Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sharīʿa in Northern Nigeria: the Life of Shaykh Usman Dan Fodio

Shaykh Usman Dan Fodio or ʿUthmān Ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿUthmān ibn Ṣāliḥ (Arabic name), a.k.a Ibn Fūdī, (d.1817) is an important figure in West African Islam. His life and work, especially the notion of purifying Islam from innovation (bidʿa), are useful in understanding the Boko Haram group, suggests David Cook

Dan Fodio was a scholar, preacher and author of many works like Iḥyā as-Sunna wa-Ikhmād al-Bidʿa. His writings remain influential in West Africa today. Dan Fodio was a member of the Qādirīya Sufi order; he fought against (or: waged a jihād against) Muslims between 1804 and 1812, targeting un-Islamic practices (bidʿa), like syncretism and polytheism. At the same time, writes Abdullah Hakim Quick, Dan Fodio "also tried to rectify the position of Islamic scholarship with Sufism."

Dan Fodio founded the Sokoto Caliphate in 1809, which encompassed present day northern Nigeria, Niger and parts of southern Cameroon. 
The Sokoto Caliphate in the 19th century (courtesy Wikimedia).

The Sokoto Caliphate was made up of smaller emirates and governed for approximately a century based on the Mālikī school of Sunni jurisprudence, until the British colonial takeover.

If we accept the argument that the life and works of Dan Fodio influence the Boko Haram, then this could explain why the group has not targeted Sufi shrines or mosques. As David Cook points out, most Salafi-jihadi groups would be inclined to attack Sufi shrines, viewing them as un-Islamic innovations. Yet it remains difficult to place the Boko Haram into neat categorizations.

Another possibility: the Boko Haram group is influenced by messianic expectations. Towards the end of his life, some people believed that Dan Fodio was a mahdī or a mujaddid, although he did not embrace this apocalyptic discourse; later in his life, some began treating and considering him as a Sufi saint (walī). That is not to say that those views are widely accepted, but rather emphasizes his importance.

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