African Discourse in Islam, Oral Traditions, and Performance

By Abdul-Rasheed Na'Allah. 2010. New York: Routledge. 198 pages. ISBN: 978-0-415-80592-6 (hard cover).


Reviewed by David M. Westley, Boston University

[Review length: 1086 words • Review posted on April 13, 2011]


This is actually mostly a collection of previously published articles. The author attended primary school in Ilorin, Nigeria, an Islamic Yoruba-speaking community and in Sokoto, Nigeria, an Islamic Hausa-speaking urban area, so he is fluent in Yoruba and Hausa as well as in English. Much but by no means all of the book concerns Islam. Oral traditions occupy a certain amount of the book but not all since much of it is devoted to writers who compose their work in written English. Performance is implied in the work of two of these writers, who composed plays, but not in the work of two writers who concern themselves with poetry. Yoruba oral poetry is covered, and Hausa poetry, though written in imitation of Arabic styles, is composed primarily to be declaimed aloud.

The author begins by discussing the concept of elaloro (I can’t provide the diacritics for any of the Yoruba words), a Yoruba term he coined which he applies to only a few of the authors’ works. He defines it as “a Yoruba indigenous discourse on criticism and interpretation.” It appears to mean primarily an African-centered kind of criticism as opposed to the criticism of those non-African writers who extol the virtues of authors such as Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. However, when discussing the English language authors, whether he uses the elaloro concept or not, he is consistently cogent and on target. In chapter 4, Na’Allah’s explication of the verse of Niyi Osundare, of non-Muslim Yoruba birth but who composes in English, is a splendid commentary on this brilliant poet. A brief consideration of two of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s plays (again he is a non-Muslim as is the author who follows) results in an interesting if not stellar assessment. So too is his assessment of Ola Rotimi’s play, The Gods Are Not to Blame, based on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

What I wish to emphasize here, however, are the parts of the book which deal most directly with African-language works, especially as they relate to the oral tradition and Islam. In chapter 3, “Some Thoughts on Traditional African Aesthetics and Arabic Influence on Yoruba and Hausa Written Traditions in Nigeria,” Na’Allah demonstrates an antagonism toward postcolonial and postmodern critics. He is especially hostile to Derrida (whose name is misspelled throughout the book—see final paragraph).

The Hausa genre par excellence is the wak’a. The author emphasizes that its major characteristic is that, positive or negative in outlook, it is written for the good of society.

A community-oriented poetry is essentially Na’Allah’s definition of Hausa aesthetics, so it is somewhat limited. Wak’a has existed in written form originally in ajami (Arabic script) and later in boko (Roman script) after the colonial conquest (though ajami persists today in many quarters). The author ends the chapter with a discussion of how Arabic is used among the Yoruba of Ilorin (only a third of Yoruba are Muslim but almost all of Ilorin residents are Muslim). He first discusses the non-Muslim Yoruba divination system known as Ifa which has its own kind of notation. But Na’Allah claims that Ifa is essentially oral and faults Walter J. Ong for his strict dichotomy between oral and written. A practitioner can thus “look up” something in the notation but this does not mean that Ifa is not oral. However, the remainder of the discussion concerns “Oral Involvement in Arabic Writing in Ilorin,” so it does not even involve the Yoruba language but rather concerns itself with seven Ilorin “recitation voices” of the Quran. So again he is discussing oral aspects of written literature, in this case written literature in Arabic.

Chapter 8, “Yoruba Egungun: Some Critical Thoughts,” is mainly about the Egungun cultic masquerade’s origin in Nupe traditions. The Nupe are a people who reside farther north and are unrelated to the Yoruba. The Egungun ritual is firmly rooted in Yoruba traditions today. Ironically, it has almost completely disappeared from Nupe traditions because it is “un-Islamic.” Na’Allah concludes the chapter with a paragraph that emphasizes “traditional African sharing and cultural adaptability and sustainability” (135). In this sense the chapter is successful though it has little to do with criticism per se.

Chapter 9, “Traditional Oral Genre in a Muslim Ilorin: Survival Challenges” sketches the unlikely scenario of the survival of dadakuada, an oral genre which originated from egungun, in modern-day, solidly Muslim Ilorin where since the nineteenth century all other non-Muslim ways have disappeared. But in many ways chapter 10, “Mamman Shata Katsina and Omoekee Amao Ilorin: Islam Performance, and Orality,” the final chapter, is the most satisfying since it traces the author’s own youthful fascination with orally delivered poetry both in the Yoruba and Hausa worlds. He listened with his friends on the radio, on tapes, and in person to myriad performers and even performed himself. He notes that these Islamic societies had their origins in traditional African religion and that the oral tradition is a survival of that. Concentrating on the two poets in the title, he discusses apprenticeship, “social commitment and African culture,” and the influence of Islam on both poets who are now in their sixties. Amao, who practiced dadakuada, served an apprenticeship of nine years under the tutelage of one Jaigbade Alao, while Shata boasts of no apprenticeship whatsoever. There is an injunction in the Quran: “Obey Allah and obey the Prophet/And those in authority among you” (Sura 4, verse 59). But this does not mean that oral poets are docile. “Traditional oral poets in Nigeria do not limit their thematic scope to village matters….they are interested in national socio-economic issues. They dedicate most of their public performances to rebuking the heartless policies of the government” (162). The surviving oral poetry in Islamic Nigeria is therefore a thriving and committed one.

Na’Allah’s book clearly covers a lot of ground and it certainly has some lack of focus due to its origins in many scholarly locations. But it is a good, solid work. The author’s enthusiasm for the oral tradition is paramount but he shines in the other parts as well. There is one area where, through no fault of the author, the book fails. I counted over two dozen misprints not even including the persistence of “Derida,” far too many for a publisher such as Routledge which charges a hefty price for its books, a factor that ought to make editorial care unconditional. The book is, however, recommended for libraries that can afford it. Personal or course use is likely out of the question.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.