Engaging Islamic Opinion Leaders on Child Marriage: Preliminary Results from Pilot Projects in Nigeria.


There has been an increase in recent years in the focus on faith-based organizations and faith leaders as legitimate actors in the quest for development and transformation (ter Haar, 2011). Advocacy of secular/technical approaches to development have given way to more nuanced views, including a new body of evidence that views religion as a resource and a capital base from which change agents and social engineers can draw models, values, and alternative visions of hope for development (Carbonnier, 2013; Tomalin, 2015). This literature explores how faith communities and faith-based organizations (FBOs) can provide social and spiritual infrastructure upon which societal goals are advanced. For example, recent issues of The Review of Faith & International Affairs have provided new evidence on the role of faith-inspired organizations in the provision of health (Olivier and Wodon, 2014) and education (Wodon, 2014) services in Africa. While the market share and reach to the poor of those organizations is not as large as often believed, the evidence points to often higher satisfaction of the users of services than for other providers.

Apart from the role of FBOs, there has also been a focus in the literature on faith leaders and their potentially catalytic role in interventions ranging from conflict mitigation to climate change. One of the areas that has received special attention is that of public health, especially in Africa. Faith leaders have played important roles in the fight against HIV/AIDS, the improvement of family planning and reproductive health outcomes, and the fight against the harmful traditional practice of female genital cutting. International development agencies promoting an interventionist role for faith leaders in African public health have singled out leadership development as a transformative tool for catalyzing conservative and resistant religious opinion leaders into action. The model of leadership development in public health holds that by developing the leadership capacities of faith leaders in public health, they are better able to reach out to strategic audiences of the faithful as well as to public health officials and political decision makers, and catalyze change of behavior and practice. In this way they become valued partners in development.

Within the leadership development in public health literature lies an important body of prescriptive works which propose strategies and models of leadership development for Muslim leaders specifically. Underlying the works on leadership development for Muslim leaders is a transformative model of leadership that assumes that lack of support or opposition to public health interventions stems from misinterpretation of the Islamic precepts of the issue. Advocates of this position therefore argue that an expanded knowledge base of Muslim leaders on the Islamic position on public health is associated with personal transformation and with their willingness to advocate to strategic audiences. The proposition here is that by educating Muslim leaders and providing them with correct knowledge about the Islamic position of a particular public health issue, they will be prompted to change their views and to communicate a new and enlightened learning to the Ummah—the global Muslim community. To the limited extent that Muslim faith leaders’ role in public health interventions has been evaluated, many of the studies validate the association between expanded knowledge for Muslim scholars and improvements for maternal mortality rates, adolescent reproductive health service delivery and reduction in HIV infections.

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