Citation for Dan Fodio, Usuman

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Hiskett, Mervyn . "Dan Fodio, Usuman." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 25, 2022. <>.


Hiskett, Mervyn . "Dan Fodio, Usuman." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 25, 2022).

Dan Fodio, Usuman

Shaykh ʿUthmān ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿUthmān ibn Ṣāliḥ (c.1754–1817), Nigerian religious leader and reformer, known to the Hausas as Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio—shehu is Hausa for “shaykh”—was born into a family of Fulani Muslim clerics in the Hausa kingdom of Gobir in present-day northern Nigeria. The family had abandoned the nomadic way of life several generations earlier and was dedicated to the teaching of Sunnī, Mālikī Islam. By the end of the eighteenth century Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio had inspired the Muslim Fulani to begin the jihād al-qawl (the preaching jihād) addressed to the Hausa aristocracy of Gobir and its neighbors. This aristocracy, nominally Muslim, was in the Fulani view polytheistic, given to “mixed Islam,” maintaining animist practices while adopting elements of Islam. Such mixed Islam was common in the aftermath of the collapse of the medieval Islamic empires of the Sahel.

The preaching jihād, which extended over several years, demanded the political and cultural surrender of this faintly Muslim, largely animist establishment to the strictly orthodox practice of Sunnī, Mālikī Islam. This the Hausa refused. In a climate of escalating tension, hostilities broke out between the Muslim Fulani and the Hausa in 1804. Shehu Usuman, adopting certain precedents from the struggle of the Prophet Muḥammad against the polytheists of Mecca, solemnly elevated this conflict to the status of a “holy war of the sword” that must necessarily follow the preaching jihād when the latter fails.

The campaign was conducted not by the Shehu himself, a scholarly and somewhat reclusive mystic, but by his brother Shaykh ʿAbd Allāh ibn Muḥammad, equally scholarly but a hardheaded legalist who proved himself a brilliant field commander. He was unenthusiastic about the Ṣūfī mysticism espoused by his brother Shehu Usuman and was more inclined to the strict construction of the sharīʿah.

The jihād was successful. The “Sokoto caliphate,” a centralized Islamic polity to which provincial jihadist emirs owed allegiance, took the place of the earlier hodgepodge of Hausa principalities. While sharīʿah cannot be said to have been imposed on this polity with total conformity—much pagan practice did survive—its writ was nevertheless substantial. By the time the British occupied Nigeria early in the twentieth century, there was no doubt that what they took over was a Muslim society governed by sharīʿah law.

The jihād had two other immediate consequences. First, it transformed Islam from a tolerated minority religion into the official religion of the state. Second, it elevated the Islamic scholars from their previous position as mere advisers of polytheistic rulers who engaged in mixed Islam to a place as the sole custodians of political power and the arbiters of social behavior. The jihād also altered the trade patterns of the Hausa states by destroying the old centers of trade and setting up new ones.

The significance of the jihād for present-day Islam in Nigeria rests more with Shaykh ʿAbd Allāh ibn Muḥammad than with his mystically inclined brother Usuman, who initially inspired the jihād. The latter was a Qādirī Ṣūfī given to visions and other liminal experiences who was greatly revered in his day. With the rise of modern Islamic fundamentalism, while he is still revered, he has been largely superseded. His brother ʿAbd Allāh, the down-to-earth legalist, whose platform was not mysticism but strict adherence to the letter of the sharīʿah, has become the admired exemplar for the present generation of Islamic radicals in northern Nigeria.



  • Bivins, Mary Wren. Telling Stories, Making Histories: Women, Words, and Islam in 19th Century Hausaland and the Sokoto Caliphate. Portsmouth, N.H., and London, 2007.
  • Boyd, Jean. The Caliph's Sister: Nana Asmaʿu 1793–1865. London, 1989.
  • Hiskett, Mervyn. The Sword of Truth: The Life and Times of the Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio. New York, 1973. The most complete biographical discussion that is readily available.
  • Martin, B. G.Muslim Brotherhoods in Nineteenth-Century Africa. Cambridge and New York, 1976. Helpful introduction in the context of African Muslim movements.
  • Sulaiman, Ibraheem. A Revolution in History: The Jihad of Usman Dan Fodio. London, 1986. Important Muslim interpretation by a prominent Nigerian Islamist scholar.

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