Religious Education in Nigeria – A Case Study

Religious Education in Nigeria – A Case Study

by B. Aisha Lemu

Islamic Educational Trust, Nigeria

The presentation gives a brief overview of religious education in Nigerian public schools as it relates to the concerns of the seminar. Emphasis is on Islamic Education.

Historical Background:

National curricula for religious education do not spring from nowhere. They evolve over time as a reflection of the needs, perceptions and historical development for the societies concerned. Nigeria is a country with a population believed to be over 120 million, of various ethnic groups. Religion often coincides with the ethnic group, but not always. Basically most Hausa-Fulanis in the north are Muslims, and most Ibos in the south-west are Christians. However, Yorubas in the south-west are both Muslims and Christians with Muslims slightly in the majority and there is a fair amount of inter-marriage. Exact census figures are hard to come by, but it would be safe to say that Muslims are over 50% of the population, the remainder being Christians and followers of African traditional religions.

Islam first entered West Africa through trans-Saharan Trade in the 9th/10th century. It spread among the rulers and the urban population and then gradually into the rural areas. Scholars established Qur’anic schools and for many centuries up to the colonial period, Islamic schooling was the formal educational system in Northern Nigeria. The north was solidly Muslim apart from pockets of African traditional religion in the remote or mountainous areas. With better transport and communications during the colonial period. Islam also spread faster in the south, particularly into Yorubaland down to Lagos and the sea.

The pattern of education in the south and the north has been different. Christian missionaries were allowed by the British colonial power to set up mission schools in the south from the early days, and Government schools also were generally Christian-oriented. Any Muslim student in these schools would be forced to study Bible Knowledge and in most cases attend church. Conversion was frequently a condition for admission. No teachers were provided for Islamic Studies. Muslim parents had a difficult choice – to allow their children to get a modern education at the risk of losing their faith, or to keep their faith and to lose the opportunity to rise high in Government or the modern administrative system. This gave rise to the establishment of private Islamic schools for Muslims in the southwest. However, their medium of instruction was usually Arabic, so their products were equally unable to join the mainstream of higher education unless they went to Arab countries for further studies. For these reasons the Christian missionaries and their students in the southwest went far ahead of the Muslims in western education, and tended to look down on the Muslims as backward. There was, and in some cases, still is, serious abuse of their educational and religious rights and marginalization of Muslims in national development.

In the north, the situation was different. The British here came face to face with the Northern Emirates – the legacy of the Sokoto Caliphate established by the great religious reformer Sheikh Uthman Dan Fodio in the late 18th/early 19th centuries. After subduing the northern region by military conquest the British established good relations with the Emirs and their people, and adopted Indirect Rule through the Emirs. Change in education came slowly with the gradual establishment of a few modern Government schools and Teachers Colleges for boys and later for girls. In order to make these schools acceptable to the people, Islamic Studies were taught with a farily traditional syllabus. The teachers were almost always the product of the traditional Qur’anic schools and the syllabus emphasized memorization of the Qur’an and Hadith, Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence), the articles of faith and basic moral education.

For a long time Christian missionaries in the north confined their educational and evangelical activities in the remote, rural and predominantly pagan areas to avoid confrontation with the Emirs. The British even set up the old Sharia Law School in Kano for the training of Shari’ah Court Judges and Islamic teachers as early as 1933. Some of its graduates were subsequently given scholarships to study Arabic, Islamic Studies and Islamic Law at the University of London in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

I was privileged to teach at the Law School in Kano under its new name, School for Arabic Studies in the 1960’s after Independence and later to be the Principal of Government Girls College in Sokoto for 8 years in the 1960’s and 1970’s – one of the earliest girls’ secondary schools in the North.

By that time, missionaries had been free for some years to evangelize all over the north, but their converts were mainly among the pagan tribes on the plateau and other remote areas. My college which drew students from all over the north usually had a sprinkling of Christian girls, perhaps three or four per class. While the Government trained and provided Islamic Studies teachers, the missionaries used to send in their own teachers so that the classes divided for Islamic and Christian Religious Knowledge lessons. The school provided the books for both classes. Christian girls were taken to church on Sundays and there were no religious tensions unless the Christian girls insulted Islam, which happened only rarely.

As far as Muslims were concerned, Islam was the religion. Christians were regarded to have deviated from the truth, but as “People of the Book” their right to learn and practice their religion was recognized and there were generally peaceful relations with them in spite of the political stresses following the murder of the Muslim Prime Minister and the Muslim Premier of the Northern Region by Ibo and other southern Christian officers in the 1966 coup. These northern Muslim leaders had been very tolerant towards Christian missionaries from the late 40’s and thereafter, and even encouraged them to open schools for which they were given Government grants in aid.

In later years more and more Christian denominations piled in and in addition to the older churches – Catholic, Anglican etc. based overseas, numerous Nigerian based evangelical churches in due course began to spring up. Any member of a flock who fancied that he had prophetic or charismatic qualities would form a breakaway church of his own (from which he would derive substantial financial benefits).

This is why if you enter the town where I live you will see the approach road through the suburbs is fringed by hundreds of signboards directing people to these churches with titles like “Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries” and others offering hope and temporary escape from the harsh realities of life. Most of their religious services consist of singing, dancing, clapping, speaking in tongues and generally disturbing people in neighboring houses. Therefore when we picture Christianity in Nigeria we have to take into account these thousands of autonomous breakaway churches as well as the older denominations.

It is well known that Nigeria has periodic religious riots, but it is worth mentioning that these are not usually prompted by religious differences as such, but more by ethnic historical and political rivalries or grievances in which religious difference is a secondary issue. Even apparently religious issues such as the extension of Shari’ah into criminal cases only led to violence in areas where there were already ethnic/political problems. Otherwise Nigerian Muslims and Christians are quite used to living side by side as neighbors in peace and cooperation as long as they do not insult or throw scorn on one another’s sanctities. Even in the midst of recent violence in Kaduna, some Muslim and Christian neighbors protected one another from the rioters.

It is against this background that we turn to the syllabus for the teaching of religion in Nigerian Schools.

The Syllabi for Religious Education:

Syllabi for Islamic and Christian Religious Knowledge were drawn up by State and Federal Ministries of Education since the 1950’s. These syllabi prepared students for the subject in the West African School Certificate Examinations. The subjects were very popular.

In the case of Islamic Religious Knowledge there were no textbooks in English until about 1968 – 1970. The teachers, who were mostly traditional mallams (scholars) who passed through Arabic Teachers Colleges would use Arabic books, from which they would translate to the students.

With the production of books in English written to the syllabus, Islamic Religious Knowledge became much easier to teach. The Government-run post-secondary Advanced Teachers Colleges and Colleges of Education ran three year courses in Islamic Studies (as well as Christian Religious Knowledge) and the subject became widely available in the universities. Gradually the Arabic speaking Mallams were replaced at secondary level by English-speaking young teachers who were products of the mainstream educational system.

Around 1984 Nigeria changed to the 6-3-3-4 system (6 years primary, 3 years junior secondary, 3 years senior secondary and 4 + years university) and at the same time all syllabi were reviewed by subject panels set up by the Nigerian Educational Research Council, affiliated with the Ministry of Education.

I happened to be a member of the panel for Islamic Studies (as it was re-named). We were given a completely free hand to draw up new syllabi for schools, together with detailed lesson formats. Whereas previous syllabi had been quite traditional, we took as our guiding framework the question “what should a young Muslim know about Islam in order to live as a Muslim when he leaves school, on the assumption that he will not thereafter receive any more Islamic education?”

We therefore gave much more time to issues such as the rights of women in Islam, the rights and duties of the husband and wife, and to the moral teachings of Islam. We gave less time to the historical details of battles and dynasties and more to the civilizational values of Islam, as well as its impact on West Africa.

The way of teaching Islam and Christianity in Nigeria is expected to be confessional, that is, students are taught how to practice their religion as well as being taught about their religion. Muslim students are therefore expected to memorize portions of the Qur’an and Hadith and their meanings, to know how to perform the duties of prayer, fasting, zakat and hajj, to evaluate the evidence for the authenticity of the Qur’an and so on, as well as learning essential historical information.

The syllabus covers 3 sections as follows:

1.         Hidayah (Guidance)

            Sectioni A:      The Qur’an

            Section B:        The Hadith

            Section C:        Tahdhib (Moral Education)

2.         Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence)

            Section A:       Tawhid (Belief)

            Section B:       Ibadah (Worship)

Section C: Mu’amalat (Human Transactions) This includes Shariah, Marriage, Divorce, Custody of Children, Inheritance etc.

3.         Tarikh (Historical Development of Islam)

Section A: Sirah (The Life of the Prophet Muhammad) plus the leadership of the 4 Righteous Caliphs

Section B: The Spread of Islam to Western Africa

 Section C: Contributions of Muslims to World Civilization

With regard to the relationship between Islam and other religions, or between Muslims and non-Muslims, these are not treated as a separate topic. However, under Tawhid (literally the Oneness of God) the matter of unity, trinity or multiplicity of God/gods is taught. The rights of “the People of the Book” to retain and practice their religions within an Islamic polity is also covered.

Under the section on the Prophet’s Da‘wah in Makkah (i.e. conveying the message of Islam to non-Muslims) emphasis is placed on the Islamic injunction: “Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching and argue with them in ways that are best…” (Qur’an 16:125)

Under the section on Da‘wah in Madinah the emphasis is given to the practice of peaceful da‘wah, “no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256), friendly relations with Christians in Ethiopia and with the Christian delegation from Najran, and the Qur’anic instruction not to insult the idol-worshippers or abuse their objects of worship. The section also covers the political rather than religious reasons for the breakdown of relations with the Jews of Madinah. The conditions under which the Qur’an allowed the Muslims to defend themselves against the Makkan idol-worshippers are explained, with the Qur’anic warnings against committing aggression and the directive to revert to peace if the enemy inclines to it (Qur’an 8:61 – 62).

Jihad is also allocated a section where its basic meaning is shown to be striving or struggling with one’s own self, or for social justice, or any righteous cause, or under certain conditions, an armed struggle or just war.

The syllabus also covers Islam and culture. It emphasizes respect and acceptance of the admirable aspects of pre-Islamic cultures (whether Arab, African, Asian, Western etc.) and rejection or reform of those aspects of pre-Islamic or modern culture which conflict with Islamic values.

This covers what may be regarded as an outline and highlights of the Nigerian National Syllabus in Islamic Studies at secondary level. The Christian Religious Knowledge syllabus likewise covers mainly doctrines and moral teachings, with a little on the early spread of Christianity.

Could these Syllabi go further in Promoting Tolerance?

I would say that they could, but with caution because of realities on the ground. It would be useful to have a component on Christianity in the Islamic Studies syllabus and a component of Islam in the Christian Religious Knowledge syllabus. However in the light of the rather low standard of teacher training and declining standards of education generally in Nigeria, as well as existing tension between Muslims and Christians, one must beware of opening a can of worms. If the teachers themselves are staunch Muslims or Christians, would they really be ready and able to explain the other religion objectively? Or would they take it as an opportunity to say why you should not be a Muslim or Christian? If on the other hand one were to invite a Christian teacher to tell the Muslim students what is Christianity, or a Muslim teacher to tell Christian students what is Islam, there would likely be an uproar from parents and religious bodies complaining about proseletisation in schools.

We already have this problem in some Government schools of mixed Muslims and Christians where some Christian teachers of “secular” subjects take time during the lesson to preach Christianity to all, and where some evangelical students particularly in boarding schools target individual young Muslim students and exert pressure on them to convert. This leads to a lot of ill-feeling and occasionally to riots which could even spread on occasion to the outside community. There are also parallel cases of Christian students converting to Islam, but there is no doubt that there is a lot more active evangelization by Christian staff and students than active Da‘wah by Muslim staff and students. The Government has therefore been very cautious in this area and has put the teaching of religious tolerance within the syllabus of Social Studies rather than within the religious syllabi. (It may be noted that under Nigerian Educational Law it is not permitted for a school child to change his/her religion without permission from the parents. However this is difficult to enforce, especially in boarding schools where the parents can not monitor what goes on. If a minor does convert, whether to Islam or Christianity it is quite common for the parents to cast him or her off, and refuse to continue paying schools fees or even paying for the maintenance of the young person.)

Private Schools

However these limitations of the National Syllabus do not stop private schools from doing what they see fit to promote a broadening of religious understanding and peaceful co-existence. In New Horizons College, Minna, run by the Islamic Education Trust with which I work, we have addressed this issue through a new subject which we have called “Islamic Perspectives”. This subject is designed to help students who are often confused by their exposure to the modern media as well as to some local traditional cultural influences. The objective is that they should be able to think as Muslims and view the modern world from an Islamic perspective, accepting what is good and leaving what is harmful.

Towards this objective we use books that present an Islamic perspective on life and on scientific knowledge and discoveries, and video cassettes on the history of civilization and religious belief, on the environment and on natural history (usually from BBC/ITV television series) that form the basis of discussion. One of the books studied has a chapter “Face to Faith” on relations with other religions.

In addition, all senior students do a course over two years called “Da‘wah and Dialogue for Peaceful Co-existence”. In the context of Nigeria this means peaceful co-existence with Christians. Students learn what is the Bible and how it was compiled, basic Christian beliefs and the early history of Christianity. They also learn how to treat other people’s beliefs with respect even if they disagree, and to discuss religion objectively without giving offence. The aim is not to convert but to develop a better mutual understanding. The students also learn how to discuss popular misconceptions about Islam held by some Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

However, it must be stressed that these approaches are being tested in a private Islamic School. It would not be easy to transfer them into Government secular schools as they do not have the funds or the ability to buy imported books and video cassettes from Europe, nor do they have resource persons of the right caliber and broad education to teach them. Moreover it is most doubtful that Federal or State Ministries of Education would recognize a non-formal subject that is not a part of the School Certificate Examination syllabus.

It may also be mentioned that, generally speaking, Muslim students know more about Christianity than Christian students know about Islam. This is because Muslims are taught to respect and revere all the Prophets from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to Jesus to Muhammad (peace be on them all). They are accepted as true messengers of Allah and role models. Muslim students are also aware of areas of difference between Christianity and Islam in respect of Christian beliefs in Trinity, divinity or divine sonship of Jesus, original sin, vicarious atonement and on. There are also numerous Christian programmes on television sponsored by the churches which are also seen by Muslims. This knowledge does not flow both ways however. For example in the South-Eastern part of the country where Muslims are very few, the Christians know very little about Islam, which is seen as a Hausa religion that has nothing in common with Christiantiy.

 Would Changing the Syllabus Help?

In the mid 1980’s a group of agnostic humanists in some of the southern universities tried to replace Islamic and Christian Religious Knowledge with a syllabus called “Moral Education”, detached from religion so that Muslims and Christians could be taught in the same classes. This however raised the question of who would determine what was “moral” or “immoral” and what would be the religion or belief of the teacher of the subject. Both Muslim and Christian organizations protested against it on the grounds that religion is the source and ultimate sanction of moral values in this world and on the Day of Judgment. They advised the agnostics that if they wanted they wanted their syllabus for the small minority of unbelievers they could campaign for it, but that the vast majority of Nigerians are believing Christians and Muslims who want morality to be embedded in the context and teachings of religion. The Government accepted this position.

Religion is a very emotive issue in Nigeria and whatever change may be considered to make the teaching of religion in schools promote religious harmony, it must be done with sensitivity and in full consultation with all the stakeholders, otherwise it may backfire.

The teaching of the current syllabi in Government schools is in no way a part of the problem of religious friction. On the contrary, they help, in however small a way, to enlighten Christians and Muslims about the true teachings of their own respective religions and thereby protect them from false information. Religious friction is generated by adult chauvinists and bigots on both sides who are generally not a part of the school system. The children involved are mostly street children and other unemployed youth who probably never went to school or dropped out.

While there are ways to build bridges to foster tolerance and pluralism through schools, there is also a great need for a serious campaign among adults through effective use of the media by respected and responsible religious figures. There is growing resistance to UN-sponsored programs being fed into the educational system without due consideration of existing moral and cultural beliefs. In recent months it has been a Sexuality Education syllabus introducing children to various sexual practices and deviations. Details were reported in the press which caused uproar among parents and religious bodies and suspicion of who is really in charge of our educational system. Whatever is to be done in respect of religious plurality must be handled with the utmost care and consultation in order to promote mutual understanding, which cannot be achieved by fiat or force.

Published in: on August 7, 2012 at 20:22  Leave a Comment  

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

Journey to the Empire of Knowledge – Narrated By Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick

The Education of Usman Dan Fodio: Chapter 2 of The African Caliphate

24598b22-715c-4624-9665-1506c41f0b04.jpg The Education of Usman Dan Fodio 

Chapter 2: The African Caliphate 

By Dr. Ibrahim Sulaiman

Shehu Usman was born into a highly cultured family in 1168/1754. His father was Muhammad ibn Salih, known generally as Fodio. His mother was Hawwa bint Muhammad ibn Usman. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Degel, where the young Usman grew up. In the Timbuktu tradition, the parents were invariably the first teachers and Shehu Usman received most of his education from his parents and relatives.

Our main sources concerning his education are Idaa’ an-Nusuukh  and Tazyiin al-Waraqaat of ʿAbdullahi Dan Fodio and Asaaniid al-Faqiir  of Shehu Usman Dan Fodio. In Idaa’ an-Nusuukh, ʿAbdullahi described his early education:

“The Shaykh read the Qur’an with his father, learned al-Ishriniyyah and similar works with his Shaykh, ʿUthman, known as Biddu al-Kabawi. He learned syntax, and the science of grammar from al-Khulaasah and other works, from our Shaykh Abd ar-Rahman ibn Hammada. He read al-Mukhtasar with our paternal and maternal uncle, Uthmaan, known as Bidduri.… This shaykh of his was learned and pious, well known for righteousness and the ordering of the right and the forbidding of the wrong, and for being occupied with what concerned him. He it is whom our Shaykh Uthmaan (Dan Fodio) imitated in states and in deeds. He accompanied him for nearly two years, molding himself according to his pattern in piety (taqwaa) and in ordering the right, and forbidding the wrong.”

Thus, the Shehu’s character was initially molded by Usman Bidduri. His inclination towards the career which eventually turned out to be the sole purpose in his life, and his keenness to call people to the way of Allah, were instilled in him by this shaykh. His influence on Shehu Usman was fundamental, enduring and far-reaching. Associated with this influence was that of Muhammad Sambo, who supervised part of Shehu’s early teachings. According to ʿAbdullahi, this scholar ‘used to attend (Shehu’s) reading of al-Mukhtasar – if he made a mistake, or let anything slip, this maternal uncle of ours would correct it for him’. Though he was away in the Hijaaz during most of the period of Shehu’s early activities his influence on the whole community was beyond question.

Continuing his account of the Shehu’s education, ʿAbdullahi wrote:

“Now Shaykh Uthmaan informed me that he had learned Qur’anic exegesis (tafsiir) from the son of our maternal and paternal uncle Aḥmad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Amin, and that he was present at the assembly of Haashim az-Zamfari (i.e. from the Hausa state of Zamfara) and heard from him Qur’anic exegesis from the beginning of the Qur’an to the end of it… He learned the science of tradition (hadiith) from our maternal and paternal uncle, al-Hajj Muhammad ibn Raj... reading with him all of Ṣaḥiiḥ of al-Bukhaari. Then he gave us license to pass on all that he had recited of that which he had learned from his Shaykh al-Madani, the Sindi of origin, Abu Al-Hassan ʿAli.”

Muhammad ibn Raj’s knowledge of ḥadiith was indeed profound. He had studied each of the most important works of ḥadiith from an uninterrupted chain of authorities such as the Imams al-Bukhaari, Muslim and Maalik. The other of note was Salih Muhammad al-Kanawi, through whom Shehu Usman also traced his isnaads in Bukhaari, Muwaṭṭa and ash-Shifaa’.

ʿAbdullahi told us further in Idaa’ an-Nusuukh that the Shehu sought knowledge from Shaykh Jibril, and he accompanied him for almost a year until they came to the town of Agades. Jibril ibn ʿUmar’s influence was both intellectual and moral. In ḥadiith, for example, the Shehu traced his isnaad in all the essential ḥadiith works, notably Bukhaari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, Muwaṭṭa and Ibn Majah. Jibril was his most important authority in fiqh (or science of law) and most significantly in the various aspects of taṣawwuf (spiritual training). His silsilah (spiritual genealogy) in this sphere of life and especially in the Qaadiriyyah order, and his silsilah in Dalaa’il al-Khairaat, are all traced, in Asaaniid al-Faqiir, through Jibril. There seemed to be no aspect of learning which the Shehu undertook in which Jibril ibn ʿUmar did not leave his indelible imprint.

The real significance of Jibril ibn ʿUmar is that he gave the Shehu the idea of tajdiid, the foundations of which he himself laid. He gave his student the intellectual, moral, spiritual and ideological training he needed for the gigantic work of tajdiid. Jibril later was the first to pledge allegiance to Shehu, even before the jihad. Despite certain differences of opinion the Shehu acknowledged his profound indebtedness to Jibril, which ʿAbdullahi quoted in Idaa’ an-Nusuukh: “If there be said of me that which is said of good report, then I am but a wave of the waves of Jibril.”

Influence, though of an indirect nature, was exerted on the Shehu by Sidi Mukhtar al-Kunti, who was born in 1142/1729 and died in 1226/l811, and was thus a direct contemporary of the Shehu. Sidi Mukhtar belonged to a highly venerated Kunta family which over thirty years had produced an uninterrupted chain of scholars and saints, the most influential being Sidi Mukhtar al-Kunti. Knowledgeable and charismatic, he soon became a veritable institution himself.

According to Abdal-Aziz Batran, Sidi al-Mukhtar attracted multitudes of students, people who sought his barakah and guidance, and scholars seeking enlightenment. He assumed the leadership not only of the Kunta family, but more significantly, of the Qaadiriyyah order, giving unity to branches that had been estranged for nearly two hundred years. Thereafter, he initiated an ambitious and, indeed, successful though peaceful, moral transformation of a large part of Africa.

Sidi Mukhtar taught that the study of taṣawwuf was essential as it was imperative for self-fortification and for achieving nearness to Allah. This nearness itself involves a progressive moral transformation of the individual under the guidance of a shaykh. He also taught that zuhd means giving as much attention to the mundane aspects of life as to the spiritual; wealth, therefore, was essential as it is the cornerstone for jaah, social standing and dignity, as well as for haibah, authority and respect. He wished for a return to the basic sources of Islamic jurisprudence, and for the teachings of the Companions (Allah be pleased with them) of Muhammad to be reinstated. Moreover, he rejected exclusive adherence to one madh-hab and opened the door of ijtihaad to all who were juristically qualified.

Sidi al-Mukhtar believed that he was the mujaddid of the thirteenth century of the Hijrah whom Allah had called upon to renovate Islam and to restore the ummah to its glorious past not only in West Africa, but throughout the whole Muslim world… Like Aḥmad Baba before him, he expressed the opinion that several mujaddidun appeared periodically in different territories, including West Africa.”

We shall now look at some of the principal ideas of Sidi Mukhtar, namely his ideas on tajdiid, the ʿulamaa’ and taṣawwuf. Tajdiid is ‘the resuscitation of what has withered away of knowledge of the Qur’an and the Sunnah and the commandment of their observance’. So long as the ummah would sink from time to time into degeneration or turmoil, so long would tajdiid remain imperative.

In western Sudan, this degeneration (fasaad) was precipitated by the despot, Sonni ʿAli, who appeared in the ninth Islamic century and therefore necessitated, by implication, the tajdiid of Askia Muhammad. Further degeneration was brought about by the invasion of the Moroccan hordes who killed many of the inhabitants of western Sudan, slew the ʿulamaa’, captured as many as thirty thousand people and sacked the towns.

This destruction of life and knowledge of a large part of the western Sudan precipitated a moral and intellectual decline which necessitated the initiation of a new process of tajdiid throughout the region.

Tajdiid, Mukhtar said, could take various forms, and thus could be led by individuals with different emphases, depending on the prevailing situation. The mujaddid could be a statesman who would preserve the principles of the law, make justice triumph among the people and protect the lives and properties of the people, so that they could carry on their temporal affairs and their religious duties without any hindrance. The mujaddid could also be a zaahid who would remind the people of the world to come, call them to righteousness and renunciation of the world. Or he could be a pure scholar who would regenerate the knowledge of Sunnah and establish the authenticity of the Prophetic tradition. Few individuals could undertake tajdiid, for the standard of learning, coupled with moral sanctity, is extremely high. Sidi Mukhtar said of such a person:

“Assuming that all religious knowledge were forgotten, all literatures were burned and he were resorted to, he would have the capacity to resuscitate that knowledge and write similar books.”

It was the Sidi’s view that the center of gravity in the Muslim world had shifted to western Sudan by the eleventh Islamic century. In the century before, those who bad undertaken the tajdiid were firstly, the mujaddid of all branches of knowledge, al-Maghili; secondly, Jalaal ad-diin as-Suyuuti; thirdly, the zaahid, Sayyid Muhammad as-Sanuusi; and fourthly, the statesman, al-Hajj Askia Muhammad, but in the eleventh century, the three mujaddids that appeared in the Muslim world were, according to the Sidi, from the western Sudan. These were the faqih Ahmad Baba at-Timbukti, the famous ḥadiith scholar Muhammad Baghyu at-Takruri, and the ascetic Baba al-Mukhtar at-Timbukti. In the twelfth century, two of the three mujaddids that appeared were from western Sudan, the Sidi Mukhtar al-Kunti himself and Shehu Usman Dan Fodio.

The Sidi attributed the decline of knowledge and the triumph of bidʿah (innovation) in the western Sudan in the twelfth and the thirteenth Islamic centuries partly to the activities of the corrupt scholars (ʿulamaa’ as-suu’), whom he grouped into as many as sixteen categories. They included those who had knowledge, but failed to put it into practice; those who presented an appearance of compliance with the outward religious duties, but had not eliminated characteristics such as vanity, hypocrisy, ambition, desire for political office and high rank; those who presumed that they had the exclusive right to guide the common people and yet entered into unholy alliance with the sulṭans, thus encouraging the sulṭans’ oppression of the people; those who engaged in jihad, but only to obtain fame and wealth; and those scholars who used false methods, such as music, to lure people into spiritual practices. The danger of those scholars, the Sidi said, could be seen from the ḥadiith of the Prophet:

“I fear for my ummah after me more from ʿulamaa’ as-suu’ than from the Dajjal’, and when asked who these were, he replied that they were ʿulamaa’ al-alsinah, ‘the ʿulamaa’ of the tongue.”

Sidi insisted that taṣawwuf is an indispensable aspect of Islam, but true sufism is none other than honest and sincere adherence to the Sunnah. “If the muriid observes the commands of the Shariiʿah and refrains from doing what is prohibited by it, truly and sincerely, Allah will open in his heart a portal whereby he can see (acquire) ʿuluumu-l-ḥaqiiqah. And if he adheres to the rules of ʿuluumu-l-ḥaqiiqah, Allah will cause to open a further portal within his inner self whereby he shall see the Kingdom of Heaven and realities of Allah’s might.” The combination of law and moral purification seemed to him the best way to practice religion.

The Sidi’s views on the use of music in sufism and on zuhd are worth noting. “Allah, the Almighty, is not worshipped by dancing and chanting… We the Qaadirii do not approve of dancing, frivolous playing and merry making because they are degrading to man’s dignity and damaging to his honor.” Zuhd does not mean squandering one’s wealth or declaring as illegal what Allah has decreed to be legal, such as taking up a profession or other economic pursuits. Zuhd is to dispense the world willingly when one possesses it and to be at rest in one’s heart when one loses it’. “The Companions of the Prophet,” he said, “possessed the world and held it like the trustworthy treasurer, kept it in the lawful manner and distributed it in the legal way. They neither clung to it nor had any inclination towards it.”

Sidi Mukhtar’s influence on the Shehu and his movement itself was first and foremost spiritual, for as the undisputed head of the Qaadiriyyah order to which the Shehu belonged and as a dynamic intellectual personality, he was bound to exert a deep influence over the Shehu. Some of the three hundred or so books and treatises he wrote were certainly brought to the attention of the Shehu, and his students and companions also made their own particular impact. Significantly, the Sidi used his vast and profound influence in support of the Shehu and his movement, a support that advanced the course of the jiihad in considerable measure.

We have mentioned some of the men who influenced the Shehu to indicate the kind of training he had, although it is impossible for us to know all of them. There are surely other personalities who contributed to the making of the Shehu in much the same way as those we have mentioned, but who are not known to us and may never be known. What cannot be denied is that the Shehu drank deeply from the great pond of knowledge which the western Sudan had to offer. It is to his credit that he sought knowledge wherever he could find it, and that even when he had grown important and more famous than most of the scholars, he still sat humbly before them, learning from them. He also learned the primary sources – the Qur’an and ḥadiith – from as many authorities as possible. At the end, of the day he had acquired not only a deep and indelible knowledge of these sources, but also the different interpretations that had been developed through several centuries.

The Shaping of a Character

The Shehu, from what we can understand, must have seen in al-Maghili a vigorous intellectual who had a deep knowledge in the sciences necessary for changing the intellectual precepts of people, and who had a noble character imbued with the requisite moral persuasion to sway even the most powerful of men. In al-Maghili, the Shehu saw how an individual, even though having refugee status, could effect a lasting change in the life of nations and set their history, almost single-handedly, upon a totally different course, by the sheer force of his intellect, his moral authority and his absolute reliance on Allah. He took time to study al-Maghili properly, taking from him, as faithfully as possible, the concept of tajdiid, of society and of government, as well as the nature of the ideological divide between Muslims and those who serve the cause of evil.

In al-Barnawi, as well as in a number of scholars of his time and especially those of the intellectual centers of Borno, Katsina and Kano, the Shehu must have seen the concept of an active, purifying and transformative jurisprudence, which even though it had been relegated to the background and lost its supremacy, could still serve as a potent forum for protest and mobilization for the revival of Islam. Indeed, the point that came out clearly in al-Barnawi was that what was wrong in respect of law was not so much the stagnation it had suffered as a result of the loss of genuine ʿulamaa’, as the neglect it had suffered in its abandonment by society. Law grows and develops through application.

In Sidi Ahmad Baba, who epitomized the spirit of the Timbuktu tradition, the Shehu must have perceived the role and place of the scholar in society. The scholar’s first responsibility is to acquaint himself with the basic knowledge of the sources, then of the law, then of different sciences that support the life of society, and then of history and so on. This will place him in a position to guide society in all essential areas and to put himself at the disposal of every segment of society. His second responsibility is to stand up boldly as the guardian of the conscience of society, preventing any assault or outrage against the values of society or against the sanctity of its beliefs and institutions. In this way, he serves as the force behind the preservation of the moral and social purity of society and respect for the integrity of the nation. The scholar’s third responsibility is to stand up for the poor and the oppressed, to defend their rights, and strive for the accomplishment of their aspirations. The scholar’s fourth responsibility is to stand up for the defense of the nation and enhance its integrity as a nation faithful to Allah and submissive to His laws. As an institution in himself and an active observer of events and history, the scholar is morally bound to warn his nation with all the power and means at his disposal against possible deviations from Islam and to state as clearly as possible the moral, political and historical consequences of such deviations. Finally, it is his responsibility to raise a generation of men and women capable of taking societal responsibilities, or of steering the course of society in a positive direction when the signs of degeneration are apparent.

When considering his teachers and contemporaries, the influence of Usman Bidduri should not be underrated. He was a scholar, who combined learning and piety, and who was dissatisfied with the prevailing corruption and felt the acute need for change, but who at the same time had the wisdom and patience first to sow the seeds of change. He quietly transferred his desires for change to a future generation, and died silently, leaving a legacy for the future. The Shehu, we are told, imitated him in almost all situations relating to his work, recognizing that restraint and patience, as well as a depth of understanding of the issues at stake, are essential ingredients for social transformation, but it was the learned and pious Jibril ibn ʿUmar who gave him the instruments with which to strive against the currents of the time. In Shehu’s studies of ḥadiith, in his efforts to acquire a deep knowledge of law and jurisprudence, in his studies and practice of taṣawwuf, in his endeavors to get a more intimate spiritual relationship with the Prophet, and in his endeavors to understand his society and work for its improvement, he found in Jibril a worthy and eager mentor. He learned the importance of restraint, of open mindedness and sympathy for the inadequacies of the common people, and from the reverses which his teacher had suffered in his attempt to change society too quickly.

Other scholars also left their marks. The supervision of his teachings by the saintly Muhammad Sambo, the vast knowledge of ḥadiith acquired from Al-Hajj Muhammad Raj and the important studies of the Qur’an and its exegesis from Muhammad al-Amin all influenced the Shehu deeply.

In Sidi Mukhtar al-Kunti, he found the true embodiment of sainthood; a versatile and richly endowed scholar who had the view that concern for the world and the more lofty concern for the hereafter had to be combined in a single individual to create a saint. The Sidi also maintained that both temporal and spiritual matters should be brought under the single authority of Islam if the world were to be a better place in which to live. In him, Shehu Usman must also have seen a dynamic and revolutionary sufism concerned to secure for man a just society on earth and Allah’s pleasure in the hereafter. He must have seen in Mukhtar al-Kunti the extent to which an individual possessing sanctity and prestige could penetrate hearts and secure their allegiance for the task of creating a better society. It was to the credit of both the Shehu and al-Kunti that they did not view each other as rivals, but rather mujaddids; each engaged in the same endeavors in the cause of Allah; each employing slightly different methods.

There were many other aspects to the shaping of the Shehu’s personality. All that he had learned of the Arabic language, Qur’anic exegesis, science of ḥadiith were a mere introduction to the wider world of learning and scholarship. From the Mukhtasar of Khalil the Shehu moved further to drink from the great pool of jurisprudence of the Maaliki and the other three schools.

Although the Maaliki school was sufficient for his needs, he felt he should know the principles of other schools, for as he himself said, “there is no rule in Islam, other than that of mere convenience, that restricts a community to follow a particular school of law.”

Then, the Shehu ventured boldly in the world of sufism and learned and practiced the rites of several branches of the Qaadiriyyah, including that of Sidi Mukhtar al-Kunti. In addition, he read almost everything that reached him from the works of al-Ghazali, most especially the Ihyaa’ from which he derived much profit. His book, titled boldly as Ṭariiq al-Jannah, was but a summary of what al-Ghazali had written on piety and moral purification. Then he examined the works of other great ṣufi personalities – the sage Ibn al-ʿArabi, the saint az-Zarruuq, his teacher Ibn ʿAtta Allah, amongst others. He also studied other ṣufi orders, because as far as he was concerned, sufism, like Islamic jurisprudence, is but a tree with many branches.

The Shehu studied history, especially of the rightly-guided khilaafah and of Islam in general. He took special interest in the history of the western Sudan from which he perceived the inevitable confrontation between the forces of light and darkness in the region. The most important of Shehu’s personal efforts were in the studies of the Qur’an and ḥadiith. By investigating these two sources over and over again and by teaching some of them from the beginning to the end many times over, he acquired a deep knowledge of them. In his Asaaniid al-Faqiir, the Shehu leaves no one in doubt as to his tremendous knowledge of the ḥadiith – it seems that he had read and taught almost all the ḥadiiths contained in the authentic collections.

The result of all this made Shehu Usman a forest of knowledge, a jurist, a saint, “He grew up penitent and devout,” Muhammad Bello told us in Infaaq al-Maysuur, “possessed of pleasing qualities. And none was his equal. People trusted him, and flocked to him from the east and west.” Bello continues:

“He instructed the ʿulamaa’ and raised the banner of religion. He revived the Sunnah and put an end to heresy. He spread knowledge and dispelled perplexity. His learning dazzled men’s minds. He showed how reality (ḥaqiiqah) was to be reconciled with the Shariiʿah. For years he explained the Qur’an in the presence of learned and righteous men of importance, vying with them, through his reading and the different branches of his learning, in rhetoric, and in the knowledge of the authorities, and of what is written and what is abrogated. At the same time, he was pre-eminent in knowledge of the hadiith, and learned in its unfamiliar parts and different branches. Revered by both great and small, he was a Mujaddid at the head of this generation.”

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The Timbuktu Tradition


The Timbuktu Tradition

by Dr. Ibrahim Sulaiman

Perhaps the most important factor in the resurgence of Islam after several decades of decline in Bilaad as-Sudan was that the Islamic tradition of learning and scholarship continued throughout the period of decline to operate as a living and thriving tradition, producing scholars, jurists and saints all over the region. The tradition preserved the best of Islam, and kept alive its intellectual legacy, strong enough for any determined reformer to apply as an instrument of societal transformation. That tradition of Islam was best symbolized by an enigmatic and highly venerated West African city that flourished for at least five centuries from the twelfth century A.D.

Timbuktu was a city bolstered by piety, and as Dr. Hunwick tells us, “it was the proud boast of its people that worship has never been offered to pagan gods within its wall.” He quotes Muhammad Kati who described the city in Ta’riikh al-Fattaash:

“Religion flourished and the Sunnah enlivened both religious and worldly affairs… In those days it had no equal in the Sudan, from Mali to the edges of the Maghrib, for soundness of institutions, political liberties, purity of customs, security of life and goods and respect for and assistance to, the students and men of learning.”

The city owed its prestige and its immense influence on the sub-sequent history of West Africa to its being a center of learning. It was a university complex, drawing students and scholars from different parts of the Muslim world, nourishing governments with administrators, clerks and judges, feeding cities with Imams, teachers and jurists, and providing for the wider society a long chain of muftis, saints and above all, mujaddids. The unusually high number of mujaddids which the Bilaad as-Sudan has produced – perhaps higher than any other part of the Muslim world – can be attributed in part to the tradition of learning fostered by Timbuktu.

“The tradition of learning in Timbuktu,” Elias Saad writes in ‘Social History of Timbuktu’, “assured the city a status and prestige”:

“The Muslim sciences which the various settlers brought and fostered in the city went hand-in-hand with the widespread commercial contacts of these groups to secure for the growing town a measure of non-interference from outside. For one thing, the settlers themselves commanded considerable wealth along with wide spread networks of trade and alliances in the area. Additionally, however, the security of the city was in its Islamic image; its mosques, schools and shrines began to be conceived early as its guardians. In the psychological mood which prevailed after pilgrimage of Mansa Musa of Mali (and again on the return from the Hajj of Askia Muhammad over a century and a half later), Timbuktu gradually gained an aura of ‘sanctity’ and assumed for itself a sort of inviolability.”

In this tradition of learning, after the elementary stage of Qur’anic recitation and literacy, a student was introduced into the world of scholarship via the Arabic language. Versatility in Arabic, Saad suggests, was highly valued, therefore, such fields of learning associated with language, grammar, rhetoric, logic and prosody became an essential part of the process of learning.

The fundamental goal of learning in this tradition was to acquire the understanding of Qur’an, ḥadiith and fiqh, and to some extent, of taṣawwuf. Hence, the science of tafsiir, Qur’anic exegesis was perhaps the most important of all sciences studied. Then followed study of the ḥadiith, in which, Saad states, “the abilities of a jurist came to be measured by his familiarity with the precedents set by the Prophet.”

In the study of fiqh, the Timbuktu tradition insisted on achieving a level of competence as high as could be found in any other part of the Muslim world. The fiqh studies revolved almost wholly around the Maaliki School, to which the entire region has subscribed until the present day. Other fields, such as taṣawwuf, uṣuul or the philosophy of law, tawḥiid or the science of unity of Allah, history, medicine, astronomy and mathematics were also given due attention. A relatively wide range of text books was available to the students.

Knowledge was sought in this tradition precisely in order to enable the students to organize their lives as Allah had ordered, and subsequently to organize society and state on those lines as well. Scholarship therefore, was an institution in its own right, distinct from and almost totally independent of the state. It remained self-reliant, maintaining and generating its own funds through a high level of commercial activities, and preserving its own prestige and sanctity. Scholars were never subservient to the rulers; indeed, in some respects the tradition was so strong as to force the rulers to concede to the supremacy of the scholar over the ruler. For example, it was the monarch who visited the Qaaḍii of Timbuktu, and not the other way around. The idea was that the qaaḍii, as the custodian of Allah’s sacred law, was pre-eminent over the temporal ruler. This tradition gave the scholars of Timbuktu an aura of sanctity and respectability that made them the symbol of the people and the conscience of society.

The Timbuktu tradition persisted in Hausaland and in the whole of Bilaad as-Sudan, producing scholars who upheld the spirit of Islam and nourished Islam itself both in the periods of light and of darkness. The Moroccan invasion of 999 A.H./l591 A.D., in which almost all the leading scholars were arrested, precipitated its decline. This deterioration, however, was merely quantitative; the quality of the tradition was maintained. So, while Hausaland was sunk in moral degradation, this intellectual and moral tradition carefully nurtured a cadre of scholars who were to bring about a revival of Islam and create a society dedicated to Islam, a state committed entirely to its defense and enhancement.

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