ABUJA – A monarch in Nigeria’s southeastern region of Igbo has reverted to Islam, to the joy of Muslims in a region that has always seen the Islamic religion as alien to their culture.
“I did not accept Islam. I only reverted to the religion that our forefathers practiced and the universal religion of humanity,” Imo monarch Sylvester O. Dimunah told OnIslam.net in a telephone interview.
“I’m impressed by the good nature of Muslims’ love for everybody and hatred for none, apart from the way they revere Allah and all Prophets without discrimination.”
Dimunah, the Vice Chairman of the Council of Village Heads in Imo state, has embraced Islam earlier this month. He now takes the name Musa Dimunah.
“(I have no) regret joining Islam regardless of the stigma, borne of out of ignorance and sheer close-mindedness, that comes with being an Igbo person and being a Muslim,” he said.
Asked if he faces any threat or rejection from relatives, Dimunah said he faced no pressures from his family after embracing Islam.
“I am also impressed by the brotherhood and mutual respect for each other and other members of the community.”
Dimunah said the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the resulting campaigns against Islam and Muslims have led him to read about the religion.
“My independent research showed that…the criticisms of Islam and majority of Muslims are indeed unfounded and malicious because I see nowhere in the Qur’an where evil is commanded or encouraged, openly or covertly,” he said.
“But beyond this, it led me to reflect more and more about Islam and Muslims, especially the first generation of organized Muslims led by the Prophet himself.
“I read narrations about his endurance of hostility and unprovoked violence for 13 solid years before he got the nod to do Hijrah. Same for his followers.”
He said “unbiased” study of Islam would reveal a “religion calling upon the whole of humanity to unite in peace and constructive engagement and exclaim the glory of God, even as it calls for monotheism, good morals and excellent interpersonal relations.”
Dimunah’s reversion is seen as a milestone in the history of Islam, which is seen in the Southeastern region as alien to their culture.
Unlike the northern and southwestern parts, Islam is not taught in public schools across the whole of South and Southeast Nigeria.
Only the University of Port Harcourt, a federal institution, offers Islamic Studies as a course.
Dimunah opines that it will take some time for Islam to be accepted by Igbo residents.
“With time, patience and vigorous enlightenment program, the situation will change because Islam stands for fair play and justice, not violence or terrorism.”
The monarch’s reversion to Islam has drawn mixed reactions from Christians and Muslims in the region.
“Religion is a personal thing so I won’t comment on the merit or demerit of anyone choosing which way to serve his God,” Eze Sam Ohiri, chairman of Imo State Traditional Rulers Council, told OnIslam.net.
But the monarch’s reversion won plaudits from Sheikh Shehu Uthman Anaga, a leading Muslim scholar in Nigeria.
“It is a sign of good things to see our brothers learn and understand the real Islam, and not the stereotype,” Anaga told OnIslam.net.
Anaga, who hails from Ebonyi State, a predominantly Christian Southeastern state, became a Muslim in the 1970s at the early age.
He urged the government to give “our minority Igbo Muslim brothers a voice by allowing peaceful propagation of Islam on the public media platforms just like our Christian brothers.”
Anaga blamed the stereotype associated with Islam in the region to the lack of adequate information about the religion.
“To some of our brothers, it is an anathema to be an Igbo man/woman and at the same time be a Muslim. But this is borne out of ignorance which we are correcting.”
Isabellah Igboanugo, a 29-year-old female Igbo student at the Imo State University, sees nothing strange or unusual about the monarch’s reversion to Islam.
“I have a distant aunt, an Igbo of course, who is a Muslim. She converted even before she got married and, despite the initial protests by some family members, they later respect her right to practice Islam,” she told OnIslam.net.
“And I can tell you she has been a different person ever since, although I must confess she’s never been the bad type from inception.
“Today she’s married to an Igbo man who incidentally is also an Igbo Muslim from Anambra and they are doing fine. So I welcome the monarch’s decision, although I am a Christian, a Catholic.”
Nigeria, one of the world’s most religiously committed nations, is divided between a Muslim north and a Christian south.
Muslims and Christians, who constitute 55 and 40 percent of Nigeria’s 140 million population respectively, have lived in peace for the most part.
But ethnic and religious tensions have bubbled for years, fuelled by decades of resentment between indigenous groups, mostly Christian or animist, who are vying for control of fertile farmlands with migrants and settlers from the Hausa-speaking Muslim north.