Why “The Sokoto Caliphate” is still relevant today, By Murray Last

Why "The Sokoto Caliphate" is still relevant today, By Murray Last

The Sokoto caliphate started in 1804 as a scholarly settlement of some 70 men – Sufis or students, and a few slaves. A century later (1903), the Sokoto caliphate had become the largest polity in precolonial Africa – four months’ journey west to east and two months’ north to south, spanning about 1000 miles from Dori in modern Burkina to Tibati in Cameroon, and 400 miles from Agades in modern Niger to beyond Ilorin in the south. 

The history of the extraordinary rise of this caliphate is still being researched and written, but studies of how it was administered and by whom are much more rare.  My book, The Sokoto Caliphate, is unusual as it tries both to chronicle in some detail the Caliphate’s development and to give an account of a key office at the centre of the Caliphate: the office of Vizier, or Waziri.

As a full-time student in the History Dept. of University College Ibadan, I was supervised by Prof. H. F. C. Smith who suggested to me the idea of studying the Viziers of Sokoto; and it was the then Vizier, Waziri Junaidu who, for a whole long year, very kindly gave me a room to live in, food to eat each night, and a small study-room within his house, where I sat on the floor reading the 300 Arabic manuscripts and the 600 official letters in Arabic that were kept in his family library. 

There, too, I was greeted each 3.00 pm by a small boy passing by – that boy is the current Wazirin Sakkwato. Alhaji Junaidu patiently answered all my questions after 5pm almost every afternoon in a zaure where other students and visitors came to see him; he put up with both my bad Hausa and my stammer (iina). Being a real scholar, he would sometimes respond “I do not know”.  

Hence the book is dedicated to him – in a way it is his book. The then Sarkin Musulumi, Abubakar III, personally gave permission for me to put the seal, used in the 1820s by his ancestor, Amir al-mu’minin Muhammad Bello, on the cover of the book. For the book’s focus is primarily on Sokoto, and not on the vastly wider sphere governed from Sokoto.

The book’s title, The Sokoto Caliphate, requires a brief explanation. Until 1964 this Africa’s largest pre-colonial state was known (in English) as the Fulani Empire, and in French as l’empire peul. It was seen as an ‘empire’ since from 1808 to 1903 it had governed almost the entire eastern half of savanna west Africa. 

In Hausa, the local lingua franca, it had sometimes been known as the daular ‘Uthmaniyya (the ‘Uthmani state) – but that could confuse readers who might think the world-famous Ottoman state, the original daular ‘uthmaniyya, was being referred to. 

The decision to re-label the historical state whose capital was at Sokoto was partly intellectual, partly political: intellectual, because we needed a properly Islamic term for a properly Islamic state (and a term that could be justified both on textual evidence and on a technical legal rationale); political, because the newly autonomous regional government of Northern Nigeria, under the leadership of Sir Ahmadu Bello, needed an ethnicity-free model on which to base its new political, pluralist morality of “work and worship”.

The re-labelling was not in any way official. Prof. H.F.C. Smith in the History Department, first at University College Ibadan and then at the new Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, liked sometimes to use the term ‘caliphate’ when teaching the histories, first, of the Shaikh ‘Uthman ibn Fudi, the leader of the jihad and first Imam of his community [1804-1817] and then of his son and heir Muhammad Bello who was the new state’s first Amir al-mu’minin or commander-in-chief (1817-1837). 

It was Murray Last, then newly graduated from the University of Ibadan (with his doctorate presented him in 1964 by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, then President of Nigeria) who chose “The Sokoto Caliphate” as the title of his history of the pre-colonial state (and its office of the Vizier). Prof. Smith as his supervisor for the PhD preferred “The Caliphate of Sokoto”, but reasons of euphony prevailed – and from then on, the term Sokoto Caliphate became universally used. 

Some scholars have contested the rationales for the new label, but to no avail. Today, the Hausa version is Daular Sakkwato, it is used in all kinds of contexts including vehicle number-plates. I have explained here the origin of the name, partly just to put on record how such historical labels can come into being, but mainly to emphasise the distaste we all had then (in the anti-imperialist late 1950s and early 1960s) for tribalism and such terms as ‘empire’; neither Smith nor I were Nigerian citizens, nor even Muslims then, though as researchers we were taught by local Nigerian scholars and intellectuals, such as the Vizier of Sokoto, Alhaji Junaidu, whose command of the Arabic manuscripts recording local history was truly profound. In a way, we were their self-appointed mouthpieces vis-à-vis the wider English-speaking world.

So this book is a product of the heady, exciting years of early Nigerian independence. Though the first edition is dated 1967, the text published is exactly the wording approved by my doctoral examiners in September 1964; the thesis abstract was printed on the inside front cover of the book, and the report by the external examiner Thomas Hodgkin was put on the back. All the genealogies in the thesis were put in a pocket at the end of the book. The photos are those I had taken in Sokoto at the time (ca. 1963-4), with my second-hand camera.

Today, readers may wonder why certain elements are not in the book. For example, there is no systematic account of slavery. The reason for this may seem naïve now, but none of us then wanted to focus negatively on the dark side of local history: the writing of African History was in those years a new discipline and we preferred a positive focus, both on the often-remarkable achievements in running a very large state, and on the very impressive literary output, in prose and in verse, of the many Sokoto scholars (both men and women). 

Everyone, whether a historian or the Vizier, was well aware that slaves and concubines existed in the 19th century: but there was nothing especially exotic about them that required immediately re-focusing our studies onto the issue of slavery within African societies. Similarly, the economic dimension of the Sokoto Caliphate was neglected, in part due to the paucity of statistical data for the 19th century. In early 1960s Nigeria, politics and government were the topics we students in University College Ibadan were most interested – and most actively engaged – in. 

So The Sokoto Caliphate is offered again to the Nigerian public as being in itself a historical document reflecting the first years of Nigeria’s independence. In those years there were still elderly men and women, whether Fulbe pastoralists, Hausa peasants or elite malamai, who could remember the pre-colonial days they witnessed as children. And they were willing to speak to me about those days. It was a privilege that I am still deeply grateful for, some sixty years on.

 Foreword to the Nigerian edition of The Sokoto Caliphate. Murray Last is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology, University College London. His PhD in 1964 in History was the first to be awarded by a Nigerian university (University College Ibadan), and his previous degrees are from Cambridge (1959) and Yale (1961). He specialises in both the pre-colonial history of Muslim northern Nigeria and the ethnography of illness and healing. He has been working in or on northern Nigeria since 1961, researching a wide variety of subjects especially with colleagues in Bayero University, Kano (where he was Professor of History 1978–80). He visits Nigeria every year for a month at least. He has been a ‘traditional’ Muslim student in Zaria City and lived for two years in a non-Muslim Hausa farmstead.


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