Sokoto Caliphate Research Paper

This sample Sokoto Caliphate Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. Free research papers are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality research paper on history topics at affordable price please use custom research paper writing services.

For nearly a century (c. 1808–1903) the Sokoto caliphate in West Africa extended a particular form of Islamic rule across much of the Sudanic region south of the Sahara and north of the West African forest zones. The state continued under British rule with more moderate leaders willing to submit to British authority, but the traditions of political Islam espoused by Sokoto’s founder, Usman dan Fodio, still remain in northern Nigeria.

Formed following a successful jihad proclaimed by Usman dan Fodio (1754–1817) and initially led by his kinsmen, the Sokoto caliphate in West Africa was intended to be a theocratic state unifying Usman’s people, the Fulani, and enforcing their political hegemony over other societies, especially the Hausa states that had previously dominated the region.

Origins of the Jihad

Himself the son of a Fulani teacher, Usman dan Fodio studied with a variety of shaykhs (Arabic: teachers, or shehu in the Hausa language) in the Qur’anic schools of what is now northern Nigeria. As his knowledge grew, so did his reputation among the SufiMuslims who shared his devotion to the Islamic Qadiriya Sufibrotherhood popular in the region. He gradually amassed a following among the local population and attracted numerous students. Continuing to preach, he increasingly contrasted what he saw as the righteous path required of faithful Muslims with the debased religious practices he believed were prevalent among the Muslim Hausa rulers in the region.

As his fame spread and the numbers of his followers grew, the local Hausa ruler of Gobir—a nominal Muslim—made efforts to prevent his further teaching. The situation deteriorated until conflict between Usman’s followers and the state, ostensibly over the enslavement of Muslims, led to war in 1804. At that point, Usman dan Fodio began a series of pronouncements encouraging Muslims throughout the region first to flee (an action analogous to the Prophet Muhammad’s flight to Medina) what he described as persecution, writing a number of religious and political tracts explaining his position and laying out his vision of proper Islamic governance. Eventually elected caliph amongst his Fulani followers, Usman then proclaimed a jihad of the sword against rulers who refused to adhere to what he described as the pure ways of Islam.

Establishment of the State

The warriors who responded managed to vanquish Gobir by 1808 and soon turned their attention to other Huasa states in the region. Many who had grievances against these states and their rulers came to the Usman seeking his approval for their efforts. To those whose cause he perceived as just, Usman gave a flag that announced that they waged their campaigns with his support. Yet he refused to proclaim himself the expected Madhi (a messiah figure) whom many SufiMuslims believed would deliver the faith from its numerous challenges.

As wise in the ways of the world as he was in matters of the faith, Usman dan Fodio recognized that he was skilled neither at war nor the administration of a state. These tasks he delegated to his brother, ‘Abd Allah bin Muhammad, and his second son, Muhammad Bello (1781–1837). They were the leaders who organized further military campaigns and later the decentralized state structure of Sokoto. Each conquered Hausa state was assigned to an emir who ruled under Usman’s authority and in accordance with Islamic law, subject to removal if he deviated from that path. By some estimates, Sokoto was the largest African state anywhere on the continent in the early nineteenth century.

Supporters of Usman dan Fodio continued to plan for further expansion of the state. After his death in 1817, authority passed to Muhammad Bello, who ruled as the sultan of Sokoto, building upon his father’s legacy. Also a literate and respected interpreter of Islamic tradition, his many writings continued the traditions previously established for the state and added to them, making the Sufidedication to the expectation of deliverance by the Mahdi the prevailing orthodoxy of the state.

Internal Problems

During the middle of the nineteenth century, however, Sokoto was beset by many difficulties. Efforts to conquer the state of Bornu to the west were never successful, and Bornu’s ruler objected in a letter to Muhammad Bello that the forces of Sokoto were not only attacking a people committed to reforming the faith but were enslaving Muslims captured there. (Slavery was not forbidden to Muslims and was practiced in many Islamic societies, but enslaving fellow Muslims was generally frowned upon.) Sokoto derived much of its wealth from slavery, both as a supplier of slaves for the slave trade and in its dependence on slave labor on its plantations and for the tending of its cattle. Some of these slaves were certainly Muslims.

These practices troubled some of Sokoto’s religious leaders, but often seemed minor distractions to the goal of maintaining an Islamic state. Political authorities paid greater attention to defeating numerous rebellions on the fringes of the state and also to dealing with dynastic struggles within the Sokoto elite itself and among emirs of its various quasi-independent provinces. These disputes were generally resolved successfully through traditional military means and thus, inadvertently, served to diminish any modernizing tendencies, which in any case were suspect in a conservative, theocratic state.

British Conquest

Although the Sokoto caliphate was among the most dynamic African political entities at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was much less so at the start of the next. In Frederick Lugard (1858–1945), who was appointed high commissioner of the British Protectorate of Northern Nigeria in 1900, Sokoto confronted a challenge it could not easily match. Lugard did not favor a diplomatic settlement that might have avoided war, preferring instead a conquest, which he assumed would be welcomed by the Hausa and poorer Fulani, whom he believed were disgusted by corruption and deviations from Islamic law. But he underestimated the nature and strength of belief even among the common citizenry.

Realizing the British might, even at great cost, defeat one Sokoto emirate after another, the sultan at that time, Attahiru dan Ahmadu (ruled 1902–1903), debated with advisers the best course to follow. But in March 1903 the British forced his hand, defeating his ill-equipped armies at the city of Sokoto itself and effectively bringing an end to the independence of the caliphate. The sultan, however, rallied all who would follow him—and there were many, to the surprise of British officials—in a flight toward Mecca to avoid submission to invaders they considered infidels. British forces tracked their progress and, in July 1903 during what some observers describe as a needless battle, the sultan and almost all who had joined him were killed.

The state continued under British rule with more moderate leaders who were willing to submit to British authority. But the traditions of political Islam espoused by Usman dan Fodio and put into practice during the century of independent rule in Sokoto still remain in the political culture of northern Nigeria. As the influence of British rule diminished late in the twentieth century and as local Islamic traditions reemerged in their place, the impact of a strict observance of Islamic law continued into the twenty-first century.


  1. Clarke, P. B. (1982). West Africa and Islam: A study of religious development from the 8th to the 20th century. London: Edward Arnold.
  2. Crowder, M. (1968). West Africa under colonial rule. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
  3. Fisher, A. G. B., & Fisher, H. (1971). Slavery and Muslim society in Africa. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  4. Hiskett, M. (1984). The development of Islam in West Africa. London: Longman.
  5. Hiskett, M. (1994). The sword of truth: The life and times of Shehu Usuman dan Fodio (2nd ed.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
  6. Last, M. (1967). The Sokoto caliphate. London: Longman.
  7. Levtzion, N., & Pouwels, R. (Eds.). (2000). The history of Islam in Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press.
  8. Lewis, I. M. (Ed.). (1980). Islam in tropical Africa. London: International African Institute.
  9. Shagari, S. U. A. (1978). Uthman dan Fodio: The theory and practice of his leadership. Lagos, Nigeria: Islamic Publications Bureau.

See also:

Free research papers are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom research paper on political science and get your high quality paper at affordable price.


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655