Dewdrops of Memory: Isanlu and the Islam that I knew

by Pius Adesanmi

The Moslems too had their celebrations and festivals that involved the Isanlu Christian community. My favorite was the return from pilgrimage by any Isanlu Moslem who had been privileged to go to Mecca. What a feast! We the children, Christians and Moslems alike, would form a long procession through the town with the new Alhaji or Alhaja, singing and dancing:

Barika re oh eh
Barika re oh ah
Alhaji to re Mecca to bo
Barika re

To the faithful
Who went to Mecca
And is back among us)

The procession ended at the new Alhaji’s or Alhaja’s house with eating, drinking (not alcohol o!) and merriment. We the Christians joined in Islamic choruses offering thanks and praises to Allah for the safe return of that son or daughter of Isanlu from Mecca. The entire Isanlu community celebrated every Moslem festival. Between inter-denominational and inter-religious festivities and trans-religious educational institutions, growing up the way I did in Isanlu meant encountering Islam as a member of the family even though no member of my immediate or extended family was a Moslem. Dewdrops of memory…

There were of course minor tensions. The occasional flash of anger when, as children playing football after classes, a Christian mocked the faith of the Moslems as imo lile (difficult religion) – a contraction of which is the popular Yoruba cognomen for Islam, imole. That was the most serious denigration of Islam that I knew growing up. To put the impertinent Christian kid in his place, we would join our offended Muslim playmates in singing:

E ye pe Musulumi loni mole
Elesin Isilamu ki se mole
Elesin alafia ki se mole
Eni ba pe Musulumi l’oni mole
Ko kewu ri, ko bere
A lai mo kan ni

(Call not the Muslim
An adherent of a difficult faith
A Religion of peace it is
If you have never prayed, never inquired
Yet label the Muslim faithful
You are just ignorant)

Some of these boyhood quarrels ultimately ended at home with parents on all sides enjoining all parties to respect one another’s faiths and to remember that we were all omo Isanlu. Boyhood passed, young adulthood came. Location: University of Ilorin mini-campus. My undergraduate years came before the era of sanguinary campus cultism in Nigeria. Apart from our studies, all we knew were the excitement of aluta, police tear gas, and the menace of campus Pentecostal fellowships. Campus born again Christians (SUs) could never be content to assemble for fellowship in one or two large groups in consideration of other members of the campus community. Rather, following the bad example of the public nuisance value of their parent organizations on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, scores of little sub-groups answering every name from Tabernacle to Maranatha, from Deeper Life to Rhema, from Redeem to Mountain of Fire via Living Faith and Christ Embassy, would take over every available lecture room, the one trying to outscream the other, as they spoke in tongues and invited the Lord’s fire on powers, principalities, dominions, and other enemies all night long. A group of five fellowshipping students could take over a 100-seater lecture room, screaming in tongues all night. This made the campus very hostile for those of us who needed to study to pass exams. Those wailing all night were already assured of the Pentecostal miracle of passing without studying. Dewdrops of memory…

The Islam I met as an undergraduate at this Pentecostalism-infested mini-campus of the University of Ilorin was not the Caliphal Islam of the town of Ilorin proper. I remember it now only as an Islam of early morning feasting and celebration during the Islamic fasting season. That was a season of early morning largesse and abundance that my friends and I, all Christians, looked forward to! The fasting Muslim students had to wake up every morning to break their fast. They called it sari in their local Islamic parlance. I guess there is something in their religion that enjoined them to share that meal happily with their friends and neighbours, irrespective of religious differences. We waited for the early morning call of their muezzin who would scream in the hostel corridors every morning: “Wake up! Wake up! It’s time for sari!” We the Christians would be the first to wake up and start the rounds from room to room, inviting ourselves to the meals of Muslim students! You only need to remember the financial precariousness of undergraduate life to appreciate the importance of this awoof (free) Moslem breakfast that I never missed in my four years of undergraduate life. Dewdrops of memory…

The Islam I encountered from Isanlu to Ilorin in my formative years was not just about awoof food and festivities. That Islam also fed my mind and expanded my world. I have written about my father’s vast family library in one of my longer biographical essays. Alfred Oludare Adesanmi despised a mind that didn’t devour books daily and he never stopped buying books and expanding his personal library till he died in 2007. I tearfully recall now the hours I had to spend reading in his company in that library – with a rap on the head if I forgot what he told me about the Almoravids or the Hamitic hypothesis yesterday – while regretting the five-a-side football game of “set” I was missing with my friends, hoping he would let me go before the end of the game and spare me the exaggerated accounts of my friends the following day at school. “Ah, Pius, game ana yen gbona!” Very hot game! You missed o! Dewdrops of memory…

That expansive library became my most precious inheritance as his only son when he died. Dad was also a trained historian, with a B.A and an M.A in African history. He was half way into a Ph.D in African history at the Ahmadu Bello University, focusing on the trans-saharan trade, when his health failed him and he abandoned the programme in the mid-1980s. He never really recovered from that illness. Because he was in the ABU tradition of African history, his library contained impressive materials on Islam in West Africa, especially the Islamic scholarship that emanated from Timbuktu. He subscribed to Tarikh, collected material on Islamic poetry and philosophy. My fascination with the travels and writings of Ibn Battuta started in my father’s library at home. That was where I also encountered names like Rumi, Ibn Khaldun, and Al Maghili. Dewdrops of memory&#


This is the Islam I knew. This is the Islam that fed my belly and my mind. Now I watch in horror, in stark contemplation of a faith gone awry. How did this Islam arrive at the conclusion that it was okay to sever the head of Gideon Akaluka, mount it on a spike, and chant Allah Akbar triumphantly in the streets of Kano? What about Christianah Oluwasesin, clobbered to death in the name of this Islam by high school boys? Why has the educated elite from this part of Nigeria pretended thus far that it can do nothing about this nonsense for which they must all be held responsible without exception? Have they given a thought to forming alliances and embarking on sensitization campaigns to wrest Islam from the control of their deadly and opportunistic political elite? Again, we must ask that question inspired by Senghor: what is this Islam which is not Islam?

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