The Mawlid: Between Sabians and Hanifs

Love for the Prophet Muhammad is an indisputable cornerstone of the Islamic faith, but the celebration of the Prophet’s birth has in modern times surfaced as a matter of contention. Despite its long-standing and widespread tradition, modern detractors have insisted that it is a blameworthy invention within the religion because it was not observed during the lifetime of the Prophet or his immediate predecessors. Others see it as an odd parallel to Christmas and a segue to the excesses of the Christians in their love for Jesus. While I will leave the legal debates to the experts, I seek to offer an additional perspective on the Mawlid. Given what we know of Sabian views on prophets and angels, there is more wisdom to celebrating the advent of the prophet than we may think.

Angels vs. Prophets

As mentioned in previous posts, one of the core disagreements between the Sabians and Hanifs according to Muhammad al-Shahrastani was the issue of prophecy and prophethood. The Sabians glorified the angels and deemed them superior to human prophets, because they are sinless and pure. To them, man is tainted both physically and spiritually because he is subject to carnal desires and temptations that distract his worship of God. The Hanifs, on the other hand, exalted the human prophets as God’s chosen guides to mankind. They believed that human beings who have overcome their desires and temptations through the grace of God, such as prophets, have more merit. They contend that angels have no choice but to worship God at all times and there is no merit in compulsion (Shahrastānī and Muhammad, 1993, 16-22).

By no means did these debates end in pre-Islamic times. Rather, they ensued well into Abbasid-era Islamic scholarly discourse and beyond. Ibn Rawandi, a Mu’tazilite scholar turned skeptic, was in conversation with a Sabian group called the Brahmins concerning the role of the intellect in religion. This group argued that the intellect was a sufficient alternative to revelation. They figured that even if the prophets brought teachings that were compatible with the intellect, the prophet would be superfluous because humans were already endowed with intellect. Likewise, they reasoned that sanctuaries in Mecca like the Kaʿba, Black Stone, Ṣafā, and Marwa, etc. were no different from other places in the world. So it made no sense to perform rituals at these sites to the exclusion of others and this was thus opposed to the intellect. Similarly, they deemed the prophets no different from other men even if they could predict future events. This is because they could determine the future by the stars and are thus in no need of prophets (Lawrence, 1976, 80).

The 15th century Egyptian scholar, Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī wrote a book on Islamic angelology titled, Al-Ḥabā’ik fī Akhbār al-Malā’ik (The Arrangement Concerning the Traditions of the Angels), in which he collected the opinions of various Muslim scholars concerning the merits of angels versus human prophets. In a section, not featured in its English translation, he enumerates the various opinions of Muslim scholars on the preference of human prophets or angels. In summary, he states that there were three main positions:

1) the prophets are greater than the angels. This is the majority opinion for Sunnis and Shi’as.

2) the angels are greater than the prophets. This is the position of the Muʿtazilites, but there are some Sunni scholars who hold this opinion.

3) that there is no comparison; except that all are agreed that the Prophet Muhammad is the best of creation. (Suyūṭī, 1988, 203)

We find here, that the Muʿtazilites inherited the positions of the Sabian philosophers with regards to the angels and prophets. It is therefore the reemergence of Sabian thought within the Islamic umma that seeks to belittle the prophets to the level of ordinary men, rather than guides and examples who should be followed and celebrated. It is the core Hanif strain within Islam that opposes this diminution of the prophets and exalts their status and benefits for all of mankind.


Lawrence, Bruce B. Shahrastani on the Indian Religions. De Gruyter, 1976.

Shahrastānī, Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Karīm al-, and Ahmad Fahmi Muhammad. Al-Milal Wa al-Niḥal. 2nd ed., Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīyyah, 1992.

Suyūṭī, Jalāl al-Dīn al-. Al-Ḥabā’ik Fī Akhbār al-Malā’ik. Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīyyah, 1988.

Islam and the Ancient Mystery Schools Part 12

I would like to return to my original thesis that was sparked by George G.M. James’ Stolen Legacy several years ago (see Islam and the Ancient Mysteries Part 1and Part 2). Although this thesis has undergone modifications since I began my research, the premise has remained the same. In the midst of this series I have found that the word Ṣābi’a is the general term in Arabic for the Ancient Mystery Schools, while theorizing that other terms such as Naṣārā and Chaldean refer to the leaders of temporal and geographic Mystery Schools. In the following post, I will summarize my theory and trace the genealogy of Sabian/Mystery School thought to this day.

Islam and the Revival of the Ancient Mysteries

The Sabians mentioned throughout classical Arabic literature are what the Greeks called the Mysteries. Like the Jews and Christians before them, the Muslims wrestled with the perceived harms and benefits of Sabian thought. On the one hand, the scriptures of the Abrahamic traditions were deeply critical of the theological distortions in Sabian doctrine. Abrahamic doctrines and rituals were in response to the beliefs and practices of the Sabians, which opened up the gates of polytheism among the unlearned laymen. On the other hand, the Sabians had benefited the world by their advances in other areas of human knowledge. The Abbasid Caliphate, like Eastern Christianity, came to terms with the knowledge produced by the Sabians. However, the Muslims strived not to take the road of the Christians, whose doctrine ultimately succumbed to the philosophical influences of the Sabians.

What we witness from the 9th to 11th century in the Islamic world with the codification of both traditional religious knowledge as well as the translation of ancient empirical and occult texts, is a race to retain knowledge of the Prophet Muhammad, while also reviving the knowledge of the Sabians (i.e. the Mystery Schools). The Islamic empire and its scholars sought to uphold the Abrahamic doctrine in the face of Sabian doctrine by calling people to Islam and granting protection (i.e. dhimmi status) to the People of the Book, i.e. Jews and Christians. At the same time, they were vehemently opposed to the polytheistic elements of Sabian thought.

As such, the Muslims had revived the Mystery Schools under the Abrahamic creed of Islam. This, however, was not without its conflicts. As certain groups of Muslims had the tendency to slip back into the beliefs of the Sabians, such as:

  • The Khawārij, who embraced the Stoic (Mystery School) concept of perfection and sinlessness as a sign of righteousness.
  • The Muʿtazilites would later stress the primacy of reason over revelation, which placed the philosopher sage on level with and sometimes over the prophets and rekindle the notion that human beings attain prophethood through their own efforts and merits rather than the grace and ordinance of God.
  • Al-Ghazālī’s criticism of the Muslim philosophers (primarily Ibn Sīnā) in his Incoherence of the Philosophers, identifies certain ancient beliefs held by these philosophers, which he believes led them to apostasy. This, while maintaining the utility of ancient Sabian empirical knowledge.
  • Ibn Rushd (Averroes) would later take issue with al-Ghazālī’s conclusions, claiming that the “craft of ḥikma” (wisdom/ancient knowledge) needed to be passed down like any other craft.

Ibn Rushd’s defense of Sabian philosophy would be rejected or ignored by the greater Muslim world, but the means by which Sabian knowledge would gain interest and popularity in Western Europe.

Modern Day Mysteries

In the last few centuries, Western civilization has become the battleground between Abrahamic and Sabian thought since the so-called European Renaissance. As such, Renè Guenon considered the beginning of the West’s decline to be Renè Descartes’ hyper-skepticism. Even as the West was philosophizing itself out of the Abrahamic tradition, it was making a dash for Eastern empirical and esoteric knowledge, which they harbored in their secret societies. This would lead to the separation of religion from science, politics, sociology, and the many other sciences needed for human civilization.

In the 20th century, Western philosophy and esotericism trickled down to the populace by way of clandestine organizations, theosophy, and counterculture movements. In no place were these ideas more prevalent than in the United States. As a result, we witness Sabian thought proliferate in the society everyday. More specifically, Sabian thought has entered African American communities through such groups as the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, the Five Percenters, Nuwaubians, and Afrocentrists. All of these groups have explicitly or implicitly embraced the erroneous notion that they can reconstruct the Mystery Schools. I understand that this is a bold claim, but I will show the parallels between their theosophies and ancient Sabian thought. I will argue that they based their movements on incomplete knowledge of the ancient Mysteries because they did not received their knowledge through an unbroken chain of living teachers. This knowledge of the Mysteries/Sabians has been filtered by the Abrahamic faiths, primarily Islam in the current day, and cannot be accessed except through these traditional channels.

The Epoch of Muhammad

In honor of the Mawlid al-Nabawī, the Maurchives present to you a seldom narrated story from the Prophetic Biography of Ibn Hishām, which indicates the mood in the world prior to the brith of the Prophet Muhammad. This and other narrations do not appear in the English translations and nor is it particularly “miraculous,” but it does set the stage for the coming of a new era…

Arenal Volcano in November 2006
Credit: Matthew.landry at English Wikipedia

The 6th century was a time of change. As documented in David Keys’ Catastrophe: A Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World, following the cataclysmic eruption of a volcano near Sumatra and Java in Southeast Asia, the world experienced a number of social, political, and religious shifts. Mesoamerican and Andes civilizations underwent geopolitical realignments, as did the Celts and Anglo-Saxons in Britain, and the Azars of Asia. Not the least of which was the plague and mounting political and religious vicissitudes that we know all too well in the Roman Empire at the time. It was precisely this era that the Prophet Muhammad was born.

Ibn Hishām narrates that shortly after his birth in the late 6th century, Muhammad was sent to the tribe of Banū Sa’d for nursing, to build his immunity (from the regional pandemic), and pick up their eloquent use of the Arabic language. After remaining with them during his formative years, his wet-nurse, Ḥalīma prepared to take him back to his mother in Mecca. The common narrative mentions two men in white accosting the young Muhammad and splitting his chest open. However, in this narrative, Ibn Hishām mentions a group of Abyssinian Naṣārā eyeing him as he traveled with Ḥalīma. The men questioned her about him, then declared that they would take him back to the king of Abyssinia for he has a great future ahead of him, which they knew better. Ḥalīma, obviously disturbed by this potential danger, was able to maneuver away from them and return Muhammad to his family in Mecca unharmed (Ibn Hishām, 219).

Again, while this story is not as miraculous as the common narrative, it shows that his prophethood was expected throughout the region, namely among the Naṣārā of Abyssinia. Their attempt to kidnap him in order to raise the Prophet under the protection of the African Negus is meaningful. Perhaps, this was among the reasons the early Muslims were able to find refuge in Abyssinia as they fled persecution from their people in Mecca. These men could have reported to the king and other influential people in their society that they saw a boy who had the signs of a prophet and when he reached out to him as the Prophet of God, they knew who he was.


Ibn Hishām, Abū Muḥammad ʻAbd al-Malik ibn Hishām ibn Ayyūb al-Ḥimyarī. Al-Sīrah al-Nabawīyah. al-Juzʼ al-Awwal. Edited by Majdi Fathi Al-Sayyid. 1st ed. Cairo: Dār al-Sahāba lil-Turāth, 1995.

Keys, David. Catastrophe: A Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.

Afrocentric Madness: Anti-Religiosity in Afrocentric Thought

Afrocentricism is a valid methodology of looking at history. With the idea that all history is subjective (HIStory, as they like to say), it is worth looking at history from the perspectives of Africans. However, the popularization of Afrocentricism in African American communities throughout the 20th century, and now into the 21st century, has taken a highly anti-religious tone, which has resulted in the dismissal of anyone associated with the three main Abrahamic religious paths. In this post, I will address some aspects of the methodology of those who have usurped Afrocentricism and highlight some of their fallacies using a video lecture from the 2000’s by Dr. Phil Valentine.

Classic Fallacies of Afrocentricism

In an attempt to avoid the pitfalls of religious communities, Dr. Phil Valentine, like others of his ilk, falls into a classic fallacy by regurgitating anti-religious rhetoric. His first course of action is to attack the history of the Christian Church in Europe and how it was used to colonize and enslave Africans. Then he looks at the Black Christian today, often attacking his character and psychology. Finally, he turns to other religious expressions adopted by African Americans, like Islam and the Hebrew Israelites.

Most Afrocentric thinkers make this false-equivalence, refusing to recognize: 1) the complex history of Christianity, 2) the complex history of Islam and other religions, 3) their own blind-spot regarding racial identity, and 4) their biases and prejudices.

Dr. Phil Valentine speaks on religion.

1) Failure to recognize the complex history of Christianity

  • Afrocentric thinkers do not always recognize that Christianity had “Western” versions and “Eastern” versions that diverged pretty early in its history. These doctrinal differences drew a wedge between them philosophically and geographically, resulting in completely different historical experiences.
  • Acknowledgment of these various forms of Christianity are almost always along racial lines rather than doctrinal lines. However, doctrinal differences under the Roman Empire at the advent of Christianity often trumped racial differences.

2) Failure to recognize the complex history of Islam and other religions

  • Islam has its own complex history that is starkly different from that of European Christianity.
  • Direct experience with God was never discouraged.
  • Power of interpretation was regional and lied with whoever possessed the knowledge, not upon charisma, descent, race, class, etc. (although debates existed)
  • There was no wide-scale dark age and rejection of science, systematic disenfranchisement of women and minorities, or even slavery based solely on race.
  • Not all societies see religion as a means for political and social control as it is imagined in the West.

3) Afrocentric blind-spot concerning race

  • Almost all Afrocentrics operate on a construct of race invented in the United States.
  • This is the duality of Blackness and Whiteness.
  • That Blackness is equivalent to African and Whiteness is equivalent to European.
  • Any noticeable amount of African descent counts as Black, except for Arabs.
  • Black Arabs must choose to identify either with their “Black African mothers” or with their “White Arab fathers.”
  • There is no room in this construct for a “Black” person to see oneself as possessing multiple identities or to reject them altogether. Any lack of conformity to this construct evokes ridicule.

4) Biases and Prejudices

  • Most Afrocentrics are Egyptophiles and have an unquestioning reverence for Kemet (ancient Egypt). This causes them to ignore information about it that might seem distasteful to them like homosexuality, violent conquest, honor killings, etc.
  • They are theoretically in favor of Blacks and Africans in all they do until their thinking and actions do not fit the mold that they have constructed. Therefore, African Christians and Muslims are all brainwashed; Africans that marry outside of their race are all self-hating; etc.
  • They are prejudiced against:
    • Europeans for slavery and oppression in America.
    • Arabs primarily for corner stores in Black neighborhoods, secondly due to post-9/11 propaganda, and tangentially for their history of slavery in East Africa.
  • They are prejudice against all Muslims for the actions of Arabs and Black Christians for the actions of Europeans.

Kemetan Exceptionalism

At one point in Dr. Valentine’s lecture, the crowd turns its attention directly to Islam and Muslims. One can observe that he does not know much about Islam and he would rather avoid the topic, but since audience members ask, he is compelled to say something. At around the (1:04:15) mark in the video, he makes the comment:

“Islam is an off shoot of the same triumvirate. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have the same prophets. If they share the same prophets, they share the same bullsh*t.”

After being prodded with specifics, Dr. Valentine states that the Muslims took the act of women covering from the ancient Africans. He said that it was done for protection from the sun and to guard against male pheromones that would cause them to ovulate. Then he said that it degenerated into something to keep a woman down. When addressing men praying in front and women in the back, he said that was also taken from Kemet. In his interpretation, women behind men meant that they were the support. He goes on to say that when the Arabs came and saw the hieroglyphs, they interpreted it to mean subservience based on their cultural values.

While Dr. Valentine appears to confirm the “correctness” of these Islamic practices in as much as they are conform to his brand of scientism and Kemetanism, he denies Muslims the intellectual capacity for having a similar reasoning. He assumes that the Muslim woman’s veil and her praying behind men are necessarily oppressive when coming from Muslims and cannot be interpreted in any other way. One person in the crowd states that he heard from a Muslim that women praying in front of or along side men could be a distraction, but he does not address this comment.

The conversation devolves into a rant against Christianity. In the process, he mentions a hallmark that distinguishes cultural nationalists from revolutionaries. He believes that at some point in the future when all Black people recognize their true selves, only then will we live happily ever after. This grand approach is not all dissimilar from some religious dogma that posit that everyone should believe the same in order for us to live happily ever after. It can also be argued that such a unity of thought and belief is pure fantasy and has never been achieved along racial or religious lines in history.

Revolutionaries, however, tend to take a different approach. They meet people where they are at and do not obligate them to buy into a particular paradigm before attempting to make a positive impact on people’s lives. Conflicts and controversy have always existed, and religious movements have historically helped people wade these waters. In waiting for an imaginative collective consciousness, Afrocentrics and other cultural nationalists fix a permanent chip on their shoulders and ensure that they will always have a reason to not take action.

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.

Islam and the Ancient Mysteries (Part 3)


If research and reflection be pushed far enough it becomes clear that the universality and uniformity referred to are due to the fact that at one time, long back in the world’s past, there existed or was implanted in the minds of the whole human family… a Proto-Evangelium or Root-Doctrine in regard to the nature and destiny of the soul of man and its relation to the Deity. (p.203). 

W.L. Wilmshurst, The Meaning of Masonry

Islam is in agreement with Freemasonry that humanity was initially guided by a sophisticated, single religion from which people deviated, and of which all known religions in the world derived and retain visages thereof. This is contrary to the evolutionary view on the origin of religion, which maintains that religions started off primitive and employed the use of myth and superstition to explain natural phenomena then later religious beliefs and rituals became more advanced and sophisticated over time. As many perennialists, anthropologists, and scholars of comparative religion will point out, there are many parallels between religious beliefs and practices across the world’s religions. Recurring themes such as the primal golden age of man, the fall of man, and the redemption of man appear in various religious traditions, using the literary tropes familiar to their local cultures. Thus, local expressions of the primordial religion differed based on locality and time. Below, I will discuss this original religion of mankind using the tools of the Qur’an and the Arabic language.

The Natural Religion

Wilmshurst notes that the etymology of the word religion in the English language comes from the Latin re-ligare, meaning “to bind back” (p.206) or “to rebind” or “tie back to.” This implies that the ancient concept of religion was one that connected people back to an original state. Muslims would call this original state the fitrah, the natural inclinations that God has implanted into every human being.

There is a scene from the Qur’an that describes God’s creation of Adam (عليه السلام) and the souls of all people to come. At the moment of our creation we took a pledge in which we acknowledged the existence of God and His right to be worshipped.

And [mention] when your Lord took from the children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants and made them testify of themselves, [saying to them], “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, we have testified.” [This] – lest you should say on the day of Resurrection, “Indeed, we were of this unaware.” (Qur’an 7:172)

~Sahih International

Therefore, the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم) declared that: “Every child is born on the fitrah. It is his parents that makes him a Jew, Christian, or Zoroastrian. Similarly, an animal gives birth to offspring intact. Have you ever seen one born in pieces?” In this statement, we find that the spiritual tendencies are inborn, but the religious identity or expression of those tendencies are determined by the parents and by extension the environment. Moreover, the Prophet’s metaphor insinuates that the various religious identities are but fragments of a parent religion. Were the child to remain in this state, he would be adhering to the religion of his nature.

Islamic Terms for Religion

In Arabic, there are four main terms that can refer to religion. Each word has its unique etymology and particular usage in the Qur’an. Likewise, they have their particular interpretations based on the way they were understood throughout history.


Din (pronounced deen) is the most common Arabic word that is used for the concept of religion. It carries connotations of lowering, subduing, and exercising power. Some scholars of Islam and the Arabic language have defined it in the following ways:

  • Whatever a person adheres to.
  • A divine word deterring the lower self; resisting and preventing it from persisting on what was instilled in it.
  • Dominion and power.
  • To lower or subdue something. (Nuzha, p. 295-296)

In the famous hadith known as the Hadith of Jibril (عليه السلام) in which the Angel Gabriel or Jibril approached the Prophet Muhammad () and asked him questions about the religion he was teaching. At the conclusion, he states that din is essentially three things:

Islam is explained as the shahada (testament of faith), establishing regular prayer, paying charity, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and making pilgrimage to the Ancient House in Mecca if one has the ability to do so.

Iman is explained as belief in the oneness of God, belief in His angels, His scriptures, following His messengers, belief in the Last Day, and God’s measure and decree (predestination).

Ihsan is explained as worshipping God as if you see Him, or if that cannot be achieved, then worshipping God with the knowledge that He sees you.

To Muslims, these are the three elements of a complete religion:

  1. islam, the outward religious laws and practices, which makes your environment peaceful, sound, or whole
  2. iman, which makes your thinking and beliefs certain and free from defects and contradictions
  3. ihsan, which refines your morals, to beautifies your character, and makes your soul pure again.


The Qur’anic term, ummah, is a word with a wide range of meanings. According to Lane’s Lexicon, it is derived from a word meaning to direct one’s aims toward among other things (p. 88). Other words in Arabic that share its origin are umm (mother), amaam (in front of), and  imam (leader). It is commonly used to refer to the global Muslim community and occasionally to Jewish and Christian communities. Abu’l Faraj Ibn Jawzi (Nuzha p. 142-143) gathered the following meanings for the word:

  • a class of individuals or groups
  • A time period
  • A spiritual leader
  • A religion
  • A physical stature

The following verse from the Qur’an uses the word ummah to mean religion within a particular time period. Here it refers to the primordial religion:

Mankind was [of] one religion [before their deviation]; then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners and sent down with them the Scripture in truth to judge between the people concerning that in which they differed. And none differed over the Scripture except those who were given it – after the clear proofs came to them – out of jealous animosity among themselves. And Allah guided those who believed to the truth concerning that over which they had differed, by His permission. And Allah guides whom He wills to a straight path. (Qur’an 2:213)

~Sahih International


The word millah is another Qur’anic term used for religion. It is exclusively used to mean religious path or spiritual law. The word is mentioned several times in the Qur’an most often referring to religions of the past, particularly that of Abraham (عليه السلام), which is called hanif.


Hanif is a word most often used in the Qur’an to refer to the religion of Abraham. Its root meaning is to incline or decline. The word hanaf describes the condition of talipes or club foot, in which the two feet of an individual curve upward so that they end up walking on the sides of their feet. Historically, the people of Arabia who inclined to monotheism, performed ritual circumcision, meditated in caves, and made pilgrimage to the Ka’ba in Mecca were known as Hanifs. It was said that these were the only rites they had retained from the religion of Abraham. Though there were Jews, Christians, and other monotheistic faiths present in the Arabian peninsula at the time the Hanifs were not members of those communities. Therefore the Hanifs did not adhere to any religious law or study of scripture.

The community and practices of the Hanifs was that of the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم) prior to his prophetic mission. From a historical point of view, we know much about the Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم), the Arab society prior to Islam, and the early Muslim community, but relatively little about the Hanifs. As it seems, the Hanifs held remnants of an ancient religion that pre-dated Judaism and Christianity, which is proclaimed to be their parent religion, as Abraham (عليه السلام) was both a genealogical and ideological ascendent of the practitioners of those faiths. Were we to establish a link between Islam and the Ancient Mysteries it would be through knowing who were the Hanifs.

Yet several questions remain about this faith group that adhered to none of the known faiths at that time:

What was the religion that Abraham taught? How did these teachings arrive to remote regions of the Arabian peninsula such as Becca and Yathrib? Can anything more be gleaned from their practices that sound similar to the practices of the Ancient Mysteries?

So direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth. [Adhere to] the fitrah of Allah upon which He has created [all] people. No change should there be in the creation of Allah. That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know. (Qur’an 30:30)

~Sahih International

Islam and the Ancient Mysteries (Part 2)

Based on George G. M. James’ theory, I wish to examine the historical connections and pedagogical parallels between Islam and the Ancient Mysteries. Here, I will to put forth my hypothesis for the historical transformation of the Ancient Mysteries into Islamic scholarship:

  • What Afrocentric, Masonic, and occult sources call the Ancient Mystery Schools represent the primordial religion of mankind from which all religions, major and traditional, are derived.
  • The Mystery Schools were the institutions that resulted from the knowledge brought by prophets (or enlightened individuals) in each epoch. They consisted of a class of people dedicated to preserving and building upon that knowledge.
  • The Mystery Schools had a particular set of objectives, curriculum, and ways of preserving their teachings that made their students and teachers recognizable to one another in various regions across the ancient world.
  • The Mystery Schools had faced decline due to the changes instituted by the Greeks, internal confusion and corruption, the rise of Hellenized Christianity, and later the linking of the Church to the political entity of the Roman Empire, as well as its hostile position to other interpretations (which were expressions of the Mysteries) all served to replace their dominance in the world.
  • Political conflicts, the destruction of the Mystery Schools, and the interruption of knowledge transmission led to religious confusion, forced migration, and factionalism.
  • Some of these migrants and religious factions ended up on the Arabian Peninsula, where they were free to maintain their religious practices and beliefs away from the persecution and conflicts of one of the prevailing empires of the time. Among these religious factions were those known in Islamic sources as the Hanifs, who upheld the teachings of the Ancient Mystery Schools.
  • The pluralism of the Arabian society along with the presence of the Hanifs made it fertile ground for the coming of the Prophet Muhammad to usher in a new age, confirm the truth in people’s practice and beliefs and correct the falsehoods therein, and re-establish the chain of transmission of prophetic knowledge in the world.
  • The disciples of the Prophet Muhammad “opened” many of the areas through conquest that were once hubs of the Ancient Mystery Schools, which allowed for the re-establishment of the schools under the prophetic transmission of Muhammad.
  • Many of the objectives, curricula, and teaching and learning methods coincided with those of the Ancient Mystery Schools.
  • As the Islamic schools developed in different regions, scholars sought out the written works of ancient civilizations and a movement to translate them into Arabic quickly spread. Islamic scholars read, used, and critiqued the works of the ancients and passed their knowledge on to the contemporary world.


Islam and the Ancient Mysteries (Part 1)

Is there a relationship between Islam and the mystery schools of the ancient world? This sounds like a strange comparison for someone who is only familiar with Freemasonry or for someone only familiar with the teachings of Islam. Yet, a close, open-minded reading of Freemasonic texts combined with a strong background in Islamic teachings and history will reveal a number of similarities between what is called the “Ancient Mysteries” and Islam as we know it.

I became aware of this relationship in my high school years when I read a book entitled, Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy, by George G. M. James, originally published in 1954. It stands as one of the pivotal works of African-centered studies of history. The author does not use the word Islam at all throughout the whole book, but he alludes to it in a section entitled, “How the African Continent gave its culture to the Western World,” where he states:

During the Persian, Greek and Roman invasions, large numbers of Egyptians fled not only to the desert and mountain regions, but also to adjacent lands in Africa, Arabia and Asia Minor, where they lived, and secretly developed the teachings which belonged to their mystery system. In the 8th century A.D. the Moors, i.e., natives of Mauritania in North Africa, invaded Spain and took with them, the Egyptian culture which they had preserved. Knowledge in the ancient days was centralized i.e., it belonged to a common parent and system, i.e., the Wisdom Teaching or Mysteries of Egypt, which the Greeks used to call Sophia. (p. 32)

This passage prompted me to study Islam more seriously and to look at it from this historical perspective. Over the years, I would make mental notes of information I came across in the Islamic canon alluding to the idea of the Ancient Mysteries. However, before I can discuss the Islamic sources and my interpretation of them, I must clarify exactly what the Ancient Mysteries are…

What were the Ancient Mysteries?

Also known as the Ancient Mystery Schools, this name is used by Freemasons, esotericists, and privy Afrocentrics to describe the catholic (i.e. universal) religion of the ancient world. More specifically, it refers to the initiatic organization that taught and preserved religious teachings, the physical sciences, legislation, and the liberal arts among other things. James gives a concise description of the Ancient Mystery Schools:

The ancient Egyptians had developed a very complex religious system, called the Mysteries, which was also the first system of salvation. As such, it regarded the human body as a prison house of the soul, which could be liberated from its bodily impediments, through the disciplines of the Arts and Sciences, and advanced from the level of a mortal to that of a God. This was the notion of the summum bonum or greatest good, to which all men must aspire, and it also became the basis of all ethical concepts. The Egyptian Mystery System was also a Secret Order, and membership was gained by initiation and a pledge to secrecy. The teaching was graded and delivered orally to the Neophyte; and under these circumstances of secrecy, the Egyptians developed secret systems of writing and teaching, and forbade their Initiates from writing what they had learnt. (p. 7)

Given my description and James’ statement above you might ask…

How can a universal religion be secret?

First, it should be remembered that these schools were called “mysteries” because the primordial religion of mankind had no name by which it was referred. True adherents to the religion recognized it in others by their moral rectitude, erudition in the arts and sciences, as well as their keen knowledge of the narratives and symbols that were shared between all the religious orders of that time.

Secondly, the notion of mystery and secrecy was used strategically. According to Albert Pike in his book, Morals and Dogma, secrecy was used to excite curiosity and to stir the emotions of those who might witness the passion plays of initiation. Likewise, they saw the spirit of mystery as coming from God Himself, Who reveals Himself to the human heart in a manner that is unspoken (p. 255).

Furthermore, the true interpretations of the symbols, myths, and allegories were maintained by a scholarly/priest class who were not at liberty to share them with people who were not prepared to receive them. This took spiritual purity, which was only gained through the long and painful process of initiation. Only through this process, could other scholars and priests know that an initiate was prepared, strong, and trustworthy enough to uphold the doctrine, teach it accurately, and shield it and himself from corruption.

Exclusivity in the scholarly/priest class maintained the chains of authorities within these schools and thus maintained the purity and accuracy of its doctrines and practices. As James alludes to later in his book, it was the Greeks who learned from the Egyptians who broke this oath and consequently posited incomplete knowledge, which led to inaccuracies and misunderstandings of the original doctrines and practices.


In future posts, I will demonstrate how Islam is tied to the Ancient Mysteries, historically and doctrinally. I will discuss some of the characteristics of the Mysteries, their decline in the ancient world, and their remnants in Arabia prior to Islam. Then I will take a brief look at early Islamic history to ask some important questions that might link the burgeoning Islamic civilization to the Ancient Mysteries as hinted to by James.