system has emerged in some areas. After collecting so much from the congregation in the name of praying for the dead, a fundraiser is organized for the children/wife/husband of the departed soul. In many cases, the moneys the imams get far exceeds what the widows and orphans get.
The advent of Christian missionaries and for that matter formal education posed a great threat to these hitherto feared mallams. In an effort to protect their jurisdiction, they prevailed on the Muslim community not to send their children to school claiming their religion would be corrupted. The result is the high illiteracy rate that has prevailed in the Muslim society in this country to this day.
THE GENESIS OF AHLUSSUNNA IN GHANA
In the early sixties, an Islamic scholar emerged in the Northern part of Ghana. His name was Alhaj Yusuf Afa Ajura. He started his mission from Tamale preaching against the interpolations and alterations that have been introduced into the religion without basis from the Qur’an or Hadith. He was soon to have a large following. The Ambariyya Islamic School in Tamale is a living monument of the great scholar’s works. He died in 2004.
During the middle part of the sixties, another scholar, Sheikh Abdus-Samad emerged in Kumasi, renouncing the Tijaniyya to which he belonged and emphasising on the need for Muslims to practice the religion according to the teachings of the Qur’ an and Hadith. He wrote a book on the subject titled ‘A Call to the Message of Sunna and a Warning against Innovationn.’ He made quite an impact in the Kumasi metropolis.
In 1968, Sheikh Umar Ibrahim Imam, returned from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with a degree in Islamic studies from the famous Islamic University of Madina. He settled in Accra, complementing the works of the two great scholars earlier mentioned down south. Because of his training, Sheikh Umar won a large following in a comparatively short period though not without persecution. He set up an Islamic school (not the makaranta system) and personally taught his students winning scholarships for many of them to study in various secondary and tertiary institutions in the Arab world. He was soon to found the Islamic Research & Reformation Centre which in turn gave birth to the Institute of Islamic Studies, creating an employment avenue for his students and churning out more Islamic scholars.
THE SUNNA’- TIJANIYYA CONFLICTS
In the mist of these reformations emerged the Tijaniyya- Ahlussunna conflicts. The Imams of the old order (in the Ghanaian sense) and the sorcerers saw these reformists as people who have come to destroy their means of livelihood. The resistance was very intense. The reformists and their followers decided the best way out was to find their own places of worship but that was met with even more intense opposition. Mayhem upon mayhem was visited upon these people. Places where the persecution were more intense included Techiman, Wenchi and Atebubu all in the Brong-Ahafo Region, Kumasi, Effiduase in the Ashanti Region, Oda and Akwatia in the Eastern and Cape Coast in the Central Region.
Several appeals were made to the government and the office of the National Chief Imam. Some of the cases went to court. Judgments were given in two of the cases. In the Kumasi case, five (5) members of the Tijaniyya were sentenced to death by firing squad for murdering an Ahlussunna youth in December 1986. The sentence was never carried out. In the other, Justice P. K. Gyaesayor found Alhaji Yakubu Abubakari and others guilty of rioting, causing unlawful damage, causing harm and attempting to cause harm on 26th June, 1995 but sentenced them to a collective fine of one hundred thousand cedis (¢100,000) or 18 months in prison in default. The fine was paid but rather than serving as a deterrent, it enhanced the persecution. The reason was quite obvious.
Appeal after appeal were sent to several authorities including the Office of the National Chief Imam but the response were, to say the least, cosmetic.
THE FATEFUL PRESS CONFERENCE
When the persecution became too much to bear, the fragmented factions of Ahlussunna countrywide organised a well attended press conference at the Teachers Hall in Accra on June 10, 1996 to tell the world the kind of human rights abuses they were suffering. This sparked off a half-hearted attempt by the Office of the National Chief Imam to resolve the conflicts but the die was cast. Series of meetings were held culminating in the nomination of Sheikh Umar Ibrahim Imam as the National Imam of Ahlussunna Wal-Jamma’a at one of the meetings held at Wain the Upper- West region. He was elected unopposed in absentia.
On August 23, 1997, Ahlussunna Wal-Jama’a in Ghana was inaugurated and its first National Imam was installed at the then Libya Cultural Centre, Ring Road- Accra.
At its first meeting after the inauguration, the leadership of Ahlussunna Wal.Jama’a decided to pay a courtesy call on the National Chief Imam to brief him about their objectives and to assure him of their preparedness to co-operate with him in finding lasting solutions to the chronic conflicts. A high -powered delegation led by Sheikh Hadir Idriss Adam, Director of the Institute of Islamic Studies was sent to the National Chief Imam.
The Chief Imam agreed to meet the hierarchy of Ahlussunna Wal-Jama’a but rescheduled the meeting for Monday 1st September 1997. Later in the evening of that same day, an emissary from the Chief Imam’s office came to postpone the meeting to the 7th of September 1997.
The leadership of Ahlussunna wrote to the National Chief Imam accepting the new date and pleaded that the date remained. On the 5th of September 1997 however, a letter from the Office of the National Chief Imam arrived postponing the meeting indefinitely.
On the same day the letter from the Office of the National Chief Imam was received, another letter, dated a day earlier was received from the National Council of Muslim Chiefs. The receipt of the letters coincided with a national delegates meeting which had been organised to select regional representatives to meet the National Chief Imam. The meeting decided not to respond to the letter from the National Council of Muslim Chiefs though the language in it was very insulting.
On the l0th of September 1997, another letter was received from the Advisory Committee to the National Chief Imam signed by the leadership of the Office of the National Chief Imam, the National Council of Muslim Chiefs, the Federation of Muslim Councils and the committee whose letterhead was used. The contents of the letter which was copied to Government security agencies, ambassadors of Islamic countries in Ghana and even World Muslim bodies was clearly meant to set Ahlussunna on a collusion course with the government so it reacted swiftly, calling on the government to investigate the allegations leveled against it to unearth the truth in the matter. The letter from the Advisory Committee to the National Chief Imam read in part “We are shocked at your coordinated, carefully engineered efforts to introduce “negative fundamentalism” into Ghana, to create chaos and confusion among Muslims, which you know very well will result in bloody confrontations, worse than that of Algeria, and subsequently subvert the political stability of Ghana”
The Bureau of National Investigation (BNI) in apparent response to the appeal to the government invited the leadership of Ahlussunna Wal ¬Jama’a to its headquarters for interrogation after which they were given a questionnaire to respond to. No time was wasted. The response to the questionnaire was presented long before the dated given. There was not doubt left that Ahtussunna Wal-Jama’a had come to stay.
POST INAUGURATION CONFLICTS
Since the official inauguration of Ahlussunna Wal-Jama’a the country has recorded only four (4) major conflicts between the Ahlussunna and the Tijaniyya. (Tamale, Wenchi, Kumasi and Effi-duase). All other potential conflicts were nipped before they could escalate. Even the four mentioned received better attention than they would have had Ahlussunna Wal-Jama’a not come together as a united entity. How true has the saying ‘In unity lies strength’ proven to be.