In discussing the role of religion in African and other non-Western societies, it is important to recognize that the conception of religion as having a distinct ‘role’ derives from Europe’s secularizing experience of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Prior to that time, Christian doctrine permeated European scholarship to an extent that made impossible the discrete identification of one or several ‘roles’ for religion in European society. With the rise of humanism, European scholars began to see religion as a human institution amenable to critical study on a level with other human institutions, such as literature, philosophy and history. As a way of treating post-Enlightenment European and other Western societies, then, a humanistic approach to ‘the role of religion’ poses relatively few problems. However, when dealing with other societies, Western scholars (including non-Westerners writing in a Western academic tradition) need to keep in mind that their practice of construing religion as a distinct social institution will not necessarily coincide with the values of the people in the societies they are studying.
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An awareness of the European secular-humanist heritage of the notion of religion’s ‘role’ does not imply, of course, abandoning Western scholarly principles in which religion is seen to interact with other social institutions. Indeed, in many Islamic societies, which have had extensive contact with European culture through the experiences of colonialism and their integration into a Western-dominated global economy, a persistent and growing tension exists between ‘fundamentalist’ forces who seek to assert the primacy and all-pervasive character of religion in society and ‘modernizers’ who seek to integrate their traditions (including Islamic ones) with Western notions of a secular society. (As I will discuss below, this distinction, along with the terminology used to define it, is itself problematical.) An informed approach to the history and culture of such societies, then, requires recognizing the highly controversial nature of the question of the ‘role of religion’ both within those societies, and, especially, in the context of Western scholarship about them.
In this essay on Jihad I consider various scholarly treatments of the role of religion in the history of Hausaland, particularly in the Sokoto jihad led by Shehu (Sheikh) Usman ‘dan Fodio in the early nineteenth century. The jihad constitutes a decisive moment in Hausa history in that it marks the confrontation between different forms of Islamic practice. A historical assessment of these opposing viewpoints needs to go beyond looking at religion simply as an institution which can be manipulated for political ends, and should look instead at the ways different historical actors were motivated by beliefs that were inherently both political and religious.
In this regard, an approach such as M. Schoffeleers’ (1972) historical account of the political role of the M’Bona cult among the Mang’anja offers limited help. While Schoffeleers points to numerous aspects of the cult’s place in Mang’anja political struggles which have parallels in the social and political history of Islam in Hausaland, his emphasis on the ways Mang’anja used the cult neglects aspects of M’Bona religious practice that are not merely evidence of its political ‘role’ or ‘uses’. Schoffeleers’ approach thus risks favoring a cynical, utilitarian attitude toward religion over one which acknowledges the genuine (which is not to say apolitical), spiritual attachment that people have towards their religious beliefs. Thus, the political specificity of Schoffeleers’ approach, which mirrors the treatment of religion as a political tool in D. Owusu-Ansah’s (1987) account of Asante rulers’ employment of Muslims in nineteenth-century Kumase, needs to be tempered by a sensitivity towards people’s religious convictions such as B. Ogot (1972) displays in his work on Padhola.
An example of such an integrated approach to the subject of religion and politics is P. Clarke’s (1982) discussion of the Sokoto jihad, in which he notes the important role of mysticism in Shehu Usman ‘dan Fodio’s life: Usman believed that God spoke directly to him using the Prophet Muhammad as His mouthpiece. Usman was influenced in his beliefs by the writings of the fifteenth-century Algerian Muslim scholar al-Maghili, who had spent a considerable amount of time in Hausaland. Many of al-Maghili’s religious teachings were implicitly political: that a ruler who imposed unjust taxes must be considered an unbeliever; that God would send a reformer in every century; and that jihad against those who mix Islamic with un-Islamic religious practices ‘is better and more meritorious than Holy War against unbelievers’ (cited in Clarke 1982:101).
It is these Islamic principles which motivated Usman to call for a jihad against the Hausa dynasties, which he saw as both religiously and politically corrupt. M. Hiskett (1973:8) notes the religious complaints which the jihadists had against the traditional rulers:
The kinds of things [the Fulani Muslims] objected to were idolatrous rites of animism … failure to observe the Islamic food prohibitions and prohibited degrees of marriage; the survival of inheritance through the female line in defiance of Islamic law prescribing inheritance through the male line… Another of his accusations was that people who claimed to be Muslims made their own rules concerning private and public behavior instead of referring to the learned scholars for an authoritative ruling. (cited in Coles and Mack 1991:7-8)
The jihad, then, pitted Usman and his followers as fundamentalists, in the late twentieth-century sense of the term, against the syncretism of the traditional ruling classes and their subjects. My use here of the term fundamentalist in opposition to traditional contravenes the contemporary dichotomy mentioned above, namely that of ‘fundamentalist’ Islamic reformers vs. ‘modernizers’. V. Bernal (1991) has noted the inaccuracy of this Western-imposed opposition in describing the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in a traditional village in Sudan; she proposes that, for the villagers she has worked with, fundamentalism is not opposed to modernity, but rather, that fundamentalism represents modernity, and therefore constitutes a break from tradition. This claim also applies to the Sokoto jihad, in that the reforms advocated by Usman, despite their origins in the teachings of a visiting North African Muslim scholar over three centuries earlier, had never been implemented in Hausaland, and therefore could not be considered traditional in a locally meaningful sense.
At this point, I must revise earlier comments I have made (Gaudio 1991 [!]) in which I say, ‘Usman and his followers … justified the Fulani drive for political control as a "holy war"’ even as I remind readers ‘to keep in mind that Usman framed his political rhetoric in religious, never ethnic terms.’ These comments imply that Usman’s jihad was motivated primarily by a lust for power, and that Fulani ethnic identity was implicitly crucial in his militant ideology. However, it is important to recognize that, while the jihad was without doubt a power struggle, the type of power at stake was not simply political, with religious factors subordinated to the drive for political control; rather, religious concerns of a political nature appear to have motivated Usman’s struggle from the start. In addition, the facts that (1) during the struggle and after victory Usman never polemicized on the basis of ethnicity (which would have utterly contravened Islamic principles of supranationalism), and (2) that he and the Caliphate administration employed Hausa and Arabic at least as often as Fulfulde (the Fulani language), suggest that, while ethnicity certainly played a role in the jihad, such a role was in combination with other equally, if not more important factors, such as religious fervor or socioeconomic oppression.
Important evidence for the religious nature of Usman’s cause lies in his pronouncements on social issues, such as the status of women in Hausa society. Numerous scholars, including Muslim Hausa women, have noted Usman’s progressive Islamic stance on the issues of women’s education. B. Yusuf (1991:92), for example, cites Usman as saying:
Oh Muslim women, do not listen to the words of the misguided ones who seek to lead you astray by ordering you to obey your husband instead of telling you to obey Allah and his messenger. They tell you a woman’s happiness lies in obeying her husband. This is no more than a camouflage to make you satisfy their needs. They impose on you duties which neither Allah nor his messenger impose on you. They make you cook, wash clothes and do other things which they desire while they fail to teach you what Allah and his apostle have prescribed for you.
Yusuf, along with B. Sule and P. Starratt (1991), also points out that Usman educated his wives and daughters, and defended women’s right to attend public preaching and instruction with men, provided they dressed modestly and sat apart. Some of his daughters became noted Islamic scholars in their own right, and ‘[t]he women of the jihad community organized teams … which travelled in caravans to bring Islamic knowledge to women in rural areas; their successors exist in the region today’ (Sule and Starratt 1991:36) It is hard to attribute these religious positions on the part of Usman to cynical motives for political gain, insofar as Hausa women at the time of the jihad had very little to offer in terms of organizing effective support for or resistance against any political movement.
Acknowledging a fundamentally, though not exclusively, religious character of the jihad refutes the position put forth by M. G. Smith (1969a) that political structure constitutes the sole determining element in the historical emergence or transformation of social relationships. With particular regard to the political role of Islam, Smith (1969a:37) has noted: where devout Muslims constitute the dominant minority, as in many parts of traditional India, Northern Nigeria, and the Niger Bend at various historical periods, the result is a theocratic plural society in which religion provides the basic legitimation and principle of corporate cleavage, irrespective of other shared institutions, such as kinship or economy. (emphasis added)
For Smith, religion serves to legitimate political structures, which are theoretically preeminent; he does not allow that religion may inform political structures, or that religious and political principles may be mutually reinforcing. In this sense, the fact that Asante rulers in Kumase were hesitant to grant too much political power to Muslims may reflect not simply the rulers’ political anxieties, but also the fact that as protectors (and the embodiment?) of Asante religion, the rulers felt it was their duty to limit the religious infiltration of their society. In fact, Owusu-Ansah (1972:90) notes in his conclusion that the Kumase rulers’ occasional mistrust of the Muslims prevented not only the Muslims’ attainment of political power, but ‘ultimately affected the spread of Islam in Asante’.
In arguing for recognition of the religious aspects of the Sokoto jihad as essential and non derivative, I do not wish to imply that the jihad did not incorporate elements that were distinctly nonreligious. Particularly once they had achieved victory and set about establishing themselves politically as the Sokoto Caliphate, the religious nature of the jihad appears to have diminished, and the jihadists used religion as a source of political legitimacy in the way Smith discusses. For example, Clarke (1982:116-123) notes that in Kano, infighting over the spoils of victory among various Fulani clans and others who had fought in the jihad resulted in the division of the emirate and the establishment of a separate dynasty in the new emirate of Kazaure. Clarke also describes how the Caliphate used religious principles to justify extending the jihad into the neighboring Kanuri kingdom of Borno — not because of un-Islamic practices within the kingdom, but because it had assisted anti-jihad forces in Hausaland. This recalls Schoffeleers’ (1972:91) discussion of the way in which the M’Bona cult was used by the Mang’anja as a tool of external politics to consolidate conquests and integrate conquered peoples. Finally, Clarke notes that the Caliphate continued many of the un-Islamic practices that it had condemned in the deposed Hausa rulers, such as the imposition of oppressive taxes on land and cattle (see also Smith 1969b:109).
The Sokoto jihad clearly had motivations and achievements of various kinds: religious, political and social (among others). Though scholars writing in a Western tradition may make clear distinctions between these historical forces, they need to recognize the ethnocentric dangers that lie in attempts to impose secular-humanist definitions on non-Western, nonsecular societies, particularly those, such as nineteenth-century Hausaland, that had virtually no contact with the European Enlightenment. It is important to recognize that for many Hausa Muslims, both at the time and today, the achievements of the jihad were primarily religious, which, in an Islamic sense, implies their social and political nature as well. Where the jihad seems to have departed from, or even contradicted, its own Islamic ideology, many Muslims would see these as religious failings, while Westerners may be inclined to see them as evidence of a political exploitation of religion in the first place. Undoubtedly, many of the participants in the jihad had personal motivations of a nonreligious sort, and may have hypocritically employed Islamic rhetoric to further their aims. Shehu Usman ‘dan Fodio himself surely exhibited pronounced contradictions as a philosopher, preacher and activist, but these do not prove him ultimately a hypocrite or a cynic. Moreover, the responsibility of scholars lies not simply in exposing the alleged gaps between others’ words and deeds, but in critiquing the categories according to which we are accustomed to viewing the world, and examining the ways these may or may not apply to ideas and events in other times and places.
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