Boko Haram

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Boko Haram has been in the news recently, e.g. Joe Boyle, "Nigeria's 'Taliban' enigma", BBC News, 7/28/2009:

They have launched co-ordinated attacks across northern Nigeria, threatening to overthrow the government and impose strict Islamic law – but who exactly are the Nigerian Taliban?

Since the group emerged in 2004 they have become known as "Taliban", although they appear to have no links to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Some analysts believe they took inspiration from the radical Afghans, others say the name is more a term of ridicule used by people in Maiduguri, the area where they were founded.

The group's other name, Boko Haram, means "Western education is a sin" and is another title used by local people to refer to the group.

Isa Sanusi, from the BBC's Hausa service, says the group has no specific name for itself, just many names attributed to it by local people.

If their name is uncertain, however, their mission appears clear enough: to overthrow the Nigerian state, impose an extreme interpretation of Islamic law and abolish what they term "Western-style education".

The "Boko Haram" name combines haram, a borrowed Arabic word meaning "forbidden by Islamic law", with bokò, a Hausa word that according to Paul Newman and Roxana Ma Newman, Modern Hausa-English Dictionary, means

1. Western education. 2. Hausa written in Roman script. 3. Mock arrangment: yaƙin ~ army manoeuvres. 4. Adulteration, fraud, trick.

Talk about framing a debate…

Anyhow, Mohammed Yusuf, the group's leader, seems to be a cult leader in the grand style, though he may now be dead (or perhaps not):

In an interview with the BBC, the group's leader, Mohammed Yusuf, said such education "spoils the belief in one God".

"There are prominent Islamic preachers who have seen and understood that the present Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam," he said.

"Like rain. We believe it is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain.

"Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it. We also reject the theory of Darwinism."

I guess that the argument about rain could be seen as expressing the doctrine of occasionalism, but not even Al-Ghazali was a flat-earther.

Mr Yusuf himself is something of an enigma.

He is believed to be in his mid-thirties, and analysts say he is extremely wealthy and highly educated.

"He is graduate educated and very proficient in English," says Nigerian academic Hussain Zakaria.

"He lives lavishly – people say he drives a Mercedes Benz. And he is very well-educated in a Western context."

[Update: Yusuf is now reported to have been shot in police custody while "trying to escape".]


  1. D.O. said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

    The word bokò might seem to have a less surprising collection of meanings if one compares it to say Russian volapuk. However, I never heard any Russian protesting westernisation (and believe me, there are lots of protesters with all sorts of weird arguments) on a basis of different scripts.

  2. john riemann soong said,

    July 29, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

    I assume #4 was the original meaning? Does boko bear true semantic drift (like the word "nice") or is #4 its other major connotation?

    [(myl) That's plausible, but I don't know the history. The entry in Paul Newman's A Hausa-English Dictionary (a different publication from the one I pulled off my shelf earlier) is

    1. Western education. 2. Latin alphabet (esp. as contrasted with the Arabic alphabet for writing Hausa). 3. na ~ Secular. 4. Fraud, trick: yāƙìn ~ Mock army exercises.

    There's also an entry for b̀òkò-bōkò, with the gloss "Fraud".]

  3. J.P. said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 3:13 am

    The word 'boko' must also be the etymology for Kurt Vonnegut's fictional religion of 'Bokonism' from Cat's Cradle–the one based entirely on lies.

    [(myl) An interesting idea. As far as I know, Vonnegut had no connections with Hausa or with Nigeria, although he was an anthropology student at the University of Chicago for a while just after WWII, so he might have come across the word there. And as far as I can tell, none of the other terms in Bokonism have any Hausa connections. So I'm inclined to think it was a coincidence.

    Still, the resonance between Bokonism ("Live by the foma [=useful lies] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy") and boko ("modern education; fraud, trick") is spooky.]

  4. SG said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 6:37 am

    I was quite surprised about the meanings given for 'boko' as in Fulfulde, which borrows it from Hausa, it means school. The meanings are of course related. However, what is far more interesting is that in 1000 Language (Austin 2008) I read in the chapter by Luepke and Jaggar, that boko itself drives from the English word book.

    [(myl) I should have thought of that! After all, English book-learning has similarly acquired a negative connotation of artificiality for many (as opposed to the "real" knowledge that comes from cultural tradition or from life).

  5. Gordon Campbell said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 7:38 am

    Boko Haram — weren't they responsible for Whiter Shade of Pale?


    [(myl) Believe it or not, that's the first thing that occurred to me. But I (uncharacteristically) restrained myself.]

  6. Mark P said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 8:24 am

    @Gordon Campbell – Ha! Boko Harem kept sounding familiar but it didn't occur to me why until you mentioned it.

    [(myl) Um, it's "haram", not "harem". Two different and allegedly unrelated concepts.]

  7. Jay Lake: [links] Link salad stumbles into Thursday, apologizes said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 8:38 am

    […] Boko Haram — Language Log on Nigerian Islamic radicals and framing. I was struck by this phrase in the article, a quote from the faction's leader: "[Western] education 'spoils the belief in one God'." That's an attitude these Islamic extremists share with a wide swathe of American Christians, unfortunately for everyone involved. […]

  8. Mark P said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 8:51 am

    Haram, harem. I won't blame that on my spell checker, just a slightly fuzzy brain in the morning.

  9. Dan T. said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 10:48 am

    Scientific facts are evil! They undermine belief in dogmas based on superstitious nonsense!

  10. Fernando Gouveia said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 11:15 am

    I read that originally 'boko' came from 'book', in the sense of any education you acquire on books *except* the Quran (which is the *real* knowledge…). By reduction, it came to signify Western education, and prejudice turned into 'fraud'.

    About 'haram' and 'harem': they are *not* "two different and allegedly unrelated concepts". The 'harem' were the chambers where the ruler's wives and concubines lived, not the women themselves; the place was called that way because it was 'haram' (forbidden) to enter those chambers.

    [(myl) Well, but the concepts associated with the words, at least as borrowed into English, are pretty far apart. ]

  11. Michael said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    [(myl) Um, it's "haram", not "harem". Two different and allegedly unrelated concepts.]

    Every source I've looked at derives harem from haram. Who alleges they are unrelated?

  12. Abdulateef Ade Ahmed said,

    July 30, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    Most of these men with deviant belief-system are merely product of years of neglect and governmental direliction, causing untold hardship and widespread poverty. So that even after the acquisition of western/ or scholastic erudition, no jobs are available. Therefore people eaither become thieves or engage in nefarious activities that are clearly inimical to the statutes of Islam. The conditions make most nigerians feel less human and therefore some either cut corners and the God fearing ones do jobs that are possible without the so called 'boko' therefore these hoodlums find a good leverage in this situation and they use it as a means to recruit adherents, and sympathizers. Funnily enough, most of their leaders use products and devices made by the ingenuity not acquired in Quranic classes but knowledge found in the classrooms and academe….so what makes boko(education haram?). Even the House of the so-called leader is built with modern bricks(another product of the boko). they find solace in that enclave because it is a border axis between Nigeria, Chad, Cameroun and Niger.They are deviants and they should be chased away.

    Abdulateef Ade Ahmed

  13. Jean-Pierre Metereau said,

    July 31, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    "To know book" in West African English means to have received a Western education.

  14. Michael Rank said,

    August 1, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

    For what it's worth, BBC TV news said last night that it means "books are taboo" (or words to that effect), implying that "boko" is derived from "books".

  15. AB Smart said,

    August 4, 2009 @ 10:48 am

    Boko I learnt is an idealogy. Very far from the meaning people are giving to it. The incident that happened in Borno & other states in Nigeria was as a result of currupt leadership and the system of governance. If this is not addressed properly, the fight would not stop; christains who knows what we are saying will soon join the fight for peace in Nigeria and no grant of amnesty that can ressolve the issue if our muslim brothers are being killed just like foul while nothing is happening to Niger Delta perpetrators for being marginalised.

  16. Nejeeb Bello said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    Having lived in Northern Nigeria myself, I'll make clear that there are two types of schools (makaranta) in that part of the world, depending on the medium with which learning is inscribed by students.

    "Makarantan Allo" is the school in which students write on a wooden slate (Allo) with a quill inserted in charcoal ink. They education obtained is basically Quranic. The school is most commonly a tree shed or some other makeshift structure in open air.

    "Makarantan Boko" is school in which the students write on books. The word Boko was a corruption of book as pronounced to them by the British colonialists. The system of education is basically of the british style.

    Book itself is translated in Hausa as Litafi, but the word Boko was not gotten from that. It was gotten from a mispronunciation of the British word book during the early days of colonization.

    Haram is an Arabic word which according to the Quran is 'abomination' or a thing that is forbidden. Eating pork, drinking beer, fornication and the like are all Haram.

    So Boko Haram should translate to "Book School an Abomination" or "Western Education Forbidden".

  17. Goodtime DIGITALS,ZARIA said,

    May 21, 2010 @ 7:27 am

    maitatsine started the same ideology in kano until fate caught with him .i have never seen unlearned Muslims like the Nigerian ones .any doctrine that is propagated in Nigeria is fully embraced by our northern illiterate scholars we have so many muslim sect disagreeing with each other.make your quran accessible to people and Islam will be embraced the more instead of prohibiting it's usage and handling by non Muslim.nigerian police should beware of alzazaki another fundamentalist in zaria. he is indoctrinating them wrongly.

  18. yasira babangida Adamawa said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 4:41 am

    the meaning of 'boko haram' is western education forbidden.but the reason of the borno crises is nigeria is corrupted very corrupt and our leaders also corrupt and our government are also corrupted police join them.why i say police has join them bcoz police has kill many lifes in nigeria.and this crises with police,our leaders and our government will not stop if they did not change there lifes.police has kill their leader mohammed yusuf.2011 election police has kill many lifes in nigeria.

  19. yasira babangida Adamawa said,

    June 30, 2011 @ 11:30 am

    our leaders plz stop this crisis in nigeria

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