Claim: ‘boko’ in the name Boko Haram comes from the English word ‘book’

Abubakar ShekauBoko Haram, Nigeria’s militant Islamist group, has caused mayhem through bombings, assassinations and abductions, in an effort to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state. In April 2014 the group made worldwide headlines when it abducted more than 200 schoolgirls during a raid in Chibok, Nigeria.

The name Boko Haram, hints at the group’s motives and core beliefs – at least this is what we learn from a recent Telegraph article in which Boris Johnson comments that boko “appears – on at least one interpretation – to be a kind of pidgin word for the English ‘book’. ‘Haram’ means forbidden, religiously prohibited, … . The gist of their manifesto is that Western education – reading a boko – is haram.”

We looked into the meaning and origins of the words boko haram. There is little doubt about haram, a word borrowed from Arabic into the local Hausa language, which refers to things forbidden in Islam (as opposed to things halal, or permitted). The language is spoken by the Hausa population (predominantly Muslim) in the northern half of Nigeria. Dan Murphy in The Christian Science Monitor points out that the history of the word boko is less clear. He discovered the answer in a paper on the etymology of boko, by Professor Paul Newman, an expert on Hausa.

True or False?

The Hausa word boko does not come from the English word ‘book’, so claims that it does are false. The similarity between boko and ‘book’ is coincidental.


Boko Haram’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means ‘People of the Sunnah (the practise and examples of the Prophet Muhammad’s life) for Preaching and Jihad Group’.

James Verini in National Geographic writes that Boko Haram is not a name the group gave itself: “Its origins are unclear, but it may have started as a joke made at the expense of the group’s pietistic original members, who gathered around a series of separatist preachers in the early 2000s. They decried many things, chiefly the corruption of the state … and, less chiefly, the influence of Western education on Muslim youth.” The BBC adds: “Hausa-speaking residents in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, where the group had its headquarters, dubbed it Boko Haram.”

In his study, Professor Newman identifies further misleading claims (similar to Boris Johnson’s) that boko comes from ‘book’, including Wikipedia, the US’ National Counterterrorism Centre and The New York Times. Newman shows that boko does not come from the English word ‘book’. He found that boko is a native Hausa word originally meaning “sham, fraud, inauthenticity … which came to represent western education and learning.”

The first recorded mention of boko found by Newman, was in G. P. Bargery’s Hausa dictionary from 1934, although the word probably existed much earlier. Most entries denote things or actions related to fraudulence, sham, or inauthenticity, but one definition suggests that boko is an English loanword meaning ‘book’. Among the entries, boko is used in phrases including: karatun boko’ (lit. reading/education of boko) ‘Western/non-Islamic education’ and ‘makarantar boko’ (lit. school of boko) ‘Western/non-Islamic school’.”

Newman says boko’s real origins were presented by Liman Muhammad, a Hausa scholar from northern Nigeria, about 45 years ago. In his study of Hausa vocabulary, Muhammad looked at “over 200 loanwords borrowed from English into Hausa in the area of ‘Western Education and Culture’. Significantly, boko is not included. Rather one finds boko in his category for western concepts expressed in Hausa by semantic extension of pre-existent Hausa words.”

Quoting Muhammad, Newman says that boko meant “Something (an idea or object) that involves a fraud or any form of deception” and, by extension, the noun referred to “any reading or writing which is not connected with Islam. The word is usually preceded with ‘Karatun’ [lit. writing/studying of]. ‘Karatun Boko’ therefore means the Western type of Education.”

The word’s evolution is tied to colonialism. When the British colonial government introduced non-Islamic education in northern Nigeria in the early 1900s, the Hausa population viewed it with suspicion: “As compared with traditional Koranic learning, which was highly valued, western education was viewed as lacking in substance and a fraudulent deception being imposed upon the Hausa population … . The elite had no desire to send their children to school where the values and traditions of Hausa and Islamic traditional culture would be undermined.”

Newman also points out that books (typically Arabic ones) were not treated suspiciously and Hausa already had its own, well-established word for ‘book’, littafi derived from Arabic.

Mohammed Kabir of the BBC’s Hausa Service, agrees with Newman: boko means ‘inauthentic’ or ‘fake’ and does not literally mean education, although Kabir has a somewhat different story for boko’s usage. The phrase ilimin boko was used to describe the schooling the colonialists introduced. The word ilimi literally means education, so ilimin boko means fake education. The fakeness referred to the Western form of education being imposed, so ilimin boko can mean ‘Western education’ in a pejorative sense. Over time the phrase was shortened to just boko, which everybody knows is a shorthand, Kabir says.

Despite slightly differing explanations, Newman and Kabir lead us to the same conclusion: ‘Western Education is a sin’ is not a word-for-word translation for Boko Haram. More importantly, boko is not derived from the English ‘book’. When the British colonial government introduced secular education in northern Nigeria in the early 1900s, boko was used to describe this new system in a pejorative sense. The word boko evolved to take on its current meaning of Western education and Hausa written in Roman script.

We asked Professor Philip J Jaggar, also a Hausa language expert, for his view and he pointed us to Dan Murphy’s article, confirming Professor Newman’s findings.


Dan Murphy criticises “lazy reporters” for spreading this myth, while Professor Newman includes himself in the Hausa specialists who “naively accepted the idea of boko coming from book without critically examining the claim.” He adds, “we [experts] deserve real blame” for spreading this systematic error, not journalists and laymen speculators like Boris Johnson (sorry Boris). Our research reveals more than just the likely origins of the word boko. It also tells us the impact British colonialism had on the Muslim population in northern Nigeria and some of the reasons Boko Haram exists.

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