The Education of Usman Dan Fodio: Chapter 2 of The African Caliphate

 The Education of Usman Dan Fodio 

Chapter 2: The African Caliphate 

By Dr. Ibrahim Sulaiman

Shehu Usman was born into a highly cultured family in 1168/1754. His father was Muhammad ibn Salih, known generally as Fodio. His mother was Hawwa bint Muhammad ibn Usman. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Degel, where the young Usman grew up. In the Timbuktu tradition, the parents were invariably the first teachers and Shehu Usman received most of his education from his parents and relatives.

Our main sources concerning his education are Idaa’ an-Nusuukh  and Tazyiin al-Waraqaat of ʿAbdullahi Dan Fodio and Asaaniid al-Faqiir  of Shehu Usman Dan Fodio. In Idaa’ an-Nusuukh, ʿAbdullahi described his early education:

“The Shaykh read the Qur’an with his father, learned al-Ishriniyyah and similar works with his Shaykh, ʿUthman, known as Biddu al-Kabawi. He learned syntax, and the science of grammar from al-Khulaasah and other works, from our Shaykh Abd ar-Rahman ibn Hammada. He read al-Mukhtasar with our paternal and maternal uncle, Uthmaan, known as Bidduri.… This shaykh of his was learned and pious, well known for righteousness and the ordering of the right and the forbidding of the wrong, and for being occupied with what concerned him. He it is whom our Shaykh Uthmaan (Dan Fodio) imitated in states and in deeds. He accompanied him for nearly two years, molding himself according to his pattern in piety (taqwaa) and in ordering the right, and forbidding the wrong.”

Thus, the Shehu’s character was initially molded by Usman Bidduri. His inclination towards the career which eventually turned out to be the sole purpose in his life, and his keenness to call people to the way of Allah, were instilled in him by this shaykh. His influence on Shehu Usman was fundamental, enduring and far-reaching. Associated with this influence was that of Muhammad Sambo, who supervised part of Shehu’s early teachings. According to ʿAbdullahi, this scholar ‘used to attend (Shehu’s) reading of al-Mukhtasar – if he made a mistake, or let anything slip, this maternal uncle of ours would correct it for him’. Though he was away in the Hijaaz during most of the period of Shehu’s early activities his influence on the whole community was beyond question.

Continuing his account of the Shehu’s education, ʿAbdullahi wrote:

“Now Shaykh Uthmaan informed me that he had learned Qur’anic exegesis (tafsiir) from the son of our maternal and paternal uncle Aḥmad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Amin, and that he was present at the assembly of Haashim az-Zamfari (i.e. from the Hausa state of Zamfara) and heard from him Qur’anic exegesis from the beginning of the Qur’an to the end of it… He learned the science of tradition (hadiith) from our maternal and paternal uncle, al-Hajj Muhammad ibn Raj... reading with him all of Ṣaḥiiḥ of al-Bukhaari. Then he gave us license to pass on all that he had recited of that which he had learned from his Shaykh al-Madani, the Sindi of origin, Abu Al-Hassan ʿAli.”

Muhammad ibn Raj’s knowledge of ḥadiith was indeed profound. He had studied each of the most important works of ḥadiith from an uninterrupted chain of authorities such as the Imams al-Bukhaari, Muslim and Maalik. The other of note was Salih Muhammad al-Kanawi, through whom Shehu Usman also traced his isnaads in Bukhaari, Muwaṭṭa and ash-Shifaa’.

ʿAbdullahi told us further in Idaa’ an-Nusuukh that the Shehu sought knowledge from Shaykh Jibril, and he accompanied him for almost a year until they came to the town of Agades. Jibril ibn ʿUmar’s influence was both intellectual and moral. In ḥadiith, for example, the Shehu traced his isnaad in all the essential ḥadiith works, notably Bukhaari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, Muwaṭṭa and Ibn Majah. Jibril was his most important authority in fiqh (or science of law) and most significantly in the various aspects of taṣawwuf (spiritual training). His silsilah (spiritual genealogy) in this sphere of life and especially in the Qaadiriyyah order, and his silsilah in Dalaa’il al-Khairaat, are all traced, in Asaaniid al-Faqiir, through Jibril. There seemed to be no aspect of learning which the Shehu undertook in which Jibril ibn ʿUmar did not leave his indelible imprint.

The real significance of Jibril ibn ʿUmar is that he gave the Shehu the idea of tajdiid, the foundations of which he himself laid. He gave his student the intellectual, moral, spiritual and ideological training he needed for the gigantic work of tajdiid. Jibril later was the first to pledge allegiance to Shehu, even before the jihad. Despite certain differences of opinion the Shehu acknowledged his profound indebtedness to Jibril, which ʿAbdullahi quoted in Idaa’ an-Nusuukh: “If there be said of me that which is said of good report, then I am but a wave of the waves of Jibril.”

Influence, though of an indirect nature, was exerted on the Shehu by Sidi Mukhtar al-Kunti, who was born in 1142/1729 and died in 1226/l811, and was thus a direct contemporary of the Shehu. Sidi Mukhtar belonged to a highly venerated Kunta family which over thirty years had produced an uninterrupted chain of scholars and saints, the most influential being Sidi Mukhtar al-Kunti. Knowledgeable and charismatic, he soon became a veritable institution himself.

According to Abdal-Aziz Batran, Sidi al-Mukhtar attracted multitudes of students, people who sought his barakah and guidance, and scholars seeking enlightenment. He assumed the leadership not only of the Kunta family, but more significantly, of the Qaadiriyyah order, giving unity to branches that had been estranged for nearly two hundred years. Thereafter, he initiated an ambitious and, indeed, successful though peaceful, moral transformation of a large part of Africa.

Sidi Mukhtar taught that the study of taṣawwuf was essential as it was imperative for self-fortification and for achieving nearness to Allah. This nearness itself involves a progressive moral transformation of the individual under the guidance of a shaykh. He also taught that zuhd means giving as much attention to the mundane aspects of life as to the spiritual; wealth, therefore, was essential as it is the cornerstone for jaah, social standing and dignity, as well as for haibah, authority and respect. He wished for a return to the basic sources of Islamic jurisprudence, and for the teachings of the Companions (Allah be pleased with them) of Muhammad to be reinstated. Moreover, he rejected exclusive adherence to one madh-hab and opened the door of ijtihaad to all who were juristically qualified.

Sidi al-Mukhtar believed that he was the mujaddid of the thirteenth century of the Hijrah whom Allah had called upon to renovate Islam and to restore the ummah to its glorious past not only in West Africa, but throughout the whole Muslim world… Like Aḥmad Baba before him, he expressed the opinion that several mujaddidun appeared periodically in different territories, including West Africa.”

We shall now look at some of the principal ideas of Sidi Mukhtar, namely his ideas on tajdiid, the ʿulamaa’ and taṣawwuf. Tajdiid is ‘the resuscitation of what has withered away of knowledge of the Qur’an and the Sunnah and the commandment of their observance’. So long as the ummah would sink from time to time into degeneration or turmoil, so long would tajdiid remain imperative.

In western Sudan, this degeneration (fasaad) was precipitated by the despot, Sonni ʿAli, who appeared in the ninth Islamic century and therefore necessitated, by implication, the tajdiid of Askia Muhammad. Further degeneration was brought about by the invasion of the Moroccan hordes who killed many of the inhabitants of western Sudan, slew the ʿulamaa’, captured as many as thirty thousand people and sacked the towns.

This destruction of life and knowledge of a large part of the western Sudan precipitated a moral and intellectual decline which necessitated the initiation of a new process of tajdiid throughout the region.

Tajdiid, Mukhtar said, could take various forms, and thus could be led by individuals with different emphases, depending on the prevailing situation. The mujaddid could be a statesman who would preserve the principles of the law, make justice triumph among the people and protect the lives and properties of the people, so that they could carry on their temporal affairs and their religious duties without any hindrance. The mujaddid could also be a zaahid who would remind the people of the world to come, call them to righteousness and renunciation of the world. Or he could be a pure scholar who would regenerate the knowledge of Sunnah and establish the authenticity of the Prophetic tradition. Few individuals could undertake tajdiid, for the standard of learning, coupled with moral sanctity, is extremely high. Sidi Mukhtar said of such a person:

“Assuming that all religious knowledge were forgotten, all literatures were burned and he were resorted to, he would have the capacity to resuscitate that knowledge and write similar books.”

It was the Sidi’s view that the center of gravity in the Muslim world had shifted to western Sudan by the eleventh Islamic century. In the century before, those who bad undertaken the tajdiid were firstly, the mujaddid of all branches of knowledge, al-Maghili; secondly, Jalaal ad-diin as-Suyuuti; thirdly, the zaahid, Sayyid Muhammad as-Sanuusi; and fourthly, the statesman, al-Hajj Askia Muhammad, but in the eleventh century, the three mujaddids that appeared in the Muslim world were, according to the Sidi, from the western Sudan. These were the faqih Ahmad Baba at-Timbukti, the famous ḥadiith scholar Muhammad Baghyu at-Takruri, and the ascetic Baba al-Mukhtar at-Timbukti. In the twelfth century, two of the three mujaddids that appeared were from western Sudan, the Sidi Mukhtar al-Kunti himself and Shehu Usman Dan Fodio.

The Sidi attributed the decline of knowledge and the triumph of bidʿah (innovation) in the western Sudan in the twelfth and the thirteenth Islamic centuries partly to the activities of the corrupt scholars (ʿulamaa’ as-suu’), whom he grouped into as many as sixteen categories. They included those who had knowledge, but failed to put it into practice; those who presented an appearance of compliance with the outward religious duties, but had not eliminated characteristics such as vanity, hypocrisy, ambition, desire for political office and high rank; those who presumed that they had the exclusive right to guide the common people and yet entered into unholy alliance with the sulṭans, thus encouraging the sulṭans’ oppression of the people; those who engaged in jihad, but only to obtain fame and wealth; and those scholars who used false methods, such as music, to lure people into spiritual practices. The danger of those scholars, the Sidi said, could be seen from the ḥadiith of the Prophet:

“I fear for my ummah after me more from ʿulamaa’ as-suu’ than from the Dajjal’, and when asked who these were, he replied that they were ʿulamaa’ al-alsinah, ‘the ʿulamaa’ of the tongue.”

Sidi insisted that taṣawwuf is an indispensable aspect of Islam, but true sufism is none other than honest and sincere adherence to the Sunnah. “If the muriid observes the commands of the Shariiʿah and refrains from doing what is prohibited by it, truly and sincerely, Allah will open in his heart a portal whereby he can see (acquire) ʿuluumu-l-ḥaqiiqah. And if he adheres to the rules of ʿuluumu-l-ḥaqiiqah, Allah will cause to open a further portal within his inner self whereby he shall see the Kingdom of Heaven and realities of Allah’s might.” The combination of law and moral purification seemed to him the best way to practice religion.

The Sidi’s views on the use of music in sufism and on zuhd are worth noting. “Allah, the Almighty, is not worshipped by dancing and chanting… We the Qaadirii do not approve of dancing, frivolous playing and merry making because they are degrading to man’s dignity and damaging to his honor.” Zuhd does not mean squandering one’s wealth or declaring as illegal what Allah has decreed to be legal, such as taking up a profession or other economic pursuits. Zuhd is to dispense the world willingly when one possesses it and to be at rest in one’s heart when one loses it’. “The Companions of the Prophet,” he said, “possessed the world and held it like the trustworthy treasurer, kept it in the lawful manner and distributed it in the legal way. They neither clung to it nor had any inclination towards it.”

Sidi Mukhtar’s influence on the Shehu and his movement itself was first and foremost spiritual, for as the undisputed head of the Qaadiriyyah order to which the Shehu belonged and as a dynamic intellectual personality, he was bound to exert a deep influence over the Shehu. Some of the three hundred or so books and treatises he wrote were certainly brought to the attention of the Shehu, and his students and companions also made their own particular impact. Significantly, the Sidi used his vast and profound influence in support of the Shehu and his movement, a support that advanced the course of the jiihad in considerable measure.

We have mentioned some of the men who influenced the Shehu to indicate the kind of training he had, although it is impossible for us to know all of them. There are surely other personalities who contributed to the making of the Shehu in much the same way as those we have mentioned, but who are not known to us and may never be known. What cannot be denied is that the Shehu drank deeply from the great pond of knowledge which the western Sudan had to offer. It is to his credit that he sought knowledge wherever he could find it, and that even when he had grown important and more famous than most of the scholars, he still sat humbly before them, learning from them. He also learned the primary sources – the Qur’an and ḥadiith – from as many authorities as possible. At the end, of the day he had acquired not only a deep and indelible knowledge of these sources, but also the different interpretations that had been developed through several centuries.

The Shaping of a Character

The Shehu, from what we can understand, must have seen in al-Maghili a vigorous intellectual who had a deep knowledge in the sciences necessary for changing the intellectual precepts of people, and who had a noble character imbued with the requisite moral persuasion to sway even the most powerful of men. In al-Maghili, the Shehu saw how an individual, even though having refugee status, could effect a lasting change in the life of nations and set their history, almost single-handedly, upon a totally different course, by the sheer force of his intellect, his moral authority and his absolute reliance on Allah. He took time to study al-Maghili properly, taking from him, as faithfully as possible, the concept of tajdiid, of society and of government, as well as the nature of the ideological divide between Muslims and those who serve the cause of evil.

In al-Barnawi, as well as in a number of scholars of his time and especially those of the intellectual centers of Borno, Katsina and Kano, the Shehu must have seen the concept of an active, purifying and transformative jurisprudence, which even though it had been relegated to the background and lost its supremacy, could still serve as a potent forum for protest and mobilization for the revival of Islam. Indeed, the point that came out clearly in al-Barnawi was that what was wrong in respect of law was not so much the stagnation it had suffered as a result of the loss of genuine ʿulamaa’, as the neglect it had suffered in its abandonment by society. Law grows and develops through application.

In Sidi Ahmad Baba, who epitomized the spirit of the Timbuktu tradition, the Shehu must have perceived the role and place of the scholar in society. The scholar’s first responsibility is to acquaint himself with the basic knowledge of the sources, then of the law, then of different sciences that support the life of society, and then of history and so on. This will place him in a position to guide society in all essential areas and to put himself at the disposal of every segment of society. His second responsibility is to stand up boldly as the guardian of the conscience of society, preventing any assault or outrage against the values of society or against the sanctity of its beliefs and institutions. In this way, he serves as the force behind the preservation of the moral and social purity of society and respect for the integrity of the nation. The scholar’s third responsibility is to stand up for the poor and the oppressed, to defend their rights, and strive for the accomplishment of their aspirations. The scholar’s fourth responsibility is to stand up for the defense of the nation and enhance its integrity as a nation faithful to Allah and submissive to His laws. As an institution in himself and an active observer of events and history, the scholar is morally bound to warn his nation with all the power and means at his disposal against possible deviations from Islam and to state as clearly as possible the moral, political and historical consequences of such deviations. Finally, it is his responsibility to raise a generation of men and women capable of taking societal responsibilities, or of steering the course of society in a positive direction when the signs of degeneration are apparent.

When considering his teachers and contemporaries, the influence of Usman Bidduri should not be underrated. He was a scholar, who combined learning and piety, and who was dissatisfied with the prevailing corruption and felt the acute need for change, but who at the same time had the wisdom and patience first to sow the seeds of change. He quietly transferred his desires for change to a future generation, and died silently, leaving a legacy for the future. The Shehu, we are told, imitated him in almost all situations relating to his work, recognizing that restraint and patience, as well as a depth of understanding of the issues at stake, are essential ingredients for social transformation, but it was the learned and pious Jibril ibn ʿUmar who gave him the instruments with which to strive against the currents of the time. In Shehu’s studies of ḥadiith, in his efforts to acquire a deep knowledge of law and jurisprudence, in his studies and practice of taṣawwuf, in his endeavors to get a more intimate spiritual relationship with the Prophet, and in his endeavors to understand his society and work for its improvement, he found in Jibril a worthy and eager mentor. He learned the importance of restraint, of open mindedness and sympathy for the inadequacies of the common people, and from the reverses which his teacher had suffered in his attempt to change society too quickly.

Other scholars also left their marks. The supervision of his teachings by the saintly Muhammad Sambo, the vast knowledge of ḥadiith acquired from Al-Hajj Muhammad Raj and the important studies of the Qur’an and its exegesis from Muhammad al-Amin all influenced the Shehu deeply.

In Sidi Mukhtar al-Kunti, he found the true embodiment of sainthood; a versatile and richly endowed scholar who had the view that concern for the world and the more lofty concern for the hereafter had to be combined in a single individual to create a saint. The Sidi also maintained that both temporal and spiritual matters should be brought under the single authority of Islam if the world were to be a better place in which to live. In him, Shehu Usman must also have seen a dynamic and revolutionary sufism concerned to secure for man a just society on earth and Allah’s pleasure in the hereafter. He must have seen in Mukhtar al-Kunti the extent to which an individual possessing sanctity and prestige could penetrate hearts and secure their allegiance for the task of creating a better society. It was to the credit of both the Shehu and al-Kunti that they did not view each other as rivals, but rather mujaddids; each engaged in the same endeavors in the cause of Allah; each employing slightly different methods.

There were many other aspects to the shaping of the Shehu’s personality. All that he had learned of the Arabic language, Qur’anic exegesis, science of ḥadiith were a mere introduction to the wider world of learning and scholarship. From the Mukhtasar of Khalil the Shehu moved further to drink from the great pool of jurisprudence of the Maaliki and the other three schools.

Although the Maaliki school was sufficient for his needs, he felt he should know the principles of other schools, for as he himself said, “there is no rule in Islam, other than that of mere convenience, that restricts a community to follow a particular school of law.”

Then, the Shehu ventured boldly in the world of sufism and learned and practiced the rites of several branches of the Qaadiriyyah, including that of Sidi Mukhtar al-Kunti. In addition, he read almost everything that reached him from the works of al-Ghazali, most especially the Ihyaa’ from which he derived much profit. His book, titled boldly as Ṭariiq al-Jannah, was but a summary of what al-Ghazali had written on piety and moral purification. Then he examined the works of other great ṣufi personalities – the sage Ibn al-ʿArabi, the saint az-Zarruuq, his teacher Ibn ʿAtta Allah, amongst others. He also studied other ṣufi orders, because as far as he was concerned, sufism, like Islamic jurisprudence, is but a tree with many branches.

The Shehu studied history, especially of the rightly-guided khilaafah and of Islam in general. He took special interest in the history of the western Sudan from which he perceived the inevitable confrontation between the forces of light and darkness in the region. The most important of Shehu’s personal efforts were in the studies of the Qur’an and ḥadiith. By investigating these two sources over and over again and by teaching some of them from the beginning to the end many times over, he acquired a deep knowledge of them. In his Asaaniid al-Faqiir, the Shehu leaves no one in doubt as to his tremendous knowledge of the ḥadiith – it seems that he had read and taught almost all the ḥadiiths contained in the authentic collections.

The result of all this made Shehu Usman a forest of knowledge, a jurist, a saint, “He grew up penitent and devout,” Muhammad Bello told us in Infaaq al-Maysuur, “possessed of pleasing qualities. And none was his equal. People trusted him, and flocked to him from the east and west.” Bello continues:

“He instructed the ʿulamaa’ and raised the banner of religion. He revived the Sunnah and put an end to heresy. He spread knowledge and dispelled perplexity. His learning dazzled men’s minds. He showed how reality (ḥaqiiqah) was to be reconciled with the Shariiʿah. For years he explained the Qur’an in the presence of learned and righteous men of importance, vying with them, through his reading and the different branches of his learning, in rhetoric, and in the knowledge of the authorities, and of what is written and what is abrogated. At the same time, he was pre-eminent in knowledge of the hadiith, and learned in its unfamiliar parts and different branches. Revered by both great and small, he was a Mujaddid at the head of this generation.”

Click here for a related article that covers some aspects of education among the African Mālikīs:  Maliki Law: The Predominant Muslim Law in Nigeria


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  1. jazakallahu bi khair

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