Ilorin! A transitional zone between the open savannah to the north and forest zone to the south had considerable opportunity to attract settlers both from the north and the south of the modern Nigeria. Thus, its historic growth of Islam, Arabic and Islamic erudition was significantly a response to its topographical location, natural environment, vegetation, enormous land for agriculture and her staple grass that enticed cattlemen and their herds to the town. Thus, the city was home to various linguistics groups including the Yorùbá, Fulani, Hausa, Kanuri, Nupe, Bariba, Gwari, Malians, Sudanese, Songhays, Dendi among others.
Ilorin; a provincial military headquarters of the ancient Oyo Empire, later became a Northern Nigeria protectorate, when Shehu Alimi took control of the city through the spread of Islam. It was founded by the Yorùbás around 1450. The town has been a very important centre in northern Yorùbáland for many centuries before the beginning of the 19th century.
However, with trading connections with Ogbomoso, New Oyo, Ikirun, Osogbo, Ibadan, Ijebu-Ode, Abeokuta and Lagos to the South, Ilorin maintained a profitable long distance trade with Kano, Sokoto and Bornu to the North. The town was destined to experience vital transformation in terms of religion, politics and economy in the 19th century.
The change which Ilorin had to experience during that century had its origin in careers of four key characters; Afonja, Shaikh al-Salih ibn Janta (popularly known in Ilorin as Alimi), Solagberu and AbdusSalam (Son and successor of Alimi). Their dealings influenced the course of the history of Ilorin in the path towards the establishment of an emirate and turning the town into a port of Arabic and Islamic erudition.
Afonja’s military acumen, al-Salih’s Islamic propagation activities and acquaintance, Solagberu’s Oke Sunna Muslims community and AbdusSalam leadership cleverness turned Ilorin into a city that is ‘closer to paradise and far from hell fire’– a popular slogan used by the Ilorin indigenes for centuries till present. It was this town that became the citadel for where Islam made substantial converts in other parts of Yorùbáland. The foundation laid by the leadership of the emirate for the spread of Islam and Islamic learning prepared the ground for the prominent positions Ilorin clerics continued to enjoy in Yorùbáland and elsewhere till this day.
It has been said that there is no evidence for the existence of important traditional Yorùbá shrine in the area before the 19th century. Nevertheless, there was an unarguable presence of Yorùbá traditional religion. With the growth of Islam in Ilorin and more, particularly after the consolidation of the Ilorin emirate, attempts were made to stop the practice of the traditional Yorùbá religion. Such attempts were considerably successful in the town of Ilorin but outside the capital, the Yorùbá traditional religion continued largely to coexist with Islam. The Talif credits Emir Zubair as ‘the first’ to ban idol worshipping in the emirate.
According to the general report of the Lagos Expedition to the Interior in 1893, the estimated number of mosques in Ilorin around 1893 was put at three thousand, though, this was perhaps an overestimation. However, it is an indicator to the fact that by 1893, the entire population of Ilorin was Muslims. This is not to say that some Muslims at that time still held on to traditional customs that were not necessarily un-Islamic. It clearly shows the extent of Islamisation of the city as far back as the nineteenth century.
A cursory look at works available to Ilorin scholars in the last quarter of the nineteenth century indicates a high development of Islamic education in the town. These books were studied by Ahmad b. Abu Bakr (b. 1870) under Mallams Ahmad Mahmud, Shaykh Belgore and Muhammed Abdullahi. Ahmad b. Abi Bakr himself became a respected scholar and author in the early years of the twentieth century.
Ilorin scholars did not keep their spread of Islam and Islamic learning to Ilorin alone, Gbadamosi has shown that Ilorin scholars moved to many areas of Yorùbáland to establish Islamic schools and thus played vital roles in the growth of Islam in Yorùbáland. As a widely acknowledged Centre of Islamization and Islamic scholarship since the early 19th century, Ilorin scholars and their successors have made immeasurable contributions to indigenous impartation of knowledge.
Through their numerous manuscripts (both in Arabic and Ajami) covering various aspects of knowledge and human endeavours, scholars of Ilorin have left a big pool of sources of information and knowledge that is waiting to be explored by the present and future generations. Among others, such manuscripts have served and still continue to serve as primary sources for studies on Ilorin emirate history.
Indeed, the reference to Ilorin as the ‘Makkah’ of Yorùbá Muslims in the nineteenth century was not an exaggeration. Not only did Muslims from Yorùbáland flock to the emirate for Islamic learning, many people from Ilorin also left the town to promote Islamic learning in Yorùbáland with a bias to the way Islam was practised in the emirate.
Mallam Muhammad Salisu b. Muhammad Sanusi, popularly known as ‘ko kewu, ko bere’ toured Yorùbáland extensively, preaching Islam as he did so. He was very active in Ibadan, Abeokuta, Lagos and Ekitiland, especially in Ikere-Ekiti. In Ijebu-Ode, he was openly confronted by the Osugbo; and in Ekiti, he was assailed by the Egungun – as they all saw how he literally depleted their ranks.
Shaykh Taj Al Adab’s impact of scholarship was felt not only in Ilorin but in Okene, Ibadan and Abeokuta. Yahya ibn Aliyu from Pakata in Ilorin, a student of Taj al Adab who became later known by the appellation Taj al-Deen was in Igbirraland, taught at Kabba for two years and later became the Imam of Okene.
Shakyh Kamalu al Deen Al Adab’s school attracted Muslim pupils from other parts of Yorùbáland such as Ijebu-Ode, Ibadan, Ogbomoso and Osogbo and graduates of the school spread across Yorùbáland
Alhaji l’Oke Imale was at Ede. As far back as the 1870s, Nalla from Ilorin had arrived in Lagos and was involved in the schism that took place amongst the Muslims. Another Ilorin scholar whose twentieth century activities can partly explain the spread of Islamic and Arabic studies in Yorùbáland was Shaykh Abdullah Adam Al Iluri who founded Markaz Ta’lim al-Arabi in 1952 in Agege, Lagos. Apart from founding a school, he had earlier established an Arabic Printing Press. Concisely, Ilorin Mallams settled in towns in many parts of Yorùbáland where Ilorin maintained trading connections such as Lagos, Ibadan, Iseyin, Abeokuta, Ijebu-Ode and many others.
Conversely, Muslims in other parts of Yorùbáland also flocked to Ilorin for Islamic education. A typical example was Shaykh Abu Bakr b. Qassim, the personality that laid a solid foundation for Islamic education in Ibadan.