A Glance in the History of the Fulbe (Fulani)

  Who are the Fulɓe?

People who refer to themselves as  Fulɓe or Haal-Pulaar’en (Pullo or Haalpulaar in singular) are known by many names (and spellings of the names) in other languages. In English, for instance, they are referred to as Fulani, a term borrowed from the Hausa people. Fula, from Manding languages, is also used in English, and sometimes spelled Fulah or Fullah. Fula and Fulani are commonly used in English, including within Africa. The French borrowed the Wolof term Pël, which is variously spelled: Peul, Peulh, and even Peuhl. More recently the Pulaar/Fulfulde term Fulɓe, which is a plural noun (singular, Pullo) has been Anglicised as Fulbe, which is gaining popularity in use. In Portuguese, the terms Fula or Futafula are used. The terms Fallata Fallatah or Fellata are of Kanuri origins and are often the ethnonyms by which Fulani people are identified by in parts of Chad and in Sudan.

Origins and Dispersion

While the origins of the Fulbe are subject to many theses, the Fulani historian Aboubacry Moussa Lam of the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar, one of the leading Egyptologists, favored the Nile theses. In his well-documented book, De L’Origine Egyptienne des Peuls, Professor Lam developed a theory supporting migration from East to West (Egypt, Ethiopia, along the Sahara), and then a second migration in the opposite direction (Eastward). Amadou Hampate Ba, another Fulani philologist, however, is leaning toward the Sahara theory.

Artwork painted in natural rock in central Sahara dating back 12000 years ago depicting what looks like Fulani herdsmen

Many archaeological artifacts found at Tissili n’hajjar of the central Sahara (now southern Algeria) testifies that the ancestor of the modern Fulbe occupied the Great Sahara long before its transformation to a desert, which was completed around two thousand (2000 ) B.C. These people engraved and painted splendidly on stone, and have left many galleries of pictures of themselves, their Gods, their cattle, and the wild animals which flourished then. Scholars specializing in Fulbe culture believe that some of the imagery depicts rituals that are still practiced by contemporary Fulani people. At the Tin Tazarift site, for instance, historian Amadou Hampate Ba recognized a scene of the ‘lootoori’ ceremony, a celebration of the ox’s aquatic origin. In a finger motif, Ba detected an allusion to the myth of the hand of the first Fulani herdsman, Kikala. At Tin Felki, Ba recognized a hexagonal carnelian jewel as related to the Agades cross, a fertility charm still used by Fulani women. There are also details in the paintings which correspond to elements from Fulani myths taught during the initiation rites like the hermaphroditic cow.

The majority of Fulbe People nowadays are sedentary and live in urban centers, but originally, their way of life was nomad pastoralism. It is estimated that a third of Fulani (12-13 Million) are still pastoralists which make the Fulani the largest nomadic pastoral community in the world.

Around the 4th century, the Fulbe along with the Soninke (a northern Mande group) played a significant role in the rise of the powerful Ghana Empire. However, the growth of this settled agricultural society resulted in the dispersion of the pastoralist outwards, and make them settle to the South-West in the steppe land astride the middle Senegal valley, where they later developed another kingdom known to history as Tekrur. With the rise of Islam in seventh century A.D., Some of them were converted to it as soon as the tenth century and chose to participate in settled and Muslim society and become the people now called Tukulor (Toucouleure in French) meaning people of Tekrur.

Around the eleventh century, those Fulani who did not accept the settled and Islamic way of life sought to preserve their traditional pagan pastoralism and filtered eastwards through the grassland of West Africa. By the fifteenth century, they had settled in considerable numbers in Fuuta Jallon highlands and in around Masina, the inland delta of the Niger upstream of Timbuktu, they were also beginning to appear in Hausaland. By the fifteenth century, large numbers of them were settling in the grassy uplands of Cameroon.

In this remarkable emigration, the Fulbe had occasionally mixed with the earlier inhabitants of the land in which they settled, however, most of the time they remained distinct communities each under its own leader, the ardo, continually moving themselves and their herds through t.he bush pasture around the fields of the agricultural villages. Many Fulani indeed, maintains into today this way of life intact. However, in course of time, some Fulani did break away from this distinctive pagan pastoralism to settle in the growing urban center and there they converted to Islam.

The urban Fulbe of the dispersion maintained their ethnic links not only with the wondering herdsman in the rural district but also with Islamized Fulbe population in Fuuta Tooro (ancient Tekrur) and Fuuta Jalon in the far West.

In the eighteenth century the Fuuta Tooranke and Fuuta Jalonke, the earliest sedentary Fulbe, now largely Islamized, began to reorganize traditional West African societies into Muslim theocracy which resulted in the foundation, in 1725 of Muslim State, Almamiya (Imamate) of Fuuta Jalon (Guinea).

In Fuuta Tooro (northern Senegal and southern Mauritania) a Fulbe Muslim clerical group, known as toorbe followed the example of their kin Fuuta Jalonke by overthrowing the rule of another Fulbe pagan dynasty called Deniyanke, in 1776-76 and founded the Almamiya of Fuuta Tooro. Shortly after this there developed the most famous of the Fulbe Muslim rule, the Sokoto Empire founded by Sheku Usman Danfodio (1754-1817), in what is now northern Nigeria. Over some 180.000 squire miles and more than 10 million people, the size and strength of this empire have always attracted notice. More recently, increasing attention has been paid to its history through studies of its considerable literary output, mainly in Arabic but also in Pulaar/Fulfulde and Hausa languages. Usman Dan Fodio and his principal lieutenants, his brother Abdullah and his son Muhammad Bello, are alone known to be authors of over 260 works ( books and treaties on religion, law, politics and history, and also poetry).

Another Muslim cleric and contemporary with Usman Dan Fodio, Ahmadu Ibn Hammadi (1775-1844) founded in Masina (Mali) a new empire of some 250.000 squire miles which included within its borders the legendary cities of Jenne and Timbuktu.

About 1850 Elhajji Umar Taal founded the Toucouleur empire which includes in its territory the present-day Mali, and some parts of Guinea, Senegal, and Mauritania. El-Hajji Umar Taal (1795-1864) was born in Halwaar in the Tooro region of Fuuta Tooro. After completing his education in Islamic science, he left his homeland at the age of twenty-five to visit the greatest learning centers of western Africa, which happen to be the Fulani Kingdom of Fuuta Jalon, Masina, and the Fulani Empire of Sokoto. Umar spent twelve years in Sokoto where he associates himself with Bello’s court and married one of his daughters, Maryam. He also had been to Makka and to Egypt where he had been in contact with its greatest Sheikhs and met with the Al-Azhar University doctors of Islamic sciences. At Cairo, Sheikh Umar met with Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghali who appointed him Khalif of the Tijjaniyah brotherhood order in western Africa. After twenty years away from his homeland, Fuuta Tooro, he returned in 1840 with many disciples from all over western Africa. Nine years later, with such followers, as he had, he migrated to Dinguiray in Fuuta Jalon where he established a ribat, a religious sanctuary for the training of recruits to the Tijjani order. As such it attracted from many walks of life and from a variety of ethnic groups.

Other relatively smaller Fulani Muslim rules were also established in Senegambia by Maba Diakhou ( Hamma Ba of Diakhou) and Moussa Molo.

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