His smile could quell a mob or raise an army. The charismatic Usman dan Fodio was a holy man whom the Sultan of Gobir (today’s Nigeria) brought into his kingdom in order to make the people more religious. Bringing a religious person too close to your life can be like taking the snake lying on the fence and putting it in your pocket. At least that’s how it turned out to be in the case of Yunfa, the Sultan of Gobir.
William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had just brought out their Romantic Manifesto, The Lyrical Ballads, ushering a poetic revolution in England. The bloodcurdling violence of the French Revolution had given birth to a whole series of reforms implemented by Napoleon. In Africa, Allah was beginning to bring light in quite another way.
“There is no God but Allah,” Usman’s voice reverberated in the streets and highways. “All ways are impure except those shown by Allah.” Usman denounced the ways of the ordinary people as evil. Suddenly almost everything became evil for the ordinary people. Usman decided what was holy and what unholy. Usman decided when people could smile and whey they should weep. Usman decided what they could eat and drink. Usman became the law. “All laws come from Allah,” Usman declared.
“Allah appeared to me in a dream,” he told the people. “All the prophets of the past stood on either side of Allah. And Allah told me, ‘I anoint you as the Messiah of Africa. You are the forerunner of the Mahdi, who is coming soon along with Jesus to initiate the cosmic struggle against the Antichrist. The end of the world is near. Teach your people to repent and turn to Allah if they are to be redeemed on the Day of the Judgment.’”
Gods of all hues exercise a strange charm on people of every country. And the prophets of the gods are like the pied piper whom people follow abandoning everything else.
The Sultan was not very pleased by this usurpation. Who is more powerful: the sultan or the maulana? The answer depends on who you are or on whose side you are.
Sometimes the maulana has to be got rid of if the sultan is to save his throne. The sultan began his conspiracies. An earthly king’s conspiracies may not be powerful enough to eliminate a god’s representative.
The maulana became the commander of an army. The religious followers became political warriors. The line between politics and religion is an illusion that can be shifted in any direction as required by the occasion.
“Win the war,” Usman told his warriors, “and you will get seven towns filled with dark-eyed maidens each one of whom being served by ten thousand slaves. Win the war and you will embrace those dark-eyed beauties for seventy years. You will do it again and again until you are tired. You will have no other work, save the play of delight.”
Usman’s warriors stood erect with their swords unsheathed. They were intoxicated with both spiritual and temporal lust. Armed with such intoxication,
it didn’t take much time for Usman to decapitate the sultan. Usman the holy man became Usman the Caliph.
The successful warriors demanded the promised dark-eyed maidens and seventy years of delight. The Caliph became the holy man once again, “Wait, children, wait. The final reward is in heaven. Wait until your time.”
They waited. People always wait.