Uthman dan Fodio: Progenitor of the Sokoto Caliphate

Uthman dan Fodio (December 15, 1754 – April 20, 1817) was the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate in 1809. A religious teacher, writer and Islamic promoter, dan Fodio was one of a class of urbanized ethnic Fulani living in the Hausa States in what is today Northern Nigeria. A teacher of the Maliki School of law and the Qadiriyyah order of Sufism, he lived in the city-state of Gobir until 1802 when, motivated by his reformist ideas and under increased 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 an ethnically Fula-led Jihad movement 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 leadership 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, or violation of the standards of Sharia law, and heavy taxation. He encouraged literacy and scholarship, including for women, and several of his daughters emerged as scholars and writers. His writings and sayings continue to be much quoted today.

Dan Fodio’s uprising is 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 Fuuta-Jalon and Fuuta-Tooro 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 Masina Empire founder Seku Amadu, Toucouleur Empire founder El Hadj Umar Tall (who married one of dan Fodio’s granddaughters) and Adamawa Emirate founder Modibo Adama.

Dan Fodio was well-educated in classical Islamic science, philosophy and theology and 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 the ideal society free from oppression and vice. His teacher was a North African Muslim who gave his apprentice a broader perspective of the Muslim reformist ideas in other parts of the Muslim world.

Dan Fodio used his influence to secure approval to create a religious community in his hometown of Degel that would, dan Fodio hoped, be a model town. He stayed there for 20 years, writing, teaching and preaching.

In 1802, the ruler of Gobir and one of dan Fodio’s students, Yunfa turned against him, revoking Degel’s autonomy and attempting to assassinate dan Fodio. Dan Fodio and his followers fled into the western grasslands of Gudu (present day Sokoto State) where they turned for help to the local Fulani nomads. Uthman dan Fodio was proclaimed the Commander of the Faithful in Gudu. This made him political as well as religious leader, giving him the authority to declare and pursue a jihad, raise an army and become its commander.

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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. Uthman started the jihad against Gobir in 1804.

The Fulani communication during the war was carried along trade routes and rivers draining to the Niger-Benue valley, as well as the delta and the lagoons. The call for jihad did not only reach other Hausa states such as Kano, Katsina and Zaria but also Borno, Gombe, Adamawa, Nupe and Ilorin. These were all places with major or minor groups of Fulani scholars.

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, or violation of the standards of Sharia law, and heavy taxation.

After only a few short 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 out the jihad and took care of the administration. Dan Fodio worked to establish an efficient government grounded in Islamic law.

Image of Uthman dan Fodio University, Sokoto
The Uthman dan Fodio University, Sokoto, Sokoto, Nigeria is named after him.

After 1811, Uthman dan Fodio retired and continued writing about the righteous conduct of the Muslim belief. After his death in 1817, his son, Muhammed Bello, succeeded him and became the ruler of the Sokoto Caliphate, which was the biggest state south of the Sahara at that time.

Uthman’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, Ilorin and Fulani outposts in Bauchi and Adamawa were all ruled by a single politico- religious system.

From the time of Uthman dan Fodio there have been twelve caliphs, until the British conquest of Sokoto, at the beginning of the twentieth century, in 1903 by Lord Frederick Lugard.

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Ayomide Akinbode

Ayomide Akinbode holds a degree in Chemistry but has a passion for History and Classics. When he is not writing, he’s either sleeping or playing Scrabble.

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