The Nature And Character of Shaykh ʿAbd Allah b. Foduye

The Nature And Character of Shaykh ʿAbd Allah b. Foduye


Professor. A. A. Gwandu

Usmanu Dan Fodiyo University, Sokoto


Much has been said and written about Shaykh ʿAbd Allah b. Foduye both by his contemporaries and by later generations. A lot has been written about his scholarship and his military prowess, qualities which no-one can contest because they are as obvious and clear as the daylight.

Similarly there is a general consensus that Shaykh ʿAbd Allah was extremely pious  and God-fearing and had very strong, deep and unwavering faith. However, although this much was known about Shaykh ʿAbd Allah, no in-depth study known to me has been made about the whole nature and character of this icon of light.

I believe that the study of history is very important because, among other things, history tells you about people and events so that you can learn from the interplay of individuals and groups, people and environment, those elements that can help you in your current situation and environment. I believe that in times like ours we need to learn about the character of people like Shaykh ʿAbd Allah and try to emulate them. Our time in particular needs the likes of the character of Shaykh ʿAbd Allah because our present circumstances and environment are in many ways very similar to those under which Shaykh ʿAbd Allah lived. To be specific, our society today witnesses hypocrisy of the highest order, where-in even the most highly placed officials are generally known to be hypocritical in their utterances and actions, just as was the case during the time of Shaykh ʿAbd Allah. We are living witnesses to corruption of the highest order everywhere, including in the building of Churches and Mosques. We see the elites, who constitute a small proportion of the population, cornering most of the resources of the nation. We see venal and corrupt people parading themselves as Ulamii and Shuyukh. We see those who claim to be representatives of the people sucking such people dry. We see Muslims and Christians who would dedicate their lives to studying in various fields of human endeavour but who will not be willing to make a little time to learn even the most basic things regarding their religion. The last time such people would learn about religion may be when they would have taken Senior Secondary School Certificate examination or even before. The Muslims among them forget or may not even know the verse of the Holy Qur’an which explains the whole purpose and meaning of creation.

In our days the Muslims have even succeeded in the total and wholesale adoption of the modern Christian philosophy which confines the jurisdiction of God to matters relating to rituals only, believing that in all other matters – social, political and economic – God should have no say.

Indeed, as far as such modern Muslims are concerned, morality and ethical questions have no intrinsic value: the end justifies the means. If such people would only acknowledge that their brand of Islam was distorted and that they were ignorant of what Islam is all about. there would be some hope. Unfortunately, however, they would regard their own whims and caprices as the true and only correct Islam which they so clearly understand and which no-one else understands. They, therefore, have no apology to God or Man for what they do, nor do they have to beg God for forgiveness or try to learn the true Islam from its sources.

In a situation like the one described above, there is need to learn about the qualities and character of people like Shaykh ʿAbd Allah, and how such qualities helped not only their possessors but others in their communities as well.

Nature and Character of Shaykh ʿAbd Allah.

Shaykh ʿAbd Allah b. Foduye, described by Hiskett as physically “tall, fat and black”[1] is a rare gem in many respects. His most important quality and the one from which all the others sprang was his deep and unshakable faith in Allah and his complete, unalloyed and absolute submission and resignation to the will of Allah. This is his source of strength. Armed with faith and with submission to the will of Allah, Shaykh ʿAbd Allah tried to model the whole of his life on the teaching of Islam. He had the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) as a physical example to emulate and he did everything possible towards that end. It is no wonder, therefore, that the first serious poem he had composed was his takhmis (quintain) on the poem of Shaykh ʿUthman in praise of the Prophet (SAW) [2]. For Shaykh ʿAbd Allah a true Muslim must always be God-conscious and must have Prophet Muhammad as a model to emulate. This quality means that Shaykh ʿAbd Allah would direct his attention to the acquisition of learning, but whatever is learnt must be put into practice. This is the only way the individual, the group and the environment can interact and produce the desired objective of creation.

It follows from the above that Shaykh ʿAbd Allah would be expected to dedicate himself to study and learning – which he actually did until he became recognized throughout West Africa as one of the most learned scholars. Muhammad al-Bukhari described him thus:

… a Shaykh who has no equal in knowledge in these countries. I mean the Imam of his time, ʿAbd Allah’, who led the noble Shaykhs since he was a youth. Master of sciences, their servant and their follower; friend of piety,  learned, generous, perfect; …Wide sea of learning, …Firmly grounded in every branch of knowledge, deeply learned, rightly guided in everything he says. [3]

Shaykh ʿAbd Allah is a great authority in Tafsir, Hadith and Fiqh, having to his credit, two Tafsirs: Diyā’ a!-Ta’wil and Kifāyat Du’afā’ as-Sūdān, a work on Hadith Science: Sirāj Jamiʿ al-Bukhari and a number of works on fiqh.

After the acquisition of knowledge ʿAbd Allah did the next logical thing; he taught and wrote. As an author and a teacher he achieved quite a lot. Even in his youth, he participated in the preaching tours of Shaykh ʿUthman b. Foduye. He continued, throughout his life learning, teaching and writing at the same time. An idea about the number of his students can be gauged from the number of his as-hāb (companions) who, according to Salad b. ʿAbd al-Rahman numbered about 750.(4)It is assumed that all these were advanced students who came to him from different parts of West Africa and sat to learn at his feet.

Although one has no concrete evidence of Shaykh ʿAbd Allah having directly involved in teaching at primary level, yet one would assume quite reasonably, that he must have undertaken that at some stage in accordance with the general practice during his time. This assumption has some support in the fact that he showed a lot of understanding of the atmosphere in a primary school environment as depicted by his views on the handling of small children in the maktabah. Such detailed and precise discussion can only normally come from someone who has experienced the teaching himself.(5) While dealing with the issue of Shaykh ʿAbd Allah as a teacher, one would like to refer to his wonderful methodology of addressing his students according to their level of understanding and their standing in society.  This methodology was employed also in addressing audiences, readers and others. Examples of this can be seen in the way Shaykh ʿAbd Allah writes his books. Those of them meant for the ordinary people are written in a simple language and are all based on the Mālikī School of Law. Even within that School, only the views acceptable to the majority of the Mālikī scholars were adopted. The book Diyā’ ʿUlūm al-Dīn is an example of this sort of writing, so in Taqrib Darūri al-DIn. When writing for scholars and those in authority on the other hand, Shaykh ʿAbd Allah would include a lot of details such as differences of opinion of scholars from within the Maliki School of Law. He also at times brought in opinions from outside that School. An example of this is his Tafsir, Diyā’ al-Ta’wīl meant for advanced students, and his book on constitutional theory and the administration of the state Diyā’ al-Hukkam.

In such books Shaykh ʿAbd Allah would treat issues in some detail, providing various options to a given issue, hoping thereby that those for whom the book was written, who were supposed to be qualified to use it, would consider the various options and use the one most appropriate in their particular situation. Such scholars were learned enough not be confused by the various views and opinions expressed on one issue, unlike the ordinary readers. However, in order to ensure that justice is not miscarried with the resultant negative consequences, Shaykh ʿAbd Allah restricted the judges to the application of only the most well-known rulings (Mash-hur al-Mazhab) which must be drawn from the Mālikī School of Law. With this, uniformity is achieved and the danger of personal, selfish and capricious actions by the judges was curtailed.

Before we leave the subject of teaching, it is pertinent to point out that Shaykh ʿAbd Allah expected parents to bear responsibility for the education of their children. Under no circumstance should a parent dump his child in school in order to get rid of his nuisance and escape responsibility for providing for him or her. No-one should be condemned to begging, a practice ʿAbd Allah seriously criticized. Parents should cater for their children and pay for their children’s education. Teachers should, therefore, have no cause to send the children begging.(6)

Now apart from preaching, teaching and writing, Shaykh ʿAbd Allah as an admirer and emulator of the Prophet (SAW) turned his attention to the other qualities of the Prophet (SAW) among which is courage of conviction and action. Just as the Prophet (SAW) refused pressure from all quarters to give up his mission so did Shaykh ʿUthman and ʿAbd Allah. No amount of gifts from the Gobir kings could influence them.(7) They believed that worldly possessions are worth nothing compared to the reward they anticipated from Allah if they should remain steadfast in pursing their objectives. These objectives are expected to lead to the creation of a just, Allah – oriented society that lives in happiness here on Earth and in the Hereafter. However, this mission can only be fulfilled by following the teaching of Islam as expounded by the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW). These qualities of courage and steadfastness can also be seen when the Jama’ah (Community) of Shaykh ʿUthman b. Foduye, led by Shaykh ʿAbd Allah, resolved to offer oath of allegiance to Shaykh ʿUthman as the Amir al-Mu’minīn – a decisive factor which marked a watershed in the struggle of the Jihad leaders to create a conducive environment in which the Muslim Community could live and practice their religion unmolested.8)

Shaykh ʿAbd Allah’s courage is perhaps demonstrated best when he came out openly to disagree with some of the views expressed by his brother Shaykh ʿUthman, despite his high regard for the Shaykh and reverence with which he held him. While making public his disagreement with these views, however, he exhibited other important qualities he possessed. He was polite, courteous and respectable in the language he used and in the manner he expressed his disagreement. In all he did, he was guided by the general principle that people should act according to facts available to them, but should be prepared to accept the other point of view if and when evidence is made available to establish that view. (9)

Let us consider also the instance when Shaykh ʿUthman, basing his ruling on a fatwa given by Muhammad b. ʿAbd al-Karirn al-Maghīlī, ruled that any scholar or student or ordinary Muslim who offered assistance to non-Muslims should be considered as an unbeliever. Shaykh ʿAbd Allah said that Shaykh Uthman’s :

“generalization in anathematizing those who mingle the truth with bāṭil (untruth) is clear if (that charge) is established. This is because the truth (here) means Islam and the bāṭil means unbelief; and clearly anyone who mixes Islam with Kufr (unbelief) is surely an – unbeliever as earlier stated. However, his anathematization of those who assisted the unbelievers in their armies against the Muslim armies is not clear to me because the verse which al-Maghīlī quoted. (in support of his assertion) was revealed in respect of assistance given by the Muslims to unbelievers in furtherance of their unbelief in line with the normal practice of the hypocrites concerning whom the verse was revealed as the Mufassirun (Exegetes) have explained. Thus assisting them in unbelief is unbelief. However, he who assists them in sin cannot be regarded as an unbeliever so long as he does not regard that (sinful action) as permissible and lawful. The sending of armies against Muslims itself definitely does not constitute unbelief, but rather it is a sin, if it is not based on ta’wil (genuine interpretation allowing that). What more of merely assisting in that? And if an action itself does not constitute unbelief, how then can what it leads to constitute unbelief? As for Ibn ʿAbd al-Karim al-MaghīIī, he did not qualify the meaning of the word “nasr” (assistance). It should, therefore, be taken to mean assisting them in committing unbelief not in committing something sinful. This will bring (the ruling) in line with the views of Orthodox Muslims. May God protect him (al-Maghīlī) from making the taking up of arms against Muslims an act of unbelief. Were the Shaykh (Uthman) to delete his words “in their armies against the armies of the Muslims” it would have been better since we know, by necessity, that a Muslim does not become an unbeliever by fighting a fellow Muslim, what more of his just giving assistance (to unbelievers) in their fight against Muslims’?(10) 

I have decided to quote this whole passage in order to show clearly the attitude of Shaykh ʿAbd Allah to issues and individuals.

Here he is, faced by a very difficult situation. His revered brother, relying on a famous and worldly renowned scholar, al- Maghīlī, has given a ruling on an issue. Shaykh ʿAbd Allah, as a scholar, found it impossible to accept the position of these two respectable and learned scholars. He had one of two options to choose from: either to let things pass as they were, due to the high regard he had for the two personalities, or declare his position, reflecting his understanding and knowledge though it contradicts theirs. Shaykh ʿAbd Allah’s courage of conviction, reinforced by his piety, led him to opt for what he believed in. However, his humility and the respect he had for others manifested themselves in the way and manner he managed the differences of opinion. In the case of al Maghīlī, he gave him the benefit of doubt by arguing that his ruling that anyone, no matter who he is, “who gives assistance to anyone of the (unbelievers) becomes an unbeliever by the testimony of God the Vanquisher of all” he must have meant by “assistance” assisting non-Muslims in unbelief, which is in order and in line with the orthodox view.

He considered al-Maghīlī innocent of condemning, as unbelievers, Muslims who assisted non-Muslims in their armies. This is in line with Shaykh ʿAbd Allah’s principle of searching for an excuse to justify the action of every Muslim. In the case of the view of the Shaykh, however, he was unable to find an acceptable interpretation in line with his view, which he claimed was the view of the Orthodox Muslims. The only thing he could do in that case was, therefore, to suggest how, by removing a few words from the Shaykh’s statement, the rest of the passage could stand.

Similarly Shaykh ʿAbd Allah disagreed with the view expressed by al Maghīlī in his fatwa to the Sultan of Songhay, Askia Muhammad b. Abi Bakr where al-Maghīlī ruled that whenever Muslims voluntarily settled among Muhāribūn, (Muslim rebels) and were captured along with the rebels they should be considered as being part of them. Thus they should be killed and their property confiscated and their repentance should not be accepted. Shaykh ʿAbd Allah opined that this is not correct, because the property of Muslim rebels could not be confiscated when they are fought nor could their wives and children be enslaved since they still remained Muslims. However, as usual. he looked for a way out for al Maghīlī, by suggesting that he might have meant by Muhāribūn (rebels) the Mustaghraq al-Dhimmah (those whose property had earlier on been ruled to belong to the Bayt al-Mal (Muslim Treasury). He also suggested that perhaps by Muhāribūn (rebels) al-Maghīlī might have meant unbelievers at war with the Muslims (Harbiyyūn).(11)

So it is with Shaykh ʿAbd Allah. He would on all occasion say his mind and express his views, but at the same time try to find an excuse to explain the point of view of others. Sometimes also he tries to find an interpretation for the statement of others in order to reconcile it with what he regarded as the correct or acceptable view. In doing this, his politeness and respect for others are always manifested, while his courage to say his mind is not sacrificed.

The courage of Shaykh ʿAbd Allah and his bravery also manifest themselves on many occasions during his military campaigns. Take for instance the battle of Alkalawa in which he commanded the Jihad forces. ʿAbd Allah was struck by an arrow during the first of the three assaults the Jihadists made on the fortress. Before they could prepare for the next assault they learnt that the Touareg were raiding their families. Having made straight for home they, along with Shaykh ʿUthman and the whole family and the rest of the Community left for Tsuntsuwa. The Gobir forces and their Touareg allies now made a surprise attack on the Community at Tsuntsuwa and gave them a crashing defeat in which many notable personalities were killed. Now Shaykh ʿAbd Allah, who was not able to rise up on account of the arrow wound which he suffered earlier at the battle of Alkalawa, rose up lame, confronted the fleeing Jihad soldiers and was able, with a lot of difficulty to rally some of them whom he led in pursuit of the enemy. They eventually met the army who were busy killing and taking booty. He formed those who followed him into ranks and fought and defeated the enemy.(12)

Again when Shaykh Uthman decided to move to Sifawa from Gwandu, the need arose for Muslims in the Western fringes of the Caliphate to be assured that the move did not mean that they would be abandoned to the mercy of the unbelievers in that part of the country. Shaykh ʿUthman, therefore, equipped a small army under the command ofShaykh ʿAbd Allah to pacify the area and give confidence to the Muslim community there. Shaykh ʿAbd Allah, a highly dedicated man, accepted the challenge and was able to get only a few people to join him in this campaign because most people decided to move to Sifawa with the Shaykh in order to acquire houses and virgin land for farming. Despite the small number of his troops, Shaykh ʿAbd Allah moved on until he reached River Niger where he joined some Muslim soldiers from Jarma. Here he had an injury from a horse kick and for five days when the army was crossing the river he could not stand up. But the brave and courageous ʿAbd Allah was able to conceal this from his companions until they had reached the country of Jawaru in Qurma from the northern side, beyond the river and conquered the area.(13)

Next to courage and bravery Shaykh ʿAbd Allah was humane, magnanimous and forgiving when occasion demanded that. For instance, when he commanded the army which conquered the fortress of De’be in Gurma country beyond the Niger all the people there were captured, but Shaykh ʿAbd Allah was so magnanimous and forgiving that he set them all free and sent them away to the countries of Islam.(14)

Again when the forces commanded by Shaykh ʿAbd Allah made a surprise crossing of the Niger and sacked the island of Fas after destroying their crops, the enemy who had taken refuge in the various fortresses around all came to him for submission. ʿAbd Allah accepted their submission and allowed all of them not only to go free but also to remain in their fortresses.(15)

Referring to this, he said in one of his poems:

Turwa and Komba saw destruction and sought refuge with God And Islam, for fear of misfortune. They were saved, after destruction had seized their throats by the copious rain of forgiveness which came after despair.(16)

A similar act of magnanimity, tolerance and even compromise by Shaykh ʿAbd Allah can be seen in his acceptance of the submission of the rebel Fodi, a former king of Kebbi led a revolt against the Jihadists shortly after the sack of Kalambaina. Shaykh ʿAbd Allah, apart from accepting the submission made on behalf of Fodi, a~reed to appoint the latter’s son, Jibrin as Sarkin Kebbi after Fodis’ death.(17)

We have said above that Shaykh ʿAbd Allah could be humane, magnanimous and forgiving when occasion demanded that. We must add, however, that when occasion so demanded he could be ruthless as his attack on Fas demonstrate where his people not only killed and captured the enemy but destroyed all their crops. (18)

Listen to him again saying about some of the people they fought in Gurma country as recorded in one of his poems:

A victory for us through our spears and our arrows and our swords in their bellies, and in their heads. Their children and their women were taken prisoner, and their men were slain with the axe. After the spreading of our carpet on their crops, and after our horsemen had shattered their shields. (19)

Shaykh ʿAbd Allah had consistently throughout his life supported the rule of law and condemned tyranny, injustice and oppression. To check that he ruled that a ruler must make himself easily accessible every day so that he would hear complaints, if any, from the strong and the weak members of the community against oppression or injustices from his officials.(20)

He also saw tyranny oppression and injustice as some of the basic things which distinguish mulk (Kingship) from Khilāfah (Caliphate).(21) He also said that if a ruler oppresses his people “whims will slaughter him by cutting veins of taqwa (God – consciousness).(22) He identified some acts of oppression from which a ruler must keep away. There include punishment by imposing fines in the form of cash or in kind for offences such as adultery and theft whose punishment has nothing to do with fines. They also include illegal taxes and surcharges on the subjects properties.(23) Shaykh ʿAbd Allah’s prowess as a great military leader needs no emphasizing. He was’ a tactician of the first order and used his military skill and expertise to great advantage as we have seen at Kwotto and during the attack on the island of Fas along the Niger river.(24)  Before the battle of Kwotto, Shaykh ‘Abel Allah at first spent three days waiting for Gobir forces until the 4th day when he was convinced that the enemy was faint-hearted and afraid of advancing on their with the knowledge, the Jihadist forces morale must have risen very high and consequently they moved towards the enemy full of confidence. However when they learnt that the enemy had moved towards Kwotto, Shaykh ʿAbd Allah hurried with the few people whom he could muster and met them near the lake of Kwotto. And experienced on skilful tactician, Shaykh ʿAbd Allah ordered his people to ensure that they secured the water source and cut off the Gobir forces from it. They Jihadist forces, with these advantages were able to dislodge and send fleeing the Gobir forces who were twice their number. (25)

One may venture to say at this juncture that Shaykh ʿAbd Allah must have used military intelligence to find out the psychological readiness of the Gobir forces before the battle. It is not unlikely that the four days he and his army had been waiting for the Gobir forces had been used to gather intelligence because, as Shaykh ʿAbd Allah has shown in his Diya alHukkan, the use of spies to gather military intelligence is very important in war as is the imperative of never under rating or under estimating the capability and resources of the enemy. He states:

Know that military tactics require that you do not under rate the enemy, and that you dispatch spies or military intelligence officers (to spy on the enemy). It also requires the choice of brave and courageous soldiers; and none but a brave courageous person should be appointed to lead an army, a person who is experienced in war, and in managing men.(26)

In Fas, Shaykh ʿAbd Allah made use of one of the most important elements in fighting the enemy – the element of surprise. His people made a surprise crossing of the Niger river and fell upon the unsuspecting enemy and thus easily won victory. In connection with this incident Shaykh ʿAbd Allah has this to say in one of his poems:

‘They (the inhabitants of the island of Fas) thought that the river would prevent our army from crossing; The devil with his suggestions deceived Them! They saw multitudes to their right and to their left To east and west, and it was a steadfast army”.(27)

Celebrating this success Shaykh ʿAbd Allah Said:

Then we came back home, hoping For reward with which the sadness of penury would cease. No arrow touched us, nor spear, no sword; We were like those who return from marriage feasts!(28)

Shaykh ʿAbd Allah was an ascetic of repute. Throughout his life he allowed the virtues of asceticism taught by Islam to guide his actions and behaviour. He was always un-easy in the face of temmporal ambitions and the affairs of the world. Thus in the fourth year of the hijrah of the Jama’ah to Gudu Shaykh ʿAbd Allah left the army on its way to fight Alkalawa. He was so disappointed with the way and manner his contemporaries had abandoned the ideals of Jihad in favour of the pursuit of material gains like wealth power, political authority and influence that he decided to abandon his country and people and travel to the Holy land of Arabia where he hoped to stay permanently near the Prophet (SAW).(29) This asceticism is reflected in the number of works written by Shaykh ʿAbd Allah on the subject, and in references made to it in other works.

ʿAbd Allah, who led the noble Shaykhs since he was a youth. Master of sciences, their servant and their follower; friend of piety, learned, generous, perfect. Landmark of right guidance, joy of the time; its pillar, gentle, kindly towards mankind, a mighty chieftain. Strong in his religion, humble, awe-inspiring, pious, trustworthy, sweet as honey. Famous Qur’an scholar, foremost in the science if Prophet tradition, and rhetoric, one on whom others rely.(30)


Shaykh ʿAbd Allah, as we have seen, is a man of very strong faith. His faith is so strong that many people would not appreciate why he acted the way he did on many occasions. Because of his deeply rooted and strong faith he committed the totality of his life to the service of Allah. While doing this, he would not mind whose ox is gored. He rejected all forms of worldly interests if they were not lawful. To him wealth and happiness lie in contentment. Leadership is worth having and authority worth exercising only if the exercise is seen as service to Islam and humanity. This may explain why after the battle of Kalambaina, Shaykh ʿAbd Allah, without rancour, formally stepped down in favour of Sultan Ballo. Shaykh ʿAbd Allah would not be the type to bring about dissension and division among the Jama’ah. That is why it is difficult to believe the claim made by Shaykh Ahmad Labbo of Masina that Shaykh ʿAbd Allah claimed to be the legitimate heir to Shaykh ʿUthman. Certainly no one who understands the nature and character of Shaykh ʿAbd Allah would ever expect him to take such a drastic negative action.

Shaykh ʿAbd Allah tried to model his life on that of the Prophet (SAW). Many incidents in his life can be compared to similar ones in the life of the Prophet (SAW). In fact, Shaykh ʿAbd Allah so much imitated the life of the Prophet (SAW) that he saw in many things that happened a reflection of what happened in the life time of the Prophet (SAW). For instance, the battle of Tabkin Kwotto brought to his mind vivid memory of the battle of Badr. It is interesting to note that after the conquest of Makkah the Prophet (SAW) forgave the inhabitants of the city for all the injustices meted out to him and his followers earlier. Similarly Shaykh ʿAbd Allah set free the inhabitants of Fas after he had got all of them under his control and mercy.

As someone modeling his life on that of the holy Prophet (SAW) Shaykh ʿAbd Allah possessed virtually all the good virtues one could think of.

If our society of today can learn the virtues and adopt the character of Shaykh ʿAbd Allah, most of its ills would be cured. Security, peace, and tranquility will prevail, everywhere. Justice will be dispensed without fear or favour, love and understanding will guide mutual relations and honesty, integrity and rule of law will be the order of the day. If we succeed in emulating his character our nation will be as safe and secure as the Sakkwato Caliphate was during the 1820’s when Clapperton described it as follows:

The laws of the Qur’an were in his (Sultan Ballo’s) time so strictly put in force — that the whole country when not in a state of war, was so well-regulated that it is a common saying that a woman might travel with a casket of gold upon her head from one end of the Fellata dominions to the other. (31)


1. ʿAbd Allah b. Foduye, Tazyyīn al-Waraqāt (T.\V) (edt. M. Hiskett)

(Ibadan, 1963), p. 21.

2. Ibid, pp. 26, 84 – 85.

3. Ibid. p. 23,

4. Sa’ad b. ʿAbd al-Rahman, Tartīb al-Ashāb.

5. See ʿAbdAllah b. Foduye, Lubāb al-Madkhal. pp. 59 -83 for details

6. Ibid, pp. 67 – 69.

7. T W pp. 30, 88 – 89

8. Ibid, pp. 55, 108.

9. ʿAbd Allah b. Foduye, Diyā’ al-Sultān (O.Su) in Majmuʿ al-Diyā’āt

(published by Alhaji Dan-Ige, Tsamiyar Yaro) (Cairo, n.d), p. 189.

10. Ibid, p. 198.

11. Ibid, p. 191.

12. T.W, pp. 61 – 62, 114.

13. Ibid, pp. 78 – 79, ]27 – 128.

14. Ibid, pp. 75,125.

15. Ibid, pp. 75, 125

16. Ibid, pp. 77, 125

17. Ibid,p.21.

18. Ibid, pp. 75, 77, 125, 126.

19. Ibid, pp. 76, 126.

20. ʿAbd Allah b. Foduye, Diyā’ al-Umarā’, in Majmuʿ al-Diyā’āt p.222.

21. ʿAbd Allah b. Foduye, Diye’ al-Hukkam, in Majmuʿ al-Diyā’āt p.245.

22. Ibid, p. 247.

23. Ibid, p. 251.

24. T. W, pp. 56 – 57,109 -110, 75 – 77, ]25 – 126.

25. Ibid, pp. 56 – 57 – 109 -110.

26. D.H., p. 273.

27. T. W, pp. 77, 126.

28. Ibid, pp. 78, 127.

29. Ibid, pp. 70 – 72, 120 -122.

30. Ibid, p. 23.

31. Clapperton, Narrative of Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa in the years 1822, 1823 and 1824, (Dixon Henjam, Hugh Clapperton, Dr. Oudney, second edn. (London, 1826), p. 206.

The Role of Scholars on the Jihad Leaders of the Sokoto Caliphate

The Role of Scholars on the Jihad Leaders of the Sokoto Caliphate

By S.S.Muhammad

Department of Political Science – Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto


Allah, the exalted, has ordained to send forth, to the ummah, at the end of every century, a scholar who would revive the religion for her. Such a scholar would take upon himself the duty of enjoining the good and forbidden the evil. He would call for the regulation of the affairs of the people and the establishment of justice amongst them. He would support the truth against falsehood, revive the Sunnah, suppress innovation, and denounce bad customs.

As a result of his activities, his conditions will be different from those of the Ulama of his age and he will find himself a stranger amongst them, because his qualities are different from their own and men like him are few … 1

In conformity with the above hadith, Shehu Uthman b. Fodio undertook a jihad, which transformed the early 19th century Hausa land and saw the establishment of the Sakkwato caliphate. The Sakata jihad of the early 19th century was preceded by important intellectual as well as political and social developments and might even be argued that the intellectual pre-history of the revolution has been crucial to the course it has taken.

This paper basically examines the role of scholars on the jihad leaders of 1804 in Hausa land. These include Shaikh Uthman b. Muhammad b. Fodio (1754-1817) his brother Abdullahi b. Muhammad b. Fodio (1776-1828) and Shaikh Uthman’s son Muhammad Bello. The paper also examines the role of scholars in shaping the kind of polity that came to be established, the Sakata Caliphate. It first shows the link between scholarship and revolution, the different scholars that influenced the Jihadists of the caliphate as well as the pattern of such influences and concludes the study by pointing the way forward.

Scholarship as foundation of Change:

There are consensuses among scholars, classical or contemporary about the interconnectedness of scholarship and change in societies. Particular scholastic traditions culminate into the establishment of particular kinds of societies based on certain recognized principles. The jihad leaders were very clear on this. According to Muhammad Bello, one of the key architects of the caliphate, everything has a foundation and the foundation of this caliphate is knowledge. The Shehu himself has clearly captured the place of scholarship. He wrote:

A man without learning is like a country without inhabitants. The finest (qualities) in a ruler, in particular and of people in general are the love of learning, the desire to listen to it and holding the bearers of knowledge in great respect-this is the surest way for a ruler to be loved by his subjects. On the other hand, if the king is devoid of learning, he follows his whims and lead his people astray, like a riding beast with no halter, wandering off the path and perhaps spoiling what it passes over.  2

The Shehu has also asserted in his Kitāb al-Farq that acquisition of knowledge by study and the teaching of that knowledge is one of the objectives of Muslims in their government. The very serious concern with scholarship by the Sakata triumvirate is in recognition of its place in the progress and development of humankind and the societies in which they live in. The Shehu, Abdullah and Muhammad Bello thus become preoccupied with the acquisition of knowledge such that they have together over 300 scholarly works to their credit. These were written at different times, including in battle fronts and dealt with a variety of subjects from jurisprudence, political theory, economics, history, tafsir, to virtually every field of human endeavour. They were so concerned with learning and scholarship such that this becomes the most pronounced and lasting tradition the caliphate came to be associated with. The Sokoto caliphate was thus clearly a product of learning, a product of decades of preaching and enlightenment campaigns aimed clearly at establishment of a just socio-economic and political entity.

Role of Scholars on the Jihad Leaders

Of the many factors and forces that shaped the thought of the jihad leaders, that of the scholars is the most important. All the jihadists were greatly influenced by a number of prominent scholars that are contemporary with them. They have testified to this in a number of their works through the expression of opinions and the experiences of scholars before them from the prophetic era through the first four caliphs of Islam, through the Abbasid and the North African scholars to those of the Bilād as-Sudāan.

One of the greatest influences exercised upon the jihad leaders is that by scholars contemporary to the jihadists. The Shehu, Abdullah and Bello have testified to this in the numerous works they authored. Abdullahi has listed vast number of scholars as some of his teachers in Idā an-Nusukh. Ten of those are related to him by blood. But of greater prominence of the scholars mentioned was Shaikh Jibril b. Umar who was both Shehu’s and Abdullah’s teacher and significantly noted for his radical views in matters of Islam as it applied to society. He was in fact viewed to have engineered the Sakkwato revolution. So significant were his contribution that the Shehu stated thus, “I wonder whether we would have been guided to the right path, had it not been for the Sheikh for the destruction of customs contrary to Islam in our Sudanese country was initiated by him and it was completed by us”. Similarly, Abdullah composed several poems of eulogy for Jibril in his Tazyin, which show his reverence for him.

Through these scholars, the jihad leaders studied the Qur’an and its Tafsir (exegesis), Tawhid (the science of the unity of Allah), Fiqh, (Jurisprudence), and Hadith (the traditions of the prophet) and a variety of other branches of scholarship. They thus became men of very deep learning. It is this breadth and depth of learning possessed by the Sakkwato Mujahidun that greatly prepared the intellectual phase of the Sakkwato jihad. But there are other set of scholars whose philosophy and practise the jihadists worked to counter. Abdullahi described them as those who:

…Neglect their prayers and obey, in procuring pleasures their own souls. And the majority of them have traded their faith for the world, preferring what they desire; their minds are full of temptations. They are bold in eating forbidding food, they eat like beasts … they do not listen to commands and they disobey their Imam, and they ridicule anyone who stands and who stands and forbids they from evil… 3

The Shehu in his Tanbīh Al lkwān also noted that:

one of the habits of many scholars of the Bilād as-Sudān is that they leave their wives, daughters and slaves neglected like a grazing livestock without teaching them what Allah makes obligatory on them; they consider them like a container which they use; when it breaks they throw it in dung and rubbish pieces. 4

Muslim Scholars and the Jihadist

The works of several scholars who were not their contemporaries profoundly influenced the jihad leaders. It has been viewed that:

The triumvirate, their supporters have consistently stressed the link between them and the preceding generations of Islamic scholars. In their works on constitutional matters, for instance, they frequently quoted or referred to the works of Ibn AI-Arabi Ibn. Jama’a, AI-Suyuti, al-Gazzali, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Arafa and al-Maghili. Thus Shehu, Abdullahi and Bello drew their inspiration from a remarkable and enduring academic tradition… 5

AI-Mawardi, the Abbasid political theorist, to begin with, is one such scholar whom Abdullahi referred to in his works, particularly in DiyaalHukkam. AI-Mawardi argued that religion and politics are not separate as far as Islam is concerned. He also viewed the institution of the imamate is a necessary requirement of the shariah and not of reason. The imamate, to al-Mawardi, is established to replace prophecy in the defence of the faith and the administration of the world. Consequently, he discusses the means of instituting the imamate-and the qualifications required of an Imam as well as those who are empowered to elect him.

Now, there is close correlation between Abdullah’s ideas with those of AI-Mawardi as outlined above. Murray last confirmed this when he noted that Abdullahi follows the arguments made familiar by AI-Mawardi in his AI-Aḥkām as-Sultaniyyah. 6

AI-Ghazzali, a prominent Muslim political thinker, is also one of the important personalities who have greatly influenced the thought of the jihadists. His Kitab al-Halal wal Haram, which is a part of his famous work, Ihyā Ulumuddīn , was one of Abdullahi’s main sources in delineating what is permissible and what is not in an Islamic state. The jihadists views on the need of calling a corrupt and unjust regime to order is also logically connected to AI-Gazzali’s view, as discussed in his “Min hunā Na alam“. His view too that religion and politics cannot be separated has also been expressed by Abdullahi in his Diya -al-Siyasat. AI-Maghili was one such scholar to have exercised tremendous influence on the Sakata jihadists, It has stated that by Abdullah Smith:

All the leaders of the Sakkwato Jihad great attention to the writings of Muhammad b. Abdal Karīm al-Maghīlī who seems to have exerted an important and lasting influence on learned Muslim opinion in this region, particularly on potitics. 7

AI-Maghili (d. 1503/04), a Muslim jurist noted for his scholarship, held great revolutionary ideas on a wide range of issues of religion, society and leadership. Many of those were expressed in his public teachings and the scholarly works he authored, many of which were in circulation in North and West Africa since the 16th century. The radical nature of his ideas was partly instrumental in his falling apart with many ulama of his period and his subsequent leaving for the Bilad-al-Sudan.

AI-Maghili’s ideas however found a fertile ground in the Bilād as-Sudān. In Kano, he was warmly accepted by the then Amir of Kanø, Muhammad Rumfa (1493-1499). It was here that al-Maghili wrote his famous Tajuddīn Fī Mā Yajib alā al-Mulk (On the Obligation of Princes). The work is a constitutional treatise that laid down details of administration, court procedures, defence and foreign policy. In brief, its main focus is on how best a state could be administered. The jihadists drew a lot from this scholar. A study of Abdullahi’s Oiya aI-Sultan will reveal that it consisted of a summary of four works. The first two works belong to al Maghili and they were those written respectively for Muhammad Rumfa of Kano and Askia of Songhai. The other two works were Shehu Uthman’s. In addition, the entire section dealing with the question of the Imamate and the duties of the Supreme Imam’ contained in Abdullahi’s Diyā al-Hukkām 8 is based on the views of AI-Maghili. Abdullahi himself stated at the end of that section, “know that all I mention in this section is an extract from a book written by Muhammad b. Abdalkarim al Tilmi Sani”. The book referred to here is the Tajuddin fi rna yajib ala al-Muluk. Mentioned earlier while the name was al-Maghili’s full name. It is also to be noted that Shehu’s Siraj al-Ikhwan adopted some of the views of AI Maghili as contained particularly in his al-Ajwiba.

The jihadists also made significant references to al-Nafarawai, Ibn Arabi, as-Suyūti and Ibn Farhum. They all have discussed in varying details the nature of the Imamate institution, its role as well as the supportive institutions like Wazir, Qadi, Muhtasib and the like. Abdullahi, following al-Nafarawi’s held “It is unanimously disallowed to have more than one Imam at a time in one country unless the two places are far from each other such that the jurisdiction of one of them cannot reach the place of the other.9 In the case of Ibn AI-Arabi, Abdullahi relied on him in his Diyā-al-Hukkām in enumerating the essential offices that make up the state. As-Suyuti’s ideas have similarly found their way into the jihad leaders. Suyuti’s work on the caliphate of the four rightly guided Caliphs entitled Tārīkh al-Khulafā was the main work on which Abdullahi based his Diyā al-Muqtadīn lil Khulafā al Rashīdūn. As-Suyuti is also severally quoted in Abdu’lahi’s Diyā al-Hukkām, Diya as-Siyasat and Sabilu-s-Salamah fil Imamah. It is thus not surprising that Zahradeen noted that a figure of the jihad, Abdullahi derived his constitutional ideas from the Kitab al Ahkām of Ibn AI-Arabi, the Tārīkh al-Khulafā of al-Suyuti and the Tabsīrat al-Hukkām of Ibn Farhum since quotations from these works are numerous.

It is now apparent that the scholars discussed to this point and many others, have through their various works aided in various degrees in the shaping of the Sokoto Mujahidun’s thought. Their scholarship and the inspiration they drew from both classical scholars and those contemporary to them as well as their extensive travel to spread that knowledge had the singular effect of preparing the intellectual phase of their revolution.

Although the Jihadists borrowed extensively from constitutional theorists such as al Mawardi, AI-Gazzali, AI-Maghīlī, Ibn Farhun and others yet, they were not mere imitators. Far from that, the jihadists sifted their writing, simplified them and made them applicable to the environment they lived in. In other words, their originality lies in the fact that they studied the teachings of the predecessors, sifted. and simplified them and above all made those ideas the living ideology of the Sakkwato Jihad movement.

The Effect of the Influences on the Bases, Nature and Outcome of the Jihad

The impact of the scholars on the jihadist could be seen on the bases, nature and outcome of the jihad. The first of these is to be seen on the jihadist philosophy and the bases of the jihad. They embarked on the jihad mainly for the sake of Islam. Schoiars of the jihad have agreed on the establishment of a state system based on the principles of Islam is what the jihadists strived for. Nowhere does any member of the triumvirate indicate that they were fighting a ‘national war’ for the domination of one ethnic group over the other. Nor were they fighting for material motives as some writers have tried to portray. They were preoccupied with creating of Dar al-Islam and a system of government that will facilitate the realisation of Islam.

In Abdullah’s poem, the purpose of their campaigns were more succinctly stated:

We went for the sake of Allah; we hoped for His reward and the raising up of Islam so that all should benefit. And he whose aim is wealth or the demonstration of his courage or the assuaging of his anger, has not waged holy war,’ that is the true judgment. 10

Abdullahi who further stated in his Tazyin al-waraqat reinforced the above:

then we rose up with the Shaikh, helping him in his mission work for the religion. He travelled for that purpose to the East and West, calling the people to the religion of Allah by his preaching and his qasidas (pamplets) in other languages and destroying customs contrary to Islamic law.11

Their travels covers Zamfara, Kebbi territories, Gulma, Daura and across the present day River Niger where they taught and preached in local languages, mainly Hausa and Fulfulde to facilitate understanding. Another impact is to be seen in the kind of state they established as well as the values to govern its conduct. Different set of values informed the new polity. These, according to Tukur include justice, impartiality, consuItation/advice, kindness/flexibility, abstinence/moderation/asceticism, truth/integrity/probity etc.12 Tukur concludes, “That under the Shehu and Bello, at least public business was conducted within the framework of the accepted value system in tune with the ideals which inspired the revolution and created a noble political order” in which unity, welfare, and primacy of public interest” occupied the center.

As individuals, the jihadists come to personify high moral values, gentleness, forgiveness, humbleness, generosity, self satisfaction, keeping good company with relations, honesty and fulfillment of promise were some of the virtues that were zealously nurtured by the jihadists.

They were traits which nurtured the revolutionary furvour of the caliphate that was established, a state based on justice and devoid of corruption, favouritism, nepotism and sectionalism. Their intellectualism was clearly translated into reality.

The influence of scholars and political thinkers could also be clearly seen in the jihadist conception of the nature and essence of the state. All the jihadists have agreed that a state has both spiritual and temporal roles. According to late Professor Abdullah Smith, this involves raising the moral tone of society and providing a societal ideology in accordance with Islamic ideas …. General education reform … to be accomplished by then training of teachers, economic reform to be brought about by the improvement of markets, the development of communications (by opening roads and bridges) transactions of the government (and undertaking) all good works. 13

The role is also captured in the Diyā al Waliyat and the first few pages of Diyā al-Umara of Abdullahi when he wrote:

The state should look to their citizens’ education in matters of their religion in principle and detail, the performance of prayers in all its details, all matters relating to fasting, the pilgrimage and all the obligations connected with it … the state should similarly look at the institution of marriage and all that is connected with it, their commercial transactions and such matters, the affairs of their markets and all that is necessary relating to them, the maintenance of their roads, the protection of their water supplies, the maintenance of their graves,’ the affairs of their treasury …No person is made a ruler over the people to become their master; (Rather) he is to serve their religious and temporal interests. 14

In the words of Bello, it is also the duty of a ruler to commission craftsmen and provide for people in various occupations which are necessary for mankind such as farmers, blacksmith, tailors, dyers, physicians, drapers, butchers, carpenters and all the professions which are the basis of life in this world. He should set them up in every town and locality. At the same time he should make the people busy themselves with the production and storing of food, settle the urban and rural areas … He should seek to achieve everything conducive to their general welfare that the proper order of life in this world may be restored. Encouragement of all virtuous acts, the protection of the poor and the weak, etc. At the end, the jihadists were able to establish the largest and most organised polity in Africa south of the sahara, a state based on the – ideals of justice and equity and the realisation of the interests of the people.


The jihadists were greatly influenced by the different scholars with whom they have studied and associated with. From them they learnt and eventually mastered different fields of scholarship. The Shehu was himself nicknamed Fodio for his great learning and piety. The writings of great Muslim jurist and thinkers such as al-Mawardi, ai-Mag hili, Ibn alArabi, as-Suyuti to mention but a few, have exerted great influence on the thought of the jihadists. They left an indelible mark on them and remained for them a source of inspiration. This is as evidenced by their frequent quotations from their works.

However, far from being mere initiators, the jihadists never succumb to the views and opinions of others without question except they are clearly grounded in law. Although they made references to the preceding generations of scholars, their originality lies in the fact that he sifted, selected and simplified their works and made them the living ideology of the Sakkwato jihad movement. The jihadists were quite aware that the scholars they quoted wrote taking into consideration the problems and circumstances of their times. They must have therefore addressed themselves to those problems. It is thus the case that the jihadists did not unduly idealize the works and ideas of the scholars that influenced them.

End Notes

1. Uthman b. Fodiyo, Ifhām al-Munkirīn, cited in Bugaje U., The Sakkwato Model: A Study of origin, Development and Fruition of the jihad of Uthman b. Fodiyo 1754-1817‘ (paper presented at International Islamic Conference, Bayero University, Kano, 16th– 22nd April, 1980).

2. Uthman 8. Fodiyo, Bayan wujūb al Hijrah Cited in Bugaje, Usman, The Caliphate in Modern Nigeria: Ending It. Mending It. or Reinventing It, Text of a public lecture organised to commemorate the 18t anniversary of the installation of the 19th sultan of Sokoto, Alh. Muhammadu Maccido, April 21, 1997, p.9

3. Cited in Ayegere. P.O. The Life and Works of Abdullahi b. Fudi. Unpublished Ph. D Thesis, University of Ibadan, 1974

4 Uthman b Fodiyo, Tanbīh al-Ikhwān

5 Mahmud Tukur, Philosophy. Goals and institutions of the Sokoto Caliphal Administration: A Preliminary Review in Nigerian Administration Research Project. 1972, pp.16-17

6 Murray, Last. The Sokoto Caliphate

7 Smith, Abdullahi A Neglected Theme in West African History, 1961

8 Abdullahi b. Fodiyo, Diyā aI Hukkām

9 Ibid

10 Ibid

11 Abdullahi b, Fodiyo. Tazyīn al-Waraqāt. p.85

12 Tukur, Mahmud, Values and Public Affairs, Ph. D theses, ABU.

Zaria. pp59-62

13 Smith, opt.cit.

14 Abdullahi b. Fodiyo. Diyā al- Umara

%d bloggers like this: