Religion And National Integration

A lecture presented

By Al Sadiq Al Mahdi

Former Prime Minister of the Sudan

At The Nigerian Institute of International Affairs Lagos, Nigeria

On Thursday the 28th of June 2001

(under the chairmanship of General Yakubu Gowon (rtd) Former Head of State of the Federal Republic of Nigeria)


Brother Chairman,

Brothers and sisters, with due respect to your titles, I thank the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs for inviting me to address you. I shall give two lectures: This one on “Religion and National Integration” and the second in Kaduna on: “The Lessons of Modern Islamisation Programs.”

Before I deliver the first lecture, I thank Brother Yakub Gowon and Madame Professor, the Director General of this Institute for the high praise they hailed on my person and hope that my lecture will live up to their expectations.

I avail myself of this opportunity to congratulate the people of Nigeria for two achievements:

  • The first is the fact that they restored their unity and achieved reconciliation thereafter. A process symbolised by your person brother chairman.
  • The second is your restoration of democracy symbolized by brother President Obasanjo.

The basic thesis of this talk is that Religion is a thriving political force in under-developed societies, and even in developed ones.

The Nation-State is a relatively new comer in the African political scene. The phenomenon of National integration could be helped or hindered by the way Religious clout is articulated.

Our societies in Africa today, are party to what Professor Ali Mazrui called a triple heritage: Traditional African cultures, Islam and Western Civilization including Christianity.

The Nation-State, along with the Democratic system of Government are both relatively newly acquired experiences. They sit uncomfortably astride societies, which have not experienced fusion into a Nation for  a long period. They continue to see religion, tribe, ethnicity, and other ascriptive factors, as the cement of common identity.

In Asia and Africa, Islam has long been a source of identity and a basis for political activity. In parts of Africa Christianity has become a new source of identity and basis for political activity. In both Southern Nigeria, and Southern Sudan, for example, Christian affiliation has become part of the North-South divide and has become an ingredient in the civil wars, which troubled both countries.

The cultural domination of Sudan by the North fueled Southern resistance. The greater Islamic assertion which accompanied the June 1989 coup d`etat helped deepen and broaden the civil war and radicalized Southern resistance by calls for self-determination.

In Nigeria, the first coup d`etat of January 1966 was partly in reaction to a perceived Northern political domination. The second counter coup of July 1966 was Partly a Northern reaction to the first coup and its aftermath. Then followed the tragic events, with pogroms in the North and East against minority ethnic groups.

Through a series of actions and reactions the East opted for Biafra and the country was plunged into wholesale civil war. The restoration of Nigerian Unity after civil war has been “the most extra-ordinary post civil-war reconciliation to have occurred in modern history” (Cynthia Sampson.). Events in Nigeria then followed a turbulent experience until the historic restoration of Democracy through a free general election in 1999.

There is a rise in religions fundamentalism Worldwide. In 1988, the American Academy for Arts and Science authorized a four-year study of the Phenomenon of fundamentalist religious revival in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The study concluded that they all witnessed a degree of fundamentalist revival.

In India the J.P.Hindu Party continued to rise until it has become the largest Indian Party in last year’s elections. Jewish fundamentalism is everywhere in evidence and it has successfully captured a share of power in Israel. Christian fundamentalism has played a major role in the dismantlement of Marxism Leninism in Eastern Europe. In Latin America Christian political influence is in evidence in terms of traditional expression and liberation theology. Even in the U.S.A, The most apparently secular of polities, the last Presidential election of G.W. Bush reflects the clout of the Christian vote.

As to Islam. It currently experiences a wave of Islamic assertion in Asia, Africa, Europe, and America. The current insistence on Shariah Legislation in Nigerian States is Party a reflection of this universal wave with a Nigerian flavor. Some Nigerian Muslims feel politically marginalized because they feel they lost their position of political prominence, which they cherished in lieu of their lesser levels of education, development, and representation in the Civil Service and the upper ranks of the military. This wave of Islamic assertion is raising concern about Nigerian National Unity.

So for both Sudan and Nigeria, and far beyond, it is pertinent to pose the question of Religion and National integration.

Secularist fundamentalism has a handy remedy for the possible negative effect of Religion upon National integration. Religion should be shut out of politics and public life. Since this remedy is not workable, it is necessary to seek an alternative paradigm, which would recognize reality and involve religion in the process of National integration.

The following seven points will show how this can be done.



After a long struggle in the West, Secularism and materialism emerged victorious. In fact, the French Revolution actually abolished Religion. The communist Revolution in Russia nominated itself the vanguard of the future and assumed the passing away of both Capitalism and Religion.

Modern science, psychology, sociology, and political science have all predicated their scientific rigor upon the eclipse of religion.

Far from such assumptions being fulfilled, the highly trumpeted Secularist ideologies have worked themselves out and before the end of the 20th Century discredited themselves. The importance of Religions, civilizations, and cultures assumed prominence. Thinkers began to speculate upon the coming clash of civilizations. The South commission (1989) pointed out that the fact that Development programs neglected culture impeded their success. The World Commission on Culture and Development WCCD issued a report (1995) titled ‘Our Creative Diversity’ in which it maintained that Development programs which failed to take culture into consideration have failed.

The challenge of modernization has not brushed religions, cultures, and ethnic affiliations away. In many instances, it provoked them to assert themselves more vigorously.



In many instances this self- assertion has been reactionary. In some cases Militantly reactionary.  It is the reactionary church attitude to change in the West, which led to the triumph of secularism and materialism during and after the Enlightenment.

In the Muslim world, although there is no established church the dominant trend among the Ulema maintained that the revealed word of God has been received in al Quran and the authentic sayings of the Prophet, and that the ancient Ulema have through elucidation, derivation and deduction built a corpus of shariah which represents the Divine will for all generations to come. Consequently, the Muslim World was shackled with political despotism tolerated if not abated by the Ulema and intellectual stagnation ushering in a state of affairs described by a Muslim thinker- Malik Bin Nabi- as a state of preparation for colonization.

In Muslim society that epistemological constraint was buttressed by certain beliefs, namely:


(A)Islam rightly means submission to the will of God. Many understood this to mean total denial of worth to any human endeavor.

However, the following truths must be taken into consideration:

* The laws of Nature are an aspect of the will of God and their discovery and utilization is part of that will. Quote the Quran: “He said, our Lord who gave every thing its essence and course (20:50)

* Human reasoning is willed by God Quote the Quran: “Surely in this are signs for those who reason (13:4).

* Man’s free will is willed by God :”Say the truth is from your Lord and you may accept or reject it” .(18:9)

*Empirical deductions are God willed: “And upon the earth are signs for those who would believe and in your ownselves do you not see?” (51:21).

In this respect the second successor to the Prophet (Omar) was on a mission with some companions to Damascus. On their way they heard it was plague ridden. He decided to cancel the journey. A companion protested: would you escape from God’s predestination?  He answered: we escape from God’s predestination to God’s predestination.

The Prophet was asked: does the medication we use interfere with God’s predestination? He answered: it is itself part of God’s predestination.

The narrow-minded understanding of the Quran was also enhanced by interpreting the Quranic verse: “We have not over looked anything in the Book” to mean that the Quran is an “encyclopedia” of knowledge. The Book in this verse refers to the book of Divine record.

Such attitudes have informed an understanding of Islam, which is averse to a positive response to the challenge of change.



Just as the reactionary attitude of the church led to the type of protest which precipitated Secularism and Materialism and all the other humanist isms in the West, the reactionary position herein described led to a double phenomenon in Muslim society: self–hate, and Western adulation. Zia Golb, of Turkey said in the 1920’s: “Western civilization is the future. Our civilization is worthless.  Salama Mousa of Egypt said, “ I am a believer in the West, a disbeliever in the Orient”

This attitude understood modernization as Westernization and led to cultural alienation.

This alienation was made all the more categorical by the dominant self-image of the West about its civilization and its purity and superiority. The West predominantly believes that human civilization is Western civilization. This attitude only encourages negative reaction on the part of other cultures and civilizations. To encourage a positive attitude, the West needs to make three adjustments:

*To recognize that its civilization is indebted to others. A point made by Martin Bernal in his book Black Athena, and by Montgomery Watt in his book The Influence of Islamic civilization on Medieval Europe.

*To recognize that other cultures have a valuable contribution to make.

*To accept the fact that as other cultures borrow from the West, they will do so voluntarily and in terms acceptable to them.



After a period of struggle the Christian churches have responded in various ways to the challenge of modernization. Church authority makes such measures possible.

Islam does not recognize any theological authority.

However, the very Islamic belief that there will be no further revelation after Prophet Mohamed justifies resort to human endeavor, within certain parameters to elucidate the received revelation.

There are five important Areas in which there could be an Islamic response to the challenge of change:

  1. The Concept of Islam.

The Quran says, “ religion in the eyes of God is Islam.” (2: 19)

Many interpreters   confine this to the Mohammadan message denying any religious worth to other religions. However, the text of the Quran clearly describes the followers of other Prophets as Moslems, i.e. they submitted their will to God. Several Quranic verses make the point that the Prophet of Islam did not bring a novel religion, for example (46:9,30:30, 42:13.)

In fact Islam accepts religious plurality as a matter of right not   mere. Convenience.

  1. Islam endorses all the vehicles of knowledge. It is epistemologically comprehensive endorsing the four vehicles of knowledge, namely, revelation, inspiration, reason and empirical knowledge.
  2. Islam is axiologically comprehensive endorsing the three bases of Morality: Namely, compatibility of response, i.e., to do unto others what you expect them to do to you. Universality or the common ethical sense and altruism, i.e. to put duty before self.
  3. Jihad has been interpreted as holy war and widened to mean waging war for a religious purpose. Jihad means the application of utmost effort by all means to fulfill the purpose of God. It does not involve violence except in self-defense. The verse which permitted violence states:

“Those who have been attacked are permitted to respond in kind, and God will support them.”


I have in my book on Islamic punishments discussed all Jihad related verses and established their defensive nature.

  1. ISLAM and the State: There are general political principles in Islam, for example, Justice, consultative participation, freedom, equality, and so on. However, There is no specific state structure to be established as a matter of Islamic commitment. It is true there are theoretical Sunni, and Shii patterns of state, but they are man-made constructions to reflect upon not to obey.
  2. An Islamic economy? The economic problem is universal; it deals with the problem of scarcity and the insatiable demand for goods and services. Production is the means to supply the necessary goods. It faces two problems: The alternative use for available resources and distribution of returns between the means of production, capital, labor, and raw materials. Economic schools differ about the issue of alternative uses, and distribution of returns. There is no Islamic economy, but principles with an economic content, namely, development, private ownership, and social justice. There are also certain regulations, for example, the prohibition of usury, and the regulation of

I have shown, elsewhere, that these regulations cannot be simply applied on the basis of old precedents. They should be developed to cater for changed circumstances, because otherwise, their application would defeat their purpose.

In fact, in the five areas outlined here, any talk about Islamic assertion without the necessary reforms will be counterproductive.



There are three components of modern Western Civilization:

The first is a Western European one, and together with cultural and religious elements, it constitutes a component, which is peculiar to European culture.

The second component is also particular to the European experience, and is the result of the Enlightenment when reaction against the denial of scientific freedom led to a glorification of science to the extent that it was empowered to judge upon aspects of life, which are beyond the reach of science, because they are beyond sensory perception. This Materialist secularist worldview can only be explained in terms of the struggle between church and science and has no “scientific” justification. It is mere post enlightenment European Ideology.

The third component of modern Western civilization is a universal fruit of human endeavor. It was further developed in Europe, but it represents the cumulative result of human achievement. It is represented by the freedom of scientific research, universal human rights, and basic freedoms and the free market economy. This aspect of modern civilization has come to stay and be adopted by other cultures and civilizations within their own fabric.

It is not simply the issue of national integration as an isolated phenomenon which religion will have to deal with. There are seven related aspects of modern civilization, which other cultures and religions have to live up to and endorse in response to the challenge of change. They are:



(B)Universal human rights.

(C) Inter- Religious co-existence.

(D)Co-existence between civilizations and culture.

(E)International relations based on peace and cooperation

(F)Protection of the environment.

(G) Globalization.


(A) Modernisation

By modernization I mean three things:

  • A political system based on electoral accountability to the people, in harmony with the surrounding cultural and social environment, ensuring peaceful transfer of power between contenders and the subordination of the armed forces to the civilian elected command.
  • Protection of the freedom of scientific and technological research.
  • A dynamic economy based on the free market mechanism.


(B) Universal Human Rights

The realization and protection of human rights as specified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


(C) Inter-Religious co-existence

This means mutual acceptance of religious plurality, protection of religious freedom, religious toleration and peaceful cooperation and competition between the faiths.




(D) Co-existence between civilizations

Specialists have counted eight living civilizations, and 10 thousand distinct cultures.

There are three possible alternatives regarding relations between civilizations and religions.

*For one civilization and religion to dominate the whole world.

*For ascriptive affiliations in terms of culture and religion to be swept away in favour of a universal value system acceptable to all.

*For all to recognize the plurality and durability of cultures, civilizations and religions as a necessary character of the human predicament, and for all to co-exist in mutual tolerance and mutual acceptance.

The indisputable verdict of Human History in this regard is: –

*Any attempt to push away a cultural and religious affiliation by force will fail and indeed only succeed in entrenching it in the hearts and minds of believers.

*Any attempt to freeze life by subjecting it to the values of a certain civilization and the dogmas of a certain religion, which do not cater for change and cultural intercourse, will also fail and simply isolate the perpetrators.


(E) International relations based on peace and cooperation

Modern international relations assume the existence of units composed of sovereign nation-states. Nation states are a system of political affiliation, which Europe had adopted after the demise of a common empire, and the abolition of smaller feudal entities.

The nation–state as a basis for common defense, and common development, has functioned relatively efficiently. However, in its own home ground, it is now passing though several innovations in the following aspects:

*Regional devolution creating stronger regional units.

*N.G.O activity, which is almost privatizing public affairs.

*Multi-national economic enterprises, which seem to usurp economic decision- making.

*Supra- national common unions.

Therefore, a dogmatic attitude to the nation-state system is not warranted. However, in the African context, it remains the best available alternative to a Balkanization based on ethnicity, tribalism, and sectarianism.

To the extent that common interests, and a common national purpose sustain a viable system for security and livelihood and development, the nation-state should continue to be the basis of the political system, while allowing a measure of regional and cultural autonomy, a measure of non-governmental activity, and a measure of supra-national affiliation to serve common interests.

This raises the question of the compatibility between a national constitution, with the aspirations of legislators at state levels to enact legislation relevant to their own religion and culture, for example, adherence to the norms, principles and rules laid down by Islamic Law. This raises the universal question:

  • The extent of legal asymmetry to be accepted?
  • The extent of cultural autonomy, which is compatible with National Unity?

I shall here simply establish the legitimacy of the question, and answer it in detail in my second Kaduna lecture.

However, to sustain the nation-state it is necessary to guarantee the following principles:

*That citizenship is the basis of constitutional rights and duties.

*That citizen equality is guaranteed.

*Religious and cultural freedom is guaranteed to all regions, communities, and groups, provided they abide by three conditions:

– No religious or cultural group will seek any political advantage for the sake of its particular identity.

– All religious and cultural groups will pursue their particular programs by democratic means.

– Political organizations, which seek to succeed to power, will be open to all citizens, without discrimination.

Is it possible to accept this menu within an authentic Islamic commitment?

According to past dogma and practice, the answer is no! However, modern Moslem thought according to many a scholar would say yes. Here are the arguments:

Islamic commitment was never rigid. In Mecca, the practice sanctioned by the Prophet was quietist: Hold your hands and pursue prayers. “Do you not see those who have been told to hold their hands and pursue prayers”. (4:77).

In Madina, it was different, under the principle: you are permitted to stand up to aggression: Quran (22:39). Later Moslem society was more assertive.

There is a very wide margin between a Moslem being permitted, in certain circumstances to pretend to eschew Islam, and circumstances in which he is expected to be assertive. There is a wide margin between being expected to mind God as much as you can, and having to mind Him absolutely. The right position in this margin in any time and place depends on the perceived interests of Islam and the Moslems.

The charter of Madina, which the Prophet established on his entry to Madina, resembles a city-state with equal obligations to the citizens.

The terms of revelation are in the text of the Quran. However, there are certain faculties, which a Moslem is expected to draw upon in his interest, and that of the community, namely, WISDOM Hikma, BALANCE Mizan, and EQUITY Qist. ‘We have sent our messenger with proofs and sent down the book and the principle of balance’ (57:25), also (2:129).

Today, there are very few Moslem communities, which live, in a 100% Moslem population. A third of the Moslems live as minorities within non-Moslem communities. The rest live as Moslem majorities with substantial non-Moslem minorities. In the present circumstances, relations between Moslems and non-Moslems in such communities cannot be settled by force of arms.

The International medium is conditioned by Human Rights obligations, which have benefited Moslems and enabled Islam among other factors to be the fastest growing religion in the World. There is no alternative to internal relations between citizens with different affiliations to be based on contractual accords enshrined in a Constitution, and no alternative to inter-state relations to be based upon Peace and cooperation.

Religion could within its scriptural references support these arguments providing them with moral and spiritual cement.


(F) The Protection of the Environment

Earth is a common inheritance of humanity. Its natural environment is being impoverished by largely man-made encroachments.

Since the International Conference on the environment in 1990 in Rio de Janeiro, an international common policy has developed. Now there is the KYOTO Accord to represent International resolve to save the Earth.


(G) Globalization

Globalization is an inevitable stage in the development of economic and commercial enterprise. It is the result of the pervasive free market economy, and the revolution in information and communication technology.

However, globalization is taking place in a World in which the distribution of strategic and economic power is most uneven. This would enable such factors to influence it in favour of the more powerful.

Globalization, which involves the sudden movement of financial assets and investment decisions, would be very hazardous to smaller economies.

The hegemony of American media over the World links globalization with the marginalization of other cultures, globalization recognizes only competitive considerations. This could upset the social peace realized in the developed World through the welfare state. It is incumbent upon African countries to prepare themselves to benefit from the opportunities opened by globalization, and to protect themselves against its liabilities.

As we prepare for such an enterprise, we need to make an objective critique of how modernization worked so far, particularly; it resulted in some unhealthy disparities:


  • It involved more of making money than creating wealth.
  • It involved urbanization without industrialization.
  • It involved pervasive western tastes without the necessary productive techniques.
  • It resulted in an uneven distribution of benefits.


Finally, Religion is a biological, psychological, social, cultural, and humanitarian necessity for Humanity. Intellectual, and social change is a basic ingredient in the Human Predicament.

National integration is one of the changes required by the development of the political system. A reactionary religious dispensation is a recipe for strife within the religious communities itself, between different creeds, and indeed a prelude to international polarization and conflict.

To notice such hazards and so attempt to expel religion from public life as was attempted in several instances in various countries is wrong in itself and will have counterproductive results. They have thrown the baby with the bath water!

The only feasible course is to recognize the importance of religion and how it could be appealed to, to justify reactionary agendas, and how, on the other hand, it could lead to an enlightened reading of the Truths of revelation by articulate and honest religious leaders, who would contribute a powerful moral, spiritual, intellectual, cultural, and political input for Peace, harmony, and development in their National communities.

The challenge before our communities is to recognize religious worth in its own right and so acheive Divine blessing, and harness the considerable religious energy in Nation building and National Development.