FACTS: Did You Know That Kanem-Borno had a Caliphate Centuries Before the Jihad of Shehu?

Today we are going to highlight and learn about Islam in Kanem-Borno Empire. It is interesting to learn how far back the history of Islam in Northern Nigeria predates. While we know somethings, there are many things that will surprise many of us.


When discussing Islam in Nigeria, we laymen almost always attributes the religion to the Fulani Jihad of Sheikh Uthman bn Fodio. While Muslims in Nigeria today have a lot to thank the esteemed Sheikh for, he and his reformation were not the ones who brought Islam to today’s Northern Nigeria. It had been there for centuries. In fact some of the Habe kings deposed during the Jihad were in fact Muslims ruling a Muslim population.


Shehu waged war based on the principles of the reformation of Islam which had been bastardized by the manner in which muslims of the day practiced it. Another factor was the corruption and oppression by the Habe kings who while living lavishly, heavily taxed their citizens and lastly, the insistence by his former student who was then king to refrain Shehu from his preaching which was a form of activism calling for justice, and ruling in accordance to the ethics and principles of Islam.


However, tucked in today’s North-eastern part of Nigeria, the Kanem-Borno Empire as an acknowledged ancient polity for over a thousand years predates the Shehu and his reformation movement. The empire achieved great heights in scholarship and learning in the entire Central Sudan and beyond.


In fact, the name “Kanuri” was said to have been extracted from Arabic. In the 7th century, Ameer Uqba bn Nafi was said to have led an expedition to North Africa up to kawar in Kanem, which marked the foundation of Muslim communities in Kanem. Later, the early Arab Islamic scholars who visited Kanem in 969AD describe the people of Kanem as HUM KAN NUR (Later became KANURI from the Arabic word KAN NUR) meaning they are people with the light of Islam.


The Kanem-Borno caliphate as far back as 11th century was established in Islamic scholarship and learning. The empire did not just establish Islam as a state religion, it also became an instrument for propagation, spread and development of Islamic education.


In the 13th century, Ibn Said said of the Kanem-Borno:

“They (Kanem-Borno rulers) were fervent in their relighion. They built in Fustat (Cairo) a Maliki Madarasa, where their companies of travelers lodge.”

“The Kanimiyyi a nation among the Takurur, built the Maliki School which is situated in the Hamam Rush Quarters in Cairo. “ (cited by Trimingham, 1974:115-116)


The above is an indication of the zeal and commitment of Kanem-Bornu rulers over Islamic intellectual development, which made Kanem-Borno caliphate one of the first states to provide foreign scholarship to students to study abroad. Students of Kanem-Borno origin maintained the culture of visiting Al-Azahar University for scholarship and learning up to the 15th century.


One of the learned products of Al-Azhar was Sheikh Muhammad Al-amin Al-Kanemi the founder of the Al-Kanemi dynasty who took over from the Sayfawa dynasty. Sheikh Muhammad Al-amin Al-kanemi established a school and mosque in Murzuk (in present day Libya) in the late 18th century.


It is amazing how far established Islam was in Northern Nigeria and how advanced the programs on Islam of the kings of the Kanem-Borno empire. You can read more about these programs and many much more from the reference provided below.


Reference: S


T. El-Miskin, Y.Mukhtar, K. mohammed & A.G Shettimea page (166-169 ).





Mallam Naini Musa is an Essayist, fiction writer, Political commentator and social critic.



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