From Rebels to Rulers

From Rebels to Rulers: Writing Legitimacy in the Early Sokoto State, was published this August in James Currey’s Religion in Transforming Africa series.  At its heart, the book explores the connection between writing in Arabic and legitimacy in the nineteenth century Sahel, a band of savannah stretching between Senegal in the east and Sudan in the west. In the nineteenth century, the region experienced a series of religious, social and military movements that sought to place Islam at the centre of African statecraft. It produced several states in Futa Toro, the Laamu Diina or Caliphate of Hamdallahi in Masina, present-day Mali, and Sokoto, the largest and longest lasting of these states, centred in present-day northern Nigeria.  

Historians of Africa habitually attribute absolute objectivity to primary written sources describing events in the pre-modern past. It is as if these accounts were written for the express purpose of helping us fill in the gaps of our knowledge. Questions of audience, bias, and indeed what purpose these documents served within their societies are rarely asked, whereas for historians of, say, Western Europe, these questions are second nature. The reason for this, I believe, is the entirely debunked notion that Africa is a place where writing was scarce and where records of the past, if they exist at all, must be found only in oral tales, myths and stories. 

Northern Nigeria is a place especially unsuited to such prejudices, given that it has been a centre of Muslim scholarship since at least the sixteenth century. In 1804, Usman dan Fodio, his younger brother Abdullahi and his son, Muhammad Bello, led an uprising against the Hausa Kingdoms, a series of city states that had held political and religious authority in the region for many hundreds of years. To support their movement, these three individuals wrote over 200 books, pamphlets and propaganda documents outlining their visions for a single Muslim state governing the vast area they now controlled. Although these primary sources have allowed historians to narrate the definitive events of Sokoto’s early history in astounding detail, in my view these documents tell a different story. Among the scholarly Muslim elite who ruled Sokoto, the primary function of writing such texts was to assert authority over dissident rulers in other Muslim states or, as disagreements between Usman, Abdullahi and Muhammad Bello increased, over different factions of the Sokoto court. Therefore, while their use as an objective historical account of the period was rather limited, close analysis of the texts and the arguments they contained increases our understanding of how legitimacy was created, maintained, or destroyed in Muslim West African societies of the period. 

Indeed, the connection between these documents and legitimacy is clear from the archival history of the physical items themselves. Sokoto’s subsequent rulers carefully copied and maintained the writings of the state’s founders, using them as a touchstone for their own hereditary rule. After the British annexed Northern Nigeria in 1903, they documented and translated the contents of Sokoto’s libraries to bolster the narrative of a strong “native governance” through which to enforce colonial rule. As Nigeria won its independence, Ahmadu Bello (Muhammad Bello’s great-grandson) expended great efforts to collect and preserve these documents in new national archive collections, as he and his political party, the Northern People’s Congress, sought to rule the country.   

My analysis of the Fodiawa’s writings between the jihad of 1804 until the death of Muhammad Bello in 1837 demonstrates that legitimacy was a composite of several distinct but interlinked components. While a detailed understanding of Islamic legal norms and theology was important, the claim of hidden knowledge acquired directly from God in visions, dreams and prophecies was a key catalyst for Usman’s movement. As was the effort to document a direct genealogical link to a prestigious Arab ancestor. But as the protagonists of my book rose from rebels to rulers, they also changed the narrative of what Islamic orthodoxy meant, first using it to justify a radical social upheaval and then to enforce conformity to a new regime that in many ways resembled the old. Flexibility, and not dogmatism, was what ensured the longevity of Muslim states. Such was evident in the success of Sokoto under the pragmatic Muhammad Bello, and the relative obscurity of Gwandu, the area controlled by his doctrinaire uncle.  

Since the completion of my book, I have remained very much in the field of manuscripts, taking on the position of West African Manuscript Cataloguer at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Minnesota. I am working to make the library’s huge digital collection of Arabic manuscripts from Timbuktu, Mali, available to the public. You can follow my work on Twitter @PJNaylor.  


This guest post was written by Paul Naylor, a Cataloguer of West African Manuscripts at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, Minnesota. He has held teaching positions at Loyola University Chicago and Tulane University’s Africana Studies Program.

From Rebels to Rulers
by Paul Naylor
9781847012708, Hardback, £39 or $64.35