KANO, Nigeria — Visible five abreast in the hazy distance, the horsemen kicked their steeds into motion, as if jump-starting a car. Out of a cloud of red dust they thundered, galloping past the ancient mosque of Kano and straight for the dun walls of the emir's palace, as if trying by sheer momentum to burst through its tiny dark doorway into the labyrinthine chambers within.
But at the last moment, the horses skidded to a stop and reared high on their hind legs. Another cheer rose from the surrounding throng as the riders took their place among a thousand others, their horses all richly caparisoned in red and gold. Off in the haze, another rank of riders spurred forward, and behind them yet a thousand more waited their turn.
In Nigeria, it is the season of the durbar.
Twice a year, at the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and again at the time of the annual Mecca pilgrimage, or hajj, all of northern Nigeria erupts in a transport of medieval festivity. Robes of indigo and bright red, shot through with threads of silver and gold, are hauled out of storage; stallions bred for their prowess at racing or polo are blanketed in eye-catching colors and fitted with filigreed and fringed armor.
Provincial potentates, their turbans soaked in indigo until they set in stiff, metallic-looking folds, make their way to ancient capitals to pay homage to their spiritual leaders--the emirs or the sultan. In their turn, the emirs lead new processions to the nearest seat of government, in this case the military headquarters of Kano, where they and the secular local governors bow to each others' authority and express their willing partnership in making this proud country great.
In their colorful display of wealth--the importance of an emir is marked by the number of horsemen he brings to the pageant--their reinforcement of social hierarchies and their joint sponsorship by secular and traditional leaders, the durbars embody a peculiarly African strain of one of the world's great religions: Islam.
Suleyman Nyang, chairman of the department of African studies at Howard University and a leading authority on West African religions, says: "The durbars are a skillful manipulation of tradition in the service of secular authority and those with residual religious authority."
More than that, their ostentatious, antique display harks back to the roots of African Islam, when Arab traders first penetrated the savannah in the 11th Century. The Arab caravans offered not only exotic goods but "symbols of progress and civilization, which had a great appeal" to the African elite, says Francis Deng, a specialist in African culture at the Brookings Institution. The symbols were associated with Muslim modes of observance, and over time they were appropriated by a new African commercial class.
The durbar's expression of secular and religious partnership reflects another milestone in Islam's African history, the coming of British colonialism. Beginning around 1903, the British used the Muslim potentates of northern Nigeria to execute their administrative will, a system known as "indirect rule." This reinforced the stature of the emirs and sultan of the region, even while binding them to the colonial rulers.
But, overall, the durbars are symbolic of Islam's enduring grip on this region.
Africa is the only continent in the world in which Muslims are in an absolute majority. Islam dominates north Africa, and in Nigeria, Senegal, the Sahelian countries of Mali, Niger and Chad and the coastal regions of Kenya and Tanzania, it has provided hundreds of millions of Africans with their only sense of stable community in an era of military dictatorships, coups d'etat , economic decline and family collapse.
Of course, Islam has also been a polarizing force, as in Sudan, where the policies of a fundamentalist Islamic government have exacerbated a geographical and ethnic division between the country's northern Arabs and its southern African Christians and animists, leading to war and famine.
But most African countries with large Muslim populations have attempted to strike a better balance between secular and religious authority.
Nowhere is that need more evident than in Nigeria, where Islam and Christianity both claim about 40% of the population, with the remainder classified as animist.
Nigeria's history of political chaos--in 31 years of independence there have been seven military coups and only nine years of civilian rule--has allowed the emirs' religious authority and heritage of traditional leadership to create a powerful anchor for people's lives. In probably no other secular state do religious elders have so much quasi-official influence.
"Some traditional authorities in Nigeria have become symbols of survival," says Claude Ake, a Nigerian political scientist of worldwide reknown. "This is what happens when the state is not really able to establish itself or inspire loyalty."