Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

Muslims and Europeans in Nigeria

Steve Muhlberger

Sub-Saharan Africa has been an area of significant conversion to Islam in the twentieth century.   In this lecture we will look at one sample country to get some idea why.

Nigeria is a good case study because it is well-studied, and because it is the most populous and one of the most diverse countries in Africa.   Many different religious traditions are found there.    Islam was influential before European rule, and has grown since.   It gives us an opportunity to see why Islam might spread despite, or even because of, European domination.

Nigeria, like many African countries, is a new invention, with arbitrary boundaries created by British expansion in the colonial gold rush of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.   It was and is broken up into two climactic zones:

These zones look different ways, economically and culturally.

The forest zone looks to the sea, and trade links with Europe are old -- originally the slave trade but later more legitimate trade in tropical and plantation goods (palm oil, peanuts).    This is not a Muslim area today.

The "sudan" or "sahel" or savannah zone is oriented to the north, across the Sahara to Muslim countries.   Indeed the big political struggle of early modern times was which rulers in this zone would control access to cross-desert trade.   Those who were most successful set themselves up as emperors, ruling the largest sub-Saharan political units we know of.

Such trade meant contact with Muslim cultures in the desert and in the Mediterranean.   Those involved in long-distance trade often adopted Islam as a way of integrating themselves into a network of valuable contacts.   Merchants and rulers were the most likely to convert.

However, the sudanic belt was not thoroughly converted to Islam.   It had a rather superficial impact on society.   Many were not Muslims, while many who considered themselves Muslims did not practice its rituals or know its law.   They often continued their pagan worship.   Kings in particular felt a need to show respect for traditional religion.

Before 1800, as in Indonesia, Islam was known, it was acknowledged by most rulers, it contributed to international communications and trade, but pre-Islamic customs had a predominant role in society.

In West Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries, the minority of zealous Muslims became dissatisfied with this situation.   They began to denounce supposedly Muslim rulers who did not enforce sharia and call for jihad against them.   A number of holy wars took place in this zone, and they had two important common features:

Let's look in detail at the jihad that affected northern Nigeria at the beginning of the 19th century.

There were two main ethnic groups, the Hausa and the Fulani.

The Hausa lived in villages and cities and practiced intensive agriculture.   They provided the rulers of northern Nigeria.

The Fulani were originally nomadic cattleherders from the west, and most of them still herded cattle.   As such they were important to the economy.    Other Fulani were merchants, and some had settled in Hausa towns.  A proportion of them were dedicated Muslims.   Most Muslim scholars were Fulani, and they often served Hausa kings as administrators.

At the end of the 18th century, the political situation was unstable, and the strongest monarchy, the Hausa state of Gobir, was precarious.

In 1802, the king of Gobir, Yunfa, quarreled with his teacher, a Muslim Fulani named Usman da Fodia (often called "Shehu" or "the Shayk").

Usman was well-travelled, well-educated, and was connected with a sufi order.   He, like others in his position, thought that the introduction of true, strict Islam was the cure for political injustice in Gobir.   He had become the recognized champion of Muslims (mostly Fulani) and the cause of reform.    His reputation had convinced Nafata, Yunfa's father, to turn his son over to Usman for education.

Nafata eventually got worried about the size of the community that Usman had gathered around himself, and forbade them and other Muslims to use the veil or the turban, or to convert sons from the religion of their father.    He also forbade anyone but Usman to preach.

When Nafata died, Yunfa succeeded, and proved even more hostile than his father.   Eventually Usman took his followers on a hijra to a place where they were secure from Yunfa's attacks, and was then convinced to take on the responsibilities of an imam and caliph and lead a jihad.

This war, however, was not just a war between pagans and Muslims, or Hausa and Fulani.   Hausa peasants supported Usman's armies even though few of them were Muslims.   The Fulani jihad succeeded because it identified Islam with justice, and there was a great desire for justice in the land.

By the 1810s, a great Fulani-ruled caliphate had been created.   Usman was caliph for as long as he lived (basing himself at Sokoto) and left the practicalities to his two sultans, his brother and his son.   Under them were local rulers, amirs, whe were Muslim Fulani.   Thus a whole new ruling class had been created, one more closely identified with Islam.

A similar chain of events can be seen elsewhere in West Africa.   After centuries of Muslim infiltration, a critical mass of Muslims was created.   At a certain point, preaching of strict Islam as the basis for a just society made possible a jihad, which created a new Islamic ruling class.   The particular jihad we've discussed was just one of several.

However, larger scale conversion to Islam did not happen immediately; only later, when northern Nigeria came under the rule of a Christian power.  Why?

By the 1880s, European powers seeking guaranteed access to African trade for domestic producers and merchants, were dividing up the continent.   By 1900, Eurpeans had imposed new boundaries on the entire map and were moving to turn these lines into enforceable borders.

Northern Nigeria under the Sokoto caliphate was one last areas to fall under European rule.    The takeover was rather peaceful, despite the apparent potential for religious conflict.  The Fulani knew they were outgunned, while the British, under Lord Lugard, knew that conquest would be expensive and bloody.   Lugard thus promoted the idea of "indirect rule" as the way to bring the north into the British sphere.

"Indirect rule" meant rule as far as possible through local kings and governors.  Britain would give these rulers advisers, and let the locals do the day-to-day work of government.    The British displaced the caliph at Sokoto, and like him oversaw the various amirs.

In some ways this stabilized northern society as never before, providing a guarantee for the ruling class.   Likewise, European institutions were only very gradually introduced.

Nevertheless, colonial rule had its disruptive side.  Even indirect rule cost money, and the colonies were expected to "pay their way."   One way or another, the ordinary inhabitants of the country had to produce something worth something on the world market.   The French in their colonies used forced labour; the British disapproved, but their taxes required the native population to work in a cash economy dominated by the colonial power.    Taxes thus reshaped native society.

At the same time, the desire to make money through trade (the original motivation for acquiring colonies) motivated the colonial power to introduce modern communications and technology, public health measures, plantation crops, etc.   This shook things up.   The population increased and became closely tied to international markets and their fluctuations.   Cites grew and people left their farms for more opportunities.

Both indirect rule and the economic transformation promoted the spread of Islam.

Indirect rule increased the power of the Muslim ruling class over the general population.   The British backing of existing institutions meant, for instance, more and better financed Muslim schools, instead of Christian-run missionary schools as in other places.   The British respected Islam more than they did traditional paganism, and approved of the introduction of a more standard variety of Islam.

And when disruption came, and uprooted people looked for a new way to live, it was reinvigorated Islamic institutions and customs they looked to:  such as sufi bortherhoods.    Islam acted as a bridge between different tribes and language groups.

Islam played a very similar role in many parts of West Africa, and other parts of Africa, too.

Again we see the immense adaptability of Islam.  Though the European advent was something of a setbakck to the prestige of Islam, in the longer run, the encounter with the outside, European dominated world emphasized the advantages of Islam in areas where it already existed.  For those looking for a non-European, native traditions that had some chance of resisting the domination of the conquerors, Islam had more to offer than the basically illiterate tribal cultures.   It provided connections with distant peoples, and a language of resistance that those other peoples shared.   It was a model for everyday life, a learned tradition that supported morality, and a form of brotherhood that reached across the globe.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.