Dan Fodio, Usuman

views updated


DAN FODIO, USUMAN (ah 11681232, 1754/51817 ce), renowned Fulbe Islamic teacher and shaykh. Shehu (Hausa for shaykh ) Usuman dan Fodio was born in the Hausa kingdom of Gobir, in the north of the present-day state of Sokoto, Nigeria. He came of a line of Muslim scholars of the Fulbe clan Torodbe that had been established in the area since about 854/1450. They worked as scribes, teachers, and in other literate roles and contributed over several generations to the dissemination of Sunnī Islam among the inhabitants of Gobir. As a result, the Gobir royals were superficially won over to Islam. Nonetheless, authority in Gobir still rested on customary norms, not the Islamic sharīʿah, at the end of the eighteenth century ce. This caused mounting frustration among these Muslim literates and resulted in the emergence of an Islamic reform movement that reached its peak at that time. The Shehu Usuman became widely accepted in Gobir and neighboring kingdoms as its leader.

The Shehu Usuman spent his early manhood as a teacher and preacher of Islam in Gobir and the nearby kingdoms of Zamfara, Katsina, and Kebbi. He appears to have had no initial intention of pursuing reform by force, but the prolonged resistance of the Gobir chiefs and courtiers to demands for stricter adherence to Islam built up tension. After several violent incidents, organized warfare broke out between the Gobir forces and the Shehu's followers in 1219/1804. For the Muslim reformers this was jihād, war against unbelievers.

The campaigns in Gobir ended in 1223/1808, when the Gobir dynasty collapsed and was replaced by a polity organized along Islamic lines that the reformers described as a "caliphate" (Arab., khalīfah ). The Shehu remained its titular head until his death in 1232/1817, when he was succeeded by his son, Muhammadu Bello. Elsewhere in the Hausa kingdoms and even as far south as Yorubaland and the Nupe kingdom other jihāds, led by the Shehu's "flag bearers," or military commanders, continued until brought to a halt by the colonial occupations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Shehu was not only a war leader but also a scholar and poet in the classical Arabic tradition. Best known among his verse works is his panegyric to the prophet Muammad, Al-dālīyah (The Ode Rhyming in Dāl), that helped to spread the prophet's ūfī cult and was seminal to a genre of Hausa prophetic panegyric (Hau., madahu ) among the generations that followed him.

His Arabic prose works are numerous (see Last, 1967). Their main thrust is against all manifestations of indigenous, non-Islamic Hausa culturesong, music, ornate dress, architecture, social mores, and so onand an insistence that these be replaced by Islamic alternatives. His works also influenced his society, and posterity, by disseminating the ideas of the Qādirī order of ūfīs, to which he was deeply committed, especially as regards the cult of the awliyāʾ (Arab.; sg., walī, "one near" to Allāh). Indeed, the Shehu's own charisma stems largely from his reputation as a wali.

The immediate political consequences of the jihād were to overthrow the discrete Hausa principalities based on traditional, unwritten customary codes and to substitute the unified Islamic system of the caliphate governed by the revealed and written sharīʿah. More long-term cultural and religious consequences were to displace, to some extent, indigenous African notions about cosmology and replace them with the Islamic celestial architecture, to challenge African cyclical explanations of life and death with the finality of the Islamic doctrine of divine punishment and reward, and to enhance the status of Arabic literacy in Hausa society.

The Shehu is still a much revered personality among Hausa Muslims, having become something of a symbol of Hausa Muslim nationalism. However, the ūfī aspects of his teaching are now less emphasized than in the past, perhaps because the Wahhābī doctrine has become more influential in West Africa.


The bibliography on the Fulbe jihād is extensive, and the student is advised to consult lists in Murray Last's The Sokoto Caliphate (London, 1967). The following will also be found useful in the first instance: my edition and translation of Tazyīn al-waraqāt (Ibadan, 1963), an account of the Shehu's life and the jihād from the Muslim reformers' own viewpoint; my The Sword of Truth (New York, 1973), a study of the life and times of the Shehu based on the Arabic and Hausa sources; my The Development of Islam in West Africa, (New York, 1984), which places the Fulbe reform movement in the wider West African context; and Bayān wujūb al-hijrah ʿalā al-ʿibād, edited and translated by F. H. el-Masri (Khartoum and Oxford, 1978), the edited Arabic text and English translation of one of the Shehu's major works with an excellent critical introduction. There are also many articles in learned journals that deal with aspects of the Shehu's life and writings. These are conveniently listed in Hiskett (1973 and 1984) and Last (1967).

Mervyn Hiskett (1987)