Story of Islam In Africa: Islam In Northern Nigeria

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Islam, the religion of the Arab peoples, was spread throughout North Africa by the followers of Muhammed in the latter part of the 7th century. But the 11th century it had taken firm root in the western Sudanese states bordering on the Sahare desert, being brought by the Arab and Berber traders.
Story of Islam In Africa: Islam In Northern Nigeria Nigeria Usman dan Fodio
Story of Islam In Africa: Islam In Northern Nigeria Nigeria Usman dan Fodio

Islam had reached the Hausa state by the 14th century. We know that there were many Mosques in Kano in days of its famous king, Muhammed Rumfa (1463-99). Most of the people however continued to worship a large number of spirits and tribal gods. So there was a continual struggle between the old and the newer religion. The rulers of the Hausa states became Muslim and they welcomed visits by Muslim scholars from other lands. But many of the people held on to their old pagan beliefs. Their rulers, though Muslim in name, often continued to use pagan customs and ceremonies which had been practised for centuries.


Feeding the poor and needy is an act that draws us closer to Allah. We earn His forgiveness, mercies and blessings through this act of charity.

“Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah?s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night. (Bukhari)

READ MORE: Importance of Helping Others in Islam

At the end of the 18th century there were large numbers of Fulani in Gobir and in the other Hausa state. They had been arriving there from the region of Senegal in the far west for more than 400 years. The cattle Fulani were still mainly pagan and they settled peacefully among the Hausa farmers. By the beginning of the 19th century many Fulani were already town dwellers and some had become very wealthy. Many were well educated and were strict Muslim. Among them in Gobir was a noted scholar, Usman dan Fodio.

Usman dan Fodio

Usman dan Fodio was born in 1754 at Marata, in Gobir, about 60 miles north of modern Sokoto. His father was probably a wealthy man. Usman and his younger brother, Abdullahi, were brought up as strict Muslims. Usman dan Fodio enjoyed religious study and was sent to complete his education under a learned teacher, Mallam Jibril at Agades. There he learned about the many plans to reform the religion which were stirring the world of Islam at that time.

On his return, Usman dan Fodio became a teacher in the village of Degel. His fame as a scholar spread far and wide and many important people sent their sons to learn under him. Bawa, the pagan king of Gobir employed him as tutor to his own children, Usman therefore moved from Degel to Alkalawa, the capital of the Gobir kingdom. There his reputation and influence continued to grow so fast that even his employer began to fear him. Eventually Usman dan Fodio went back to Degel.

READ MORE: Story of Islam In Africa: Brief History of Islam In Africa

Eight years after the death of Bawa (the pagan king of Gobir), Yunfa (one of Usman’s former pupil) became the king of Gobir. Yunfa, too, was very jealous of the power and influence of his former master. He even tried to stop Usman making new converts to Islam. Yunfa ordered that turbans should not be worn by men and that Muslim women should not be vailed.

The Hausa king feared that the turban was becoming the uniform of Usman’s part. Soon an open quarrel broke out between the two of them. What led to the quarrel was the fact that Usman had released (without permission of Yunfa) some Muslim prisoners which the army of Gobir had captured. Yunfa was very angry and he ordered Usman dan Fodio to appear before him. Usman failed to do so. Yunfa then sent some troops to bring Usman by force. The troops were beaten back by Usman’s followers. Yunfa then began to prepare for war against the powerful Muslim teacher. In 1804, Usman dan Fodio, his family and followers had to flee from Degell to Gudu. This incident is known in local history as the Hijra.

Story of Islam In Africa: Usman dan Fodio Jihad (1804-1811)


The news of Usman’s flight spread very quickly. Many Hausa and Fulani Muslims came to defend him. The Hausa were tired of the oppression of their own kings and many of the Fulani knew that the Hausa kings were jealous of theirwealth and education. Within a short time, Usman who was by training and nature a man of peace, found himself at the head of a growing army.

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He declared a Holy War (Jihad) against all pagans. The Gobir army was heavily defeated by the Muslim at a place called Tabkin Kwatto. At the end of the battle, Usman dan Fodio was solemnly proclaimed Sarkin Mussumulmi (Commander of the Faithful). When the news of Usman’s success got around, hundrends of people flocked to join his army and the land of Gobir was overrun. Zamfara and Birnin-Kebbi were also taken and Usman sent letters to the rulers of Kano, Zaria and Katsina. He asked them to live correctly by the rules of Islam. Kano and Katsina treated his letter with contempt.

From all parts of Hausaland, Fulani leaders came to Usman to receive flags. These flags were his symbol of authority. A flag bearer had to attack and subdue the kings in his own area, in the name of Allah. Each of them became the ruler of the place he had conquered under the authority of Usman dan Fodio. The following list shows the names of 13 flag bearers and the areas they conquered and ruled:

Suleimanu – Kano
Umaru Dallaji – Katsina
Mallam Musa – Zaria
Modibbo Adama – Adamawa
Yakubu – Bauchi
Mallam Dendo – Nupe
Abdul Alimi – Ilorin
Dan Tunku – Kazaure
Isiaku – Daura
Sambo – Hadejia
Maman Manga – Misau
Ibrahim Zaki – Katagum

The fourteenth flag was given to Gwani Mukhtar to conquer Bornu, but he was defeated and killed. In 1809, the walls of Sokoto were built and the city became Usman’s capital. The Holy War came to an end in 1811.

Story of Islam In Africa: Islam In Northern Nigeria Usman dan Fodio
Story of Islam In Africa: Islam In Northern Nigeria Usman dan Fodio

Usman dan Fodio divided the empire betweeen his brother and his son Bello. Usman dan Fodio retired to his quiet life of a scholar. He died and old man, in 1817.

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The Fulani Empire (as Usman’s territories became known) was limited in the east by the resistance of the Bornu Muslim leader, El-Kanemi. In the south Usman’s armies could not reach the region which is now Ibo territories, because of the thick forests and the tsetse fly. The Fulani in Ilorin were strongly resisted by Ibadan in 1843 and prevented from further expansion into Yoruba territories.

Story of Islam In Africa: Islam In Other Parts Of Nigeria

There are today thirty-seven Muslim Emirates, twenty-nine of which belonged to the Fulani Empire of Sokoto and Five to the Bornu Empire. The six Northern States containg about 21 million Muslims (72% of the population), 3 million Christians (10%) and 5 million others (18%) in a total population of 30 million. The areas which are not Muslim are those where the Fulani horsemen could not easily enter, such as the Bauchi hills and the Tiv, the Jukuns, and the people of Idoma, Igala and Kabba. Christian missionaries were not at first allowed to work in Muslim areas, so that places like Kabba have today got more schools than others. Since the Fulani had strong influence in Ilorin and Oyo, Islam became well established among the Yoruba.

In the Western State of Nigeria there are about 5 million Christians (49%) and 4 million Muslims (43%) , with 800,000 others (8%). In the Mid-West there are about 1 million Christians (55%), 110,000 Muslims (4%) and 1 million others (41%). In the three States comprising the old Eastern Region there are about 9 million Christians (77%), only 30,000 Muslims (0.3%), and 2.8 million others (22.5%) .

Out of a population of about 55 million in Nigeria, the Muslims number about 26 Muslim. There are about 19 million Christians, and about 10 million pagans and poeple who profess other religion.

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