HISTORY: Usman Dan Fodio Biography, Wars And Works. (The Legend)

Shaikh Usman Ibn Fodio, Shehu Uthman Dan Fuduye, Shehu Usman dan Fodio or Shaikh Uthman Ibn Fodio) (15 December 1754, Senegal – 20 April 1817, Sokoto)
Usman Dan Fodio was a religious teacher, writer and Islamic promoter, and the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate. Dan Fodio was one of a class of urbanized ethnic Fulani living in the Hausa States in what is today northern Nigeria. He was a leader who followed the Sunni Maliki school of Jurisprudence and the Qadiri branch of Sufism. He is considered by many Jad’s spiritual father.

A teacher of the Maliki school of law, he lived in the city-state of Gobir until 1802 when, motivated by his reformist ideas and suffering increasing repression by local authorities, he led his followers into exile. This exile began a political and social revolution which spread from Gobir throughout modern Nigeria and Cameroon, and was echoed in a jihad movement led by the Fula ethnic group across West Africa. Dan Fodio declined much of the pomp of rulership, and while developing contacts with religious reformists and jihad leaders across Africa, he soon passed actual leader ship of the Sokoto state to his son, Muhammed Bello.

Dan Fodio wrote more than a hundred books concerning religion, government, culture, and society. He developed a critique of existing African Muslim elites for what he saw as their greed, paganism, violation of the standards of Sharia law, and use of heavy taxation. He encouraged literacy and scholarship, for women as well as men, and several of his daughters emerged as scholars and writers. His writings and sayings continue to be much quoted today, and are often affectionately referred to as Shehu in Nigeria. Some followers consider dan Fodio to have been a mujaddid, a divinely inspired “reformer of Islam”.

Dan Fodio’s uprising was a major episode of a movement described as the Fulani hegemonies in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. It followed the jihads successfully waged in Futa Bundu, Futa Tooro, and Fouta Djallon between 1650 and 1750, which led to the creation of those three Islamic states. In his turn, Shehu inspired a number of later West African jihads, including those of Seku Amadu, founder of the Masina Empire, El Hadj Umar Tall, founder of the Toucouleur Empire (who married one of dan Fodio’s granddaughters), and Modibo Adama, founder of the Adamawa Emirate.


Dan Fodio was a Fulani descendant of a torodbe family that was well established in Hausaland.
He was well educated in classical Islamic science, philosophy, and theology. He also became a revered religious thinker. His teacher, Jibril ibn ‘Umar, argued that it was the duty and within the power of religious movements to establish an ideal society free from oppression and vice. Jibril was a North African Muslim alim who gave his apprentice a broader perspective of Muslim reformist ideas in other parts of the Muslim world. Jibril b. Umar was known as an uncompromising opponent of corrupt practices and a stuanch proponent of Jihad. He begain his intinerant preaching as a mallam in 1774-1775. Inspired by Jibril b. Umar, Uthman Dan Fodio criticized the Hausa Kingdoms for their unjust and illegal taxes, confiscations of property, compulsory military service, bribery, gift taking and the enslavement of other Muslims. Dan Fodio also criticized the Hausa rulers for condoning paganism, worshipping fetishes, and believing in the power of talismans, divination, and conjuring. He also insisted on the observance of Maliki Law in the commercial, criminal, and personal sectors. Uthman also denounced the mixing of men and women, pagan customs, dancing at bridal feasts, and inheritance practices contrary to Islamic Law.

Uthman was also very influenced by the Mushahada or mystical visions he was having. In 1789 a vision led him to believe he had the power to work miracles, and to teach his own mystical wird, or litany. His litanies are still widely practiced and distributed in the Islamic world. Dan Fodio later had visions of Abdul-Qadir Gilani, the founder of the Qadari Sufi Brotherhood, an ascension to heaven, where he was initiated into the Qadiriyya and the spiritual lineage of the Prophet. His thological writings dealt with concepts of the renewer “mujaddid and the role of the Ulama in teaching history, and other works in Arabic and Fulbe. Many people regarded him as the Mahdi (messiah) come in fullfilment of popular prophecies.

Dan Fodio broke from the royal court and used his influence to secure approval for creating a religious community in his hometown of Degel that would, dan Fodio hoped, be a model town. He stayed there for twenty years, writing, teaching, and preaching. As in other Islamic societies, the autonomy of Muslim communities under Ulama leadership made it possible to resist the state and the state version of Islam in the name of Sharia and the ideal caliphate.

The Fulani War
Sokoto Caliphate, 19th century

Uthman Dan Fodio’s appeal to justice and morality rallied the outcasts of Hausa society. He found his followers among the Fulbe and Fulani. The Fulbe and Fulani were primarily cattle pastoralists. These pastoralist communities were led by the clerics living in rural communities who were Fulfude speakers and closely connected to the pastoralists. The Fulani would later hold the most important offices of the new states. Hausa peasants, runaway slaves, itinerant preachers, and others also responded to Uthaman’s preaching. His jihad served to integrate a number of peoples into a single religio-political movement.

In 1802, Yunfa, the ruler of Gobir and one of dan Fodio’s students, turned against him, revoking Degel’s autonomy and attempting to assassinate dan Fodio. Dan Fodio and his followers declared hijrah and fled into the western grasslands of Gudu, where they turned for help to the local Fulani nomads. Uthman’s followers at this time entitled him Amir al-Mu’minin and sarkin muslim – head of the Muslim community. The rulers of Gobir forbade Muslims to wear turbans and veils, prohibited conversions, and ordered converts to Islam to return to their old religion. In his book Tanbih al-ikhwan ’ala ahwal al-Sudan (“Concerning the Government of Our Country and Neighboring Countries in the Sudan”) Usman wrote: “The government of a country is the government of its king without question. If the king is a Muslim, his land is Muslim; if he is an unbeliever, his land is a land of unbelievers. In these circumstances it is obligatory for anyone to leave it for another country”. Usman did exactly this when he left Gobir in 1802. Yunfa then turned for aid to the other leaders of the Hausa states, warning them that dan Fodio could trigger a widespread jihad.

Usman dan Fodio was proclaimed Amir al-Muminin or Commander of the Faithful in Gudu. This made him a political as well as religious leader, giving him the authority to declare and pursue a jihad, raise an army and become its commander. A widespread uprising began in Hausaland. This uprising was largely composed of the Fulani, who held a powerful military advantage with their cavalry. It was also widely supported by the Hausa peasantry, who felt over-taxed and oppressed by their rulers. Usuman started the jihad against Gobir in 1804.

At the time of the war Fulani communications were carried along trade routes and rivers draining into the Niger-Benue valley, as well as the delta and the lagoons. The call for jihad reached not only other Hausa states such as Kano, Daura, Katsina, and Zaria, but also Borno, Gombe, Adamawa, Nupe, and Ilorin. These were all places with major or minor groups of Fulani alims.

By 1808 Uthman had defeated the rulers of Gobir, Kano, Katsina, and other Hausa Kingdoms. He expanded territory south of Lake Chad and into Nupe and Yorubaland as far as the forest zone. After only a few years of the Fulani War, Dan Fodio found himself in command of the largest state in Africa, the Fulani Empire. His son Muhammed Bello and his brother Abdullahi carried on the jihad and took care of the administration. Dan Fodio worked to establish an efficient government grounded in Islamic law. After 1811, Usman retired and continued writing about the righteous conduct of the Muslim religion. After his death in 1817, his son, Muhammed Bello, succeeded his as amir al-mu’minin and became the ruler of the Sokoto Caliphate, which was the biggest state south of the Sahara at that time. Usman’s brother Abdullahi was given the title Emir of Gwandu and was placed in charge of the Western Emirates, Nupe and Ilorin. Thus all Hausa states, parts of Nupe and Ilorin, and Fulani outposts in Bauchi and Adamawa were all ruled by a single politico-religious system. By 1830 the jihad had engulfed most of what are now northern Nigeria and the northern Cameroons. From the time of Usman dan Fodio to the British conquest at the beginning of the twentieth century there were twelve caliphs.

The Sokoto Caliphate was a combination of an Islamic state and a modified Hausa monarchy. Muhammed Bello introduced Islamic administration, Muslim judges, market inspectors, and prayer leaders were appointed, and an Islamic tax and land system was instituted with revenues on the land considered kharaj and the fees levied on individual subjects called jizya, as in classical Islamic times. The Fulani cattle-herding nomads were sedentarized and converted to sheep and goat raising as part of an effort to bring them under the rule of Muslim law. Mosques and Madrassahs were built to teach the populace Islam. The state patronized large numbers of religious scholars or mallams. Sufism became widespred. Arabic, Hausa, and Fulfulde languages saw a revival of poetry and Islam was taught in Hausa and Fulfide.

The Jihad of Uthman Dan Fodio and the Sokoto Caliphate had a lasting impact and legacy on West Africa. The jihad inspiried other jihads in the western Sudan and Senegambia. The influence of the Sokoto Caliphate also reached Bornu. Bornu was already a center of Islamic learning, but it had a substantial Fulani population aggrieved by landlord domination. Inspired by Uthman Dan Fodio, the Fulani rose up to attack their rulers, but Bornu had squashed the revolt. The jihads of states south of the Lake Chad in Air, north of Sokoto, from among the Tauregs and in Masina were all inspired by Uthman Dan Fodio. The Jihad of Senegambian El Hadj Umar Tall (1794-1864) was directly inspired by Uthman Dan Fodio, and El-Hadj married the daughter of Muhammed Bello while living in Sokoto form 1831-1837.
Religious and political impact
The Foundations of Justice for Legal Guardians, Governors, Princes, Meritorious Rulers, and Kings (Usman dan Fodio)

Many of the Fulani led by Usman dan Fodio were unhappy that the rulers of the Hausa states were mingling Islam with aspects of the traditional regional religion. Usman created a theocratic state with a stricter interpretation of Islam. In Tanbih al-ikhwan ’ala ahwal al-Sudan, he wrote: “As for the sultans, they are undoubtedly unbelievers, even though they may profess the religion of Islam, because they practice polytheistic rituals and turn people away from the path of God and raise the flag of a worldly kingdom above the banner of Islam. All this is unbelief according to the consensus of opinions.”

In Islam outside the Arab World, David Westerlund wrote: “The jihad resulted in a federal theocratic state, with extensive autonomy for emirates, recognizing the spiritual authority of the caliph or the sultan of Sokoto.”

Usman addressed in his books what he saw as the flaws and demerits of the African non-Muslim or nominally Muslim rulers. Some of the accusations he made were corruption at various levels of the administration and neglect of the rights of ordinary people. Usman also criticized heavy taxation and obstruction of the business and trade of the Hausa states by the legal system.

The “Al Risalah” Magazine’s 4th issue by the terrorist group Al-Qaeda praised the administration of Usman dan Fodio.

Usman dan Fodio was described as well past 6 feet, lean, light-skinned and looking very much like his mother Sayda Hauwa. His brother Abdullahi dan Fodio (1761-1829) was also over 6 feet in height and was described as looking more like their father Muhammad Fodio, with a darker skin hue and a portly physique later in his life.

In Rawd al-Janaan (The Meadows of Paradise), Waziri Gidado dan Laima (1777-1851) listed Dan Fodio’s wives as:

His first cousin Maymuna with whom he had 11 children, including Aliyu (1770s-1790s) and the twins Hasan (1793- November 1817) and Nana Asma’u (1793-1864). Maymuna died sometime after the birth of her youngest children.

Aisha dan Muhammad Sa’d. She was also known as “Gaabdo” (Joy in Fulfulde) and as “Iyya Garka” (Hausa for Lady of the House/Compound). Iyya Garka was famed for her Islamic knowledge and for being the matriarch of the family. She outlived her husband by many decades. Among others, she was the mother of:

Muhammad Sa’d (1777-before 1804). Eldest surviving son of Shehu dan Fodio, he was noted for his intellectual pursuits and his early death.
Khadija (c.1778-1856). Preceptor to her sister Asma’u and Aisha al-Kammu, wife to her brother Muhammad Bello. She was married to the scholarly Mustafa (c.1770-1855), the chief secretary to Shaykh Usman dan Fodio. By him, she was the mother of the Sheikh Abdul Qadir dan Tafa (1803-1864), a Sufi, Islamic cleric and historian
Muhammad Sambo (c.1780-1826). A Qadiri Sufi Scholar, Sambo was the first to pledge allegiance to his younger brother Bello when the latter became Caliph in 1817.
Muhammad Buhari (1785-1840). Buhari was a scholar and a lieutenant to the Sultans of Sokoto. He was Sarkin of the ribat of Tambuwal, and was famous for his campaigns in Nupe and Yorubaland along with the Emirs of Gwandu. Muhammad Buhari is the great-grandfather of Sultan Ibrahim Dasuki.

Hauwa, known also as “Inna Garka” (Mother of the House in Hausa) and Bikaraga. She was described as being prone to asceticism. Among her children were

Muhammad Bello (1781-1837), the second Sultan of Sokoto. Author of a chronicle of the Fulani Jihad (Infaq al-Maysur) and a notable scholar.
Abu Bakr Atiku (1783-1842), the third Sultan of Sokoto. Atiku was known for having inherited many of his father’s esoteric secrets. He ruled between 1837 and 1842 and died following the failed siege of Tsibiri
Fatima (1787-1838), also known as “Mo ‘Inna” (Inna’s child, to distinguish her from another Fatima). She was married to Sarkin Yaki Aliyu Jedo, generalissimo of the Sokoto armies.

Hajjo, by whom he was the father of Abdul Qadir (1807-1836) who was known as one of the best poets of Sokoto. Abdul Qadir died from battle wounds during Sultan Bello’s last campaign, in Zamfara. He was buried at Baraya Zaki.

Shatura, by whom he was the father of Ahmadu Rufai (1812-1873). Rufai was Sarkin of Silame and later became Sultan of Sokoto (1867-1873).

By his unique concubine Mariyatu, Sheykh Dan Fodio was father to:

Ibrahim Dasuki
Uwar Deji Mariyam (c.1808- fl. 1880s). Mariyam dan Shehu was a scholar like her sister Khadija, Fatima and Asma’u. Following the latter’s death, she led the Yan Taru movement which promoted women’s education. She was first married to Muhammad Adde dan Waziri Gidado, with whom she had two daughters. Following the latter’s early death, she married the Emir of Kano Ibrahim Dabo (r. 1819-1846). She had no children in her second union. Mariyam wielded much influence following her return to Sokoto in the later 1840s. She was an influential counselor to her nephews who became Sultans, and often served as liaison in their dealings with Kano. In the 1880s during the rule of Sultan Umar dan Ali dan Bello (r. 1881-1892), she penned a letter to her stepson Emir Muhammad Bello (r. 1883-1893) of Kano, rebuking the pretensions of her grand-nephew Hayatu dan Sai’d dan Sultan Bello (1840-1898), who was promoting mass emigration to Adamawa, as “amil” of the Sudanese Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad.
Mallam ‘Isa (1817-c.1870), who was Shaykh Dan Fodio’s youngest and posthumous child. Along with Asma’u, he translated in Hausa and Arabic, many of his father’s works that were written in Fulfulde. Mallam ‘Isa was also named Sarkin Yamma by his brother Sultan Bello. He died sometime during the rule of Sultan Rufa’i (1867-1873).


Usman dan Fodio wrote about 480 poems in Arabic, Fulfulde, and Hausa.

SOURCES: blackpast.org,wikipedia.org,www.takemetonaija.com

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