Panelists characterized Sultan Mohamed Sa’ad Abubakar as an Islamic leader looking to ameliorate religious tensions in Nigeria in a discussion on Monday night.
The panel, which focused on Islam’s influence in Nigeria, was held in preparation for Abubakar’s visit to the University, which is scheduled for Oct. 3.
Abubakar, who is also known as the Sultan of Sokoto, is the spiritual leader of the Muslim population in Nigeria and is a member of a dynasty more than 200 years old.
Abubakar is on a mission to encourage interfaith dialog and cultivate a stronger national identity for Nigeria, according to panelist Jacob Olupona, who is a professor of African religious traditions at the Harvard Divinity School.
Nigeria has the sixth largest Muslim population in the world. Islam is more prevalent in the north, and Christianity in the south, Hauwa Ibrahim, a visiting lecturer on women’s studies and Islamic law at the Divinity School, noted.
Historically, there have been tensions between the two faiths, exacerbated by media coverage of conflicts in surrounding regions, said M. Sani Umar, a professor of religion at Northwestern University. But Umar also said that the relationship between the two religious groups has improved in recent decades.
“The Sultan firmly believes that Muslim-Christian relations can be cultivated,” Olupona said.
Panelists were optimistic about Abubakar’s goal of religious cohesion, noting that the religious leader has far-reaching importance.
“[He] is a leader with tremendous political, social, cultural, and religious influence, but with absolutely very little formal power in the sense that he can not enforce his decisions or impose his will,” Umar said.
Benjamin Soares, senior researcher at the African Studies Centre at the University of Leiden, echoed these sentiments, noting that Abubakar’s power comes from the significant role that religion plays in Nigeria.
“Anyone who knows Nigeria will tell you about the importance of religion in the cultural and public spheres. Nigerians are exuberant people and exuberant in the practice of their religion,” Soares said.
According to the panel, the Sultan represents what they believe to be the core values of Islam: human dignity, respect, and tolerance of other faiths.
“He’s one of the largest and most influential Islamic leaders in the world. He leads one of the largest Muslim segments and he’s a very cultural and educated man with a progressive agenda for Nigeria. This is an aspect of contemporary Islam that cannot be ignored,” said Susan Abraham, associate director of the Center for the Study of World Religions.
The Sultan’s upcoming visit is not only of interest to students at the University, but also to the Nigerian community.
“One of the other draws of him coming to Harvard is that Boston has a significant Nigerian population. There is a significant Nigerian population that we are hoping to attract to the event on Monday,” Abraham said.