London. Ibadan. Nairobi: Oxford University Press. 1967. 312 p.
Shehu was still a young man of only twenty when, in the year 1774-5, he began his ministry 1. Thanks to the excellence of his education, however, and to his great natural gifts, he was already an authority in his own right on theology and the law.
It was probably at about the same time that he established himself in the little town of Degel where he was to live or rather to make his headquarters, because he was frequently on the move for the next thirty years. Degel lies in open sandy country just north of the Rima Valley in what was then the province of Adar. Originally, Adar stems to have been tributary to Air, but by this time it had either been annexed to Gobir or was at any rate completely under Gobir's domination. From Degel it was in fact only about sixty miles to Alkalawa where the Gobirawa had recently completed their new capital.
Though Shehu made his headquarters in Degel, and was visited there by increasing numbers of pupils and followers, he spent much of his time teaching in the surrounding districts 2. From time to time he also made larger tours of the neighbouring States and, apart from Zamfara and Kebbi where he was soon to become well known, we hear of him going as far afield as Illo in the south and Daura in the east 3.
The abuses which Shehu observed in Hausaland and set himself to reform have already been described. Except perhaps in Zamfara, he seems to have concentrated more on the reform of the faith of those who had already accepted Islam than on making new converts. The subjects of his discourses were five in number. The first was the necessity of following, without deviation of any kind, the path of the Sharia or holy law. The second was the importance of observing the Sunna or orthodox practices of Islam. The third was the danger of harbouring religious doubt. The fourth was the avoidance and prevention of all evil. In his fifth and last discourse he expounded the Shari'a in detail and encouraged his audience to become seekers after knowledge and truth 4.
Bello has described the manner in which Shehu used to deliver his discourses and sermons. He was, he says, at once friendly, patient, and sympathetic. When he came out on to his platform he used to smile at his audience and then greet them three times. After that he would call for silence and begin to speak. He always started with the words: I give thanks to God, the Lord of Creation. He felt no shyness when speaking and feared no criticism. His faith gave him strength so that he voiced his opinions forthrightly and never compromised with the truth. Afterwards he would stay on and answer the multitude of questions which used to be put to him. According to the composition of his audience, he spoke sometimes in Fulfulde, sometimes in Hausa, and sometimes in Arabic 5.
The main subjects of Shehu's sermons, as distinct from his discourses, were the unity of God, the foundations of faith, righteousness, sin and punishment, and paradise and eternal happiness. He also gave instructions where necessary in such matters of ritual as ablution, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, paying tithes, giving alms, making vows, taking oaths, and contracting marriages 6.
The first major tour that Shehu made was to Kebbi, which was still one of the leading States of Hausaland though of course it had long since lost the pre-eminence it had enjoyed in the time of Kanta. We do not know the exact date of this journey, but it was probably around the year 1780. He was accompanied by his younger brother Abdullahi, then still in early adolescence, and was apparently very successful in making converts and winning adherents 7.
Hitherto Shehu had neither sought the patronage of Chiefs nor had any dealings with the ruling classes. News of his successes in Kebbi doubtless reached Alkalawa, however, and when he returned to Degel word seems to have been conveyed to him that he ought to present himself at Court. Shehu was not one to be overawed, even when confronted by a formidable character like Sarkin Gobir Bawa 8, and he is reported to have propounded in forthright terms exactly what the responsibilities of an Emir in a Moslem State were. Nevertheless, Bawa heard him out and the audience seems to have been a success. Certainly it strengthened Shehu's hand in his subsequent dealings with the common people, and no doubt with petty officials as well, because henceforward it was assumed that his teaching enjoyed the favour, or at any rate carried the assent, of the Court 9.
Soon afterwards, probably in 1783, Shehu went to Zamfara. It was a State in which Islam had made less headway than elsewhere in Hausaland and Abdullahi, who accompanied his brother, described it as a land where the great majority of the people were still pagan and where ignorance was supreme. These were probably the very reasons which induced Shehu to spend the next five years there 10. Once again, and probably to an even greater extent than in Kebbi, he succeeded in budding up a large personal following.
During this long absence Shehu seems to have maintained his home in Degel because he went back there as soon as his work in Zamfara was finished. Soon after his return, probably in the year 1788-9, he and all the other learned men of the country were summoned to celebrate one of the great Moslem festivals in the company of the Chief. After the ceremony large quantities of alms were offered to the assembled divines and jurists. At this Shehu, despite the fact that he must still have been one of the youngest among them, rose to his feet and told Bawa that he and his followers needed none of his wealth, but that he asked instead for the grant of other indulgences 11. He demanded that he himself should have the right to teach and preach in Gobir, that all should be free to listen to him, that Moslems should suffer no disabilities, and that the burden of tax on the peasantry should be lightened. Bawa rather surprisingly granted all these demands 12.
This episode seems to have marked Shehu's emergence as the leader of the reformers. Thenceforward, though there were still plenty of divines and scholars outside the movement who disputed his teaching and denied his mission 13, there was none within it to challenge his leadership. Naturally, however, his assumption of Mallam Jibrilu's mantle marred his relations with the Court at Alkalawa. Until then he had always been treated with marked respect, so much so indeed that, on his return from his tour of Kebbi, Sarkin Gobir Bawa is said to have paid him a visit at Degel and made him a present of fifty cattle 14. Certainly, some of the young princes, including Yunfa who was later destined to become his principal adversary, seem to have studied under him for a time 15. But from that day the relationship began to deteriorate.
In 1795 Sarkin Gobir Bawa died and was succeeded by his brother Yakuba. During Yakuba's reign, which lasted six years, Shehu made his second major tour of Kebbi. He taught and preached in all the towns right down to the Niger 16 and enlarged the number of his personal followers. These tours had an important effect on the course of subsequent events. First of all they gave Shehu. a standing outside Gobir which enabled him to uphold the rights of Moslems, even to the point of defiance, while at the same time making it difficult for the Chief to treat him as if he was no more than a contumacious subject. Secondly, the support which he now built up in Zamfara and Kebbi enabled him to survive the critical second and third rounds of the impending struggle, whereas without it his cause would almost certainly have foundered.
In 1801 Sarkin Gobir Yakuba made a final attempt to storm the Zamfara fortress of Kiyawa and was killed. He was succeeded on the throne by his brother, Bunu Nafata. It is clear that in the twelve years that had elapsed since Sarkin Gobir Bawa had made his concessions to Shehu the relations between the reformers and the ruling classes in Gobir had greatly deteriorated. The cause of the animosity lay partly in Shehu's fearless exposure of corruption and oppression, but perhaps even more in the apprehension with which the Court had been watching the growth of his movement. By this time his adherents were known as The Community (in Hausa Jama'a) and had become very numerous. Moreover, his fame had spread throughout the central Sudan so that men came from near and far to join him 17. Seeing this, the Hausa rulers naturally took alarm. They saw the growing number of his following and the hold that Islam had gained. ... Men urged them on saying If you do not disperse this concourse of people, your power will be gone ; they will destroy your country by causing all the people to leave you and go to them.18
The concern felt in Alkalawa at these developments explains the severity of the measures that Bunu now introduced. First of all, he forbade any man from holding religious meetings and preaching to the people, excepting only Shehu. Secondly, he decreed that Islam might only be practised by those who had inherited the creed from their fathers. Thirdly, he prohibited the wearing of turbans by men and veils by women 19.
These edicts were proclaimed in every market place in Gobir and the neighbouring parts of Adar and Zamfara which were under Gobir's domination. They were aimed directly at the Moslem reformers and the intention was obviously to curb their growing strength. Considering that Shehu, was by now the undisputed leader of the movement, it seems strange that an exception should have been made in his favour. The only explanation of this apparent anomaly is that the concession was dictated by fear, not favour, and that the Hausa rulers still wished to avoid, or at any rate postpone, an open conflict with him. Taken as a whole, these were paradoxical measures for any nominally Moslem Chief to have introduced. In fact the touch of desperation about them betrayed the alarm with which Bunu and his advisers evidently viewed the strength and cohesion of the reforming party, while their severity gave the reformers a clear warning of the hostility with which they were now regarded.
As for Shehu, there is no doubt that until then he, too, had been trying to gain his ends without provoking an open conflict. According to Abdullahi one of his sayings was: I will not interfere between any man and his Chief: I will not be a cause of division. 20 If the successive Chiefs of Gobir had been willing to play the part of Muhammadu Rumfa, he would have been content with the role of El-Maghili. Certainly, as his whole life was to prove, he was in no sense a seeker after temporal power and there is no evidence whatever to suggest that he had planned the jihad in advance and was now engineering a breach in order to bring it about 21. On the contrary, his aim, until very late in the day, seems to have been to enlist the support of the Hausa ruling classes either by genuine conversion or, failing that, by moral persuasion and pressure 22.
On the other hand, it is also true to say of Shehu that, while not seeking a conflict, he was equally not prepared to compromise in any way with his conscience in order to avoid one. The fact is that, having once set his course, he held to it without regard for the probability that sooner or later it would bring him into collision with the Hausa authorities. At the start of his mission he had no doubt been strengthened in his determination by the knowledge that a few years earlier, as has already been noted, two Moslem reformers in the western Sudan Ibrahima Sori in Fuuta-Jalon and Suliman Bal in Fuuta-Tooro had succeeded in defying and overthrowing pagan governments 23
[Erratum. Actually, a collective of nine Muslim clerics launched the jihaad that resulted in the foundation of the theocratic state of Fuuta-Jalon. Primus inter pares, Ibrahima Sambeegu, aka Karamoko Alfa mo Timbo, was designated the leader of the Confederacy. His cousin Ibrahima Sori headed the army; he became regent upon Karamoko Alfa's death… See the genealogy of Fuuta-Jalon's dual dynasty. — T.S. Bah]
The fact that both of them were Fulani, and that one of the two theocratic States which they had established was in the country from which his own ancestors had come to Hausaland, must also have influenced him. At any rate, later, when Sarkin Gobir Bunu's repressive measures suddenly brought the danger of a collision much closer, he did not flinch or hesitate. On the contrary, his answer was to permit and indeed encourage his followers to furnish themselves with arms and prepare for war 24. He seems to have had no qualms about the justice of this decision, which was to prove a momentous one, and once again he was no doubt fortified by the knowledge that in similar circumstances Askia Muhammad had declared a jihad and had been commended by El-Maghili for having done so.
Sarkin Gobir Bunu was destined to rule for only two years and when he died in 1803 he was succeeded by his son Yunfa, Shehu's former pupil 25. When Yunfa became Chief, his attitude to Shehu was ambivalent and seems to have been determined partly by the reverence of a pupil for his master and partly by the distrust of a ruler for an overpowerful subject. At first he was conciliatory, but later he summoned Shehu to his palace and made an attempt on his life. The move miscarried 26 however, and Shehu's escape was naturally ascribed by his followers to divine providence. War was now almost inevitable and an incident occurred soon afterwards to precipitate it.
One result of the earlier religious persecution was that a group of pious Moslems, led by a follower of Shehu's called Abdu Salami, decided to emigrate. They therefore abandoned their homes, drove off their herds, and went and settled in Gimbana, a small town in the State of Kebbi. Angry at their defection, Yunfa sent a message ordering them to return. They refused. This so incensed him that, with the concurrence of the Chief of Kebbi 27, he dispatched an expedition against them. This force took Gimbana by storm and captured those of Abdu Salami's men who had not fled or been killed in the fighting 28.
Yunfa's next move was to send a message to Shehu saying that he intended to do to Degel what he had already done to Gimbana, and advising him to depart with his family before it was too late. Shehu returned a message saying:
I will not leave my community, but I will leave your country, for God's earth is wide 29.
At this Yunfa recanted and sent a second message, urging Shehu to stay, but he had shown his hand and the reformers no longer trusted him.
Like the Prophet Muhammad, Shehu now took refuge in flight. On 21 February 1804, accompanied by his brother Abdullahi, his son Muhammadu Bello, and all his followers, he left Degel and withdrew to the west. With them the fugitives took only their families, their cattle, their arms, their books, a little food, and a few personal possessions.
As Degel was in the west of Gobir, and Gobir in the west of Hausaland, Shehu's retreat took him to the extremity of the outer marches. The country there was an almost empty wilderness of sand, scrub, and stunted trees. There were a few oases of fertility, however, and at one of them, a place called Gudu, the reformers now established themselves. It made as good a fastness as could be found in those open plains.
At first Yunfa made no move against them. After a month or two, however, when he heard of the number of men who were flocking to Gudu to join Shehu, he put out a proclamation forbidding it. As a further deterrent he also gave orders that the goods of defectors were to be sequestered 30 and, as a final measure, posted patrols to intercept those who still tried to get through. Then in May, following another impulse of his apparently vacillating character, he suddenly changed his tactics and offered Shehu a reconciliation if he would only return to Degel 31. But by now Shehu was in no mood for compromise. He told the envoy that he would not return unless Yunfa repented of his sins, purified the forms of his worship, restored all the property which he had confiscated, and turned to righteousness and the true faith 32.
When he received Shehu's answer, Yunfa summoned all his councillors and learned men and asked them whether he or Shehu was in the right. They told him that justice was on his side. He therefore sent back a message saying:
Tell Shehu that I am preparing for war, and let him make ready against our meeting 33.
When this declaration reached them the Fulani realized, beyond doubt, that the die was finally cast. Bello, Shehu's sons and successor, has described how they received the news.
At this we gathered together and took stock of our affairs. We decided that it was not right for men to be leaderless, without a Chief, so then and there we paid homage to Shehu. We promised to obey his commands and to follow him alike in prosperity and adversity. He accepted our allegiance and himself vowed to follow the Book and the Law. These events took place on the evening of the Wednesday. The first to do homage were his brother, the Waziri Abdullahi, then I Bello, then Umaru Mai-Alkammu, and then the whole concourse of Moslems 34.
It was on this day that Shehu was addressed for the first time as Commander of the Faithful. Since then this title, in its Hausa form of Sarkin Musulmi, has always been borne by the Sultans of Sokoto. On the following day Shehu raised his standard and the jihad had begun.
There is no evidence, direct or indirect, to indicate the number of men who rallied round Shehu at Gudu. By that time his adherents in Hausaland could certainly be numbered by thousands and his sympathizers probably by tens of thousands. But to accept religious direction or support demands for judicial and social reform was one thing ; to join a rebellion was emphatically another. We can be sure that it was only the hard core of reformers who at the outset took this extreme step. It is unlikely that, apart from the women and children, they numbered more than a few thousand. Yunfa's counter-measures would have sufficed to hold back the half-hearted and in any case Gudu could scarcely have supported greater numbers.
The venture on which the reformers now embarked was an extremely hazardous one and on any rational calculation it had only the slimmest chance of succeeding. Gobir was still the most powerful of the Hausa States and could put into the field an army of thousands of horse and tens of thousands of foot. To pit against this Shehu's followers had little or nothing no base, no money, no armour, no reserves, not much food, and not many weapons, in the decisive arm, cavalry, they could muster only twenty horses and were weakest where the Gobirawa were strongest. In fact their only assets were moral ones belief in their cause, readiness to stake their lives upon the outcome, and above all the faith that they were the instruments of the divine will.
In all that country there was no natural fortress in which the reformers could defend themselves against the army which Sarkin Gobir was about to send against them. They knew, therefore, that before long they would have to fight a pitched battle. Moreover, instead of waiting passively to be attacked, they now seized the initiative while Sarkin Gobir was still mobilizing his feudal army.
Their first important move was against Matankari, a town whose horsemen had already been harrying them and whose continued activity in the west would threaten their rear as they faced Yunfa in the cast. They therefore sallied forth from Gudu, fought the first engagements of the war at Giniga and Matankari, and won two heartening victories 35.
Their next move was against Birnin Konni, from whence they had also been harried, and there they first showed their metal. Their forces, under Muhammadu Gayar, left Gudu on a Wednesday evening, marched thirty miles during the night, invested Konni at dawn on the Thursday, spent the whole day breaching the great mud walls of the town, took the place by storm in the late afternoon, and then, because of an alarm (which later proved to be false) that Sarkin Gobir had slipped behind them and was attacking Shehu, made another forced march through the night to reach Gudu by dawn on the Friday. This meant that in the space of thirty-six hours, in a climate as hot as any in the world, they had covered sixty miles on foot and fought and won a protracted battle. For a force of untried irregulars, who were subject to no discipline, this was an astounding feat of arms 36.
On this day, said Bello, we exerted ourselves to the limit of endurance.
It was now early June and the first rains had fallen. Though the report that the Gobirawa were attacking Gudu proved to be an exaggeration, their forces were in fact on the move. In the interval since the breach with the Fulani had become complete, Yunfa had not only been mustering his own feudal levies but had tried to persuade his neighbours to send contingents to strengthen his army. After the cavalier treatment that they had received in the past, however, his brother Chiefs in the other Hausa States were in no hurry to go to his assistance. They sent promises of help, but no troops. Even the conquered towns of Zamfara, except for Gummi, managed to evade their obligations. At any rate, apart from the Tuaregs who were always spoiling for a fight, no reinforcements arrived 37.
With the rains approaching, Yunfa seems to have grown impatient at the delay and to have decided that he could safely take the field without allies. After all, his courtiers must have told him, the reformers were only a band of poorly armed rebels whom they would have no difficulty in annihilating. The idea that they might be defeated was probably never seriously entertained.
When the Gobir army set out, its march was a leisurely affair, for the fighting men were encumbered with women, camp followers, and a provision train 38. Yunfa's strategy, which showed how confident he was and which at the time seemed perfectly sound, was to make his way round to the rear of the Fulani in order to force them to do battle and prevent their escaping to the west 39.
He therefore made a wide circuit to the south, which brought him to the shores of a little lake called Tabkin Kwatto about twenty miles west of Gudu.
The Fulani had no difficulty in shadowing the Gobir army as it made its encircling movement. If they had wanted to avoid fighting they had plenty of time to extricate themselves before the enemy could penetrate to their rear. As it was, they waited at Gudu till the Gobirawa had reached the lake and then made another night march to challenge them. This was a shrewd tactical strike, because it was the last move that the Gobirawa expected and it gave them the advantage of surprise.
On the morning of 21 June 1804 the army of Gobir was encamped near the lake. It is evident from the poem which Abdullahi afterwards wrote about the battle that they were taken unawares.
And we came upon them on Thursday
At Qurdam before midday, in the high places;
And they had spitted meats around the fire,
And gathered ready in tents
Fine vestments in a chest,
And all kinds of carpets, with cushions 40.
After their long march the Fulani did not attack at once but made their way to the lakeside to refresh themselves, perform their ceremonial ablutions, and water their horses. This gave the Gobirawa a short respite in which to prepare themselves for the coming battle.
To the north of Tabkin Kwatto are two little hills, set close together, and as the ground rises from the lake to their bases the bush thins out into fairly open ground. It was here that the Gobirawa drew up their line of battle. As they had the advantage of numbers, and needed space in which to deploy their heavy cavalry, this was tactically the right move for them to make 41. The Fulani, on the other hand, as they possessed practically no cavalry and had to rely almost entirely on their bowmen, would have been well advised to fight a defensive, battle from prepared positions. They were in a mood of sober exaltation, however, like the Ironsides before Naseby, and determined to put the issue to the test. When they had refreshed themselves, therefore, they left the cover of the trees round the lake and marched out to the open, rising ground where the great host of Gobir was being marshalled into a line of battle.
Thanks to Abdullahi and Bello we have a good idea of the course which the fighting took. It began about midday with the Gobirawa discharging their muskets which, however, proved ineffective 42. After that, like Agincourt which it strikingly resembles, the battle developed into a contest between the shock of heavy cavalry and the attrition of lightly armed but highly skilled archers. Here is Bello's characteristically terse description of it.
The enemy made ready and took up their positions. They had donned mail and quilted armour, and with their shields they formed their line against us. We too formed our line against them and every man looked squarely into the eyes of his foe. Then we shouted our battle-cry three times, Allah Akbar, and charged against them. At this their drums beat loudly and they too charged against us. When the two lines met their right wing overbore our left wing and pressed it back upon our centre. Their left wing also overbore our right wing and pressed it back upon our centre. But our centre stood fast and when our right wing and our left wing came up against it they too stood fast and yielded no more. Then the two armies were locked together and the battle raged 43.
It is evident that at this stage of the battle the little Fulani force, having been compressed into a square and completely enveloped by the much larger Gobir army, was in imminent danger of complete annihilation. Indeed, as they had no pikes to keep the enemy cavalry at bay, it is a marvel that their square was not broken and the fragments swept from the field. For Yunfa, victory must have seemed assured. But the square did not break and, just as at Agincourt the English archers humbled the chivalry of France, so at Tabkin Kwatto the Fulani bowmen gradually mastered the Gobir cavalry.
Characteristically, and certainly without cant or affectation, Bello ascribed the glory to God.
The Lord broke the army of the godless, so that they fell back, and in their flight they were scattered.... We followed at their heels and slew them with great slaughter.... God alone knows the number of those who perished.... All day we pursued them and only at dusk did we return to say the evening prayer and to give thanks to God, the Lord of Creation 44.
He went on to describe it as the greatest battle of the jihad and compared it to the victory which the Prophet had won over the Meccans at Badr. To Shehu it was proof that he was the chosen instrument of God.
1. Abdullah, TW (Hiskett, p. 85).
2. Bello, Inf M (Arnett, p. 46).
3. Abdullah, TW (Hiskett, pp. 86 and 96).
4 Bello, Inf M (Arnett, pp. 24-7).
5. Ibid. pp. 27-29.
6. Ibid. pp. 29-43.
7. Abdullah, TW (Hiskett, p. 86).
8. Sarki(n) is the Hausa word for a Chief or Emir.
9. Abdullah, TW (Hiskett, p. 86).
11. Ibid. p. 88.
12. Alhaji Junaidu, op. cit. p. 12.
13. Abdullahi quoted by Shehu in Tanbikhu'l Ikhwan (TI), translated by H. R. Palmer, Journal of the African Society, vol. XIV, pp. 189-92.
14. Gazetteer of Sokoto Province, p. 21. Alhaji Junaidu confirms that at this period Shehu was treated with great deference by Bawa and his Court.
15. Ibid. p. 19.
16. Abdullah, TW (Hiskett, p. 96), and Alhaji Junaidu, op. cit. p. 13.
17. AbduIlah quoted by Shehu in TI (Palmer, JAS, vol. XIV, pp. 189-92).
18. Ibid. p. 190.
19. Bello, Inf M (Arnett, p. 48).
20. Shehu, TI (cf. Palmer, JAS, vol. XIV, pp. 189-90).
21. M. R. Waldman, The Fulani Jihad: A Reassessment, Journal of African History, vol. VI, 3, pp. 350-5.
23. Trimingham, op. cit. pp. 161-2.
24. Abdullah, TW (Hiskett, p. 105).
25. Gazetteer of Sokoto Province, p. 19.
26. Abdullah, TW (Hiskett, p. 108).
27. Bello, Sard al-Kalam (SK), translated into Hausa in LHdM, vol. 1, pp. 19-35.
28. Ibid. pp. 19-20
29. Abdullah, TW (Hiskett, p. 108).
30. Shehu, TI (Palmer, JAS, vol. XIV, p. 190).
31. Bello, Inf M (Arnett, p. 50).
33. Ibid. (cf. Arnett, p. 51).
34. Ibid. Waziri is the Hausa form of Vizier.
35. Bello, Inf M (Arnett, p. 52).
36. Ibid. pp. 53-54.
37. Bello, Inf M (Arnett, pp. 54-55).
39. Abdullah, TW (Hiskett, p. 109).
40. Abdullah, TW (Hiskett, p. 112).
43. Bello, Inf M.
44. Bello, Inf M. The place where Bello and Abdullahi said their prayers is near the lake and can be seen in photograph No. 3 (b).