Fodio, Usuman Dan

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Usuman Dan Fodio

BORN: December 15, 1754 • Maratta, Gobir

DIED: April 20, 1817 • Sokoto, Gobir

Gobirian religious leader; writer

Usuman Dan Fodio was a political and Islamic religious leader during the early nineteenth century in the African city-state of Gobir, in modern-day Nigeria. He was a member of the Fulani people. The Fulani are light-skinned herders and nomads, or people who have no fixed homes and move according to the seasons in search of food, water, and grazing lands for their animals. Usuman Dan Fodio led a jihad, or holy war, against the state of Gobir. Gobir was part of an empire controlled by the rivals of the Fulani, the Hausa, a dark-skinned ethnic group native to the region. Usuman Dan Fodio sought to reform the religious practices of the Hausa kings and was joined by an army of Fulani who were tired of being considered second-class citizens. After winning the battle against the Hausa, Usuman Dan Fodio established a caliphate, or Islamic state, that eventually covered 200,000 square miles, making it the largest state in Africa. His empire lasted for a century, from 1804 to 1904, when it was conquered by the British. Usuman Dan Fodio was also a respected Muslim scholar who wrote more than one hundred works that influenced the intellectual, political, and religious development of West Africa.

"A kingdom can endure with unbelief, but cannot endure with injustice."

Growth of a religious leader

Usuman (also spelled Usman or Uthman) Dan Fodio was born on December 15, 1754, in the small village of Maratta. The village was located in the ancient kingdom of Gobir, one of seven city-states that were collectively called Hausaland. Hausaland was located in the center of northwestern Africa, just south of the Sahara Desert, and its origins dated back to the eleventh century. The six other city-states in Hausaland were Daura, Biram, Kano, Katsina, Rano, and Zaria. By the late fourteenth century the region was introduced to the religion of Islam, whose followers are known as Muslims. The new religion did not become popular in Hausaland, however, until the middle of the fifteenth century, when the Fulani began immigrating into the region. They came in large numbers to escape the increasingly dry conditions to the north. The Fulani herded cattle that depended on vegetation for food, so the lack of rain had a strong impact on their livelihood. The Fulani were very faithful Muslims, and they brought along texts in order to set up Islamic schools throughout the region.

Usuman Dan Fodio was part of the educated Fulani class, as his ancestors had left the nomadic life and settled in urban areas many years before his birth. His father, Muhammad Fodio, was a religious scholar and imam, or Muslim spiritual leader, in the village. As a youth, Usuman Dan Fodio moved with his family southward to the town of Degel. There he studied the Islamic holy book, the Qurʾan, with his father. Usuman Dan Fodio's special spiritual abilities were evident from an early age. For example, the residents of Degel even thought he could control the jinn (from which the word genie is derived), supernatural beings that can change shape and influence the affairs of humans.

He was sent to Islamic scholars in the region to continue his education. One of these scholars, Jibril ibn ʾUmar, initiated him into the Sufi order, a mystical branch of Islam whose followers seek to directly experience God, known as Allah in the Islam religion. Usuman Dan Fodio also learned from Jibril ibn ʾUmar the responsibility of a religion to establish the ideal society, one free from oppression and vice, or immoral behavior.

Usuman Dan Fodio completed his education in about 1774, and began to teach and preach in his native Gobir and in the far northwest of what is modern-day Nigeria. He led a simple life of study and contemplation, or deep and concentrated thinking, as he wandered and preached about the renewal of the Islamic faith. To support himself, he occasionally made and sold rope.

At the age of thirty-six, Usuman Dan Fodio had his first mystical experience: Allah allowed him to truly see the world as it is. He felt he had power over distant objects, that he could actually reach out and grab something far away. His sense of smell, hearing, and touch all increased. He became aware of every muscle and bone in his body. Four years later, Allah supposedly gave him the Sword of Truth, with which he was to fight the enemies of Islam. Usuman Dan Fodio's fame as a scholar and a man of Allah spread throughout the region and he attracted many followers. His main aides were his son, Muhammad Bello, and his brother, Abdullahi. People began calling Usuman Dan Fodio shehu, or shaykh, a title of respect for a teacher and scholar in the Sufi tradition. Though he generally made a point of not interacting with the kings of the region, he did visit the court of Gobir, where he was able to win favors. These included the freedom to teach and spread the word of Islam and to establish a Muslim community in his hometown of Degel. Historians also believe that while at court Usuman Dan Fodio taught a youth named Yunfa, who later became king.

Religious leader to political leader

Usuman Dan Fodio created a theocracy in Degel, just as Muhammad (c. 570–632; see entry), the founder of Islam, had done in Medina (a city in modern-day Saudi Arabia). A theocracy is a government subject to religious authority. The community slowly became a state within Gobir, ruled by its own laws and offices. Usuman Dan Fodio used the Islamic principles of equality and justice for the benefit of all, and this attracted many followers from his own Fulani people and also from the Hausa peasantry, or poor farmers. These peasants felt they were being unfairly taxed by the king of Gobir and were happy to shift their loyalty to Usuman Dan Fodio. In time, the king of Gobir grew alarmed at the expansion of Usuman Dan Fodio's community, and he began to see it as a threat to his own rule.

When Yunfa became king of Gobir 1802, he sought to destroy the community in Degel. The final break between the new king and Usuman Dan Fodio came when Usuman Dan Fodio's followers freed some Muslims who had been taken prisoner by government forces. Usuman Dan Fodio and Degel were then directly threatened by the king's forces. These hostilities caused Usuman Dan Fodio to lead his supporters to a new home in Gudu, a small town about thirty miles to the northwest, on the border of Gobir. Usuman Dan Fodio compared this migration to that of Muhammad and his followers when they left their native Mecca in 622 to escape oppression.

Once the community was settled in Gudu, Usuman Dan Fodio was elected imam and his rule of the new Islamic state was established. He was also given the title amirul momineen, or "leader of the people." This made him both a religious and a political leader and gave him the authority to wage a jihad, just as Muhammad had done more than one thousand years earlier. Usuman Dan Fodio gathered an army from among the Hausa and the local Fulani nomads, who were excellent horsemen. Yunfa, in Gobir, sought help from other Hausa states, telling them that Usuman Dan Fodio's jihad was a danger to them all. Indeed, such a war had the potential to topple all of the region's rulers. The Hausa governments often acted dishonestly and unfairly towards the poorer citizens, who were becoming more and more resentful of such treatment.

For the next five years, Usuman Dan Fodio's troops fought those of Yunfa in what was know as the Fulani War (1804–09). Dan Fodio himself did not participate in the battles, although he directed the military campaign while organizing his new caliphate. The word "caliphate" comes from the term khalifatu ar-rasul, or "deputy of the messenger." The "messenger" in this case is Muhammad, the messenger of Allah. In English, the title for the ruler of a caliphate is "caliph." After Muhammad died in 632, the leaders of Islam who came after him took this title. Usuman Dan Fodio established his caliphate to resemble that of Muhammad, imitating the political structure of that original Islamic state.

At first, things went badly for Usuman Dan Fodio's army. In December 1804 they were defeated in the first major encounter with Yunfa's forces, the battle of Tsuntua, and Usuman Dan Fodio lost two thousand of his best fighters. In 1805, however, Usuman Dan Fodio's troops captured the major regions of Kebbi and Gwandu, which gave his soldiers a permanent base. Slowly, his army gained additional support from the peasants throughout the region. Usuman Dan Fodio wrote widely about his jihad, noting that the king of Gobir had attacked him, a faithful Muslim, first. He labeled the king an unbeliever and claimed it was the duty of all true Muslims to pursue the jihad against Yunfa and anyone who aided him.

As the war proceeded, Usuman Dan Fodio continued to structure his new Islamic state. He listed its principles in one of his most famous works, Bayan Wujub al-Hijra (Exposition of Obligation of Emigration upon the Servants of God). He explained that the central bureaucracy, or the ruling officials, of his caliphate would be small in number and would be loyal and honest Muslims. Local administration would be in the hands of emirs, or governors. These would be chosen from among the class of Muslim scholars noted for their sense of justice and honesty and for their religious belief. As his state began to take shape, Muslim leaders in other Hausa states began to formally recognize the authority of Usuman Dan Fodio.

The caliphate

In 1808 Usuman Dan Fodio's men finally overran the king's forces in the Gobir capital, Alkalawa. Yunfa was killed in the fighting. After Gobir was defeated, the Fulani warriors moved against other Hausa states. Eventually they had captured all of the land from modern-day Burkina Faso in the west to the nation of Cameroon in the south. The Fulani troops were blocked from advancing to the far south, as the cavalry was not effective in the more heavily wooded areas of southern Nigeria. The horses sickened and died from diseases carried by mosquitoes. Usuman Dan Fodio divided the rule of the immense empire between his two most loyal generals and aides. His brother, Abdullahi, was installed in the west, at Gwandu, while Muhammad Bello established his capital at Sokoto. This city soon became the center of the Fulani Empire, which was also known as the Sokoto caliphate.

The rule of Usuman Dan Fodio and his followers began a period of prosperity in the region. Government was centralized, roads were built, and trade routes were secured by troops. Education was provided for all, even women, who had formerly been denied this opportunity. The empire was particularly noted for its educational methods and teachings. Usuman Dan Fodio, Abdullahi, and Muhammad Bello were respected as writers and scholars, and all were authors of poetry and texts on religion. Soon, scholars from throughout the Islamic world came to the court at Sokoto. Arabic and local languages, including Hausa, were used in writing the laws and literature of the state, and these documents were made available to the common people so that they could know their rights. The power of the African tribal chiefs was broken under the rule of Usuman Dan Fodio, who replaced that traditional system with the laws of Islam.

The Mahdi

Usuman Dan Fodio believed he had been chosen by Allah to bring about the renewal of Islam in order to prepare for the coming of the Mahdi, which translates to "he who is guided aright." Muslims believe the Mahdi is the expected messiah, or divine spiritual and political ruler, who will appear on Earth and establish a reign of righteousness over the world. They believe that this rule will last for one thousand years, until the Day of Judgment (the end of the world), when believers in Allah will go to paradise, the Islamic heaven.

Many men throughout Islamic history have claimed to be the Mahdi. One of the best-known was Muhammad Ahmad (1844–1885), a Muslim leader in the region then known as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, in northeastern Africa. After declaring himself the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad raised an army to fight the Egyptian occupiers of his land. He captured the city of Khartoum and for a time established Islamic rule. Though Muhammad Ahmad was killed in 1885, his army continued to fight for the movement. The British finally defeated these Islamic soldiers in 1898.

The Mahdi remained a powerful idea within Islam in the early twenty-first century. Dozens of books have been printed on the topic, many of them since the 1980s. As recently as 2003, the Muslim religious leader Moqtada al-Sadr, while fighting U.S. forces in Baghdad, Iraq, called his followers the Mahdi Army.

As time passed, the reasons for the jihad were forgotten by many. Usuman Dan Fodio slowly withdrew into private life, leaving the day-to-day matters of ruling in the hands of his son and brother. Around 1812 he built a home in Sifawa, a town near Sokoto, where he lived simply and gathered several hundred students around him. Two years before his death in 1817, he moved to Sokoto, still preaching reform and criticizing the new bureaucracy for its tendency to oppress the common people, just as the former kings of the Hausa states had done. Usuman Dan Fodio died in Sokoto at the age of sixty-two.

Usuman Dan Fodio's legacy continued after his death. His jihad inspired similar Muslim movements in neighboring states such as Bornu and Massina, where other caliphates were later formed. He strengthened the Islamic faith throughout the region with the example of his Fulani Empire and his writings in Arabic and Fulani. These writings dealt with topics ranging from Islamic law to the establishment of just, or fair, societies.

The Sokoto caliphate lost some of its religious purity after Usuman Dan Fodio's death, and scholarship declined after his son, Muhammad Bello died in 1837. The empire remained an economic success throughout the nineteenth century, however. Additionally, although the British conquered the empire in the early twentieth century, they ultimately had to leave Usuman Dan Fodio's administrative system in place in order to rule the region's fifteen million people efficiently. After Nigeria gained independence in 1960, the caliph of Sokoto continued to influence political decisions. In 2004 the Sokoto caliphate, by then a religious confederation (a group united for a common purpose) rather than a political empire, celebrated its two-hundredth anniversary.

For More Information


Balogun, Ismail A. B. The Life and Works of Uthman dan Fodio: The Muslim Reformer of West Africa Lagos, Nigeria: Islamic Publications Bureau, 1975.

Hiskett, Mervyn. The Sword of Truth: The Life and Times of Shehu Usman dan Fodio. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1994.

Johnston, Hugh Anthony Stephens. The Fulani Empire of Sokoto. London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Last, Murray. The Sokoto Caliphate. London, UK: Harlow, Longmans, 1967.

Murray, Jocelyn, and Sean Sheehan. Africa: Cultural Atlas for Young People. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2003.


"Key Episodes in Nigerian History: The 19th Century: Usman Dan Fodio." (accessed on June 2, 2006).

"Peoples." Motherland Nigeria. (accessed on June 2, 2006).

Philips, Anza. "A Caliphate with Multiple Legacies." Newswatch. (accessed on June 2, 2006).

"Usman dan Fodio and the Sokoto Caliphate." Country Studies: Nigeria. (accessed on June 2, 2006).

"West African Kingdoms: Hausa States." The Story of Africa. (accessed on June 2, 2006).