The Caliph’s Law: Legality and Legitimacy in the Sokoto Caliphate

The following post was my term paper in a course entitled Islamic Institutions taught by Dr. Nelly Hanna, a Distinguished Professor of Arab and Islamic Civilizations at American University in Cairo. My paper examines the concepts of legality and legitimacy of the institution of the caliphate as it relates to caliphates on the periphery of Muslim dominated lands. This is an ongoing debate in the field of Islamic studies, but rarely does it discuss caliphates outside of the Muslim heartlands. This is one attempt to bring Sub-Saharan African Muslim histories into the discussion.


With the encroachment of Europeans to the West and the Mongols in the East, Muslim scholars were forced to renegotiate the balances of power within their lands. Such renegotiations even extended to Sub-Saharan Africa on the southwest peripheries of the Muslim heartland in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Asia Minor. In the 16th century, bilād al-sūdān (Sub-Saharan Africa) started to erupt with a series of jihads that would change the religious and political dynamics in the region to this day. Around the juncture of the 18th and 19th centuries, the widest reaching and most controversial of these jihad movements took place under the leadership of Shehu (Shaykh) ʿUthmān Dan Fodio in present-day northern Nigeria.

Scholarship on the history of Islamic caliphates largely remains centered on Arab, Persian, and Turkish practices of the institution in the heartland of Islamic hegemony. Narratives of this history largely consider that the Islamic caliphate ended on March 4, 1924 by the efforts of Mustafa Kamel and the Turkish Grand National Assembly.[1] Yet, narratives of other caliphates and sultanates in other regions, who equally justified their claims to power within the Islamic paradigm, often go overlooked within the field of Islamic studies, but is usually explored marginally or within another field of areas studies. Moreover, were we to study these other Islamic states perhaps we would change this decline narrative to one that reflects different lived experiences in the present world. For instance, in 2010 while living and studying in the Sudan, I had the pleasure of meeting Sultan al-Hajj Abu Bakr, who was then the khalīfa of the Jama’a of ʿUthmān Dan Fodio, which largely functions as an influential ṣūfī group in the Maiurno State towards the eastern region of the Republic of Sudan. I could not help but wonder if people knew that the Sokoto Caliphate still exists. Moreover, how many other visages of pre-colonial caliphates continue to exist elsewhere in the Muslim world?

            To find written information on Shehu Uthman Dan Fodio and his Sokoto Caliphate in English, there are a number of sources, but many of them are quite dated. Mervyn Hiskett published his comprehensive biography of Dan Fodio, The Sword of Truth in 1973 and Fathi Hassan Masri’s well-researched translation of Bayān Wujūb al-Hijra ʿalā ʾl-ʿIbād was published in 1978. Less comprehensive works have been published  since then, mainly in the 1990’s and 2000’s. One can also find a number of works about Dan Fodio and his legacy in both English and Arabic from Nigerian and other African scholars, but most of these are not critical works. Given the attention given to West African Arabic and Ajami manuscripts in recent years, it is interesting to see that the scholarly interest in this history has not proliferated at the same rate. Nevertheless, one interesting body of sources comes from the website of the Sankore Institute of Islamic-African Studies International (, a website ran by Muhammad Shareef, an independent researcher from the United States residing in Mali, who researches and translates the works of Dan Fodio and others of his followers from the manuscripts that have surfaced in recent years. Though he has contributed significantly to this history, the academy has not yet made a place for his scholarship.

            Nevertheless, I seek to bring the discussion of legality and legitimacy of the caliphal institution to the topic of West African Muslim power negotiations. This paper will examine the terms of these renegotiations by analyzing the legal theory and legitimizing factors used by Shehu Uthman Dan Fodio in establishing his reform movement, which he also called the Jama’a (the Community) and is referred to in scholarly literature as the Sokoto Caliphate. It is my proposition that leadership is based on lofty ideals that are set by those seeking leadership. The public must submit to these ideals, either willingly or unwillingly, in order for the leader to assume leadership. The process of appealing to the masses to submit to these ideals is what I will refer to in this paper as legitimacy. Within the Islamic paradigm, the ideals are stated in the form of a comprehensive divinely-inspired legal theory. While it is not necessary for the public to understand the details of the legal theory, it suffices them to submit to the legitimizing factors of the one or one(s) interpreting the divine law. This paper will demonstrate how Shehu Uthman Dan Fodio designed his divine legal theory and how he and his followers presented legitimizing factors that influenced people to submit to his authority. This study will also entail a discussion on the extent to which his legal theory coincided with earlier theories of Islamic scholars on the notion of governance and to what extent his legitimizing factors succeeded in legitimizing his authority.

Reform and Jihad in Bilād al-Sūdān

            The story of reform and jihad in bilād al-sūdān  starts in the lifetime of the Algerian scholar, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Karim al-Maghīlī (d. c.1505). He, like ʿUthmān Dan Fodio, was a Maliki, ‘Ash’ari, and Qadari ṣūfī. He witnessed the Muslim wars with Christian Europeans and their conquests of Andalusia and Sicily that led to the expulsion of Muslims. Likewise, he was certainly aware of the Mongol invasions and inter-Muslim conflicts in the East. As a ṣūfī and scholar of law, he found discrepancies between ideal Islamic life and the reality of Muslims in his locale. This most starkly took the form of his controversial jihad against the Jews, which led to their massacre and expulsion from a North African area known as Tuwāt. He cited their corrupting influence on the social and economic life of the Muslims there. Though many of his contemporaries agreed that the Jews had a corrupting influence, they differed with him on how to address this problem. After much verbal admonishing and dialogue, al-Maghīlī concluded that jihad was the only option to reform this society.[2]

            The act of massacring and expelling the Jews made him a controversial figure with some scholars supporting his campaigns and others opposing them. Some claimed he was acting outside of the law and that he was only out for leadership. However, he insisted that his actions were necessary and firmly within the law. He also emphasized that he had no political ambitions. To prove his point, he left Tuwāt after ensuring that matters had been rectified, traveling first to Morocco where he had not found acceptance and then to Kano upon accepting an invitation from the sultan, Muhammad ibn Ya’qub Runfa. He was said to have converted a number of people to Islam, corrected the beliefs and practices of those who were already Muslims, and supposedly wrote his monumental treatise on governance, The Obligations of Princes (which is considered to be the same as his well-known treatise Tāj al-Dīn fī Mā Yajib ʿalā al-Mulūk wa al-Salāṭīn).[3]

In addition to this treatise, al-Maghīlī had a series of correspondences with Askia Muhammad Ture (d. 1528) of the Songhay Empire that influenced him to lead the jihad that overthrew Sunni ‘Ali’s dynasty on the grounds that he was either a wayward Muslim, apostate or outright polytheist who persecuted Muslims. Though there is debate in recent scholarship on the veracity Askia Muhammad’s claims that Sunni Ali regularly engaged in pagan rituals and persecuted Muslims, it certainly launched a wave of Islamic reformist jihads in bilād al-sūdān . Subsequently, Askia Muhammad made Islam the official religion of Songhay, built mosques, and patronized Islamic scholars like al-Maghīlī.[4]

While Dan Fodio cites a number of fuqahāʾ and theologians in his works, Hiskett believes that Dan Fodio is particularly indebted to al-Maghīlī in three main ways. First, Dan Fodio expanded on al-Maghīlī’s thoughts on tajdīd (renewal), a kind of Islamic millenarian doctrine in which the mujaddid (renewer) ushers in the coming of the Mahdi who precedes the return of ʿĪsa (Jesus) at the end of times. Subsequently, Dan Fodio branded himself as the mujaddid of his time, someone who would establish a new Islamic world order as more turmoil ensues.[5]

Secondly, Dan Fodio expanded on al-Maghīlī’s relationship between unbelief and sin. While the mainstream Sunni view is that sin does not equate to unbelief, al-Maghīlī allowed for the transgressions of Sunni Ali as described by Askia Muhammad to be interpreted as unbelief. Dan Fodio, while officially holding on to the mainstream Sunni view, he saw the situation in bilād al-sūdān  as different based on the precedent of Sunni Ali. He would use this interpretation to anathematize Muslims who mixed their Islam with pagan beliefs and practices.[6]

Thirdly, Dan Fodio reiterates al-Maghīlī’s theme of chastising ignorant, charlatan, and venal scholars (ʿulamāʾ al-sūʾ). Discrediting and delegitimizing his enemies amongst the Sudanic scholars is important to establishing Dan Fodio’s authority. Just as al-Maghīlī criticized the scholars who supported Sunni Ali because they were ignorant of the Arabic language and therefore did not understand the intentions of the scholars, so did Dan Fodio criticize those scholars of his time who permitted a mixed Islam and dismissed them from the ranks of true scholars.[7]

             While al-Maghīlī was undoubtedly a major influence on Dan Fodio, he was not the only reformer in bilād al-sūdān who shaped his thinking. Dan Fodio studied directly under three men who he credits with having a profound effect on his life and future teachings. The first is his uncle, ʿUthmān Binduri, who he apprenticed with for two years, copying his manners in piety and commanding what is right and prohibiting the wrong. The second was another uncle named Muhammad Sambo, who was a master of al-Karāshī’s commentary on al-Mukhtasar, a fiqh text that the Shehu cites in a number of his works. Finally, the third was a relative through marriage, a Taureg scholar named Jibril ibn ‘Umar. Dan Fodio credited him with guiding him to the revival of the Sunna and opposing innovation in bilād al-sūdān.[8]

            Finally, we can say that Dan Fodio pulled on traditional Sunni sources of scholarship such as al-Ghazālī’s Ihyā ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, al-Suyūtī’s Ta’rīkh al-Khulāfā’, and al-Jūndī’s al-Mukhtasar. However, he also pulls on major Sudanic and Maghribī scholars such as Ahmad Baba, Jibril ibn ‘Umar, and Ibn Khaldūn. We can also infer that he was influenced by the spirit of the times for it was not long before his time that Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb waged his successful campaign of reform in Arabia. Hiskett estimates that ‘Abd al-Wahhāb’s movement was undoubtedly brought to the attention of Muslims around the world from those who made the pilgrimage to Mecca and perhaps inspired reformers in other lands. These figures and events all set the stage for the jihad that the Shehu would lead at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Legalizing the Caliphate

            As Sharon states, legalizing an Islamic state, even if done by force, required a “legal ideological basis.”[9] Though these ideological bases were not originally written, the justifications used to ascertain power by earlier caliphs were codified in later texts such as those of al-Māwardī and Abu Ya’lā al-Hanbali. In this vein, both al-Maghīlī and Dan Fodio produced ideological works of their own concerning governance. The focus of their writings, of course, differed based on their context and aspirations. For instance, al-Māwardī, sought to justify the traditional institution of the caliphate as upheld by the Abbasids. He devoted several sections at the beginning of his work, Al-ʾAḥkām al-Sultāniyya, discussing the legality of the institution of khilāfa and how he should be selected. After presenting various scenarios and giving his legal ruling on them, he discussed the obligations of the caliph to the people and the obligations of the people to the caliph. The rest of the work addresses the details of administration and governance.

            A few centuries later, al-Maghīlī’s work, Tāj al-Dīn, appears in a context where he is advising people who are seeking to Islamicize their administration and do not oppose his advice. Therefore, it reads more like a didactic work on the etiquettes of leadership than a work on law. It includes poetry, wise sayings, and admonishments and avoids using too much legal language and the exposition of differing legal opinions. The first two chapters approach the topics of having good intentions and a good appearance. The subsequent chapters deal with matters of administration and governance in a more or less moral fashion. Rather than mentioning the details on the four types of zakat and the various scholarly opinions about them as al-Māwardī does,[10] he is content to simply listing them and discussing what constitutes a just and unjust amīr concerning the collection and distribution of zakat.[11]

Dan Fodio’s political ideology was most concisely expressed in his work Bayān Wujūb al-Hijra ʻala ʼl-ʻIbad. It resembles the legalistic style of al-Māwardī and Abu Ya’la with a few stark differences. Dan Fodio frames his theory of governance in terms of hijra, takfīr , and jihad, which are not prominent themes discussed in earlier works. These themes emerge as a result of the hostile circumstances Dan Fodio faced in Hausaland. In it, he puts forth his model of an ideal government based on his reading of the Qur’an, Sunnah, and ijma’. He only describes differences of legal opinion inasmuch as it aids to get his ideas across. For instance, he mentions eleven requirements of an imam, i.e. a caliph: 1) Islam, 2) justice, 3) male, 4) adulthood, 5) freedom, 6) sanity, 7) ijtihad, 8) courage, 9) sound judgment, 10) decisiveness, 11) Qurayshī ancestry. Then he mentions that al-Sanusi added that requirements 7 to 11 have been compromised by most scholars. This is important because it allows for the caliph to be a non-Qurayshī if one is not found in an area like Hausaland. Likewise, he makes a dispensation in the law on the point of prohibiting more than one caliph at a time, which, according to ibn ‘Arafa, requires that the second be killed. However, Dan Fodio decrees that more than one caliph can rule at once given that their jurisdictions are far from each other.[12] Below, we will explore the basis of Dan Fodio’s political ideology for the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate. 


            The first step in legalizing his potential caliphate was establishing the obligation of hijra (emigration) from a land ruled by unbelievers. Using his formula of proofing his assertion by the Qur’an, Sunna, and the ijma’ of the scholars, he opens the first chapter by citing the Qur’an 4:97, in which a people was condemned to hell after their deaths and were questioned as to why they persisted in wronging themselves. They responded by saying they were weak upon the earth, to which the angels responded by rhetorically asking was God’s earth not expansive, so as to migrate therein? To this, Dan Fodio contends that the commentators on this verse hold that emigration from the land of the unbelievers is an obligation and cites al-Suyuti’s interpretation of “wronging themselves” as remaining among unbelievers and refusing to emigrate. As for the Sunna, he mentions three hadith to the effect that Muslims and non-Muslims should not live together. In terms of ijma’, he mentions that al-Wansharisi holds that there was a consensus on this matter. He further disqualifies all excuses for failing to emigrate on grounds of kinship and loss of possessions by quoting scholars such as al-Suyuti and al-Laqqani to say that religion should override any worldly matter concerning hijra.[13]

He further drives this point home in the second chapter, “On the Interpretation of the Saying of the Prophet ‘There is No Emigration After the Conquest [of Mecca]’” in which he expounds on the condition of a Muslim that remains in the land of the polytheists. He states an opinion that one who remains in the “abode of war” is in a state of disobedience, but his Islam is valid. Similarly, he gives the opinions of scholars who say that their testimony is not valid according to Islamic law and that they cannot hold the position of a qadi.[14]

            Hijra was an essential aspect of Dan Fodio’s legal theory because it drew a proverbial line in the sand as it relates to religious conviction and political loyalty. That is to say that any Muslim privy to the legal arguments of Dan Fodio was obliged to follow his political authority. As he established that there was no excuse for failing to execute this duty, it could lead to an enduring torment in the next life. Politically speaking, if people emigrated with him, then they have effectively renounced any attachment to their former state and any benefits and protections it might have once provided them. On one hand, they would be risking their livelihoods and security for an uncertain alternative. On the other hand, if their situation was dire under the previous regime, it could be a new beginning. Whatever the circumstances, Dan Fodio did not leave much of a choice for the sincere Muslim.


            The second step in legalizing his potential caliphate was the classification of people on a spectrum of belief and disbelief. In the first chapter of the Bayān , after establishing the obligation of hijra, he performs a full-scale anathematization (takfīr ) on all of bilād al-sūdān. He classifies the area into three groups. The first is the lands in there are no or very few Muslims and he preceded to name the ethnic groups; their lands, as he understood them, were undoubtedly lands of unbelief. The second classification is of those lands in which Muslims dominate, but their leaders were unbelievers. The places he mentioned within this class were the well-known Islamic empires of Bornu, Kano, Katsina, Songhay, and Mali. For Dan Fodio, these were also lands of unbelief because he ascribed to the idea that the people assume the status of their leaders. These are also the lands that Muslims must emigrate from. The third class was a land of complete Islam, which he states at the time of his writing did not yet exist in bilād al-sūdān.[15] This is what Dan Fodio and his supporters sought to create.

            Furthermore, in the fourth and fifth chapters, he elaborates on the prohibition of muwālāt (alliance) with unbelievers and its obligation with the believers. Though not expressed explicitly in the Bayān, muwālāt with non-Muslims was equivalent to apostacy, as demonstrated by Kariya.[16] This also seems to be directed at the Bornu empire particularly, as it was them who established an alliance with the Hausa rulers, who he had already declared to be unbelievers.

            The issue of who is and who is not a Muslim was also an essential element of Dan Fodio’s political theory, without which he could not have fully motivated his constituency to oppose his enemies. His three-fold classification echoes that of al-Maghīlī before him concerning Muslims in the Songhay.[17] Kariya argues that when one Muslim group wants to justify using force against another, the former must present a legal argument for doing so, this is often in the form of apostacy. Although, this was the case, there were also other reasons as to why Dan Fodio might have classified different groups based on their beliefs. This consisted of determining who could be fought against and who could not, who could be enslaved and who could not, who could marry, where a person is buried, etc. Though Kariya’s framing of takfīr  works in one regard, his assertions need to be taken in light of the broader context. Lofkrantz frames Dan Fodio’s classification in terms of who should be protected from slavery.[18]


             After leaving the jurisdiction of his enemies and branding them as unbelievers, the third step of Dan Fodio’s legal theory is to wage a military jihad against them. He took ibn ‘Arafa’s definition of jihad, which was: “the fighting of a Muslim against an unbeliever who has no covenant [with the Muslims] in order to make God’s law supreme…” He also cites al-Kharashi’s division of jihad into four types: 1) jihad of the heart, 2) jihad by word, 3) jihad of the hand, and 4) ijtihad in enforcing the prescribed penalties for transgressions.[19] Chapters 12 to 51 are devoted to various discussions around jihad. He begins by describing jihad generally with definitions, how to attract people to it, and emphasizing its obligation and precepts. Then he describes from chapters 18 to 32 the various legal aspects of jihad in terms of when to fight, who to fight, from whom to seek aid, what to wear, and various other rulings on the operations of jihad. He also devotes chapters 33 to 45 to booty, how to divide it, the taking and freeing of slaves, and other details concerning people who might end up in the crossfires of war. The rest of the chapters concerning jihad differentiate between types of enemies, their possessions, fighters who died or went missing in war, and concludes with a chapter “On Pardon, Forgiveness, Censuring, and Chastisement.”

            Given the detail in which he expands on the nature and rules of jihad, we can surely gather that this is the focus of the work. Jihad serves as the backbone of Dan Fodio’s movement, upon which he can bring his political ideals to fruition. In these chapters, Dan Fodio gives well-defined parameters around the actions of his fighters and attempts to anticipate contingencies. A carefully crafted jihad fought within the parameters of Islamic law was a priority for Dan Fodio. In previous works, he warned against “ignorant people” waging a jihad, for there were people before him who attempted to do so and were duly executed. The ideal jihad required an imam with the qualifications given above to declare it at the right moment.[20] Without these various elements in place, the success of the impending Islamic state would be jeopardized, not simply in its lawfulness, but also in its legitimacy.

Legitimizing the Caliphate

            Before the birth of ʿUthmān Dan Fodio, it was said that a Fulani woman-saint by the name of Umm Hani prophesied that the coming of “a saint who will reform religion, revive the sunna and establish a community…Whoever witnesses that time should follow him.”[21] With statements like this circulating in the religious community of Hausaland, there was much reason for people to put their faith in a mujaddid. The conditions and descriptions must add up and culminate in one person at a specific point in time in order for him to be taken as a legitimate mujaddid. To many in Hausaland, this was Shehu ʿUthmān Dan Fodio. So in order for us to understand the extent to which the Shehu’s ideals took root in Hausaland and other lands, we must understand his legitimizing factors. As will be demonstrated in this section, those factors were debated extensively both contemporaneously and in recent scholarship. Here we will examine through various events and discussions that occurred in the lifetime of Dan Fodio how his jihad and claim to the caliphate was legitimized to the people of his time and place.


            ʿUthmān Dan Fodio was born in the year 1754 (1168 AH) in Marata but later moved to Degel, both small villages located in Hausaland. The Hausa was a federation of related ethnicities who formed a state in the lands presently known as Nigeria roughly in the 15th century after being ruled by the neighboring Bornu.[22] Though Dan Fodio lived his life in Hausaland and spoke Hausa, he belonged to the Turudbe clan of the Fulani people, a semi-nomadic, pastoralist tribe found throughout bilād al-sūdān (from current-day Senegal to present-day Sudan). The Turudbe clan was renowned for their scholarship and piety among the Fulbe-speaking people (Fulani). It was said that they migrated to Hausaland from Futa Toro in West Africa.

            Dan Fodio’s noble lineage is one legitimizing factor, for the Fulani were considered to be descendant from the Quraysh. In one narration, the Fulani claim their people were once Berber Christians under the Roman Empire (present-day Tunisia) where the Muslim armies arrived in the late 7th century. After the king accepted Islam, he married his daughter to ‘Uqba ibn Nāfiʿ.[23] From his descendants there was the House of Aal, who were learned and pious people, from whom the Fulani are considered to be descended. In addition, Dan Fodio’s mother, Hawa, was considered a scholar in her own right as well as a descendant of the prophet Muhammad through a lineage that includes Abu al-Hassan al-Shadhili (the ṣūfī), Hassan, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, and Fatima.[24]

These noble origins were undoubtedly a factor in legitimizing Dan Fodio’s authority. However, there are reasons to doubt the historicity of this popular narrative. First, Hiskett states that there are no linguistic links between Fulbe and Berber to suggest that they were related in any way. This narrative likely came about because Islam put them in contact with Berber and Arab peoples for several generations.[25] Secondly, the narrative of Dan Fodio’s direct descent from the prophet Muhammad lent itself well to legitimate claims to the caliphate, as the caliph should be a Qurayshī according to al-Māwardī and later theorists, as well as prophesies of being one of the twelve righteous caliphs and/or the foretold Mahdi.[26] However, in the works of his brother, Abdullahi Dan Fodio, and son, Muhammad Bello, we find that the Shehu himself denied all claims to Qurayshī lineage, descendancy from the Prophet, and of being the prophesied Mahdi.[27]

Depending on the narrative, Dan Fodio’s lineage can be taken either as a legitimizing factor for his caliphal authority or a delegitimizing factor. Yet, lineage was not the only factor used to legitimize Dan Fodio and his Jamāʿa.

Scholarship and Piety

            Scholarship and piety were also major factors, if not the major factors in legitimizing ʿUthmān Dan Fodio and his Jamāʿa to the people of Hausaland. If his lineage was not ennobled by relation to the Quraysh and the family of the Prophet, then it was undoubtedly ennobled by the fact that the Turudbe clan of the Fulani was known for its scholarship and piety throughout West Africa. This is evidenced by his proficiency in the Arabic language, his erudition in the Islamic textual heritage, and his rank amongst the ṣūfīs.

            After memorizing the Qur’an and learning the basics of Islam, Dan Fodio attended the makarantun ilmi institutions of higher education in Hausaland. In these institutions, he learned the sciences of the Arabic language to an advanced level, jurisprudence, theology, and even astronomy and arithmetic. In his work, Asānīd al-Faqīr, he recounts the ijazas (teaching licenses) he received in different books and subjects throughout his education. He clearly studied the major texts of the Sunni tradition. In bilād al-sūdān, it was common practice to allow advanced students to teach less advanced students. In this way, we can assume that Dan Fodio rose to prominence first as a teacher, then as a preacher, until he began to amass followers.[28]

            As a scholar, he strictly adhered to the doctrines of the Sunni body of scholars and their literature. In his legal works, he only claimed to follow the Qur’an, Sunna, and the consensus of the scholars, with no mention of ijtihad,[29] and generally ascribed to the opinions of the Maliki school of jurisprudence. Were we to examine his writing style we would find that he would often make his point by quoting previous scholars verbatim, seldomly paraphrasing or misquoting.[30] However, he used ijtihad after being criticized for permitting the free intermingling of men and women in his lessons. He retorted by saying that allowing women to remain ignorant is a greater sin than their mixing with men.[31]

Perhaps, his most controversial act of ijtihad was declaring that certain Muslims were unbelievers, which caused some scholars to consider him to be influenced by the Kharijites and the Wahhābīs.[32] For instance, Dan Fodio and his successors fought other Muslims in Hausaland and in the Bornu Empire, by declaring them apostates because their leaders sought the assistance of non-believers.[33] Besides the similarities, there is no evidence of a direct connection between Dan Fodio and the Kharijites or Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb’s movement.

The criticisms directed towards Dan Fodio over his legal and theological beliefs can be balanced by the fact that he was also a devout ṣūfī. He was surrounded by ṣūfīs all his life and was later inducted into the Qādirī ṣūfī order. Not only that, but he lived an ascetic life and reported numerous mystical experiences over his lifetime. He would observe litanies, meditate regularly in the desert for hours, and sometimes abstain from talking as he fasted and made retreats to the desert. His visions often featured the eponym of his order, ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī, the Prophet Yusuf, companions of the Prophet Muhammad, and even the Prophet Muhammad himself. It was often only after receiving these visions that the Shehu would undertake monumental decisions. In one such vision, ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī gifted him with the “Sword of Truth” (sayf al-haqq) to use against his enemies. This is around the time that he resolved to make the hijra from Gobir and later move to the city of Gudu.[34]

The power of these visions as he described them and their parallels to the life of the Prophet Muhammad, would have impressed even the average Muslim aware of the prophetic sīra. By the time he was 45 years old he was said to have reached the rank of qutbiyya.[35] His piety and mystical experiences were exploited by him and his followers to legitimize any spiritual or worldly claim to authority he made. Many of these visions are shared through his writings, but were elaborated upon by his friend, brother and son.

            As Dan Fodio and his followers traveled to other cities such as Kebbi, Gobir, and Zamfara he gained students, followers, and converts. At one point in his career, he and other ‘ulama were offered gifts by Bawa the sultan of Gobir at that time. All of the ‘ulama accepted the gifts except Dan Fodio, who made five requests instead: 1) to allow him to continue preaching in Gobir, 2) to not prevent anyone from accepting Islam, 3) to treat any man in a turban (i.e. a scholar) with respect, 4) to free all political prisoners, and 5) not to burden his subjects with taxes. Bawa then agreed to abide by all of his requests.[36] This scene demonstrated his lack of concern with material things, his intent on the propagation of Islam, the protection of scholars, and his general benevolence toward the average and downtrodden in the society.

            Through his scholarship and piety we can get an understanding of how the society viewed him. This combined with what was believed about his lineage strengthened his legitimacy in the eyes of his followers. However, one more legitimacy factor must be examined in order to better comprehend his appeal; that of the events that led to his popular support or lack thereof.

Popular Support

            It should first be noted that Dan Fodio did not always have an oppositional relationship to the Habe ruler. As cited above, Bawa, the sultan of Gobir, ceded to the demands of the Shehu. In fact, one of Bawa’s successors, Yunfa, was a student of his, who he aided in his rise to power over Nafata. Yunfa would show deference to the Shehu, petition his advice, and even came on foot to visit him (a gesture of humility).

Dan Fodio was primarily at odds with Nafata, the Habe ruler of Gobir before Yunfa, and his policies. Nafata initiated four policies that Dan Fodio and his followers opposed. First, everyone was banned from preaching except the Shehu. Secondly, conversions to Islam were forbidden, only those who inherited Islam from their fathers were permitted to be Muslims, and those who converted were ordered to return to the religion of their fathers. Thirdly, men were forbidden from wearing turbans in public. Finally, women were forbidden from covering their bosom with the same cloth that covered their heads.[37]

In addition, slavery as practiced by the Habe rulers was also a major factor in Dan Fodio’s resistance. In fact, it was an issue even in al-Maghīlī’s time, wherein he believed it was the duty of every Muslim, and Muslim rulers in particular, to keep freeborn Muslims from being enslaved or freeing them from captivity. Also, the famed Timbuktu scholar, Ahmad Baba (d. 1627), collected the scholarly opinions concerning slavery and concluded that it was the duty of slave owners to prove that their slaves were not freeborn.[38] Though Dan Fodio was not categorically against slavery, he deplored the enslavement of Muslims, which often led them into bondage under European Christians. For this reason, he decreed that the Fulani could not be taken as slaves because they were recognized as Muslims and later his son would take measures against caravans selling “illegal” Muslim slaves.[39] In general, Dan Fodio and his followers criticized the Habe rulers of being corrupt and tyrannical. They were accused of confiscating the animals of peasants unjustly, having their way with their subjects’ daughters, and practicing widespread bribery and judicial corruption.[40]

The tensions between Dan Fodio and the ruler came to a stalemate under the reign of his former student, Yunfa, who felt that the Shehu was stubborn and getting too powerful. This subsequently led to Yunfa attempting to assassinate him. In one story, which Hiskett considers to be credible, Yunfa attempted to shoot Dan Fodio with a musket, but it backfired scorching him instead. In another story, Yunfa lined some spears in a pit and placed a mat over it so that an unwitting Dan Fodio would fall into it. However, when Dan Fodio came to sit on the mat, he did not fall in. Yunfa later discovered that the pit was miraculously filled with sand.[41] Stories such as these solidified in the minds of Dan Fodio sympathizers the wicked and corrupt nature of Habe rulers and further justified any actions that the Shehu would make against them.

Conversely, we must also consider that Dan Fodio’s leadership and support was not as decisive as we might think. A close reading of the sources will reveal that Dan Fodio was either a reluctant leader or the de facto leader of this rebellion. We can make this judgment based on the series of events that led to the hijra and subsequent jihad. The first skirmish between Yunfa and the followers of Dan Fodio was on account of ‘Abd al-Salam, a scholar who started defying the Habe leadership under Nafata, who retreated to a village called Gimbana. Yunfa or perhaps a local commander sent troops to take them prisoners and sell them into slavery, but as they passed Degel, (where Dan Fodio was residing) on their way to Alkalawa (Yunfa’s capital), the Shehu’s brother, ‘Abdullah, led an attack on their caravan and set the captives free.  While this raid was not at the behest of the Shehu, Yunfa nevertheless, held him responsible, ordered him to renounce his community, and leave Gobir. Dan Fodio refused to renounce his community but decided to move to Gudu on the outskirts of Gobir, still within the jurisdiction of the Habe ruler. Hiskett reports that some of the sources mention the Shehu being angry with his brother for this action, but the resulting consequences led him to make hijra and take a stern stance against the Habe.[42] Considering this, we can say that Dan Fodio’s followers thrusted him into conflict with the rulers and was not planned on his part. but was a result of circumstances that led him to take the positions he did.

Moreover, Dan Fodio and his followers were never popular with the Bornu, a neighboring kingdom that adopted Islam in the 15th century, which he anathematized and fought against but never conquered. When Dan Fodio-inspired Fulani living in the Bornu kingdom began to rebel, a malam (religious leader) by the name of al-Kanemi helped the Bornu rulers to subdue them. In their series of correspondences, he rejected Dan Fodio’s jihad and claimed it to be illegitimate because it was waged against other Muslims. Although he admitted that there were instances of reprehensible innovations (bid’a) among the Bornu people, this did not invalidate their Islam. What is more, al-Kanemi felt that he was obligated by Islamic law to defend the Bornu government against Dan Fodio’s jihad from both outside and inside the kingdom. He later established his own dynasty in a town called Kukawa and based their Islamic legitimacy on their opposition to the Sokoto jihad.[43]

Finally, a failure of the Sokoto state is the rise of slavery under its reign. While Dan Fodio cannot be blamed for circumstances that happened after his death, some of his legal opinions played a role in leading to this phenomenon. For instance, in his work, Tanbih al-Ikhwan ala Ard al-Sudan, he argued against previous scholars that a person’s participation in jihad is valid even if they are motivated by collecting booty.[44] The implications of such a statement allowed soldiers to fight in wars and raids in order to take slaves and other goods. By the mid-19th century, Hausaland was a plantation-based economy that required slave labor to produce mass amounts of cash crops.[45] In addition, the Sokoto leaders, despite their intentions, were not able to prevent the enslavement of freeborn Muslims. Lofkrantz cites the fact that the caliphate was too large for the central leadership to control the remote emirates.[46] Also, the nomadic Fulani were difficult to incorporate into the state, so they incentivized a sedentary lifestyle, which often meant adding to the plantation economy, which required slave labor.[47] The rise of the noble class led to an increase in slavery as well. They needed “culturally legitimate occupations,” which meant they should either be scholars, governors or soldiers. As many of them opted to be soldiers, they were allowed to raid and take slaves with impunity.[48] Likewise, the criminal activity of highway robbers could not be contained under any African rulers at the time and this also led to increased enslavement and the enslavement of Muslims.[49] Finally, the encouragement of manumission as an act of charity and penance also led to an increase in slavery. As some slaves were freed, others were needed to take their place.[50]


            Were we to consider the legal theory and legitimizing factors employed by Shehu ʿUthmān Dan Fodio and his followers to establish the Sokoto Caliphate, we would find that it was not unlike other Islamic caliphates that used the law and extra-legal, religious, and social factors to legitimize their claim to authority. We could say that their rise power eventually came down to force, but it is clear that the law and other factors played a major part in coercing or inspiring masses of people to effectuate a new power dynamic. In examining the legitimizing factors of the Shehu, I noticed a dissonance between setting an ideal Islamic government in theory and actually translating it to reality. Though he faced a number of obstacles and exhibited a number of contradictions and contentions in his political theory and implementation, he was able to traverse them and remain focus on his goal of establishing an Islamic state in Hausaland and managed to preserve a positive image for his legacy. This is probably due to what seems to be his scrupulousness in both word and deed and his ability to reshape discussions around power in Hausaland.

            Though al-Maghīlī was the original catalyst for jihad and reform in bilād al-sūdān, Dan Fodio, as native of the region, set the model through his copious writings and sparked a new fervor. Lapidus enumerates a number of Sokoto-inspired movements that spread throughout bilād al-sūdān during the 19th century, such as that of Modibbo Adama in the Lake Chad region, Muhammad al-Jaylani in the Taureg societies of the Sahara, Ahmad Lobbo among the Fulanis in Masina, al-Hajj Umar, Ma Ba, and Lat Dior of Senegambia, and Mori-Ule Sise and Samory Ture of the Upper Volta, Ivory Coast, and Guinea region.[51]

The main point of departure of these movements when compared to Abbasids or Ottomans for instance, was the fact that they were often established in areas in which there were Muslims, but no previous Islamic state. Similarly, they were largely Islamic reform movements. As such, they necessitated that the imam of such movements be learned, pious, military leaders. In the Muslim heartland, this was rarely the case. Lineage and military might played a more amplified role in legitimizing Muslim heartland caliphs and sultans. Nonetheless, the trends of legitimacy in bilād al-sūdān were a direct result of the precedents set by ʿUthmān Dan Fodio.

I will conclude by saying that the history of caliphates in sub-Saharan Africa is not conclusive. There is still much research left to be done as more primary source documents in the form of Arabic and Ajami manuscripts become available. More should be written that links this region with other regions of the Muslim world. Islamic scholarship from Africa is replete with references to ideas and events from other parts of the world, but its ideas and events remain unknown to the rest of the world.


Al-Maghili, Muhammad ibn ’Abd al-Karim. Taj Al-Din Fi Ma Yajib ’ala al-Muluk Wa’l-Salatin. Edited by Muhammad Khayr Ramadan Yusuf. Beirut: Dar ibn Hazm, 1994.

Al-Mawardi, Abu al-Hassan Ali. Al-Ahkam al-Sultaniya. Edited by Ahmad Gad. Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2006.

Balogun, Isma’il A.B. “The Life and Work of the Majaddid of West Africa, ’Uthman b. Fudi Popularly Known as Usumanu Dan Fodio.” Islamic Studies 12, no. 4 (1973): 271–92.

Bovill, E. W. “Mohammed El Maghili.” Journal of the Royal African Society 34, no. 134 (1935): 27–30.

Dan Fodio, ’Uthman. The Revival of the Sunna and Destruction of Innovation. Translated by Muhammad Shareef. Sudan: Sankore Institute of Islamic – African Studies International, 1754.

Hall, Bruce S. “Arguing Sovereignty in Songhay.” Afriques, no. 4 (2013).

Hassan, Mona. Longing for the Lost Caliphate: A Transregional History. Princeton ; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Hiskett, M. The Sword of Truth: The Life and Times of the Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Kariya, Kota. “Muwālāt and Apostasy in the Early Sokoto Caliphate.” Islamic Africa 9, no. 2 (October 8, 2018): 179–208.

Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Lofkrantz, Jennifer. “Intellectual Discourse in the Sokoto Caliphate: The Triumvirate’s Opinions on the Issue of Ransoming, ca. 1810.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 45, no. 3 (2012): 385–401.

———. “Protecting Freeborn Muslims: The Sokoto Caliphate’s Attempts to Prevent Illegal Enslavement and Its Acceptance of the Strategy of Ransoming.” Slavery & Abolition 32, no. 1 (March 1, 2011): 109–27.

Robinson, David. Muslim Societies in African History. New Approaches to African History. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Sharon, Moshe. “The Development of the Debate Around the Legitimacy and Authority in Early Islam.” In From Jahiliyyah to Islam, 120. Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 3. Jerusalem: Colloquium, 1980.

’Uthman Dan Fodio. Asānīd Al-Faqīr al-Muʿtarif Bil ʿAjaz Wal-Taqsīr. Sudan: Sankore Institute of Islamic – African Studies International, 1798.

Uthman dan Fodio, and Fatḥī Ḥasan Maṣrī. Bayān Wujūb Al-Hijra ʿalā ʾl-ʿIbād. Fontes Historiae Africanae. Series Arabica 1. Khartoum : New York: Khartoum University Press ; Oxford University Press, 1978.


[1] Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, 608; Hassan, Longing for the Lost Caliphate, 12-13.

[2]  Amina Ahmad Yahya and Amina Muhammad Mas’ud, “Al-Imām Muḥammad Ibn ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Maghīlī Wa Dawruhu Fī Ẓuhūr al-Ḥarakāt al-Jihādiya Fī Gharb Afrīqiya” (Al-Jilali Buna’ama University, 2015), 43–45.

[3] E. W. Bovill, “Mohammed El Maghīlī,” Journal of the Royal African Society 34, no. 134 (1935): 28–29.

[4] See Bruce S. Hall, “Arguing Sovereignty in Songhay,” Afriques, no. 4 (2013), and Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 494.

[5] M. Hiskett, The Sword of Truth: The Life and Times of the Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 120–25.

[6] Ibid., 125-128.

[7] Ibid., 128-131.

[8] ‘Uthman Dan Fodio and Fatḥī Ḥasan Maṣrī, Bayān Wujūb al-Hijra ʿalā ʾl-ʿIbād, Fontes Historiae Africanae. Series Arabica 1 (Khartoum : New York: Khartoum University Press ; Oxford University Press, 1978), 16–17; Hiskett, The Sword of Truth, 39–41.

[9] Sharon, “The Development of the Debate Around the Legitimacy and Authority in Early Islam.”126.

[10] Al-Mawardi, Al-Ahkam al-Sultaniya, 181-193.

[11] Al-Maghili, Taj Al-Din Fi Ma Yajib ’ala al-Muluk Wa’l-Salatin, 47-53.

[12] Dan Fodio and Maṣrī, Bayān Wujūb al-Hijra ʿalā ʾl-ʿIbād, 64.

[13] Dan Fodio and Maṣrī, Bayān Wujūb al-Hijra ʿalā ʾl-ʿIbād, 48-49.

[14] Ibid., 53-55.

[15] Dan Fodio and Maṣrī, Bayān Wujūb al-Hijra ʿalā ʾl-ʿIbād, 49-51.

[16] Kariya, “Muwālāt and Apostasy in the Early Sokoto Caliphate,”186.

[17] Kariya, “Muwālāt and Apostasy in the Early Sokoto Caliphate,”188-189.

[18] Lofkrantz, “Protecting Freeborn Muslims,” 114.

[19] Dan Fodio and Maṣrī, Bayān Wujūb al-Hijra ʿalā ʾl-ʿIbād, 80-81.

[20] Dan Fodio and Maṣrī, Bayān Wujūb al-Hijra ʿalā ʾl-ʿIbād, 22.

[21]  Balogun, “The Life and Work of the Majaddid of West Africa, ’Uthman b. Fudi Popularly Known as Usumanu Dan Fodio.” 273.

[22] Hiskett, The Sword of Truth, 4.

[23] Hiskett, The Sword of Truth, 15; Muhammad Shareef in his translation of The Revival of the Sunnah also states that this lineage was traced to ‘Uqba ibn ʿĀmir.

[24] Uthman Dan Fodio, The Revival of the Sunna and Destruction of Innovation, trans. Muhammad Shareef (Sudan: Sankore Institute of Islamic – African Studies International, 1754), 18,

[25] Hiskett, The Sword of Truth, 15.

[26] Uthman Dan Fodioand Muhammad Shareef, The Revival of the Sunna, 45. Here, the translator cites Abdullahi Dan Fodio’s work, Tazyin al-Waraqat and Muhammad Bello’s Infaq as the origins of these narratives. However, Fathi Hassan el-Masri, the translator of Bayān , references the same exact sources in his introduction claiming that neither of them promoted these narratives. It is beyond the scope of this paper to investigate which of these claims is true. For the sake of my argument in this paper, I have chosen to take el-Masri’s opinion.

[27] Usuman Dan Fodio and Maṣrī, Bayān, 2.

[28] Isma’il A.B. Balogun, “The Life and Work of the Majaddid of West Africa,” 22.

[29] It should be mentioned that Muhammad Shareef describes Dan Fodio’s level of education of having qualified him as a mujtahid and cites and unpublished manuscript from a scholar of Sokoto stating that he had reached the level of a mujtahid. Uthman Dan Fodio and Muhammad Shareef, The Revival of the Sunna, 37.

[30] Dan Fodio and Maṣrī, Bayān, 34.

[31] Balogun, “The Life and Work of the Majaddid of West Africa,”276.

[32] Dan Fodio and Maṣrī, Bayān, 25.

[33] Kota Kariya, “Muwālāt,” 179–208.

[34] Hiskett, The Sword of Truth, 61-69.

[35] ʿUthmān Dan Fodio, Asānīd Al-Faqīr al-Muʿtarif Bil ʿAjaz Wal-Taqsīr, trans. Muhammad Shareef (Sudan: Sankore Institute of Islamic – African Studies International, 1798), 5.

[36] Balogun, “The Life and Work of the Majaddid of West Africa,” 273.

[37] Uthman Dan Fodioand Muhammad Shareef, The Revival of the Sunna, 40.

[38] Lofkrantz, “Protecting Freeborn Muslims,” 112.

[39] Ibid., 114.

[40] Hiskett, The Sword of Truth, 74.

[41] Ibid., 70-71.

[42] Hiskett, The Sword of Truth, 71-73.

[43] Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, 516-517; Kariya, “Muwālāt,” 192.

[44] This is contrary to Dan Fodio’s position as stated in the Bayān , 80, wherein he states: “whoever fights for the sake of booty or to show his bravery or the like cannot be considered a mujahid.” Perhaps this was stated because before the official declaration of jihad, members of the Shehu’s Jamāʿa would make unwarranted assaults on Hausa communities and engage in other unpious behavior.

[45] Lofkrantz, “Protecting Freeborn Muslims,” 116-117.

[46] Ibid., 115.

[47] Ibid., 116.

[48] Ibid., 117-118.

[49] Ibid., 118.

[50] Ibid., 118-119.

[51] Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, 517-520.

Islam and the Ancient Egyptian Mystery Schools: The Works of Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar

The works of Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar are crucial to the discussion about the connection between Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (i.e. the ancient religion of the world). Though his first book on the topic, Qudamāʾ al-Miṣrīyīn ʾAwwal al-Muwaḥidīn (The Ancient Egyptians the First Monotheists), was published in 1995 and its second part, Laysū ʾĀlihah wa Lākin Malāʾikah (Not Gods, But Angels) in 2003, and had an impact in the Arab world, English readers are largely in the dark about his research. His works address the nature of ancient Egyptian religion, which was the major religious center of the ancient world, and seeks to dispel myths and misinterpretations concerning their worship of the pharaohs and multiple gods. George G.M. James and other authors have made this assertion, but none of them have performed studies with the same rigor of Dr. al-Sayyar’s works. I recently purchased his two publications at the Cairo International Book Fair and thought it would be worth sharing some thoughts about them.

“Knowledge Is the Lost Property of a Believer…”

There is a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ to the effect that “knowledge (or wisdom) is the lost property of the believer; wherever he finds it he is the most deserving of it.” I preamble this discussion with this because many who might be intrigued by this topic may be stifled by their prejudice against Arabs and/or Muslims who speak on this topic. The arguments of the so-called Afrocentrists are that:

  • the current Egyptians, especially those light-skinned Egyptians, are not the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians
  • Arab Muslims, who are supposedly the majority in Egypt, are a colonizing force that supplanted the ancient Egyptian religion
  • the Qur’an, like the Bible, appears to condemn “Pharaoh” and the ancient religion of Egypt

Egyptian Ancestry

To the first point that current Egyptians are not descendants of the ancient Egyptians, this is not completely true. Egypt is a very diverse society. Its location in northeast Africa has always been a site for migration and traveling between the three continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Likewise, the Nile River and its yearly flooding made the land particularly fertile and ideal place to settle. The civilization that resulted from these environmental factors was also attractive to settlers from different places.

While the first inhabitants of this land were undoubtedly dark skinned people, they frequently intermarried with other groups that relocated to the region. In addition to this contact, Egypt also experienced many waves of migration and conquest: the Hyksos, Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Turks, etc. Egypt, during the middle ages was ruled by a myriad of Eastern European and Central Asian slaves… Today, most metropolitan Egyptians can count all these groups among their ancestors in addition to their black ancient Egyptian ancestors. Therefore, their offspring would not be cut off from the greatness of their black heritage merely due to the fact that some of their ancestors were from other places.

I understand that this runs counter to popular belief in Afrocentric thought. Unfortunately, Afrocentric thought relies too heavily on a contemporary American concept of race, which does not always allow for multilayers and ways of constructing identity. This is a major fallacy of Afrocentric thought alongside methodological issues in their research. I do, however, find it useful to approach subjects such as African history from a truly “African-centered” perspective. That is, to center the voices and perspectives of Africans on their own histories, which I think is important in the case of Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar.

Arab Muslims?

To the second point, a discussion of what it means to be Arab is beyond the scope of this post. However, it suffices me to say that Arab identity is not a racial identity, but rather a cultural-linguistic identity that includes a number of ethnic, racial, and genealogical groups, similar to the Latinx identity. Though the majority of Egyptians are Muslims, the majority are not “ethnically” Arab (if that is truly a thing), meaning that they track their lineage back to the Arabian peninsula. They are Arab in the sense that they adopted the Arabic language and ascribe to an Arab culture. Since the majority of Egyptians are not “Arab-proper,” we cannot say that they have colonized the land of Egypt. It is ludicrous to suggest, as many Afrocentrics think, that a small group of warriors from Arabia came and conquered all these lands, and changed the majority of people’s language and religion by force and continue to take on this identity to this day.

Furthermore, before Egypt and Nubia became Muslims they were Christian with a minority Jewish population. The same holds true for much of North Africa and the Levant. Why then are Muslims implicated as the ones who supplanted the ancient Egyptian religion when there were other religions that dominated Egypt prior to its spread?

Muslim Views of the Pharaoh

To the third point, which characterizes Islam as being antithetical to the ancient Egyptian religion, the aim of Dr. al-Sayyar’s work is to dispel this myth among other things. For instance, Dr. al-Sayyar holds that pharaoh was the title given to the ruler of Egypt, no matter what their ethnicity. He then finds that the pharaohs of Moses’ day was actually a ruler of foreign Hyksos extraction and that the religion they promoted and their practices was not representative of the ancient Egyptian religious practices. In addition, he brings to the reader’s attention the number of prophets and other noble figures recorded in the Muslim tradition who were from Egypt. One of the aims of his research is to clarify misunderstandings that Muslims have acquired about ancient Egyptian religion based on their reliance on Jewish and western sources.

Laysū ʾĀlihah wa Lākin Malāʾikah (Not Gods, But Angels) published in 2003.
Chapter 1: Egypt and the Prophets,
Chapter 2: The Myth of Multiple Gods,
Chapter 3: The Myth of Worshiping the Neter,
Chapter 4: The Myth of Worshiping the Pharaohs,
Chapter 5: God in the Beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians

Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar

I challenge my Afrocentric brethren to consider Dr. al-Sayyar’s works on its merits and not simply his ethnic, national, and racial background. He was originally a poet and oud player and later obtained a degree in medicine. Fused by the Naksa suffered by Egypt at the hands of the Israeli army in 1967 he began to bury himself in the reading of Egyptian history, which eventually led him to the study of Comparative Religion. In 1985, he traveled to Iraq to live amongst the lasting communities of Sabians (the name of the ancient Egyptian religion) and to study their ways. He would later acquire degrees in Islamic Studies from al-Azhar University and Coptic Studies from Ain Shams University, where he studied a number of languages such as Coptic, which includes Greek, Hebrew, and Ancient Egyptian, as well as Akkadian, Syriac, Armenian, and the ancient Yemeni language. The result of his studies are the three works he published on the topic of Ancient Egyptian religion. He passed away in 2018, but his daughters have since republished his first two books and plan to republish his third book, Al-Maṣrīyyūn al-Qudamāʾ ʾAwwal al-Ḥunafāʾ (The Ancient Egyptians, the First Hanifs) soon.

Al-Sayyar’s Description of the Egyptian Mystery Schools

The works of Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar firmly establish the connections between Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools. He does this in Qudamāʾ, by taking a retroactive examination of the prophets and other notable religious figures from Egypt. He starts off discussing tawhid (monotheism) in Egypt under Greek rule by examining the likes of Plato, Herodotus, Luqman, and Akhenaton. Then he discusses prophets mentioned in the Qur’an who were either from Egypt or had a relationship with it such as Ibrahim, Hajar, Isma’il, Ya’qub, Yusuf, and Musa. He examines the misunderstandings about the pharaoh in the time of Musa, which he attributes to distortions propagated by Jewish scholars over centuries. He follows that by giving examples of monotheistic beliefs across various pharaonic dynasties. He concludes the book by discussing the prophethood of Idris and his impact on Egyptian beliefs.

In Laysū, he establishes that the original religion of Egypt was that which was brought by the Prophet Idris, who Muslim exegetes have believed since the early days of Islam to be the first prophet sent by God after the creation of Adam. That religion, according to al-Sayyar, was called the Saba’iyya (Sabianism), which is alluded to in the Qur’an on a few occasions. If you were like me, then the first time you came across the verses (Quran 2:62, Quran 5:69, and Quran 22:17) when Allah mentions the different Peoples of the Book, you probably glossed over the mention of the Sabians. While it was known to be the Mandeans of Southern Iraq, it was first the religion of ancient Egypt, according to al-Sayyar.

He then shifts into a rigorous linguistic and historical analysis of the Neter. There are many jewels regarding his analysis, in which he illuminates his hypothesis that the Neter referred to in the Book of the Dead are actually what Jews, Muslims, and Christians would deem to be angels. He starts off by making it clear that although Wallis Budge and other early Egyptologists translated this word as “god” (and Neteru as “gods”), they did not have a consensus on how to translate it, nor did they believe that god was the best translation of the word (42-45).

Starting from the premise that we have received mistranslations and misinterpretations, he begins to unravel the meaning of “Neter” linguistically. Then he performs a careful comparison between Egyptian perceptions of the Neter and contemporary beliefs about angels and spiritual beings. In each comparison he examines historical sources in their original languages. He concludes the book by examining the ancient Egyptian belief in God by their attributes for Him, which he found to correspond with common Islamic beliefs concerning the attributes of God.

In many ways, Dr. Nadim al-Sayyar has done a great service to those of us interested in the connections between Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools. Before we can benefit from this scholarship, we need to overcome hurdles of language and prejudice with regards to scholarship coming from the Arab world. Likewise, as Westerners, we have been conditioned to devalue scholarship produced in other languages and overestimate the accuracy of Western scholarship. By overcoming these hurdles, we can gain greater access to the knowledge being produced in the world beyond our own intellectual borders.