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Theology Thursdays: African Muslims Mark History by Glen McKenzie

Saluted by sword-waving Muslim warriors on horses and camels, African presidents and emirs on Sunday celebrated the 200th anniversary of a holy war that launched the sub-Sahara’s greatest Islamic empire and urged an end to rising Christian-Muslim violence that has killed thousands here.

Appeals for peace — evoking six years of fiery religious rampages by machete-waving mobs in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation — overlaid a day of musket-blasting pageantry in Sokoto, capital of the 19th-century Sokoto caliphate, or kingdom.

President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian from the south, condemned culprits of both faiths for the rising bloodshed in the nation’s modern day holy wars.

“Anyone who burns houses or places of worship, either mosques or churches” is an “infidel,” said Obasanjo, who wore the brown embroidered caftan and towering white headdress of northern Muslims in a gesture of Muslim-Christian conciliation.

Obasanjo’s 1999 election, ending 15 years of repressive junta rule, unleashed religious, ethnic and political turmoil that since has claimed more than 10,000 lives in Nigeria.

Explosions of Muslim-Christian violence have killed hundreds this year alone — most recently last month in Adamawa state, where dozens died in clashes over the height of a mosque’s minarets next to the palace of a Christian tribal chief.

In May, religious slaughter led Obasanjo to declare emergency rule in one state for the first time in his six-year effort to cement civilian rule.

On Sunday, Obasanjo recalled the successes of the long-ago African empire, before the advent of the West.

“Contrary to the misrepresentations of some ... we were already a highly organized people before the arrival of the adventurers of colonization,” the Nigerian leader added.

Sokoto, in Nigeria’s north, stood until British colonial rule as the center of a Muslim kingdom that spanned parts of six modern African nations — Nigeria, Cameroon, Togo, Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso.

Itinerant preacher Shehu Usman dan Fodio had catapulted the kingdom into being with a 1804-1808 holy war launched against infidels and wayward Muslims.

The June 19, 1804, battle of Tafkin Kwatto, a village about 60 miles from Sokoto, was widely seen as the war’s turning point.

The victory of what some historians term West Africa’s “French Revolution” sparked copycat jihads across the arid savannah plains of Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Chad, Central African Republic and Sudan.

In Sokoto’s central square on Sunday, Muslim Hausa and Fulani fighters in flowing robes and medieval battle garb paid fierce homage to that history.

Riding tasseled horses and camels, hundreds of warriors clutching swords, spears and battle axes saluted Obasanjo, three former Nigerian presidents, and the leaders of Ghana, Chad and Niger.

In rare public comments, the current sultan of Sokoto declared that the 19th-century jihad fighter’s cause had nothing to do with the rampages of today.

“I wish our own leaders would hold these values close to our hearts and entrench unity and peaceful coexistence,” Sultan Mohammed Maccido told the crowd and the warriors.

He mourned “the loss of intolerable numbers of lives, and destruction and loss in property” in Nigeria’s religious violence.

Sokoto today is part of 12 predominantly Muslim states that have adopted strict Islamic Shariah laws since 2000. Christians in Sokoto are few.

Dan Fodio is still widely revered by Muslims as a hero for spreading piety and Arabic literacy. Yet some Christians remember his uncompromising attitude toward nonbelievers, for whom he was once quoted as saying “there is no free place of the intellect.”

Battle sites and burial grounds for Dan Fodio and his followers have been turned into monuments and mausoleums.

“He fought for Islam. He captured many places and spread knowledge,” said Muhammadu Tambari, Dan Fodio’s great-great-great-grandson, an ostrich farmer.

“The jihad we are doing now is teaching and preaching to our children and the children of others. Spreading Islam,” Tambari said. Modern day religious violence had no value, the jihad fighter’s descendant said — only “creating more problems.”

Note: This article was distributed by The Associated Press

Thursday, June 24, 2004

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