Childhood
Islamic scholar, preacher, educationist and front line
fighter against syncretic practices in Islam, Sheikh
Muhammad Awwal Usman Abba-Aji (better known as
Mallam Abba-Aji) was born at Maiduguri, the capital of
colonial Borno province in 1942, to Mallam Usman b. Idris
and Mallama Aisha bint Nasir. His father, Mallam Usman
b. Idris, was a popular and prosperous Mandara merchant
dealing in hides and skins at Maiduguri. He hailed from
Tula in the Mora area, the famous capital of pre-colonial
Sultanate of Mandara. Very proud of his genealogy and
the Islamic antecedents of his family, especially his
Mandara ancestry, young Abba-Aji was brought up in a
strictly Islamic merchant home. Abba-Aji’s father, Mallam
Usman b. Idris, was himself was the son of a Kanuri
diaspora merchant in Mora and a Mandara mother.
Aishat bint Nasir, Abba-Aji’s mother was Fulani through
her paternal line and Mandara through her maternal
side. Thus Sheikh Abba-Aji was a highly mixed person of
the cosmopolitan Chad basin, partly responsible for his
open mindedness, lack of ethnic or religious bigotry and
deep respect for human beings irrespective of their class,
ethnic, or religious background. These influences
combined with the Universalist message of Islamic
brotherhood to make him an outstanding and deeply
inclusive human being. For Sheikh Abba-Aji each human
being is a unique creature of Allah and deserved to be so
respected.
First of fourteen children, young Abba-Aji started his
Qura’nic education at the tender age of five before
Mallam Muhammad Mandara at Maiduguri. By age nine
he had already committed the Qur’an to memory. His
uncle Mallam Mustafa Mandara, better known as Mustafa
Mai-Jalalaini, was his next teacher. Mallam Mustafa
relocated from Gashua to Maiduguri at the instance of
Sheikh Abba-Aji’s father, in part to teach his nephew. At
Maiduguri Mustafa Mai Jalalaini taught the young Abba-
Aji figh , preached weekly tafsir and established the
Ramadan tafsir . His father’s number one desire was for
his young son to acquire the Islamic education which he
so craved but was not opportune to attain. Sheikh Abba-
Aji’s later career of sermons and public enlightenment
was tremendously influenced by Mallam Mustafa Mai-
Jalalaini.

Education
Mallam Mustafa Mai-Jalalaini took profound interest in
the academic development of his young nephew and
student, and had by 1959 started allowing him to preach
the tafsir in his stead whenever he was indisposed.
However young Abba-Aji still remained under the
tutelage of his teacher until 1966 when providence
pushed him into seeking formal education. It is
remarkable to note that young Abba-Aji had no contact
with formal school system until his admission to the
Sokoto Teachers College in 1966. In between his Qur’anic
studies, young Abba-Aji also engaged in trade as his
father did before him. However, relocation to Sokoto for
educational advancement signalled the end of his
mercantile career which he was never destined to
resume. At the Sokoto Teachers College, Abba-Aji was
adjudged a very good student even though
understandably weak in the English Language. English
the colonial language was generally believed to be the
language of unbelievers in the traditional society from
which he emerged. It took the persuasion of his Egypt
trained Nigerian Arabic language teachers at Sokoto for
him to shed that impression. He passed his Grade III
examinations in 1968 and started his career as a school
teacher at Nguru Ngilewa in 1968.
After a brief but brilliant career at Nguru he went to
further his studies at Government Teachers College
Gombe in 1972. Abba-Aji’s Sunni doctrine, fight against
idolatry and anti-Sufi views were fully developed at
Gombe. It was while at Gombe that one Mallam Ali Sidi
Sokoto, an itinerant preacher from Kano chastised him on
the inability of Kanuri ulama to preach in their mother
tongue; a challenge which he took up with admirable
lucidity to the end of his life. However, it was Mallam
Shettima who finally pushed him into preaching in
Kanuri while still teaching at Nguru.
Sheikh Abba-Aji was at the University of Maiduguri
between 1982 and 1984 whence he bagged a Diploma in
Arabic and Islamic Studies with credit. He later enrolled
for the bachelor’s degree in 1984 and graduated in 1987
in the same field. The University environment left a
lasting impression on Sheikh Abba-Aji. He was impressed
by the debates, arguments and counter arguments among
students and between student and teachers. This was
new to him coming from the unilinear world of
traditional Islamic scholarship where the teacher was
assumed to know all. This trait of learning even from
students was to characterise his preaching and approach
to learning for the rest of his life. For Sheikh Abba-Aji
was a patient listener, took criticisms well, and learnt
even from his opponents. No scholar had received as
much criticism as Abba-Aji in the contemporary history of
Borno. This is because he challenged received traditions
and many un-Islamic practices that were widespread in
the society.

Preaching Career
Sheikh Muhammad Abba-Aji’s attempts at preaching
dates back to 1966, however, an active career of
preaching started while he was at Nguru in 1968. Events
early in his life prepared him well for his later career of
preaching. His father’s lifelong ambition was to beget a
son who will teach the religion to the ummah ; this was
very well known to him and he was supported well to
learn at an early age. The love of preaching was imbibed
quite early too from his uncle and teacher Mallam
Mustafa Mandara Mai-Jalalaini. Other influences that
shaped his preaching were the influence of visiting
teachers especially Mallam Mai-Sagewa who encouraged
him to preach, and Mallam Sidi Ali Sokoto who threw the
challenge of preaching in Kanuri rather than the Hausa
language with which he was preaching while at Gombe.
This challenge the young Abba-Aji accepted and was to
mark his preaching career. However, he did not abandon
using the Hausa medium to preach either. He thus
became the first preacher to comfortably work in both
Kanuri and Hausa languages with ease. The most
important challenge for Sheikh Abba-Aji was the call of
Allah to share whatever little knowledge one had with
the larger Muslim ummah .

The choice of Kanuri as language of tafsir was
unprecedented. The standard language of tafsir in Borno
had been Kanembu, which is the root Kanuri and difficult
to understand by the general populace. Sheikh Abba-Aji
was the first person to venture into preaching in the
everyday Kanuri language. This made his message
accessible to a wide range of people. These sermons were
conducted on schedule days. While at Maiduguri Mondays
and Thursdays were dedicated to preaching in Hausa.
The establishment of NTV Maiduguri in 1977 led to his
first TV programme, a 30 minute weekly tafsir
programme. Then Radio Borno also started giving him air
time on its religious programme schedule. The media of
mass communication popularized Sheikh Abba-Aji and
made him a familiar figure in homes. The ability to
preach effortlessly and fluently in both Kanuri and Hausa
languages made him accessible to virtually everyone in
the community. Later in the 1980s he also added
Mandara to his language of preaching on Radio Borno.
Scholars marvel at Sheikh Abba-Aji’s uncanny ability to
break down very complex religious issues and
disputations into simple and concise language. This stood
him out in the crowd of preachers. This may not be
unconnected with his teacher training which introduced
him to modern teaching methods, an advantage which
other scholars of his generation lacked. He was very
simple in his delivery and all his examples came from
local issues with which his audience was familiar with.
Then there is his very verse local knowledge of Kanuri,
nay Borno, cultural practices some of which had become
indistinguishable from religious rites due to long years of
practice. Sheikh Abba-Aji’s sermons dealt with every day
issues of marriage, naming ceremony, death and funeral
rites, third, seventh and fortieth day prayers for the dead
and the little things which if left unchecked may turn to
shirk (apostasy). Superstition, fortune telling, use of
protective charms, unethical dressing especially by
women were the major issues which formed the kernel of
his proselytization.

The opponents of Sheikh Abba-Aji came mainly from the
establishment ulama that had benefitted extensively from
the ignorance of the majority of Borno people in the day
to day practice of their faith. While this group of ulama
enjoyed and basked in their glory as custodians of the
faith, Sheikh Abba-Aji accused them of not doing enough
to enlighten the ummah . But his major crime in the eyes
of these scholars was the continuous and unceasing
criticism of the Sufi practices. While he had not openly
accepted the membership of Izzalatul Bidiyah wa Iqamatis
Sunna , the front line Islamic organisation committed to
ridding Islam of syncretic practices, he demonstrated anti
Sufi and pro Sunnah beliefs both in his preaching and
lifestyle. He was indeed the first Ahlul Sunna scholar to
openly proclaim so.
On numerous occasions the traditional ulama using the
powers of state and traditional institutions had attempted
to stop Sheikh Abba-Aji from preaching. The most
spectacular case was in 1981, following the Maitatsine
uprising when he was barred from preaching for his
criticism of un-Islamic practices and especially for the
derogatory manner in which he dismissed the
performance of Maulud Nabiyyi , the ceremonial
commemoration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.
Maulud Nabiyyi had historically been a big festival in
Borno but Sheikh Abba-Aji consistently argued that the
Prophet had not performed any such birthday in his life
time; and all innovations (bidi’a) are prohibited in Islam.
The attempts to debar him could not succeed. Similarly,
in 1983 he stopped TV appearances briefly because the
Nigerian Television Authority was consistently under
pressure from very powerful local forces to stop airing his
sermons. However when viewers started complaining
about the conspicuous absence of Sheikh Abba-Aji in the
Ramadan tafsir of that year, the TV station was advised to
start airing him. The Sheikh’s runs with the
establishment scholars came to a head in 1983 when the
Borno State Government directed the organisation
responsible for regulating religious preaching to licence
him and stop intimidating him.
In all these trials and tribulations, Sheikh Abba-Aji always
prayed to Allah and waited for Allah’s appointed time and
decision. He did not even once contemplate either
seeking legal redress through the courts or to influence
these outcomes through personal and familial
connections. For him, if you can pray to Allah, you have
the most potent weapons, particularly if you are unjustly
victimized.

While numerous informal Tsangaya schools dot the
landscape of Borno, Sheikh Abba-Aji was one of the first
proprietors of an Islamiyyah school in Borno. He
established the Usman Islamiyyah School in the Kangale
Faya area of Hausari ward of Maiduguri in 1974. This
school had classes for children and adults, men as well as
women.

By 1979 Sheikh Abba-Aji had accepted to lead Juma’at
prayers at the Mairi mosque without deviating from his
sunna beliefs. He continued to lead the Mairi Juma’at
mosque to the end of his eventful life in 2009.
An unassuming personality, cheerful and sociable human
being, good family man and a community leader, Sheikh
Abba-Aji lived an exemplary life worthy of emulation. He
provided for his family within his income, lived an
ascetic lifestyle, and trained his children both in Islamic
and western education. Most importantly Sheikh Abba-Aji
practised what he preached.

Sheikh Abba-Aji died in December 2009 after performing
that year’s Hajj. May Allah have mercy on his soul;
reward him with Aljannah Firdausi for his services to
Islam and humanity.  RAHIMAHULLAHU رحمه الله

Website sheikhabbaaji.org