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Non-fasting Muslims arrested in northern Nigeria

Nasir Zango (fm)June 20, 2016

The religious police in Kano State have been cracking down on Muslims who fail to fast during the holy month of Ramadan. As DW’s Nasir Zango reports, the suspects could be caned in public if found guilty.

Nigeria Ramadan (AP Photo/Sani Maikatanga)
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Maikatanga

The Kano State Police, also known as Hisbah, have arrested scores of people for failure to fast and ensuring compliance with the rules of Ramadan, the third pillar of Islam.

Ramadan is a special month of the year for the over one billion Muslims throughout the world. It is determined by the lunar cycle and will run until July 5 this year. For Muslims it is a time for inner reflection, devotion to God and self-control. During fasting, strict restrictions are followed. Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink during daylight hours. Smoking and sexual relations are also forbidden. At the end of the day, the fast is broken with prayer and a meal called the "Iftar."

Since Ramadan began on June 6, Kano police have deployed its men to strategic places in the state to ensure compliance with the rules of Ramadan. Those who are found to be violating the rules have been arrested and held for interrogation.

Deputy Commandant of Kano's Hisbahm, Nabahani Usman, said that those arrested would be prosecuted and be sentenced according to the law. "We hold them at Hisbah for at least two days to teach them the importance of fasting," Usman said. He added that every adult Muslim must observe the holy month.

According to Islamic teachings, fasting helps one feel compassion for those who are less fortunate and underprivileged.

Nigeria Ramadan (PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)
Fasting is obligatory for all healthy Muslims - a test of patience and enduranceImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. U. Ekpei

"We deem it fit and necessary to ensure that every Muslim in Kano State observe Ramadan. We have a report of people who are not complying with this important pillar of Islam; hence we mobilize our men to arrest them," Usman emphasized.

The "men" referred to are Muslim scholar operatives whose work is to enhance Islamic teachings based on the Quran. They also have powers to arrest and detain notorious "non-compliant" followers.

Arrests condemned

Besides the arrests and detentions, the convicts are subject to beatings after they have been handed a sentence by the religious courts. However, punishments given out by the Hisbah police have been strongly criticized by human rights activists. They accuse the police of overstepping mandate.

Activist and law professor at University of Bayero in Kano, Barrister Audu Bulama Bukarti, said the Nigerian constitution does not allow any religion to punish anybody for not fasting.

Nigeria Ramadan (AP Photo/Sani Maikatanga)
Muslims who fail to refrain from eating during daylight can be held for up to three daysImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Maikatanga

"Section 36 of the constitution of Nigeria is very clear that nobody should be arrested or punished except for an offence which is defined by a written law of Nigeria," Bukarti said. "I am not aware of any law that makes fasting compulsory in Nigeria whether on Muslims or on any other person in the country." However he called on Muslims to abide by Sharia Law unless they have "acceptable excuses."

DW's correspondent Nasir Zango in Kano State has seen several people at the headquarters of the Hisbah in the Sharada area who are being held for non-observance of Ramadan. One of them told Zango that he failed to fast due to chronic ulcers.

"I cannot fast while also taking both modern and herbal medicine to cure it," he said.

It is not the first time the Hisbah religious police have cracked down on people for not observing the rules of Ramadan in the region. In 2012, more than 20 people were arrested by Hisbah for deliberately refusing to fast and they were held in detention for three days.