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Christine Wicker

Christine Wicker

Muslims, Christians Become More Alike in an Unlikely Place

Competition breeds amity.

As the number of murders committed in the name of Islam explodes in countries across the world, it's hard to be hopeful. It seems as if the violence will only ever get worse and worse. In the midst of that despair, it's surprising to hear some encouraging news coming from one of the countries where people have been most desperately afflicted.

That country is Nigeria, one of the world’s hotbeds for Muslim/Christian violence. The conflicts between Muslims and Christians, and among Muslims, who constitute a larger percentage of the Nigerian population than in any other African country, are deep, spread over many aspects of society and often seem to be the only time Nigerian affairs capture world headlines.

But something much quieter is also going on in Nigeria. Christians and Muslims there are becoming more alike.

Peacefully and of their own choice, according to surprising new research by University of Kansas sociologist and former journalist Ebenezer Obadare,

This convergence is occurring primarily in a practice that is the very heartbeat of both religions: prayer.

For Muslims, facing Mecca five times a day for prayer is one of the five pillars of the faith. For the rapidly growing Pentecostal Christian community, prayer is the conduit by which the Holy Spirit fills them and inspires an outpouring of glossolalia, which is in itself a sort of prayer.

Obadare calls what he’s seeing between the two groups “competitive amity.”

"In Nigeria, the fight for converts is fierce and constant with each side promising earthly purpose and eternal salvation. The Muslims have, of course, noticed that the Pentecostals are having great success in winning souls. And so, they are taking lessons and adapting accordingly,” he says.

The imams aren’t abandoning core traditions so much as incorporating a wider variety of language in prayers. Praise of God, thanks to God and obedience to God are still mainstays of the Muslim devotional prayers, but there’s been some expansion toward the more Pentecostal-type prayers that include personal concerns.

“They are soliciting God more, and in so doing seem to be relaxing some of the personal austerity with which the Islamic faith has been associated,” says Obadare.

One of the most marked changes has been that some imams are moving their primary services from Friday to Sunday.

“They noticed that the Christians were being given the whole day for worship and rest, while their holy day had only morning prayers,” says Obadare. “So some of them began to take over Sunday for Muslim worship.”

The Muslims are also being influenced by the Pentecostals in which aspects of their theology they emphasize.

“Pentecostals often see evil forces in the world that they must combat with their holiness and prayer, “ says Obadare. “They see life as very much divided between spiritual forces of good and evil. These kinds of ideas fit very well with the Yoruba belief system, which predates both Islam and Christianity in Africa. It still exists alongside, and continues to be striated with, those two religions of the Book. And so Nigerians find it easy to accept the Pentecostal ideas of being filled with the Spirit and living in a world with many spiritual forces.”

Nigerian Pentecostals practice an exuberant brand of faith that includes miracles of all kinds and emphasizes God’s role in providing abundant prosperity. The fact that Christians do, in fact, control a large part of the country’s wealth has helped cement the idea that there’s power in the prosperity gospel. Imams have noted the power of such ideas and perhaps see them giving the Christians an edge in the battle for souls, says Obadare.

Nigeria would not seem the likeliest candidate for any sort of intermingling of the two religions. The list of conflicts is long enough and violent enough to discouage hope of reconciliation.

BOKO HARAM - In November and December, three bombing attacks by the radical Muslim group Boko Haram killed about 200 people. In April, 278 school girls were stolen from their village in Chibok, in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno, by Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden.” Since then the group has continued kidnapping girls from their homes with 60 being abducted on Oct. 18 and 30 more a week later.

STONING - Sharia laws rule—to varying degrees—in 12 Nigerian states now. Just over a decade ago, two Nigerian women in sharia law states were condemned to death by stoning for having sex outside marriage. They were spared only when appeals courts refused to uphold their sentences.

PROTESTS - In February of 2000, more than a thousand lives were lost in Kaduna state, located in northwestern Nigeria, during supposedly peaceful protests. Clashes between Christian and Muslim forces continue to occur with some regularity.

MISS WORLD - The 2002 Miss World pageant sparked Muslim riots that killed more than a thousand people, after a female journalist, Isioma Daniel, made a throwaway remark about the prophet Muhammed.

UNIVERISITIES - In August of this year, the campus of the University of Ibadan—Nigeria’s premier university—was nearly plunged into violence after a Christian female law student, having entered the university’s central mosque disguised as a Muslim worshipper, attempted to preach to the Islamic congregation.

The country’s universities, dubbed “citadels of violence” in the 1990s because of the frequency of cultist violence, are still largely riven by tension between Muslims and Christians, whose followers Obadare dubs “white collar fundamentalists.” Students are drawn to religious fundamentalism, not in opposition to modernity as some have theorized, but rather, Obadare counters, because fundamentalism is itself an inalienable component of modernity.

“In a world with so little stability and so many choices, they naturally seek areas of certainty,” he says. “Fundamentalism with its sure answers gives them an emotional, spiritual and social base for dealing with the rest of life. This kind of support is especially important in states with weak governments that aren’t able to ensure a stable future.”

Nigeria’s under-funded public universities are tough places to be. Dorm rooms originally built to hold two students, for instance, might now officially house eight students, with perhaps another eight to ten students unofficially using the room. Libraries and laboratories slumber in neglect, and strike action by disaffected teaching staff has become perennial. Christians and Muslims so dominate the campuses that their leaders have considerable political power, not only on campus, but in the larger political sphere.

Obadare has researched and written extensively about all these occurrences. But having grown up in Nigeria, his research into religious practice is inspired by closer contact and deeper understanding than much of the world enjoys. His current research bodes well for the future, he believes.

One reason Nigeria is the site of such an easy shift in prayer practice may be because there has been so much intermingling of religion within families. This is true especially in the Yoruba-dominated western part of the country. Here, a Muslim husband might have a Christian wife and Muslim wife or several of each. He might raise all his children in Islam or allow the religions of his wives to dictate, says Obadare.

“There wouldn’t be any pressure on him to go either way because it is perfectly acceptable for one family to have many people of each religion,” says the professor.

Obadare believes the shift in prayer practices could have wide ranging effects in helping quell conflict between the religions. “Prayer is at the very heart of religious feeling,” he says. “What we pray shapes how we feel about God and ourselves and others at a very deep level, not only consciously but at the unconscious level. So if we see these two religions coming closer together in this very fundamental way, we might see their adherents feeling less sense that those of the other faith are so radically ‘other.’ “