‘Uthman b. Muhammad b. ‘Uthman b. Salih b. Fudi, known as Ibn Fudi, Usman dan Fodio, or the shehu (the Hausa term for shaykh), was a religious scholar and social reformer who led a jihad in Hausaland (northern Nigeria). His struggle led to the founding of the largest Islamic caliphate in 19th- century Africa, known as the Sokoto Caliphate or the Fulani Empire.
Born in Maratta in the Hausa city- state of Gobir in what is now northwestern Nigeria on December 15, 1754, dan Fodio belonged to a clan of Muslim Fulani scholars known as the Torodbe, who migrated in the 15th century from Futa Toro in the north to the town of Birni- N’Konni (on the border between Niger and Nigeria). The Fulani were an ethnic minority in Hausaland. Through their intellectual positions as teachers and scribes, Fulani scholars contributed to the spread of Islam in Hausaland. Although the authorities of Gobir officially accepted Islam, they remained uncommitted to strict Islamic rules, such as applying shari’a or condemning polytheism and pagan practices. Growing frustration among the Muslim community ultimately led to the emergence of an Islamic reform movement in the 18th century, which carried the support of revered Muslim scholars of the time.
When dan Fodio was a child, his family settled in Degel, where he would eventually start his activities. His early education included Arabic, memorization (ḥifẓ) of the Qur’an, Maliki jurisprudence, and Muslim traditions. His life was marked by the influence of his teacher, Jibril b. ‘Umar, a prominent Sufi scholar who initiated dan Fodio into the Qadiri Sufi order. Sufism played a considerable role in dan Fodio’s life and career. Mystic visions, such as the one dan Fodio experienced in 1794, convinced him of the mission he had been assigned and his duty to raise the sword against the enemies of Islam.
Dan Fodio started his activities in 1774 and 1775 as a wandering teacher and preacher, along with his son Muhammad Bello (d. 1837) and his brother ‘Abdullahi dan Fodio (1766– 1828). For a decade, dan Fodio’s career would involve peaceful teachings about Islam and religious practices and the writing of poems calling people to Islam. At the time, his relationship with the Hausa authorities was amicable, and education was seen as the key instrument for a progressive and profound reform of society. His project had a distinctively practical dimension, which was not as prominent in previous local movements. A distinguishing feature of his approach was tolerance and nonconfrontation. Dan Fodio refused to declare apostates (pronounce takfīr against) people who failed to follow Islamic rulings out of ignorance. He denounced earlier reformers who condemned society, like his mentor, Jibril b. ‘Umar, and strongly criticized the reformer ‘Abd al- Mahalli, who took hasty recourse to armed confrontation with the Moroccan state.
Dan Fodio’s writings dealt mostly with education until 1803, when the first mention of jihad was made in his work Masa’il Muhimma (Important matters). From 1803 to 1804, the resistance of the Hausa rulers to Muslim demands and their attacks on dan Fodio’s community led to a change in method. Forced to emigrate, dan Fodio and his followers declared a jihad against the Hausa rulers in 1803.
In order to remain consistent with his earlier ideas, dan Fodio conceived of an original theory of takfīr by distinguishing between religious and political unbelief; political takfīr could be pronounced against rulers who did not follow the shari’a and against whom waging jihad was legitimate. These rulers were not accused of personal takfīr and remained within the realm of the Muslim community. After the fall of Gobir in 1808, conflict spread to the neighboring Hausa states. By 1808, all the Hausa states had been conquered, resulting in the establishment of a centralized Islamic state, the Sokoto Caliphate. Ruled by religious scholars and governed by shari’a, it took the Abbasid caliphate as a model. Dan Fodio was recognized as its first leader, with the title of Commander of the Faithful. In 1812, he divided the caliphate into two states to be ruled by his son Muhammad Bello and his brother ‘Abdullahi. Dan Fodio retired from his political career in 1812 and devoted the rest of his life to writing and teaching Islam and Sufism. He died in Sokoto on April 20, 1817.
Dan Fodio wrote more than 100 scholarly works, which continue to be read and quoted today. He remains a respected figure in the history of West Africa. His successful jihad had a long- term impact on West African society and inspired a number of subsequent uprisings, including the jihad of Seku Amadu (1773– 1845) and El- Hajj ‘Umar ibn Sa’id Tall (1797– 1864), who founded the Massina and Tukulor empires, respectively.
See also colonialism; Nigeria; revival and reform; shari’a; Sufism; West Africa
A.D.H. Bivar, “The Wathīqat Ahl Al- Sūdān: A Manifesto of the Fulani Jihād,” Journal of African History 2, no. 2 (1961); Usman dan Fodio, Bayān wujūb al- hijrah ‘alā al- ‘ibād, edited and translated by F. H. El- Masri, 1978; Idem, Masā’il muhimma. 180; Mervyn Hiskett, The Sword of Truth: The Life and Times of the Shehu Usuman