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SOKOTO CALIPHATE. Founded in the early nineteenth century by Usuman Dan Fodio, the Sokoto Caliphate continues to exert strong cultural influence in Nigeria. Three historical phases of the caliphate can be identified: the establishment of the caliphate (1803-1837), its transformation (1837-1960), and the current era (since 1960).

The savannah states of Hausaland in West Africa had been nominally Muslim since the fifteenth or sixteenth century under the impact of the trans-Saharan trade from North Africa. Hausa city-state rulers administered a form of Muslim law, especially in the urban areas, but pre-Islamic culture remained strongly influential in their agrarian hinterlands.

With the migration of Fulani pastoralists from the western savannah, among them many Muslim scholars and teachers, new cultural influences and ideas began to permeate Hausaland. At first some of the Fulani clerics resided in the courts of the Hausa states. Later many became dissatisfied with the syncretism of Hausa society and began to envision a reformation in which Islamic ideals could be implemented in the region.

The Islamic movement of Usuman Dan Fodio was to have profound consequences in West Africa. He united the peoples of Hausaland and many surrounding areas into a single polity. He established a standard of literature, thought, and action that is still a major reference point in northern Nigeria and in many parts of West Africa.

Usuman was born in 1754 and grew up in Degel, where he learned the Islamic classics, including Qur’an, hadith, and history. He also studied Sufism in the Qadiriyah tradition. As he matured his writings became widely known, and he developed a following of intellectuals and clerics; they came to be known as the Jama’a and spread across Daura, Katsina, Kano, Birnin Kebbi, Zazzau (Zaria), and Bauchi, as well as Degel. Usuman began to demand that the ruler of Gobir give the Jama’a the freedom to preach and to live according to their interpretation of Islamic society. The sultan of Gobir allowed such toleration and the following of Usuman increased, although tensions developed with the upper stratum of Hausa society.

In 1794 Usuman had a dream in which he was given “the sword of truth” to defend his community. Still there was an uneasy truce with the political powers, until 1803 when the ruler of Gobir died, to be succeeded by an ambitious ruler who decided to crack down on the Jama’a. Usuman issued letters to his followers setting out the need for a Muslim community with its own leadership and principles. Threats were made on Usuman’s life by the rulers, and he fled outside Gobir territory with many of his followers. The armed struggle began shortly thereafter when Usuman (known as the shehu, or shaykh) issued a formal declaration of jihad.

Between 1804 and 18o8 the holy war of Usuman Dan Fodio defeated most of the rulers of the Hausa states and established a new capital at Sokoto in 1809, where a “caliphate” was to evolve over the ensuing decades. Simultaneous uprisings throughout Hausaland involving elements of Fulani, Tuareg, and Hausa populations resulted in the largest political community in West Africa since the fall of Songhay (1591). Many of the Hausa rulers fled to establish themselves outside the caliphate; the Zaria rulers, for example, fled to Abuja. The large empire of Borno to the west witnessed a number of uprisings but in the end resisted the jihad.

The Sokoto Caliphate was a loose confederation of emirates that recognized the leadership of Usuman as “commander of the faithful.” When Usuman died in 181’7, he was succeeded by his son Muhammad Bello (d. 1837), although Usuman’s brother Abdullahi Dan Fodio was given authority in the “western territories” based in Gwandu. Bello and Abdullahi as well as Usuman’s daughter Asma continued his intellectual legacy, and each is associated with dozens of well-known books and letters written in Hausa and Fulfulde as well as in Arabic. (Many of these works have been or are currently being translated into English.)

After the passing of the first generation of reformists, many of the emirates began to fuse the lessons of the reforms with the cultural realities of the prereform period, while keeping the structure and legitimacy of Usuman Dan Fodio’s legacy. By the mid-nineteenth century there were about thirty emirates linked to Sokoto, including the large market state of Kano. The caliphate stretched from areas in present Burkina Faso in the west to Cameroon in the east. To the south, the caliphate included the Nupe areas around Bida and the Yoruba areas around Ilorin. Tensions between Sokoto and Yorubaland to the south and Borno to the west continued throughout the nineteenth century.

Meanwhile, British impact on the Sudanic interior of West Africa became more pronounced after the Berlin Conference (1884/85). In 1900 Frederick Lugard became high commissioner of the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria. In 1903 Lugard’s troops occupied the two major cities of the caliphate, Kano and Sokoto. Thus began the colonial period within the caliphate, it kept many of the structures of the caliphate in place through a policy of indirect rule. The “sultan of Sokoto” was given centrality within northern Nigeria, and the “emirs and chiefs” became part of the colonial infrastructure.

With Nigerian independence in 196o many descendants of the founders of the Sokoto Caliphate were among the first generation of national leaders; they included Ahmadu Bello, who became premier of the Northern Region of Nigeria. The sultan of Sokoto has continued to be regarded as a spiritual leader of the Muslim community in Nigeria, although legislative and executive functions of government have passed to local, state, and federal bodies. With the death of Sultan Abubakar III in 1988-he had come to power in 1937-the sultanship passed to a different branch of the families who trace direct lineage to Usuman Dan Fodio. Sultan Ibrahim Dasuki (b. 1923) was installed in March 1990 and plays a central role in the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in Nigeria.

The original emirates of the Sokoto Caliphate have been reorganized into various states within the Federation of Nigeria. Of the thirty states created in 1991, twelve have some direct experience in the caliphal/emirate system stemming from the reform movement of Usuman Dan Fodio: Sokoto, Kebbi, Katsina, Kano, Jigawa, Bauchi, Niger, Kaduna (including Zaria), Kwara, Kogi, Adamawa, and Taraba.

[See also Nigeria and the biography of Dan Fodio.]


Boyd, Jean (with Hamzat Maishanu). Sir Siddiq Abubakar III, Sorkin Musulmi. Kaduna, 1991. Thoughtful biography of Sultan Abubakar, in power 1937-1988, by an Englishwoman who worked in Sokoto for twenty-five years and had access to archival and local literatures.

Khani, Ahmad, and Kabir Gandi, eds. State and Society in the Sokoto Caliphate. Sokoto, 1990 Conference papers in honor of the sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Ibrahim Dasuki.

Last, Murray. The Sokoto Caliphate. London, 1966. Major scholarly work on the subject.

Paden, John N. Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto: Values and Leadership in Nigeria. London, 1986. Biographical coverage of the premier of Northern Region of Nigeria, with a focus on the transition from colonialism to independence.

Sulaiman, Ibraheem. A Revolution in History: The Jihad of Usman Dan Fodio. London, 1986. The Islamic State and the Challenge of History: Ideals, Policies, and Operation of the Sokoto Caliphate. London, 1987. Sympathetic yet scholarly assessment by the acting director of the Centre for Islamic Legal Studies, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

Usman, Yusufu, B., ed. Studies in the History of the Sokoto Caliphate: The Sokoto Seminar Papers. New York, 1979. Collection of papers from a scholarly conference held in Sokoto, January 1965.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/sokoto-caliphate/

  • writerPosted On: August 12, 2017
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