Yorùbáland Initial Contact with Islam 1

It could not be said that Islam met a vacuum upon its entrance into the area known today as Yorùbáland. The Yorùbá; an ethnolinguistic group, comprising individuals located primarily in South-West Nigeria and Benin with further populations in Togo, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoîre and the global diaspora already had some beliefs.

The people of Yorùbáland had beliefs in the likes of Ifa (Oracle) Ogun (god of iron) Sango (god of thunder) Oya (goddess of River) Esu (Devil) among others.

Although the definite date of the contact of Islam with the Yorùbáland of southwestern Nigeria depends relatively on whom you ask, it is nevertheless agreed that the Muslim empires in West Africa knew of Yorùbáland long before introduction to Islam.

The scholars, S.U. Balogun, W.O.A. Nasiru, and A.A. Al-Iluri asserted that Islam had spread in the Yorùbáland long before the jihad of Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodiyo in 1804 C.E.

Al-Iluri in his book Al-Islam fi Naijiriyyah wa Shaykh Uthman ibn Fudi Al-Fulani traced the emergence of Islam in Yorùbáland to the time of Mansa (‘King’) Musa of Mali Empire in the 13th century.

Isa Yaguda, the former Governor Bauchi State recently made a weighty proclamation that “Islam came to the Southern part before coming to the northern Nigeria. It is there in history,” he said, adding that “the first Shariah court was established in Iwo, in Osun state; it’s there in history…”

The scholar popularly known as Shehu Alimi; a Fulani from the Niger Republic was presumed to be the missionary who came into Yorùbáland to propagate Islam. However, since he only arrived in the old Oyo towards the end of the 18th century, his efforts in the propagation of Islam is in no doubt. Yet, historical reports indicate that much of his work was about religious reformation and rejuvenation as well as scholarly development.

There are reports indicating that there was a sizable Muslim population in Oyo prior to the arrival of Shehu Alimi. Thus, it must be stated that Islam had arrived in the Yorùbáland prior to his arrival. This position is further reinforced by the fact that it is fairly certain that in the seventeen century, mention had being made of Muslims in Yorùbáland.

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A Hausa scholar called Abdullaah Muhammad b. Massanih who died around 1667, in a book titled: Shifa Ruba fee Tahrir fuqaha which he addressed to the “the learned men of Yorùbá” explaining to them the Islamic method of determining sunset. This would suggest that there was “a fairly well-established Muslim community in Yorùbáland by the second half of the 17th century at the latest, century before the arrival of Shehu Alimi and the jihad of Shaykh Uthman Dan Fodiyo.

The Yorùbá had their earliest contact with Islam through the itinerant Arab Muslim scholars who visited the Yorùbáland in the 15th century. However, dominant Islamic influence was not recorded until the Hausa- Fulani penetrated the region from the second half of the 18th century.

Islam came to Yorùbá land centuries before Christianity and churches emerged. According to Al-Iluri, the first Mosque was built in Ọyọ-Ile in 1550 (466 years). Progressively, Islam came to Yorùbáland, and Muslims started building Mosques: Iwo town led, its first Mosque built in 1655 followed by Iṣẹyin, in 1760; Lagos, 1774; Ṣaki, 1790; and Oṣogbo, 1889 and the list goes on.

Within a short time of his arrival in Oyo, Shehu Alimi established a high reputation for piety and Islamic scholarship. This won him scores of adherents who were thirsty for Islamic knowledge. He preached against the futility of offering sacrifices to the Yorùbá gods and taught the practical benefits to be gained by worshipping Allaah alone.

So successful was Shehu Alimi in invigorating Islaam in that part of Yorùbáland and so tremendous was his impact on the life of Oyo Muslims that the Alaafin became jittery over the development. In reaction, the Alaafin consulted the oracle which foretold danger if the Shehu was not expelled from Oyo. By that time, Shehu Alimi had travelled extensively around the territory particularly to Oyo, Iseyin and Ogbomoso over a period of years.

Several factors contributed to the growth of Islam in Yorùbáland by mid-19th century. Before the decline of Ọyọ Empire, several towns around it had large Muslim communities. Unfortunately, when Ọyọ was destroyed, these Muslims (Yorùbá and immigrants) relocated to newly formed towns and villages and became Islam protagonists.

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Second, there was a mass movement of people at this time into Yorùbáland, many of these immigrants were Muslims who introduced Islam to their hosts respectively. According to Eades, the religion “differed in attraction” and “better adapted to Yorùbá social structure, because it permitted polygamy”; more influential Yorùbás like (Seriki Kuku of Ijebu land) soon became Muslims with a positive impact on the natives.

There are also indications that the celebrated Basorun Gaa, a foremost political figure in Oyo Empire during the second half of the 18th century, courted the Muslim community in Oyo for support in his struggle against the Alaafin Abiodun.

At this juncture, one need to as a pertinent question; ‘who brought Islam to Yorùbáland? The most rational declaration is that there are numerous other Muslim scholars who had at one time or another ventured into the Yorùbá hinterland to propagate Islam well before the arrival of Shehu Alimi.

It is on record that prior to the arrival of Shehu Alimi, there were a set of Islamic scholars mainly Kanuri migrants who were living at Okesuna (lit. the hillock of Sunnah) with Mallam Abdullah Tahir, nicknamed Solagberu as their leader. Solagberu travelled extensively as an itinerary preacher covering a vast area of the northern provinces of Yorùbáland.

Solagberu established Okesuna as an exclusive community of Muslims in lIorin before the arrival of Shehu Alimi. The reputation of Okesuna as a mini-centre of Islamic tradition attracted many other migrant Muslims from different parts of Yorùbáland.

Nevertheless, the advent, spread as well as the consolidation of Islam is bound to be relative to the knowledge of the responder across the world. The sure fact is Islam entered the different parts of Yorùbáland through trade, education, preaching, and conviction among others.

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