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Sokoto Caliphate

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Sokoto Caliphate

    The Sokoto caliphate was an Islamic state in the region that is now northern Nigeria. Founded in the early 1800s by a Muslim scholar and reformer named Usuman Dan Fodio , the caliphate included many small West African states that had never before united under one government. The caliphate lasted in one form or another until 1960 , and its influence continues in Nigeria today.

    Establishment of the Caliphate.

    The Hausa tribe of northern Nigeria adopted Islam in the 1500s. It gained an even stronger Muslim identity when members of the Fulani tribe migrated into the Hausa territory during the next two centuries. Fulani scholars and teachers spread Muslim doctrines to the rural population, which maintained many pre-Islamic practices. They attracted a large number of converts. The Fulani teacher Usuman Dan Fodio became the most prominent Muslim reformer.

    Beginning in the 1770s, Usuman served as the religious and political leader of a growing Muslim community in a local Hausa state called Gobir. Much of his support came from Hausa peasants. Poor and oppressed, the peasants sought to oust the corrupt ruling class. They envisioned Usuman as the Mahdi, a legendary Muslim savior whom they expected to lead them to a better life. Usuman rejected identification with the holy figure, but he otherwise encouraged hopes of revolution.

    Around 1800 the Hausa ruler of Gobir grew wary of Usuman's growing popularity and threatened Usuman's life. Usuman gathered his followers and fled. He declared a jihad against the ruler of Gobir and the Hausa rulers who supported him. He urged the formation of a new Muslim community with its own leadership and principles. Usuman spent the next five years waging war against Hausa rulers. By 1809 he had established a new state with its capital at Sokoto. The largest political unit that had existed in West Africa for more than two centuries, the Sokoto caliphate consisted of a loose association of amirates. Usuman's followers granted him the title of caliph and sarkin musulmi, “commander of the faithful”.

    Usuman and His Successors.

    Usuman favored a regime with a simple structure that would discourage corruption. He limited the power of the central government and promoted Islamic scholars for leadership positions. Although he had established the caliphate, Usuman felt that his goals of reforming Islam had not succeeded. He decided to leave politics, dividing the caliphate into two parts. He appointed his son, Muhammad Bello , to rule one section, and his brother, Abdullahi Dan Fodio , to govern the other. Usuman kept the title of caliph but retired from active involvement in government. He spent most of his time teaching and writing. Usuman's works, dealing with community problems and the Islamic sciences, continue to enjoy a wide circulation.

    Usuman died in 1817 , succeeded by his son as caliph. During Muhammad's 20-year rule, he defended the caliphate from several attempts by Hausa groups to overthrow him. The British, however, became increasingly interested in Nigeria. In the mid-1800s, the caliphate signed a treaty granting the British trading privileges in Nigeria. The caliphate, however, opposed British efforts to colonize their state. Nonetheless, by 1903 , British troops occupied the major cities of the Sokoto caliphate. They kept many government officials in place to run the country. The sultan of Sokoto retained a position of importance as chief ruler of northern Nigeria.

    Along with many other Muslim states, Nigeria gained its independence from the British in the mid-1900s. The original amirates of the Sokoto caliphate separated into various states within the new Federation of Nigeria. The sultan of Sokoto continued to serve as the religious leader of the Nigerian Muslim community, but he no longer wielded direct political power. Many of Usuman Dan Fodio's descendants, however, assumed leadership positions in the new nation. See also Caliphate; Islamic State; Nigeria; West Africa.

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