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Islam And Colonialism: Intellectual Responses of Muslims of Northern Nigeria to British Colonial Rule

  • Book Title:
 Islam And Colonialism
  • Book Author:
Muhammad S. Umar
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In 1804, the reformist Islamic scholar Shaykh ‘Uthinan b. Fodiye led a jihad that transformed the Hausa states into what has come to be called the Sokoto Caliphate, the largest Islamic polity in West Africa during the nineteenth-century. 1 On January 1, 1900, the British proclaimed most of the territories of this Islamic polity to be the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria, with Colonel Frederick Lugard as the High Commissioner.

While his campaigns for the conquest of Sokoto were in progress, Colonel Lugard wrote to the Sultan of Sokoto, Abdurrahman cfan Atifcu, to explain British intentions. Sultan Ati.Ru responded in these words: “I do not consent that any one of you should ever dwell with us. Between us and you there are no dealings except as between Muslims and unbelievers: war as Almighty enjoined on us.

There is no power or strength save in God on High.”2 Despite this, the British defeated Sokoto forces at the bat­tle of Burmi in 1903, and took effective control of the territories of the Sokoto Caliphate. As Muslims found themselves under alien non­Muslim rule against which armed resistance had proved ineffective, they had to devise other ways of dealing with their subordinate posi­tion under British colonial rule. How did Muslims conceptualize, interpret, rationalize, or otherwise negotiate everyday Muslim life under the non-Islamic political supremacy of British colonialism?

What Islamic ideas did Muslims invoke to comprehend and respond to the changes initiated by the British? How do Muslims’ responses to British colonialism in Northern Nigeria compare to responses to colonialism in other parts of the Muslim world?

In addressing these principal questions, this study examines mul­tiple Muslim responses to colonialism from the start of tolonial rule in 1903 to introduction of electoral politics in 1945, a development that marked the beginning of decolonization and the rise of Muslims to political leadership. This period affords an opportunity for exam ining responses to colonialism when Northern Nigerian Muslims were most constrained by the clear supremacy of colonial rule. Additionally, the special focus on Muslims dealing with their subordinate position to the British is better appreciated as a research problematic in his­torical perspective.

Sultan Atifu’s Islamic opposition to British colo­nialism is better understood by recalling that he was the head of the Sokoto Caliphate that was purposely established as an Islamic polity.3 In the global context of Islamic history, Marshall Hodgson observes that one · of the bases of Islamic community was the mission of the community to bring God’s way into all the world; hence the rule [original italics] of the Muslim community should be extended over ali infidels.”4

Since imposition of British colonial rule reversed Muslims’ ideological expectation to occupy the high moral ground, an exam­ination of Muslims’ intellectual responses to colonialism will there­fore shed light on how Northern Nigerian Muslims reconceptualized the ideological bases of Muslims’ relations with non-Muslims. An awareness of this ideological revision contributes an important his­torical background to understanding the difficult and sometime confrontational relationship between Muslims and Christians ın contemporary Nigeria and the problem of religious pluralism ın general.

Furthermore, this study fills a major gap in the literature on British colonialism and Islam in Northern Nigeria, where only few studies specifically focus on the interface between the challenges of colo­nialism and Muslims’ responses. An early attempt is Adeleye’s exam­ination of the arguments by the Wazir of Sokoto, Muhammadu · Buhari, to justify in Islamic law his role in leading the surrender of Sokoto to the British.5 Adeleye holds that “suspicion and resistance to imposition of European rule had been a tradition in the [Sokoto] Caliphate since its inception.”

He analyzes the Islamic doctrine of taqiyya (dissimulation) in Buhari’s argument for the surrender to the British, and concludes that Buhari’s treatise demonstrates “not only the vehemence of the Caliphate’s resistance but also its essentially Islamic character.”6 In two separate recent studies, Abu-Manga and Bello supplement Adeleye’s early attempts through analysis of hijra as the Islamic idea that informed arguments in favor of avoiding, rather than surrendering to the British.7

In addition to this specifıc focus on Muslim responses to the challenges of British military con­quest, this study covers the larger framework of Islamic discourses on colonial policies on political, legal, and educational issues as well.

Similarly, the present study builds upon some of the interesting conclusions of Ibrahim Tahir’s study on the roles of Muslim schol­ars in what he terms the “patterns o_f bourgeois revolution” in Kano, following the imposition of British colonialism.8 Tahir contends that the “colonial conquest [of Kano] and the developments and reac­tions it stimulated” provided the catalyst for “a bourgeois revolu­tion,” and that “the most critical econornic development was pioneered by local dominant economic classes and Islamic values.”

He stresses how Sufi revivalism in Kano disavowed asceticism, and instead, pro­vided “a pool of strategies for the motivation of individuals, and for control and distribution of goods, services, and social honor and pres­tige.” Tahir concludes that Muslim scholars provided divinatory and ritual services that proved crucial in “maintaining merchant class competitiveness and their eventual confrontation with and replace­ment of foreign economic dominance.”9 Clearly, Tahir’s. focus is not on Muslim intellectual responses to colonialism, but on the processes of economic development in Kano under coloriial rule.

His insight­ful conclusions on the importance of Islamic values in thpse eco­nomic processes are, however, helpful towards understanding Muslims’ intellectual responses to the British colonialism that was actively involved in the economy of Kano.

Other studies on British colonialism in Northern Nigeria are not centrally concemed with Islam, though not ignoring it altogether.

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