One of the hidden treasures within the Muslim world is West Africa. In it contains a rich history of Muslim empires, arts and culture as well as resistance to colonialism. As these are aspects of Islamic civilization in West Africa that are unknown to many non-sub Saharan Africans, equally unknown is the rich history of Islamic scholarship in West Africa which continues to inspire the faithful today. Shaykh Uthman bin Fodio al-Fulani (may Allah sanctify his spirit), also known as Shehu Uthman dan Fodio, is one of those stars in the constellation in the history of Islamic scholarship in West Africa.
Dan Fodio, who was born in the mid-18th century in the northern area of modern day Nigeria, is perhaps the most influential West African scholar in Islamic history. He became a hafiz of the Qur’an at a young age through the instruction of his father and mother. Afterwards, he studied hadith under scholars in which he received qualifications in the six most sound canonical books of hadith (as-Sihah as-Sittah), ash-Shama’il al-Muhammadiyyah by at-Tirmidhi (may Allah’s mercy be upon him), al-Muwatta by Imam Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) and al-Jami’ al-Saghir by as-Suyuti (may Allah’s mercy be upon him). After mastering Arabic grammar, morphology and rhetoric plus getting qualification in tafsir (commentary) of the Qur’an, he became a jurist in the Maliki school of thought while also having deep knowledge in the rulings of the Hanafi, Shafi’i and Hanbali legal traditions within Sunni Islam. He then became a guide within the Qadiri spiritual path after memorizing Dala’il al-Khayrat by al-Jazuli (may Allah’s mercy be upon him) and the Ahzab of ash-Shadhili (may Allah sanctify his spirit).
Dan Fodio wrote hundreds of works on Islamic sciences ranging from creed, Maliki jurisprudence, hadith criticism, poetry and Islamic spirituality. The vast majority of his books were written in Arabic. However, close to 20 of them were written in his native tongue of the Fulani tribe, the Fulani being the largest ethnic group in sub-Saharan Africa.
Dan Fodio had special interest in providing education for women in the area where he became the leader of the government known as the Sokoto Empire, which eventually stretched from the contemporary areas of Niger to Burkina Faso. All 12 of his children inherited his knowledge and became Islamic scholars, including his two daughters. It is recorded that his classes on tafsir, hadith, fiqh and Islamic spirituality were held every day between al-‘Asr and al-‘Isha’a prayer times. He delivered lectures every night of Jumu’ah that were filled with his students of both men and women. His assemblies were always kept available for women to come for studies or to ask specific questions on fiqh.
Dan Fodio passed away in the year 1817 C.E. Following in his footsteps in Sokoto was his son Muhammad Bello who became a prolific scholar based upon the tutelage of his father. Although many Western African scholars who came later never physically met him, such as Shaykh Ahmadou Bamba (may Allah sanctify his spirit) and Hajj Malick Sy (may Allah sanctify his spirit), they heard the stories of his reign, learned of his merits and read his words. May Allah (Mighty & Sublime) have us benefit from Uthman dan Fodio and bless us to visit the area rich in Islamic tradition where he taught.