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Afa Ajura, Yussif

Ousman Murzik Kobo
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Afa Ajura, Yussif

Hajj Yussif Salih Afa Ajura, (d. 2007), a firebrand preacher, education reformer, and social and political activist, is among the most prominent Ghanaian Muslim scholars of the twentieth century. An indigenous Ghanaian from the Dagomba ethnic group, he is credited with initiating the spread of ideas often associated with Wahhābīyah in northern Ghana, and for the development of Anglo-Arabic madrasah schooling in the north. Hajj Afa Ajura was also among the few religious scholars who actively participated in national politics in order to ensure that the interests of Muslims (who were and still are a religious minority in Ghana) were protected. Yet until recently, few scholars paid attention to his contributions to the development of Islam in Ghana (Seidu, 1989; Pobee, 1991; Mumuni, 1994; Iddrisu, 2012; Kobo, 2012).

Hajj Afa Ajura was born around 1920 at Ajura, an old commercial town bordering the Asante and Brong Ahafo regions of Ghana, where his parents had settled briefly to trade. His name, “Afa Ajura,” meant “the scholar from Ajura.” He received his education from notable scholars of the time, including Mallam Bello of Kejebi and Mallam Awudu of Kpalume. After completing the study of the Qurʾan and mastering the major works on Islamic jurisprudence—al-Ashmawi, al-Akhdari and Qurʾan interpretation (tafsīr)—that formed the core of advanced Islamic education in West Africa, he settled in Tamale in the late 1940s, where he established a Qurʾanic school and engaged in active preaching. A vibrant commercial city, Tamale became the capital of the Northern Territories under British colonial rule, and subsequently, the capital of the Northern Region of Ghana after independence.

By the early 1950s Afa Ajura had distinguished himself from the more established scholars through his firebrand style of preaching and demands that Muslims adhere strictly to the sunnah, or practice of the Prophet Muhammad in religious and cultural matters. This led him to scrutinize a number Dagomba customs for their Islamic roots, and campaign to suppress those he considered contradictory to Islam. Customs surrounding lifecycle rituals and ceremonies were among his main targets of reform during the early stage of his career. For example, he rejected as contrary to the teachings of Islam Dagomba customs that required a woman’s chastity to be verified at the time of marriage in order to endorse the marriage on religious grounds. Arguing that there are no references to either the Qurʾn or ḥadīth in support of such a custom, he declared the practice a humiliating and divisive custom that must be abolished. He also declared ostentatious wedding ceremonies that had become a burden on families to be contrary to the Prophet’s teachings of modesty and inexpensive conjugal agreements. Comparable to the high cost of marriage, Dagomba funeral ceremonies were also made expensive by the observation of extended periods of mourning that culminated in a day of elaborate supplication on behalf of the deceased (usually the seventh day after the individual had passed away). In addition to feeding the large gathering for the event, the bereaved family also compensated the scholars for offering those special supplications. Afa Ajura denounced this practice as contrary to the sunnah, which, according to him, required the community to support a bereaved family with food and other necessities, to ease the pains of their loss. His insistence on strict adherence to the sunnah earned him the epithet “Afa Sunnah,” or “the scholar of Sunnah” (Kobo, 2012).

Obviously, Afa Ajura employed religious arguments to discourage customs that not only contradicted, from his view, authentic Islam, but he was also concerned about onerous customs that imposed economic and social burdens on individuals. During this early phase of his career, the established scholars of Tamale did not find him threatening, despite his harsh censure of practices they had ignored or even endorsed; rather, they welcomed his fresh ideas and energy. Starting from the early 1950s, this harmonious relationship soon gave way to bitter doctrinal disputes between him and scholars affiliated with the Tijānīyah, a dispute that would divide the ummah on doctrinal grounds for decades.

Although the Tijānīyah was present in Ghana probably since the early 1900s or earlier, its membership remained small until the 1950s because initiation into the order was limited to literate and pious adults. This changed after a visit to Ghana by the renowned Senegalese Tijānī, Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, in 1952. During the visit, Shaykh Niasse received a warm reception from the majority of Muslims in the cities he visited, including Tamale and Yendi (Hiskett, 1980). This visit was an important landmark in the history of Islam in Ghana, as Shaykh Niasse spurred the expansion of the Tijānīyah and, in the process, generated an opposition against the order that gave birth to a distinct community known by its critics as Wahhābīs, although they called themselves Ahl-as-Sunnah.

By the end of his tour of the major cities of the Gold Coast (soon to be named Ghana), including Yendi, Sheikh Niasse had turned the hitherto elite Tijānīyah Ṣūfī order into a mass movement, to be known as the “Community of the Divine Flood” (Arabic, jamaʾat al-fayda). Arguing that no one was too young to benefit from Allah’s mercy, he instructed his newly appointed deputies (Arabic, muqaddam) to initiate anyone interested in the order and to initiate aspirants into tarbiya, or spiritual training, regardless of age or knowledge of the shariah. Tarbiya was understood locally to mean a spiritual exercise that allowed the devotee to experience the divine essence, or as aspirants described their expectation, “to see God” (Seesemann, 2011; Kobo, 2012). The lifting of the restrictions on initiation into the order and the involvement of the youths in tarbiya allowed the Tijaniyya to flourish. Whereas many Muslim scholars embraced Shaykh Niasse’s teachings and practices, Afa Ajura denounced the Tijānīyah as a reprehensible innovation (bidʾa) unknown during the time of the Prophet, and declared spurious the widespread claims by Niasse’s followers that he was the supreme Saint of the era. He also declared the practice of tarbiya blasphemy on the premise that no one had the capacity to see God in this world. Although many Tijanis considered him a renegade, having once been a member of the order, Afa Ajura’s denunciation of the Tijānīyah and his firebrand style of preaching made him widely popular, especially among the youths of Tamale.

Despite the fame he obtained as a critic of Shaykh Niasse’s teachings, it was his school, Madrasat Ambariyya, that provided him with the infrastructure to sustain his reputation and to advance his career (Seidu, 1989; Mumuni 1994; Weiss, 2008; Iddrisu, 2012; Kobo, 2012). Established in Tamale in the late 1950s but officially registered in 1971, Madrasat Ambariyya served as the institution through which Afa Ajura disseminated his ideas of religious purity. Using his influence with the government of Kwame Nkrumah, he was able to hire teachers from Egypt to teach at the school, and solicited scholarships from Middle Eastern universities for the graduates of Ambariyya to pursue university education abroad. Ambariyya’s emphases on the mastery of the Arabic language and the inclusion of secular education in its curriculum provided Muslim parents, who had earlier refused to enroll their children in secular schools for fear that the children might abandon Islam, to send their children to a school that offered Islamic and secular education. Many of these parents, along with their children, embraced Afa Ajura’s teachings. Ambariyya can therefore be considered a pioneering Anglo-Arabic school in Ghana that propagated doctrines associated with Wahhābīyah several years before the emergence of such schools in other Ghanaian cities (Iddrisu, 2012; Kobo, 2012). And Ambariyya, which represented the name of the school as well as Afa Ajura’s community located at the Tamale neighborhood of Sakasaka, came to be identified with those who professed some form of Wahhābī ideas, or at least rejected Ṣūfīsm.

Between the early 1970s and his death in 2007, Afa Ajura focused on training a new cohort of northern Muslim scholars to sustain the Ambariyya school and community. After the overthrow of Nkrumah’s regime in 1966, he appeared to have avoided direct political activities. Although his support was widely solicited by various political leaders in all elections after the 1966 coup, he consistently supported political leaders whose ideas resembled that of Kwame Nkrumah, but otherwise avoided direct involvement in politics.

The biography of Hajj Yussif Afa Ajura illustrates clearly that in Ghana, ideas associated with the teachings of the eighteenth-century Arabian reformer Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab emerged from local doctrinal disputes over the orthodoxy of Ṣūfī practices. These disputes evolved into a locally grown Wahhābī (or as they called themselves, Sunnah) community in Tamale at least two decades before the return of Ghanaian students who studied in the Arab world (Iddrisu, 2012; Kobo, 2012). By the early 1970s, when the first generation of Ghanaians trained in the Arab world were returning to preach against local practices as well as local expressions of the Tijānīyah, Afa Ajura had already distinguished himself as an uncompromising critic of Ṣūfīsm, a position that led him to embrace and propagate ideas locally considered Wahhābī in origin. In doing so, he established the first known Muslim community in Northern Ghana whose ideas were comparable to the teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab: anti-Ṣūfī polemics; isolation of women from public space; rejection of the observation of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (mawlid); the denunciation of the belief in Muslim holy men who claim to possess spiritual blessings (barakah) that were dispensed to loyal followers; and the condemnation as charlatans of Muslim clerics who claimed to possess secret knowledge from the Qurʾan that allowed them to offer spiritual healing and other services to clients in exchange for fees. Afa Ajura’s was also among the first generation of Muslim educational reformers who saw madrasah schooling as the foundation for nurturing new generations of scholars to propagate and sustain Wahhābī/sunnah ideas, and to provide Muslim youths with religious and secular education within an Islamic environment.

Afa Ajura obviously addressed issues that were simultaneously religious and mundane. His condemnation of ostentatious lifecycle ceremonies stemmed from his concern about the limited attention being paid to the sunnah in his society. Yet, he probably was equally worried that these customs were incompatible with rapid urbanization and the expansion of a cash economy that had impacted individuals and the society at large, and Muslims had to adjust to these changes in order to catch up with the rest of the larger postcolonial society. Similarly, his educational program, like those of other Muslim leaders in the south, demonstrated a vision of improving Muslim education and offering Muslims both religious and secular education when secular education had become the source of social mobility and economic sustenance. Notably, his adoption or endorsement of some form of Wahhābī doctrine and identity allowed him to tap into intellectual and financial resources of the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, and expand the educational opportunities available to Muslim children. Afa Ajura’s religious career therefore reflects the desire among Muslims, regardless of doctrinal affiliation, to fashion religious practices and economic behavior to conform to postcolonial realities.


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