Who are Boko Haram?

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Boko Haram has violated all religious and civil norms of humanity by abducting over 200 girls with the intention to sell them as slaves. It is a group that claims to be Islamic, yet in the eyes of Muslims it has nothing to do with Islam. It claims to be a saved sect blessed by God and it believes in the supremacy of its own concept of religious law under the domination and authority of men only. Who are Boko Haram? What are their ideas?

In the Northeast Nigerian city of Maiduguri, one year after the September 2001 al-Qaeda attack in the US, Mohammad Yusuf, who was part of a group known as Shabaab since 1995 with Mallam Lawal as its leader formed Jamaat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-dawa wal-Jihad (The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad) or in local Hausa language is known by it nickname Boko Haram.

Since its establishment, the group has claimed responsibility of killing over 10,000 people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It now has three splinter groups that are active in Borno, Adamawa, Kaduna, Bauchi, Yobe, and Kano.

The ideas of the leadership are influenced by a deceased Nigerian preacher Mohammed Marwa (died 1980), best known by his moniker Maitatsine, a Hausa word meaning “the one who damns” and refers to his curse-laden public speeches against the Nigerian state.

Maitatsine was originally from Mawra in north eastern Nigeria at one time part of Cameroon. He moved to Kano, Nigeria in about 1945, where he became known for his controversial teachings on the Qur’an. He claimed to be a prophet, and a mujaddid in the image of Sheikh Usman dan Fodio. He rejected the hadith and the sunnah and regarded the reading of any other book but the Quran as kufr. He rejected Prophet Muhammad and projected himself as a prophet. He spoke against the use of modern electronic gadgets as well as means of transportation such as bicycle etc.

Boko Haram wants to establish a sharia state in Nigeria. It wants to eliminate the influence of the Western world in the country and the region. The group does not interact with other Muslims in general and are ready to kill anyone who is opposed to them. The group believes that it is a saved sect. As a privileged group it is prohibited to study modern education. It is against the establishment of schools especially girls’ schools. Even though the group is opposed to Saudi Arabia for its westernization, it selectively accepts the edicts of scholars respected by many Saudis such as Ibn Taymiyyah to promote their use of violence. 

Little is known about the group’s finances. Who gives them resources to buy arms and ammunition? Who supports them financially? Why are they able to use modern electronic gadgets to communicate with different groups in the world? What is the literature they circulate among them and who prints them?

What is clear is that their understanding of Islam is built on two notions: self-religious superiority and male chauvinism. Since, they believe that they are already a saved sect, they can do whatever they want without being questioned by the divine either here or on the Day of Judgment. They believe that non-Muslims have no rights and they deserve to be killed for preaching their faith. They believe that modernization is in fact westernization and both are bad for Muslims. They want to live in a world where they as men can dictate their terms upon all others and where women and children serve as their slaves. They describe all other Muslim sects as either kafir (non believers) or murtad (apostates) whose murder is part of their religious duty. They believe in slavery, subjugation of woman, destruction of place of worship belonging to non-Muslims as well as Muslim deviant sects. They believe in having multiple wives and concubines. In their view such women can be obtained through armed jihad against deviant Muslim groups. They believe in marrying their daughters at an early age. They quote the verses of the Quran and ahadith to justify their position on slavery, status of women, rejection of modern education and the use of violence.

Obviously, their understanding of Islam is based on an ideology that has tribal as well as juristic roots. It relies on an understanding of the Quran that calls for perpetual armed struggle against those who think differently from the group claiming to be a saved sect.

Even though the groups does not admit to be ignorant of the message and meanings of the Quran, its ideas are no different than what was practiced in Arabia in pre-Islamic times. The group has revived all pre-Islamic ideas while using an Islamic terminology.

Boko Haram are not the only Muslim group in the world that can be identified for having such ideas. There are many who view the Quran and Sunnah as a license to promote violence and terror to achieve their goals. How to convince such people that Islam does not promote violence and terror is where the real challenge lies for Muslim intellect. Obviously, the existence of such groups demonstrate the failure of Muslim intellectuals to meet the challenge effectively, yet the efforts must continue at all levels, political , military, social and more importantly the theological.


Dr Aslam Abdullah is director of the Islamic Society of Nevada, Vice president of the Muslim Council of America (MCA) and the President elect of the Nevada Interfaith Council. He has authored several books and published more than 400 papers on issues related with Islam and contemporary issues. He has taught at colleges in India as well as in the US. He is also Editor-in Chief of America’s largest circulating Muslim weekly, The Muslim Observer.


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  1. In na’ lil ALLAH WA INNA Alleyhi raajiuna. This group has already killed so many inocents people? It is very unfortunate that Muslim countries do not have an army or a program agreed upon to fight such groups that tarnish the image of Islam. May ALLAH subhana u Tallah clean the hearts of these people, and show them the right path.I suplicating ALLAH (SWT) to take the muslims who are victim of the actions’ of these criminal, as martyrs and grant them Paradise.