We cannot talk about the history of Islamic education in Nigeria without first knowing when and how Islam came into Nigeria. It is on record that Islam as a religion became prevalent in Nigeria in the 9th century during the reign of Mai Idris Alooma, who ruled the Borno empire till 1603. This also coincided with the time Islamic education began in the country especially in the northern part of Nigeria.
Apart from establishing these Islamic schools, there were also Islamic pilgrimage, mosques, Islamic courts and so on. As years passed by, the Islamic education system had further spread from the Borno Empire to other major northern cities of Nigeria. From those northern cities, the Islamic system of education then moved to the middle Belt.
Islamic education came into southwestern Nigeria during the Abbasi Dynasty which was due to incursion of the Arab traders who came from North Africa across the river Niger and settled in the southwestern part of Nigeria. Evidences suggest that the Islamic educational system which penetrated the southwest was from Mali, that’s why it is called “Esin Imale” by the Yoruba speaking people, which means “the religion of the Malians”.
The first set of Islamic schools in the region was also created by these Malians between the 14th and 15th century and by the 19th century, the education system had become part of the people. This shows that long before the missionaries from Portugal brought Christian education, the Islamic education had already existed first in Nigeria. Another interesting point to note is that the first mosque to be built in Yoruba land was built in 1550 AD in Oyo-Ile which served as a center for Islamic educational learning.
The purpose of building these mosques were primarily built to cater for the spiritual and education needs of the foreigners and locals. Soon, Islam spread to other towns in Yorubaland and mosques were built in popular Yoruba towns like Ede, Ikirun, Ijebu-ode, Ibadan, Abeokuta and Oyo. These mosques also served as educational centers for Islamic studies in these towns.
As for southeastern Nigeria, Islamic education didn’t strive as Christianity did in that area. It was until recent times that some Hausas, Fulani’s and Yoruba’s relocated to the east and set up mini mosques were Islamic studies are taught. Although, the percentage of Muslims in the southeast is very low, because it is hardly accepted in that region. Officially, Koranic centers which were the first form of Islamic school was established to teach people about the Koran. They also served as centers of Islamic studies in Nigeria.
From the above history of Islamic education in Nigeria, the spread of Islam and the Islamic education system can be more prevalent in the Northern and South-western tribes or ethnic groups in Nigeria than in the East. Today, Islamic studies is taught as a religious course in Nigerian universities.