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The Nigerian Saint who Established a Caliphate

Muslims world wide attempt to mimic the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ daily, however few can actually declare to resemble the drama of his battle for Islam, physique and soul, in opposition to the mixed forces of his whole society. In 1804, in what’s right now Nigeria, one such exception rose to the problem, and just like the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in medieval Arabia, would remodel his world perpetually.

Shaykh Usman dan Fodio was a scholar, a saint, a warrior and a mujaddid (one who renews Islam), who in early 19 th century northern Nigeria established an unlimited empire generally known as the Sokoto Caliphate. Just like the Prophet, the Shaykh (recognized in Nigeria as Shehu) was impressed with a divine mission to reform the spiritual practices of his society, preached tirelessly for years, was pressured into exile for his message, and at last a navy battle.

Islam in Nigeria: The Nigerian Saint who Established a Caliphate
Map of the Sokoto Sultanate in 1287 Hijri (1870 Gregorian) in the course of the reign of Ahmadu Rufai. Creator: AbdurRahman AbdulMoneim CC through Wiki Commons.

As a younger man, dan Fodio was distressed by the lax apply of Islam in early-modern Hausaland, a area right now divided between Nigeria and Niger, and even the persecution Muslims confronted from their ostensibly Muslim rulers. Muslims have been forbidden from dressing in keeping with the dictates of their religion, and conversion to Islam made against the law. Even for non-Muslims, the kings of the fractious cities of Hausaland levied agonizing taxes on their topics, and brutalized their inhabitants in methods nonetheless recounted by Nigerians right now.

Dan Fodio preached reform, a return to the true and full apply of Islam, for practically thirty years, starting whereas he was solely a pupil. His message attracted a well-liked following, and concern from the Hausa kings. In 1804 the dam broke; the King of Gobir, Yunfa, tried to assassinate dan Fodio with a flintlock pistol, which miraculously backfired in his personal hand. Dan Fodio and his followers fled the cities, persecuted by an alliance of rulers decided to place down the Islamic revival. Towards all odds, dan Fodio’s mass motion of Hausa peasants, dissident Islamic students, and Fulani Muslim nomads who had lengthy suffered beneath the reigning system, constructed their new base within the metropolis of Sokoto, fought a sequence of pitched battles in opposition to the mixed armies of Gobir, Kano and Katsina, and at last triumphed over all of them, constructing the biggest state the area had ever seen.

Usman dan Fodio
The tomb of Usman dan Fodio. Picture CC: Ppdallo through Wiki Commons.

The Sokoto Caliphate provoked a non secular revival, and an explosion of Islamic literature within the nation. Dan Fodio’s brother Muhammadu Bello, his son Abdullahi of Gwandu, and daughter Nana Asma’u, together with dan Fodio himself, are collectively generally known as the Fodiawa, a bunch of students and writers who collectively authored lots of of works in Islamic regulation, theology, historical past, political idea, Sufism and poetry.

Society modified dramatically beneath the Caliphate. The place Islamic apply had beforehand been lax, the shari’a was now stringently noticed. The state, though beforehand dominated by Muslim kings, was now explicitly legitimated by its implementation of Islamic regulation. The deposed pre-jihad Hausa the Aristocracy was changed with a brand new Fulani aristocracy, who preserve their titles and main roles in Nigerian politics right now.

Islam in Nigeria: The Nigerian Saint who Established a Caliphate
Folio from Uṣūl al-‘Adl li-Wulāt al-Amr wa-Ahl al-Faḍl wa-al-Salāṭīn (The foundations of justice for authorized guardians, governors, princes, meritorious rulers, and kings) by Usuman dan Fodio, 1754-1817.

The unification of Hausaland, plus the huge new emirates of Ilorin and Adamawa, supplied the premise for main financial growth, attracting extra foreigners to settle in Hausaland than ever earlier than.

Within the Caliphate interval, the Tijani Sufi order additionally unfold within the area, in competitors with the Qadiri order adopted by dan Fodio and the entire Sokoto management.

The nineteenth century additionally supplies fascinating accounts of vacationers to and from the Sokoto Caliphate. Western explorers penetrated the nation on commerce and scientific expeditions, most notably the German Heinrich Barth. Barth is a exceptional exception from most explorers of the interval in that he doesn’t look down on the individuals whose lands he explores as inferior. His guide, Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa, names and describes the character and views of particular person African Muslims whom Barth met on his journey, versus different modern accounts which converse of “the natives” collectively, negating their individuality and humanity.

Barth’s account can be peppered with tantalizing particulars about unbelievable Muslim vacationers he met in Africa: a Moroccan nobleman who had fought the French in Algeria and now labored as vizier to the Sultan of Zinder; a exceptional man in Bornu who had wandered from western Mali to northeast Iran, and from Morocco to the equatorial jungles of Africa; an previous, blind Fulani named Faki Sambo who had traveled the breadth of Africa and West Asia, studied Aristotle and Plato in Egypt, and reminisced to Barth concerning the splendors of Muslim Andalusia.1 It’s actually a disgrace that we can not hear their voices for ourselves.

Islam in Nigeria: The Nigerian Saint who Established a Caliphate
Market at Sokoto, early 1850s. Picture from Heinrich Barth’s “Travels and discoveries in North and Central Africa. From the journal of an expedition undertaken beneath the auspices of H.B.M.’s authorities, within the years 1849-1855″ (1859).

Northern Nigeria got here beneath colonial domination in 1903, when the British Empire invaded from its colony of Lagos and defeated the Caliphal armies on the Second Battle of Burmi. Though colonisation restricted the nation’s historic connections with different areas of the Muslim world, the system of oblique rule imposed by the British made the influence of colonialism on northern Nigeria comparatively mild, and the Islamic custom of the nation, its Maliki authorized college, its Qadiri and Tijani Sufi orders, and its emirs and Caliph, all stay on right now in continuity with practically a millennium of historical past.

Though dan Fodio’s Caliphate is well known as reviving Islam within the nation, the faith first got here throughout the Sahara and established deep roots in northern Nigeria centuries earlier than.

The Origins of Islam in Northern Nigeria

The northern, Hausa-speaking half of Nigeria lies within the area which stretches by half a dozen Muslim international locations, from the Atlantic to the Pink Sea, generally known as the Sahel (from the Arabic saḥl, which means ‘coast’). Relatively than contemplating the Sahara Desert as a barrier as it’s right now, divided by colonial-era borders, historic peoples and medieval Muslims thought of it not so completely different from the ocean–an area of journey and connection between its distant ‘coasts’.

Islam first got here to Nigeria throughout this sand-sea within the earliest many years of the Caliphate, when the Companion ‘Uqba ibn Nafi’ al-Fihri, one of many revered conquerors of the Maghreb, introduced beneath Muslim management key Sahara oases, all located on profitable commerce routes to the Sahel. Over succeeding centuries, Arab and Berber Muslims traded and settled alongside these desert trails, terminating on the kingdom of Kanem (current day northeast Nigeria and Chad), slowly changing the native inhabitants earlier than the Muslim Kanem-Bornu Sultanate was established in 1075.2

Since then, Bornu has been a centre of Islamic scholarship and tradition within the wider Sahel area. For instance, it was in Kanem-Bornu that the distinctive Burnawi model of Arabic calligraphy used throughout West Africa was developed.3 The nation additionally grew to become a base from which Islam unfold into Hausaland, as is recorded in native legends.

The Hausas’ nationwide origin story prefigures their later connections with the Muslim world: legend has it that in historic occasions, an exiled prince recognized by the title of his magnificent house metropolis, Baghdad (Bayajidda in Hausa) travelled throughout the desert to hunt his fortune. He got here first to Bornu, the place he married a princess, then moved on to the town of Daura in Hausaland, which was terrorised by a large serpent named Sarki (which means ‘king’ in Hausa) which lived in a nicely and prevented anybody from drawing water. Bayajidda decapitated the serpent, and as a reward was married to the Queen of Daura. Bayajidda’s seven sons with the princess and the queen grew to become the rulers of what are generally known as the Seven Hausa Cities, the core of Hausaland.

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The Hausa have been well-known within the medieval world for his or her textiles and dyes, exported throughout Eurasia, and to today indulge, women and men each, in advanced and colourful garments. On pageant days, corresponding to Eid ( Sallah in Hausa) or Mawlid al-Nabawi, parades of armed horsemen garbed in luxuriant flowing robes, turbans and translucent veils, movement by the cities of Hausaland to pay homage to their sarki.

Hausaland has for many of its historical past been a patchwork of rival city-states. Kano, Katsina, Daura, Zazzau; these small pagan kingdoms competed for affect and commerce routes, fielding giant armies drawn from the area’s dense inhabitants. The commerce networks of the Hausa kingdoms got here to attach them with Muslims in Kanem-Bornu, the Maghreb area, and the well-known empires of Mali to the West. From Mali got here the Wangara scholar-traders: Soninke Muslims spreading their faith in addition to their enterprise. Many of those settled in northern Nigeria, and to today the lineages of venerable Nigerian scholarly households could be traced again to Islamic centres in Mali, corresponding to Timbuktu and Kabara.4

The Islamization of Hausaland additionally got here immediately from North Africa within the fifteenth century, by Shaykh Muhammad al-Maghili, a Berber from Tlemcen. In his travels by the Songhai Empire of Mali, and the Hausa states of Nigeria, he propagated the Maliki college of Islamic regulation, and the Qadiri Sufi order. Upon his recommendation, King Muhammad Rumfa of Kano undertook widespread efforts to transform his topics to Islam, and construct a genuinely Islamic kingdom in Hausaland.

Thus Islam was established in northern Nigeria. Hausaland and Bornu grew to become new, pure extensions of the medieval Islamic world, engaged in a typical mental discourse, linked by commerce, and certain by ties of marriage and kinship. Traces of those connections linger right now: in Kano, the mass grave of Tunisian Sufis martyred in a sixteenth century pagan invasion; in Katsina, the 14th century Gobarau mosque-university staffed by students from Timbuktu and Bornu, instructing texts from the golden age of Islamic Spain;5 in Cairo, the place a college students’ hostel for Bornuese college students at al-Azhar was endowed by the Sultan of Bornu in 1258, and the place West African students got here to show by to the 18th century.6

This proud custom, treasured by Nigeria’s Muslims then and now, is what Shaykh dan Fodio sought to guard and lengthen within the nineteenth century. His imaginative and prescient of revival and reform was consciously impressed by the nice Muslims of his nation’s previous, and the instance of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, for whom no nearer mannequin exists within the hearts of Nigerian Muslims than dan Fodio himself.


1 Kemper, Steve, A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles by Islamic Africa, New York,
NY: W.W. Norton and Firm, 2012, 146, 196. 2 Muḥammad, Ibrāhīm, Al-Islām wa ’l-Ḥarakat al-ʿIlmiyya fī Imbiraṭuriya Kānim Burnū, first
printing, Kano, Nigeria: Dar al-Ummah, 2009, 49.
3 Kurfi, Mustapha Hashim, “Hausa Calligraphic and Ornamental Traditions of Northern Nigeria:
From the Sacred to the Social,” Islamic Africa 8, no. 1–2 (October 17, 2017): 13–42.
4 Kane, Ousmane Oumar, Past Timbuktu: An Mental Historical past of Muslim West Africa, first
printing, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard College Press, 2016, 67. 5 Lugga, Sani Abubakar, The Twin Universities, Katsina, Nigeria: Lugga Press, 2005, 31.
6 Kane, Ousmane Oumar, Past Timbuktu: An Mental Historical past of Muslim West Africa, first
printing. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard College Press, 2016, 44.


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