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MAI TATSINE (1927?-1980), leader of a separatist sect in Kano, Nigeria. Mai Tatsine was the nickname given by people in Kano to Muhammadu Marwa (also known as Muhammadu `Arab), the leader of an Islamic sect that was involved in violent disturbances in that city in December 1980. The name is derived from a Hausa phrase he commonly employed against his detractors, Alla ya tstne maka albarka, “May God deprive you of his blessing.” His followers were known as the ‘Yan Tatsine. Because the group was intensely suspicious of outsiders, and because the disturbances gave rise to many wild rumors and apocryphal stories, little reliable knowledge exists of the movement or its leader.



Muhammadu Marwa was reportedly born in the region of Marwa, a city in northern Cameroon, probably in the 1920s. (A Nigerian passport that he acquired gave the date 1927.) He is commonly thought to have been Kirdi by origin, a member of one of the small hill peoples, followers of indigenous religions, who inhabit the region, the plains of which have been dominated by Muslim Fulani since the jihad of the early nineteenth century. But there are also reports that at least one of his parents belonged to the Shuwa, an Arabic-speaking group living in the region. In the 1920s and 1930s there was a large-scale emigration of young Kirdi men from the hills to the plains, driven by poverty and, in 1931, by a severe famine; the young Muhammadu Marwa may have been among them. He reportedly became the servant of a Muslim scholar who inspired his conversion to Islam. On that occasion, he took his Muslim name, Muhammadu. He may have been exposed to Mahdist ideas; in the 1890s this region had served as the base for the Mahdist movement led by Hayat Bin Said (d. 1899), a member of the Sokoto royal family.

Muhammadu Marwa is said to have come to Kano in 1945, but nothing is known of his activities there until the early 1960s. By this time he had acquired a reputation for tafsir, or Qur’anic commentary, and so was given the nickname “Mallam Mai Tafsiri.” This presumably was the origin of his later derogatory nickname. The political and religious life of Kano in the years just after Nigeria’s independence in 196o was turbulent, and Muhammadu Marwa joined in the fray. In 1962 Emir Muhammadu Sanusi (r. 1953-1963) had him brought before a Muslim judge on charges of illegal preaching and an offense known in the Arabic legal records as shatimah, or abusive language. The latter offense was severely-and frequently-punished in Kano at the time, since the exchange of insults by political or religious groups often led to violence. The judge gave Marwa a three-month prison term, to be followed by deportation to his native Cameroon.

The Nigerian military takeover of 1966 brought an end to the formal powers of the emirs and in general weakened traditional social controls. This change made it possible for Marwa to return to Kano in the late 1960s. In 1971 he was issued a Nigerian passport in order to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.

By the late 1970s the petroleum boom had brought a major new injection of wealth to Kano, and with it came rapid social change. For many of the established residents of the city this meant accelerated incorporation into the modern sector of Nigerian society, especially through the state-run secular school system. At the same time, young men were drawn from the countryside in increasing numbers. Many of them followed a traditional pattern in the region, leaving their families to become Qur’anic students (Hausa, almajirat) and supporting themselves and their teacher through begging (Hausa, bara) and casual labor. The economic and educational changes of the 1970s made this group increasingly marginal. Such youth were the main recruiting ground for the ‘Yan Tatsine. Groups affiliated with them sprang up in other towns in northern Nigeria and developed their own separate ritual centers.

Starting in 1977, the aggressive preaching of Marwa’s disciples and the growth of his community of followers inspired vociferous public complaints. The approach of the turn of the Islamic century (fourteenth century AH) in 1979, an event associated with the arrival of a renewer of the faith, apparently inspired Marwa to announce his claim to prophethood. In 1978, as Nigeria returned to civilian rule, Kano state elected a governor from the People’s Redemption Party, Abubakar Rimi. The Nigerian presidency, however, was captured by this party’s conservative rival in northern politics, the National Party of Nigeria. The distrust between the federal and state levels of government hampered efforts to control the ‘Yan Tatsine.

On 26 November 198o, Governor Rimi issued an ultimatum demanding the dispersal of the large group of followers who had gathered around Marwa’s compound in ‘Yan Awaki Quarters, just outside the old walled city. At this time, the arrival of Libyan troops in the Chadian capital of Njamena added to public anxiety. Governor Rimi took no immediate action on the expiration of the ultimatum. Rumors circulated that the ‘Yan Tatsine planned to take over the city’s two main mosques at congregational prayers on Friday, 19 December. The day before, however, a group of ‘Yan Tatsine entered into a violent confrontation with the police at Shahuci Field, near the emir’s palace. With bows and machetes, they drove off the police, captured weapons, and burnt trucks.

Ten days of heavy fighting ensued in which more than four thousand people were killed. Many were victims of vigilante groups that sprang up around the city and attacked anyone they suspected of belonging to the ‘Yan Tatsine. The Nigerian army finally was called in to quell the disturbances. Marwa and his followers fled their stronghold on 29 December. Marwa himself was killed in the process and some one thousand of his followers arrested. In October 1982 violent disturbances linked to the ‘Yan Tatsine occurred in the city of Maiduguri in northeastern Nigeria. Other disturbances followed at Yola (March 1984) and Gombe (April 1985).

The ‘Yan Tatsine follows a pattern common in Muslim West Africa that may be termed “religious separatism,” or, in the phrase of Jean-Paul Charnay (198o), “closed Islam.” Such groups embrace heterodox practices and esoteric interpretations of the Qur’an. They emphasize their own purity and refuse contact with the rest of society. Muhammadu Marwa was especially known for his condemnation of all modern innovations from bicycles to radios and buttons. He reportedly accepted only the Qur’an as a valid source of religious teaching, yet as a prophet claimed the right to issue new religious injunctions, or at least new interpretations of the Qur’an. He had no known links with other Islamic groups of either Sufi or Wahhabli orientation.

[See also Nigeria.]


Abba, Isa A. “Bara by Some Almajirai in Kano City in the Twentieth Century.” In Studies in the History of Kano, edited by Bawuro M. Barkindo, pp. 193-206. Ibadan, 1983. Sharply critical view of traditional Qur’anic education.

Charnay, Jean-Paul. “Islam et ndgritude: Quelques rdflexions sur l’Afrique noire.” L’Afrique et l’Asie Modernes, no. 126 (198o): 3-16. Christelow, Allan. “Religious Protest and Dissent in Northern Nigeria: From Mahdism to Quranic Integralism.” Journal Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 6 (1985): 375-393.

Christelow, Allan. “The ‘Yan Tatsine Disturbances: A Search for Perspective.” Muslim World 75 (April 1985): 69-84.

Clarke, Peter B. West African Islam: A Study of Religious Development from the Eighth to the Twentieth Century. London, 1982.

Hajj, Muhammad A. al-. “Hayatu Bin Said: A Revolutionary Mahdist in the Western Sudan.” In Sudan in Africa, edited by Yusuf Fadl Hasan, pp. 128-141. Khartoum, 1971.

Hiskett, Mervyn. The Development of Islam in West Africa. London, 1984.

Lubeck, Paul. Islam and Urban Labor in Northern Nigeria: The Making of a Muslim Working Class. Cambridge, 1987. Study of the role of Islamic education in forming working-class consciousness.

Paden, John N. Religion and Political Authority in Kano. Berkeley, 1973. Essential reference for study of religion and politics in Kano up to late 196os.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/mai-tatsine/

  • writerPosted On: July 31, 2014
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