I recently went on a trip to Niamey, the capital of the West African country of Niger, when people were getting ready for the holy month of Ramadan. I did not really know what to expect. Do Muslims in Niger share some of our rituals and traditions as an African Muslim country?
At the beginning of my visit, one thing that stood out was how people were keen to exchange Islamic greetings and say bismillah (in the name of Allah) before each action, despite the official language of the country being French and the local language being Hausa.
At prayer times, people would spread prayer mats in public parks to perform their prayers, and even security guards would exchange shifts so they would not miss their prayers. Whereas sermons and preaching are in French in mosques, classes to explain and memorise the Quran are widespread, and people exert great efforts to read the Quran in Arabic and understand its meanings. It is common for women to wear knee-long veils and even for small girls to wear the hijab (Islamic headscarf).
Of the 54 countries in Africa today, 16 of them are Islamic, and ten are Arabic-speaking. Niger, in the Sahel region of West Africa, has a 99 per cent Muslim population, though their relationship with Arabic seems almost limited to learning the Quran and saying the Islamic greeting of assalamu alaikum, or peace be with you.
As Egypt and the rest of the Islamic world celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, each country has its own way of celebrating the holy month, and here we take a closer look at the customs of Nigerien Muslims in Ramadan and what they share with those in Egypt.
Some 80 per cent of Niger is desert, and there are few bodies of water aside from the Niger River, which sometimes has water levels so low that it is difficult to navigate it.
Mohamed Hamdou, a researcher at the University of Niamey in Niger, told Al-Ahram Weekly that though Islam goes back more than 1,000 years in Niger, it began to spread more widely during the 19th and 20th centuries. This was due to the influence of neighbouring countries like Libya and Algeria, he said.
The Nigeriens are peaceful people who have found answers in Islam, he said, which spread during the 15th century through trade across the desert from Morocco and Egypt. The local Tuareg tribes also played an important role.
Commenting on customs and traditions in Ramadan in Niger today, Hamdou said that the spread of Islam in Niger had affected people’s lives in profound ways, causing them to be more interested in religion and spirituality in general. Despite often leading simple lives, Nigeriens hold on to a group of traditions and customs, such as making sure to give money for charity no matter how limited their financial resources may be and exchanging gifts, often food products, among family and friends.
Nigeriens are friendly in all aspects of life, and they always wish the best to each other. Liquor stores shut their doors completely during Ramadan, and restaurants close during the day. Cold drinks vendors become more active before the evening prayer, especially those selling the most popular juices of ginger and tamarind.
There are some Christians living peacefully among the Muslims in Niger, and there is no religious extremism. Women are not forced to wear the hijab, and they are free to wear whatever they see fit. There is no specific Islamic costume in the country, and in fact being moderate and forgiving are among the most important traditions in Niger.
Regarding Nigerien preparations for the holy month of Ramadan, Hamdou said these usually start by the middle of Shaaban, the preceding Islamic month, when daily processions set out after the evening prayer accompanied by traditional African drums and the chanting of muwashah (poems) and praising Allah.
On the sighting of Ramadan’s crescent moon, a larger procession carrying bigger tambourines announces the eve of Ramadan. Young men head to the houses of their betrothed carrying gifts, and husbands bring their wives’ families bigger gifts.
AFRICAN DRUMS: Khadijah Abdul-Samad, a housewife, talked to the Weekly about Ramadan in Niger, saying that Iftar meals are dominated by a main dish of vegetables with spices, pasta, and eggs.
Rice and couscous also make up basic meals in Niger, especially in Ramadan, she said. The Nigeriens pay great attention to porridge, a popular traditional dish made of flour and wheat. Abdul-Samad said that the majority are interested in healthy food, with fish and milk indispensable on every table.
Like in Egypt, the mesaharaty, a person who wanders the streets beating a drum to wake people up for their Sohour (pre-dawn meal) in Ramadan, is a fixture in Niger. Abdul-Samad said that the Prophet Mohamed had said that there is a blessing in Sohour, adding that people in Niger go home tired from long hours performing the taraweeh prayers in mosques and then wake up early before the dawn prayer to eat their Sohour meal.
The mesaharaty wander the streets twice every night, she said, first to wake people up to eat, and second to alarm people to stop eating before the dawn prayer. He uses African drums to alert people. As for the Sohour meal itself, a popular choice is porridge with milk, along with dates, she said
Mosques in Niger prepare to receive worshippers during Ramadan, with these gathering there to attend Quran lessons as well as to perform the taraweeh prayers. They also perform the itikaf (seclusion for prayers) and tahajjud (night prayers) during the last 10 days of Ramadan.
The mosques are well perfumed and lit for the worshippers, and usually people do not close their doors during Ramadan as families are keen to invite fasting people to break their fast with them, following the Prophet Mohamed’s teachings.
The Laylat Al-Qadr (Night of Decree or Night of Power) is an official holiday in all government departments in Niger, when the president, the prime minister, members of the government and members of the judiciary all go to the Grand Mosque in the capital to commemorate this occasion in a public ceremony.
Assia Noma Adama, an entrepreneur who owns a food-production business in Niger, told the Weekly that there are no specific rituals for sighting the crescent moon of Ramadan in the country, but around a week before the holy month, women start storing foodstuffs, especially spices, considered one of the most important ingredients in Ramadan dishes, in preparation.
Among popular dishes is corn paste, usually served with an okra sauce, as well as millet porridge. Millet is a grain popular across much of West Africa, and flour made of it is mixed with milk or water.
Adama said that fresh juices are the most popular drinks in Ramadan, among them lemon, tamarind, and ginger juice. Everyone participates in the taraweeh prayer, which is usually performed in mosques, though some prefer to perform it at home. The country’s television stations only broadcast Islamic songs and sermons during Ramadan.
After the taraweeh prayers, the imam reads from the Quran and translates it into the national language of Hausa and explains the verses. During the day, Qur’an memorisation schools for children become active, starting from nine o’clock in the morning.
Family gatherings are not usual for families in Niger during Ramadan, but some wealthy families organise group Iftar meals, inviting their neighbours, friends and acquaintances, whereas most restaurants and bars are closed and other activities put on hold.
There is no penalty for breaking the fast in Ramadan in public places, but it is frowned upon to disrespect the sanctity of the month. As for young girls, they wear the hijab at a young age, in order to help them get used to wearing it. Ramadan is an opportunity to teach children their religion and train them to perform the prayers and fast.
Ahmed Mohamed, a craftsman making handmade accessories, told the Weekly that in Niger “getting ready for Ramadan starts first on a psychological level, as the mosques urge Muslims to adopt good morals not only during the holy month but all the year round.”
“People ask each other for forgiveness, end disputes, and want to get closer to Allah with pure hearts. The sale of rosary beads, prayer rugs and perfumes increases, as Muslims are keen on these as they go to the taraweeh prayers and tahajjud prayers during the last 10 days of Ramadan.”
Mohamed added that radio stations broadcast religious programmes, and the TV shows programmes on reading the Quran and explaining it. Fathers start saving money to buy their children new clothes for the Eid Al-Fitr, the breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan, which is a must for most families, regardless of financial condition. There are no wedding or engagement ceremonies during Ramadan, so people hold them during the three days of the Eid.
During Ramadan, some food prices increase, such as for grains, most notably corn, as well as for sugar, oil, vegetables, and meat. Grilled meat is one of the best-known dishes in Ramadan, and spices are one of the most important basics. Lemons, tomatoes, and onions can all become more expensive, as they are the main ingredients used in the sauces for many popular Nigerien dishes.
Meals in Niger usually start with colourful green salads with moringa leaves. Starchy rice is one of the most popular dishes and is usually served with a sauce or stew. Couscous is also an important dish and is eaten with a stew or boiled grape leaves. Porridge is also popular as well as wheat pancakes.
SUFI MOVEMENTS: Sufism played a major role in spreading Islam in the African continent, along with peaceful methods such as through trade, marriage, and the teaching of the Quran. African kingdoms that observed the Muslim religion were born, and Islam is an important religion across Africa today.
According to researcher Saleh Mahrous, the spread of Islam in West Africa in particular was linked to the spread of Sufi orders like the Qadiriya, Tijaniya, Shadhili, Senussi, and Ahmadiya orders. Sufism is derived from the word suf (wool), as Sufis traditionally wear thick woollen cloaks. It is a practice based on austerity that aims to purify the soul and transcend the spirit, and for this reason some say that Sufism was actually derived from the word safaa, or purity, as Sufis aimed to purify themselves and dedicate themselves to Allah and Prophet Mohamed.
Shrines built by leaders of the Sufi orders were the starting points to spread Islam in West Africa.
Hassan Moulay, a researcher at the Institute for Human Sciences Research in Niger, told the Weekly that the most important Sufi movements in West Africa are the Qadiriya, Tijaniya, and Khalwatiya. The Tijaniya order organises mawlids (birthdays of a holy figure) and have many activities during Ramadan. The Qadiriya order is named after Abdel-Qadir Gilani, who died in 1166 in Baghdad, whereas the Tijaniya was founded by Ahmed Tijani, who died in 1815 in Fez Morocco, he said.
The Mouride order was founded by the Senegalese Sheikh Amadou Bamba, who died in 1927.
Islam’s presence in West Africa goes back to the eighth century CE, but its spread in countries like Niger, Senegal, Zambia, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Nigeria was gradual and was connected to trading with neighbouring North Africa across the Sahel region. Trade took place in salt, horses, dates, and camels, as well as gold, timber and foodstuffs from regions south of the Sahara. The Berbers in the south of the Sahara also played a prominent role in the spread of Islam in West Africa.
Mahrous said that about 94 per cent of the population of West Africa are Muslims according to some statistics, in a region extending from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to Sudan and the Nile Valley in the east and lying between the desert or semi-desert regions in the north and the tropical forest range in the south.
The beginning of the spread of Islam in West Africa is attributed to the migration of Arab and Berber tribes, especially the Bani Hilal and Bani Salim, which prompted the local Berber tribes to move south after their conversion to Islam. The Jadalah tribe crossed the Niger River on its way to western Sudan and eventually reached Lake Chad.
The Hajj, or annual pilgrimage to Mecca, played an important role in spreading Islam in the region, as the sultans of the region were keen to perform this duty, with the Hausa tribes being among the keenest.
The Quran and lessons in religious knowledge were used by the Tijaniya order to spread Islam, and as is still the case today this took place through direct interaction between a sheikh and his students. In many cases, a sheikh will seek the help of senior students in teaching younger ones, and thus classes expand.
In addition to teaching the Quran, there are also lessons in jurisprudence, religious biography, interpretation, the hadith, or sayings of the prophet, and the Arabic language in larger mosques, although these may receive less attention than learning the Quran itself.
Followers of the Tijaniya order in Niger take special care to achieve fraternity and solidarity among their members. One of the constants of Tijaniya beliefs is that all Muslims are brothers and should treat each other with solidarity, as helping and supporting each other brings them closer to Allah.
This understanding of the meaning of brotherhood has affected the relationship of the Tijanis with other Nigeriens, making them worthy of praise and respect.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly