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Muslims Talking Politics

Framing Islam, Democracy, and Law in Northern Nigeria

For generations Islamic and Western intellectuals and policymakers have debated Islam’s compatibility with democratic government, usually with few solid conclusions. But where—Brandon Kendhammer asks in this book—have the voices of ordinary, working-class Muslims been in this conversation? Doesn’t the fate of democracy rest in their hands? Visiting with community members in northern Nigeria, he tells the complex story of the stunning return of democracy to a country that has also embraced Shariah law and endured the radical religious terrorism of Boko Haram.
Kendhammer argues that despite Nigeria’s struggles with jihadist insurgency, its recent history is really one of tenuous and fragile reconciliation between mass democratic aspirations and concerted popular efforts to preserve Islamic values in government and law. Combining an innovative analysis of Nigeria’s Islamic and political history with visits to the living rooms of working families, he sketches how this reconciliation has been constructed in the conversations, debates, and everyday experiences of Nigerian Muslims. In doing so, he uncovers valuable new lessons—ones rooted in the real politics of ordinary life—for how democracy might work alongside the legal recognition of Islamic values, a question that extends far beyond Nigeria and into the Muslim world at large. 

312 pages | 3 halftones, 5 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2016

African Studies

Political Science: Political Behavior and Public Opinion

Religion: Islam, Religion and Society


"The extent to which Islam and democracy are compatible forms the core of this interesting and topical analysis of northern Nigeria. Following an initial discussion of colonial rule and early independence, the book focuses on the period after the return to civilian rule in 1999. Kendhammer uses a variety of research techniques to consider the role and context of Islam in the federation."

The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"Kendhammer traces the complex history of Nigeria’s shari’a politics back to the moment of colonial modernity when the agendas of the colonial authorities, Muslim reformers, and local political elites converged to constitute a top-down and state-centered Islamic legal system based on codified Islamic laws. . . . Kendhammer’s work is particularly important for pointing to how the agendas for the expansion of Islamic law in Northern Nigeria were championed not by the so-called fundamentalists or radicals, but by those who can be aptly described as moderates who have also consistently expressed support for democratic governance over autocracy. . . . Kendhammer is able to provide vivid accounts of how the relationship between Islam and democracy is continuously constructed in practice."

Political and Legal Anthropology Review

“Kendhammer’s book explores the relationship between Islam and democracy in one of the most complex and intriguing contexts where that relationship is being debated and negotiated. To the surprise of many, the politics of democratization across the Muslim world have been accompanied by a rise of religious activism in the public sphere. The simultaneous return to democracy and adoption of sharia in northern Nigeria beginning in 1999 is one of the most consequential examples of this phenomenon, yet one that remains poorly understood. Kendhammer’s pathbreaking work makes a huge contribution in helping to fill this gap. Based on long and careful fieldwork, the book explores the ways in which the people whose lives are at stake themselves struggle to define what a just, moral, and democratic society might entail. Empirically rich, theoretically sophisticated, and with important policy implications, this book is sure to be widely considered as one of the most important of the spate of works on Islam and democracy to appear in recent years.”

Leonardo A. Villalón, University of Florida

“An original, very much-needed, and outstanding contribution to the analysis of the intersection of sharia law and electoral democracy in Muslim majority countries. This is a rich, empirically grounded work that links structural questions about political democracy with the actions and thoughts of elite and popular actors on the meaning of democracy and the role of Muslim law in contributing to justice and good governance.”

Paul M Lubeck, Johns Hopkins University

"Muslims Talking Politics is compelling and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the vision for human flourishing that underlies everyday Muslims’ demand for Sharia. In a productive departure from much of the political science literature that seeks to advance the project of secularization, the book is not a critique of ordinary Muslims’ vision for democracy. Instead, it is an elegantly crafted portrait of the challenges facing Muslim-majority countries at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and an overdue history of Nigeria’s Sharia politics. Kendhammer’s erudite engagement with related literatures in anthropology and Islamic Studies, and his research ethic of empathy, set this book apart from recent work on Islam and politics and should ensure that it has a lasting influence."

Perspectives on Politics

Table of Contents


1      Sharia Implementation and Democratic Discourse in Northern Nigeria
2      What We Talk about When We Talk about Islam and Democracy
3      Envisioning Sharia, Imagining the Past
4      Democracy, Federalism, and the Sharia Question
5      Sharia in a Time of Transition
6      Framing Sharia and Democracy
7      Muslims Talking Politics
8      All Sharia Is Local: Islamic Law and Democracy in Practice

Appendix: Methodology


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