“A society can thrive and prosper submerged in unbelief… but shall go nowhere under the yoke of injustice even in the light of [Islamic] belief.”
Shehu Usumanu Danfodio
When Shehu Usumanu Danfodio first took up arms against Gobir, it was in defiance to the prospects of a death in vain. He had been picked to his bare bones and like Horatius Cocles, he stood fast against fearful odds to die in dignity while fighting. But when he raised his standard against the rulers of Hausaland heralding the Sokoto Jihad, it was to establish a new order under the supremacy of justice. It was surreal that a ragtag band of nondescript scholarly-types could withstand and even best the army of a kingdom so powerful it was known both in the eastern and western hemispheres of the 18th Century globe.
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Danfodio did not take up arms to impose Islam or the dictates of Islamic theocracy on Hausaland. He apparently did not even believe that political Islam was the answer to the prosperity of society. He took up arms as a last resort, after he had been pushed to the wall and there was no more room left to retreat. He had two choices and both ended with his death – to either roll over and die, or die fighting. He had nothing more to lose, and as a final act of defiance, he chose the latter – death.
He was reborn as a saint and messiah of Hausaland after he pulled off the miracle of beating back the Gobir expeditionary force sent against him, and then gathering forces to march on Alkalawa, the capital of Gobir and eventually tore it asunder.
In Islam, protecting oneself from humiliation is another form of jihad just like all the many other jihads, so it was a jihad from the get-go. But the objectives of the jihad changed, however, after the fact of this stunning victory over Gobir as his ranks were overwhelmed with volunteering masses from all over Hausaland, as people heard of the sun rising from the west after a long night of severe darkness.
With the momentum he had garnered, he now had a moral duty to liberate the long-suffering commoners who saw a messiah in him and had rallied behind him against their kings. Hence, the kinetic “Jihad” was afoot. He was a cleric, and the best way he had of enshrining just order and social development was deference to the Qur’an and Sunnah and these were established as the fundamentals of the new Sokoto Empire, which for the first time in history united the Hausa states under a single political authority.
The Jihad had been sold to the Hausa masses with one breath by its central message of social salvation – the supremacy of the faith of Islam was a secondary element. The very ethos and indeed lynchpin upon which the Jihad itself was predicated, was the idea that society can and will prosper outside Islam, but cannot and shall never make one inch of progress under the yoke of injustice. This happens to be a profoundly apt summation of what we see today in Hausaland and Nigeria as a whole. Islam, or at least pseudo-Islam, has permeated every nook and cranny of this land… yet it remains a cesspool of acute misery and deprivation. I wonder why.
The popular belief in certain quarters – that the Sokoto Jihad brought Islam to Nigeria, and by the sword, is in this day and age unforgivable ignorance. Islam had already taken root in the Hausa kingdoms as far back as the 14th Century, and its practice took firm roots by the 15th. It is also noteworthy that the Jihad was not responsible for spreading Islam across the Niger either – Islam was already also a reality in Yorubaland of old long before the Jihad.
Hausaland was not awe-stricken by the novelty of Islam, even in its non-syncretic form before the Jihad. That was not why its inhabitants willingly submitted to the Shehu. The Shehu would probably have been perfectly content to have lived an ordinary life as a subject of Gobir had he not been singled out by circumstances. He was on numerous occasions hosted by the kings of Gobir, and has lived in peace alongside his Hausa neighbours who were animists or practised syncretic Islam.
The Sokoto Jihad was, therefore, clearly never about the propagation or even the renewal of Islam as a faith. It was about banishment of the darkness and malignance of tyranny and corruption. Today, oppression, cruelty and sadistic villainy are on a scale that would have dwarfed what Shehu Usumanu Danfodio and his contemporaries had to deal with.
Today, not tomorrow, a second rallying cry is sounded and it is a matter of collective responsibility that it is heeded by men of conscience everywhere both Muslim and non-Muslim – especially those who profess adherence to the legacy of Danfodio. And we must all remember like he said, “A conscience is an open wound. Only truth can heal it.”
Huzaifa Jega is a Management Consultant and lives in Abuja