H.A.S. Johnston.
The Fulani Empire of Sokoto

London. Ibadan. Nairobi: Oxford University Press. 1967. 312 p.

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Chapter Ten
The Religious Controversy with El-Kanemi and the Death of Shehu

The theology of Shehu and his adherents, like that of El-Maghili and the Timbuctoo divines whom they broadly followed, was rooted in Maliki orthodoxy and the overwhelming majority of the authorities that they quoted belonged to this school 1. Nevertheless, there was about their doctrines a strong flavour not merely of reform but of radical or fundamental reform. The question therefore arises whether there were any direct links between them and the other Islamic reformers of the day, particularly the Wahhabis with whom, at any rate at first sight, they seemed to have much in common.
The Wahhabis, it will be remembered, were the followers of a reformer called Muhammad b. Abdul Wahhab, who flourished in central Arabia in the second half of the eighteenth century. Among his converts was Sa'ud, the founder of the royal family of Saudi Arabia, and under his dynamic leadership the Wahhabis first of all made themselves masters of the interior of the peninsula and then, in 1803-4, captured the Holy places of Mecca and Medina, which they held until 1812 2.
By conviction the Wahhabis were not merely puritans but fundamentalists who sought to rid Islam of false doctrines and degenerate practices. They favoured a literal interpretation of the Koran, banned tobacco, and frowned on silks and jewellery. Wherever they gained power they introduced theocratic régimes of the most austere severity 3.
In the works of Mallam Abdullahi there are three references to Ibn al-Qayyini al-Hanbali, whose writings had an important influence on Al-Wahhab, and this proves beyond doubt that the Fulani reformers were acquainted with the sources on which Wahhabism drew 4. It is also possible that the seeds of the movement itself were brought back to Hausaland by returning pilgrims. Certainly, among those who made the pilgrimage during this period were two men who had great influence on Shehu, namely his tutor, Mallam Jibrilu, and his paternal uncle, Muhammadu dan Raji. Mallam Jibrilu seems to have come back from the pilgrimage, which may have been his second, about 1783 5 and Muhammadu dan Raji in 1794 6. This means that they were in the Hejaz well before it was occupied by the Wahhabis, but even so, as they both spent some time there 7, they must have heard about the reformers, who were already masters of the neighbouring provinces, and have known what their aims and doctrines were. It may also be significant that Mallam Jibrilu's doctrine that disobedience involved unbelief was characteristic of Walahabism 8. Certainly, there were marked resemblances between the fundamentalism of the Wahhabis and the radicalism of the Fulani and between the two brands of puritanism which flowed from these doctrines. One point which Shehu emphasized in his writings, for example, was the importance of studying the lives of the early Caliphs 9, and his personal predilection for a system of government as starkly simple as theirs has already been noted. Similarly, many of the reforms which he advocated were identical to those that the Wahhabis had already introduced.
To suggest that Shehu may have been influenced by Wahhabism, however, is not to say that the Fulani reformation was part of the Wahhabi movement 10. In fact, there were important differences. Though Shehu, himself tended to look back to the early days of the Caliphate as offering the ideal system of Islamic government, even he relied much more on the jurists of the Abbasid Caliphate than on the earlier authorities, while the administrative machine that Bello, and Abdullahi set up to govern the Empire was nothing like the simple society of Medina but a complex hierarchy akin to that of the Abbasids 11.
In theological doctrine, too, there were important differences of outlook. Shehu, as we have already noted, did not accept Mallam. Jibrilu's view, shared with the Wahhabis, that disobedience involved unbelief and, indeed, felt called upon to refute it 12. Conversely, the Fulani reformers accepted the miracles of the walis, or saints, whereas it was one of the central tenets of the Wahhabis to reject them 13. Most important of all, the Wahhabis' denial of the authority of the four orthodox jurists of Islam 14 found no place in the beliefs of the Fulani. On balance, therefore, the most that can be said is that, while the reforming movement in Hausaland was perhaps influenced by Wahhabism, it was certainly not inspired by the Wahhabis and it was always separated from them by important differences of dogma and practice 15.
Whatever the precise nature of this relationship may have been, there was certainly a connexion between Shehu and Sekou Ahmadu, who led a similar movement in the western Sudan. Ahmadu, who was also a Fulani, studied under Shehu in his youth and then returned to his native Massina 15b burning with his master's reforming zeal. After declaring a jihad he first of all freed Massina from its ancient tutelage to the Bambara kingdom of Segu and then extended his conquests over a very large area stretching from Timbuctoo in the north to the Black Volta in the south. Although at the outset he had sent two of his brothers 15b to obtain Shehu's blessing for his enterprise, he subsequently kept his kingdom quite distinct and never acknowledged Shehu's political or even religious authority. Indeed, he too styled himself Commander of the Faithful 16. Nevertheless, his original inspiration had been derived from Shehu and his movement developed along parallel lines.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, therefore, there were powerful influences at work in the Moslem world to purify the faith and eradicate abuses. Since then it has often been asked whether the reformers were, in fact, justified in resorting to war to gain their ends. Was the faith so sullied and were the abuses so deeply ingrained that blood had to be shed to purify them? Was there no other method of achieving the same ends? In the central Sudan these questions were asked at the time by none other than Sheikh El-Kanemi, the man who had saved Bornu, and the best way of answering them is to follow the great religious controversy which they provoked.

It will be recalled that in 1808, after the loss of Ngazargamu, his capital, the Mai of Bornu had enlisted the aid of Sheikh El-Kanemi, a man of outstanding ability and distinction, who had succeeded in checking the disintegration of Bornu and halting the eastward advance of the Fulani.
Now El-Kanemi, like his adversaries, was a scholar and a divine as well as a soldier and an administrator. Besides meeting force with force, therefore, he challenged the Fulani in their own theological field. His first move, made after his recapture of Ngazargamu in 1809, was to address the following letter to Shehu.

Greetings and friendship. The cause of my writing to you is that when God brought me to Bornu, I found that the fire of discord had broken out between your followers and the people of this country. When I inquired why, some said that the reason lay in religion, others that it was to be found in tyranny.
Being still perplexed, I wrote to your kinsmen who live amongst us and asked them to explain their pretext for making war on Bornu. In reply I received a poor sort of justification such as would not come from a wise man, much less a learned one, and least of all from a religious reformer. They referred me to certain books and said that in these books they had learnt of the necessity of waging war. Now we on our side have examined these books and we do not find in them what they have found. Thus we remain in our perplexity. Now that there is a truce in the war we think it best to write to you … for we believe that a wise man, when he meets an honest question, will give a truthful answer. Will you therefore tell me your reasons for going to war and enslaving our people?
Should you say that it is on account of our heathenism, let me tell you that we are no heathens and that infidelity is far from our thresholds. If prayer and the giving of tithes and fasting in Ramadan and the restoration of mosques amount to heathenism, then what, I must ask, is Islam?
I have been told that the grounds on which you accuse us of being infidels are as follows: because our chiefs are reputed to make idolatrous sacrifices, because our women go unveiled, and because our judges are said to be corrupt and oppressive. But these things do not make it lawful for you to wage war on us. They are, it is true, very great evils, and it is of course our duty to prevent their being committed, but it is not right to say that those who are guilty of them are heathens…. It were better to command them to mend their ways than to make war on them as you are doing.
The only result of your policy is to bring tribulation and suffering on your fellow Moslems, for your followers have been killing our men and capturing our women and children. We are astonished that you should permit such things when you claim to be reforming our religion and we perceive that your true object is the power to rule over others. Though you may conceal this aim, even in your own hearts, it is, we believe, your real ambition.
We have heard much of the character of Shehu Usuman Dan Fodiyo and we have ourselves read his books…. Know therefore that if Shehu is for the truth, then we are for Shehu but if Shehu departs from the truth, then we shall leave him and follow the truth 17.

In this letter El-Kanemi had raised the controversial questions of whether disobedience was tantamount to unbelief and when backsliding became apostasy. El-Maghili, as we have seen, had condemned comparable deviations in Sonni Ali as unbelief and had pronounced Askia Muhammad's jihad to be justified and indeed meritorious 18. On the other hand, when Mallam Jibrilu had argued that disobedience involved unbelief and therefore justified anathematization it was Shehu himself who had refuted him and asserted that the orthodox authorities upheld the opposite view 19. Clearly, El-Kanemi had touched the weakest spot in the argument of the reformers. Bello admitted as much afterwards when he said that in the whole course of the jihad nothing had caused the Fulani leaders as much anxious heart-searching as El-Kanemi's questioning of their claims. This is not surprising for from the very outset their cause had been established on religious foundations. It was the belief that Shehu was God's chosen instrument and that he was destined not only to purify religion but to introduce a new order into worldly affairs that had been the source of the faith and exaltation which had carried the Fulani to victory and had seemed to justify their sweeping aside the hereditary authority of the Hausa Chiefs. The political structure of the whole Empire in fact rested upon these basic assumptions. Now El-Kanemi, a man of admitted learning and eminence, after probing and testing the foundations, had publicly pronounced them to be unsound.
Both Bello and Abdullahi wrote to El-Kanemi to refute his charges. Bello's letter, which was doubtless inspired by Shehu, or at any rate approved by him, was long and forthright. After taking El-Kanemi to task for reaching his conclusions on false or imperfect information, he went back to describe the causes which had led to the jihad

Furthermore, El-Kanemi, so that you may understand the origin of this affair, let me say that we did not begin the war for the reasons that you heard. In fact our reason for fighting was simply to repel the attacks which were being made on our lives, our families and our faith…. Before that we had merely been following the truth which Shehu had revealed to us but for this they began to harry and persecute us. They drove us from our homes. They confiscated our property. They robbed us on the roads 20.

Bello then went on to describe at some length the measures which Sarkin Gobir Nafata had taken to curb the spread of Islam, Yunfa's overt hostility, the unprovoked attack on Gimbana, Yunfa's ultimatum, Shehu's flight to Gudu, the battle of Tabkin Kwatto, and the manner in which the jihad had spread to the other Hausa States. So far as Bornu was concerned, he admitted that the Mai had sent them a message, but contended that the responsibility for the fighting which had afterwards broken out was nevertheless his 21.

Shehu ordered me to write to him. I explained to him all the reasons for our actions. I told him about the Hausa Chiefs and their heathen practices. I added that whoever went to their aid would be no better than they. At the same time I wrote to the Fulani in Bornu and commanded them to keep the peace. Not long afterwards, however, I heard that the Mai had had the messenger whom we had sent to him put to death 22.

Bello then ridiculed the idea that Shehu's supporters regarded the people of Bornu as pagan merely because they made sacrifices in high places, took bribes, gave unjust judgements, usurped the patrimony of orphans, and allowed their women to go unveiled. These abuses did not constitute heathenism. In fact, Bello admitted, they were common enough among his own people. He was only surprised that El-Kanemi, while acknowledging the learning of the Fulani leaders, should have believed them capable of such ignorance. It suggested that he was moved by malice and hatred. The Hausa Chiefs, who were in the habit of making sacrifices to sticks and stones and persecuting Moslems, were no better than heathens. That was the reason why the Fulani had gone to war with them 23.
In a second letter to El-Kanemi Bello came back to this theme:

The first cause of our fighting against your people is that they are helping the heathen Hausas against us. You must in truth know that whoever helps infidels is no better than they. The second reason is that your people are persecuting our people and driving them from their homes…. None of your prayers and tithes, your fasting and your founding of mosques, will help you nor stop us from fighting you, in this world or the next, so long as you support the unbelievers against us…. Know you, El-Kanemi, that all that you have charged us with is false. God is our help against you 24.

In the succeeding years Bello wrote further letters to El-Kanemi, apparently in a more conciliatory vein, but these seem to have gone astray and in any case he did not record their text. At last, however, a letter from Giɗaaɗ0, who was later to become Waziri of Sokoto, reached El-Kanemi and elicited from him a reply which was also conciliatory and which mentioned the desirability of making peace. Unfortunately, before this reconciliation could develop, the Fulani received an earlier letter from El-Kanemi, his third in the series, which they considered contentious and provocative. In replying to it Bello for the first time accused the Kanuri as well as the Hausas of heathen and idolatrous practices 25

… The reason why we gave our people in Bornu authority to go to war was the full information which reached us about the character of your people. We have been told by those who have lived in the country and must know, that they make sacrifices to rocks and trees, that they practice certain observances in the river similar to those of the Egyptians on the banks of the Nile, and that there are great houses with guardians appointed over them in which these rites are carried out.
To us, whoever makes sacrifices to sticks and stones is a heathen and that is why we call the people of Bornu heathens… 26

Nevertheless, Bello conceded that if it was true, as El-Kanemi had apparently said in his letter, that the Kanuri had mended their ways, then it was the duty of the Fulani to stop fighting them. He went on to say that Mallam Giɗaaɗ0 was being sent to the cast to assemble the Fulani leaders and suggested that El-Kanemi should dispatch an envoy to meet him and discuss calling a truce 27.
Later, at the time of Mallam Giɗaaɗ0's mission to the east, Shehu and Bello both wrote letters which were fairly conciliatory in tone 28. In his reply, El-Kanemi first of all set out to refute the charges of persecution and oppression which had been made earlier and then to prove that it was the Fulani and not the Kanuri who had been the aggressors.

“… They have raided our villages and plundered our property. They have killed our menfolk and enslaved our children. They have set fire to our houses. All we have done is to rise up and repel them. We have only retaken from them what they had first taken from us…. It was never I who began any quarrel with them. . . . ” 29

El-Kanemi also told Shehu bluntly that his followers did not always live up to his own high standards.
— You know that your kinsmen who live among us are ignorant people. Their ambition is to conquer and rule this country…. Had they been as you are, then we would not have fought them. But . . . in truth they are not men of high character. Whenever I extinguish a fire which they have lit, they immediately light another 30.
Nevertheless, he ended on a note of conciliation.
— I will show no enmity to any Fulani, he wrote, except to him who comes against me in war 31.
In another letter to Bello, which seems to have been written at the same time, he said that there was no treating with the Bornu Fulani because they were intransigent, but that it would be best if the leaders made peace 32. In answer to these two letters Shehu and Bello composed a long reply in which they recapitulated all their arguments 33. With that the correspondence came to an inconclusive end. None of these letters are dated and so we cannot relate them exactly to events in the jihad, but the correspondence probably began in 1810, and went on until 1812 34. By that time the war in Bornu had drifted into stalemate. It is doubtful, therefore, whether these exchanges did anything to shorten it.
Though neither side can be said to have emerged as the victors from the theological debate, the whole correspondence is nevertheless of absorbing interest. It shows that, although the prize happened to be a great territorial empire, the contest itself was basically one of ideas and that, as these letters reveal, it was fought out by men of considerable attainments.

In 1816, after this controversy had subsided, Shehu fell ill and in the following year he died. His death immediately precipitated a succession crisis between Bello and his followers on the one hand and Abdullahi and his supporters on the other. There were two questions to be decided. First, was the Empire to be divided and, if so, how? Secondly, who was to assume the title of Sarkin Musulmi with the spiritual leadership that went with it?
At this time Abdullahi was just over fifty years of age and Bello a little under forty. Their claims to succeed were so even that it was difficult to decide between them. Abdullahi had been the first to swear allegiance to Shehu at Gudu and had commanded the Fulani forces both at Tabkin Kwatto and at the capture of Birnin Kebbi. Bello, on the other hand, had knocked Zamfara out of the war and held the supreme command when Alkalawa had been taken. Both were men of exemplary character, high religious principles, great learning, and strong personality.
At the time of his death Shehu was living in the new city of Sokoto. Bello was there with him, but Abdullahi was at Bodinga, fifteen miles away 35. As soon as Abdullahi heard that Shehu was dead he collected his followers and rode to the city. He was too late, however, for by the time he arrived Bello, in accordance with his father's known wishes, had already been proclaimed Sarkin Musulmi 36.
There was a good reason why the election had been held in such haste. The Fulani leaders felt that if Abdullahi were present it would be difficult for them to appoint anyone except him, but that if he became Sultan his descendants rather than Shehu's might subsequently succeed and that therein lay the seeds of future civil war 37. To avert this danger and comply with Shehu's wishes they therefore elected Bello before Abdullahi could stake his claim.
Soon afterwards, when Abdullahi and his party reached the city, they found the great gates shut and barred against them. No doubt this was a wise precaution on the part of Bello's supporters, for if the two factions had been allowed to mingle, fighting might easily have flared up between them. Nevertheless, to Abdullahi the manner of his rejection must have come as a cruel blow. Certainly, he took it hard because he at once withdrew to Gwandu and for several years thereafter he and Bello were estranged.
When Bello succeeded as Sarkin Musulmi he acquiesced in Abdullahi's retaining the territories which, during the latter part of Shehu's lifetime, he had been mainly responsible for administering. The core of the Empire was therefore divided into two unequal parts and Kebbi became Abdullahi's Emirate of Gwandu. Abdullahi was also acknowledged to be the ruler of :

which were former provinces of Kebbi.
In addition it was recognized that :

should fall within the sphere of influence of Gwandu, not of Sokoto.
The result of these dispositions was that, while Abdullahi was endowed with rank and possessions which made him almost the equal of his nephew, at any rate in theory, and which certainly raised him to a higher level than any of the other Emirs, the lion's share of the Empire still fell to Bello. As his Sultanate, Bello had the former territories of :

and he became the acknowledged suzerain of:

What was no less important was that, with the title of Sarkin Musulmi, he also inherited Shehu's immense spiritual authority.
Shehu Usuman dan Fodiyo, the creator of the Empire which was now being divided between his son and his brother, was buried in his new capital of Sokoto. Judged by any standards he was a most remarkable leader.

One of the greatest of his many gifts was his spiritual magnetism. From the time when he was still quite a young man,he had the power to draw others to him. Moreover, once they had become his pupils or followers, they remained devoted to him for life. Another characteristic was the moral courage with which he stood on his principles. He showed this trait at Gudu, immediately after he had raised his standard against Yunfa, when some of his followers got out of hand and without provocation attacked the Hausa people living in the district. In circumstances as desperate as his, even the most upright and high-minded of leaders might well have turned a blind eye or at any rate have waited until after the impending battle before asserting his authority. But not Shehu.

“On the Thursday our people fell upon the Hausas who were in the district and slew and plundered and enslaved them. But on the Friday Shehu rose up and preached to them and commanded them to release those whom they had captured and to restore that which they had taken. At this they set free their prisoners and gave back their booty” 39.

Another characteristic which distinguished Shehu was his faith in his own destiny. So intensely did it burn that it fired all those who came into contact with him. There is no better illustration of its power than the effect it had at the supreme crisis of the jihad, when his defeated and half-mutinous army was surrounded in the unwalled town of Gwandu. His intervention then not only rallied his demoralized followers but inspired them to win a victory which proved to be decisive.
The last and in many ways most characteristic of Shehu's traits was his unworldliness. Unlike the Mahdi Muhammad Ahmed, no breath of scandal ever touched him. Furthermore, Shehu was never dazzled by success and remained as unspoilt in triumph as he had been unshaken in disaster. To the very end, in fact, he led a life of pious and ascetic simplicity and the most significant feature of his whole career is that no sooner had he achieved all his worldly aims than he virtually renounced the world.
On his achievements alone he deserves to be ranked among the greatest men whom Africa has produced. If his character and achievements are taken together, however, his place is unique.

1. Hiskett, AITR, pp. 591-2.
2. D. S. Margoliouth, Mohammedanism, London, 1911, pp. 177-9.
3. Ibid. p. 176.
4. Hiskett, AITR, p. 593.
5. Abdullah, TW (Hiskett, p. 90).
6. Ibid. pp. 94-95 and p. 3 of Introduction. Abdullahi described him as having remained long in Medina.
7. Ibid. p. 95, and the Hausa Chronicle published in J. A. Burdon's Historical Notes on certain Emirates and Tribes, London, 1909, p. 93.
8. Hiskett, AITR, p. 596.
9. Shehu, KF (Hiskett, p. 571).
10. Alhaji Junaidu does not even accept that Dan Raji and Mallam Jibrilu may have brought back the seeds of Wahhabism with them.
11. Hiskett, AITR, p. 592.
12. Ibid. p. 589.
13. Ibid. p. 594.
14. Margoliouth, op. cit. p. 176.
15. Hiskett, AITR, pp. 593-6.
15b. These two statements are erroneous. They are to be corrected as follows:

16. Bovill, op. cit. p. 228.
17. Bello, Inf M (cf. Arnett, pp, 102-3).
18. Hiskett, AITR, pp. 578-86.
19. Ibid. pp. 588-9.
20. Bello, Inf M (cf. Arnett, p. 104).
21. Ibid. pp. 105-6.
22. Ibid. p. 106.
23. Bello, Inf M (Arnett, p. 107).
24. Ibid. pp. 108-9.
25. Ibid. pp. 108-9.
26. Ibid. pp. 110-11.
27. Bello, Inf M (Arnett, p. 111).
28. Ibid. pp. 113-14.
29. Ibid. p. 114.
30. Ibid.p. 115.
31. Ibid. p. 115.
32. Ibid. p. 116.
33. Ibid. pp. 116-20.
34. Gazetteer of Sokoto Province, pp. 28-29.
35. Gazetteer of Sokoto Province, p. 37.
36. Alhaji Junaidu, op. cit. p. 25.
37. Hiskett, Introduction to TW, p. 20. Confirmed by Alhaji Junaidu.
38. At this time certain younger Emirates, namely Misau, Kazaure, Jama'are, Nassarawa, Muri, and Kontagora, had not yet come into being.
39. Bello, Inf M (cf. Arnett, p. 52).

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