The founder of Boko Haram could be labeled a Wahhabi for his opposition to secular governance, Western education, and other Islamic interpretations – but so could other Wahhabis in the country.
Wahhabism is a word I hear a lot in reference to Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. The original word refers to a movement centered on the eighteenth century reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, who lived in present-day Saudi Arabia and whose descendants have helped dictate the interpretation of Islam that prevails in the Kingdom. There’s always been some level of exchange between Africa, including West Africa, and Arabia, but in the twentieth century there began to be talk about West African “Wahhabis” – that is, Muslims who allegedly emulated a “harsh, Arab Islam” and rejected “peaceful, tolerant, African Sufi Islam.”
The “Wahhabis” were often, indeed, reformers who criticized certain practices, like making protective amulets, as un-Islamic, but “Wahhabism” in West Africa has looked a lot different than its cousin in Arabia. The label, in West Africa, was also used far more by reformers’ opponents – French colonists and African Sufi leaders, for example – than by the reformers themselves. The label had the effect of blurring complexity then, and because it’s still in use today, it still does.
Boko Haram is an Islamic sect in northern Nigeria that rejects Western-style education, secular governance, the authority of the Nigerian state, and Islamic interpretations that run counter to its own teachings. Muhammad Yusuf, the group’s leader until his death in 2009, could potentially be labeled a “Wahhabi” – except that other “Wahhabis” in northern Nigeria rejected many of Yusuf’s ideas and were horrified by Boko Haram’s use of violence. The label “Wahhabism” can’t capture even the main thrusts of these debates.