I am spending this weekend in Ilorin. I’ve returned home to attend a wedding ceremony of two scions of prominent families in our community. And naturally, the nomenclatura turned out in large numbers. These wedding events carry very significant symbols of the Ilorin community, in several ways. The turnout in dresses which convey the nuances of our culture, the exchanges of pleasantry, hearty laughters and healthy jokes, the often intangible but meaningful gestures of community togetherness, which have drawn all of us home, and from vast distances.
But holding all of those qualities together like a very potent but invisible glue, is the central place of Islam. It defines and underscores the culture, and within it’s sureties, over the past two hundred years, has been forged the unique Ilorin persona. That persona is an elaborate tapestry, which is woven out of the different ethnic, linguistic, and cultural wholes, which melded into the Ilorin man, woman, and child, today.
Again, these exactitudes were very much on display at the wedding ceremony. Ilorin’s wedding ceremony is a tribute to Islam, because the Walimatul Qur’an takes the central place. The young people getting married make a public display of their acquisition of the knowledge of the Holy Qur’an. This is often before the gathering of the city’s topmost scholars of Islam; Imams and other notable scholars, who also extract the juices of these gatherings, to display erudition.
Attired in their turbans and Alkayba (Al-kimba, in Ilorin lingo), they don’t only use these occasions for preachments about the importance of these wedding ceremonies in the overall context of the culture of Islam, they similarly play a strongly ideological role of cementing the place of the Emirate system, as a central rallying point of community identity.
These elaborate backgrounds, are actually important in the context of the growth and expansive importance of a prayer economy in contemporary Ilorin culture. Of course, this is not an isolated phenomenon. Islam and Christianity, and especially in it’s pentecostal incarnation, have long become vital avenues of accumulation of capital, the entrenchment of the place of the clergy, Muslim and Christian, in the overall ethos of the Nigerian variety of neoliberal capitalism. The Nigerian bourgeoisie pays handsomely, for the prayers and the ideological support of the religious elite.
I recall that the learned Islamic scholar has always been venerated within the broad sweep of Ilorin’s very distinguished history. And I say this, as a scion of some of the most respected scholarly families of our city. But, a few generations ago, those scholars lived frugally, we’re modest in their appearance and taste, and had a very down-to-earth simplicity, which seemed reflective of their piety.
The new-fangled religious scholars of the age of neoliberal capitalism, are a completely different breed. They dress with the same elaborate presence of the neoliberal elite. Many of them also live just as big, drive the most beautiful vehicles, and in many instances, also have an eye for the beautiful young ladies, around and about.
But I have digressed. As we converged at the ceremony, the young men and lady at the heart of the ceremony had been certified as having learned the Qur’an properly, because they recited to the approval of all, Suratul Fatiha and the first parts of Suratul Baqara. What followed was the elaborate expression of the realities of the prayer economy in its clearest manifestation.
The father of the day’s groom, who is a very beloved son of the community, was thrust into the thick of the action, in a manner of speaking. Dr. Yusuf Lawal was summoned to collect the money due to the gathered Malamai. Well-versed in the ethos of Ilorin existence, Yusuf began to call/cajole/command, in a very jocular manner, the seated members of the community’s nomenclatura.
The first five people called, we’re asked to make a total donation of five hundred thousand Naira. That went to a distinguished scholar of Kanuri origin, Sheikh Dan Borno. He times his preachings. Today he would speak for just three minutes, he announced. And as usual, his message was delivered in a mixture of Yoruba and Hausa. Direct to the point, and on time!
Yusuf went further, calling this Professor, that retired judge, a learned SAN, serving bureaucrats, that traditional title holder, and so on. And before you could spell Ilorin, two million Naira had been gathered for the Islamic scholars. This is a new way of tapping into the pockets of the rich in the community, but I think it’s a bida (innovation) that the Malamai would heartily approve of!
As we drove out of Ilorin’s Baseball Park, the venue of the event, I was reflecting on the incredible changes that time has wrought on our community and its values. This is the season of the Pilgrimage to the Holy Places of Islam. A few days ago, the last set of over 5, 000 pilgrims were airlifted out of the Ilorin Airport. Times have changed! I thought of the old days of pilgrimage, and the mystique that they conveyed.
The pilgrims from Northern Nigeria used to travel out of Kano Airport, so those from Ilorin, usually travelled by train to Kano. The return was also a special part of community gathering, as family and friends converged at the Ilorin Railway Station, to await the Limited Train Service which brought them back home. Each pilgrim had bags full of an assortment of goods. These included presents; Zam-zam, the ever in-demand special water; for the children the inimitable Viewmaster (Soju Lore), with circular, insertions that offered pictorial fare of the Holy places of Islam, and not to forget Mazakweila (Masankola in Ilorin), Dabino (Labidun for our people) and dried meat, which took forever to eat!
Of course, the pilgrims, especially announced their arrivals with their golden teeth; Sabaka caps; Aga Sheriff, a four-corned headgear, that held down the Saudi headscarves. Not to forget the procession to the Emir’s Palace, by the pilgrims followed by a throng of well-wishers, who sang heartily and prayed for others to also make the next pilgrimage: “Arafa odun tin bo gbogbo wa lao jolo (May we also enjoy the blessings of the next pilgrimage)”!
There were also the travellers’ tales. The most infamous was about the alleged manner that the Red Sea (Odo Eje) was allegedly trying to pull down the planes! With contemporary knowledge, the pilgrims, many of whom were making the only trips of their lifetimes by air, we’re probably just experiencing the turbulence associated with air travel. Unable to explain what that was, it became part of the mythology of pilgrimage.
Modernity has largely demystified those trips to the Holy Places of Islam. And in the globalised world of post-modern, neoliberal capitalism, we have all become acculturated differently. All that used to be solid, to paraphrase Karl Marx, have melted away. If you wait long enough, surely, everything changes.