The Man, The Scholar, The Activist: A tribute to professor Dahiru Yahya (1947-2021)



By Huzaifa Dokaji

Although my grand uncle, I first met Professor Dahiru Yahya in 2011, when I joined Bayero University’s Department of History as a fresh History Major. In a short space of time, my relationship with him metamorphosed into many things: becoming his Majidadi, personal assistant to a point, his mentee, and also his research assistant. I was always in his office with questions about points he made in papers that he agreed to let me accompany him to his lectures both within and without the university. Impliedly, I spent five years (3 during my undergrad years and 2 after) attending both his Sokoto Caliphate, The Mediterranean World and the History of Political Ideas in the 19th Century lecture sessions. Establishing an intellectual rapport was easy because we shared interest in Ideas, which he was uniquely excellent with, and revolution, in which he was actively engaged. This familial and intellectual bond offered me the privilege of considerable access to many papers he wrote but did not publish, and even book manuscripts he was working on. When he started a project on the Intellectual biography of Malam, his father, which he tentatively named Gold in the Garbage: Reminisces of my Father, He nominated me as the Secretary of what was supposed to be the Project’s Committee.


A few months before his death, he engaged me in other projects including what would’ve been a commissioned Intellectual biography of former Head of State, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida. He asked me to draft a proposal he would flesh out and forward to the titan. The last time I met him was on 8th January, when he informed me of his desire to involve me in another book project on the Historiography of Islam in Hausaland (which would be in the Hausa Language). We discussed and, as usual, argue on some of the key claims the work envisages on the history of Islam in Northern Nigeria. Like the humble intellectual he was, Professor Dahiru Yahya insists that I should accept his invitation to join the project, least to help find answers to what he called the “cogent issues” I raised against some of his key claims. As fate would have it, none of the projects would materialize. Perhaps, someday, someone capable will take up the gauntlet.

If there was anybody who taught me to believe in my potential, it was Professor Dahiru Yahya. When I complained to him of a recurring feeling of inadequacy whenever I write, He called me the next day and asked me to pen a draft speech the Governor of Kano would read at the coronation of Emir Muhammad Sanusi II (2013-2020). When I submitted it to him, he made some corrections and asked that I deliver it myself to the person who asked for it. He was that kind of Mentor at his best.




Once, at an event on the Sokoto Caliphate, a participant intimated that the Fulani are the only courageous people in Hausaland and it was thus wrong to consider Sarkin Gobir Bawa Jan Gwarzo as a gwarzo. Professor Dahiru Yahya disagreed with the speaker on grounds that not only did Bawa patronized scholars (which is an attribute of gwarazan masu mulki), but was courageous enough to grant Dan Fodio and his Jama’a Freedom of speech, conscience, despite knowing well they seek to upset the status quo ante with such freedom. Later in a private conversation, Professor Dahiru Yahya asked the Sultan of Sokoto if it was fair to refuse to recognize Bawa Jan Gwarzo as a gwarzo considering his conduct towards the jama’a. The Sultan refused to, and wisely so, commit himself by not answering the question. That was Dahiru Yahya, an intellectual who said it as he saw it.

Dahiru Yahya’s appreciation of Bawa Jan Gwarzo’s courage to grant his opponents freedom may have its origin in ‘lessons from history and politics’, since both his grandfather Muhammad and his father, Malam Yahya, were, like the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) he sympathized with, victims of repressive regimes. Muhammad was a legitimist who was unjustly imprisoned by the Yusufawa rebels for identifying himself with the Tukurawa. It took a petition to the Colonial government (to Mr Palmer actually) by his son, Malam Yahya, to secure his release. Malam himself did not have it good with Emir Sanusi I (1953-1963) at some point. Allegedly, the Emir felt threatened that with Malam’s guidance, the ascetic Galadima Inuwa stood a better chance to succeed karagar Dabo. Malam had to resign from his job as district scribe. Events like these might have prompted him to admit, in a poem he called Tabrīyah, his secret appeal before God:

I have come to you with many demands,

The best of all demands is to demand Freedom.

Professor Dahiru was an honest academic “who”, as Dr. Tijjani Naniya, his first Ph.D. candidate, told BBC Hausa, “said his mind without mincing words and appreciated scholarship wherever it came from”. For example, in 2017, I approached him with a list of topics I wanted to work on for my MA thesis for guidance. Two of the topics, one on the activities of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) and the other on Opposition Politics in Kano, were proposed to me by some faculty in the department. I expected him to weigh in on the first topic since his romance with the IMN was well known. But he didn’t. He instead advised that I work on the second topic as it was “promising & would build my scholarly credentials more than the topic on IMN which was relevant largely because it was contemporary”.


Dahiru Yahya sees history as an unbreakable process that binds the Past, the Present, and the Future in a unity. As indigenous to traditional Historiography, his scope of the past dates as far back to Adam’s life of Innocence in heaven and the Present can be as long or as short as a lifetime spiritual anguish or bliss due to the Fall of Man. The Future is not limited to life on Earth as agreed in Secular Historiographies, but to eternity & resurrection where man will return to his state of Innocence. The historical process, he often told me, was the link between the Past, the Present, and the Future. It is human efforts within the supervising Sunnatullah (scientific cause and effect) and mashi’ah, accidents, as Jacob Bronowski extrapolated it, that determine, mold and shape this process. This historical progression is apparent in what al-Kindi recognized as the “universality of truth” or in a more generic sense, reality. It is the philosophical kith of Aristotle’s postulation that “the truth is universal and has neither ethnicity, nationality nor tribe”. It is hence safe to accept there is the element “truth” in every religion and philosophy, the bases of spiritual and secular civilizations respectively.


Nonetheless, Dahiru Yahya appreciated the achievements of Western Civilization and accepted its feats. He saw solutions in some of its approaches to social and political issues since knowledge is universal. But primary sources of inspiration were rather Islam, History and personal experience. He sees the social and political ideal in Islamic exoteric dimension and human ability to roam its esoteric propensities with divine guidance and personal effort. The Koran, the life of the Prophet (SAS) the struggles of the ahl bait, the Prophet’s noble progeny, the intellectual legacy of the Sokoto Jihadists especially the Sheikh Uthman Dan Fodio & his son, the cosmopolitan Muhammad Bell; and the poems of his father, Malam Yahya (published as Nahyl Bughya), influenced and shaped his thought on, and approach to, the Philosophy of history and intellectual activism. Dahiru Yahya’s “stridently bullish account” of the potential capability, achievement and future of Islam won him the recognition of the Times Literary Supplement, in its Centenary issues in 2004.


Outside this class of social and political philosophers, the individual with the most influence on him as a Professor of the History of Ideas is the Swiss-born Perennial Philosopher and Sufi Master, Frithjof Schuon, founder of the Maryamiyya order. Professor Dahiru’s romance with philosophia perennis shouldn’t be a surprise since Malam, his father, who had great influence on his scholarship, appreciated and accepted, like the Perennials, the universality of knowledge in both its exoteric and esoteric dimensions. Malam considered the separation of the two dimensions as an “ideological amputation” ostensibly because the diversity of human thought goes back to the unity of God’s knowledge. The truth therefore is and should be, a manifestation of both divine and human presence. Other Muslim scholars with remarkable influence on him include Ibn Khaldun, the Austrian-Jewish scholar Muhammad Asad, the Iranian Islamic Philosopher, Sayyed Hussein Nasr, and Ahmad Ghulam of the Ahmadiyya.


As a product of, and a Professor in Western scholarship, the influence of Western intellectuals is evident in his approaches. French Historian Fernand Braudel certainly makes it to the list through his magnum opusThe Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. The work provides the theoretical formula that guides Professor Dahiru’s analysis of how geography shaped the movement of history in pre-colonial and even contemporary Northern Nigeria. This is more so ostensible in his analytical studies of the social, economic and political relations between the lowland and highland communities that constitute the region. Polish-British Mathematician, Historian and Humanist Scientist, Jacob Bronowski; and French Historian, Maxim Rodinson, are other key influences.


One thing that has always stumped me about Dahiru Yahya was how he was able to maintain a genial relationship with the nation’s shady political elites and its rebellious clerical class as a scholar-activist. He was a one-time secretary of the Kano branch of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), the nation’s ruling party in the Second Republic, and later the voice of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria. Like his father, Professor Dahiru personally never identified himself as part of Nigeria’s elites despite serving at least, and among others, as a Consultant on National Security to the Babangida Regime. Consequently, this led to many conspiracy theories about his role on issues of national significance. A late Kano leader allegedly cautioned a former Military Head of State against appointing him as Vice Chancellor for fears that he could stir a rebellion from the comfort of his office. His father, Malam, shared a similar dilemma, except that Malam was not controversial at least in the court of public opinion. On the one hand, Malam was the moral guardian and a favorite of the Galadima Inuwa, (1939-1963), and an employee of the Kano palace which he accused of replacing the wisdom of governance with the arrogance of past glory. In a Colonial report on the Dawaki ta Kudu district, a European inspection Officer described Malam as “unusually intelligent and keen”.


All his career as a District Scribe, Malam refused to accept accommodation and salary from the Colonial regime on grounds that it was contaminative. On the other hand, Malam accused the clerical class of substituting the humility of knowledge with the stupidity of ignorance. The elites handled both father and son with caution as did some of the clerics who considered him as a Malum Fada, the unpopular ulama-as-su that Dan Fodio condemned in his Kitab al-Farq. Many of such clerics later became his disciples and saw him as he truly was- an anti-Colonialist who sought to liberate his society from the anchor the “triumph of absurdity” has tied it to. Dahiru Yahya on the other hand was an anti-imperialist who aimed to push his society towards Islamic resurgence.


Dahiru Yahya received wide recognition for his academic feats. His Ph.D. at Birmingham University had neither a Masters degree before it nor a viva after it. The Ph.D. which was published in 1981 as Morocco in the 16th Century: Problems and Patterns in African Foreign Policy was the last book published in the Ibadan History Series and is to date one of the leading works on Sa’adi diplomacy, in English, and by a foreigner. It qualified him as the first Nigerian to publish a work on diplomacy. The research saw him cultivate Arabic, Osmanli Turkish, Spanish and French as research languages. He established himself as the leading authority on Intellectual History and the History of Ideas in Northern Nigeria. For his outstanding contribution to scholarship, Dahiru Yahya became the first academic to be honored with a festschrift at Bayero University, Kano.

He was indeed a great scholar. Many may disagree with his conclusions and approach especially at the closing decade of his life, but none could honestly fault the exclusivity of his intellect, the precision of his approach and the profundity of his scholarship.


Rest well, Mentor.

Huzaifa Dokaji can be reached via


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