Professor Rabiat Akande discusses Entangled Domains: Empire, Law and Religion in Northern Nigeria

Rabiat Akande

Rabiat Akande is an Assistant Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School of York University in Toronto and chairs the International Legal History Project at the African Institute of International Law in Arusha. Beyond Entangled Domains, her work has appeared in the Law and History Review; Journal of Law and Religion; the Supreme Court Law Review; the American Journal of International Law (forthcoming); Die Welt des Islam (forthcoming); and in co-edited volumes published by or forthcoming with the University of Toronto, University of Virginia, and Cambridge University Presses. Her next book project is provisionally titled Malcolm X, Black Globalism, and the Human Rights Critique of Imperialism.”

In May, 2020, Law and History Review published Professor Rabiat Akande’s article, “Secularizing Islam: The Colonial Encounter and the Making of a British Islamic Criminal Law in Northern Nigeria, 1903–58,” Law and History Review 38, no. 2 (May, 2020), 459-93.  When we learned that Professor Akande’s book, Entangled Domains: Empire, Law and Religion in Northern Nigeria hit the shelves in 2023, we wanted to learn more.  Here is our discussion.

The Docket [TD]: Professor Akande, thank you so much for taking the time to correspond with us about your new book! Let’s start with some basics.  Most of our readers will be inexpert in colonial Nigerian history.  Can you briefly explain what you are arguing in the book, and how this complicates received wisdom?

Rabiat Akande [RA]: Entangled Domains chronicles constitutional struggles over religion in the Northern Nigerian colonial state and grapples with the postcolonial legacy of those contestations. At the heart of colonial governance was a paradox. On the one hand, empire insisted on its secularity by asserting a separation of itself and its law from all religion-including indigenous faiths and the faith of the many European Christian missions who were jousting for converts in the territory. On the other hand, however, the colonial state adopted the policy of indirect rule, which meant governing the territory through what remained of the precolonial Islamic Sokoto caliphate. The state’s assertion of its secularity in the face of everyday state entanglement with religious institutions defies conventional wisdom in political and constitutional theory, according to which a degree of separation or distance is the integral element of secularism (complemented of course, in liberal settings by the assurance that the colonial state will guarantee a degree of religious liberty). 

Indeed, colonial legal histories of Northern Nigeria have tended to overlook the state’s assertion of separation, focusing instead on the reification of Islamic institutions necessitated by the exigencies of indirect rule. 

Departing from these narratives, Entangled Domains argues that both the state’s assertion of separation and the simultaneous reality of the state entanglement with religion—as well as the tension that those dual imperatives involve—are at the heart of imperial secular governmentality. The book then traces the career of imperial secular governmentality by revealing the conditions for the co-existence of these conflicting dimensions of imperial governance. The colonial state emphasized ceremonial deference to the remains of the caliphal institutions (at least in the early colonial years). That arrangement featured extensive restrictions on Christian missionary activity that frustrated missionary ambitions to Christianize the territory and made Northern Nigeria infamous in global missionary circles. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to conflate this policy with “Muslim sub-imperialism,” as missionary critics of the time and not a few theorists of empire have since done. In fact, colonial governance entailed the state’s governance of and ultimate transformation of religion and religious institutions, including those of the  precolonial caliphate through which it governed. That governance agenda was a complex amalgam of imperial sensibilities and strategies that varied across time and place in the colony. Still, none of these strands preserved or even reified the precolonial caliphate as received accounts imply. Notably, in seeking to render caliphal institutions and Islamic law amenable to governance, the colonial state radically altered those institutions, creating a distinct form of British Islamic law and Muslim subject. At the heart of those transformational processes was the state’s radical alteration of the precolonial constitutional balance between jurists and political authorities and its relocation of juristic power from jurists, first to the indigenous elites through whom the colonial state ruled, and then later, to the central state itself. Entangled Domains tells the story of that imperial agenda and portrays the struggles it set in motion between indigenous elites, colonial officials, and Christian missionaries.

TD: One of the most striking features of this book is your remarkable ability to show the reader just how messy “the law” was in colonial Northern Nigeria.  At the outermost valence there are colonial edicts and their long-term consequences, but as we move closer to communities in Northern Nigeria we see the complicated dance between the central state’s “secular” system alongside local governance and its reliance on longstanding religious structures.  In your book you succeed in showing us the precarious balance between all of these elements.  But if you had to say, which of these elements of the legal system do you think was the most powerful?

As published by the colonial government-empanelled “Commission Appointed to Enquire into the Fears of Minorities and the Means of Allaying Them” in 1958. Religious categories are as described by the Commission. See Henry Willink, ed. Nigeria: Report of the Commission Appointed to Enquire into the Fears of Minorities and the Means of Allaying Them (London: HM Stationery Office, 1958).

RA: That’s a tough question. No doubt, the threat of, and in some instances, the actual deployment of state violence meant that colonial mandates could not be ignored. Yet, it would be inaccurate to interpret this as a sign that the edicts of the colonial state were the most consequential. For one, colonial officials had diverse understandings of what colonial law was and what its everyday interpretation and application ought to be. Officials such as the first Governor of the territory, Frederick Lugard, and those officials described in the book as Lugardians, understood the imperial commitment to separation and the governmental practice of entanglement to mean an emphasis on religious liberty of the Muslim vessels of colonial rule, a deemphasis on religious liberty of other faiths, including Christian missionaries and converts, and an indirect prodding of Muslim jurists and elites to attain the desired judicial and policy outcomes in stated cases. However, colonial officials such as a later influential Governor, Donald Cameron, believed that the ultimate purpose of empire was the globalization of a Christian ethos and the head-on reform of Islamic institutions and loosening of missionary restrictions even while striving to maintain elements of legitimacy for the Muslim elites who continued to be the indirect vessels of rule. The simultaneous existence of these differing inclinations meant that colonial edicts did not only change over time but also that the interpretation and application of the same colonial edicts varied across space (and time) in the colony depending on the sensibility of the administrator charged with applying the mandate. To complicate the picture further, other actors in the story, the indigenous Muslim political elites, jurists, Christian missions, Christian converts, and elites representing diverse indigenous persuasions, were not passive subjects. They put forth their own visions of what role their religions and other religions ought to have in the imperial project and what their ultimate fate in the colonial state ought to be. The result was a story of push and pull, leading to the spatial and temporal variations in outcomes I track throughout the story.

TD: Can you explain to our readers how you became interested in this topic, and what led you down the path of writing this fascinating book?

RA: I first became fascinated by the topic in the mid-2000s while in college. At the time, Nigeria was witnessing an intense debate over a move by several Muslim-majority states in northern Nigeria to introduce Sharia Penal codes. What was striking was not so much the unfolding of the constitutional struggle over what opponents of the Sharia Penal Codes saw as an attempt to introduce religion into the public sphere and to “de-secularize” the state. Constitutional tussles are, after all, common, and the vibrant and heated exchanges they ignite are necessary to the growth and sometimes even renewal of polities. What was, however, fascinating and that I noticed when I began studying the debate as an undergraduate law student in Nigeria was that both sides to the debate invoked opposing memories of the colonial experience in support of their position. For advocates of the Sharia penal codes, the colonial state uprooted Islamic institutions, displacing them in favor of a secular governance policy that privileged the Christian missionary ethos and producing a postcolonial constitutional order that subordinated Muslims and their aspirations to live under their religious laws. Opponents of the proposal evoked a starkly different memory of the colonial experience. These groups remembered colonialism as Muslim sub-imperialism and argued that the colonial state subordinated non-Muslims in favor of Muslim elites and insisted that only Independence brought a genuine chance at liberal secular constitutional governance, which was threatened by the Sharia proposal. Once I researched the contemporary dimensions of the debate for what was probably a 3-page paper in college, I remained fascinated with the colonial past. I longed to study the constitutional foundations of the religion question in the colonial state. I sought to understand “how” and “why” the contestants in the postcolony imagine the past in starkly irreconcilable ways. Many years later, as a graduate student, I would have the chance to explore these questions in my doctoral dissertation. This book is a product of that dissertation.

TD: One of the most complicated and fascinating chapters in the book is about the creation of the codified 1958 Penal Code.  Of course, you also spend much of the first part of the book also explaining that substantive reforms were already underway well before 1958.  What made this 1958 Penal Code so important?  Was it the culmination of the earlier reform efforts, or was there something particularly significant about it in its own right?

RA: You’re right that the first part of the book illustrates the many substantive reforms that had occurred before the 1958 Penal Code processes and shows that, in effect, the transformation of pre-colonial Islamic law and the making of what I call a “British colonial Islamic law” was complete by the mid-1940s. Nevertheless, the making of the 1958 Penal Code was a landmark moment in the constitutional history of Northern Nigeria because that was the moment when the colonial state–one that would become the “independent state” two years later– brazenly came to assume the authority to make Islamic law. That moment was a victory for Christian missionary advocates, and in significant ways, it indicates a return to the imperial civilizational vision that had supposedly lost steam in the nineteenth century. Beyond illuminating this resurgence of the nineteenth imperial ethos, however, the 1958 processes set off ripples that endure in contemporary manifestations of Islamic constitutionalism. As I note in the book, the most remarkable legacy of the colonial governance of Islamic law is its situation of “law-making” in the state. It was not, of course, that political authorities lacked authority over the law in pre-colonial years; yet, that jurisdiction over the law in the pre-colonial polity was understood as a limited “siyasa” (executive law-making) jurisdiction over matters not properly governable by fiqh doctrine usually due to practical necessities of everyday governance and in the interest of public order. Otherwise, expounding on the divine law was the provenance of jurists (who nevertheless recognized that they were limited in their ability to apprehend the Sharia, which was, after all, only completely knowable by God, and saw the limits of their own abilities reflected in the diversity of juristic understandings.) Even as the colonial state had been effectuating reforms that upset the siyasa-fiqh balance in the earlier years of rule, 1958 was the moment when first, the unbounded expansion of siyasa and then, its statization became complete. That legacy remains today, living on even in efforts that seek to dismantle the colonial inheritance.

TD: Our readers are always fascinated by archives and sources, and your book doesn’t fail to deliver!  You’ve clearly spent a great deal of time mining archival sources in England and especially in the Nigerian National Archives.  Walk us through what the research process is like at the Nigerian National Archives.  Was there a particular research experience of archival “find” there that sticks in your memory? 

RA: I don’t think I had a particular ‘aha’ moment; it was a slow, laborious process in which one clue led to another, which in turn led to another. However, one crucial moment that led me to abandon an uncritical acceptance of the retention of precolonial Islamic criminal jurisprudence was when I encountered a scribbled comment on a memorandum that Joseph Schacht, a leading Western scholar of Islamic law, had submitted to the colonial office. The colonial office had commissioned Schacht to study Northern Nigerian Islamic law, and based on interviews with emirs and alkalai, Schacht had concluded that the colonial state had preserved precolonial Islamic jurisprudence. The scribbled remark on Schacht’s report was by John Cornes, a junior colonial official with no training in Islamic law. My first reaction was surprise—how an official with zero training in Islamic law could challenge Schacht’s report, especially when Schacht’s account matched the first-hand accounts of jurists and political elites as expressed in interviews? However, because Cornes had very intimate knowledge of Northern Nigeria (it is even said that he traveled around the 320,000 square foot territory on a bicycle), I was prompted to take a look even though he was not a legal expert. Following that nudge, I took a closer look not only at records of what indigenous juristic and political elites were saying publicly (such as in interviews with Western experts like Schacht) but also at what they were expressing in private, including in literary forms such as poems that legal historians might not classify them as classical sources of legal histories, actually yield crucial insights into ideas about empire’s governance of religion through law. That shift was critical to the development of the ideas that came to form the thrust of the book.

TD: I assume that many of your students won’t be all that familiar with Nigerian legal history.  Are you able to draw on your research in teaching your courses at Osgoode Hall?

RA: Some of the courses I teach, such as Law and Religion and Comparative Constitutional Law, directly draw on the body of materials for this research for obvious reasons. In other courses I teach, such as Professional Responsibility (“Ethical Lawyering in a Professional Community”), my expertise in African, Colonial, and Islamic legal history enriches my teaching because it helps me frame the material in a global and temporal context. Unsurprisingly, that context reveals the perennial animation of legal debates by questions of justice, equality, difference, power, and resistance.

TD: Let’s end with a fun one: Lagos, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and now Toronto.  Three amazing places to live but also three places well known for having droves of students and researchers.  Any favorite coffee houses or cafes you can recommend from your time in each?

RA: My favorite place in Cambridge is an artisanal chocolatier, L.A Burdick. Burdick’s chocolate makes (almost) everything feel better; I have many fond memories of spending time there with family and friends while relishing out-of-this-world treats. Here in Toronto, Eggstatic is my top destination. Traditionally, Lagos isn’t known as a place for coffee (although the food is amazing!). Still, things are fast changing, and there are now many decent cafe options in the city, including Caffe Tranche by Araba. Arusha, where I’ve recently begun spending time for a new project, is another destination that attracts researchers (and tourists!); there, Coffee Culture is an excellent spot in the heart of the town.