The Arabic Literary Tradition of Nigeria

John Hunwick


The history of writing in Arabic extends over a period close to 800 years in the Nigerian region.1 The first known writer in Arabic was a grammarian and poet of Kanem, Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Kanemi, who died c. 1212 (see ALA 2: 17-19); at the present time scholars are still using Arabic as the chosen language of their doctrinal polemics, their Islamic teaching manuals, and the poetry they so frequently write in praise of the Prophet and in praise of Sufi leaders or to elegize departed friends, colleagues, or patrons. Indeed, in the second half of the twentieth century, usage of Arabic as a literary language and as a general language of written communication has become more widespread, even as literacy in English or in certain African languages has increased. Muslim scholars have in some cases modernized their teaching methods and facilities and produced generations of students who have gone on to found their own schools; the teaching of Arabic in primary and secondary schools in Muslim majority areas has become commonplace, while several of Nigeria's universities offer undergraduate degrees and doctorates in Arabic Studies. Considerable encouragement has been given to this process by certain Arab countries--notably Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia--that have sent Arabic teachers to Nigeria and have offered scholarships to Nigerians to study Arabic (and many other subjects) in the countries concerned. This survey will be chiefly concerned with the tradition of Arabic scholarship and the production of Arabic literature (in the broadest sense of that term) that is situated within that scholarly tradition, both as it evolved in the precolonial period and as it has developed and changed in the twentieth century.

The earliest centers of Arabic-Islamic teaching to emerge were Gazargamu, the capital of the mais of Bornu from the 1480s, Katsina and Kano, in both of which Wangara (Dyula) merchants and teachers from Mali settled from the mid-fifteenth century (if not before), and Anu Samman, a small town in Niger some 40 km northwest of Agades. Kanem-Bornu was undoubtedly the earliest region where a teaching and scholarly tradition developed. One of the earliest trans-Saharan trade routes led down from Tripoli through the Fezzan to the state of Kanem just north of Lake Chad and the earliest Islamic and Arabic influences entered the greater Nigerian region by this path.

Bornu, originally a province of Kanem, became the principal territory of the dominant branch of the Saifawa dynasty in the late fourteenth century, and when a new capital was established at Gazargamu, the mais attracted scholars to settle there. Originally some of these may have been from the Fezzan, but by the late sixteenth century we have evidence of the establishment of a local scholarly tradition in the historical writings of the Chief Imam Ahmad b. Fartuwa (fl. 1575). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, several of the notable scholars were Fulanis whose ancestors had probably arrived in Bornu and Bagirmi migrating from Mali in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. Some of them were mobile beyond the confines of Bornu, visiting the Fezzan, Tagidda, Timbuktu, and Katsina. Jurisprudence (fiqh), theology (tawhid), and Arabic language were the principal fields of both study and composition, though there was considerable literary activity in the poetry of eulogy, elegy, satire, and pietism. There were also centers of Islamic teaching outside of Gazargamu--the scholarly and Sufi communities (malemtis) such as Kalumfardo--but these seem to have produced no writings that have survived.2 The long Bornu tradition of learning and its important school of calligraphy, though eclipsed by Sokoto in the nineteenth century, remains vital today, as is evident in the scholarly activities of a man like Shaykh Ibrahim Salih (b. 1939), the Tijani leader and historian, and the still flourishing production of hand-written copies of the Quran.

Both Kano and Katsina attracted scholars from North Africa and from older Islamic centers such as Walata and Timbuktu in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Both cities were major commercial emporiums whose dynasties had adopted Islam relatively recently, and for both reasons scholars found them attractive places of residence. Kano did not establish itself as a major center of scholarly writing until the blossoming of the Tijaniyya there in the twentieth century, its best-known author before that being the immigrant Fulani scholar 'Abd Allah Suka (fl. 1660), whose long poem on Islamic praxis and piety, 'Atiyyat al-mu'ti, is still reproduced and studied. Even in the twentieth century many of Kano's best-known scholars have been immigrants to the city or are descended from immigrants: Muhammad Salga (d. 1939), the earliest of the great Tijani teachers, was of Bornu (Beriberi) origin, as were his disciples Abu Bakr Mijinjawa (d. 1946), Ahmad al-Tijani b.'Uthman (d. 1970), and Sani Kafanga (d. 1989), while 'Umar Falke (d. 1962) was of Tuareg descent from Aïr, and an ancestor of Abu Bakr Atiku (d. 1974) had come from Katsina. The great Qadiri leader of Kano, Nasiru Kabara (b. 1916), author of some 150 works in Arabic, descends from immigrants who came from Kabara near Timbuktu.

In the seventeenth century, Katsina too benefited from the immigration of scholars from Bornu, such as Muhammad Masanih (d. 1667) and Muhammad al-Wali (fl. 1688), while another of the great scholars of the period, Muhammad b. al-Sabbagh (called 'Dan Marina, fl. 1640) probably had Arab ancestry. Like Kano, Katsina was visited by the North African scholar Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Karim al-Maghili (d. 1504) and also by Aida Ahmad al-Tazakhti (from Tizakht near Walata, d. 1529-30), who became qadi of Katsina, and Makhluf al-Balbali (d. after 1534), a scholar of the northern Sahara oasis of Tabalbala. Both of these left a small body of writings. The subjects on which the Katsina scholars wrote were similar to those of their colleagues in Bornu, perhaps not surprising given the close connections between the two areas. In Katsina there was also interest in esoteric knowledge. Muhammad b. Muhammad al-Fullani (d. 1742), who spent years in Mecca and died in Egypt, was a famed exponent of numerology and letter-magic, whose books are still being published in the Muslim world.3

A real revolution in Arabic-Islamic writing took place in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century, associated with the reformist Fulani scholars Shaykh 'Uthman b. Muhammad Fodiye (or Fodio, d. 1817), his brother 'Abd Allah (d. 1826), and his son Muhammad Bello (d. 1837). Between them they produced over 300 works in prose and verse as well as dozens of occasional poems. In addition to writing in Arabic, Shaykh 'Uthman also wrote poetry in Fulfulde, some of which was translated into Hausa by his son 'Isa. His daughter Asma' was also a poet in both Arabic and Fulfulde. His wazir, Gidado dan Laima, was also a talented Arabist and writer, as were his various successors (all descendants of his) down to the present wazir, Junayd b. Muhammad al-Bukhari (d. 1997, author of numerous works of history and a diwan of poetry.4 The reformist triumvirate, who founded a large state based on Sokoto, wrote in most of the Islamic disciplines: fiqh (jurisprudence), tawhid (theology), tasawwuf (Sufism), tafsir (Quranic exegesis), hadith (Prophetic traditions), lugha (Arabic language), adab (manners), wa'z (paraenesis), tibb (medicine), and ta'rikh (history), often, in fact, writing works that crossed these disciplinary boundaries. Two other generations of writers can be discerned in and around Sokoto in the nineteenth century--the first epitomized by the philosopher, Sufi and historian 'Abd al-Qadir b. al-Mustafa (d. 1864), a grandson of Shaykh 'Uthman through his mother, and the second by another Fulani scholar belonging to a different branch of Shaykh 'Uthman's clan, 'Uthman by Ishaq al-'Athur (d. 1885/86), a writer on Arabic grammar and jurisprudence and author of a collection of poems on the Sokoto triumvirate and their successors. In the twentieth century, however, Sokoto has produced few Arabic authors of note, with the exception of the wazirs.

Other centers grew up in the late nineteenth and during the twentieth century. Zaria emerged as a teaching center with an important school led by 'Umar al-Wali and his descendants. Teaching institutions were established in Bauchi and Bida as well as at Lokoja on the confluence of the Niger and Benue. Each of these has produced a number of minor scholar-authors. Scholars of Nupe origin have tended to move on to bigger centers, either northwards to Zaria or Kano, or southwards to Ilorin, a city established as the most southerly emirate of the Sokoto Caliphate in the 1830s.

In the twentieth century, Ilorin emerged as one of the major centers of Islamic teaching in Nigeria, providing an effective bridge between the centers of Hausaland and Bornu on the one hand, and new centers in Yorubaland such as Ibadan, Ijebu-Ode, and Lagos on the other. Two Ilorin scholars have been especially active in promoting Arabic and Islamic education, not only within the city but more widely in southwestern Nigeria. Muhammad Jum'a Alabi, known as Taj al-Adab (d. 1923), founded a number of so-called Adabiyya schools and his pupils have carried on the tradition. Kamal al-Din Muhammad Tukur (b. 1907) founded Ansar al-Islam, and his Azhar College of Ilorin provides higher education in Arabic combined with some offerings in "secular" subjects. The outstanding Ilorin scholar, however, and perhaps the greatest that Nigeria has produced in the twentieth century, was Shaykh Adam 'Abd Allah al-Iluri (d. 1993), who established himself at Agege on the outskirts of Lagos in the 1940s. He founded an Arabic college there, and later started a printing press. Through his voluminous writings on a wide variety of topics (including history) and the many graduates of his college, he made a considerable contribution to Arabic-Islamic education in Nigeria. An Arabist by training and inclination, he was nevertheless cognizant of English-language scholarship in certain domains and was not shy to engage with it. The same is true of Shaykh Ibrahim Salih of Maiduguri. He is one of Nigeria's leading scholars and is chairman of the Fatwa Committee of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs. His voluminous scholarly corpus includes several works of history,5 as well as scholarly treatises on Tijani Sufism and a biographical guide to Tijani scholars to whom he claims affiliation through his lines of mystical and scholarly discipleship, reminiscent of the celebrated Fihris al- faharis of the Moroccan scholar 'Abd al-Hayy al-Kattani.6

One other modern scholar deserves mention here for the innovative methods he used to preach his strict interpretation of the Islamic message. Shaykh Abu Bakr Gumi (d. 1992) came from Gumi in Sokoto province, but spent much of his career in Kaduna, first as deputy Grand Kadi and from 1962 until 1967 as Grand Kadi (qadi 'l-qudat) of the Northern Region of Nigeria. He wrote the first complete exegesis of the Quran to come out of Nigeria since the Diya al-ta'wil of 'Abd Allah b. Muhmmad Fodiye (1815)--a work entitled Radd al-adhhan ila ma'ani 'l Qur'an, which was published in Beirut in 1979 at the same time as his Hausa translation of the Quran. Seven years earlier he had published al-'Aqida al-sahiha bi-muwafaqat al-shari'a, in which he launched attacks on Sufism and its practitioners that set off a chain reaction of rebuttals and counter-rebuttals in Arabic books published in the Arab world for distribution in Nigeria. In promoting his views he made extensive use of the broadcast media in Hausa and magazine and newspaper interviews in both Hausa and English.7

Hausa, as noted above, was used as a literary language as early as the first years of the nineteenth century (and perhaps a little before). There is evidence of written Kanembu in Quranic glosses in the early eighteenth century, and Fulfulde may have been used even earlier.8 In the twentieth century not only has there been a growing literature of all kinds in Hausa (increasingly written in the Latin script--boko--rather than the Arabic script--'ajami) but works originally written in Arabic by Nigerian scholars and others have been translated into Hausa. Shaykh Gumi was responsible for some of these which appeared in bilingual versions from the government-run Gaskiya Publishing House in Zaria, which has published similar translations by others, and books wholly in Arabic.

The present trend toward printing directly from the author's draft stands in sharp contrast to the older tradition of hand copying and recopying, though this tradition is not yet completely dead. Before the 1920s, when the Kano Native Authority (Emir's) press was set up, all locally written works had been copied by scholars, aspiring students or professional scribes working within calligraphic traditions that stem from North Africa and Andalusia. In Bornu a hand that originated in Kufic hands of Ifriqiyya (roughly modern Tunisia) was the formal calligraphy for copies of the Quran, and the art of Quranic codex was one in which the Bornuans excelled. It was also the hand of Bornu court scribes, at least in the nineteenth century. On the other side of Nigeria, Sokoto hands of the early nineteenth century (a style Bivar has dubbed "jihadi") appear related to sixteenth-century Timbuktu hands and in turn to Moroccan and Andalusian calligraphic styles (see Bivar).

Both of these styles, and many that combine elements of the two, can be found represented in any collection of manuscripts of Nigerian origin. They can also be found in local book-style productions that I have dubbed "market editions." These local productions form a half-way house between the manuscript tradition and printing proper. They consist of reproductions (lithographic, photographic, xerographic, etc.) Of manuscript copies penned especially for the purpose and often carefully checked, which are then reproduced in multiple copies, enclosed in a cover of colored paper bearing the title(s) of the edition (and, if the sponsor is the author, often also a photograph of the author), the whole then being stapled together along the spine and sold in the marketplace. The production of these market editions is sometimes undertaken by a professional printer (e.g., the Oluseyi Press or the Northern Maktabat Press in Kano, or the Gaskiya Press in Zaria), while others seem to be more amateur productions without any acknowledgment of publishing responsibility.

The Native Authority Press, Kano was the earliest Arabic printing press in Nigeria, but others followed. By the late 1940s there was an Arabic printing press in Abeokuta and soon one followed in Ibadan (Shukr Allah Press), and later Shaykh Adam al-Illuri's press at his Arabic Teaching Centre (Markaz al-Ta'lim al-'Arabi) in Agege. At the present time, most, if not all, of the Arabic works written in Nigeria are directly published in one form or another. Writers take or send their manuscripts to publishers in Cairo or Beirut. In Cairo the popular presses have been those of al-Halabi, the press of al-Mashhad al-Husayni, and, for the Tijanis, the press of the Tijani zawiya. In Beirut the publishing houses most patronized have been Dar al-'Arabiyya and Dar al- Fikr.

Arabic scholarly and literary writing in Nigeria falls into a number of broad categories: research and teaching, polemical, devotional, and "secular." What may be called "research and teaching," or "academic" prose, consists mainly of works of commentary and explication, treatments (often in verse) of disciplines or subdisciplines, and works that span several disciplines. Works in this category belong mainly to the disciplines of jurisprudence, Quranic exegesis, the sciences of the Arabic language (morphology, syntax, stylistics, lexicography, prosody), and biography.9 The jurisprudential literature generally deals with specific areas or problems (masa'il), ritual purity (tahara), worship (salat), inheritance (mirath), and sales being the most common. However, an early scholar, al-Najib b. Muhammad of Anu Samman (d. after 1596), wrote two complete commentaries on the Mukhtasar of Khalil b. Ishaq,10 while 'Abd Allah b. Muhammad Fodiye wrote an Alfiyya (treatise in a thousand lines of verse) on the principles of jurisprudence. Topical problems are also discussed. In the seventeenth century, the lawfulness of tobacco was the subject of two treatises by Sulayman al-Wali al-Kashinawi (fl. 1688); in the mid-twentieth century, the lawfulness of broadcasting recitation of the Quran was the subject of an exchange of views between the Senegalese Tijani leader Ibrahim Niasse of Kaolack (d. 1975) and the Emir of Zaria Ja'far (reg. 1937-59). Quranic exegesis rarely covers the whole of the Quran, but tends to deal with short suras, such as the Fatiha or Surat al-ikhlas, the exception being 'Abd Allah b. Muhammad Fodiye's Diya' al-ta'wil and Abu Bakr Gumi's Radd al-adh'han. 'Abd Allah b. Muhammad Fodiye also wrote two substantial works on the sciences of the Quran, al-Miftah li'l- tafsir and al-Fara'id al-jalila.11 This same author also wrote two larger verse works on Arabic grammar, al-Bahr al-muhit (unpublished), a versification of the Jam' al-jawami' of Taj al-Din al- Subki and al-Hisn al-rasin12; in a similar vein are al-Durar al-lawami' of al-Tahir b. Ibrahim al- Barnawi (d. after 1745) and Murwi al-sadi, a verse treatment of the Lamiyyat al-af 'al of Iban Malik written in 1734 by a certain Muhammad b. Salih.13

Turning now to biography, Muhammad Bello's Infaq al-maysur contains biographical material on scholars before the nineteenth century and material on the author's father, Shaykh 'Uthman, though the bulk of it is a history of the state-building jihad movement in which Bello, his father, and his brother, 'Abd Allah, were all major participants.14 Bello also wrote a large biographical/hagiographical work on four Sufi saints, Miftah al-sadad, and one on pious Muslim women, al-Nasiha al-wadi'a.15 Post-jihad writers in the next two or three generations also wrote works of biography on the jihad leaders and their successors, and that tradition has been continued in the twentieth century by the late wazir of Sokoto, Junayd. In the twentieth century, Tijani writers have written pious biographies of other Tijanis, both individually and collectively. Prominent among such works are al-Fayd al-hami'of Abu Bakr 'Atiq of Kano (d. 1974) and the massive Kitab al-istidhkar of Ibrahim Salih of Maiduguri, which constitutes the richest source of Sufi and scholarly biography for the region to date.16

Works that fall into the teaching category embrace both those aimed at the advanced student--including the fellow scholar--and those aimed at the beginner. Early on, textbooks were written which have remained

in use down to recent times: Mazjarat al-fityan, a homilectic poem by Ibn al-Sabbagh of Katsina; al-Kawkab al-durri, a versification by Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Rahman al-Barnawi (d. 1755) of al-Akhdari's work on religious duties and his Shurb al-zulal on the lawful and unlawful (al-halal wa'l-haram); Sullam al-tullab on Arabic grammar by Sulayman al-Wali al-Kashinawi (fl. 1730) and his al-Manhaj al-farid fi ma'rifat 'ilm al-tawhid.

The writers of the jihad naturally produced a great many works that are of a didactic nature, and frequently ones that are subtly or not so subtly apologetic. Shaykh 'Uthman's writing goes from simple introductions to subjects, such as his Usul al-din or 'Ulum al-mu'amala,17 to erudite treatises such as the exposition of the obligation of performing hijra away from the land of the unbelievers and establishing an Islamic state contained in his Bayan wujub al-hijra'ala 'l-'ibad,18 or his major works on observance of the Prophetic Sunna, Bayan al-bida' al-shaytaniyya and Ihya' al-sunna.19 His brother 'Abd Allah also wrote manuals of government such as Diya' al- hukkam20 and Diya' al-siyasat,21 while Muhammad Bello penned no fewer than three epistles of administrative advice to the Emir of Bauchi Ya'qub.22

The Islamic teaching tradition is a strong one in Nigeria and the need for texts for students was always great. Importing manuscript copies from North Africa or Egypt was expensive, though sometimes scholars would make copies while on the pilgrimage route. The less expensive option was generally to copy them locally, even though paper carried across the Sahara was not cheap. Evidently responding to local needs, teachers then made summaries of certain of these imported texts, or worked material from several texts into a new work; they also versified some of them using the didactic meter (al-rajaz), or made their own verse treatments of certain subjects to facilitate rote learning. These versifications were sometimes amplified in commentaries by later generations.

While a not inconsiderable portion of the literature produced by the jihad leaders was polemical--not the least the literature accusing the Hausa leaders of sliding into "unbelief"--the most virulent polemical literature has been produced in the twentieth century, either among Sufis or between Sufis and their opponents. First, there was the dispute among Kano Tijani scholars over funeral rites and the holding of memorial gatherings, which began in the 1930s and continued into the 1950s. Then in the 1950s and 1960s, the Tijani practice of clasping the hands one over the other across the lower chest during worship (a position called qabd) roused the ire of Qadiris (and others) who considered it contrary to the Sunna.23

Much of the Tijani literature in Nigeria is concerned with defending the doctrines of the tariqa, its founder Shaykh Ahmad al-Tijani, and its chief West African exponent, Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, against accusations of unorthodoxy, first made by the Qadiris and later (since the 1970s) by those espousing the austere Sunnism of the Wahhabis.24 Defence of Sufi leaders also takes the form of extravagant praise for them, and Nigerian Tijani literature contains many poems in praise of such leaders. Literature extolling the Qadiriyya and its founding saint, 'Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, has been a feature of Nigerian writing since the days of Shaykh 'Uthman and Muhammad Bello, both of whom wrote in this vein. In the modern period the field has been left almost exclusively to Shaykh Nasiru Kabara of Kano who has written more than a hundred works on aspects of the tariqa's history and practices, including many long mystical poems, some of which are included in his anthology called Subuhat al-anwar. Nasiru Kabara also played a role in the Qadiri-Tijani dispute over the position of the arms in prayer, and in a parallel dispute over whether one could quit one tariqa for another. When Abu Bakr Gumi launched his general attack on tariqas, Nasiru Kabara led the Sufi response with his Qam 'al-fasad, while Tijanis such as Shaykh Sharif Ibrahim Salih added powerful voices in support.

A not inconsiderable portion of the Arabic writings of Nigeria falls under the broad heading of devotional and pietistic literature. First, there was a constant emphasis on proper observation of Islamic commands and prohibitions--"the commanding of good and the forbidding of evil" (al-amr bi'l-ma'ruf wa'l-nahy 'an al-munkar)--and the scrupulous emulation of the Prophet through his sunna. The way to salvation was considered to be through right conduct, both in ritual and social acts, as well as in moral conduct--avoidance of lying, backbiting, hypocrisy, and jealousy, and practice of such virtues as generosity, forbearance, humility, asceticism, etc. Such themes can be found in pietist literature in almost every time and place, and are most frequently given expression through verse compositions. Thus, in Nigeria Muhammad Mudi al-Fullani of Katsina (fl. 1772) wrote 210 verses on the avoidance of moral vices with the title Sarf al-'inan 'an tariq al-niran; Asma' daughter of Shaykh 'Uthman (d. 1864) wrote Tanbih al-ghafilin, a verse work on acts leading to salvation; 'Abd Allah b. Muhammad Fodiye wrote Sabil al-najat, and nearly a century later Muhammad Jum'a Alabi wrote his poem Subul al-najat in imitation of it. 'Abd Allah also wrote several works on asceticism in prose, among them Matiyyat al-zad ila'l-ma'ad, as did Muhammad Bello whose Jala' al-samam on "spiritual sicknesses" and Jala' al-sudur on the transitoriness of the world may be taken as typical examples of the genre.

Another avenue for expressing personal piety, while creating a work of a devotional nature for the community, was the writing of poems in praise of the Prophet and the "treatment" of some of the classic works of this genre. Poems extolling the Prophet's virtues and reminding Muslims of the model he provides for them, such as the 'Ishriniyyat of al-Fazazi, or the Burda of al-Busiri, or the more "secular" praises of Ka'b b. Zuhayr's celebrated lamiyya "Banat Su'ad" are studied, recited, and imitated.25 They are also elaborated in the takhmis form (rendering in pentastiches) and commented upon. In the same category we may include poems in praise of Ahmad al-Tijani, both in Arabic and Hausa, as well as praises of other Sufi figures. Indeed, there is a rich parallel pietistic literature in verse both in Hausa and Fulfulde that is as yet little studied (but see Hiskett).

The last category is what I have termed "secular" writing, not because it is in any sense neutral towards the discourse of religion, but because the disciplines treated in this literature do not belong to the religious sciences of Islam. The disciplines concerned are the cognitive sciences, logic, and history. In the sciences, while there has been a little writing on mathematical calculation, especially as it relates to the horology ('ilm al-mawaqit), and a few works of astronomy or astrology,26 there has been more interest in, and knowledge about, medicine. The earliest work in this category is a small work on the treatment of hemorrhoids by al-Tahir b. Ibrahim al-Fallati of Bornu (fl. 1745), a medical problem also discussed by Muhammad Bello, who wrote as well on the treatment of intestinal worms and on the use of senna as a purgative.27 He also wrote a treatise on diseases of the eye, Masugh al-lujayn, and two works on Prophetic medicine (al-tibb al-nabawi), in which field al-Hasan, another son of Shaykh 'Uthman, as well as a grandson, 'Umar b. Muhammad al-Bukhari (d. c. 1883), and a great-grandson, Hayat al-Din b. Sa'id (d. 1898), also wrote (on these scholars, see ALA 2: 152, 157, 181).

If we disregard--as I think we must--claims for the pre-sixteenth-century drafting of anonymous chronicles such as the "Kano Chronicle,"28 the earliest example of such work dates to the 1570s when the Chief Imam Ahmad b. Furtuwa wrote chronicles of the first twelve years of the reign of his patron Mai Idris Aloma of Bornu (reg. c. 1564-94) and of his campaigns in Kanem, though he claims that the inspiration for this latter work was a chronicle about the Kanem campaign of Mai Idris Katakamarbe (reg. c. 1497-1519).29 Battle victories were also celebrated by 'Abd Allah b. Muhammad Fodiye in his Tazyin al-waraqat, written in 1813, using the vehicle of his occasional poems to create a framework for his account of the jihad.30 His nephew Muhammad Bello, under the guise of a general history of "Takrur," gave a detailed account of the jihad in his Infaq al-maysur fi ta'rikh bilad al-Takrur (1812), while Bello's own nephew, 'Abd al-Qadir, wrote a short history that traced briefly earlier kingdoms of the regions, chronicled eighteenth-century Gobir, and gave annals of the jihad down to 1824.31 During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many accounts were written of the jihad and of the reigns of the successive rulers of the Sokoto Caliphate, the fullest being the Dabt al-multaqatat of the wazir Junayd which has been translated into Hausa under the title Tarihin Fulani [History of the Fulani].32 Local histories have also been written. Kano has been especially lucky, but Katsina, Bida, Kontagora, Bauchi, Ilorin, and Ibadan have all had their chroniclers, while Adam 'Abd Allah al-Iluri wrote both a history of the Yoruba and a history of Nigeria.33

In addition to these various types of writing in Arabic--academic or devotional, secular or pietistic--a special word must be said about the craft of poetry in Nigeria, a craft which embraces the didactic, the pietistic, the devotional and the occasional, even to some extent the personal. Almost every author included in volume 2 of Arabic Literature of Africa wrote some verse, though not always of the literary genre that would be recognized as "poetry." Much of it is nazm rather than sh'i r. Allusion has been made to various works in poetic form in the foregoing discussion of Arabic literature in Nigeria, and it is worth recalling that writing in verse was considered the hallmark of the accomplished scholar. Nigerian Arabic poets such as 'Abd Allah b. Muhammad Fodiye, Muhammad Bello, the wazir Junayd b. Muhammad al-Bukhari, 'Umar b. Ibrahim of Zaria, Nasiru Kabara, 'Isa Alabi of Ilorin (b. 1953), and countless others wrote poems not simply to impart knowledge or to imbue their audience with feelings of piety and devotion, but also to elegize and eulogize, to celebrate victories, to satirize enemies, to criticize their societies, to record joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain. Often highly stylized, deeply stamped with the metaphors and clichés of Arabic models of former ages, these poetic outpourings sometimes manage to rise above the merely imitative or artificial to become genuine expressions of feeling, and vital cultural barometers of their age and locale.34

It would be unwise to attempt lofty generalizations about the Nigerian tradition of Arabic writing, especially since relatively little of it has yet been examined critically.35 Nevertheless, some brief observations--harking back to some of the remarks at the beginning of this essay--are in order. The use of Arabic as a literary and scholarly language has a historical depth of over five centuries and shows no sign of diminishing. The ratio of Muslims to non-Muslims in Nigeria continues to increase and hence education in Arabic and Arabic writing skills are likely to expand. While the old genres of Islamic writing (fiqh, tawhid, hadith, tasawwuf, etc.) will not disappear, there is likely to be more writing that is discursive in nature rather than bound to texts of the past. Increasingly, new themes reflecting contemporary problems will be broached. Already in the last years of his life Adam 'Abd Allah al-Iluri was writing on such subjects as "Islam and the Challenges of the Fifteenth Century of the Hijra" (al-Islam wa-tahaddiyyat al-qarn al-hadi wa'l-'ishrin al-miladi al-khamis 'ashar al-hijri, Agege, 1990) and "Human Rights in Divine Dispensations and in the Laws of the Age" (Huquq al-insan bayn adyan al-sama' wa-qawanin al-zaman, Agege, 1987). Members of the younger generation of Nigerian Arabic writers have often spent many years studying in Arabic-speaking countries and have acquired new perspectives on Islamic culture and on the way in which Arabs use their language. They encounter Arabic as a living language rather than as the language of the schoolroom, as was the case with the majority of Nigerians of earlier generations. Furthermore, many of those educated through the medium of Arabic have also been exposed to "Western" education through the medium of English. While Nigerian Muslims will undoubtedly continue to use Arabic for most types of Islamic writing and some secular writing, they may also choose to express themselves on religious matters--as they have done in the past--in their mother tongues, especially in Hausa and Yoruba, while some are already writing books in English, especially when trying to reach a broader audience. Future research on Arabic literature in Nigeria will have to take account of these cross-currents, just as those who study Nigeria's English-language literary production will have to be cognizant of the other linguistic and literary currents at work, most especially the Arabic and Islamic currents.

This essay is a revised version of the introductory overview I wrote to Arabic Literature of Africa, volume 2: The Writings of Central Sudanic Africa (Leiden: Brill, 1995), referred to throughout this essay as ALA 2. I am grateful to the publisher for giving permission to use the material.


1. By the Nigerian region I mean primarily the area that comprises the present republic of Nigeria, but also including southern Niger and western Chad--in short, the area otherwise known as the Central Bilad al-Sudan.

2. On the early history of Islamic scholarship in Bornu, see Bobboyi.

3. E.g., his al-Durr al-manzun wa khulasat al-sirr al-maktum fi 'ilm al-talasim wa 'l-nujum, published in Bombay, 1885, and Cairo, 1961.

4. For examples of his verse, see my article "The Arabic Qasida."

5. E.g., his history of Kanem-Bornu and the role of the Arabs of the region, Ta'rikh al-Islam wa-hayat al-'arab fi imbaraturiyyat Kanim-Barnu.

6 . K. al-istidhkar li-ma li--'ulama' Kanim-Barnu min al-akhbar wa 'l-athar, currently in press in Cairo.

7 . For an exposition of his views, see his autobiography as dictated to Ismaila A. Tsiga, Where I Stand.

8 . The evidence for Kanembu comes from a copy of the Quran, completed in 1669, with glosses in that language for which Bivar has proposed a date of c. 1700 (see "A Dated Kuran"). The evidence for Fulfulde comes from a work by Muhammad al-Wali b. Sulayman al-Fullani (fl. 1688), whose al-Manhaj al-farid is an Arabic version of some Fulfulde commentaries on the Sughra of al-Sanusi, a work on the Islamic creed.

9. While biography might seem to fall under the heading of "secular" writing, most of such writing concerns religious scholars--teachers, Sufi shaykhs and men of piety (sulaha'). It has thus both a religious and--since it involves research--a scientific character.

10. The Mukhtasar of the Egyptian jurisprudent Khalil b. Ishaq al-Jundi (d. 1374), is an epitome of Islamic law according to the Maliki school, and is regarded as the most authoritative legal manual by the North and West African Muslims.

11. Al-Miftah li'l--tafsir has only been published in a market edition in Sokoto (n.d.).

12. Published in Beirut, 1983, and in several local editions in Nigeria.

13. For a broader picture of writing about the Arabic language, see my "Arabic Language and Muslim Society."

14. The Infaq al-maysur was published uncritically by C. E. J. Whitting (London, 1951). A similarly uncritical edition was privately printed in Cairo, 1964, with a preface by Abu Bakr Gumi. There is now a critical edition by Bahija al-Shadhili, Rabat, 1996.

15. Miftah al-sadad remains unpublished. The Nasiha was translated into both Fulfulde and Hausa by Muhammad Bello's sister Asma'.

16. The work remains as yet unpublished.

17. Both translated in al-Turjumana.

18. Ed. and trans. F. H. Elmasri, Khartoum: Khartoum UP; Oxford: Oxford UP, 1978.

19. Bayan al-bida' al-shaytaniyya was published in Zaria, 1961, and in undated editions in Kano and Beirut. Ihya' al-sunna was published in Cairo, 1962.

20. Published twice in undated editions in Cairo, once in Zaria (text only), 1956, and once in Hausa translation, 1964.

21. Ed. Ahmad Kani, Cairo, 1987, and 'Umar 'Abd Allah, Kano, 1988.

22. One of these, al-Ghayth al-shu'bub, was translated in Ismail and Aliyu; another, al-Ghayth al-wabl fi sirat al-imam al-'adl, was edited and translated by Omar Bello in his PhD thesis, "The Political Thought of Muhammad Bello (1781-1837) as Revealed in His Arabic Writings, More Especially His al-Ghayth al-wabl fi sirat al-imam al-'adl."

23. In fact, it is the practice of all the Sunni law schools except the Malikis, who let the arms hang by the side (sadl).

24. The principal opposition has come from Shaykh Abu Bakr Gumi and those who belong to the so-called Izala movement (Izalat al-bida' wa-iqamat al-sunna--"Eradication of Innovation and Revival of the Sunna").

25. 'Abd al-Rahman b. Yakhlaftan al-Fazazi, an Andalusian panegyrist of the Prophet, d. 1230; Sharaf al-Din Muhammad b. Sa'id al-Busiri, an Egyptian panegyrist of the Prophet, d. 1296; Ka'b b. Zuhayr, a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad who first satirized him and then sought his forgiveness in a celebrated qasida in the "pre-Islamic" mode.

26. E.g., Muhammad b. Abi Bakr al-Barnawi (fl. 1795) wrote a poem on the Islamic and European calendars; 'Abd Allah b. Muhammad Fodiye wrote

Dir' al-kay'a, on cosmology and meterology; Muhammad Bello wrote on a comet that appeared in 1825 (see Ogunbiyi); rather different are the various poems by the Zaria scholar 'Umar b. Ibrahim (b. 1922) in praise of Darwin, the astronomer Edward Halley, and the astronaut Neil Armstrong, and his long verse work on the telescope.

27. Respectively: al-Qawl al-manthur fi bayan adwiyat al-basur, Tanbih al-ikhwan 'ala adwiyat al-didan, and al-Qawl al-sanna' fi wujuh al-talyin wa 'l-tamashshi bi 'l-sina', see ALA 2: 135, 140, 136.

28. See my article "A Historical Whodunit," though written king-lists may go back that far.

29. J. W. Redhouse translated both of these chronicles in J. Royal Asiatic Soc., ser. 1, 19 (1862): 43-123, 199-259; the chronicle of the first twelve years of Idris Aloma's reign was published by H. R. Palmer (Lagos, 1926), and more recently by D. Lange, A Sudanic Chronicle.

30. The full title of the work is Tazyin al-waraqat bi-jam' bad ma li min al-abyat. It has been edited and translated by M. Hiskett (Ibadan: Ibadan UP, 1963).

31. For Muhammad Bello's Infaq al-maysur see note 14 above. An English paraphrase ("parody"?) of it was published by E. J. Arnett. 'Abd al-Qadir's so-called Rawdat al-afkar was translated perfunctorily by H. R. Palmer.

32. Published in Zaria by Gaskiya Press, 1957. On the tradition of anonymous local chronicles, see ALA 2, ch. 13.

33. See P. de Moraes Farias. Al-Iluri's history of Nigeria was published in Arabic in Beirut in 1965. He also wrote two works on Islam and Muslim scholars in Yorubaland, (1) Lamahat al-ballur, Cairo, 1982, and (2) Nasim al-saba fi akhbar al-Islam wa-'ulama' bilad Yuruba , 2nd. ed., Cairo, 1987.

34. See further the contribution of Razaq D. Abubakre and Stefan Reichmuth in this volume, "Arabic Writing between Global and Local Culture: Scholars and Poets in Yorubaland (Southwestern Nigeria)."

35. Note, however, two broad studies by Nigerian scholars: 'Ali Abu Bakr, al-Thaqafa al-'arabiyya fi Nayjiriya min 1750 ila 1960 (Beirut: n.p., 1972), and S. A. Galadanci, Harakat al-lugha al-'arabiyya wa-adabiha fi Nayjiriya min sanat 1804 ila sanat 1966 (Cairo: Dar al- Macarif, 1982, repr. 1995). An indication of the scope of work done on Arabic literature in Nigerian universities can be gained from the bibliography in ALA 2: 596-637. See also Mahmud.


'Abd Allah b. Muhammad Fodiye. Diya' al-ta'wil. 1815. 2 vol. Cairo, 1961.

Abu Bakr, 'Ali. Al-Thaqafa al-'arabiyya fi Nayjiriya min 1750 ila 1960. Beirut: n.p., 1972.

al-Turjumana, Aisha. A Handbook on Islam. Norwich: Diwan, 1978.

Bello, Omar. "The Political Thought of Muhammad Bello (1781-1837) as Revealed in His Arabic Writings, More Especially His al-Ghayth al-wabl fi sirat al-imam al-'adl." PhD thesis. U of London, 1983.

Bobboyi, Hamidu. "The 'Ulama' of Borno: A Study of the Relations between Scholars and the State under the Sayfawa, 1470-1808." PhD diss. Northwestern U, 1992.

Boyd, Jean. The Caliph's Sister, Nana Asma'u, 1793-1865, Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader. London: Frank Cass, 1989.

Bivar, A. D. H. "A Dated Kuran from Bornu." Nigeria Magazine 65 (1960): 199-205.

___. "The Arabic Calligraphy of Nigeria." African Language Review 7 (1968): 3-15.

___ and M. Hiskett. "The Arabic Literature of Nigeria to 1804: A Provisional Account." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 25 (1962): 104-48.

Brenner, Louis. Réflexions sur le savoir islamique en Afrique de l'ouest. Bordeaux: Centre d'étude d'Afrique noire, 1985.

Farias, P. F. de Moraes. "Yoruba Origins Revisited by Muslims: An Interview with the Arokin of Oyo and a Reading of the Asl qaba'il Yuruba of al-Hajj Adam al-Iluri." Self-Assertion and Cultural Brokerage: Early Cultural Nationalism in West Africa. Ed. P. F. de Moraes Farias and Karin Barber. Birmingham: Centre of West African Studies, U of Birmingham, 1990. 109-45.

Galadanci, S. A. Harakat al-lugha al-'arabiyya wa-adabiha fi Nayjiriya min sanat 1804 ila sanat 1966. Cairo: Dar al-Ma'arif, 1982.

Gumi, Abu Bakr. Al-'Aqida al-sahiha bi-muwafaqat al-shari'a. Beirut: Dar al-'Arabiyya, 1972. Text with English translation by M. O. A. Abdul, Ankara, 1976.

___ . Radd al-adhhan ila ma'ani'l-Qur'an. Beirut, 1979.

Hiskett, M. A History of Hausa Islamic Verse. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1975.

___ . The Sword of Truth: The Life and Times of the Shehu Usuman dan Fodio. 2nd ed. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1994.

Hunwick, John O. "Arabic Language and Muslim Society in West Africa: An Historical Perspective." Ghana Social Science Journal 4.2 (1977): 1-20.

___ . "A Historical Whodunit: The So-Called 'Kano Chronicle' and Its Place in the Historiography of Kano." History in Africa 21 (1994): 127-46.

___ . Arabic Literature of Africa, Volume 2: The Writings of Central Sudanic Africa. Leiden: Brill, 1995.

___ . "The Arabic Qasida in West Africa: Forms Themes and Contexts." Qasida Poetry in Islamic Asia and Africa. Ed. S. Sperl and C. Shackle. Leiden: Brill, 1996. 1: 83-98; 2: 22-25.

Ismail, O. S. A., and A. Y. Aliyu. "Bello and the Tradition of Manuals of Advice to Rulers." Nigerian Administration Research Project: Second Interim Report. Zaria, 1975. 24-73.

Kani, Ahmed Mohammed. The Intellectual Origin of Islamic Jihad in Nigeria. London: Al-Hoda, 1988.

Lange, D. A Sudanic Chronicle: The Borno Expeditions of Idris Alauma (1564-1576) according to the Account of Ahmad b. Furtu. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1987.

Last, D. M. "Arabic Source Material and Historiography in Sokoto to 1864: An Outline." Research Bulletin [Centre of Arabic Documentation] 1.2 (1965): 3-19.

___ . "Arabic Source Material and Historiography in Sokoto since 1864: An Outline." Research Bulletin [Centre of Arabic Documentation] 1.3 (1965): 1-7.

Mahmud, Khalil. "The Arabic Literary Tradition in Nigeria." Nigeria Magazine 145 (1983): 37-54.

Ogunbiyi, I. A. "A Record of a Cometary Sighting in a 19th Century West African Arabic Work by Muhammad Bello b. cUthman b. Fudi (1779-1837)." Journal of Oriental and African Studies [Athens] 3-4 (1991-92): 94-110.

Paden, John N. Religion and Political Culture in Kano. Berkeley: U of California P, 1972.

Palmer, H. R. "Western Sudan History, Being the Raudthat ul-Afkari." Journal of the African Society 15 (1915-16): 261-72.

Salih, Shaykh Ibrahim. Ta'rikh al-Islam wa-hayat al-'arab fi imbaraturiyyat Kanim-Barnu. Khartoum: Institute of African and Asian Studies, U of Khartoum, 1976.

Tsiga, Ismaila A. Where I Stand. Ibadan: Spectrum, 1992.

Umar, Muhammad Sani. "Changing Islamic Identity in Nigeria from the 1960s to the 1980s: From Sufism to anti-Sufism." Muslim Identity and Social Change in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ed. Louis Brenner. London: Christopher Hurst, 1993. 154-78.


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