Nigerian Sharia Court Sentences Preacher to Death for Blasphemy

A tricycle transporting Muslim women drives past a signboard promoting Islamic faith in Nigeria's northern city of Kano March 15, 2011. A Sharia court in Kano, on Tuesday, has sentenced a preacher to death for blasphemy. Joe Penny/Reuters

A Sharia court has sentenced a Muslim preacher to death by hanging for blasphemy in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, Nigerian newspaper Vanguard reported.

Abdul Inyass is a cleric in a local branch of the Tijaniyya sect, a mystical Sufi branch of Islam. Inyass' sect, called the Haqiqa (Realist) group, was founded by Senegalese cleric Sheikh Ibrahim Niasse, a prominent 20th-century Islamic scholar. Inyass was arrested in May 2015 after reportedly blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad during a Tijaniyya religious festival and his trial was carried out in secret.

Inyass is reported to have said that "[Sheikh] Niasse was bigger than Prophet Muhammad," according to the BBC. Inyass' comments sparked violent protests in Kano in May 2015, with demonstrators burning down a Sharia court house in which Inyass was due to appear. According to Vanguard , eight of Inyass' followers were sentenced in June 2015 but the cleric's sentence was delayed.

Mausi Segun, Nigeria researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), says that the group opposes the penalty particularly "in circumstances like here in Nigeria, where the legal procedure is definitely not foolproof." "We're concerned about the application of Sharia law to impose death sentences," says Segun from the Nigerian capital of Abuja. She adds that she is hopeful the sentence will be overturned on appeal, pointing to the fact that none of Inyass' eight followers sentenced last year have been executed. According to an April 2015 report by Amnesty International, Nigerian authorities sentenced 659 people to death in 2014—a significant increase from 141 in 2013—but did not actually carry out any executions.

A number of states in northern Nigeria, including Kano, implement Sharia law and have had Islamic courts running alongside secular ones since the country returned to civilian law from military rule in 1999.

According to the BBC, the Tijaniyya sect was founded by Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Tijani, an Algerian cleric, in 1784. The sect's largest following is in North and West Africa, and Niasse was credited with reviving the group during the 20th century.