Murray Last says Nigeria could do with those same principles – justice, peacefulness, honest trade – that the Sokoto caliphate stood for.

By Ladi Olorunyomi

November 22, 2021

As a scholar, Murray Last, has always being upfront about his commitment to Nigeria. After defending his doctorate thesis at University of Ibadan (UI) in 1964, he was told that he could have his PhD awarded by either the University of London or UI.

He chose UI despite knowing that Oxford, Cambridge and other ivy-league universities are disdainful of PhD from third world universities and are not likely to employ him.

That thesis was first published in 1967 as The Sokoto Caliphate and, fifty-four years on, it remains the most authentic account of the structure and administration of the state known by that name, also known as the ‘Fulani Empire’.

Since his student days in Ibadan, Professor Last has traveled widely across Nigeria, living modestly as a ‘traditional’ Muslim student in Zaria, a farmhand in a commercial non-Muslim farmstead and teacher at Bayero University, Kano.

Now Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology, University College London, Professor

Last visits Nigeria every year for a month at least. He was already working with Premium Times Books to publish the Nigerian edition of The Sokoto Caliphate when the Covid-19 shutdown halted travel and activities around the world.

In the interview below he talks about the book and his life in Nigeria during the First Republic.

PT: You first heard about the Sokoto Caliphate while working on your Master’s degree at Yale almost sixty years after the demise of the Caliphate. What excited you about it? Why did you decide to conduct research work on it?

Murray Last: At Yale, I took a course on African History taught by the elderly historian of Cameroon, Harry Rudin.

It was on that course, which I was doing alongside courses on Chinese history, that I first heard of the ‘Fulani Empire’ and the role of the Qadiriyya in northern Nigeria.

But my 1961 MA thesis at Yale was a translation from the Mandinka of a biography of the great state-builder Samori Toure.

So, I was only drawn to a study of the ‘Fulani Empire’ when I was at UCI [University College, Ibadan], where my supervisor was Prof. H F C Smith.

At Ibadan I started learning classical Arabic and was encouraged to research the collection of 19th century Arabic correspondence that HFC Smith learnt was in the Waziri’s house in Sokoto.

So, in December 1961, as a postgraduate student in the History Dept. of University College Ibadan (staying in Sultan Bello Hall), I was taken to Kano in the Arabist, John Hunwick’s VW, via Abuja (now Suleja) and Zaria.

In Kano, John Hunwick and I catalogued the Arabic manuscripts in the Shahuci Judicial School library where the Kano Emirs’ old collection of manuscripts was then housed.

The collection was later burnt in a fire at the Shahuci school.

From Kano, I went to spend Christmas with a schoolteacher friend in Maiduguri.

From there, in January, I returned to UCI and Sultan Bello Hall, till the rainy season came.

I was then despatched to Sokoto with the Sudanese scholar Muhammad al-Hajj, who introduced me to Waziri Junaidu.

The Waziri gave me lodgings next to his house in Gidadawa, Sokoto, and each day was then spent in the small study room, where the Arabic correspondence was kept in his house. I was fed tuwo and miyan kuka each evening by the Waziri’s servant, Mallam Shehu.

So, my initial interest in Sokoto specifically was sparked by my teachers in Ibadan, not in Yale.

But to Harry Rudin I owe my introduction to African History, which I preferred to Chinese history (as I could only go, in those days, to Hong Kong to learn Chinese).

The scholars in Ibadan who taught me all had Sudanese connections – H.F.C. Smith had taught in the Sudan as had John Hunwick; Fathi El-Masri and Muhammad Ahmed al-Hajj were both Sudanese historians.

In Kano were several Sudanese scholars and merchants whom they all knew well; many had taught at the long-established School for Arabic Studies in Kano or supplied the advanced Arabic texts/books.

PT: As a jurisdiction, what’s the exact equivalent of the Sokoto Caliphate in modern, i.e., 21st century, understanding? Was it a country, a republic, federation, confederation? What are the defining qualities?

Murray Last: The state which we re-labelled as ‘the Sokoto caliphate’ (rejecting the colonial term, ‘Fulani empire’) would now be labelled a confederation of emirates under a single Amir al-mu’minin or sarkin Musulmi / lamido Julbe – that is, the commander-in-chief of the whole Muslim community within the total area responsive to his leadership.

The state was based on shari’a law, so that the Sarkin Musulmi was both the community’s most senior Imam and its most senior judicial officer (assisted by a specialist Qadi / Alkali).

It was that formal judicial authority rather than some military role that made an Amir al-mu’minin.

PT: When you say Caliph or Caliphate these days, the immediate reference for hundred million twitter users – I use the term twitterati – is ISIS and its now deceased leader, the terror associated with him and his followers across the world, including Boko Haram and ISWAP. What would you say to the twitterati about the Sokoto Caliphate?

Murray Last: Given that formal role, the Sarkin Musulmi was also ‘Caliph’ as there was no other senior Muslim leader in the area.

The Ottoman caliphs were too far way; the Borno Mai had left his capital and was no longer a ‘caliph’.

But the Sakkwatawa rarely if ever actually referred to the Sarkin Musulmi as ‘Caliph’ – it was never their preferred term (which was Lamido Julbe or, in Arabic documents and books, Amir al-mu’minin).

Waziri Junaidu rarely used ‘caliph’ himself but was aware of the usage when speaking of Sarkin Musulmi Muhammad Bello. ‘Uthman dan Fodio was never called ‘caliph’ – only ‘Shehu’ or al-Shaikh.

He was elected the ‘Imam’ of the jama’a.

So Muhammad Bello was effectively the first Caliph, as the immediate heir of the Shehu. Prof. H.F.C. Smith (after 1966 known as Abdullahi Smith) used sometimes in his lectures the terms ‘caliph’ and ‘caliphate’ for the state centred on Sokoto, but it was I who chose ‘The Sokoto Caliphate’ as the title of my book (Smith preferred ‘caliphate of Sokoto’ but I liked the euphony of ‘Sokoto Caliphate’ with the Sarkin Musulmi Muhammad Bello’s personal seal below on the cover).

The current fashion for Islamic radicals such as ISIS to call themselves a caliphate is just a rhetorical boast – in no way are or were they ever the sole Amir of the Muslim umma in their wider region, the Middle East.

It was the colonial British ca. 1903 who translated Sarkin Musulmi as ‘Sultan’.

That title ‘Sultan’, in the Arabic correspondence of the precolonial 19th century, was only ever applied to the Emir of Kano or rarely to the Emir of Zaria.

The British regarded the Ottoman caliphate as the ‘normal’ users of the title ‘caliph’, so to have used it for the man they appointed as the new Sarkin Musulmi in Sokoto was inappropriate, especially as he was allowed much reduced powers: they ‘downgraded’ his title to ‘Sultan’, while using only ‘Emir’ for other rulers such as Kano, Zaria and others.

For my book’s title it would have been grossly anachronistic (and colonialist) to have used ‘The Sultanate of Sokoto’: we wanted only the term that could have been used by men like Waziri Gidado or Muhammad Bello himself.

Hence, ‘The Sokoto Caliphate’. Waziri Junaidu of course knew about the choice of title and had no objections.

As did the Sarkin Musulmi, when he permitted my use of his ancestor’s seal.

If you are worried about the ‘twitterati’, let them learn some more complicated Islamic history and ignore today’s political exaggerations and boasts!

For the rest of the Interview, click the link below


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