From Rebels to Rulers, Writing Legitimacy in the early Sokoto State

“In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful”

Naylor, Paul. From Rebels to Rulers, Writing Legitimacy in the early Sokoto State. Great Britain. James Currey, 2021. pp. xxii,199. £60.00 (Hardcover). ISBN: 978-1847012708.

Reviewed by:

Abdul Hai.

“There is that great proverb — that until the lions have their historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”  Chinua Achebe.

With the birth of nation-states, the former colonies can now breathe and take back their culture, and ‘have their historians’. For too long the colonisers’ view of Africa was as Karl Marx once said

“They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”

The emerging new and exciting literary heritage of Africa in general and West Africa, in particular, is now challenging the Western narrative of Africa. Africa now speaks for itself. Novels such as Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih have inspired many to develop confidence in themselves. The more recent publications of Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa and Islamic Scholarship in Africa: New Directions and Global Contexts by Ousmane Oumar Kane are helping Africans to connect and rediscover their once booming intellectual history and culture.

Paul Naylor’s From Rebels to Rulers, Writing Legitimacy in the early Sokoto State is the newest addition to the ever-growing interest in Africa’s intellectual past. Naylor’s study is two-fold. He intends to look at the wider impact of Africa, and notes (2021. pp 7)

“…moving beyond the narrow confines of Sokoto studies; this book suggests that there is perhaps a whole other-sub-discipline of African studies lying here...”

However, his primary focus is on the Sokoto empire and the legal writing that forms the basic foundation of the empire’s development. He points out (2021. pp.14)

“…the book will demonstrate how the developing political and intellectual project of the Fodiawa changes in the function of writing and written texts as they rose from rebels to rulers…[also 2021. pp. 8] “it [the book] discusses evolving approaches  to legitimacy and Islam in West Africa, establishing the theoretical framework and terminology used in the book, and emphasising the causal relationships between the production of texts, the structure of (de) legitimation, and patterns of state formation…”

Naylor’s study has bought some new dimensions to understanding the Sokoto empire through the texts written by its founders. The study not only allows one to understand the Sahelian territory but also helps to better map out the geographical, linguistic, cultural, and socio-political make-up of greater Africa. Naylor’s study has reasonably succeeded in making accessible to the public a very specific part of Africa’s history, which otherwise would have remained inaccessible.

Naylor’s study began with a detailed introduction. This is where he outlines some key elements and the structure of the study. He mentioned the brief history of the region and its key players and writers such as Al-Hajj Sa’id, who was ( 2021. pp.1)

“ …A prominent scholar from the region of Masina completed his history of Sokoto…”

Sokoto’s broader history is also mentioned to give the reader an overview of the subject matter. Here, Naylor also discusses today’s Africa and the different projects which are underway to document and archive the many literary achievements of African and, more importantly, Sokoto’s heritage. ( 201. pp.17)

“ Nigeria’s first independent elections in 1959 brought the NPC to power. The deputy leader of the NPC, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, became Prime Minister, with Bello serving as Premier of Northern Nigeria. During the colonial period, these two had developed close ties to historians of Sokoto. After independence, Ahmadu Bello used his premiership to fund a number of regional Northern History Research Schemes.”

The book is, as mentioned above, primarily a study of the collective legal and jihadi texts written by the three key founders of the Sokoto empire, namely Abdullah Dan Fodio, his younger brother Abdullahi Dan Fodio and the son of Abdullah Dan Fodio, Muhammad Bello. These three are collectively referred to in the study as the Fodiawa. The introduction is a must-read section, as it helps the reader to navigate through the text smoothly.

Chapter one studies three genres of work that are used by the Sahelian scholars which include, among others, the Fodiawa to legitimise the Sokoto Empire’s claim to rulership. These genres of legal work are fiqh, kashf, and nasab. The historical development of these works are mentioned and how they are understood among different regions by different scholars. With regards to fiqh, Naylor notes (2021. pp. 32)

“by the nineteenth century, Sahelina scholars have formed a consensus on a remarkably standardised body of writing that they equated with fiqh…”

This chapter also names the major figures and their legal works which have shaped Fodiawa’s minds, and how these figures’ legal works, along with Fodiawa’s contributions to legal literature, are soon to play a role in the Sokoto Empire. For example, Naylor mentioned (2021.. pp 33)

“two critical figures in this regard are Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (1445-1505) and Abd-Al-Karim Al-Maghili (1425-1505)…”

Those texts, as Naylor mentioned, were meant to create the standard framework for setting up an ideal Islamic government. However, (2021. pp. 35)

“… in practice, the machinery of the government and the terminologies of political office was defined by the Sahelian”.

What one takes from this chapter is that the legal body of texts has transcended beyond Africa into the classical Islamic period. However, the applications and implementation of such texts were localised by the Sahelian scholars to meet the local and traditional challenges. The power and the ability to interpret the texts allowed the Fodiawa to monopolise and legitimise their leadership. Another way to legitimise Fodiawa‘s rule was by using the Ijaza system. The more famous the teachers were, the more prestigious the  Ijaza was. The Fodiawa were able to claim a link to the authors of the texts. Naylor states (2021. pp. 36)

“..for example, Abdullahi Dan Fodio remarks that one of his teachers was as famous as the sun”.

Naylor also gives examples of the role of the kashf theory in Islamic history and how it was used to enrich one’s claim to divine secret knowledge. Fodiawa was not an exception to the kashf  theory. They have also  used theory to legitimise their power. In this chapter Naylor also explains how the theory of nasab helped stabilise the  Sahelian elites to rulership. 

The second chapter details the discourse of dissent and moderation that the  Fodiawa were involved in. Between 1790 to 1814, several strategies were used by the Fodiawa to establish their understanding of the legal texts within the context of their territories.  This chapter takes a closer look into the works written by Usman Dan Fodio, works such as  Ihya al-Sunna wa-ikhmas al-bid’a  (Revival of the Sunna and the destruction of innovation). This and other works represent Usman’s political and theological view of the lands that he visited and how those lands and their people should return to true Islam. This chapter also explores the literary activities of other Fodiawa. Naylor here mentions the young Abdullahi and his literary activities (2021. pp.49)

“During this time, the young Abdullahi became an accomplished Arabist…translating…and composing his own qasa’id…”

The son of Usman, Muhammad Bello also starts showing his literary skills and his ability as an independent author. Some of the works by  Bello will, at a later stage, play a major role in shaping the Sokoto Empire.  In this chapter, Usman discusses the doctrine of Takfir and how the application of Takfir must be applied. However, Naylor shows that the establishment of the doctrinal of Takfir was developed long before the Fodiawa’s jihad campaign.  The chapter makes a detailed study of the Fodiawa’s legal and historical works, which were intended to be used to rule the empire when it was established.

This period saw the development of some of the major works of the Fodiawa, mainly the jihadist text and its interpretation. Those works covered the above three mention genres. The period between 1790 to 1814  can be considered the period of literary activities.  Like so many empires in history, when the founding member dies, the empire struggles to remain stable and the Sokoto Empire is no exception to this. Chapter three deals with the succession of leadership after the death of Usman dan Fodio.  Muhammad Bello, the son of Usman dan Fodio, quickly claimed the leadership, knowing full well that his uncle Abdullahi would contest the succession. Much of this chapter deals with the communication in the form of written texts between Bello and Abdullahi. Only three weeks after the death of Usman, Abdullahi wrote his Sabil al-Salama,  a legal text in which he argued against the leadership of Bello. Bello, on his part, wrote his al-Insaf, a reply to his uncle’s opposition to his leadership only after nine and a half weeks. Both texts, as Naylor notes, ( 2021. pp.96)

“are remarkably similar because both Abdullahi and Bello relied on the same set of Islamic legal sources on the election [to the position of Amir Al-Mu’minin]

The chapter highlights both Abdullahi’s claim and Bello’s position in regards to how and what methods are to be used to select the right and qualified candidate for the post of Amir Al-Mu’minin. Both men relied upon earlier writings of Muslim scholars such as the well-known scholar Imaam Abu Al-Mawardi (972-1058), the author of Al-Ahkam Al-Sultaniyya, and other works by Imaams such as Abu Abd Allah Al-Qurtubi (1214-1273) and Muhammad Mayyara (1591-1662). It is here the reader will see Abdullahi’s and Bello’s skills and scholarship in full. To defend each other’s legal positions, both men engage with classical Islamic legal texts, Islamic social history, interpretation of legal fatwa, and historical events in support of their respected claims. Take for example when Bello compared the rebels against with those who rebelled against Caliph Abu Bakr ( 2021. pp.105)

“ the rebellions against him [which  include his uncle] to the situation facing Caliph Abu Bakr after the death of the Holy Prophet (may Allah’s peace and blessing be upon him) which led to reconquer much of the caliphate by force in what is known as Ridda War”

The chapter also discusses Bello’s relationship with other leaders and how he used and interpreted the legal texts to support and secure his claim to the post of  Amir Al-Mu’minin. The reader will quickly learn that Bello becomes more flexible than in his earlier legal position. To Bello, now it is not about pure dogma, but rather what is more beneficial to social and cultural expectations. Take for example (2021. pp.109)

“Bello state that he would abandon zahir-al-fiqh-that is, the literal or outwards meaning of Islamic law-in favor of legal principle whose applications changed according to the needs of the community and, of course, the need of its rulers…”

Other texts that Bello wrote were Shifa al-asqam fi dhikr madarik al-akam (Cure for sickness by mentioning faculties of judgment). All these texts Bello wrote were, in one way or another, a response to those people who are opposing his leadership. Abdullahi, on the other hand also wrote several books such as Diya al-Hukkam, which many of Bello’s enemies such as Ahmad Lobba used against Bello’s leadership argument. The chapter like other chapters end with a conclusion, once again highlighting that Bello’s ruling and understanding of legal text reflect the social and political needs. This flexibility at times contradicts Bello’s earlier legal position. Here the readers start to see Bello as a fully mature scholar and a leader.

The fourth chapter discusses Bello’s leadership and his writing but now Bello writes not as a contested figure but as an established ruler. All his enemies or challengers have either submitted to his leadership or have come to a mutual agreement. For example, Abdullahi, albeit unwillingly had submitted to  Bello’s leadership. Others such as Ahmad Lobbo  (2021. pp. 119):

“…continued to rule independently of Sokoto, and… what is noteworthy is that Bello and his successors carefully maintained this correspondence… [with Ahmad Lobbo]”

The chapter shows that Bello’s thinking and tactic had changed. Thus, his legal writings are also taking a different turn. Here Bello, as Naylor points out (2021. pp.125)

“presupposes the existence of Sokoto as a territorial entity with geographical limits, containing subjects that could be classified and controlled on his word.”

Bello’s work Qadh al-zinad hatha-l-jihad  [striking the flint in the matter of this jihad] reflects the new socio-political changes. Such changes allow Bello to revisit some of his earlier rulings in some cases making major changes. Such changes also are intended to accommodate new policies that are needed to make the Sokoto empire stable. A major part of this chapter is dedicated to the study of Bello’s policies towards several key elements, such as learning to manage an empire, and the policies of integration. Now that Sokoto was a more multicultural empire, Bello’s policies and the legal ruling would have to move towards inclusivity. What this meant was that Bello would now have to revisit some of the early legal texts written by either his father, his uncle, or even himself, to include the principle of integration.

Bello now seemed to accept some of the social practices of the Hausa, which he considered haram in his earlier rulings (2021. pp.128):

“ [in earlier writings] Bello listed playing musical instrument among the ‘actions of jahiliyyah, yet, in 1824 Clapperton was welcomed by the ‘drums and trumpets’ of Bello’s escort.”

The chapter also discusses policies concerning enslavement, policies of exclusion, and policies of sedentarisation with regards to the Fulani. Now that Bello is looking at the Sokoto empire as an ever-expanding territory, his policies in all the above-mentioned areas and other areas are made in line with social and political demands. The justifications of accepting many social and political changes are also backed up by legal texts written either by classical Muslim scholars or by the Fodiawa to give legitimacy to the Sokoto Empire.

Paul Naylor, in the book, intended to show how the early writing by the Fodiawa helped to legitimise the Sokoto Empire. Naylor does this by analysing the writing of Fodiawa at each stage of Sokoto’s development and shows how legal writing developed and changed as the socio-political changes took place. He shows the development of the Fodiawa’s legal maturity and intellectual development through the texts they wrote and the legal ruling they gave. He shows that Fodiawa are highly educated with transnational legal-text knowledge. However, Naylor’s book does have some lacking. Although there is some difference in theology and legal schools within the Sunni tradition, there is overwhelming agreement and standardisation on what is considered the representation of the traditional Sunni school. A basic outline of such agreement and standardisation at the beginning of the book would have allowed the reader to cross-reference Fodiawa’s understanding of classical Islamic texts. However, at this point, Paul Naylor must be congratulated for his contribution and bringing to light this much-needed volume. 

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