Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 4)

I had to take a brief hiatus from writing the Islam and Ancient Mystery Schools series in absence of some information and in light of new information. In this post, I want to share some of my findings on the practices and identity of the Hanifs.

Since I published Islam and Ancient Mystery Schools (Part 3), I hoped to find a comprehensive work specifically about the Hanifs, but I have not located such a work in English or Arabic as of yet. Perhaps the paucity of sources about the Hanifs is due to the fact that they were not written about in depth in early sources. However, there are some tertiary sources and secondary sources that touch on the topic tangentially.

The most extensive of which was W. Montgomery Watt’s treatment of Ibn Ishaq’s Sira (in English) and al-Mafassal fi Tarikh al-‘Arab Qabl al-Islam by Jawwad Ali (in Arabic). While the general consensus is that the Hanifs are a mysterious group, if they can be called that, I will summarize a few points of interest for this study.

  • There is a consensus that the Hanifs were monotheistic Arabs. No particular tribe or region had a particularly high number of hanifs in their midst. Ali compares them to reformists of our day (Ali vol. 6, 457). They observed their society and religious landscape and hoped for something better. They found solace in reclaiming the religion of Abraham.
  • In terms of their practices, they were known to make hajj and practice circumcision. They also avoided the worship of celestial bodies and idols and refused to eat meat sacrificed to pagan gods. There were those among the Hanifs who would meditate on the Universe, practice spiritual seclusion by living in caves, and abstain from alcohol and foul language. They, however, had no shari’ah i.e. systemized worship, beliefs, or scripture (Ali vol. 6, 456 and 455).
  • From what is known about them, they were not a monolith. Most classical Muslim scholars considered them to be monotheists who did not follow any of the known religions of the time. Others have named among the Hanifs Arab converts to Christianity such as Waraqa ibn Nawfal. Qays ibn Sa’ida al-Ayadi, and ‘Uthman ibn al-Huwayrith. Similarly, not all Hanifs converted to Islam upon learning about it like Abu Amir the Monk and Kinana ibn ‘Abd Yalayl al-Thaqafi (Ali vol. 6, 457-461).
  • Orientalist scholars have found that some Syrian Christian groups used to refer to monotheistic Arabs as Hanifs, especially those from Yemen. They were said to have been influenced by the surrounding Jews and Christians. They were also knowledgeable of other languages such as Syriac and Hebrew. Ali states unequivocally that all Hanifs were often well-to-do and able to read and write. They spent their surplus income purchasing books, which were expensive in those times. He also speculated that they might have been familiar with Greek books of philosophy in addition to religious scriptures (Ali vol. 6, 453 and 456).


Is it possible that the Hanifs were the inheritors of the defunct Ancient Mystery Schools? According to George G.M. James, the Roman emperor Justinian had closed the Mystery Schools in Egypt as well as the teaching of Greek philosophy in the 6th century (p. 31). Thus the only religions tolerated were Trinitarian Christianity and Judaism to a lesser extent. All other doctrines, whether monotheistic or not were outlawed. Therefore it is possible that non-Jewish and non-Christian monotheists from the Mystery Schools roamed the peripheries of the Roman Empire in search of a purer and more ancient religion. It is also possible that they were subsumed into non-Hellenized interpretations of Christianity to which some Hanifs converted.

As we know, the Mystery Schools was highly structured and primarily oral. It would have been difficult to maintain the teachings of the full curriculum across lands, languages, and potential harm, so only visages of their beliefs and practices would survive. Still the fact that they were literate in other languages and spent their time and money educating themselves using the available written material of the time is a sign that they were seeking to reclaim knowledge that was lost.

While the true nature of the Hanifs may never be known, we can safely assume that they were influenced by the religious milieu of their time. The abolition of the Mystery Schools in the 6th century left a spiritual void on the Earth that would not be fulfilled until the spread of Islam in the coming centuries. As soon as Justinian attempted to extinguish the light of the Mystery Schools, a new light was sparked in the Arabian desert among the Hanifs…

Sahih International: They want to extinguish the light of Allah with their mouths, but Allah refuses except to perfect His light, although the disbelievers dislike it. (Qur’an 9:32)

Bill Cooper vs. the Modern Mystery Schools

A few days after 9/11, I remember lying in my university dorm room in the middle of the night as bright lights from a helicopter illuminated my room and I heard the hoots and hollers of frat boys returning home after a night of partying. Before I came to my senses, I wondered if this was the Illuminati’s declaration of martial law? The year 2001 caught many off-guard. The conspiracy theory literature of the ’90’s had many of us thinking that as we approached the year 2000 something big was right around the corner. After Y2K passed without a hitch many people went back to sleep until Bush Jr. stole the 2000 election. People were shocked at first, but not mobilized since he was considered an idiot and comedic fodder. However, the events of 9/11 would change everything and confirm what many conspiracy theorists already assumed… That the US government would declare war on its people.

The cover of Behold a Pale Horse by Milton William “Bill” Cooper.

One book in particular stands out as the pivotal work for conspiracy theorists of various persuasions. That book is Behold a Pale Horse (1991) by Bill Cooper, who aimed to expose the plots of the perverted modern-day Mystery Schools. Cooper was killed two months after the 9/11 attacks in front of his Arizona home under a barrage of bullets from police officers, further validating his assertions. Not only did he predict that the US government would blame a terrorist attack on Bin Laden prior to 9/11, but his book properly identified how the president would expand his powers using executive orders, how computer technology would be used in social engineering, and the evils of the Federal Reserve. Cooper preceded Alex Jones as the go-to conspiracy theorist with his radio show “The Hour of the Time.” (Of course, Cooper was not a fan of shock jock Alex Jones.)

The 500-page monograph succinctly outlined the patriot’s worldview, which expounded on a number of primary source documents (also included in the book), such as intelligence memos, newspaper clippings, correspondences, and other documents the author thought worthy of public scrutiny. Therefore, the serious reader could claim that he/she has seen proof of the conspiracies with their own eyes. Back before the worldwide web was prevalent, such documents were not easily accessed, and thus his book represented a one-stop shop for self-study of the global conspiracy.

Fast forward over 20 years, when we live our entire lives online, a large web of conspiracy theories of all kinds has been weaved, which has distorted the approach of Cooper, popularly known as QAnon. Whether it’s the Illuminati or a reptilian cabal of pedophiles, QAnon beliefs have a genealogy that can be traced back to Cooper’s work, but does not remain loyal to it. Like QAnon, Cooper’s primary constituency were white Christian, often right-wing, constitutionalists, who were generally patriotic Americans and sometimes White Nationalists.

However, their anti-establishment disposition has not saved them from being duped by Trump. Trump spent years rubbing elbows with Hollywood stars and other elites, including the Clintons and known pedophile ring leader, Jeffrey Epstein. But somehow he has convinced his QAnon followers that he is fighting against those elites. Trump’s more than suspicious relationship with Putin has never been resolved and reeks of treason, but this does not seem to bother any of his supporters. Perhaps they did not read carefully enough when Cooper wrote:


In a similar vein, Black-owned bookstores, hip-hop music, and lecturers like Steve Cokely were the means by which Cooper’s ideas were disseminated into Black communities. Of course the foundation was already laid by the Nation of Islam who canonized these conspiracy theories in the early part of the 20th century.

In their respective interviews with Fat Joe, rapper Busta Rhymes and producer Dallas Austin described a scene from the early 90’s in which the legendary funk musician, George Clinton hipped a generation of hip hop artists to Behold a Pale Horse. Their recording sessions were like a book club and the book would inform the doomsday themes that led to Busta Rhymes’ album titles. Goodie Mob would release “Cell Therapy.” The D.O.C.‘s long-awaited second LP had several Cooper-inspired tracks. Prodigy from Mobb Deep would mention concepts from the book in his verses. And the list of hip-hop’s connection to the book goes on…

Busta Rhymes discusses the influence of Behold a Pale Horse (52:55 – 56:47).
Dallas Austin discusses the influence of Behold a Pale Horse (1:04:06 – 1:04:32).

However, the so-called Black conscious movement is not without its contradictions either. In contrast to white patriots, many “conscious” Blacks are Muslims, Five Percenters, Nuwaubians, Hebrew Israelites, or ascribe to non-traditional Christian beliefs. Likewise, they often embraced Black Nationalism and leftist Black activism such as the Black Panther Party, something that Cooper probably would have disapproved of. However, Black people generally saw his theories as confirmation of the anti-Blackness and pure evil of the American political establishment.

As we watch red-cap and fatigue-laden protesters riot at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. and other capitol buildings around the US, we should know that their actions are motivated by beliefs with a genealogy that can be traced to Cooper, the Nazi Party, and even earlier in American history. The irony is that for much of American history both patriots and conscious Blacks alike thought that the fall of America would occur at the hands of Blacks and other minorities, but recent events are showing us otherwise.

Soul On Ice Cube

Recently, the rapper and actor Ice Cube has stirred quite a commotion by his association with the Trump campaign, who contacted him to discuss his Contract With Black America. Many African Americans on the left have attacked him or belittled him on grounds that he was attempting to split the Black vote, he was being used by the Trump campaign, that his plan was misogynistic, that he was oblivious to the work of other activists as well as Biden’s Lift Every Voice Plan, not being articulate enough, etc.

While it is possible that these critiques are true, they serve to divert attention to the merits of Ice Cube’s content and strategy. Anyone who has followed him on Twitter since July (or the 1990’s) is aware of his political positions. He has unequivocally expressed his disillusionment with both the Republican and Democratic parties, while maintaining a pragmatic view of political engagement. One that allows him to work with whichever party wins the election.

Ice Cube in his own words.

This political pragmatism is not new. In fact, Ice Cube’s strategy is reminiscent of that of Floyd McKissick during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. McKissick was a lawyer from North Carolina and a Civil Rights leader. He was one of the first four African American students to desegregate the law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Although he was renown in Civil Rights circles ascending to the head of CORE in 1966, he was part of the contingent who advocated for Black Power. He hosted Malcolm X at UNC after he was rejected to speak at the predominantly Black North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University). He also associated with the likes of Kwame Toure (Stokely Charmichael), Ron Karenga, and Martin Luther King Jr.

In the spirit of African resistance in the Americas, he revised the notion of Maroonage in the post-Civil Rights Era with his establishment of Soul City in rural North Carolina. The city was to be a model of how African-Americans can circumvent the struggles of acquiring political and economic power in existing urban areas where the odds are already stacked against them by establishing their own cities from scratch. In order to achieve this goal, he sought the help of the federal government to pass the Urban Growth and Community Development Act, which would secure funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for this and similar projects. He and those that followed him made a strategic alliance to support the election and re-election of Republican president Nixon.

This was a controversial move even in his time. We know that the Democratic Party, prior to the 1960’s, was the party of the Ku Klux Klan and White segregationists. However, it was the policies of presidents Kennedy and Johnson that caused them to shift to the Republican Party. Yet, this shift was still new and tenuous by the 1970’s and African Americans overall were more politically conscious than ever. Party loyalty rhetoric was at a minimum because many African Americans in the South had just overcome the Democratic and Republican parties’ Jim Crow restrictions to their right to vote.

P-4930/6 , in the Floyd B. McKissick Papers #4930, Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the African American Resources Collection of North Carolina Central University.

The Democratic Party later became known as the party of Civil Rights because they passed a series of Civil Rights bills. Nonetheless, politically conscious Black people knew that the bills were the death knell of the movement or at the very least an amicable diversion from the goals they sought to attain. Integration was not the same as desegregation. Integration allowed for Black people to join the White economic, social, and political establishment – at the bottom of course. However, desegregation was aimed at releasing the yolk of Jim Crow and post-Reconstruction Era measures to suppress Black economic, social, and political power. In other words, they aimed at restoring the Black power that would have naturally existed without racist intervention to suppress it.

Floyd McKissick speaks on Black Power in 1966.

I see the Contract With Black America as a means to revive the spirit of Black Power that has lain dormant since at least the 1990’s. Ice Cube has been vocal that his plan for Black American descendants of enslaved people and not broader categories such as “people of color” or “minorities” that could divert funds from them. He has explicitly criticized the Republican and Democratic parties, while being open to work with whichever party wins the election. Furthermore, he has called for Black people not to depend on campaign promises and lip service, but to put political pressure on the victors well after the elections. I personally do not see anything wrong with this perspective. Rather, it sounds like a plan.

One characteristic of the Trump Years has been the stark polarization that his presidency has forced the American public to take. This has clearly taken place within the Muslim community with the rise of the “Akh-Right” and “Social Justice Warriors.” Likewise, this has taken place within the African American community with more aggressive Black conservatives and more staunch Black liberals. As they mudsling during the election season and attempt to recuperate in its aftermath, I commend those Black Muslims with major platforms like Ice Cube and Dave Chappelle who are still thinking clearly in the mist of hysteria.

The Metaphysics of “I Can’t Breathe”

As George Floyd lay pinned to the ground with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee pressing on the back of his neck, his last words would define the times that we are living in like none other. His tragic murder occurred during a global pandemic that has taken the life of over 400,000 people and whose main symptom is shortness of breath. This is a sign for people who reflect.

“Breath of Life” by Rachel Strohm (

The Breath of Life

In Hebrew and Arabic, the words for breath and soul are etymologically related. The words for soul are nephesh (נֶ֫פֶשׁ) and nafs (نًفس) in Hebrew and Arabic respectively. In the Hebrew Bible, nephesh refers to animal and human life or the soul. Throughout the Qur’an, nafs is used to refer to the human spirit or the self. In the Qur’an, it is described as inciting to evil (12:53), reproachable (75:2), at peace (89:27), well-pleased and pleasing (89:28).

Essentially, the nephesh/nafas refers to the breath that every living being possesses as the essence of their life on earth. This breath is sacred as it is passed from parents to child, generation after generation. There exists an unbroken chain of breath going back to our original father and mother, Adam and Eve.

The Human Spirit

When Allah created Adam, He breathed the soul (ruh,روح ) into him, then he sneezed and said: ‘All praise is due to Allah.’ So he praised Allah by His permission. Then His Lord said to him: “May Allah have mercy upon you O Adam.” When its Hebrew cognate, (ruach רוּחַ), was translated into Greek, it was translated to the word that means breath (pneuma πνεῦμα).

Whereas the nafs/nephesh refers to the sacred physical breath that cannot be detached from the body, the ruh/ruach is pure spirit that can exist in the absence of a body. It is from the command of the Most High analogous to a wind (rih ريح) whose source is from something greater and unseen.

When we reflect on the time we are living in we find several analogies to the cutting of our sacred breath. First, the Corona virus is a respiratory disease that makes it extremely difficult to breathe among other symptoms. Secondly, the global pandemic has made the world take a collective gasp of air as businesses and other institutions close as a precaution against spreading the virus. This is at a time when people’s lives were already being strangled by a tenuous economy, degree inflation, and immorality and corruption in high places. In addition to all of this, the world gasped in horror over yet another extrajudicial killing of an African American. As the world holds its breath in anticipation for what is next, we hope that the next breath is one that will revive the human spirit.



The Free National Name of the Copts

The declaration of a free national name and religion is a concept that was popularized by Noble Drew Ali, founder of the Moorish Science Temple. He rejected a color-based identity in favor of one based on heritage. While I am not an expert on Moorish Science, I found a fitting parallel to this concept in the history of Copts in Egypt, one of the oldest Christian sect in the world.

Some years ago, I came across a documentary series about various Arab religious communities on Al Jazeera. In the episode about the Copts, there was an interesting remark made by Pope Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt. Starting around the 5:20 until the 5:40 mark he states what can be translated as:

“The origins of the Copts are Pharaonic and not Arabic. However, they now possess Arab citizenship and the Arabic language, but their origins are not Arab.”

Arabization in Egypt

The Coptic Christian community of Egypt are not ethnically Arabs, despite being native Arabic speakers and being physically indistinguishable from other Egyptians. Technically, their ethnicity should represent the majority in Egypt and their presence predates Arab Muslim hegemony in the region. The same can be said of Berbers in Northwest Africa. How is it, then, did they assume an Arab identity?

It suffices us to know that Arabization in Egypt, like much of North Africa, was a slow and complicated process. The early Muslims played a major role in ending Byzantine oppression of indigenous Christian sects in Egypt and the rest of North Africa in 7th century CE. Their initial social contract was that of a dhimmi status, which guaranteed them protection as long as they paid the jizyah tax.

The Cairo Geniza papers reveal the rich linguistic environment of the Nile between the 3rd century BCE and the 7th century CE. These papers consist of papyri written in languages such as Hebrew, Syrian, Ethiopian, Middle Persian, and hieroglyphics to name a few. However, the majority of these documents are in Arabic, Coptic, and Greek. They suggest that by the 7th century Arabic was used side-by-side with Coptic and Greek until 705 when a decree made Arabic the official administrative language.

We know that by the 12th century Pope Gabriel II (Ibn Turayk) had officially made Arabic the language of Coptic liturgy. His reasoning for this was that Copts had already been Arabized and that they should worship in a language they understand.[1] Of course, the true extent of Arabization at this point in time is debatable. Perhaps only urbanized Copts had become comfortable with conversing in Arabic, while rural Copts were not.

Furthermore, scholarship on the topic shows that there were a number of factors that led to the ultimate Arabization of Egypt.These factors were an interplay of “Arab” migration, their intermarriage with Coptic women, willing and coerced conversion to Islam, popular Muslim distrust of and violence against Copts, and official policies of the state. (To learn more read: Coptic Conversion and the Islamization of Egypt and Coptic Language and Identity in Ayyūbid Egypt).

Coptic monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Accessed from:

Lessons for America

Even after a difficult history under Muslim rule, the Coptic population has survived as Egypt’s largest national minority. While their Arabness is a topic of continued debate in their communities and within Egypt, I will suggest a few lessons that the so-called African American can learn from this history.

  • As we note from Pope Shenouda II’s statement, the Coptic community is an indigenous community with a distinct heritage. While their heritage is initially Pharaonic, it is their Christian heritage that allows them to maintain a social contract under Muslim rule. It is an Islamic belief that Islam abrogated Christianity, just as Christianity abrogated Judaism and so forth, which might have served as the basis for Muslims’ harsh treatment of the Copts throughout history, especially after the Crusades.
  • However, it was only after they proclaimed their free national and religious identity that they were able to attain Arab citizenship. While much was lost in this transaction, they were also able to maintain their legal sovereignty in a nation ruled by Islamic law. In fact, Islamic law, like American law, guaranteed them the right to govern themselves.
  • Additionally, by Arabizing their heritage they were able to preserve what they could of their history in a living language. This is an important point for so-called African Americans, as the language of our history and scholarship provides access to different audiences and influences the types of discussions we have around topics of concern to us.
  • Finally, their citizenship is not simply tied to a nation (Egyptian), but to a heritage (Arab). As Arab citizens, the Copts were not only able to secure a place within Egyptian society, but in the greater Arab world. As Arab citizens, they have the right to produce culture, scholarship, and engage in the current events of the Arab world.

[1] This argument is reminiscent of the contemporary argument for the use of colloquial Arabic in the Arab world. See Is Fusha Elitist?


Is Fusha Elitist?

Student: Wow! You used to teach Arabic?! Fusha or Amiyya?

Me: Fusha.

Student: Don’t you think it’s elitist to speak in Fusha, though?

This is a conversation that transpired recently between me and a young American student studying in Egypt. It was a courteous conversation and the student actually wanted to hear my honest response to her question. My position is based on the following points, which I expressed to her, but I also think that my response warrants mentioning in a more well-thought out manner. The idea that fusha somehow aids in an elitist mindset reflects the miseducation American students of the language receive from their government and universities. Moreover, the push to the teaching of Arabic dialects has made students pawns in a broader political game.

This is not how we teach English

The powers that be in the U.S. will never agree to the use of American dialects such as African American Vernacular English, Hawaiian Pidgin, or Cajun as the language of instruction in schools. First, these dialects are not connected to a rich written heritage that learners can read in. Even if this heritage existed, it would disadvantage learners in an Standard English-dominated society by not training them in the register of language that is valued in the greater society, effectively making them foreigners in their own country.

Yet, Americans propagate the teaching of Arabic dialects both at home and abroad in contradistinction to the way we use and envision our own language. Before students know anything about Arabic, they are supplanted with ideas about its difficulty and are given the option to learn Modern Standard Arabic, Qur’anic Arabic, or Amiyyah. When people wish to learn English they learn a standard version of the language. Slang and dialectical characteristics are expected to be encountered and acquired later as students have more contact with native speakers of English. Why aren’t slang and dialects emphasized more in English learning pedagogy? Why don’t we speak more about the differences between British and American English, Jamaican Patois and Aboriginal English, Gullah and Nigerian English, etc.? Well, in addition to our notion of exceptionalism there are some deep-rooted political reasons for our view of the Arabic language, which I will briefly touch on in the following paragraphs.

The Weaponization of Language

In the summer of 2015, I was teaching a free Arabic-language intensive at a small liberal arts college in North Carolina. I advertised it on the Arabic-L listserv, a listserv for scholars, instructors, and Arabic nerds. I promptly received an email from Dr. Chris Stone of Hunter College (CUNY), asking me bluntly where I was receiving my funding. I told him that my position was funded by a grant from the Department of Education and I knew why he was asking to which he replied that he was glad to see the Department of Education was still doing its job and that he would advertise this intensive in his circle.

In April 2014, Dr. Stone published an article on the online Jadaliyya website entitled Teaching Arabic in the US after 9/11. He began the article discussing the situation in which he was stabbed outside of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. His attacker apparently wanted to take revenge for U.S. policies in the Middle East. He then brings to the reader’s attention the number of post-9/11 defense and intelligence funding opportunities for the teaching and learning of Arabic. He goes on to discuss the controversies within the fields of Middle Eastern and African studies concerning this funding.

These funds and newfound interest in the teaching and learning of Arabic in the United States has reshaped how scholars, teachers, and students approach the language. Under the pretext of teaching a more communicative approach, they have called on instructors to get students speaking as soon as possible. In 2002, the counterterrorism Arabist, Dr. Geoff Porter wrote a critical piece in the New York Times alerting the F.B.I. to the differences between various registers of Arabic, urging them to teach their agents a more natural language that will allow them to better understand wiretapped phones. Thus inserting a dagger into Arab language pedagogy. I once interned at a military archives that needed to sort through hundreds of Arabic fliers that were used for PsyOps during the Iraq War in the 2000’s. The Arabic in these fliers reflected the dry style of American military speech, rife with exclamatory commands and warnings, which I could not imagine being taken seriously by any Arabic speaker.

Anyone privy to the teaching of Arabic in American universities since 9/11 should be aware of this philosophical shift. The second and third editions of the renown Al-Kitaab fii Taʿallum al-ʿArabiyya series, taught at most universities, conspicuously increased its colloquial content. In the meantime, people serving in various branches of the American military were offered generous bonuses for proven proficiency in any of the “defense languages,” mainly the Egyptian, Levantine, and Iraqi Arabic dialects. Likewise, defense language and foreign service-oriented scholarships became plenty for students.

Arabic language fliers that were distributed in Iraqi war zones by the American military.

The Conspiracy

The debate over diglossia in the Arab world is a heated one. It was sparked by European Orientalists and colonialists venturing into regions of the Arab world and finding discrepancies between the written and spoken, formal and informal languages and the widespread use of different registers in different situations. While such differences were present, Europeans saw an opportunity to separate Egyptians and other Arab nationalities from their heritage.

Their aim was to do to the Arabs what they did to Africans in the Americas when they physically, mentally, and spiritually disconnected us from our language, culture and religion. Of course, this required a different strategy, because the Arabs were still in their lands and took a lot of pride in their language, culture and religion. The solution was a calculated plot to marginalize fusha and those that held to it.

Since the late 19th century, there has been an ongoing conspiracy to detach Arabs from their language, culture, and religion. This is meticulously documented by Dr. Nafusa Zakaria Sa’id in her book, Tārīkh al-Daʿwah ʾIlā al-ʿĀmīyyah wa ʾĀthāruhā fī Miṣr (The History of the Appeal to Colloquial Arabic and Its Effects on Egypt). She traces this conspiracy back to two Arab authors who published books on Egyptian Arabic with the sponsorship of Europeans. They even went so far as to publish high literature like the parts of the Bible and Shakespeare in colloquial Arabic on behalf of the Egyptians. Dr. Sa’id points out that all languages (including European languages) have registers, dialects, and colloquialisms, but only Orientalists with an agenda made these a problem.

Despite their many attempts to convince Egyptians to treat their dialect as an independent language, their ideas never quite took root, due to the strong influence of Azhar University and the public’s general reverence for their Arab heritage, regardless of whether they were Jewish, Christian or Muslim. They only began to see success once they started to open up schools that taught in European languages during the age of colonization. By cleverly marketing their schools, selective enrollment, a Western education was reserved for a new elite… Those who revered Europeans and their way of thinking by adopting their ideas, language, and lifestyle. While they naturally spoke their local dialects, their higher learning, which would ordinarily acquaint them with fusha, was replaced with a foreign language. Those that studied in Arabic were deemed backward and uncultured, making proficiency in fusha anything but elite. Unfortunately, this mindset still exists to this day in Egypt and other Arab nations to this day.

A Listing of Works Calling for the Use of ‘Amiyyah

  • 1838 – ʾAḥsan al-Nukhab fī Maʿrifat Lisān al-ʿArab by Muhammad ‘Iyad al-Tantawi
  • 1880 – Grammatik des Arabischen Vulgardialectes Von Aegypten by Dr. Wilhelm Spitta
  • 1886 – Al-Risālah al-Tāmmah fī Kalām al-ʿĀmmah wa al-Manāhij fī ʾAḥwāl al-Kalām al-Dārij by Mikha’il Sibagh
  • 1893 – “Why There is No Creativity Among Egyptians Now,” speech by William Willcocks
  • 1895 – The Modern Egyptian Dialect Of Arabic by Karl Vollers
  • 1901 – The Spoken Arabic of Egypt by J. Selden Willmore
  • 1926 – Manual of Egyptian Arabic by D.C. Phillot and A.P. Powell
  • 1926 – “Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and Malta Speak Punic, Not Arabic” by William Willcocks

Arabs Are Not the Only Arabic Speakers

My final retort is that Arabic is not only the language of those who identify ethnically as Arabs. It is used by ethnic and religious minorities such as Copts, Berbers, Kurds, etc. It is also used by Muslims outside of the “Arab World.” In fact, some of the most eloquent and learned people in the language have been people I lived and studied with from a diverse array of backgrounds. They were students from West Africa, East Africa, and different parts of Asia who usually memorized the Qur’an and conducted their primary studies at madrasas of humble means in their home countries. They later went on to pursue higher degrees at recognized institutions in the Arab World. Though their introduction to the language was entirely in fusha, they would adapt to hearing a local Arabic dialect within a month or two, because they already had a strong foundation in the basics of the language. This has been the system in which non-native Arabic speakers acquired proficiency in the language for hundreds of years. However, Americans, out of their warmongering and need for Mcdonaldfication in all matters, have tried to jump the gun in language pedagogy by learning Arabic for nefarious purposes and without an understanding of the peoples that speak it.

This is not to say that I oppose the speaking or study of Arabic dialects. Indeed, natural speech is essential to communication and daily survival in Arabic-speaking countries as anyone who has ever studied in the Arab world may know. Unfortunately, there are many misunderstandings about the Arabic language in the United States and it will take a generation of learners with both expertise and a clear perspective of the language to unravel them.

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.

Trajectories of Western Islam Part I: Traditionalism

Generally speaking, two trajectories of Islam have influenced the masses of Western Muslims in the last century: Traditionalism and Spiritualism. By Western Muslim, I mean those whose backgrounds are not immediately from the Muslim world. For those of us who learned about Islam in the 20th century we know how deeply one or both of these currents have shaped our view of Islam, even if it has not been articulated in the way that I will discuss in the next few posts.

Islam & Traditionalism

While we commonly think of Islam’s contentious relationship with the West, Islamic influence has been penetrating Europe since the Middle Ages. Muslim dominance in Andalusia and the spread of Islam in Eastern European lands such as Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans are examples of this penetration going back several centuries. Though it is well documented that Muslim influence is what brought Europe physically out of its Dark Ages, less is known about Islam’s spiritual influences. [1]

We can say that overt displays of Islamic influence was taboo in Europe following the Spanish Inquisition and during the Crusades. However, Islamic spiritual influence began to emerge as Europeans conquered Muslim lands. The first handful of known European converts to Islam appeared in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, it was not until the early 20th century that we saw an actual movement of European conversions to Islam under the banner of Traditionalism. This was due to the direct and indirect influence of Rene Guenon.

Traditionalism, in Guenon’s conception, required an initiation into an established religious tradition with an unbroken chain to the source. For those Europeans who were influenced by his writings and had direct meetings or correspondences with him like Frithjof Schuon, Jean Reyor (Marcel Clavelle), Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, etc. he encouraged to embrace Islam and join a Sufi order. While many followed through with this conversion, they often considered their practice as a means to sophia perennis (perennial wisdom).

Though Guenon was credited with the founding of Traditionalism, it was really Schuon on those that followed him that took the concept in the direction of what we now know as Perennialism. Schuon and the early Traditionalists embraced Islam and joined the order of the Algerian shaykh, Ahmad al-‘Alawi, primarily because he was based in France and spoke French. After the shaykh’s death, Schuon quickly rose through the ranks and became the shaykh of the order. As explained by Mark Sedgwick, this was because of his visions and an ambiguous ijaza he received from al-‘Alawi’s immediate successor.[2]

As shaykh, Schuon began to take on unorthodox beliefs and practices. Some particularly alarming examples of these were:

  • his enduring infatuation for his former girlfriend named Madeleine, which he brought into the beliefs of the order saying, “Whoever does not love Madeleine is not of the order!”[3]
  • his attachment to religious artifacts like a Sanskrit copy of the Baghavad Gita and a statuette of the Virgin Mary.[4]
  • his tendency to make major decisions based on his own interpretations of visions he had, such as a trance that overtook him the day of Shaykh al-‘Alawi’s death, his waking up with certainty that he had become the shaykh, and his vision of the (naked) Virgin Mary, which caused him to change the name of the order to the Maryamiyya.[5]
  • his habit of walking around naked and painting pictures of the Virgin Mary in the nude.[6]
  • his “verticle marriage” to a woman already married to one of his followers.[7]

Needless to say, the Islam in his sufi order did not last and he and many of his followers ended up taking other spiritual paths. However, what became of Traditionalism under Schuon would foreshadow or parallel much of what we hear about “goofy sufis” in the U.S.

The Faults of Traditionalism

The faults of Traditionalism in the European context was due to two main factors: 1) secrecy and 2) lack of knowledge:


Mark Sedgwick gives a few reasons for the Traditionalists’ use of secrecy: 1) “Secrecy is a part of the Western or occultist conception of initiation,” 2) to avoid the hostilities of “unsuspected… powers,” 3) Islam was a temporary step towards a greater goal, 4) people feared scorn from the society and losing their livelihoods if they lived openly as Muslims, and 5) there was no Islamic infrastructure (mosques, schools, etc.) in most European societies in those times.[8]

The first three reasons, secrecy and insulation, is what allowed for abuses and distortions. First, their understanding of initiation, or lack thereof, implied secrecy, whereas a careful reading of Guenon’s writings would reveal that initiation implied a serious commitment to a religious tradition that entailed taking spiritual instruction by a learned person in that tradition.

Secondly, Guenon’s attack on Theosophists and occultists, as well as his soured relationship with the Catholic Church, was perhaps necessary or inevitable, but it stirred much animosity in European circles of religious thought. The solution was to create the insulated communities thought sought to preserve and protect their beliefs from people that could challenge or potentially obstruct their movements.

Finally, because their initiation into Islam was seen as temporary, there was no need to be consistent with their beliefs or practices. It was open to change depending on the time and circumstances.

Lack of Knowledge

The temporary nature of the Islamic initiation also reflected their lack of knowledge of the tradition. The shaykh (or master of any other tradition for that matter) spent his whole life learning, practicing, and mastering the tradition in order to remain steadfast on it and teach it to others. The notion that one can ascend to that level by simply having visions should be cause for alarm. Furthermore, moving on to another path would place them at square one of another tradition, which would take another lifetime to master, remain steadfast upon, and teach others.

As for the fact that they would have received scorn and lost their livelihoods is a serious concern, which turned out to not be true. Von Meyenburg, a follower of Schuon, was discovered to be a Muslim by his Swiss employers and they did nothing.[9] Such a revelation could have been grounds for making their presence known in the society and gaining acceptance if that was a concern. Likewise, they could have built the infrastructure they wanted had that been a concern.

Perhaps, one justification was that they were not soundly educated in the tradition of Islam. It should be remembered that resources by which one could become educated on non-European religions was quite scarce in those times. Even if there were resources about such religions they often did not give much insight into how one might use them for devotional purposes. The problem of translating an ancient tradition into modern European languages is one that exists to this day. The only solutions were to travel to the East, learn the language(s) and learn the traditions from spiritual masters in those lands or attach oneself to a master or a student of a master in one’s homeland and learn directly from him. Such a theme will re-emerge later when I discuss contemporary Traditionalism in the U.S.

In the next post, I will discuss the second trajectory of Western Islam, Spiritualism, particularly among 20th century groups in the U.S.


[1] See W. Montgomery Watt, The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe, Islamic Surveys 9 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001).

[2] Mark J. Sedgwick, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 88-93.

[3] Ibid., 91.

[4] Ibid., 92-3.

[5] Ibid., 88, 92, 149, and 151.

[6] Ibid., 150-1.

[7] Ibid., 152.

[8] Ibid., 91-2.

[9] Ibid., 92.

Rene Guenon vs. the Modern Mystery Schools

I am convinced that no discussion of the Ancient Mystery Schools is complete without discussing the works of the French philosopher and purported founder of the Traditionalist school, Rene Guenon, also known as Abdul Wahid Yahya.

Rene Guenon

He grew up as a Catholic and later became immersed in the growing European occultist scene, joining the Freemasons, and what became known as the Theosophical Society. He was one of the major French commentators on metaphysics and the occult even though he did not complete his academic studies. He would later study a variety of Eastern religions like Taoism, Hinduism, folklore and other mystic traditions, writing extensively on them for European audiences.

Guenon came to oppose the European trends towards occultism, masonry, and theosophy, dismissing them as pseudo-religions and symptoms of a crisis in the modern European world. In doing so, he touches on a key point worthy of discussion. How was it that the ancient mysteries became associated with such trends?

It was exactly these modern European groups that co-opted the notion of “the Ancient Mysteries,” misconstrued the ideas of the Eastern spiritual paths, and attempted to separate spirituality from religion. Guenon rightfully opposed these trends from the perspective of a European who had once been intimately intertwined with such groups and had come to study Eastern religions from their sources in the East. He was also privy to the intellectual fallacies and personal flaws of those in this movement, whose leaders were often charlatans.

The Modern Mysteries

The Ancient Mystery Schools are not the same as the Modern Mystery Schools. The Ancient Mysteries, as we have elucidated before, was how humans maintained the revelations of the early prophets. In the Qur’an it is simply referred to as islam or the path of the Hanifs. Yet, Modern Mystery Schools tend to be hodgepodges of different religions or progenitors of supposedly new doctrines. Some of them lean towards mystical elements while others focus only on a material reality.

The difference between true systems of spiritual knowledge and counterfeit systems is their ability to achieve a balance between the inner and the outer dimensions of human experience. Societies worldwide were based on the true systems, because their origins were from the Creator of human beings, its teachings maintained by the most knowledgeable and sincere in society. As such, they were wholistic enough for people to base their entire lives around them

In contrast, the counterfeit systems of modern times are responsible for the corruption of true systems of spiritual knowledge and the degeneration of societies, as they tend to promote the will of the individual over all things, devalue religious meritocracy by casting doubt on traditional institutions, and foster confusion and dissent among unsuspecting believers.

Contribution of Rene Guenon

Though the Modern Mysteries had been gaining traction for a number of centuries prior, Rene Guenon was able to spot its influence at a critical junction in human history. In his book, Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion, he tells of Helen Blavatsky’s establishment of the Theosophical Society in the United States and her consequent introduction of a new international wave of occultism to the Western Hemisphere.

In this critical biography of the life and works of Madame Blavatsky, he establishes the archetype of the Modern Mystery leader. They often have a checkered history of crime and deception. Many American cult leaders followed in her footsteps, not the least of which have found their way into African American communities, as noted by Wudjau Iry-Maat.

Rene Guenon did a huge service by giving us a formula to unravel such cults:

  • Scrutinizing their biographies and exposing lies, inconsistencies, and destructive behavior. This allows us to limit the cult leader’s sphere of influence among decent people.
  • Understanding the ideological lineages and using clear logical language to deconstruct and challenge their philosophies. This allows for the long-term resistance to these organizations and their ilk.

Rene Guenon spent the last twenty years of his life in Cairo, Egypt, where he embraced Islam and joined the Shadhili sufi tariqa. According to various sources, he spent his time in spiritual reflection and publishing works that expounded on his ideas and combated the growing influence of the Modern Mystery Schools.