Since 1999, Muslim-majority northern Nigeria has witnessed a new phase of political struggles over the place of Islamic law (shari'a) in public life. This article traces how Muslim politics played into shari'a administration in Kano, northern Nigeria's most populous state, and argues that governmental bureaucracies created for the purpose of administering shari'a became sites of political contests over the meaning of public morality in Islamic terms. Shari'a bureaucracies featured as prizes in unstable political alliances between Muslim scholars and elected Muslim politicians. Politicians' appointments of Muslim scholars to bureaucratic positions, and their empowerment or disempowerment of certain bureaucracies, posed fundamental questions concerning who would control the shari'a project and what its content would be. The manoeuvres surrounding Kano's shari'a bureaucracies reflect broader trends in northern Nigerian politics. The shari'a project has not been a manifestation of Islamism in a narrow sense, but rather the site of a more complex set of intra-Muslim rivalries and electoral competition within an ostensibly secular political system.