Shehu Usman Dan Fodio: Is an Islamic preacher, reformer, scholar, and statesman.

Origins and Birth

Usman dan Fodio was born on December 15, 1754, in the village of Maratta, in the Hausa city-state of Gobir, in what is today northern Nigeria.  He was a descendant of the early Fulani settlers in Hausaland in the 15th century. His ancestor Musa Jakollo, a Pullo of Tooroobe clan, emigrated from Fuuta Tooro and arrived in Hausaland around 1450. His Family settled in Birnin Konni a town in the province of Adar and stayed there for eleven generations.


Usman’s father, Muhammadu Fodiyo, was a man of piety and learning who was trained in the Maliki school of jurisprudence. When Usman reached the age of learning, as with all Muslim kids, his education began with the study of the Quran which was taught to him by his father. From Abdu Rahman dan Hamada he learned Arabic Grammar and Syntax (Nahwu and Sarf). From another Sheikh, Usman Binndoowo Bakebbi, he learned the advanced Arabic subjects such as poetry and Arabic literature. He studied Islamic law, theology, and philosophy in Agadez (in what is the today Republic of Niger) under an Islamic scholar, Jibril Ibn Umar, who was then recognized as the most learned man in central Sudan (i.e West Africa).

Shehu Usman, as he became known, was an apt pupil, with an insatiable thirst of knowledge, and absorbed all that his teachers were able to teach him. When he returned to Hausaland from Agadez, he continued his studies with his uncles and other family members such as Hashimu Bazanfara and Ahmadu dan Muhammadu who taught him exegesis (Tafseer and Uloom at-Tafseer), Muhammadu dan Raji, from whom he studied Hadith (Science of Tradition). Dan Raji was educated in Madinah al-Munawwarah, his teacher, Abu Al-Hasan Ali al-Sindi, was a renowned Hadith scholar which gave him a profound knowledge of the science of Hadith. He had studied all of the most important works of hadith such as those of Imam al-Bukhari, Muslim, and Malik through an uninterrupted chain of authorities (isnad) which, in his turn, he gave Shehu Usman license to pass on. Another notable hadith teacher that Shehu Usman traces his isnads in Sahih al-Bukhari, Muwatta Malik, and Ash-Shifa’ of Imam Iyad, was Salih Muhammad al-Kanawi.

As a Teacher and Preacher

At the age of 25, he began to teach and write poems in both, his mother tongue Fulfulde and Arabic language. His first pupil was his own younger brother Abdullahi Ibn Fodiyo who later became his lieutenant. Meanwhile, he began moving among rural communities preaching increasing the popular basis for religious teaching and bringing literacy to numerous small communities. He wrote poems and stories of mysticism that increased his popularity as a teacher and preacher.

Call for Change

Motivated by his reformist ideas Shehu Usman 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, worshiping fetishes, and believing in the power of talismans, divination, and conjuring. He also insisted on the observance of Maliki fiqh in the commercial, criminal, and personal sectors. Dan Fodio also denounced the mixing of men and women, pagan customs, dancing at bridal feasts, and inheritance practices contrary to Sharia. He also vigorously denounced the cattle tax “Jingali” that was collected by the Hausa rulers on their Fulani subjects.

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 (Muslim scholars) leadership made it possible to resist the state and the state version of Islam in the name of sharia and the ideal caliphate.

Shehu Usman Dan Fodio’s appeal to justice and morality rallied the outcasts of Hausa society. He found his followers among the Fulbe (Fulani) cattle pastoralists, Hausa peasants, runaway slaves, Fulani preachers, and others also responded to his preaching. His jihad served to integrate a number of peoples into a single religiopolitical movement.

Fulbe Religio-political Reform Movement

Dan Fodio’s uprising was a major episode of a movement described as the Fulani jihads in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. It followed the Islamic reformist campaigns successfully waged in Fuuta Bundu, Fuuta Tooro, and Fuuta Djallon between 1650 and 1776, which led to the creation of those three Islamic states. In his turn, the Shehu inspired a number of later West African jihads, including those of Seku Amadu, founder of the Fulani Empire of Masina,  Seikhu Omar Ibn Saidou Tall (Oumar al-Futiyyu Taal), founder of the Toucouleur Empire, who married one of dan Fodio’s granddaughters, and Modibo Adama, founder of the Adamawa Emirate.

The Struggle (Jihad) and the Birth of the Caliphate

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. Usman’s followers at this time entitled him Amir al-Mu’minin (the commander of the faithful) 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”) Usuman 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.

Being proclaimed Amir al-Muminin or Commander of the Faithful in Gudu, made Shehu Usman 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. Shehu Usman 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 These were all places with major or minor groups of Fulani alims ( Muslim scholars).

By 1808 Usman had defeated the rulers of Gobir, Kano, Katsina, and other Hausa Kingdoms.  After only a few years of the struggle (Jihad), Dan Fodio found himself in command of the Hausa states, a new Fulani Empire, or more appropriately a Muslim state known as Sokoto Caliphate was born. 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, and his brother Abdullahi. They 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 him as Amir al-mu’mineen 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 and Nupe. Thus all Hausa states, parts of Nupe 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 is 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 

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 were 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 Islam to the people. The state patronized large numbers of religious scholars or mallams (Mu’allim). Sufism became widespread. Arabic, Hausa, and Fulfulde languages saw a revival of poetry, and Islam was taught in Hausa and Fulfulde.

Shehu Usuman’s Writings

Usman Dan Fodio wrote one hundred and fifteen books concerning his thoughts about religion, government, culture, poetry, logic, rhetoric, economy, trade, law, and society. The Shehu was not only a war leader but also a scholar and poet in the classical Arabic tradition. Best known among

his verse works are his panegyric to the prophet Muhammad, Al-dālīyah (The Ode Rhyming in Dāl), that helped to spread the prophet’s Ṣūfī order.

The Encyclopaedia of Religion (2006) echoed the numerous Arabic prose works he had. The main thrust of the works is against all manifestations of indigenous, non-Islamic Hausa culture—song, music, ornate dress, architecture, social mores, and so on—and an insistence that these be replaced by Islamic alternatives. His works also influenced his society, and posterity, by disseminating the ideas of the Qādirī order of Ṣūfīs, to which he was deeply committed. Some important titles worth mentioning include Talim al-Ikhwan where Dan Fodio discusses the philosophy of law, with jurisprudence as a vehicle of protest and dissemination of revolutionary principles. The Shehu further wrote in Kitab al-Farq on the question of leadership. In both works, the Shehu pointed out the oppressive policies instituted by rulers, illegal taxations levied on common people, arbitrary confiscation of property corruption by judges, perversion of the legal process, alteration of the sacred law to suit the interest of rulers and rich men, large-scale corruption in government and offered solutions.

According to Ibraheem Suleiman (1986) in his work “A Revolution in History: The Jihad of Usman Dan Fodio” listed some good titles and explained their subject areas, these titles include:

i. Hidayat al-Tullab. The Shehu dealt with several issues relating to Islamic Law and Muslim society. The first of which was the very definition of law itself. Finally, the Shehu dealt in Hidayat with the issue of right and wrong in society. The work can be seen as an attempt to instill in his student a universal approach to law and to expand their attitudes to society.

ii. Umdat al-Ubbad. Shehu provides guidelines for the minimum voluntary acts of devotions; prayer, fasting, Quranic recitation, remembrance of Allah, and acts of charity. In a nutshell, this writing discusses spiritual training.

iii. Al-Amr bil-ma’ruf wa-Annahy Anil-munkar. The Shehu dealt with three broad matters in this treatise. Firstly, he looked at the philosophical call as a historical, social necessity, particularly at a time of social decay; secondly, he proposed basic guidelines for discharging this duty, finally, he tackled the issue of armed confrontation as it relates to a movement in the initial phase of the revolutionary process.

iv. Kitab al-Adab dealt with more than fifteen issues devoted to matters relating to knowledge. Shehu also touched on the obligations a man owes to his wife, wife to her husband, and mutual obligation between Muslims.

v. Ihya al-Sunna wa Ikhmad al-Bida. The book is unique in two respects. It is a book of practical, social, and moral education that focuses its attention entirely on Hausa society with the sole object of rectifying its wrong deeds and guiding it aright. There is no theory in it: everything it deals with was practiced by society. Secondly, it is a book of protest, albeit of a legal nature, albeit restrained. In a way, it takes the line of al-Barnawi’s Shurb al-Zulal, except that the Ihya was written by Usman and is a textbook of tajdid. Its thirty-three chapters deal with the three fundamental issues of Shehu’s message: Iman, Islam, and Ihsan, with Islam. The regulation of life, in general, took twenty-seven chapters. Both Iman and Ihsan have one chapter each, and one chapter is devoted to the sunna in its broader sense and one to innovations. Other titles are Tariq al-janna which dealt with moral ideals, Wathiqat al-Ikhwan, call for intellectual excellence and social manifesto. Tanbih, in this book, the Shehu mobilized women and defended his action in allowing women to attend his lectures, as justifiable and, indeed, sanctioned by law. Bayan Wujub al-hijra dealt with the principles of warfare. While Irshad ahl al-Tafrit, seeks to guide the extremists to the right understanding of the fundamentals of religion.

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