Jihad Leader and Empire Builder in 19th Century West Africa

By Baruti Muhammadu D.S. Kamau


From 1985 to 1988, I was enthusiastically preoccupied with researching the social, economic and political ills in 18th and 19th century West Africa which resulted in what is known as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. This particular slave trade originated in the late 15th century and reached its zenith during the mid to late 1700s. What really impelled me to pursue this endeavor was my personal interest in learning how did the social, economic and political environment of diverse West African states contribute directly to the enslavement of our forefathers (18th & 19th centuries). Previous to my research, I had heard and listened to various sentiments, opinions, myths and lies explaining how and why our forefathers were enslaved. Most of these baseless explanations did not capture my attention except for an elaboration conveyed to me by my great great grandmother in 1987 explaining how her grandparents were forced into slavery. When my great great grandmother dramatically expounded that her grandparents were forced into slavery during a war between two Black armies in a country called "Gwandu," I knew there was something much greater than a ban of crooks raiding a village to force the inhabitants into servitude. It prevailed upon me, at that moment, that White men did not have control over Black people as much as the propagandist history books would like for one to think. After that enlightening conversation with my great great grandmother, I pondered: "It is true that Black men forced other Black men into bondage and subsequently sold them to the Europeans and Arabs. This is consistent with the fact that it was impossible for a ship load of Europeans and a caravan of Arabs to purchase Black men, women and children without the permission of a Black ruler or tyrant". Once absorbing this profound revelation, I concluded that the only way I could learn the details of the politics that created the slave trade in Africa I would have to study the most historically significant popular movements in West Africa during the 17th and 18th century. This would grant myself a better and more accurate picture to what really happened. Thus, I started to read the pre-colonial history of Nigeria, Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Gambia and Niger. While reading these various histories certain names of national and popular heroes started to appear frequently. One such name was al-Hajj Umar bin Sa'id al-Futi. Umar Futi's accomplishments during his life were immense. He was a great Muslim preacher. He traveled throughout West, Central, East and North Africa. He spent three years studying in Mecca and Medinah; became supreme leader of the Tijaniyyah Sufi Brotherhood; initiated a political and religious movement to establish Islamic law as a political reality. And ultimately became ruler of a vast Islamic empire that stretched from Senegal to the southern part of the Republic of Niger.

Umar Futi was born in a Futa Toro village called "Halwar" in Senegal, 1794. He was of the Fulani tribe. His father, Eliman Sa'idu, was a learned Muslim teacher, who could read and write in the Arabic language. Umar's mother, Adama Ayse Caam, was regarded as being a very religious woman who read the entire Qur'an in Arabic to her children four times a year. It is said that when Umar was born, he would not take milk from his mother, Adama, until sunset. When Umar was ten years old, his father (Sa'idu) asked him about what did he want to accomplish when he had grown up. Umar responded: "I want to make the Hajj, memorize the Qur'an, and obtain the position of wilayah (sainthood)." Umar received his education through the traditional Islamic custom: going to those who know. He first learned how to read and memorize the Qur'an under the tutelage of his father. After completion of this enormous task, he received instruction in Arabic grammar from a certain Lamin Sakho, reported to be Umar's brother-in-law. In addition, he studied various fields of Islamic law and other sciences under scholars in Senegal and Mauritania. At this time Umar was in his mid-twenties with his eye set on the East. He desired to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and visit the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in Medinah. During that time in order for one to make the journey to Mecca from any country in West Africa, it required a considerable amount of energy, time and material resources. And one had to be willing to separate from his family for years due to the long journey by horseback and camel over land. Umar, his wife, brother and country men formed a caravan in 1826 and departed for Mecca. Their arrival in Mecca was 1828. While visiting the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in Medinah, he met a certain Arab scholar named Sidi Muhammad al-Ghali, who became Umar's spiritual master. In Medinah, Umar wrote a long political poem in Arabic explaining the responsibility of the Muslim to enjoin the right and prohibit the wrong. This was probably the time when Umar began to seriously contemplate the social, political and economic realities of West Africa. By 1831, Umar's last year in the holy cities of Mecca and Medinah, he was confident in his divine mission to spread Islam throughout West Africa.

SOKOTO & BORNU 1832 TO 1837

In 1832, Umar and his following arrived in Bornu, the kingdom of Muhammad al-Kanemi. In Bornu, Umar saw political opportunity to build his following by condemning the corrupt actions of the local power elite. He writes: "You should know that the command to enjoin the right and forbid the wrong is the basic foundation of Islam. It is the reason for sending the prophets to mankind. Should its application be discontinued, and its function neglected, calamity would befall all of life, ignorance, and deviation would be rampant. Thus the whole world and the peoples therein would be ruined and virtually destroyed. The proper understanding and true application of this principle is weakened, and its name is forgotten. Thus people's minds are preoccupied with subtle and obscurantist arguments. Observation of Allah's law has disappeared, and instead, people flock like animals in pursuit of their material desires. It has become very rare to find a sincere believer whose faith in Allah is strong enough to endure threat or to resist temptation in the way of Allah. He who under these circumstances tries to fulfill this duty, will definitely be honored as having revived the sunnah of the Prophet, which most people at this time try to destroy...You should know that the command to enjoin the right and forbid the wrong is an obligation in Islam, its abandonment is condemned and punishable." Umar continues his excoriation of the Bornu power elite by writing: "May Allah curse those people who are entrusted with authority but who do nothing to promote good or eliminate evil within the society they govern and among the people who live under their authority...No one should be blamed for corrupting religion except the kings and venal 'ulama, who have sold their consciences for trifling immediate worldly gains." By condemning the power elite and presenting himself as a reformer, Umar was able to capture the minds of the oppressed classes. He was successful in converting non-Muslim tribes living under the authority of Bornu to Islam. And what is so impressive about Umar's movement was his hatred for the slave trade. Umar writes: "No one can be more ignorant and arrogant than the sinful and criminal people who legalized enslavement of free people by an act of legal opinion...To sell Muslim slaves to the Europeans or to others is totally prohibited...but despite such prohibition, people who pretend to be knowledgeable, let alone the ignorant are still competing in this hated transaction...worse still we do not see any one condemning it, nor is there any one from among the 'Ulama (Muslim scholars) or the Amirs (Muslim kings) trying to put an end to this illegal practice. They act as if it were no longer obligatory upon them to do so." The local power elite could not rule unjustly while Umar's claim to justice existed. So they sent men out to assassinate him. As a means of avoiding further conflict, Umar and his growing following left Bornu for Sokoto in 1832. Umar's arrival in Sokoto by late 1832 had marked a new episode and dynamism in his movement. Muhammad Bello, the talented, energetic and able son of Usman Dan Fodiyo was the undisputed ruler of the empire. He had taken a particular liking to Umar and gave generous support to his movement. With this new relationship, the aggression of Umar's political ambition was manifested. This is noticed in his 1835 Arabic treatise "al-maqasid al-saniyyah" where he wrote: " reformer can succeed in conveying his message properly, without first gaining the confidence, love and sympathy of his people. Thus a messenger must be flexible, persuasive, and ready to compromise...a reformer must know how to use diplomatic means to persuade his people, otherwise his activities may cause a crisis more disastrous than the problem he tried to solve." Umar's political ambition is also noticed on the death of Muhammad Bello, October 25, 1837. During this period Umar challenged Abu Bakr 'Atiqu, the brother of Muhammad Bello, over the succession rights of the throne. Umar unsuccessfully argued that Muhammad Bello had appointed him to the throne on his death. 'Atiqu successfully contended that Muhammad Bello had no right to give the highest office away. Subsequently, 'Atiqu asked Umar to leave Sokoto to prevent bloodshed.


Umar departed from Sokoto as a rich man with a huge following, four wives and ten children. On his way home to Senegal, he took advantage of the opportunity to preach the Islamic message of worshipping only God to the non-muslim tribes he had encountered along the way. In Segu, situated in present day Mali, Umar was imprisoned by a pagan king named Tiefolo for preaching Islam to his subjects. After a brief term in confinement, Umar was released at the behest of the pagan king's daughter. Umar avowed to avenge the persecution when his followers informed him that Tiefolo had tricked, enslaved and sold some of his following to European traders during his imprisonment.

Late in 1840, Umar arrived at home at age of 46. The Muslim elite in his home town had heard alot about Umar since his long journey to Mecca some 13 years previous. They were afraid and insecure with his large following. They also knew that with Umar's new titles, knowledge, experience and prestige it would be difficult to keep him out of local politics. Umar recognized their insecurity and explained to them that his friend Imam Bubakar had given him and his following refuge in Jegunko (present day Guinea-Conakry). Between 1840 and 1847, Umar devoted himself to developing his community and emphasizing the need to revive Islam in its purest form. Al-Hajj Umar believed himself to have been divinely appointed to revive the purity of Islam.

He believed he was chosen by God to destroy the trade in Muslim slaves. Umar writes: "One night, while in Mecca, I was reading a certain seerah, which contained an excellent description of the Arabs in the days of ignorance, before the appearance of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). I was struck by the similarity which existed between them and the Fulani. Like the Fulani, they spoke one language, and believed in Allah; but were divided into petty clans, almost always at war, and were given up to idolatry. The idea flashed upon me, that I should follow the way of Prophet Muhammad in West Africa, to unite the Fulani into a righteous Islamic nation, and restore the purity of Islam." By 1850, Umar's political emphasis on Muslim rulers to put an abrupt end to enslaving their subjects was unbearable for Imam Bubakar. Unexpectedly, a simple diplomatic mission to Umar's village turned into a slave raid. This act by Bubakar's men increase the hostilities between the two camps. Consequently, Umar and his following emigrated to a place known as Dingiray, outside of Bubakar's authority, to establish an autonomous state governed by Islamic law. Umar writes: "Be it known to every sensible man in every epoch of human history that those who involve themselves in worldly affairs such as the unbelieving dogs, treacherous kings, and the corrupt scholars are subject to humiliation and disappointment in this world and in the hereafter; they will be imprisoned in the bottom of hell fire together with Satan, their own master." After his move to Dingiray, Umar focused on building his army. By 1850 his small Islamic state posed a military threat to a nearby pagan king, named Yemba. In 1852, Yemba decided to attack Umar's state. Ironically, Umar and his people did not retaliate immediately. Umar writes: "When attacked there was no explicit permission from God for us to fight against the pagans; the only permission I received from the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was to guide the people on the right path by peaceful means. Then, after the attack, I was instructed to wage holy war against the pagans...this permission was communicated to me through a divine voice, which said to me, 'You are now permitted to conduct the lesser jihad' and repeated it three times." Umar's army crushed the pagan force and compelled their king, Yemba, to commit suicide. Above all, Umar succeeded in converting Yemba's subjects to Islam. The failure of Yemba to subdue Umar's small Islamic state at Dingiray encouraged Umar to take the offensive against those who sympathized with his enemies. Due to Umar's charisma and ability to rally Muslims from different tribes to support his call to overthrow all corrupt Muslim rulers he was able to gradually build his state into an empire in a 12 year period. His cavalry's skill in shooting from horseback gave his army the winning advantage on open terrain. After Umar's defeat of the great pagan dynasties of Bambuk, Bundu, Farabanna, Khasso and Segu, Umar paved the way for Islam to spread throughout the West African savannah. Im Umar's book, Rimah Hizb al-Rahim, he writes: "The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) appeared in a vision to one of my companions and said, 'I delegate you to your teacher, Umar. Tell him that I salute him, and that he should summon the creatures of God to Islam.'" After passing the administration of his empire to his sons in 1863/1864, Umar died of natural causes during his fourth pilgrimage to Mecca. Historically, al-Hajj Umar Futi is credited with fighting against the slave trade, establishing Islam as a political reality in the West African Savannah, warning the next generation of European encroachment and the promotion of the Tijaniyyah Sufi Brotherhood (an Islamic spiritual and mystical order). Umar's movement also inspired several other short lived Muslim kingdoms along coastal areas of West Africa such as Samory Toure's example.

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