Usman Dan Fodio

Usman Dan Fodio
Usman Dan Fodio
Usman Dan Fodio, also known by the Hausa honorific shehu (sheikh), was a West African scholar and religious reformer of the Fulani ethnic group who led a successful early 19th-century Islamic jihad in Hausaland, modern-day northern Nigeria. The jihad led to the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate, the most significant 19th-century independent African state, with regard to both size and impact on the local region’s history.

Usman Dan Fodio was born in 1754 at Maratta within the Hausa state of Gobir but spent his formative years in the town of Degel. His father was a learned member of the Qadiriyya Sufiorder and provided Usman and his brother Abdulahi with the highest Islamic education available to them.

In the traditional Islamic manner, he traveled throughout Hausaland and as far away as the Saharan city of Agadez, studying under various teachers. At around age 20, he became an itinerant preacher and teacher while still completing his studies.

In Degel, he quickly gained a following of devoted disciples, which encouraged him to travel to other Hausa states, where he met with further success in attracting students. Emboldened, he and his followers began calling on the nominal Muslim rulers in Hausaland to accept and practice orthodox Islam and remove non-Islamic customs and rituals from their courts.

Dan Fodio went further and called into question the local rulers’ taxation and enslavement of his Fulani brethren, as well as the arbitrary confiscation of peasant property. The shehu’s growing following and the social and political arguments he raised put him at odds with much of the ruling class in Hausaland. Thus, he was forced to flee Degel when the sultan of Gobir sent forces against him.

In 1804 the shehu and his followers regrouped. He was named amir al-mumineen, or commander of the faithful, and announced a call for a jihad campaign against Gobir. Years prior to this call, the shehu had had a series of visions in which he believed that the prophet Muhammad and Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, founder of the Qadiriyya order, instructed him to pick up the “Sword of Truth” in order for his followers to defend themselves from increasingly hostile rulers.

Filled with conviction and fervor, an army of inferiorly armed Fulani scholars, clansmen, and Hausa peasants set forth to destroy the larger, better-equipped army of the sultan of Gobir. The shehu never led an army nor fought in a battle; his role was purely spiritual and consultative. He left the military campaigning to his generals, including his brother Abdullahi and son Muhammadu Bello.

The shehu’s forces won a series of decisive battles and within four years had gained control of almost all of Hausaland and much of neighboring Bornu. From this amalgamation of lands was created the Sokoto Caliphate.

In 1812 the shehu split rule of the Sokoto Caliphate between Abdullahi and Muhammadu Bello, and he withdrew into a scholarly and spiritual life. He continued teaching and writing but remained distant from the political dealings within the caliphate.

A key element throughout Dan Fodio’s reform movement was his writings. He authored more than 100 works in both his native Fulfulde and Arabic; some of his works were later translated into Hausa but were not originally written in that language. Most works were prose, but a substantial portion were in verse.

One of his early works clarified that anyone who subscribed to the religion and carried out their religious duties was a Muslim and deserved all rights and freedoms to be afforded to the brethren, including slaves who were Muslim. This was not the traditional practice in Hausaland at the time, which allowed for lower-class Muslims to be enslaved.

Some of his most important works were written during the jihad, which established the ground rules for warfare and defined those who were to be considered Muslim (nontargets of jihad) and those who were non-Muslims (targets of jihad).

This was important, since all of the leaders the jihad was directed against were at least nominally Muslim. However, Dan Fodio made clear that if rulers allowed non-Muslim practices in their lands or deviated from strict orthodoxy, they were legitimate targets of his campaign.

In this regard, he drew from a controversial discussion some three centuries earlier between Askia Muhammad Touré, ruler of the Songhai Empire, and the scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Karim al-Maghili, when the former was expanding the holdings his empire into some areas having nominal Muslim rulers, including Hausaland. After the jihad was completed and the Sokoto Caliphate established, the shehu’s works showed moderation and more tolerance of non-Islamic practices occurring within state boundaries.

Usman Dan Fodio died in the capital city of Sokoto in April 1817, leaving a legacy of 37 children and hundreds of grandchildren who continued to be important players in the political, social, and religious landscape of Sokoto for generations.

This included his daughter Asma’u, a prolific writer and important chronicler of the jihad and the development of Sokoto. Usman Dan Fodio’s ideas for Islamic reformation in West Africa remained influential well into the late 19th century, manifesting themselves in the continued spread of Islam and sporadic calls to jihad.