Uthman Dan Fuduye

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Uthman Dan Fuduye, statesman, reformer, scholar and religious teacher, emerged out of the great reform waves rolling across the Muslim world in the latter part of the 18th century. Shehu (meaning Shaykh) Uthman was the son of Fuduye Muhammad whose forefathers were members of the Torobe clan of the Fulani people. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Fulani inhabited the vast grasslands between the Sahara and the dense tropical jungles of Africa. They tended their sheep and cattle and depended on the natural bounty of the land for their food. Among them were many scholars who provided the backbone of the religious tradition in the great and Songhay empires. Rainfall was sparse, about fifteen inches a year and the search for pastures produced periodic migrations. The Fulani migrated gradually from western Africa to their modern day stronghold in northern Nigeria. Linguistically the Fulani language has its basis in Bantu with a strong overlay of Arabic. Trade links across the Sahara tied the Sudan to the Maghrib, and there was considerable mixing between the Bantu, Berber, Arab and other Islamic peoples in West Africa. In a process similar to that in the Sahel of East Africa and the Malabar Coast of India, it produced a rich amalgam of culture, language, lineage and heritage.

The Fulani traced their lineage from Uqba bin Nafi, the renowned conqueror of North Africa (d. 683). Shehu Uthman Dan Fuduye was therefore a descendent of Uqba bin Nafi from his father’s side. On his mother’s side, he was a Sayyid, a descendant of the Prophet. His mother, Sayyadatu Hawwa was in the lineage of al Hassan, son of Fatima binte Prophet Muhammed (p).

The western Sudan was closer to the intellectual centers of North Africa than the hinterland, and it was here that the reform waves that rolled across West Africa were born. In the 11th century this area produced the Murabitun movement, which spread throughout the western Sudan, North Africa and Spain. The movement of the Sinhaja and other tribes across the Sahara provided the medium for transmission of ideas. The Qadariya Sufi order, originating in Baghdad, soon spread to all parts of the Islamic world. Traders who plied the Sahara introduced it into West Africa in the 14th and 15th centuries. Soon, it planted itself on African soil and provided the most effective means for the spread of Islam. Since the Fulani were so widespread, they were among the first people in West Africa to come into contact with new ideas from the north. The Sufis established zawiyas, provided a structure for the propagation of faith, taught the Qur’an and Sunnah, trained teachers and dedicated workers, provided social services and acted as a defensive umbrella in times of war. Sufic Islam, which had spread in Persia, India and Indonesia in the 14th and 15th centuries, now found a home in Africa. The Fulani were among the first people to embrace this new vision of Islam. From West Africa, the Sufi tareeqas were carried by the Fulani into the interior and beyond the bend in the Niger River into what is today northern Nigeria. Scholarship and their knowledge of Islam made the Fulani welcome into various kingdoms then existing in West Africa. By 1775, Fulani mallams formed the backbone of the religious establishment in the entire West African belt. The strict interpretations of the Maliki School of fiqh sometimes brought them into conflict with the local emirs who ruled using a mixture of Islamic law and animist customs to suit the local conditions.

In the latter part of the 18th century, another Sufi order, the Tijaniya was founded in Morocco. From there it spread southward into areas inhabited by the Sinhaja who carried it to the Sene-Gambia regions. The Tijaniya were more assertive than the Qadariya in spreading the faith and their approach found many adherents among the youth who were impatient with the slow and deliberate approach of the Qadariya order. These two orders, the Qadariya and the Tijaniya, were the spiritual force behind the revival of Islam in the Sudan.

The political convulsions of the 16th and 17th centuries had a direct impact on the migrations of people and the evolution of culture and religion in West Africa. In 1592, Maulay Ahmed of the Sa’adid dynasty in Morocco sent his army south towards the Empire of Songhay. What had started as a border clash to control the salt mines at Taghaza and Taodeni mushroomed into a full-scale invasion. Armed with muskets and cannon, the invading forces wreaked havoc on the river cities of West Africa. The great trading centers of Timbuktu, Gao and Jenne were occupied and considerable damage was inflicted on the cities. The Songhay Emperor, Askia Ishaq, retreated eastward to his ancestral homeland. With the retreating armies went many of the scholars from Timbuktu, Gao and Jenne. These scholars provided added momentum to the spread of Islam in the southern reaches of the Niger River, which are located today in Niger and northern Nigeria.

The social dislocations caused by the war destroyed the power of the cities and increased the importance of the villages. Along with the migration of scholars from Songhay to Hausa and Fulani areas, there was a movement of marabouts, the wandering minstrels, who proved to be the active element in the transport of Islamic ideas to the hinterland. The marabouts, equally learned in Shariah and tareeqa, established local religious centers. Conversion to Islam picked up momentum. To the southeast, beyond the bend in the Niger River, Fulani merchants were equally successful in propagating the faith. Hitherto, Islam had been primarily the religion of the rulers and of the ruling aristocracy in West Africa. Now, it became a religion of the masses. The new entrants to the faith brought with them their traditions and culture much as the people of India and Indonesia had brought theirs into the Islamic fold 300 years earlier. The confluence of ancestral African religious customs and orthodox Islamic doctrines was the matrix from which emerged the reform movements of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The disintegration of the Songhay Empire was a political bonanza for the Fulani and Hausa people who lived beyond the bend of the Niger River. The Hausa-Fulani were skillful merchants and accomplished artisans and they lived in areas where agriculture thrived. They were under constant military pressure from Songhay but had never united or organized themselves to resist the Songhays. With the threat of armed invasion receding, and Songhay under Moroccan military control, they were able to set an independent course for themselves. In 1629 one of the Fulani chiefs Ardo broke away from Moroccan dominated Songhay. Similar moves for independence by other Fulani tribes followed in the succeeding decades. In 1690 several Fulani states emerged in the Messina plains in northwest Nigeria and southern Niger. Around 1790, one of the marabouts, Shaykh Alfa Muhammed Diobo, founded the city of Say. This city which is located today at the border between Nigeria and Niger, became the nucleus for political movement and religious revival in the Hausa-Fulani areas.

Meanwhile, the political landscape of North Africa and the Mediterranean had also been transformed. The Ottoman armies, claiming to represent the full might of Islam, had moved out of Egypt and had occupied all of North Africa except Morocco. Muslim-Christian military rivalry was intense throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The Portuguese Christians had been stopped at the Battle of al Kasr al Kabir (1578), and Turkish land armies had frustrated the ambition of Catholic Spain and the Vatican in eastern Europe and North Africa. Although Turkish power in southeastern Europe was receding after the second siege of Vienna (1683), North Africa remained a part of the Ottoman Empire throughout the 18th century and strong cultural and religious interactions developed between Sub-Saharan Africa and the Turkish Empire as well as the independent Moroccan kingdom.

The powerful currents that produced the revolution of Uthman Dan Fuduye grew out of a confluence of animist culture and orthodox religion, in an environment of political uncertainty. By the year 1800, the social landscape of West Africa was being transformed. Islam was no longer the religion only of the ruling elite. It now had roots in the soil. Thousands entered the new faith through the work of the mallams. As demonstrated in the earlier experience of India and Indonesia, the acceptance of a new faith does not necessarily result in the repudiation of old cultures. The African newcomers brought with them their former culture and their old animist practices. Political conditions in Nigeria were far from settled. There was political instability due to the intense rivalry among the Emirates of Kano, Air, Zamfara, Kebbi and Katsina.

Uthman Dan Fuduye grew up in these turbulent times. In his childhood he received training in Qur’an, Hadith and the sciences of Fiqh. He mastered classical Arabic and he was fluent in the Hausa-Fulani languages. As a young man, Shaykh Uthman was influenced by the ideas of al Moghili, the well-known Islamic thinker from North Africa. Al Moghili, following some of the Hadith of the Prophet, believed that during each century a reformer would arise from among the believers to bring back the purity of faith to the masses. In the latter part of the 18th century, conditions were ripe for reform in West Africa. Many of the newly converted people used the Qur’an as a talisman around their neck to ward of evil rather than as a divine book of guidance. Divination by trees and stones remained commonplace. Al Moghili held that a jihad must be waged to stamp out such practices. Contrary to the Shariah, some of the local rulers imposed extortionist taxes on farmers and merchants alike. Al Moghili had stated that a ruler who is unjust must be overthrown. Some of the mallams, ill trained as they were in the classical disciplines of the Qur’an, Hadith and Fiqh, could not provide correct interpretations of the Qur’an. Al Moghili maintained that a person, who claimed to be a teacher, must know Arabic in order that he may correctly understand the Qur’an, Sunnah and Fiqh.

Shehu Uthman also studied tasawwuf and became an ardent Sufi. Tasawwuf is the inner dimension of Islam and has been an integral part of the Islamic spectrum from its inception. Sufi practices aim towards cleansing the soul so that it becomes conscious of the Divine presence. The Prophet placed great importance on self-purification and taught that struggle against the self was greater than struggle against external enemies. Shehu Uthman read the works of Al Ghazzali (d.1111) and became a follower of Shaykh Abdul Qader Jeelani of Baghdad (d.1166), founder of the Qadariya order, who is accepted in Sufi circles as Shaykh ul Mashaiq (teacher of the teachers). Shaykh Uthman believed that Abdul Qader Jeelani had spoken to him in a vision, urging him to wage a struggle against the unbelief of the age.

By the year 1800, Shehu Uthman Dan Fuduye had gathered around himself a large number of scholars, students and followers. He established a zawiya (circle) of the Qadariya order in the city of Degel. This center served a religious function similar to the city of Qum in modern Persia. The ulema of Degel became increasingly vocal in their criticism of the corrupt emirs and deviant practices of the general population. But the power of new ideas seldom goes unchallenged by the establishment. The ruler of the local province, Yunfa, first attempted to assassinate Shehu Uthman and then banished him from Degel. In 1804, following the example of the Hijra of the Prophet, the Shehu migrated from Degel to Gudu, some thirty miles away. The ulema and many among the masses, joined the learned man in this march and declared him their imam, shaykh and emir ul momineen. Alarmed at the growing strength of the Shaykh, Yunfa sent an expedition against Gudu. Skirmishes followed. In the summer of 1804 Dan Fuduye’s forces won a decisive victory against Yunfa. The Shaykh promptly declared that this victory followed the Prophet’s victory at the Battle of Badr. His vision now embraced all of western Africa and he declared a jihad against the Hausa kingdoms. However, in the winter of the same year, Dan Fuduye’s followers suffered a defeat. Notwithstanding these reverses, Dan Fuduye captured Birnin Kebbi, capital of Kebbi in 1805. Fulani cattle herders, Hausa farmers, merchants and scholars all followed his lead to establish a just social and political order. During the next three years, Shehu Uthman’s forces successively captured Alkalwa, capital of Gobir, Katsina, Daura and Bauchi. In 1808 successful campaigns were waged in the state of Borno.

Dan Fuduye was a prolific writer and a consummate orator. The central theme in his writings is the Qur’anic injunction, “You are the most noble of ummah created for mankind, enjoining what is right forbidding what is wrong and believing only in God.” Some of his well known works include Fath ul Bassa (The Unlocking of Spiritual Vision), Tariq al Jannah (The Road Towards Paradise), Umdat ul Ulama (Support of the Scholars), Bayan Bida as Shaitaniya (Description of Religious Innovations of Shaitan), Umda ul Bayaan Fil Ulum Allati Wajib Alal Ayan (Supportive Exposition of Knowledge Obligatory on Every Person), Udmat ul Mutabideen Wal Muhtarifeen (Supportive Exposition of the Committed and Sincere Followers) and Umdat ul Bayan (Supportive Expose).

Shaykh Uthman viewed religion as composed of Islam, Iman and Ihsan. Islam, according to the Shaykh, was the implementation of the Shariah (Divine Law). Iman (faith) was the essence of religious life. And Ihsan was the realization of the spiritual potential of the human soul. The Shaykh considered it an obligation on the part of all believers to obtain knowledge of these three disciplines and to implement them in their lives.

Shehu Uthman divided the science of tasawwuf into two parts: (1) Takhallaq or reformation of the inner self, and (2) Tahaqquq or knowledge of certainty. Reformation of the inner self precedes knowledge of certainty. It includes practice of the Shariah, remembrance of the Divine names and renunciation of those attributes that corrupt the soul, such as hatred, jealousy, undue anger and acquisitiveness. The Shaykh taught that Shariah and tasawwuf were both integral to the completion and fulfillment of an Islamic life. He considered iman, Islam and ihsan to be pre-requisites to any aspiration to Tahaqquq or knowledge of certainty.

Shehu Uthman was a consummate scholar of jurisprudence. He took his rulings from Al Suyuti, the Maliki scholar of the Mamluke courts (circa 1500) whose influence radiated throughout North Africa and the Middle East in the succeeding centuries. Although the Shehu followed the Fiqh of Imam Malik bin Anas, he gave equal weight to the Fiqh of Imam Abu Haneefa, Imam Shafi’i and Imam Hanbal.

Struggle for a just social and political order was his motto. He strove for the establishment of an Islamic state wherein the Shariah was followed, taxes were fair and men and women were treated with justice and equity. In his book, Kitab al Farq, Shehu Uthman outlines the differences between an Islamic government and an un-Islamic government. In the latter, the officials are corrupt, take bribes; the rulers are oppressive and impose extortionist taxes on a hapless population. By contrast, an Islamic government is just and fair wherein the dignity of man is honored and the honor of women is preserved. Uthman Dan Fuduye made Sokoto in northern Nigeria his capital and established the Caliphate of Sokoto. This Caliphate included most of what is today the Hausa-Fulani belt in Nigeria and extended into the neighboring state of Cameroon. Its area was approximately three times the area of the state of New York. Shehu Uthman was an able administrator. He divided up the territories into four regions. His brother Abdullahi ruled the western region. His son and successor, Muhammed Bello, ruled the eastern region. His army commander, Ali Jedo, ran the northern region. The south was administered by one of his early followers. Shehu Uthman himself governed from Sokoto as the religious leader and Shaykh.

The influence of Shaykh Uthman Dan Fuduye was not confined to immediate areas under his control. His ideas radiated out and had a profound impact on the religious struggles in all of West Africa. One of his disciples, Shaykh Ahmed Lobo waged a jihad and established a kingdom in Macina (1827) on the upper reaches of the Niger River. Alhajj Omar, inspired by the example of Shehu Uthman, waged a jihad in the Sene-Gambia region (1854-1864) that contained the advance of the French from the coast. Almami Samori established an Emirate in the Ivory Coast. To the east, the Caliphate of Kanem-Bornu was fashioned after the Caliphate in Sokoto. In northern Cameroon, the local Fulani people established the Emirate of Adamawa. The goal in all these struggles was to establish rule by Shariah, to ensure fair taxation and justice for all and to improve the moral and material well being of the population. These revolutions increased trade, facilitated improved agricultural production and provided a great stimulus for scholarship and learning.

Great ideas as often compromised when they are implemented. The Shehu himself was less interested in politics and administration and was more focused on teaching and writing. Politics and administration were delegated to his son Muhammed Bello and his brother Abdullahi. Muhammed Bello and Abdullahi were scholars in their own right and were superb administrators. Bello took the title of Emirul Momineen and established a Caliphate in Sokoto, which lasted until the British conquests in 1903. Shehu Uthman and Muhammed Bello were only partially successful in realizing their vision of establishing a just rule “enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong.” The reason was the jealousies and rivalries among his followers who felt that they deserved to be rewarded for their efforts by high government appointments. The spiritual father of Uthman Dan Fuduye’s movement, Al Moghili, was against the idea of scholars seeking official posts. Apparently the faith of Uthman Dan Fuduye’ was not shared by his immediate followers who were more interested in their personal well being than in following the teachings of the great Al Moghili. Uprisings broke out in several parts of the far-flung Caliphate. Muhammed Bello had to wage successive campaigns to suppress these uprisings. Often, he had to compromise and reward some of the disgruntled chieftains by appointing them as chiefs and emirs. The Caliphate of Sokoto did not have a large, standing army to force its political will on the empire. Disputes had therefore to be settled by compromise. This lack of a standing fighting force took its toll when the British finally arrived on the scene with their cannons in the early part of the 20th century.