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Causes of the Sokoto Jihad: Leadership and Doctrine


This was for history of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa. I was supposed to answer the question “How can we account for the revolutionary movement in the 18th and 19th century West Africa? Why are these movements knows as ‘jihads’?”

The Jihadic movements of the Western Sudan in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can be seen as a sort of “grassroots” political movement turned revolutionary. Unlike the military conquests in Northern Africa, they were started by rural peoples to reform their own areas, thus they were revolutions, not conquests. Sheikh Usman dan Fodio’s Sokoto Jihad is the best known of the Western Africa jihads, the most successful, and the first in the area to officially be declared as a jihad.[1] This uprising was caused by a confluence of factors. The Fulbe and Hausa peoples had long-standing ethnic and particularly religious hostilities, which drove a desire for political independence. Also, there is emergence of Sh. Usman himself, a credible Islamic leader to organize the resistance.

Starting in the late seventeenth century, early efforts to establish Islamic states in Western Sudan provided some impetus toward later movements such as the Sokoto Jihad. However, while these revolutions were successful in establishing nominally Muslim governments and removing governments that had suppressed the religion, there was little effort to engage scholars (many of whom opposed them on religious grounds) or to universalize the movements into dar al-Islam, or a sense of community with other Islamic states. This is why they were not, strictly speaking, jihads, though they are sometimes referred to as such.[2] Jihad literally means “struggle” and was already a part of established Islamic doctrine. Specifically, it means struggle to improve the self or society or to do the will of God, not necessarily for religious reasons.[3] Jihad al-sayf, or Jihad of the sword, which I discuss here, is just one category of this. It means a struggle to defend the faith or the ummah, the global Islamic community. It is obligatory that all Muslims struggle for righteousness. Unlike the earlier movements, the Sokoto Jihad was framed in scholarly religious terms and great pains were taken to ensure doctrinal justification.[4]

In the late eighteenth century, the area of Hausaland, in what is now Northern Nigeria, was in a state of crisis and social disarray. Ethnic divisions between the Fulbe people, who were mostly nomadic herdsman, and the ruling agrarian Hausa people persisted despite the groups having inhabited the same area for about five hundred years. Not only did the groups have different dominant occupations, their societies were structured very differently. They mostly spoke different languages and while both groups were largely Muslim, this was much truer of the Fulbe than the Hausa, whose kings still practiced traditional “native” religions. The non-Muslim Fulbe’s religion was quite different from the traditional religion of the Hausa and Fulbe Muslims saw Hausa Muslims as insufficiently pious. The population was growing, making it increasingly difficult for the Fulbe to move their herds. This increased tensions over land-control and limited the migratory Fulbe’s ability to escape conflict by moving on. Corruption was widespread in the Hausa government, with appointments being based on bribes, rather than merit.[5] It was into this situation that the Fulbe Sh. Usman dan Fadio was born in 1754, in Gobir, a state in Northern Hausaland.

Sh. Usman dan Fodio began his political career around 1774 as an itinerant preacher, assailing the corruption of Islam through mixture with various local religions and the acceptance of many forbidden practices such as consumption of alcohol, women going unveiled and men taking more than four wives. He already was a scholar of some reputation, who had studied under al- Hajj Jibrilla ibn Umar, who taught that Muslims who do not follow Islamic law and do things like neglect the poor, live opulent lifestyles or freely mix men and women are, in fact, unbelievers. While Sh. Usman disagreed with his teacher on this, the commitment to restoring a pure Islam free from outside influence remained. He built a considerable following among the peasants of the area over the coming years, particularly, but not exclusively, in his own Fulbe ethnic group. Dan Fodio’s ancestors had migrated to Gobir in the first place because of oppression in Konni, but over time, the situation in Gobir also became increasingly oppressive. The various Hausa states were constantly at war with one another and sustained this practice through conscription. This forced Muslim men to fight in wars that were illegal under Islamic law. The Hausa had restricted Islamic religious practices such as prayer-calls and  turbans and imprisoned some adherents for violating these laws. Also, as dan Fodio saw it, the government charged excessive taxes with no basis in the Koran. These taxes only applied to Muslim-dominated trades like herding and were designed to economically exploit the faithful.[6]

Sh. Usman’s leadership ability soon earned him wider credibility and recognition. By 1789, he had amassed enough of a following that Bawa Jan Garzo, King of Gobir, viewed him as a political threat. He feared the Jama’a, or autonomous Muslim community, was becoming too organized and this could make his own leadership redundant. This was, in fact, a quite reasonable concern. Dan Fodio attempted to meet with him in order to teach him about Islam and convert him to the faith, but this did not succeed. It only left the king assured he was dangerous. Jan Garzo attempted to have him killed by encouraging other Ulemas, or Muslim scholars, to conspire against him. However, dan Fodio was able to persuade them to support him, leaving the king with little support and forcing him to drop plans for assassination. In fact, Jan Garzo had inadvertantly validated Sh. Usman’s leadership and religious views. The Sheikh demanded the king free religious prisoners, allow the call to prayer, exempt Muslims from the draft and reform the discriminatory dress code and tax laws. The king agreed and a temporary peace was formed. Sh. Usman dan Fodio and Bawa Jan Garzo were now at least nominally allies. However, this was on dan Fodio’s terms. While the Sheikh did perform an intercessory prayer for him, much in the tradition of the older forms of court Islam, he did not actually become a member of the court. It does appear that he continued to visit Jan through the rest of his reign, but this is disputed. After this time, he moved to the town of Degel nearby. The first attempt to stop his rise to power had not only left him alive and free, but greatly increased his influence.[7]

Sh. Usman dan Fodio was an important figure in the revolutions not just because of his political and scholarly talent, but because of his mystical experiences. His authority was based on a series of visions where he claimed to have been visited by the Prophet Mohammed as well as Abd al-Aqir al Jilani, founder of the mystical Qadiriyye order to which dan Fodio belonged. In 1794, he said they gave him “The Sword of Truth” and a mission to fight the enemies of Islam. He was reputed to be a sharif, or descendant of the Prophet through his daughter, Fatima, and have the ability to perform miracles, though he may not have believed this himself. He never directly made any such claims in his writings, only oblique references, though this be modesty or uncertainty. [8] These factors combined elevated him to someone of far more significance than a mere scholar. He was not just a learned man, but a holy man with a divine mission. This is what ultimately gave him the authority to declare jihad.

Dan Fadio’s increased profile only deepened conflict with Hausa leaders, but he continued to prevail. His successes with Bawa Jan Garzo legitimized perceptions that the Jama’a were loyal to him rather than the king and were quickly becoming more powerful and more organized. Bunu Nafta, the new king, resented these offenses against his sovereignty. In 1800, he reinstituted many of the oppressive rules of his predecessors. He banned turbans for men and veils for women as well as proselytization of Islam, essentially trying to remove it from public visibility and keep the movement from growing. He captured and enslaved the Sheikh’s followers when possible, leading dan Fadio to order them to arm themselves for self-defense. Thus, the agreement on which the truce was based was now broken and in many ways things were even worse for the Jama’a than before. Surprisingly though, this escalation in itself did not lead to open war. Nafta soon died, but the situation did not improve. In 1802, Nafta’s successor, Yunfa, attempted to personally kill Sh. Usman. Yunfa had an apparent seat built over the mouth of a well. This was a trap made in such a way that anyone who sat on it would fall to their death. However, Sh. Usman did not accept the seat. At this point, Yunfa drew a gun and fired, but a misfire spared his target while injuring Yunfa himself.[9] Much as had happened thirteen years earlier, the Sheikh not only survived the Hausu king’s attempt on his life, but benefited from it. In this case, Yunfa had delivered an apparent miracle. He had opened hostilities and turned public perception in dan Fodio’s favor.

Hostilities further escalated the next year when Yunfa’s army once again enflamed religious hostilities. They were passing Gimabana, where Abdulsalami, a follower of Sh. Usman dan Fodio, lived. They demanded he offer a prayer blessing and send the town’s women out to cheer them, as was the local custom. Abdulsalami refused as this would have violated purdah, the Islamic principle of separation of the sexes and he saw it as an affront to the women’s dignity. Yunfa was enraged when he heard this and was determined to make an example of the town for their poor hospitality in order to prevent future insubordination. He sent his army back to capture the inhabitants, including the women, and bring them in for interrogation. To complete the insult to Islam, the women were stripped nearly naked and shackled for their march and their books, including the Koran, were burned. However, the party had to pass close by Degel. Sh. Usman raised a force and made the army release all Muslim captives. The humiliation of the prisoners is what caused full war. The protection and sanctity of womanhood was a very deeply held value in Islamic culture. This was the start of actual military conflict.[10] Once again, the Hausa leaders had escalated conflict with dan Fodio, only to lose. Now, not only did the Jama’a have more reason than ever to overthrow the Hausa government, they had an army and a general.

War was inevitable at this point as the king could not let an attack on his army go unanswered. He raised a larger army and sent them to besiege Degel, forcing Sh. Usman to make a hijra, or flight.. Yunfa ordered Hausa leaders to kill all the Fulbe people, who fled to Sh. Usman for protection, making his leadership official and giving him a large army. In 1804, he issued his declaration of Jihad.[11]

The official motivation for the Jihad, which is to say the one in the declaration, was the necessity of establishing a caliphate to rule over Muslims. A caliphate, ruled by a caliph, is a form of government based on Islamic law. The declaration builds the case point by point that a kingdom ruled by a Muslim king is a Muslim kingdom and a kingdom ruled by a heathen is a heathen kingdom. When Muslims live in a heathen land they must perform a hijra. Apostates and backslidden Muslims who pay lip service to the religion but do not follow its precepts must be forced back into compliance. Since it is obligatory for all Muslims to promote righteousness and fight evil, all Muslims must force their leaders to convert to Islam or replace them, by force if necessary, or through flight to a Muslim state. This case is built on points of Islamic law where Sh. Usman believed there was consensus. These principles date back to the very founding of Islam, when Mohammed was both the religious and secular leader of the Muslim community. [12]

The religious motivations do seem to be sincere. Beyond apostates, there was no effort to force non-believers to convert, though they did have to pay extra taxes much as Muslims had in earlier times. Several areas, in fact, did not convert but continued to coexist peacefully with the Sokoto Caliphate after the revolution was over in 1809. Rules of fair warfare based on Islamic Law were painstakingly followed, even though it meant giving up significant advantages in many cases.[13] However, it is important to remember that while Sh. Usman led the Jihad, his followers may have had their own reasons for joining. Abdulsalami, one of the heroes of the Gimabana humiliation, got into a dispute over division of spoils and ultimately declared his own jihad against the Sokoto Caliphate. Unlike most of the movement leaders, he was not a Fulbe.[14] This shows some degree of power motive and likely also ethnic conflict, but these were clearly mostly subordinate to religious motives. Sh. Usman, in fact, soon stepped down from his position as caliph to return to a life of scholarship.[15]

The declaration of Jihad was widely circulated among the Muslim community and spread to neighboring states, such as Kano, Katsina and Daura, who had similar conflicts against their Hausa rulers. The new capital of Sokoto was established, and the movement continued to expand until the Sokoto Caliphate covered most of Hausaland.[16] Obviously, there was no single cause for every participant and place. While there were long-standing conflicts over religious practice and its proper place in government and public life, these do not necessarily lead to open war, much less a caliphate. I can easily imagine a scenario where limited hostilities could have gone on indefinitely or where the Fulbe overthrew the Hausa, but just established a Muslim king rather than an Islamic governmental system. Therefore, the main causes of the jihad were the emergence of a viable leader among the Fulbe and an unusually confrontational Hausa king and the religious rationale that focused the conflict on global issues and expanded it far beyond its origins.



  1. Abubakar, Sa’ad. Notes on Sakkwato Jihad. Kaduna, Nigeria: Joyce Graphic Printers & Publishers Co., 2004.
  2. Esposito, John L. Islam: The Straight Path. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  3. Hiskett, Mervyn. The Sword of Truth: The Life and Times of the Shehu Usuman dan Fodio. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1994.
  4. Imam, Ibrahim. The Biography of Shehu Othman Dan Fadio. Zaria, Nigeria: Gaskiya Corp., 1966.
  5. Robinson, David. Muslim Societies in African History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  6. Robinson, David. “Revolutions in the Western Sudan.” In The History of Islam in Africa, edited by Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L. Pouwels, 131-152. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000.

[1] Sa’ad Abubakar, Notes on Sakkwato Jihad, (Kaduna, Nigeria: Joyce Graphic Printers & Publishers Co., 2003), 10.

[2] Ibid, 10.

[3] John L. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 93., David Robinson, “Revolutions in the Western Sudan,” in The History of Islam in Africa, Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L. Pouwels , eds. (Athens, OH: Athens University Press, 2000), 133-137.

[4] Abubakar, Notes on Sakkwato Jihad, 11-12.

[5] Ibid., 12-16.

[6] Ibid., 12., Ibrahim Imam, The Biography of Shehu Othman Dan Fadio, (Zaria, Nigeria: Gaskiya Corp., 1966)m 2, 13.

[7]Abubakar, Notes on Sakkwato Jihad, 21-22., Imam, The Biography of Shehu Othman Dan Fadio, 13-14., David Robinson, Muslim Societies in African History, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 143.

[8] Abubakar, Notes on Sakkwato Jihad, 11., Imam, The Biography of Shehu Othman Dan Fadio, 4-5, 16., Mervyn Hiskett, The Sword of Truth: The Life and Times of the Shehu Usuman dan Fodio, (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1994), 67, 150-151.

[9] Imam, The Biography of Shehu Othman Dan Fadio, 21-22.

[10] Abubakar, Notes on Sakkwato Jihad, 37-38., Imam, The Biography of Shehu Othman Dan Fadio, 22-23.

[11] Abubakar, Notes on Sakkwato Jihad, 25., Imam, The Biography of Shehu Othman Dan Fadio, 24.

[12] Imam, The Biography of Shehu Othman Dan Fadio, 27-29. Imam notes that this really only means there was consensus among the group of scholars Sheikh Usman was referencing, not in the entire Islamic legal tradition.

[13] Ibid., 29.

[14] Abubakar, Notes on Sakkwato Jihad, 37.

[15] Ibid., 35, 36.

[16] Ibid., 10., Imam, The Biography of Shehu Othman Dan Fadio, 29.


From → history, Religion

  1. A good histry can be done with a good leader thanks

  2. sharon permalink

    gud history

  3. Ds is a kind of justifying d jihad as a pacification of d Hausa by d Fulbe

  4. wahab permalink

    if not for D’s decent gentle jihadist we would have been in the hands of dessterous dictator of French sergeants

  5. jovid permalink

    i wish i was there to withness what a gud history

  6. Yusuf Abdulmajeed Adeshina permalink

    History is good to know

  7. what are they politica reason

  8. Abba Bashir permalink

    the jihad of dan fodio cut across tribal and ethnic sentiment , because even the unbelievers themselves witness the justice of Islam, that is why they converted to Islam. Another dimension of the jihad has to do with kind of trust that people have in the jihad leaders.

  9. All I need was available nice page

  10. BAJEH SALI permalink


  11. dat na gud thank god

  12. Bash basheerru permalink

    This is a greated which was fulani .(Hulbe or gobir) done under leadership of mujaddadi (reformer) usman bin fodio (hafizahullah).

  13. zannah m. Bako permalink

    D history of usm ban fudio is not tribling along.

  14. yahaya musa permalink


  15. It’s very interesting, I love people that will be reminding us about things that have passed. May God bless you guys.

  16. obviously Man that’s true

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