Shaykh Uthman Ibn Fodio and The Revival of Islam in Hausaland


by Usman Bugaje


The Milieu 

Perhaps no Muslim needs to be told about the importance of history if only because the Qur’an is full of it. And how assuring were these stories of the prophets as well as the tyrants of old. They assured the Prophet Muhammad as well as his companions that they were treading a well trodden path and gave them both the strength to bear the hardship and the insight to understand the nature of the encounter they were engaged in. Ironically no one seems more ignorant of his history today as the Muslim. Muslims, like others, certainly know that whoever controls the past controls the future. But what they don’t seem to wake up to is the corollary, whoever controls the present, too often, controls the past. This is not simply to explain why they remain ignorant of their past but to make them appreciate the fact that those who control their present will not easily give up their past. As Muslims did (or are still doing) with their freedom and independence, they may have to do with their past, indeed their past is an important component of that freedom, for it gives them their identity and therefore the freedom to be what they are. For, as history itself testifies, freedom is never given on the platter of gold. But without it no nation, or indeed individual, makes any meaningful progress. Our past gives us not only our identity and our worth, but also our bearings and our goals. It presents to us our role models and show us the things worth fighting for. Our future therefore is in discovering our past. This journey of discovery is taking us to some of the forgotten lands of Islam, the region of West Africa which had been an integral part of the Muslim world for over a millennium and which today holds over half of Africa’s Muslim population. We are visiting one of the greatest Muslim figures of this region, Shaykh Uthman b. Fodio. 

Hausaland, where Shaykh Uthman was destined to live and thrive, was located in the middle of what early Muslim historians called the Bilad al-Sudan, which is the vast Savannah grassland stretching from Sene-Gambia in West Africa to the Red Sea in the east. Islam had spread in to this region since the eighth century. Prior to the spread of Islam, the region had been linked with North Africa by the trans-Saharan trade routes that brought manufactured goods from the Mediterranean region and the world beyond in exchange for Gold which appeared to have been in abundance. With the spread of Islam in the region the trans-Saharan trade routes increased and as trade grew, intra-regional routes developed, spreading Islam further into the region. As Islam spread, literacy developed, communication and security improved, increasing traffic and boosting commerce, paving the way for social integration and the development of complex urban societies. Thus the ancient kingdom of Ghana emerged in the 11th century and lasted until the 13th, when it gave way the bigger empire of Mali. By the 15th century the Songhay empire had emerged to replace Mali and lasted until the 17th when it disintegrated into smaller chiefdoms, having been invaded in 1596 by a Moroccan regime desperate for Gold. To the east of Songhay and in the middle of this vast region was the Hausaland, a loose confederation of small but independent states. To the east of the Hausa states, as they are often called, was the Kanem-Borno empire, as old as Ghana, but unlike Ghana, survived until the 19th century. 

These Kingdoms and empires were essentially Muslim states fashioned very much along the Muslim states of North Africa. Their leaders were in the habit of making pilgrimage, usually through Egypt, and bringing back books and artisans. Their students attended the famous educational institutions around the Muslim world, like al-Azhar were many of these states had hostels for their students and made annual grants to maintain them.1 The region itself developed centres of learning and received scholars of international repute like the Algerian Shaykh al-Maghili.2 Borno was famous for the study of the Qur’an and its capital attracted many scholars and became a seat of learning. Timbuktu in Songhay was famous as a city of scholars and its Sankore mosque became a great centre of learning for the region very much like Azhar in North Africa.3 Similarly, in Hausaland, cities like Katsina and Zaria had reputations that went beyond the region and attracted scholars. The Moroccan invasion of Songhay and the rustication of Timbuktu, the principal centre of learning, threw the region into confusion from which it never recovered until after the Jihad led by Shaykh Uthman b. Fodio at the beginning of the 19th century. The destruction of Sankore and the absence of the restraining force of the state of Songhay brought down the tempo of learning and threw the neighbouring Hausa states into inter state internecine warfare, with predictable effects on security and commerce. This insecurity, poor revenue and decline in learning, combined to frustrate the compliance with the Sharia as increasingly desperate kings used all means available to win battles and remain in power. This also gave a receding paganism chance to stage a come back as ignorance took its toll. It was in this chaos and confusion, decadence and oppression and increasing anxiety of a beleaguered citizenry that Shaykh Uthman was born. 

1 For details see Corpus of early Arabic Sources for West African History P. 261 and P. 353. 

2 For details see J.O. Hunwick, (ed. Trans.) Sharia in Songhay: The Replies of al-Maghili to the Questions of Askia al-Hajj Muhammad, London New York, O.U.P. 1985. 

3 For details see E. Sa’ad, Social History of Timbuktu, Cambridge, C.U.P. 1983. 

4 For a detailed account of the education of Shaykh Uthman see F. H. El-Masri, ‘The Life of Shehu Usman dan Fodio Before the Jihad’, JHSN, ii(1963-4) pp. 435-48. For the general intellectual background, especially the long tradition of learning, see Ahmad Kani, The Intellectual Origin of the Sokoto Jihad, Ibadan, 1985. 

Birth, Studies and Career 

Uthman was born at Maratta, a town in the Hausa state of Gobir, on 29th Safar 1168 AH / Sunday 15th December 1754. His father Muhammad Fodio was a well known scholar of his time in Gobir, a descendant of the Torankawa Fulani and heir to a long Islamic tradition of learning. Coming , as he did, from a learned family, with a long tradition of leaning, Uthman had two advantages: access to one of the best instructions and a social status in a society full of respect for learning. He learnt the Qur’an at the feet of his father very early, as was the practice then and proceeded to study elementary fiqh and Arabic language. He then proceeded, this time under scholars renowned in their respective fields, many of whom turned out to be his uncles, to under take advanced studies, where the curriculum is heavy and the influence of the teachers great. Here he studied Tasfsir, Hadith, Sirah, Fiqh, Arabic Language, Tasawwuf, Mathematics and Astronomy. He received a thorough grounding in these fields and before he was twenty he had already written his first work in his mother tongue, reflecting not only the early intellectual maturity but also a propensity for literary out put.4 By the time he was twenty he had formerly finished the basic texts for advanced studies and free to pursue a career. Soon after, he wrote his first work in Arabic, a poem in praise of the prophet5, indicating his proficiency in Arabic and his career inclinations. 

5 Al-Qasida ‘l-Daliyya, Zaria, n.d. See Fathi El-Masri (Ed. Trans.) Bayan Wujub al-Hijra, Khartoum, Khartoum University Press, 1978. P. 2. 

6 Abdullahi b. Muhammad, Tazyin al-Waraqat, M. Hiskett (ed. trans.) Ibadan, Ibadan University Press, 1963. pp. 85-6. Abdullahi was put under the care of Shaykh Uthman while still young and did his early education under his brother and continued to accompany him through out the mission and being literary inclined, in fact a prolific writer and scholar with a taste for thoroughness, he kept a good record of their endeavour all along. 

As he was growing up one thing appeared to have taken Uthman’s attention, the level of ignorance of the wider society, especially among the women and the pervasion of innovations (bid’a) and widespread syncretic practices. He was deeply worried about the violations of the Sharia, the neglect of the Sunnah and the plight of his society as it came increasingly under the tyranny of ever unjust monarchs. The more he read the more he seemed to find this state of affairs unacceptable. The situation was not for want of teachers, indeed there were many, but the teachers had kept themselves in their ivory towers making their knowledge available only to the few who cared to come, to the neglect of even their own families. There were teachers who instead of correcting the ordinary people, were in fact making fortunes out of their ignorance, collecting their wealth under several pretexts and condoning violations of the Sharia and often conniving with rulers to perpetuate all manners of injustices. So by the time he was through with formal studies and became a man of his own he had already decided to devote his time to educating the public the basics of the religion. He started giving public lectures, sermons in and around his home town as he pursued hid post graduate studies with renowned scholars within his reach. He was soon to be joined by his brother Abdullahi, twelve years his junior and much later his son Muhammad Bello. 

As if the society was waiting for him, he received an immediate response among many, not only in his home town but beyond. Abdullahi, who became an erudite scholar, has captured this initial start in one of his many works: “Then we rose up with the shaikh helping him in his mission work for religion. He travelled for that purpose to the east and to the west, calling the people to the religion of God by his preaching and his qasidas in other languages and destroying customs contrary to Muslim law.”6 As people started crowding around this young and rather daring scholar, soon Uthman found himself at the head of a circle of young people sharing some revolutionary ideas. This, unknown to them all, was the nucleus of a movement that was to transform Hausaland for good. Having taken off, the movement went through four distinct phases. The phase of teaching and public da’wah, the phase of planning and organisation, the phase of hijra and jihad and the post jihad phase during which the Caliphate was established. In what follows, we shall be looking at these phases one at a time. 

The Phase of Teaching and Public Da’wah 

The response Shaykh Uthman received to his public preaching must have encouraged him to continue and expand it beyond his home town to other parts of his state of Gobir. He soon found it necessary to go beyond his own state to the neighbouring states starting from Zamfara where he spent some five years, for as he said, he discovered several pockets of people who had not infact accepted Islam yet. Shaykh Uthman was to remain, for some 19 years, as an itinerant scholar always on the move. Where ever he went he stayed long enough to establish a community and always left behind some of his students and disciples to continue his job. It wasn’t all teaching, however, as he had to be writing at the same time not only to produce the texts to be studied in the various circle he was creating but he had to reply to numerous questions and issues which his da’wah was raising and reply critics who were busy trying to stop this rising wave of awareness that was clearly out to sweep the status quo. Hectic as this job no doubt was, Shaykh Uthman was able to combine it with his own pursuit of learning visiting one renown scholar after the another. So many were these teachers that when they eventually settled down many year later and tried to write down some biographical notes on their teachers, which turned out to be a whole book itself, they could not quite remember all, in the words of the author, “I cannot now number all the shaikhs …. so many that I cannot count them.”7 Where ever he went and where ever his works reached he attracted a following as Abdullahi reported, “Some of the people from the surrounding countries came to him, and entered his community which had become famous through him.”8This is not to suggest that the Shaykh found it easy, far from it, it appeared to have been quite a trying and challenge period, as these lines from a poem Abdullahi composed during this period suggests: 

7 Abdullahi b. Muhammad, ‘Ida` al-Nusukh man Akhadhtu ‘anhu min al-Shuyukh, M. Hiskett, (ed. trans.) ‘Material Relating to the State of Learning Among the Fulani Before their Jihad’ in BSOAS xix, 3, 1957. p. 568. 

8 Ibid. 

9 Abdullahi b. Muhammad (Fodio), Tazyin al-Waraqat, M. Hiskett (ed. trans.) Ibadan, Ibadan University Press, 1963. P. 99. 

“Oh send on my behalf to my tribe a letter, To which men or honest women may pay attention, To their scholar, or seeker after knowledge, desiring To make manifest the religion of God, giving good advice therein.  I say to him: Rise up, and call to religion with a call Which the common people shall answer, or the great lords; And do not fear, in making manifest the religion of Muhammad The words of one who hates, whom fools imitate. And do not fear to be accused of lying; nor the disavowal of the apostate; Nor the mockery of the ignorant man gone astray While the truth is as the morning; Nor the backbiting of a slanderer; nor the rancour of one who bears a grudge, Who is helped by one who relies upon (evil) customs. None can destroy what the hands of God has built. None can overthrow the order of God if it comes.”9 

These verses summarised what several pages of prose had explained. One can glean the strength of their conviction and the degree of their determination. Their immediate objective was to disseminate the knowledge of the religion clearly and widely. They were motivated by the consciousness of their responsibility and sustained by their strong belief that God was on their side. They faced an array of obstacles, starting from their peers who thought that they were crazy to contemplate a change in the rotten society they were born into, then their contemporary scholars who were eager to find faults in what they did and called them all sorts of names, and ultimately the rulers of Hausaland who realised that the success of this movement was going to be at the expense of their cherished thrones. These obstacles, formidable as some of them were, did not, however, dissuade them from their path. For they new that it was a well trodden path, the path of the prophets of old. 

In line with his immediate objective of educating the wider public, most of Shaykh Uthman’s preaching focused on the basic issues of proper understanding of tauhid, correct performance of the routine acts of worship, Islamic standards of behaviour and emphasis on the Sunnah as opposed to the bid’ah which due largely to the prevailing ignorance had infested numerous acts of worship and behaviour. He also explained the general meaning of the Sharia and encouraged his audience to appreciate the need for ‘amr bi al-ma’ruf wa al-nahy an al-munkar (commanding the right and forbidding the wrong). He wrote numerous books on these subjects during this period, like, Usul al-Din, Iman, Islam, Ihsan, Hidayat al-Tullab etc. But since a substantial part of his audience were not literate, Shaykh Uthman also composed poems in local languages carrying essentially the same messages in simpler but poetic form and therefore easy to understand and remember. Apt in their expressions, passionate in their appeal, melodious in their tune, these poems took Hausa society by the storm, pervading the streets, market places and farms and invading homes, schools and courts. They soon rose to the top of the chart of the time and remained at the top for decades, replacing the vain and vulgar songs that had formed a significant part of the Hausa-Fulani Jahiliyya. To the men when at work and to the women while in their kitchens, these poems seemed to evoke tempo and vitality. They eventually became to the ordinary men and women what books were to students and scholars. 

The favourable mass response of the public to the message of the Shaykh naturally sent shivers down the spines of both the ulama’ as well as the rulers of Hausaland who realised that their respective positions were at stake. The ulama’ stepped up their criticism of the Shaykh and did everything to undermine his mission. First they questioned the validity of the central pillar of his mission, ‘amr bi al ma’aruf wa al nahy an al munkar, arguing that in their circumstances it was neither desirable nor possible. In one of his responses the Shaykh retorted “I was told by one of the brothers that he heard one of them say: ‘forbidding evil in a land of evil is the real evil: And for this reason they don’t chide each other for committing evil. I take refuge with God the exalted; this is one of the characteristics of the Jews.”10 The ulama’ then defended the numerous un-Islamic customs the Shaykh had been attacking, suggesting that, after all, the custom of a land is itself like Sunnah. The Shaykh argued that “this is falsehood and confusion according to the consensus of opinion (ijma’) because a custom should not be tolerated if it contradicts the Sunnah.”11 

10 Uthman b. Fodio, quoted in M. A. Al-Hajj, ‘The Writings of the Shehu’ Kano Studies, 1 (2) 1974/77 P. 9. 

11 Ibid. 

Rather expectedly the ulama’ made a lot of fuss on the issue of women. Shaykh Uthman did not stop women from attending his preaching sessions, he in fact encouraged them. From the on set of his endeavour, Shaykh Uthman appeared to have been moved by the plight of women in Hausaland particularly the way they were denied basic education and exploited by society. He made this very clear in his criticism of the Ulama’, as he observed in one of his many works on the subject, “ ….what many scholars (ulama’) of the Sudan do to their wives, their daughters and their slaves … they leave them neglected like cattle without instructing them in what is obligatory upon them in connection with their creed, their ritual ablution, their fasting of Ramadan … Nor do they instruct them on what is permissible (mubah) for them like buying, selling and similar things. Indeed they regard them as nothing but a pot which they use and when it breaks to pieces they throw away …. One wonders at this their custom of leaving their wives and daughters in the darkness of ignorance while at the same time they teach their students every morning and evening. Indeed the only motive in teaching their students is self-aggrandisement and nothing else”12 Turning to the women themselves the Shaykh encouraged them to seek for education and openly called upon them to rebel against what today can be called male chauvinism. “ O’ Muslim women” the Shaykh calls, “do not listen to the words of those misguided men who tell you about the duty of obedience to your husbands but they do not tell you anything about obedience to God and His messenger”13 As for the attack that he encouraged the free mixing of men and women, not only did he teach the women proper Islamic dressing and how to conduct themselves decently in public, he questioned the sincerity of all those ulama’ making the accusation in the first place, saying, “People see their women attending illegally, marriage ceremonies, they also see them dancing and singing and inter mixing with men, moreover they observe them going out for ‘Id ceremonies in their full make-up, without denying them these. But when they see them going out in pursuit of learning they say this is reprehensible”14 

12 Uthman B. Fodio, Nur al-Albab, Translation of M.A. Al-Hajj in Ibid. P. 8. 

13 Ibid. 

14 Uthman b. Fodio, quoted in M.A. Kani, ‘Literary Activity in Hausaland in the Late Eighteeth and Early Nineteenth Century: With Special Reference to Shaykh Uthman b. Fudi D. 1817’, Unpublished M.A. Thesis A.B.U. Zaria, 1978. p. 102. 

15 See Muhammad Bello, Infaq al-Maysur 

16 Quoted in F.H. El-Masri, ‘The life of Usman Dan Fodio before the Jihad’, Op. cit. P. 44. 

On his struggle against these class of ulama’ who resisted these changes, supported bid’ah and justified the injustice and tyranny of the kings, what the Shaykh, borrowing from al-Maghili, calls Ulama’ al-Su (venal Scholars), the Shaykh wrote nearly fifty different works, as his son Muhammad Bello reported.15 He emerged victorious at the end and he became widely acknowledged as the leading scholar in Hausaland, despite his relatively young age. As a mark of honour and recognition of this position of leadership, the king of Gobir, the strongest of the Hausa kings of his time gathered, at ‘Id al-Adha, all the ulama’ giving them gifts, and Shaykh Uthman was given the lion’s share. All the ulama’ gladly accepted their gifts except Shaykh Uthman. He politely turned it down, asking, in its stead, something more valuable to him and the mission he had come to be identified with. He made five requests to the king: 

“1. To allow me to call people to God through out your country. 

2. Not to stop or obstruct anybody responding to this call 

3. To treat with respect any one with a turban and women decently dressed. 

4. To free all political prisoners. 

5. Not to burden the subjects with taxes.”16 

These demands, of course reveal a lot about the social and political situation of the time. But what interests us here is that the stature of Shaykh Uthman had reached a point when he (and perhaps he alone) could make such demands. It also suggests that the turban for men and the 

Islamic outfit for women had become a mark of the new consciousness that Shaykh Uthman’s da’wah had raised, a mark of belonging to the mission of the Shaykh. Perhaps more profoundly, this singular act, unprecedented, earned the Shaykh a higher station yet. For, while the rejection of the gift earned him respect of the king and independence from the establishment, the demands endeared him not only to his followers but also the ordinary people at large whose interest he identified with and stuck out his neck to protect. 

Phase of Organisation and Planning 

Having spent some two decades roving the whole of Gobir, kebbi, Zamfara, Agades and perhaps other Hausa states, spreading Islamic learning, converting pockets of non-Muslim communities, reawakening Muslims and creating a network of teachers and students through out the vast region, Shaykh Uthman decided to settle down in the town of Degel in the state of Gobir in 1793. Within these two decades Shaykh Uthman with the assistance of his brother Abdullahi and their growing number of disciples have literally changed the intellectual and social horizon of Hausaland. Many schools have sprouted; teachers have been graduated and are constantly on the move teaching; books had been written on numerous subjects and issues and were circulating; poems in local languages carrying clear and liberating messages have become household. These new schools, unlike the ivory towers the Shaykh criticised, were open to all and sundry. The new teachers, though much younger, were well read, yet distinguished themselves not so much by their learning like their zeal in spreading and living their new found knowledge. The new books were addressing the situation at hand and were urging a return to Islam proper, in every aspect of life, individual as well as collective, free from the innovations that have found their way into the religion. One book which seemed to have been particularly written for this purpose and which became a textbook for the new centres of learning was the Shaykh’s Ihya al-Sunnah wa Ikhmad al-Bid’ah.17 The new mosques also became not only places of prayers but, as they ought to have been, centres of learning. 

17 This had been edited and published in Cairo some time in the 60’s. Local productions are widely available in Nigeria. For an over view of its contents and excerpts in English, see I.A.B. Balogun, Life and Works of Uthman Dan Fodio, Lagos, Islamic Publication Bureau, 1975. 

As Shaykh Uthman settled in Degel he found himself at the centre of an expanding and ever growing network of mostly young Muslims looking forward to changes that will reinstall Islam in Hausaland. Degel itself turned in to a kind of university town as many students, teachers and disciple came to further their education to consult the Shaykh on issues. Shaykh Uthman thus found himself heading an Islamic movement whose members were growing and spreading all over Hausaland and beyond, looking up to him to provide them with guidance. He had to reluctantly accept the leadership of this movement which he chose to give the modest name of Jama’a. He had to consequently take the full responsibility of guiding the Jama’a not only because they looked up to him for guidance but also because he realised that with out proper guidance this youthful energy can get out of control, especially with potential provocation. Soon after settling in Degel the Shaykh thus found it necessary to write a book titled ‘Amr bi al-Ma’ruf wa al-Nahy ‘an al-Munkar, clearly to guide the members of this movement in their conduct of this important aspect of their mission. From the content of the book the Jama’a appeared to have been expressing some impatience in the realisation of their goals which were becoming clearer with time. For though the Shaykh started rightly by emphasising the central significance of ‘Amr bi al-Ma’ruf, going as far as saying “every Muslim should observe this duty, even though he be a sinner, because this duty and individual piety are two distinct injunctions and failure to observe one should not justify neglecting the other.”18 The Shaykh proceeded to warn against undertaking jihad without proper preparation and without having an Imam, for in these kind of situations “it only results in failure and drags weak Muslims into perdition unnecessarily.”19 The Shaykh cited examples of rushed jihads which ended up in total failure, like the case of Abu Mahalli in early 17th century North Africa.20 

18 Uthman b. Fodio, Amr bi al-Ma’ruf …., quoted in F.H.Masri (ed. trans.) Bayan Wujub al-Hijra, Khartoum, K.U.P. 1978, p. 22. 

19 Ibid. 

20 Ibid. 

21 Abdullahi b. Muhammad, Tazyin al-Waraqat, P. 107 

22 See F.H. El-Masri, (ed. trans.) Bayan Wujub Al-Hijra, p. 24. 

23 See A.D.H. Bivar, ‘The Wathiqat Ahl al-Sudan’, Journal of Modern African History ii, 2(1961) pp.235-243. 

If this book was meant to caution the Jama’a in exhibiting their zeal, it did not. In fact it seemed to have had the opposite effect, for members of the ever growing Jama’a were beginning to challenge openly the activities of the kings, particularly the injustices against the weak and the lack of upholding the Sharia. This high profile the Jama’a was assuming was quite naturally sending signals to the kings of Hausaland, that their way of ruling was not going to be tolerated. The anxiety of the rulers was particularly heightened by the fact that the rank of the Jama’a was swelling with people especially the weak and the oppressed who were beginning to see not only their heavenly salvation but even their earthly salvation in the Jama’a under the leadership of the Shaykh. In fact as Abdullahi reported,21 some of the Hausa kings were enraged by these trends, understandably so for every increase in the ranks of the Jama’a represent a shift in loyalty and the narrowing of the political base of the Hausa rulers. Threatened by these developments and eager to save their diminishing political base on which rested precariously their thrones, the Hausa kings started harassing members of the Jama’a, who were not too difficult to identify. This, it must have been hoped, would discourage others from joining the ranks of the Jama’a and to persuade the older members to down-size their activities. But it did not quite discourage the Jama’a. The Shaykh had to intervene, he composed a poem, ostensibly in praise of Shaykh Abdulqadir al-Jaylani, the great sufi Shaykh, but in reality calming the Jama’a while at the same time encouraging them to take up arms to defend themselves, arguing that it was Sunnah to carry arms. This was shortly followed by yet another work, Masa’il al-Muhimma, important matters, in which the Shaykh, foreseeing a confrontation an a large scale, cautioned that hijra might be eminent and in these kind of situation Muslims cannot be abandoned without an imam to whom bay’ah is sworn.22 

This call to arms, as it were, further frightened the Hausa rulers even more and in their frantic response the situation worsened, forcing the Shaykh to make a hijra to Gudu, a place on the boarders of Gobir, in preparation for a confrontation which the Shaykh appeared to have been determined to avoid but which the circumstances have made rather inevitable. But a few month before making the Hijra he had to write a pamphlet which was to be circulated through the very efficient network of the Jama’a. This pamphlet the Shaykh called Wathiqat ahl al-Sudan wa man sha’ Allah min al-Ikhwan, a letter to the people of the Sudan and who so ever Allah wished among the brothers. This work had been described by a British scholar23 who edited and translated it as the ‘manifesto of the jihad’ and perhaps so, for while calling people for hijra the letter made it clear that it was a prelude to jihad and went ahead to give the justifications and objectives of this impending jihad. This document therefore triggered a massive movement of members of the Jama’a from all over Hausaland towards Gudu on the northern outskirts of Gobir. It was a hazardous journey, for the Hausa army were lying ambush all along the routes, yet it continued. 

Phase of Hijra and Jihad 

Shaykh Uthman and the Jama’a at Degel left for Gudu on the 12th of dhul Qada 1218 / February 1804. No sooner did the Shaykh arrived Gudu, joined by trickles of his Jama’a, the jihad began. The strategy of the Hausa rulers, it seemed, was not to allow the Jama’a any time and to route them before they gather some formidable force which they seemed capable of harnessing. As they sensed the first attack, the Jama’a, in Gudu, quickly made bay’ah to Shaykh Uthman, as their imam and amir al-mu’minin. A detachment of Gobir army, which had been on their heels, attacked this meagre number of ill-equipped members of the Jama’a. The Jama’a fought back and routed the Gobir forces seizing booty, food and equipment which augmented their scanty provisions and thus the jihad started. For the next two years the Jama’a had to be on the move without a permanent base. It was not until April of 1806 they managed to take over the state of Kebbi and made a permanent base of the capital, Birnin Kebbi. As the jihad started rather earlier than expected and because of the perils on the routes many members couldn’t join the Jama’a at Gudu. But perhaps just as well, for delegations were made to the Shaykh by the Jama’a in different states seeking permission to carry out jihad in their area. These permissions were given along with a symbolic flag which the leaders take back to their states and fought the Jihad. This way the whole of Hausa states and parts of neighbouring Borno was turned in to a battle field. The jihad went on until about 1808 when, with the defeat of Gobir, the strongest military power, the jihad, in the main came to an end with Jama’a emerging victorious.

Needless to say this victory was far from easy and it was not without heavy losses of men, some of the fine and precious men the Jama’a had nurtured over some three decades. Their loss left a scar on the psyche of the leaders of the Jama’a, some of them like Abdullahi never appeared to have recovered from the trauma of these losses. On the other hand, as the Jama’a began to get the upper hand of the jihad their ranks were suddenly swollen by the large number of fence sitters who were waiting to see which way the fortunes were turning before making up their minds. While this may have augmented their fighting force, it did dilute their discipline and this worried one of the most senior commander, Shaykh Abdullahi and at a stage it made him sick and for a while he contemplated deserting the army to go to some far place like Makka and Madina. One other thing that made their job more difficult was that having to go into confrontation apparently earlier than expected, the Jama’a had not really made provisions for taking over the administration of Hausaland, yet as the different states fell in to their hands, they had to immediately take over and begin an Islamic administration. Though in general terms they had an idea, they had never gotten to the nitty-gritty of it. Thus soon after the jihad had taken off and even as they had no permanent base, the leaders of the Jama’a had, in between battles, write manuals to guide the various commanders on the correct conduct of the jihad, the division of booty and establishment and running of a state according to Islam. That was how the Shaykh’s Bayan Wujub al-Hijra ala al-Ibad, completed in Ramadan 1221/November 1806 in B/kebbi came to be written. Adullahi’s Tazyin al-Waraqat, which more than any of their writings captured, sometimes graphically, the running battles and the mood of the jihad was similarly written in between battles. Abdullahi had to chip in with his Diya’ Ul al-Amr wa-al-Mujahideen to guide field commanders who, having won the battles had to face the greatest challenge yet, translating the ideal they had fought for in to reality. They learnt the hard way that it was all too easy to be in the opposition. 

Phase of Victory and Establishment of the Caliphate 

Having fought and won the jihad, the Jama’a under the leadership of Shaykh Uthman found themselves in command of a large territory of over 50,000 square miles standing on the ruins of the warring Hausa states. It must have been everybody’s relief that never again the citizens of these warring states have to worry about the insecurity that had affected both education and commerce for the best part of two centuries. But that was certainly not enough, the society needed to be reorganised, rehabilitated and reconstructed from the devastation of the jihad which had been on for some five years or so. So as the dust of the jihad was settling what engaged the leadership of the Jama’a was how exactly the new state was to be run, the principle had been spelt out in the earlier writings of the jihad leaders Shaykh Uthman and his brother Abdullahi in particular. These principles needed to be elaborated on and more importantly lived in the real practical world. So extensive consultations started among the scholars especially the ahl hal wal aqd, the shura committee members, many of whom had been military commanders during the years of the jihad. 

First a new capital, Sokoto, was created and built in due course. The new polity was divided into two and each put under the command of Abdullahi and Muhammad Bello who had proved his abilities during the jihad and had emerged very popular with the Jama’a. These consultations were often followed by spate of debate which was conducted verbally as well as in writing. The debate centred on the question of the implementation of the Islamic order the Jama’a fought to install. Muhammad Bello, who had matured as a scholar now joined in this debate and contributed a number of books.24 The debate was open and rigorous and though they did not always agree, they always managed to concede to Shaykh Uthman even if grudgingly. It was their credit that even as they felt free to differ on certain issues they never lost their composure or decorum and above all the sense of responsibility to guide the Jama’a in translating the ideals they fought for in to reality. In doing so not only did they maintain their unity and solidarity but they wrote on end leaving behind an astonishing body of literature for posterity. The fact that they did not quarrel over power and positions but preoccupied their minds with the implementation of the Islamic order must have contributed to their success. Shaykh Uthman himself did not stay long in Sokoto, having appointed his two most able assistants to deal with the routine administration, he left to Sifawa not far from the capital from where he supervised what was happening but more importantly where he continued to teach, reflect on the problems of the new state and to write more books and generate more ideas. Here at Sifawa Shaykh Uthman remained until he died in 1817. 

24 One such book which directly addressed these issue was Usul al-Siyasa, the principles of political leadership. 

Shaykh Uthman died without appointing a successor, perhaps believing that a machinery was already in place to take care of that and it was not for him to choose for the Jama’a who would lead them after him. Sources are not agreed how it worked out, but Bello was chosen as the Amir al-mu’minin and the Sultan of the Sokoto Caliphate. Bello was more than qualified, he was born amidst itinerant da’wah, as the movement was taking shape, he grew up with movement, matured with it and led several campaigns, often representing his father and above all earned himself the admiration and respect of members of the Jama’a. A scholar in his own right who had the benefit of the best education the movement had to offer and having read some 20,000 books in the process, Bello had all that it took to lead the Caliphate. As it turned out, it was a good choice, he was a visionary who built the Caliphate, politically and economically, as his works in politics and political economy, external relations with neighbouring states clearly show.25 The Caliphate itself continued in one piece until it fell prey to European imperialism early this century, when the bulk came under British rule and today forms the northern states of Nigeria, and other parts which fell under the French forms part of Cameroon, Niger Republic, Benin Republic and Burkina Faso. Despite six decades of British colonisation, the Sokoto Caliphate remains an inspiration of Muslims in Nigeria and as its rich heritage is discovered Muslims are turning to it as an alternative to the borrowed alien European models. Many are nursing the hope that as the Sokoto Caliphate solved the decadence and tyranny of the Hausaland two centuries ago so will it inspire a change that will bring an end to the contemporary corrupt political culture of Nigeria today. 

25 See Bello’s works such as Gayth al-Wabl, Tanbih al-Raqid, Ahkam al-Makasib, etc. 

26 Manuscripts of these works are to be found in Private hands, many Archives, History bureaux and documentation of many universities not only in Nigeria, but in Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Niger, Chad and Sudan. Outside Africa, these can be found in NorthWestern University, Chicago, Centre for West African Studies, University of Birmingham, British Museum, Bibliotech Nationale in Paris, among others. Quite a number of these manuscript have been edited and published, some have been subject of various Postgraduate studies in universities. They cover a variety of grounds and except for one or two were all in classical Arabic. 

27 One such example is Waziri Junaidu of Sokoto who, at nearly ninety years and already blind, continues to teach, commenting on texts from memory, and has written over seventy different works. In 1971 Waziri Junaidu was given an honorary degree by the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria. 

Shaykh Uthman’s Contributions and Ideas 

The creation of the Sokoto Caliphate, not only secured for Islam firmer roots but it also gave the whole region the peace and stability it lacked for some two centuries. So by reviving Islam Shaykh Uthman also revived the region giving it new lease of life and an impetus to grow and develop under Islam. But perhaps Shaykh Uthman’s greatest contribution is in the field of learning, not only for the astonishing total of 114 works26 (so far extant) but also and more fundamentally for the transformation of the intellectual atmosphere in the region and the generation of scholars that his movement produced and the inspiration these gave to generations separated by time and space. His brother and deputy (wazir) Abdullahi had over ninety work, including a complete tafsir titled Diya’ al-Tawil. His son and helper Muhammad Bello wrote over Eighty works including a full history of the whole movement, Infaq al-Maysur fi Tarikh Bilad al-Tukrur, and comprehensive work on Politics, Gayth al-Wabl and a work on political economy al-Ahkam al-Makasib. Nana Asma’, his daughter had over twenty works or so, including the translation of some of her father’s works from the Arabic to the vernacular. This tradition of scholarship continued up to the colonial period and has indeed endured the post-colonial period as scholars continue to write, few though they have become.27 

Like all the scholars in Western Bilad al-Sudan, Shaykh Uthman was raised a maliki and so he remained, but he saw nothing hard and fast about these schools of fiqh. In his book, Hidayat al-Tullab, addressed to students, he appreciated the need for the ordinary people to keep to one madhhab, it is easier and practical. But for the students and scholars there is nothing to stop them from accessing any of the rulings of the other schools, for they all have their roots in the Qur’an and Sunnah, and as he further argued neither the Qur’an or the Sunnah specified any particular madhhab so no one was bound to have to follow any, it is all a matter of maslaha, public good.28 This, in his days as indeed today, is quite novel and courageous. Similarly Shaykh Uthman was a sufi of Qadiriyya order but he never made it mandatory for members of his Jama’a to have to be sufis, much less of the Qadiriyya order. Many did, however, knowing fully well that it was a voluntary personal choice. This made it easier for members of the Jama’a to accommodate others scholars of different sufi tariqa like the case of Umar al Futi who was a tijjani. But perhaps it was in the way he pull women out of the abyss of society, boosted their position and transformed them into useful tools of transformation of society, that Shaykh Uthman displayed his courage and foresight. He insisted that it is husband’s cardinal responsibility to ensure that his wife is educated, if he can’t teach her himself, then he has to permit her to go out for the search of knowledge. His brother Abdullahi went further to say that if the husband should fail to give her permission she could still go out, for Allah has already given her the permission. He championed the cause of women education and he demonstrated that in his wives who were learned and his daughters like Nana Asmau’ and Maryam who were scholars and left literary works behind.29 More importantly Asmau’ created a women’s wing of the movement and took the leadership of this wing which survived until decades after British colonisation. Shaykh Uthman was of moderate opinion generally, he had a strong flair for following the Sunnah and hatred for the bid’ah, but clearly he tempered this with a lot of wisdom and sagacity, unlike some of our contemporary champions of the Sunnah. For the Shaykh refused to stop new rulers dressing in elaborate dresses arguing that if dress will add to the rulers haiba so be it. Similarly he resisted pressure to ban music completely, he was content that the general limits of the Sharia be observed. The depth of his learning combined with a broad mind and flexibility must have been important factors the success of his enterprise.30 

28 When Muhammad Bello came to develop the new Caliphate, taking the cue from the Shaykh, he “did not see any need for the Islamic state to subscribe to particular schools of law when initiating policies or in the administration of law. …. The state, as conceived by Muhammad Bello, is a Mujtahid, capable of drawing right inferences …. and does not need to rely on a particular school of law to solve its problems.” See Ibraheem Sulaiman, ‘Nigeria: Lessons From History’, Inquiry, London, January 1987. P. 30-1. 

29 For details on Nana Asmau see Jean Boyd’s recent book, The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u 1793-1865, Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader, London, Frank Cass & co. 1989 

30 For details on the Jihad of Shaykh Uthman and the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate, see Ibraheem Sulaiman’s two books: A Revolution in History: the Jihad of Usman Dan Fodio, London, Mansell Publishing Ltd. 1986. And Islamic State and the Challenge of History, London, Mansell Pub. Ltd. 1987. These two books are perhaps the best materials so far available in the English language. 

Impact of the Shaykh Beyond the Sokoto Caliphate 

Naturally the immediate impact was on neighbouring states like Borno to the east, Yorubaland to the south and Agades to the north. In the rowdy atmosphere of the jihad there were skirmishes between the Jama’a and some of these states, but amicable settlement were reached, though not before some territories being conceded to the Jama’a. But in what had remained of theses state, things were never the same again if only because they had to meet the new Islamic expectations of their citizens and the challenge of a towering Islamic neighbour. 

Outside the immediate theatre of the jihad the consequences were no less serious. Masina, currently in Mali, was chronologically the first to follow suite. Ahamd Labbo was one of those many students of Shaykh Uthman and member of the Jama’a. Like many of the learned members of the Jama’a, he had been running a school in a society which shared a lot of the features of Hausaland. with the events in the neighbouring Hausaland and the rising expectation with his growing following, they came to clash with the authorities in Masina. Not long before Shaykh Uthman died he obtained his permission to start his own jihad and by the following year it was all over and Seku Ahmadu, as he was popularly known, established the Islamic state of Masina with his capital of Hamdullahi.31 Similarly Shaykh Umar al-Futi who left his native Futa Toro in the Sene-Gambia region, for pilgrimage to Makka, about the late 1820’s. Umar came through Masina, where he was impressed with the changes and then Sokoto, where he stayed for months as the guest of Muhammad Bello. Shaykh Umar must have been impressed with what he saw in Sokoto, for on his return he remained in Sokoto under Bello’s care until the latter died in 1837. On the death of his host and friend Umar returned back to Futa Toro started extensive teaching and building of a movement very much in the fashion of the Jama’a. In 1849 Umar, along with his Talaba, the name he gave his followers, made their Hijra and not long after the jihad broke out. Umar’s Jihad was first targeted to the French and later to the animist state of Bambara, on the ruins of which he eventually built his Islamic state with the capital at Segu. Though the Islamic state at Segu did not last very long as the French, determine the annex and colonise the whole area, were prepared to allow an Islamic state to flourish, the jihad continued to inspire generations of anti-French risings throughout the colonial period.32 

31 For details see W.A. Brown, ‘The Caliphate of Hamdullahi’, Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Wisconsin University, 1969. 

32 For details see Omar Jah, ‘Sufism and the Nineteenth Century Jihad Movements’, Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, McGill University, 1971. See also B.O. Oloruntimehin, The Segu Tokolor Empire, London, Longman, 1972. 

Perhaps a more interesting impact of the Jihad of Shaykh Uthman is to be seen in the Nile valley. Following the Jama’a’s capture of Kebbi in 1806, which gave the mujahidun a permanent base, the jihad went swiftly in their favour that rumours started making the rounds that Shaykh Uthman must then be the expected Mahdi. When this reached the Shaykh as it must, he denied being the Mahdi, but said that the Mahdi will appear in the east of Hausaland after him and as soon as he appears the jama’a should migrate to him and give every support. Soon after the death of the Shaykh people started migrating into the Nile valley in search of the Mahdi. Not only did they fuel the expectation of the Mahdi which grew as fast as situation deteriorated in the Sudan under the so called Turko-Egyptian colonial regime. So when in 1881 Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi declared himself the Mahdi these people had no difficulty believing him and they gave him their immediate and unconditional support which in turn gave him the astonishing success he had. The father of Khalifa Abdullahi, who deputised for the Mahdi and took over the leadership of the state after the death of the Mahdi in 1885, was himself part of this migration in search of the Mahdi. When the British over powered the Sokoto Caliphate, rather than live under the British, the Sultan at the time chose to migrate to the East. Even after the British had hunted him and killed him, what remained of his people continued their march until they reached the Nile valley, where their descendants still live today.33 

33 For details see, S. Biobaku and M. al-Hajj, ‘The Sudanese Mahdiyya and the Niger-Chad Region’, in I.M. Lewis (ed.), Islam in Tropical Africa, 2nd. ed. London, I.A.I. 1980. See also U.M. Bugaje, ‘A Comparative Study of the Movements of Uthman Dan Fodio in 19th Century Hausaland and of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi in 19th Century Sudan’, Unpublished Masters Dissertation, University of Khartoum, 1981. 

34 See Philip D. Curtin (ed.) Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade, Madison, the University of Wisconsin Press, 1968. And also Robert R. Madden, A Twelve Months Residence in the West Indies During the Transition from Slavery to Apprenticeship, vol. I & II, Philadelphia, Carey, Lea and Blanchard, 1835. 

35 The document was said to have gained wide circulation in Jamaica, and when it reached the hands of one Muhammad Kaba (alias Robert Peart) in Manchester, Jamaica, he led the Jihad. See J.H. Buchner, The Moravians in Jamaica, London, Longman, 1854. 

36 For the ideas of the Wathiqa see ‘Uthman b. Fodio, Wathiqat Ahl al-Sudan wa man Sha Allah min al-Ikhwan, translated in A.D.H. Bivar, ‘The Wathiqat Ahl al-Sudan’ Journal of Modern African History, ii, 2(1961), Pp. 235-43. 

37 For details see Sultan Afroz, ‘The Unsung Slaves: Islam in Plantation Jamaica’, an unpublished paper, presented at the 25th conference of the Association of Caribbean Historians, University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, March 27-April 2, 1993. 

Even more interesting perhaps is the echo of this jihad in faraway Caribbean Islands. Some of the Africans caught in the heinous European slave trade and ended up in the plantations of the Caribbean Islands happened to be Muslims. Some of them may have been caught up while on transit in search for knowledge or while engaged in jihad, for they arrive their final destinations with Arabic manuscripts, concealed to avoid seizure from the ever suspecting white slave masters. A number of them appear to have come from West Africa; the case of Abubakar who was a scholar of some appreciable learning who eventually got freed and even returned to his native Jenne in Masina, in contemporary Mali, has been well documented.34 It was not unusual for Arabic manuscripts from new arriving slaves to be circulated discreetly among Muslims in the plantations. One such document called the Wathiqah,35 from all the descriptions, the Wathiqat Ahl Sudan of Shaykh Uthman, arrived Jamaica in the late 1820’s. This document, written by Shaykh Uthman, on the eve of the jihad in Sokoto, was aimed at mobilising the Jama’a for the jihad. It therefore contained the reasons that necessitated jihad in Hausaland and a passionate appeal to Muslims to come out to make hijra and fight jihad.36 Some of the injustices and oppressions in the slave plantations must have had some resemblance to the ones addressed to in the Wathiqa, for it got a great reception among the slaves in the Jamaican plantations. It was secretly circulated and though in Arabic its message of jihad got through and was well received. In 1832 the slaves in Manchester, an area in Jamaica, under the leadership of Muhammad Kaba, rose up in jihad against their tyrannical white masters. This jihad triggered similar jihads among slaves in these plantations and for the next few years the whole area became restive. These jihads were known by the white plantation owners as the famous slave riots.37 This posture of Islam as a liberating force has endured to this day and remains one of the most motivating factors for the increasing conversions to Islam among the black Diaspora. 

Concluding Remarks 

Here then is the story of a young man who refused to accept the conditions of decadence in to which he was born. At a very early stage in his life he resolved to change it. He rose along with his team despite all the huddles and pit falls along the way, faced the challenge until he developed a movement of men and women with a mission to spread knowledge and restore the Islamic order. Once the movement had evolved, even he did not seem to have a choice but to proceed. This they did, it lead to physical confrontations which, given the choice, he would have wished to avoid. The movement eventually succeeded not only in winning the physical jihad but also in implementing its programme. Leaving behind for us a heritage to discover and drive inspiration from as we face the challenges of our own times. We have many such heritage in the Muslim World to discover and many models to draw inspiration from. But perhaps the greatest challenge to face is the challenge of knowledge, the knowledge of our own past, the knowledge of the message of Islam itself and the wisdom to know how best to utilise it in a world which has become so complex and in which the struggle between virtue and vice has become far more sophisticated and subtle. 

Usman Bugaje  18/2/1996 


Graduated in Pharmacy from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Nigeria in 1975. Later did a Masters on a comparative study between the movement of Uthman b. Fodio and Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi and Ph.D in the tradition of tajdid in West Africa, both at the Institute of African and Asian Studies, University of Khartoum, Sudan. Currently works with Islam in Africa Organisation and teaches at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria. 

Published in: on February 26, 2021 at 20:43  Leave a Comment  

The African Caliphate

Click on the following picture link to download “The African Caliphate Text”African Caliphate

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