By: Hussayn Abdul Qawi, MPAC Research Fellow
As we reflect upon Black History Month, it’s important to note the historical cosmopolitan contributions of Black African Muslims. In the spirit of this recognition, we highlight one of the most well-known Islamic scholars and leaders of the last 300 centuries, whose efforts resuscitated Islam in the West African region: Uthman Dan Fodio.
Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodio was a religious scholar famously known throughout the African historical tradition as the “Reviver of Islam” in West Africa. He was born in the village of Maratta in the Hausa city-state of Gobir, known as present-day Nigeria in 1754. Once his family moved from Gobir to another Hausa city-state called Degel, his religious education accelerated and would provide the foundation of Islamic values upon which he would construct the Sekoto Caliphate of West Africa, which would include over 30 emirates in its political structure.
In his studies, Shaykh Uthman learned the basics of reading, writing, and religion throughout his boyhood while learning the Quran from his father. He would also study with acclaimed regional scholar Jibril Bin Umar, with whom he would influence his fervor for social, economic, and spiritual reform in West Africa. Simultaneously, Shaykh Uthman was studying, preaching, and teaching religion and its role in society. His growing influence around his place of birth in Degel attracted the eyes of the Hausa rulers, who vehemently opposed his preaching of the religion in the region. The Hausa Empire was a multitude of city-states between the Niger River and Lake Chad. The ruling authorities became increasingly religiously suppressive and despotic with their authority to the point where the core principles of Islam were not able to be practiced. Shaykh Uthman was continually met with opposition for what began as merely spoken words calling for the purification of the soul through adherence to Islamic teachings. His teachings emphasized the need for Islamic purification and socio-political reforms. In the context of Hausa rulers of the time, Uthman dan Fodio’s movement sought to challenge what he perceived as corrupt and unjust governance among the existing Hausa states.
It’s important to note the socioeconomic conditions throughout the region, which incited resistance to tyrannical authority. The Hausa authority was a government built upon hereditary transitions of power that were not determined by fitness to rule. As a result, laws were enacted that blatantly contravened the fundamental Islamic understanding of human rights as an imperative. Shaykh Uthman’s continued influence grew, forcing him to relocate because of continued attacks from the Hausa on himself and his followers. The local population, politically disenfranchised from authority among the impoverished and the peasantry, began to follow him. They were attracted to the Shaykh’s teachings, which called for adherence to Islamic law and tradition which would quell the social ills ravaging most of the population.
Before his movement took on a political identity, Shaykh Uthman’s central focus was teaching the local people basic Islamic principles. Although he is renowned as a fervent reviver of Islamic principles in the region, his original intent wasn’t to acquire political authority or leadership. It was only after continued pressure from the Hausa violations of Islamic rights to the people that his resistance would take a physical form. The people were taxed heavily, while the leadership of the time took bribes, seized property, prohibited men and women from wearing Islamic clothing, prohibited the Sunnah (teachings of the prophet Muhammad), promoted excessive unjust conflicts, persecution, indulged in extravagance, and harems. All of which were seen as extreme perversions of the faith.
Consequently, Uthman dan Fodio established the Sokoto Caliphate due to his vision for Islamic reform and his discontent with what he discerned as a corruption of Islamic values from the Hausa. Shaykh Uthman’s primary motivation was rooted in religious and socio-political concerns. His emphasis on a pure interpretation of Islam sought to implement Islamic governance based on the principles outlined in the Quran and Hadith that would address the socio-economic problems that harmed society.
In 1804, Uthman dan Fodio led a successful resistance struggle against the Hausa rulers in northern Nigeria. The establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate was a means to create a society that adhered to a just Islamic society. The Caliphate aimed and succeeded in promoting Islamic education and providing a more equitable and morally upright governance structure. Uthman dan Fodio’s efforts resulted in the consolidation of various Hausa states under a unified leadership, marking the beginning of the Sokoto Caliphate, which endured throughout the 19th century. One of the primary goals of the Sokoto Caliphate was community welfare, in which all community members could have access to land through public use. The antagonistic states became unified, and practices such as unfair taxation, authoritative positions primarily based upon hereditary power transfers, and hoarding of wealth became expressly prohibited.
Moreover, after abolishing the exploitative taxes of the Hausa leadership, the Sokoto Caliphate prohibited the enslavement of Muslims and all forms of forced labor. Uthman Dan Fodio’s call for justice was rooted in a deep commitment to the principles outlined in Islam. He emphasized the importance of upholding fairness, equity, and moral probity in governance. His vision for justice extended beyond legal Islamic Matters to encompass social and economic aspects, seeking to create a society where individuals’ rights were protected and oppression and corruption were eradicated.
Recognizing the contributions of historical Black African Muslims sheds light on the transcendence of
Islamic values beyond geographical borders. Throughout history, Islam has always welcomed cosmopolitan communities in which diverse backgrounds have aided in its preservation. It is through the lens of political repression of human values that elevates the Muslim spirit to change their socioeconomic conditions when they grow intolerable and unjust to human life and faith. When leadership is assumed, it is important to prioritize the needs of the people, including those in vulnerable communities. “Charity starts in the home” – addressing American domestic concerns is paramount to successful leadership.
Shaykh Uthman addressed the domestic needs of his people first. And that is worthy of honor in a world rife with social ills and repression. His apprehension of unjust taxes and unjust warfare by the preceding regime is not dissimilar to the contemporary issues we face today as Americans. While the U.S. sends millions of American tax dollars to foreign nations to fund global conflicts, issues such as housing insecurity, unstable job markets, and poor education are disregarded. In the words of Shaykh Uthman: “Conscience is an open wound; only truth can heal it.” As Muslims, our traditions shape our understanding of the human experience; therefore, how we respond to societal issues is directly related to our Islamic identity.