Scholarship and Revolution: An Examination of the Impact of a Tradition of Tajdīd on the Sokoto Caliphal Leader

Scholarship and Revolution: An Examination of the Impact of a Tradition of Tajdid on the Sokoto Caliphal Leader

by

Dr. Usman Bugaje

European scholarship has for a long time wallowed in the infatuation that African history and literature are nothing but reaction to or extension of its history and literature. As late as the nineties scholars in the field of African literature had occasion to complain that “Islam had been ignored, unseen or glossed over. And yet, in the works of many African writers Islam provides the key components.” (1) Professor Bernard Lewis, a leading Western historian of Islam, has himself expressed concern over “this recurring unwillingness to recognise the nature of Islam or even the fact of Islam as an independent, different and autonomous religious phenomenon.” (2) In Bernard Lewis’s opinion, “Modern western man, being unable for the most part to assign a dominant and central place for religion in his own affairs, found himself unable to conceive that any other peoples in any other place could have done so … to the modern western mind, it is not conceivable that men would fight and die in such numbers over mere differences in religion; there have to be some other “genuine” reasons underneath the religious veil.” (3) It is heartening, therefore, to note that studies on the Sokoto Caliphate have continued to gradually if grudgingly, concede to Islam the central role it played in the motivation as well as the management of the revolution.

Reform and revolution or tajdid, to use a more familiar Islamic term, is as old as Islam itself. The word tajdid may not have been used by the Qur’an, but the ahadith are unmistakably explicit. To appreciate tajdid we must recall the fact that the Islamic world view is premised on the principle that man from the time Adam (AS) left the garden has been promised guidance in form of Messengers to be sent, the last of who was Muhammad (SAW). The finality of prophet hood which is very cardinal to Islamic belief system is precisely what made tajdid necessary since human society will continue to be prone to stagnation and decline. “The birth of Islam”, as Muhammad Iqbal, the great philosopher noted, “is the birth of inductive intellect. In Islam prophecy reaches its perfection in discovering the need of its own abolition. … The abolition of priesthood and hereditary kingship in Islam, the constant appeal to reason and experience in the Qur’an, and the emphasis that it lays on Nature and History as sources of Human Knowledge,  are all different aspect of the same idea of finality.” (4)It is significant that it was the Prophet Muhammad that was to declare that “certainly Allah will raise for this community, at the head of every hundred years, one(s) (man) who will renew (yujaddid) for her, her religion.” (5) Since then, the desire among Islamic scholars to meet this expectation has been on the increase, giving birth to a tradition of tajdid in the Muslim community. Scholars of old had since looked out for a mujaddid and had developed numerous criteria and a compendium of mujaddidun of every age, land and clime.

Too often it is not realised that 18th and 19th century Hausaland, where the Sokoto Caliphal leaders lived and led their revolution, is heir to a tradition of scholarship and reform spanning nearly a whole millennium. From the 11th century when the Murabitun movement triggered waves of indigenous scholarship and reform, Western Bilad al-Sudan has seen the sprouting of centres of learning and the network of scholars putting the region at par with its peers around the world. The chain and network of scholarship linking the generations of scholars in the region is becoming increasingly clear as research grows. Abdullah b. Yasin and his military exploits used to be all that was heard of the Murabitun movement. But later research focusing on the likes of Imam al-Hadrami, the learned scholar brought by Abu Bakr b. Umar and made the Qadi of Azzugi, has thrown light on the development of local scholarship. The link between the murabitun scholars and Aqit family of Timbuktu has established the continuity of this tradition. The influence of Ahmad Baba, his Shaykh Muhammad Baghayagho, Shaykh Mukhtar al-Kunti al-Kabir and a host of them on the thinking of the Sokoto caliphal leaders is very evident from their numerous writings.

The Sokoto caliphal leaders were descendants of this network of scholarship and were taught first by their parents and uncles all of whom were scholars born of this great tradition of learning. It is fairly easy to understand where the inspiration of reform was coming from. It is important to also appreciate that when Shehu Usman started his career as itinerant teacher, he distinguished himself from his peers not so much for his learning like his sense of mission. His first ever writing was said to be a poem in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, as was common in the scholarly circle of his time, in which he was expressing his yearning to walk in the shade of the Prophet, reviving his Sunnah. It would appear that the seeds for reform must have already been sown from his early education; all that Jibril b. Umar, his revolutionary teacher, may have done was simply to water it.

Subsequent writings of Shehu Usman continued to emphasise the need, nay necessity of complying with the Sunnah, in worship as well as social conduct. It was not surprising therefore his major pre-jihad work was entitled Ihya’ al-Sunnah wa Ikhmad al-bid’a. Some, especially Arab scholars, have been tempted by this title to think that Shehu Usman’s movement had been inspired by the wahabi movement of the Arabian peninsular. As Fathi Masri had adequately argued (6), this is not tenable if only because the Wahabis are anti-Sufi and Shehu’s was unmistakably Sufi. The sources that Shehu drew upon in his Ihya are strongly sufi and largely from this chain of scholars who have been heirs to the Murabitun and Timbuktu tradition of learning. When Shehu later addressed socio-political issues his reliance on the leading scholars of the western Bilad al-Sudan became more evident. For example in addressing the issue of slavery and the classification of Muslims in the region, he drew very much from the works of Ahmad Baba of Timbuktu, especially his Kashf.

In the pre-jihad period when Shehu Usman had to prepare his community for an eventual confrontation and buttress his position on the need for jihad he had to rely very much on the works of Maghili, like the Taj al-Din fi ma Yajib ala al-Muluk, the Nasiha of Mukhtar al-Kunti and occasionally the Tafsir of Jalalyn of Muhalli and Suyuti, Ibn Khaldun’s al-Ta’rikh al-Kabir, the Takmila of Suyuti and similar works. His Kitab al-Farq drew heavily on Shurb al-Zulal of Shaykh al-Barnawi (Ajrami).

Even after the jihad when the task of running the Caliphate called for more discussion and writing, the caliphal leaders continued to draw from the works of the scholars of the region. Abdullahi’s Diya’al-Sultan drew substantially from Al-Maghili’s Taj alDin.

It is no longer possible to see Shehu Usman and his team in isolation from this tradition whose seeds were sown from the time of the Murabitun and watered by the scholars of the region like Ahmad Baba, al-Maghili, al-Kunti etc, occasionally assisted by others like Sahnun, author of the Mudawwana, Ahmad Zarruq the Sufi of Misurata, Jalaluddin al-Suyuti etc. The mission and the vision of the Sokoto Caliphal leaders has been very much the extension into time and place of what had begun in the 11th century. This is not to deny the Shehu and his team their creativity. (7) The confidence of scholars like Ahmad Baba and Mukhtar al-Kunti who rate scholarship in the Western Bilad al-Sudan region much higher than the then North Africa and the Arab world did a lot to inspire the confidence portrayed in Shehu’s writing. It is instructive that Shehu and his team acquired their enviable level of proficiency in the Arabic language, the language of scholarship, without having to go to any Arab country, not even for Hajj. It was simply remarkable!

It is now necessary to look at the link between scholarship and revolution. What is it in scholarship that inspires or triggers revolution? Are scholars necessarily revolutionaries? Or as Thomas Hodgkins would put it, “When and why do scholars become revolutionaries? (8) It may, perhaps, be easy to see why scholars are revolutionary, but as to when they are and when they are not, this is certainly far more complex. The experience of the Western Bilad al-Sudan from the 11th to the 19th century provides us ample opportunity to probe further and to fathom this important area of research.

To understand why scholars are revolutionary perhaps we only need to examine the nature of Islamic scholarship in this region. As has already been observed, the leaders of the Sokoto Caliphate were heirs to a tradition of learning which goes back to the time of the Murabitun in the 11th century. Though this traditional was undoubtedly enriched by other traditions from Andalusia (Muslim Spain), Fatimid North Africa, Hijaz and even Asia in course of the seven or eight centuries, it has retained some of its unique characteristics; particularly the taste for thoroughness, courage, steadfastness, asceticism and humility. It may be useful to look at, even if briefly, the general characteristics of the Islamic tradition of learning. In other words, we should look at the genus of which this is only specie.

It is significant that the first word of the Qur’an was the command to read! The Qur’an is replete with passages which exalt learning and extol the search for knowledge. The sayings of the Prophet of Islam, the second most important source after the Qur’an, have continued to place learning on an unmistakably eminent pedestal, equating the path of knowledge with the path of paradise. Islam has clearly placed the highest premium on learning. “The Islamic idea of knowledge” as Abdullahi Smith rightly observed, “is universalist in nature – embracing the knowledge of God and His creation including the knowledge of anything to be found in the universe.” (9) Science and technology was not neglected but its significance was subservient to the ultimate purpose of life which learning itself sought to understand. “Traditions of learning such as these in which the primacy is given to the study of religious and moral issues, which defines science as the knowledge of God’s law, and truth as the unalterable content of that law” (10) is familiar to many. Indeed this tradition where God occupies the centre and purpose permeates learning predates the  Islamic era by several millennia and dominated the world view of the learned men of ancient Jewry and Christendom and informed the establishment of their universities down to Azhar (Cairo) and Cordova (Spain) in the 10th century and Oxford and Cambridge in the 13th century. What may not be familiar to many, but important to note, is the point in time and circumstances under which the departure from this tradition began and gave birth to a new tradition as today symbolised by our modern universities, epitomised by the London University. “London University”, as Abdullahi Smith had occasion to explain, “which received statutory recognition in the U.K. in 1820’s and began to be influential some 50years later, did not originate in the 19th century world of learning at all; but in the mercantile world of the industrial revolution which was then transforming human society in the countries of Western Europe and North America. Those who secured its foundation were not scholars in search for universal truth for the benefit of mankind, but businessmen in search of greater profits for their own benefit. The primary object of the university was to provide training in science and technology for the British industrial establishment to assist the latter in the competition in the foreign business interests (particularly Germany) … This industrial establishment was not in addition in need of theological and moral training as something separate, because, … they held the peculiar (and certainly erroneous) belief that the possession of wealth was itself a sign of God’s favour and that therefore, the way to walk in the way God had laid for them and increase his favour was to increase their wealth by hard work and improved technology.” (11)

Because of this strong moral content and the all pervading purposefulness, learning in Islam is not pursued for its own sake nor is it left to the student to take from pages of books, the presence and influence of the teacher is believed to be critical. This, in a way, is an extension of the influence of the Prophets who not only conveyed the divine message but lived it in their lives and therefore act as models of behaviour for the faithful. Character and learning were inextricably linked in this tradition of learning. For one to teach any subject matter, he must have had the leaf (ijaza) of another teacher who had himself been certified to teach same but another teacher. So the ijaza or certificate must necessarily contain the names of the chain of scholars who have taught (isnad). Essentially it is the isnad which validates the ijaza. Isnad is a kind of academic pedigree, enhanced by the presence in the chain of some prominent scholars, because of the value attached to the role of the teacher and the student-teacher relationship. It should perhaps be added here that teachers are usually living libraries in this tradition of learning.

Learning in Western Sudan, where Sokoto Caliphate is located, is pursued with a total dedication. The scholar is more than just a teacher, he is also a mentor, a role model, a father figure and community leader, whose concern goes beyond just educational issues but tackles social, medical and marital problems of the community. A description of one of the great scholars of the region, Ahmad Baba of Timbuktu of his teacher, Muhammad Baghayogho (d.1594) gives us a glimpse of the scholar in this milieu.

“Our shaykh and our blessing, the jurist, the accomplished scholar, the pious and ascetic man of God  (al-abid), the mufti, a man among the finest of God’s upright servants and practising scholars,  … he was constantly busying himself in seeing to people’s need, even at the cost to himself, becoming distressed if they fell into adversity, settling disputes among them and giving good advise. Add to this his love of learning and his devotion to teaching and study, his love for men of learning and his own total humility, the aid he gave to scholars and the trouble he took for them, giving out the rarest  and most precious of his books … He had enormous patience for teaching throughout the whole day and was able to get his point across  even to the dull-witted never feeling bored or tired.” (12)

Here then is a scholar who lives not in the ivory tower but in the midst of the people and who seeks to serve them in so many facets earning thereby their confidence and reverence and easily the spokesman of the community. This moral capital which scholars build over time earns the scholar such powers that are out of tune with his or her rather meagre material resources. The powers of the scholar contrasts sharply with the social distance between the people and their rulers. The scholar carried on his shoulders the heavy burden of his students and the wider society, always concerned with their individual and collective welfare, ready and willing to give a helping hand. It is easy to understand  what Shehu Usman did at Magami when Bawa Jan Gwarzo, the dreaded king of Gobir, assembled the cream de la cream of Gobir and showered gifts on selected dignitaries on the occasion of the eid al-Kabir. Shehu not only declined to accept the lavish gifts but requested that, in its place, he is granted five prayers which included the release of political prisoners and the lightening of the taxation of the ordinary people.

This relation between the scholar and the people contrasts sharply with that between the scholar and the bureaucracy. First the scholar is financially independent of the state, the further away he is from the bureaucracy the more the respect he is accorded. The scholar is normally supported by the community through their zakat and sadaqat. It did not appear to be particularly difficult for the scholar to live on these scanty resources of the community, because the scholar is by definition an ascetic and in any case his life a hallmark of simplicity and humility. It was feared that once he is sponsored by the state he looses his independence and thereby sway in the event of any injustice and oppression. This is even when the rulers are deemed to be good Muslims, the assumption is that power corrupts. In some particular context relationship with bureaucracy could be seen to be reproachable. This was the case on the eve of the Jihad when there was clear tension between the Jama’a on one hand and Sarakuna (rulers of Hausaland) on the other and it was important that as lines are being drawn the jama’a knows where their leaders stand. Taking a stand and reinforcing his position by quoting strong authorities, Shehu wrote:

“Ibn al-Hajj has stated in his book al-Madkhal: ‘Let (the scholar) guard strictly against frequenting anyone belonging to the group of worldly men (abna al-dunya) … since the learned man should be the person to whom people come, not the other way round. It is no excuse for a learned man to frequent other people’s houses on the pretext of securing advantages for the masses of the people and the warding off harm … securing the need of the Muslims lies in total abstention from visiting worldly men, and in reliance upon Allah and recourse to him. (13)

We must not forget that Islam spread into the 12th century Ghana through the scholars of the southern wing of the Murabitun. The Qadi of Azzugi who was one of if not the first local author, was a prominent Murabit scholar. That Murabitun streak appeared to have remained a permanent feature of scholarship in the western Bilad al-Sudan of which Sokoto is an integral part. The exacting standards of Abdullahi b. Yasin, the tenacity of Abubakar b. Umar and the conviction and self-confidence of scholars, the likes of Imam al-Hadrami continued to cast their spell on scholarship in the region.

The absence of any social distance between the ordinary people and scholars; the distance scholars maintained between themselves and the temporal authorities and its bureaucracy; the Murabitun streak which emphasised compliance and sought thoroughness, combined to make the scholar in the western Bilad al-Sudan a potential revolutionary waiting for a cause. These three features help us to appreciate why scholars are revolutionaries. And this tradition has had an unmistakable impact on the perception of the role of scholars by the Sokoto Caliphal leaders.

Now, as to when scholars become revolutionary, this is less easy to determine. We can, however, examine the elements which play the key role in determining when scholars opt for or out of a revolution.  Ordinarily it should be the magnitude of the challenge or stimulus. But it is not so much the level of threat to the faith and its values or the magnitude of oppression or injustice meted on the society like the scholar’s interpretation of his ability (istita’a) to respond successfully. The operational tool here is provided by the famous hadith of the Prophet on amr bi’l-maáruf wa’l-nahy an’l-munkar, which says, in effect, ‘Whoever amongst you sees anything wrong (munkar) he/she should set it right with his/her hands; if he/she hasn’t the ability to do it then he/she should set it right by raising his/her voice, if he/she hasn’t the ability to do as much, he/she should then register his/her disgust and abstain from it.’ The key word here is the ability, istita’a of the community concerned as understood by their leading scholars.

The different reactions we find in different settings and with different scholars all hinged around the respective scholar’s interpretations of what in his circumstances constitutes ability. The different schools of tajdid in western Bilad al-Sudan are largely the results of the different interpretations of the different scholars. To be sure this interpretation is not some theoretical exercise. It is a complex exercise which is both theoretical and practical, the more so for it often involves social consequences.  The scholars often examines the balance of forces on the ground, gauges the moral tone of society as well as the political mood before deciding on the ability or otherwise of the their community to choose a revolutionary path. Thus Shehu Usman Dan Fodio resisted confrontation with the Hausa establishment for several years despite the urging of members of his growing community, who thought that they were ready for confrontation. He may have thought that his job was essentially to educate the society and confrontation was not on the agenda. Even when the indications showed confrontation was likely, the shaykh may have thought that his community, the Jama’a was not quite ready to go through the rigour and deprivation a confrontation entails. He may have also realised that confrontation requires a much higher level of organisation and discipline than was available in the Jama’a at the time – a point vindicated by Abdullahi’s desertion of the army at the middle of the Jihad on account of the absence of discipline. Similarly Umar al-Futi insisted that the Talaba must master the Qur’an and imbibe the deeper aspect of sufi tarbiyya before venturing into armed struggle. Many such scholars who led armed struggles feared that pure political action which is not motivated by the desire to please God, is misguided and unworthy in the final analysis even if it may lead to spectacular material success. In fact, as one can glean from their writings, they must have felt that material success not back with adequate moral development, could lead to a disaster much worse than the one they wanted to flee from.

Admittedly there was a considerably measure of subjectivity in some of the decisions taken especially in the interpretations of istita’a. Thus two scholars given the same situation could arrive at two different, even opposing views. The practices in Borno for example, while admittedly wrong, did not, as far as al-Kanemi’s interpretation goes, warrant a jihad. But the sokoto Caliphal leaders, in their own interpretation, believed it did and hence the conflict. Similarly the case of Ahmad Labbo’s Masina and Umar al-Futi’s Segu, here one state took over the other.

This paper has set out to examine the relationship between scholarship and revolution in Western Bilad al-Sudan. Within the prevailing constraints, the paper has shown that the Link between scholarship and revolution in this region is an enduring one. It has also shown that this link has informed the minds of the leaders of, not only, Sokoto Jihad but those of similar jihads in the 19th century West Africa. While this supports the assertion that the history of the region, as indeed the history of the rest of Africa, had a momentum of its own, it also obliges the policy makers of the contemporary West African states to resist the simplistic Eurocentric understanding of their own societies. It is time they understand their own society for what they really are not what European scholars and their protégés claim they are. This gap between what our societies are and what our leaders think they are has often worsened the social distance that exists between citizens and their rulers, frustrated genuine human development and thrown our societies into deeper social and political crisis from which we seem never able to recover.

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