Despite its historical role and continuing involvement in the socio-political developments in northern Nigeria, the Salafist æ Jama’atu Izalatil Bid’ah Wa Ikamatis Sunnah (The Society for the Removal of Innovation and the Establishment of the Sunna), commonly known as the Izala movement, has received little coverage outside Nigeria compared to the infamous Boko Haram.

Actually the movement started to attract international attention in 2011 with the rise of Boko Haram. Indeed, Izala was the matrix of Boko Haram. The movement’s trajectory is quite unusual: Izala has been a militant, insurgent and repressed group but is now an ally of the Nigerian central government. But what triggered this evolution and how did the group manage to transform its image in the eyes of the Nigerian state?

The Foundation of the Movement

Since the early 1970s, the north of Nigeria has witnessed an emergence of various Islamic movements. This correlates with the foundation of the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia, which became the intellectual centre of Salafism and attracted students from all Muslim countries. Between 1965 and 2001 around 865 Nigerians have graduated from this university.[1] This contributed to the spreading of Salafism in Nigeria.

The Izala movement was established in northern Nigeria in the city of Jos in 1978 under the leadership of Sheikh Ismail Idris. However, the movement largely relies on the teachings of Sheikh Abubakr Gumi, Idris’ teacher and a prominent scholar of Salafism in the north of Nigeria. Gumi was close to president Shehu Shagari and a vocal critic of local imams, whom he attacked for deviating from the holy texts. Izala benefited from Saudi funding to spread the Salafist doctrine. Although Gumi was influenced by Wahhabism and Salafist ideas, he remained concerned with local rather than global issues as he was strongly involved in local politics.[2]

Initially, the Nigerian Salafist movement opposed well-established Sufi brotherhoods (Tijaniyya and Qadiriyya) in the north of the country, especially in the states of Sokoto and Plateau. The movement calls for the eradication of “un-Islamic” practices, the implementation of Sharia law and the prohibition of innovation (bid’ah), i.e. religious practices and beliefs that are not derived from the Quran and Sunnah. The movement has criticized the Quranic interpretations of Sufi brotherhoods and their mystic beliefs. However, Izala’s opposition to the brotherhoods is also largely political. Izala followers associated them with the northern elites, since the Qadiriyya enjoyed close ties with influential political circles. The brotherhoods had been already largely co-opted by the colonial power and allowed it to guarantee stability and hegemony over northern Nigeria. They were seen by the British colonial authorities as “state friendly” and as a “peaceful sect”.[3]

Since its beginning, the movement has been particularly appealing to the youth and became a structured organization. There are no official and recent statistics about the number of followers, but they were estimated to be about 1 million in the 1990s. Most followers of the movement are urban-based and modern educated Nigerians.[4] Particularly students constituted a major group of Izala followers. They often decided to radically break with the established values of the northern society and left their own parents and families.[5] They refused to pray in the same mosques as Sufis and established their own places of worship in private houses. Members of Izala not only tried to discredit the brotherhoods with theological arguments but also acted violently against followers by destroying or occupying their mosques.

The Second Generation of the Izala Movement

Whereas Gumi was focused on local matters, the new young graduates from the Islamic University of Medina started to integrate Salafism in Nigeria into a more global Muslim cause. Thus, whereas the first phase of the movement’s history is characterized by a strong anti-Sufi resentment under the leadership of Gumi, the second generation of Izala members was marked by the influence of young graduates who returned from Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s such as Adam Ja’afar.[6] The return of the graduates was characterized by a shift from local radical Islam to a form of African Salafism largely influenced by Wahhabism, which eventually led to several schisms within the group.[7] Because of their radical positions, they did not agree with some local Sheikhs’ views. As a result of the hard-liners’ increasing influence, some Izala followers decided to split from the group, created a new movement in the city of Kano and tried to get closer to the state. Meanwhile, others considered Izala’s position towards the Nigerian state too moderate and called for more distance. Subsequently, these disagreements caused the movement to split up into numerous different local Salafist groups. Following the death of Gumi in 1992, the most prominent graduate willing to take over the leadership of the movement was Ja’afar. When he returned from Saudi Arabia, he became an important radical theological figure of the movement. He considered Izala’s leadership as being too tolerant towards Sufi brotherhoods and too engaged with the Nigerian state.[8] Ja’afar and his followers eventually decided to organize themselves as a sub-movement of Izala and to call themselves the “Ahlussunnah” in Kano state. This branch is considered to be more radical and identifies a wider range of “enemies” of Islam. Moreover, they managed to create a network with other African Salafi graduates all over the continent from the Islamic University of Medina. The movement also propagated itself in the region, especially in Niger. Elder Izala followers started to qualify the new generation of the movement as “troublemakers”.[9]

The core of Izala, however, survived all these splits and is led today by Sheikh Abubakr Gumi’s son, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi. Despite their critical views of the political system and their call for reform, they never questioned the legitimacy of the Nigerian state. Sheikh Abubakr Gumi even stated that “politics is more important than prayer” and that “voting is more important than pilgrimages to Mecca.”[10] The second generation of graduates from the Medina University criticized this thinking.

Causes of Izala’s Ideological Shift

The Political Crisis in the 1980’s

After General Buhari took power in Nigeria in December 1983, Izala faced state repression. Their political activities were banned and some major financial donors where charged with corruption. The movement, which strongly relies on donations, was weakened by these arrests. Members of Izala were accused of being troublemakers and responsible for the division between Muslims in Nigeria.[11] Moreover, during the 1980s, violent confrontations between Christian and Muslim communities occurred in Nigeria, especially in the state of Kaduna. Christian charismatic movements in the north of Nigeria, which represent a minority in this region, increasingly gained influence. In order to confront this new common “enemy”, the two major Sufi brotherhoods Tijaniyya and Qadiriyya together with the Izala movement formed a political alliance of convenience. This surprising move was the group’s first step towards more moderate positions when it came to Sufism and the Muslim political elite in the northern sates of Nigeria. Of course, this reorientation led to vocal criticism towards the leadership of the movement and increased the numbers of dissidents.[12]

From Izala to Boko Haram

Since 2002, Sheikh Yusuf, a student of Ja’afar and member of the sub-branch of Izala’s Ahlussunnah, developed more radical ideas and rejected all secular aspects of Nigerian society.[13] Yusuf forbade his students to follow western education and did not allow them to work for the state.[14] He was banned from praying in Izala mosques and verbally attacked by Izala preachers during sermons.[15] Eventually, Yusuf broke with Ja’afar’s teachings and created his own movement, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad, commonly known as Boko Haram. The concept of Boko (a concept of Hausa origin which touches upon the ideas of fraud, shame, lack of authenticity and western education) was the foundation of Yusuf’s thinking. The main difference between the original preaching of the Izala movement and Boko Haram is that the latter is a jihadist organization that uses violence to implement its ideology. During their theological arguments, Ja’afar warned about Yusuf’s dangerous political ambitions in Nigeria. The conflict between these two groups rapidly became violent and in 2007 Ja’afar was killed by members of Boko Haram. Since the creation of Boko Haram, Izala has always distanced itself from jihadism. However, the movement was blamed by the local population and the ruling elites for being the cause of Boko Haram and bringing violent rhetoric into Nigerian Islam. It became therefore crucial for the Izala movement to reinvent a new identity and to clearly position itself against Boko Haram.

From Militant to Mainstream Salafism: Internal Reformism of the Izala Movement

Following the rise of Boko Haram, the Izala movement has reinvented itself. This new phase in the history of the movement is characterized by the search for a new image. The implementation of Sharia law in 1999 in some states of northern Nigeria also represents a major turning point for Izala. The introduction of Sharia law was warmly welcomed and celebrated by the followers of the movement, but it also meant that the movement now lacked a real cause to fight for. Since 2009 and the emergence of Boko Haram, in states such as Jos and Kano, the movement has shifted its violent rhetoric towards a more conciliatory tone. The movement realized the consequences of the positions it took and the ideas it promoted ten years before.

In the 1980s, the movement established Islamic schools in rural areas. However, Izala has reformed its education program and integrated new subjects such as English and natural sciences. The movement previously had only taught subjects related to Islamic education. Izala’s schools were recognized by the state, which represented a major step for the credibility of the movement. One special feature of the movement is that it has called for the religious mobilization and education of Muslim women. Such ideas remain extremely rare in other Salafist movements in the Muslim world.

Since its beginning, Izala has created several so called “first aid groups” (FAG). The groups follow a strict hierarchy and exist at the local, state and national level. Members of the FAGs are trained in first aid in order to assist injured or sick people before being brought to the hospital. They are also in charge of organizing important Izala gatherings. They even control traffic in front of mosques during prayers or assist pilgrims at the airport.[16] Consequently, following the rise of Boko Haram, the movement has increasingly laid its focus on its own charitable work and education programs, away from political claims. Through its charitable organizations and its own schools, the movement took responsibility of fields traditionally managed by the state. The movement has thus reclaimed a role as a social agency. It now is being qualified by scholars as “mainstream Salafism” in opposition to jihadism.

Relations between the Izala Movement and the Nigerian Central Government since 2011

The movement tried for many years to be recognised by the state. Since 2011, some of its members got important jobs such as Aminu Daurawa, Commander General of the Hisbah (a morality police) in Kano state.[17] In the same year, the movement and its different branches that had split from the mother organization following the disagreements between the young graduates of Medina and the first generation of Izala scholars reconciled under the leadership of Sani Yahya Jingir. Many Izala Sheikhs are now recognized by the state and teach at state universities as Islamic scholars.[18] In July 2018, the movement announced that they will establish a state-recognized Islamic university in Jigawa. The state’s local government allocated 65 hectares of land for the construction of the university.[19] The project has been supported by President Buhari himself.[20] In its annual national preaching, the movement has constantly addressed the challenge of Boko Haram.[21] In August 2018, the national secretary of the Izala movement urged Nigerians to support the army’s fight against terrorism in the northeast by providing useful information. Furthermore, he called Nigerians to preach peace and harmonious co-existence amongst all Muslims.[22] The movement is now a key ally for the Nigerian state in the fight against their common enemy, Boko Haram. Through its schools and mosques, it influences a large number of northern Nigerians, especially students in order to teach them a different interpretation of Salafism and convince them not to join the jihadist group. According to Michael Baca, “With its deep engagement with the local Salafi community, Izala is well placed to provide the government with advance warning of radicalizing trends, as well as advice on how to more effectively identify and reach out to disaffected Salafi preachers.”[23] Sheikh Bala Lau, the National Chairman of Izala has even called his movement “Boko Halal” in opposition to Boko Haram.

The new relationship between the movement and President Buhari is particularly interesting. While Buhari was responsible for major repression against the movement in the early 1980s, the movement has in recent years become one of its main supporters. After several months of sickness in 2017, Sheikh Bala Lau has asked his followers to pray for Buhari’s health and quick recovery. He has also called on his followers to vote for him during the general elections in 2019.[24] President Buhari and the political elite have now recognized the strategic role of the organization.

Besides the fight against Boko Haram, the movement sided with the Nigerian state in combating the rise of the Shiite Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) under the leadership of Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky. Inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Zakzaky, born as a Sunni Muslim, converted to Shiism and founded the IMN in 1979. While only few Shiites existed in Nigeria at that time, today about three million followers of Shiism are estimated to live in the country as a direct result of Zakzaky’s proselytization activities. Following an alleged attack by members of the group on the country’s army chief – described as a simple road blockade of his convoy by some sources – in 2015, security forces killed at least 300 IMN members and arrested its leader, who has been imprisoned since.[25] As the movement seeks to establish an Islamic State in Nigeria modelled after the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is perceived as a threat by Nigerian authorities. They have therefore integrated Izala as a key agent in their agenda to confront this growing challenge. In the north of the country, the movement has been an important rival of Shias, regularly resulting in violent confrontations. In November 2016, in the context of Ashura commemorations, Izala members attacked several ceremonies of the IMN, killing at least two Shiites.[26] Since Zakzaky and his followers are largely backed by Iran, Izala has also gained stronger support from Saudi Arabia.


The emergence of the Izala movement shook up Islam in Nigeria and especially the role of the established Sufi brotherhoods. The Izala movement has come a long way since its beginning as an anti-Sufi movement repressed by the state to its current position as a key social actor and an ally of the central government. Because of the common challenge posed by Boko Haram, there is a convergence of interests between Izala and the Nigerian government. The government realized the Izala movement’s potential to counter jihadism. The Izala movement took this opportunity to invent a new image as some kind of “peaceful Salafism” in opposition to Boko Haram. Nowadays, the central and local governments work with the Izala movement in order to tackle issues within the Islamic community in Nigeria. In Nigeria’s elections in 2019, the Izala movement played an important role in supporting President Buhari’s candidacy. It will for sure in the future continue to influence the country’s politics.

Yasmina Tarhbalouti

[1] Alex Thurston, “Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics”, New York: Cambridge University Press, (2016), p 90.

[2] Ibid. p. 86-90.

[3] Ramzi Ben Amara, “The Izala Movement in Nigeria: Its Split, Relationship to Sufis and Perception of Sharīʿa Re-Implementation”, PhD thesis, Universität Bayreuth, Bayreuth Graduate school of African Studies, (2011), p. 180.

[4] Ousmane Kane, “Muslim modernity in postcolonial Nigeria: a study of the Society for the Removal of Innovation and Reinstatement of Tradition”, Leiden; Boston: Brill, (2003), p. 104-122.

[5] Roman Loimeier, “Boko Haram: The Development of a Militant Religious Movement in Nigeria”, Africa Spectrum, Vol. 47: 2-3, (2012), pp. 137-155, p. 141.

[6] Ibid. p. 96.

[7] Alex Thurston, “Salafism in Nigeria, Salafism in Nigeria”, op. cit., p. 93.

[8] Ibid. p.88- 106.

[9] Ibid. p. 109-114.

[10] Élodie Apard, “Les mots de Boko Haram, Afrique contemporaine, N°255, (2015/3), pp. 41-69, p. 44.

[11] Roman Loimeier, “Islamic Reform and Political Change in Northern Nigeria”, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, (1997), p. 220-221.

[12] Ibid. p. 143-144.

[13] Gérard Chouin et al. “Body count and religion in the Boko Haram crisis”, in Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos (ed), Boko Haram: Islamism, politics, security and the state in Nigeria, African Studies Centre: Leiden, (2014), pp. 213-236, p. 215.

[14] Gérard Chouin, Manuel Reinert, Elodie Apard, “Body count and religion in the Boko Haram crisis”, in Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos (ed), Boko Haram: Islamism, politics, security and the state in Nigeria, African Studies Centre: Leiden, (2014), pp. 213-236, p. 215.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ramzi Ben Amara, “The Izala Movement in Nigeria: Its Split, Relationship to Sufis and Perception of Sharīʿa Re-Implementation”, op. cit, p. 180.

[17] John Campbell, “Salafism in Northern Nigeria Beyond Boko Haram”, Council on Foreign Affairs (online), 11 January 2017.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ja’afar Ja’afar, “JIBWIS to establish Islamic university in Jigawa”, Daily Nigeria (online), 23 July 2018.

[20] Bashir, Liman, “Buhari, Sultan want JIBWIS to establish varsity”, Daily Trust (online), 2 April 2018.

[21] John Campbell, “Salafism in Northern Nigeria Beyond Boko Haram”, op. cit.

[22] “Boko Haram: Cleric tells Nigerians to support military counter-insurgency campaign”, PM News Nigeria (online), 3 August 2018.

[23] Baca, Michael, “Could Nigeria’s Mainstream Salafis Hold Key to Countering Radicalization?”, Global observatory, 15 December 2015.

[24] News Agency of Nigeria, “JIBWIS chair urges pilgrims to pray for Buhari, Nigeria”, Today NG (online), 24 September 2017.

[25] The economist, “A mysterious Shia group has Nigeria worried”, The economist, 15.11.2018.

[26] The New Arab, “Saudi-Iranian rivalry stokes sectarian tensions in Nigeria”, The New Arab (online), 06.11.2016.