Daily Trust (Abuja)

18 February 2013

Nigeria: The Guardian of Arabic

Auchi — Professor Z.I. Oseni is the Chief Imam as well as Waziri of Auchi in Edo State. In this feature our reporter looks at the work of this scholar who holds a B.A First Class in Arabic from Ibadan, has made many firsts in life, and is very passionate about the language itself.

He loves Arabic as well as its literature.When you sit by him in the large hall, and he raises his voice to swiftly recite lines and lines of the language to illustrate a point, you marvel over and over again at his natural gift for immersing himself in a language which is so rich and radiant. Maybe it's his love for the work. That's the only logical answer for this greatness and loving attention to detail and then there is, in addition, his Worship of the Almighty through his work. With over 100 publications in Arabic and a countless array of scholars whom he has mentored over the years, he does sound like a guardian or protector of the language within the country's borders. He speaks with gentle friendly force, and he walks smartly, as though the act of giving lectures on, uncovering ancient manuscripts, and standing in watch over Arabic has granted his physical frame a certain bounce, glow and youthfulness. It's easy to imagine what his classes and seminars must be like at the institution where he works .As he speaks he often provides footnotes to an issue raised, making the interview very rich indeed. Then you need to watch out for those moments when he's making the footnote, and when he's now finished the footnote to directly answer your question. This is a man passionate about a language which Leslie Blanch once described thus "Arabic is the language of the Angel's in Heaven."

After the brief recitation he says in answer to a question that the famous Arabian Nights had an effect on the development of the English Novel, and adds that D.O. Fagunwa, the late Nigerian author, drew from the resources of this masterpiece of Arabian literature. Mai Umme Jilmi was the first Muslim ruler in Nigeria who made Islam the state religion in Borno, he says. This was in the year 1085 and he adds that the study of Arabic got to Nigeria some 800 years before the British came. This means that the country is still in its childhood in terms of the use of the English language within its borders. Arabic is around us in many ways, he says, and draws attention to the fact that a significant number of Yoruba words have their origins in the language. The same goes for Hausa, he emphasises. The 21st century is one in which Arabic is blossoming, he adds, saying that, much unlike the past, Arabic Language and Literature are studied in most American universities today. His words, "Americans are studying Arabic more than anything else. Most universities in America have an Arabic programme up to the PhD level. We have never had it so good." The fact that many major commercial capitals are located in Arabic speaking communities, such as Dubai, and Doha, means an expansion in the knowledge of and growth of the language. Arabic is profoundly used at the AU, UN, OPEC, and is now a growing language of commerce, he also explains.

Professor Zakariyau Oseni is a professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Ilorin, and he also functions in Auchi, his hometown, as Waziri and Chief Imam of the famous Kingdom. Thus he wears three caps, so to say, and he implies that this is not a problem for him in terms of the task at hand. He tells Daily Trust that he had a very long preparation in the study of Arabic, and adds that the main push in the direction of Arabic studies came from his late father who was one of the eminent Islamic scholars in Auchi during his time.So his interest is also a family passion. His words 'It was my father. He was a Mallam and a great scholar here. He was the one who insisted that as his first son I should go and specialize in Arabic and Islamic Studies. He said that I should go and study Arabic and that I won't miss anything, and his prediction has come to pass.My father sent me to a private Islamic school in Owo, which was a solid four year programme. It happened that after my first year, I was given a double promotion to three, so I spent three years instead of four."

He studied at the University of Ibadan where he obtained all his degrees. His words "I started a s a young graduate at the University of Ibadan in 1977, with a first class honours in Arabic Language and Literature. I went to serve in Kano state, and found my way to the Bayero University Kano, and I had to teach at the degree and diploma levels. Those whom I taught at that time are now professors either in Arabic or in Islamic Studies.

"Very soon he moved to the University of Ilorin where he skipped the position of Graduate Assistant, and was appointed assistant lecturer in 1978. This was on account of his graduating with a First Class Degree in Arabic Language and Literature. Later, he went back to Ibadan for the Masters as well as a PhD in the same fields of interest. He says that Auchi has produced a significant number of graduates in the field of Arabic and Islamic studies. According to him 'To date Auchi has produced in the field of Arabic and Islamic studies, at least twenty graduates. When you speak of those who specialize in Sharia and Common Law, at least five, making a total of twenty five. At the Masters level there are five in Arabic and Islamic studies, while at the PhD level there are three in the field of Arabic and Islamic studies, and Sharia and Common Law combined."

Then he speaks generally on the attitude of the larger Nigerian society to the study of Arabic. His words "Owing to materialism people think that there are certain courses that are not lucrative, which means that the enthusiasm is not there .But for this situation, we would have been having great Islamic scholars in every quarter of Auchi. We don't have as many scholars as we would have loved."

He still insists that there is hope. According to him "The little the Almighty has done for me can inspire people who have eyes."

He speaks on religious harmony, and expresses his disagreement with the concept. His words "I don't believe in that. It's not possible. You can speak of peaceful coexistence, based on religious understanding and tolerance. We have always tolerated other faiths, and our leaders, starting from Momoh the first who taught us to be tolerant. Anybody who does anything contrary to that is not behaving like a Muslim."

Next he comments on 'good' members of Nigeria's main faiths. According to him "If there were good Muslims and good Christians in this country, all the security agencies will go and sleep. Maybe the police alone would have been enough."

Related to this he says that people from Auchi never succeed in 419. His words, "Do you know that Auchi people do not succeed in 419. If he tries it he will be killed, or he will be caught. It's as if the Almighty is saying you are pure, don't go that way, and we keep on telling our youths that an Auchi man does not succeed in 419, so don't try it." Wise words there from the Waziri.

He speaks of achievements by sons of Auchi in various fields across the country.His words 'Can you believe that someone from here has been the Amir, President of the Muslim Students Society for many years, though he has left the post? Can you believe that someone from Edo North was the Chief Imam of the Nigerian Army? Later someone from Igarra took over from him."

He adds that there are more poets writing in Arabic in Nigeria than those who today express themselves in English. His words "I tell you that there are more Arabic poets in this country, than those expressing themselves in English." He says that there are still many poets writing in Arabic who have not yet published their works.

According to him, "A lot of manuscripts are available at the Jos Museum, and at the Gidan Makama Museum in Kano, and at the Waziri Junaidu Historical Bureau, Sokoto, as well as the Ilorin Museum."

He adds that someone has done a PhD which looks at Arabic Writings of Etsako Scholars between the years 1918-1988. Countless PhDs in Arabic are being produced every year from our Universities, he adds. He says that contrary to the prevailing notion that graduates of Nigerian universities are unemployable, our graduates are actually very hot cakes and do very well abroad.

"Nigerian graduates are making waves in all fields all over the world. You cannot have an academic journal in any part of this world that a Nigerian does not contribute to in any language, and we thank the Almighty for that." The Waziri has spent the last 33 years lecturing in Arabic and aspects of Islamic Studies, and is also an accomplished poet in the English language. He states that Professor Isaac Ogunbiyi who taught him Arabic at the University of Ibadan is a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, which may surprise some. There is some food for thought here: His father, a Muslim, guided him in the direction of Arabic as a field of study. A non-Muslim now gave him the necessary grooming at the University.

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