Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Intellectual Discourse in the Sokoto Caliphate: The Triumvirate's Opinions on the Issue of Ransoming, Ca. 1810*

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Intellectual Discourse in the Sokoto Caliphate: The Triumvirate's Opinions on the Issue of Ransoming, Ca. 1810*

Article excerpt

"The Shehu was the sun ... his younger brother was the moon . . . and Bello is their legatee."1

Nana Asma'u, "Sonnore Abdullahi"


"Islamic intellectual history," wrote David Gutelius, "is frequently written as if intellectuals were somehow separate from the social milieu that shaped their ideas and actions."2 While he made this statement specifically to address what he sees as an underemphasis of the role African Muslim scholars played in their communities, it is just as applicable to our understanding of the written records left by these scholars. As Scott Reese has pointed out, historians have recently changed the way in which they view and examine texts produced by Muslim intellectuals.3 It had been assumed that the religious nature of a text deprived it of historical value. African Muslim scholars were treated as if they were writing in a vacuum instead of reacting to the circumstances around them. Yet, discussions on Islamic law were in many respects a form of "total discourse" since they encompassed religious, legal, moral, economic, and political facets.4 West African Muslim scholars were concerned with and influenced by the ideas, concerns, and events surrounding them. Their writings frequently addressed the ethical, political, legal, and other issues of the time and place in which they lived. This was particularly true of the founding governor- scholars of the Sokoto Caliphate- 'Uthmân b. Fûdï, his brother 'Abdullah! b. Fûdï, and 'Uthmän's son, Muhammad Bello. The differences in their advice and policies demonstrate not only a lively intellectual discourse and debate but also the dynamism and responsiveness of the Sokoto leadership to the challenges of governing a new multicultural state. The triumvirate based their opinions, policies, and disagreements upon their understanding of Islamic jurisprudence and precedent as well as on local circumstances. One example of this is the divergent opinion between 'Abdullähi and Bello on the ransoming of war prisoners held by Sokoto forces. Ransoming refers to the practice of paying for the release of a captive at the time of capture or soon afterwards with the ransomed captive returning to their previous status in their own society. The discourse on ransoming intersects policy debate, intellectual debate, and politics. It further demonstrates the intellectual vibrancy of African Muslim intellectuals and their interconnectedness with the scholarship of the greater Islamic world.

Origins and Education of the Fodiawa

The Sokoto reform movement and the state that was created out of it was founded by a group of Muslim scholars concerned about the role of Islam in society and the politics and economy of the central Sudan. The movement was centered on 'Uthmân b. Fûdï and his family. As a scholarly family in the central Sudan, the Fodiawa were tied into the scholarly networks of West Africa and the greater Islamic world. They came from a long line of Fulbe scholars and teachers. Indeed their name "Fodiye" means "learned man" in Fulfulde. They trace their family roots to Musa Jokollo who was said to have left Futa Toro in Guinea in the fifteenth century due to religious persecution. The family eventually settled in the Hausa city-state of Gobir. The Fodiawa were part of a larger Fulbe migration from Futa Toro into the central Sudan region that began by the fifteenth century at the latest.5 These migrants were composed mostly of cattle-herders but included scholarly families that took on the roles of teachers, preachers, and religious counsellors. Upon reaching Hausaland most of the Fulbe migrants began living a rural, semi-sedentary life far from the seats of political power in the Hausa cities. Yet, some among them, including the Fodiawa, established closer connections with the cities including with the ruling class.

'Uthmân and 'Abdullähi received the typical education of the sons of an eighteenth-century scholarly Fulbe family of the central Sudan. …

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