Intellectual contributions of Almajiri system to secular education in Nigerian history


By Fatuhu Mustapha

The word almajiri is believed by many scholars like; Hisket, Kurawa, Hunwick and Uba Adamu as a corruption of the Arabic word; al Mahajir, which means; A Pilgrim, or a wanderer. The word means: someone wandering from one place to another in quest of knowledge. Muhammad al Kashnawi a 16century scholar, who died in Egypt in the house of Hassan al Jabarti, has this to say.

” I spent my life wandering from one place to another in search of knowledge, yet I am not contented that I learned enough”

It is the culture of almajirci (the practice of almajiri) to leave the comfort of your home and families and go in quest of knowledge from one place to another. Abdullahi Fodio in his transcript called “Idha’ul Nusk an akdhatu min al shuykh” (see Hiskett; Material relating to state of learning in Sokoto Caliphate) also echoed the same experience of movement from one place to another in search of knowledge before he settled down in Bodinga (now Kebbi State) and later moved to Gwandu and became the first emir of Gwandu and chief Vizier to his Snr brother Usman bin Fodio.

The system succeeded in establishing various centers of learning in many places throughout the Central Sudan (what is known today as partly Niger Republic, Chad, Cameroun and Nigeria). Some were as old as 800 years, like Yandoto now in Tchafe Local Government in Zamfara State, Danranko in malumfashi Local Government in Katsina state now, Gobarau school in Masanawa in Katsina, Madabo in Kano, Ngazargamu in Borno, among others, before the advent of colonialism.

This is an attempt to bring out the intellectual contribution of these schools in the area of secular education. The schools provided us with great authors and erudite scholars not only on Islamic education but also in the area of secular education, like; Philosophy, astronomy, medicine, poetry, syntax, magic square (Talismanism), comparative religion, language, politics and administration among many other fields of knowledge.

Scholars like; al Maghili, al Tazakhti, al Aqit, al Bilbali, al Masani, al Sabagh, Suqain, Nawali, Fallatiya, Ibn Abdurrauf, Danfodio, Abdullaji Fodio, Sultan Bello, Nana Asmau, Zaituna, Bukhari, M Tukur, Suka among others all gave their contribution in many fields of knowledge mentioned above. As I pointed earlier, the system purveyed great scholars of international refutes in our intellectual history. The system also gave equal opportunities of learning to both men and women who want to learn various sciences. Great female scholars were recorded among the remarkable achievements of the almajiri system of education, before it’s bastardization by colonial government policies on education (for more on how colonial policy on education killed almajiri system read: Abdallah Uba Adamu; Imamism, Istanizm and Hausa literature). Great female scholars like Ruqayya Fallatiya , who was the author of Ummul Yatim, (a song on child education and upbringing), Nana Asmau bin al Shaykh the author of many books on various subjects ( for more on nana Asmau see Jean Boyd and Beverly Mack; One Woman Jihad; the caliphate sister. See also; the Collected Works of Nana Asmau, by Jean Boyd), and also scholars like Miriam Bint al Sheikh, Goggo Zautuna of Adamawa who was a great jurist consult, Shaykah al Qariya a great Sufi scholar, and Maimunatu Bint Qadhi Bazarin of Jibiya, who was a great scholar of her own right were all product of the system. Nana Asma’u made mentioned of many of them in her song ; Wakar Gewaye (aka; Tawassali ga Mata masu albarka).

Unlike what many think that the almajiri education is all about Islamic education, it is/was not. The system also gives instruction in many other sciences. The system unlike what we have today, is not about street begging or thuggery, it wasn’t about sending kids to urban areas to beg for food while learning. Before the advent of colonialism and it’s conquest of Northern Nigeria, the system made adequate provision for kids and starters to begin their studies at home in Makarantar Allo, with Babbaku (learning and identifying consonants ) then Fafaru (learning how to apply vowel to the consonant ) then biyawa and Haddatu.

With this introduction I will proceed to introduce some works by almajirai on secular subjects. Among the areas that this post will dwell on, is the area of Philosophy. Muhammad al Sabagh in his song; Mazjaratul Fityan made mentioned of philosophy among the areas he studied in Gobarau school in Katsina. Abdullahi bin Fodio versified the work of Papyrus on Logic (the later was a student of Aristotle) called Ensagogue, which Abdullahi named Miftah al Tahquq fi ilm al Mandiq. He clearly stated this in verse four of the song, where he said “this is a versification of Ensagogue of Papyrus on Logic” this indicate the fact that, there were student of Aristotle even then in Northern Nigeria.

Another important work worthy of mention here is the work of Muhammad Tukur of Matazuggi, who authored the popular song of Bakin Mari (black leg chain iron). Hiskett identified many stanzas which are directly lifted from Dante’s “Devine Comedy” the subject matters of the song is the same with that of Devine Comedy.

Muhammad al Kashnawi was a great scholars who died in 17 century in Misra. Five of his works which are still extent in Azhar University library are on Magic Square, syntax, grammar and lexis. For more on this scholar see Hunwick and Bobboyi; Arabic Literary Tradition in Northern Nigeria.

It was Mr Clapperton who confessed to us that, he was surprise whe he find out that Sultan Muhammad Bello told him more about Christianity than he knew. He said in his Travel and Discoveries that, Bello asked him about many Christian sects that he never even heard of them. He was even more surprised when he found out Bello read Euclid.

In the area of history one can refer to the work of Muhammad al Masani (wali Danmasani) of Katsina on the history and origin of Yoruba race; Azhar al Ruba fi Akhbar al Yoruba. Muhammad Bello wrote his famous book on history of tribes and race of west Africa called; Infaqul Maisur fi Tarikh bilad al Takrur. Abdullahi bin Fodio wrote his book on the same vein called : Tazayyin al Waraqat. While Gidado bin Mustapha (who Heinrich Berth study Risalat of Abizaid with) came with his theoretical work of Raudatul Afkar. This area also include the popular Kano chronicle (Tarikh Arbab fi hazal Balad musamman Kano), Tarikh umara Kashina wa Gubir, Borno Girgam, Waraqat makarubat fiha asl wangariyun; popularly known as Asl wangariyun; see Elias N Said : Some Notes on Asl wagariyun.

On politics and administration The work of Danfodio; Bayan wujb al Hijra, that of his brother Abdullahi; al ghayth al wabl, Dhiya ul Hukkam, Dhiya ul Siyasat, and Al Maghili’s work, Tahjul Mulk, aka Kano Constitution are all works on political science. For more on these see Manifestoes of Fulani Jihad by Hisket, see also Priscilla Strat and Bedri on the last book.

This is just a tip of an iceberg on the contribution of almajiri on secular education. Insha Allah I will come with part two of the post soon .

This article was first published on raayiriga listserve on 30tn December 2013

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