Tomb of Usman dan Fodio’ inspire and divide in northern Nigeria
Pilgrims must walk through three rooms, a foyer and a 200-metre-long corridor before accessing the dimly-lit chamber where Usman dan Fodio and two of his sons are buried in Sokoto, northern Nigeria.
Old women sit against the plastered white mud walls begging for money. Inside the tomb, more than a dozen visitors sit with their palms cupped and lifted upwards in prayer, seeking dan Fodio’s blessing.
Textile trader Sammani Yusuf is one of them. He drove more than 500 kilometres (300 miles) from the city of Kano to visit the graves and ask for his bed-ridden mother to get better and his business to pick up.
“Allah is everywhere but tombs of saints have sacred status and one’s prayers are more readily answered by Allah through their intercession,” Yusuf told AFP.
“I’m very optimistic that Allah will grant my needs by the sacredness of the saint lying in this tomb,” he added.
Asma’u Lawwali believes her prayers for a child were granted on a previous visit to the tomb of dan Fodio, also called “Shehu.”
“I’m here with more requests to God through Shehu’s intercession and I’m confident they will be granted in the same way my request for a child was answered,” she said.
Tour guide Isa Abubakar said Yusuf and Lawwali were not alone in their conviction.
“Any person you see here has come for dan Fodio’s intercession,” Abubakar said. “By his sanctity, when you pray to Allah (at the tomb) your request is granted.”
Usman dan Fodio is one of the most famous names in Nigerian history — a fact borne out by the steady stream of visitors who still flock to his final resting place in the heart of the ancient city.
Nigeria’s Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo cited dan Fodio in a recent speech, saying his condemnation of corruption and extremism were still relevant today.
Two centuries ago, the reformist scholar, who is considered a saint by many in Nigeria and West Africa, declared jihad or holy war against tyrannical local rulers in the Muslim-majority region in 1804.
The result was the creation of an Islamic state — the Sokoto Caliphate — which covered most of modern-day northern Nigeria and parts of neighbouring Niger and Cameroon.
Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the radical Islamist group Boko Haram, whose insurgency has devastated northeast Nigeria in the last seven years, has name-checked dan Fodio in several of his messages.
Shekau himself declared a caliphate in 2014 after his fighters captured swathes of territory in the region.
But the comparisons end there.
And despite reverence for dan Fodio himself, pilgrimages to his tomb have come under attack from religious conservatives, in a sign of the complex mix of Islamic ideologies and affiliations in the region.
Nigeria’s north is mainly Muslim and predominantly Sunni but there have been increasing tensions in recent months with minority Shiites.
The conservative Wahhabist ideology, which is dominant in Saudi Arabia, made inroads in northern Nigeria in the early 1980s. Until then, it had been dominated by the mystical Sufi tradition.
Prayers to dead saints and visits to their tombs were condemned as polytheism and idolatry.
In Sokoto itself, the Saudi-funded World Islamic League set up an office to propagate its views, putting itself at odds with those who revere dan Fodio in the Sufi tradition.
“Some people try to refute intercession but such claim is false because intercession has theological basis in Islam,” said the tomb guide Abubakar.
His colleague, Muazu Abdurrahman, added: “They frown at intercession with the Prophet (Mohammed) at his tomb in Medina and it is no surprise if they say the same or worse about Shehu’s.”
In 2012, Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists destroyed the tombs of Muslim saints in Timbuktu, in northern Mali, condemning them as idols in line with their ultra-conservative Salafist beliefs.
Abdurrahman, however, ruled out similar destruction in Sokoto given dan Fodio’s status as “an Islamic scholar of repute and a saint… a reformer who fought to establish pure Islam and justice.”
“This is why he is revered even by those who are vehemently opposed to visiting his tomb,” he said.
“Yes, we also have elements who share Al-Qaeda beliefs like Boko Haram, which also disapproves of visits to tombs for blessings.
“But it is unthinkable they will try to replicate what their peers did in Timbuktu.”