This piece, published two years ago, traces the story of Ibadan-born popular Islamic preacher, Sheikh Muyideen Ajani Bello, who is 78.
AS a little child, popular Islamic preacher, Sheik Muyideen Ajani Bello, had his first experience as a public speaker at the age of 10. The son of an Islamic scholar, young Muyideen grew up living with his parents and learning the Koran from the day he was able to tell his right from his left.
More than six decades after that eye-opening experience, the popular Islamic preacher has grown to become one of the nation’s prominent scholars.
His quest for knowledge increased at the age of nine when he requested to live with his uncle, who at the time ran an Islamic school in Ibadan.
“My father was an Islamic cleric. Though he was from Ibadan, but he lived in Agberire, an Iwo farm settlement. One day, my father’s younger brother who was also an Islamic cleric came from Ibadan to meet us at Iwo. He spoke at a public lecture that was organised in the town.
“I remember that I was nine years old at the time, but when it was time for him to go back to Ibadan, I told my father that I would love to live with his younger brother in Ibadan, and he obliged me my request.”
At Ibadan, young Muyideen attended regular school in the morning and returned to study the Quran after school. And within a short period, he became the favourite of other young pupils and the teachers who viewed him as the master’s child.
“At Ibadan, I joined my uncle’s Quranic school once I came back from school. He also had many young men who went with him whenever he had to deliver a public lecture. The young men and all the other students viewed me as the master’s son and treated me as such,” he said with a tinge of satisfaction in his voice.
With plenty of time dedicated to learning the Quran, the boy soon mastered the contents of the holy book and became very adept at delivering sermons, using the Quran. And when he turned 10, an age most of his mates were still grappling with understanding the minor stories in the Quran, he was carried on his uncle’s shoulders to deliver a public lecture.
“When I arrived in Ibadan, my uncle enrolled me in school. While I spent my day in school, the rest of the day was spent studying the Quran. My father was the first Islamic cleric in my family and his younger brother was the second man. This really got me interested in studying the Quran.
“Exactly one year after I got to Ibadan, which meant I was 10 years old at the time, my uncle took me to a public lecture. He carried me on his shoulders, and I was the one that delivered the lecture. Surprisingly, the crowd that turned out was huge.
“On that particular day, people gave me money that was carried in a bag. And from them on, whenever I was taken out by my uncle to speak, the crowd was always huge because the people wanted to see and know who the little boy was.”
Ironically, while the Sheik is globally known today as a cleric and a prominent Islamic preacher, but as a young man, what was uppermost in his mind was to become an electrical/electronic engineer.
And unlike most Islamic clerics of the period, young Muyideen was not averse to acquiring formal education. After his secondary education, he went on to acquire a National Certificate of Education (NCE) certificate.
Asked why he was interested in getting educated, while at the same time growing stronger in religious matters, Sheik Muyideen smiled, with a look which meant to say ‘you think I didn’t go to school?’, and said: “I come from a family of very educated people in Ibadan. Even my father had a standard six certificate and he always insisted that his children must go to school.”
“But my immediate elder brother went on to study Electronic/Electrical Engineering. And whenever he settles down to work, I was always enthralled by how he joined those wires. So, I got interested in the job.
“Even at that time, I knew I would one day become an Islamic cleric. But, I also wanted to make sure that I have a job that would put food on my table. So, I decided to work with my elder brother. Staying with him availed me the opportunity to learn a lot about electronic/electrical jobs.”
On why some Islamic clerics are seemingly uninterested in formal education, the Sheik said: “It is not that Muslims don’t like formal education. The story is that, in those days, our fathers feared that the lifestyle of educated people is not in consonance with what our religion requires. They feared that it will damage whatever they have been taught by Islam.
“But we have realised that it is very important that our children are educated. It is important that Islamic clerics are educated and informed about their surroundings so that they can rub shoulders with their peers whenever any matter or issue is being discussed.”
While he continued to grow deeper in Islamic religious matters, and indeed craved the idea of becoming a cleric, his first job as an adult was as a teacher in a college. He was indeed among the pioneer teachers of Ansa-ru-deen College, Shaki, Oyo State.
The young teacher was enjoying his job until he was told a story about how ghosts come to the night market in the town.
“I was enjoying the teaching job until some people in the town told me that ghosts normally came to the night market in the town. I couldn’t stand it, so I went back to Ibadan to report that I could not cope with living in the town.”
His request was granted and he was redeployed to Abeokuta Grammar School, where he taught Islamic Studies and Biology.
But his stay in Abeokuta was also short-lived, as he became very uncomfortable with the daily sightings of corpses dumped under the popular Lafenwa bridge on his way to school.
For him, the experience was a sign that it was time he heeded the call to take up cleric job full time. At the time, his elder brother had relocated to Kano.
Interestingly, at the time, the Sheik’s best clothes were a fitted shirt and suit (which he called coat), with a bright coloured tie to go with.
“At that time, I was so much in love with fitted shirts. I would wear my shirt, with tie and trousers. My belief at the time was that it didn’t take anything away from my ability to take matters of Islamic religion seriously.”
But, all that would change when he relocated to Kano after quitting his teaching job in Abeokuta.
“After I quit the teaching job, I went to meet my elder brother in Kano. He worked with the government and also had his workshop. But whenever we went to the Mosque to pray and read the Quran, I would join. The people would look at me with surprise because they didn’t know that I understood the Quran that much.
“One day, they approached me and asked why I was wearing shirts and trousers despite my understanding of the Quran. Even at the time, my hair was always long, because I would comb it that way. They told me that I was behaving like an unbeliever by dressing that way. And truly, whenever I see my old photographs, I simply laugh at the way I looked.
“One of the leaders in the Mosque, who was also a family member of the late head of state, General Murtala Mohamed, later invited me to his office. He wanted to know why I was always wearing shirts and trousers. He also asked me to return to teaching.”
While he agreed to go back to teaching, he soon encountered a problem with teaching the children because the children didn’t speak English, while, he on the other hand, didn’t speak Hausa.
“I agreed to go back to teaching. But there was a snag, because I didn’t speak Hausa. The man advised me to stay with the people. He said I would learn the language that way.”
Asked to explain the reason behind organising public lectures, he said: “It is the teaching of God’s words and only those chosen by Him can do it successfully. It involves reading the Quran and to explain what it contains, the way God wants us to understand it and to make use of it.”
He, however, insisted that he is particularly obsessed with the truth.
“From my childhood, one thing that I had always been particular with, is saying the truth, no matter whose ox is gored. As a child, I was noted for one thing, and it was that I would say the truth if anything happens. So, whenever anything happened in the house, it was from that they would seek to know what happened from me.
“It is with that understanding that I came to believe that truth is God’s words. And that it is with utmost truth that we should speak those words every day. That is the way I approach my sermons whenever I speak to the people.”
What makes the Sheikh happy the most? He didn’t think twice before he shot back. “Speaking to the people about the Quran. “
According to him, giving public lectures is like a dose of medicine against any form of sickness. “I am happiest when I speak to the people about the words of God. Believe me, even if I was sick, and I was asked to come and speak at a public lecture, the sickness would immediately fly away and I would become strong,” he said smiling.
Speaking about the most memorable public lecture he ever had, he held his hands to his head as if trying to recall a particular incident. “On that fateful day, I delivered a lecture at a function in Lagos. But I also had another lecture billed for Ibadan that same day. But on our way to Ibadan, our car was involved in a ghastly accident. The car fell off a bridge, leaving all of us with varying degrees of injuries.
“We were all rushed to the hospital. But a huge crowd had gathered, waiting for us. Soon after I was attended to by the doctors, I insisted that we should go for the event. Interestingly, that lecture turned out to be one of the best that we ever had. And all through the lecture, I was on my feet. That day has remained memorable with me until now.”
From his childhood till now, the Sheikh said only one thing has changed.
According to him, aside from his transformation from a young man that was always suited up, with tie and to an older man that wears nothing, but sparkling white agbada, everything else about him has remained the same.
“Nothing has really changed about me, except for the way I dressed in those days, you know, like an educated young man, always dressed suited up with my hair glowing, every other thing is the same,” he said with a sense of fulfillment.
But, one other thing that has changed is his menu. In his younger days, the Sheik’s favourite meal was akara and eko. (bean cake and corn meal). But, with age, his favourite daily meal is never complete without a cup of tea.
“I loved to eat akara and eko when I was a young man. But today, I love to enjoy my cup of tea. I drink tea every day.”
Though he is from Ibadan, a city noted for its love for amala, Sheikh Muyideen confessed he hardly eats the delicacy, saying the most he eats it is once in a month.
“I hardly eat amala. Sometimes, I eat it maybe once in one month. I don’t really like it that much,” he said.
For the Sheikh, in his 70s, the day starts with a visit to his gym at home. “You’ll be surprised if you visit my gym. I have all that a man of my age would need.”