The Unbearable Shianess of Mu’allim Ibraheem El-Zakzaky

Arzu Merali reflects on the sectarian misrepresentation and  instrumentalisation of Sheikh El-Zakzaky’s case by both Sunnis and Shias*.  

No-one is going to like what I am about to say. No-one. So let me be clear, I speak on no-one’s behalf except my own, and reflect no-one’s opinion except my own. To Sheikh Zakzaky, Mallimah Zeenah and their family and friends, please I apologise if I have misspoken. Oh Allah, please forgive me any sin or error in the following.


This is a world with few heroes. With this dearth, how is it then that outside Nigeria, these days, barely anyone cares for Ibraheem El-Zakzaky? Of those that do know him there are some who ‘reject’ him, or prefer to forget him. He is ‘Shia’ and if not always takfired[1], is cast out just enough for those wary of the hadith on calling someone kafir[2]. There are those who believe themselves opposite but in fact are more apposite than they realise. Those that trade on Zakzaky’s perceived Shianess as the cause of his misery and therefore as a reason to extoll him, in lieu of any facts and in line with the sectarian narrative being foisted onto Nigeria to disrupt the social justice movement. As Nusaibah, Zeenah and the Sheikh’s daughter wrote so eloquently:

“When this movement started, most of the people in it gravitated to the Sunni school of thought, none the less the government attacked them just like they are attacking us now. They imprisoned them just the same, and viewed them as a threat to their unjust and corrupt ways. Why? Because we seek to end their oppression of the Nigerian people. If we behaved just like most people in this country who say nothing about the corruption and the oppression we all suffer, then we will live in “peace” , as much peace anyway as you can live in a country where we have no rights, not even basic human rights.”

Then there are those for whom he is not ‘Shia’ enough. Or too revolutionary, or pan-Islamic. Or he eschews the ritualistic aspects of Shianess, in favour of building a social justice movement that sees neither Sunni nor Shia, Muslim or Christian, or any other formulation of difference, but oppressed and oppressors.

Herein lies the crux. When you oppose oppression by whomsoever against whomsoever, you will not be popular except with those of the oppressed seeking liberation. Today in Nigeria these number around 20 million directly involved in the Islamic Movement (conservative estimates say 15 million). Another 5million are loosely affiliated. Beyond that comes support from the ordinary man and woman (not all, but a good number in a country numbering 186 million).

If you don’t know, then Zakzaky has been in illegal detention since December 2015, having had one eye gouged out by the army the other damaged with a major loss of sight, and various other untreated injuries until today. When IHRC started campaigning for Zakzaky the last time he was imprisoned (the ninth time as it happens) in 1996 – 1998, there were only 3 million followers of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. When he started the movement after university in the 1980s they numbered a few thousand.

If you want a full biography, check out the old IHRC campaign page here.

The group Concerned Nigerians are a diverse group. Galvanised by the obvious and extreme injustice of the treatment of El-Zakzaky, his wife Mallimah Zeenah and many hundreds imprisoned and killed, they have mobilised to protest his detention. Civil society and academics are up in arms. Journalists hitherto driven by secular or sectarian bent, have also joined in the outrage. A court at the end of 2016 ordered his and his wife’s (for she too is injured and in illegal detention) release, and yet they are incarcerated. Numerous NGOs, human rights organisations and even some diplomats (after sustained campaigning) have protested.

Tweet from the British High Commissioner in Nigeria, Paul Arkwright

Yet here we are.


It could of course, just be the Saudi thing, pushing the sectarian narrative that everyone falls for whilst claiming to oppose Saudi tyranny. Wikileaks confirmed their role in the persecution of Zakzaky. He organised a massive campaign to support Sheikh Nimr, but the animus goes way back and is based on his principled opposition to injustice. In the 1990s, when Saudi imposed one its racist bans on Nigerians wanting to perform Hajj, Zakzaky’s mobilisation brought over a million (some say near 3 million or over) people to the streets.


I look at a picture of Ali and Faris, and there in background, to the side, in the corner of my eye, I catch him, beaming from ear to ear. It is Hammad. I didn’t even realise when I took the photograph that he was there. In December 2014, we met for the first time. He came with Mua’llim Zakzaky – his father – to the conflict resolution meeting that the Universal Justice Network had called trying to avert further sectarian tensions and killings in Indonesia. Zakzaky was one of the moderators, bringing to bear his experience of both organising political opposition to a corrupt government and social order, and leading as a leader of a non-sectarian Islamic movement. One of tools levied against him by the Nigerian authorities was a sectarian one.

Hammad became an unexpected intern. I am still not sure his precise age when he attended. I had assumed mid-teens. He was young and had an exuberance I have not seen before or since. It was in his smile – he always saw beauty.

Past tense.

The meeting we attended was in Penang and the team chartered a bus to take us to Kuala Lumpur for a roundtable on similar themes with Malaysian counterparts. We arrived around 29 December at the Istana Hotel. On New Year’s Eve some of us in the party saw a sign in our hotel proclaiming that the upstairs open air tennis courts could be used as a magnificent viewing platform for the famous KL fireworks to mark the start of 2015. Later, having left some of the party at the courts, I returned to my room to collect something I had forgotten. I forget what now. Hammad literally ran into me in one of the corridors. Somewhat breathless and very enthusiastic, he gasped, “There you are,.. I have been looking everywhere for you all to tell you we can see the fireworks from Floor 2.” I assured him those he was looking for were already there, and we returned together.

As it happens, we had a good sound of the fireworks, and at one point we saw a reflection on the side of the many myriad skyscrapers – a burst of magenta. But despite careering from one end of the roof terrace to the other, no-one that night saw a gunpowder sparkle in the sky. How we laughed – it would be a good story to tell year in, year out. We knew it.

It was difficult enough, returning to Penang the following year, staying and working in the same venues, remembering Hammad. But going back to Istana was the hardest. I kept expecting him to rush into us, enthusing about x, y or z and dragging us along with his infectious hope and happiness. But he was nowhere, even when I caught myself looking for him. Not even in the corner of my eye.


The Zakzakys attended this meeting post the massacre of protestors in the annual Al-Quds Day in Zaria in Ramadan a few months earlier. It was not the first time that the arms of the Nigerian state had been turned on the movement, and there had been fatalities before. The march had run for over 30 years in different Nigerian cities. This time 34 were killed in separate incidents[3]. Three of them were Zakzaky’s sons, Hamid, Mahmoud and Ahmed. One was killed on the spot, three were sought by name by the army unit that had arrived from Abuja. Two were killed in detention. The fourth, Ali, was injured. He was with his brothers, as tortured, injured and piled beneath him they bled out as he fainted.

When he recounted this some time later, Ali cried, thinking his weight must have contributed to their deaths. But it is the fault of no-one but the soldiers who injured and tortured them. And their superiors. And theirs. And our fault too. For we were silent all the other times this cycle of suppression has taken place.

This time, there was worse. Either focusing on the sectarian narrative, in a post-Syrian civil war scenario, the slur Shia was bandied about, as if this excuses all brutality. Worse still was the at first sympathetic reporting by a pro-Palestinian online journal, that hours later added caveats to their piece. Originally appalled at the murder of peaceful pro-Palestinian protestors, it now added commentary that others felt the attacks by the army were unrelated to any pro-Israel stance of the Nigerian government being inimical to the long running pro-Palestinian stance of Zakzaky and the Islamic Movement, despite the recent security agreements between Abuja and Tel Aviv. It was, the article claimed, because Zakzaky is a ‘conspiracy theorist’. His anti-Boko Haram stance was lampooned because he argued, they were nothing more than a straw man in the Nigerian government’s propaganda machine, advancing ever more draconian measures and lawlessness in the name of the law against a beleaguered population.

Was it embarrassment or snobbishnesh or the Iran thing? Or the combination of all tied together in one racist package of superciliousness? When Nigerians or Africans or Muslims or a mix of all protest for Palestine are they not worthy? Do their dead not become martyrs too? Or is their ‘Shianess’ so unbearable, they must be denied any respect or accolade?

“What happened to us now is indeed a pride. In the first place, it happened on the day of solidarity with the Palestinians, the day called the International Quds Day. At that time, the people of Gaza were under bombardment for about twenty consecutive days. Families were completely wiped out… This is the real day for identifying with the Palestinian people, on the International Quds Day. It was at that period this was done to us.”

Without the mediation of an apologist yet alternative media, surely the pride runs both ways?


“We do not ask how many people have private planes in Nigeria,” Zakzaky once told me. “We ask how many have private airports?” Such was the level of the super riche. Simultaneously Nigerians ponder, according to Zakzaky, “Not how many pot holes do our roads have, but how many roads have our pot holes?” Nigeria is one of the resource rich countries in the world, but 31% of Nigerians live in poverty. The Transparency International corruption index rates Nigeria as 136 out of 176countries. According to Quartz International:

“Corruption and incompetence are to blame, and last week served up another reminder of how much malfeasance costs the country. Emails leaked by anti-corruption charities Global Witness and Finance Uncovered suggested that a $1.3 billion payment by oil giants Shell and Eni in 2011 for a lucrative but undeveloped Nigerian oilfield never went to the public trust for which it was intended. Instead, almost all of the money (nearly half of that year’s national education budget) was divvied up as kickbacks between high-ranking government officials.”

But Buhari is defended by erstwhile British Prime Minister Cameron and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby as trying to do something.

So far it seems Buhari’s “something” is overseeing bloodthirsty massacres of those who call out the injustice whether at home or in Palestine, or demeaning his wife and all women in the process who dare to have an independent thought.

Speaking after the killings of Quds Day 2014, Zakzaky stated:

“Our greatest weapon is the truth. A journalist once asked me to comment on the war between Palestine and Israel. He asked of my view on whether the Palestinian were capable of winning the war with Israel having more sophisticated weapons over Palestine. I told him that the weapons of the Palestinians were never guns. Yes, they do throw stones, yes they do fire rockets, but their greatest weapon was the truth. The truth outlives everything, and no matter the length of time it will be manifest. We do not throw stones here, nor do we fire rockets. Our weapon is the truth that we hold unto, and the truth will triumph.”

When asked about the murder of his children, he said he knew it was a ploy by the authorities to get the movement to take up arms and be discredited in the process. They were not successful then nor now.

Later in 2014 IHRC organised a side panel at the United Nations to speak to the issue of the the Zaria Massacres that summer. Little did we know that in another year we would have to start dating the term Zaria Massacres as 2014 and 2015.

Switzerland would not give Zakzaky a visa. He had to speak by Skype.

Some days before, I dreamt that I was speaking to him (I hadn’t since news of the murder of his children had come). In it I tried to give him condolences but instead all I could so was cry. Instead he began to condole me.

I chaired the Geneva Side panel. The report by IHRC into the massacre was presented (later there would be a small film made). At the end I went over to the laptop now disconnected from the projector to give my condolences to Shaykh El-Zakzaky. Speechless I just wept, he told me that they had patience and he explained parts of the Qur’an to me, on how there would be justice, and how the believers must have sabr[4].

Sabr, is something the Islamic Movement has had in plenty. Committed to non-violence, their stance to call out corruption and call for a new type of politics, governance and state. Screams of ‘Islamisation’ and ‘Islamist’ inevitably follow, and given that Zakzaky was imprisoned in 1996 for stating, “There is no sovereignty except from Allah”, it’s hard to (and Zakzaky doesn’t) deny. But what is that ‘Islamisation’? Whilst more and more people world-wide have internalised the demonisation of the terms, regurgitating them as meaning to fit whatever bogeyman currently fits the neoliberal paradigm (could be Daesh, could be Ghadafi, could be Taliban, or Hamas, or the PLO, or communists in North Africa, the FLN (and FIS and GIA) and so on), no-one actually seems bothered to ask.

Confronting such accusation in South Arica, Imam Achmad Cassiem (veteran anti-apartheid campaigner and leader of Qibla) stated thus, that they were an Islamic Movement. Their call was for every South African to be able to have at least one square meal a day. That was their agenda.

The Islamic Movement of Nigeria, in this vein, have been ‘Islamicising’ Nigerian society, one school and one clinic at a time. Sending cadres to protect the homes of Christians in certain areas usually targeted during communal violence is another form of their Islamification of Nigerian society. Providing the services the state refuses to, and where the metropolitan Western educated elites daren’t go.

In December 2015, the army besieged Zakzaky’s house and other Islamic Movement locations in Zaria. In the days after all the murdering had been done, the army’s bulldozers came to break down Zakzaky’s house, clinics, Islamic centres and schools belonging to the movement. And whilst the dead of the mass killings were being burned or buried in mass graves, the graves of those killed previously or recently deceased (including Zakzaky’s mother) were disinterred from the local graveyard.

Above is a summary of what the Islamic Movement do and what in turn is done to them, by “those trying”.

Nasir is crying out down the phone line.

They are shooting.

It is Saturday night, December 12, 2015. For hours now, the army had been building up its presence around Islamic Movement buildings in Zaria. When the army had appeared at Al-Quds day the previous year it had been a unit sent from Abuja. No local soldier or commander in or near Zaria would take on such a dirty job. How quickly things change. Blamed on an altercation at a road junction between a general’s entourage and members of the movement who had been (depending on the version you believe) helping to direct traffic / guarding the Sheikh’s car. Later whilst the shooting was going on, and I was posting clips being sent by members of the movement, of troops shooting at the Sheikh’s house and killing anyone standing in the way, someone kindly explained to me that they were asking for it given this traffic infraction and the fact that the Sheikh’s followers pray for him as if he is God.

Would this have been justification for the ensuing massacre of maybe 1000 people, the injuring and illegal detention of so many more, had any of it been true?

That is what happened and that is one of the questions that must be asked of the (thankfully few) who peddled the government / army line.

In December 2015, the local army killed a 1000 people, many of them formed a human shield around the Sheikh’s house to protect him. Three of them were his sons, Hummaid, Hammad and Ali. Ali whose two brothers had died underneath him, joined them. Both he and Hummaid were shot in the head and died immediately. Hammad was shot in the chest and left to bleed out on the floor.

The Sheikh at this time, his wife and one of his daughters were all injured and unconscious when this happened.

The shooting left Zakzaky without one eye and almost blind in the other. His wife still has two bullets in her body. They are held in illegal detention, the courts demanding his release in December 2016 but to no avail. They languish.

What can be done with Zakzaky?

“I am proud,” said Hammad, one day before he was martyred, “that my brothers were martyred in Al-Quds’ rally and they gave their lives for supporting Palestinians.” A day before he explained that the issue of Palestine was not just for Arabians or even Muslims but all humanity. Zakzaky and the Islamic Movement understand not only what is wrong at the local but what is wrong at the global level and how they interlink. How justice in one place cannot come at the price or neglect of another.

Yet we continue to ignore or take the name of Zakzaky irrelevantly. We continue to bemoan our lack of leaders, when it is we who choose to be leaderless, and likely gutless to boot. When we have already and routinely forgotten Palestine, what hope for Zakzaky and Nigeria?

Happily, they trust in One better. And their time will come.

If you are interested in joining the campaign for Sheikh Zakzaky, Mallimah Zeenah and all Islamic Movement detainees please visit the Justice for Zakzaky campaign page @IHRC. There are many ways you can help, big or small. Please do.


[1] Called to be a kafir (transl. a contrarian to Allah) and not a Muslim.

[2] In the hadith Ibn Umar related that the Holy Prophet said: If a Muslim calls another kafir, then if he is a kafir let it be so; otherwise, he [the caller] is himself a kafir.” (Abu Dawud, Book of Sunna, edition published by Quran Mahal, Karachi, vol. iii, p. 484)

Abu Zarr reported that the Holy Prophet said: No man accuses another man of being a sinner, or of being a kafir, but it reflects back on him if the other is not as he called him.” (Bukhari, Book of Ethics; Book 78, ch. 44)

[3] Most were killed at the demonstration including one son of Zakzaky, some in detention by the police including two sons of Zakzaky, and the rest killed at the Islamic centre where the bodies of those killed at the protest were being prepared for burial.

[4] Sabr patience or fortitude with endurance.

This article was edited on 9 July 2019. IMN was replaced with Islamic Movement of Nigeria, Islamic Movement or movement in various places.