Uthman don Fodio (1755-1816) was a Moslem teacher and theologian. One of the principal reformers of Islam in Hausaland in Northern Nigeria, he founded an Islamic empire at the beginning of the 19th century.
Uthman don Fodio whose complete name was Uthman ibn Muhammad ibn Fudi, was commonly known simply as Shehu, the Hausa word for sheikh. He was born in the Hausa state of Gobir, the son of a pious Fulani member of the Qadiriyya Moslem brotherhood. Uthman and his brother Abdullahi received a thorough education in Islamic theology, Arabic, and Moslem law, and by 1774 he began his career as an itinerant preacher and teacher. During these years Uthman wandered throughout Hausaland, gaining adherents and preaching reform in the practice of Islam. His followers, who were later to form the vanguard of his fighting forces, came from all parts of the central Sudan.
During the last quarter of the 18th century Uthman's ideas and asceticism became famous. He represented the ideal life of the Islamic mystic, dedicated to the teaching of the Koran and undefiled by the material desires that corrupted the world around him. But Uthman was more than a preacher. He was also a social reformer who objected to the non-Islamic practices of the Hausa leaders and continually criticized their rule and questioned the legitimacy of the taxes they imposed on his Fulani (Fulbe) brethren. His teaching and the ever-increasing number of his followers throughout Hausaland caused growing alarm among the Hausa chiefs, especially the Sultan of Gobir, who sought to undermine his influence. In 1804 Uthman and his followers were forced to flee for safety from Gobir, in a manner reminiscent of Mohammed's flight from Mecca, known as the hijra, and proclaimed the jihad, or holy war, against the Sultan and eventually against all the Hausa chiefs.
Uthman's principal role during the years of war that followed was that of a spiritual leader, mediator, and chief source of inspiration for his followers. He was neither a warrior nor a politician but the Commander of the Faithful (Sarkin Musulmi), and he left the practical affairs of the jihad to his brother Abdullahi and his son Muhammadu Bello, who commanded Uthman's army.
One by one the Hausa states of Gobir, Kebbi, Zamfara, Kano, Katsina, and Zazzau capitulated to the Fulani and were emulated by pagan areas on the periphery of the Hausa states. All were organized into emirates by the Fulani, but the establishment of political power was for the purpose of implementing the social, legal, and religious ideals of Islam as interpreted by Uthman. Many of these ideals were, of course, compromised by the realities of the jihad and the increasing Fulani orientation that accompanied the establishment of the emirates, but Uthman's teaching continued to provide the ideological justification for Fulani control until after his death.
The importance of Uthman don Fodio in 19th-and 20th-century West Africa cannot be restricted to Hausaland, for the resurgence and reform of Islam which he had accomplished spread throughout West Africa. The expansion of Islam into Yorubaland, the conquest of Ilorin, and the destruction of Oyo inaugurated 70 years of civil war in southwest Nigeria which ultimately drew the British into the interior of Nigeria in the late 19th century. Similarly, the pressure of his forces on the moribund state of Bornu east of Lake Chad contributed to its rebirth under el-Kanemi and his successors.
In the west Uthman's concept of the jihad was employed by al-Hajj Omar to build the Tokolor empire, which, before its destruction by the French, came to include a large part of the western Sudan between the Niger headwaters in the Futa Jallon and Timbuktu. All of these movements were precipitated by the life and teachings of a small, pious man whose unworldly piety remained uncorrupted by his victories or the material success of his followers. His character, his achievements, and his impact on West Africa have made him one of the most important men in the history of Africa.
Extensive information on Uthman don Fodio is in H. A. S. Johnston, The Fulani Empire of Sokoto (1967), and in Murray Last, The Sokoto Caliphate (1967). Michael Crowder, The Story of Nigeria (1962; rev. ed. 1966), contains a chapter on Uthman. For general background see J. Spencer Trimingham, A History of Islam in West Africa (1962), and S. J. Hogben and A. H. M. Kirk-Greene, The Emirates of Northern Nigeria: A Preliminary Survey of Their Historical Traditions (1966), a revision of Hogben's Mohammadan Emirates of Nigeria (1930).