Muslims Contribution to the Study and Development of Medical Sciences in 19th Century Nigeria: A Preliminary Account

This paper presented at the 7th International Congress of the International Society of the History of Islamic Medicine, and 4th Fez Congress on History of Medicine, jointly organized by the University of Muhamed Ben Abdallah, the International Society of the History of Medicine, and the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization, UK, (FSTC) 24th to 28th October 2016.

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Students in a science class celebrating their graduation, Nigeria - from E. H. Duckworth (1893-1972) Photograph Collection  (Source)


The level of intellectual and scholarly rejuvenation that characterized the nineteenth century Muslim regions of Nigeria culminated into the thriving rational awakening which consequently contributed to the emergence of Muslim scholars and researchers who ventured into general studies, experimentations and discoveries into different aspects of knowledge. That unprecedented academic venture left an indelible mark in the singular and onerous contributions of Muslim scholars in the study of various aspects of sciences and medicine. The nature, character and relevance of the study of medicine was theoretically addressed by scholars in the 19th century thereby trying to reposition and reshape the mental, intellectual and spiritual threads and fabrics of the Muslims about the importance and necessity for the study of the subject among the Muslims. On the other hand, they also tried intellectually to set a phase and redefine boarders and frontiers in the development of medical sciences by fundamentally codifying and documenting thematically different fields of medical sciences in order to encourage students and researches to study the area as a normal discipline in the curriculum and learning methods in the region.

Abuja National Mosque (Source)

The paper therefore intends to investigate and report how the Muslims contributed to the hypothetical discourse  on medicine, and their actual contributions in various fields of medical studies such as pharmacology, general medicine, ophthalmology, surgery, dermatology,  hygiene, and other related fields. The expected result of which will be to demonstrate the level of Muslim contributions in medical sciences before the destructions of those citadels of learning and research institutions by the British and French imperial forces in the early 20th century. Consequently, the study will nostalgically call for the re-examination and re-experimentation and contextualization of these medical reports and findings in the light of modern science and technology, and to encourage the Muslims in Nigeria, West Africa and beyond to embrace this indispensable field of knowledge as part and parcel of their historical legacy and heritage.                     

Background to Muslim Intellectual Development in the Pre-Nineteenth Century Nigeria

Hausa people 1902 (Source)

Islam is a religion of letters, which emphasizes teaching and practice of its tenets through learning and knowledge. As noted earlier, Islam came into the Central Bilad al-Sudan through trade from North Africa following the already existing trade routes.  It started making headway into other parts of western and central Sudan. Although, the exact date of coming of Islam into the region has not yet been determined, but as early as the 8th Century AD Islam was in Kanem Borno.[1]

Islam appeared in most parts of Hausa states of Northern Nigeria in a later period. It is quite probable that almost within the same time Islam must have been in some parts of Hausaland via Borno due to the political, cultural and commercial ties that existed between the two regions even before the advent of the religion of Islam.  Before the end of the fifteenth Century, however, Islam had already started becoming a state religion in some Hausa States, especially in Kano during the reign of Muhammad Rumfa 1466 -1499.  Furthermore, the role of the migrant Muslim communities like the Wangarawa, Fulani and Kunta migrants into the region contributed greatly to the spread and consolidation of Islamic education among the various peoples of Central Sudan.

According to M.A. Alhaj:

The Wangarawa came from Malle bringing Muhammadan (Islamic) religion. The name of their leader was Abdulrahman Zaite. Shaykh Abdulrahman Zaite whose original intention was to perform pilgrimage was accompanied on his journey by a very large contingent of followers including about 3,636 erudite scholars. When in Hausaland (Northern Nigeria), the Wangarawa first passed through the lands of Gobir, Azben and Katsina before they finally settled in Kano. Some followers close to Abdulrahman chose to settle in Gobir and Katsina for one reason or the other." [2] 

The missionary and intellectual activities of the Wangarawa scholars who were of Malian origin in Hausaland were very remarkable. To date, some of their progenies are respected as imams and teachers in many parts of this area, like Zaria and some parts of former Gobir Kingdom.

Another contributory factor to the development of Islamic education in the region was royal patronage and high social status accorded to Ulama due to literary roles and contributions in the development of the states. In the same vein, itinerant scholars among the Fulani, Duala, and other tribes of the Senegambia region also contributed in this direction. The same as North African scholars such as Muhammad bin Abdulkareem al-Maghili and Imam Jalal al-Deen al-Suyuti aided in terms of guidance and literature especially to the ruling class.[3]

Sultan of Zinder's palace courtyard, Niger, 1906 (Source)

Consequent upon this, almost all the major cities of commerce in the Central Sudan (northern Nigeria) turned out to be new centers of Islam and learning especially in the 16th to the 18th Centuries. Some of the possible reasons may be that, these well established cities attracted the attention of migrant scholars more than any other place in West Africa during this  the period. The activities of traders and Muslim scholars in the view of Lewis became very difficult to distinguish. That was due to the fact that, these two activities of teaching and trading were combined in one person in most cases. Therefore, the contribution of long distance trade in the spread and diffusion of Islam and Islamic scholarship in all regions of Africa was remarkable. [4] Thus, it was trade and mutual cooperation that facilitated the development of Islam and Islamic education in the region and not the sword or use of force. 

Books at the Djenne Manuscript Library (Source)

Due to the fact that, ‘book’ has been an enduring medium of disseminating knowledge, a means of communicating and circulating ideas and thoughts of people,[5] Muslim missionaries emphasized knowledge and book culture as the backbone of their missionary activities.  The idea was first initialized in the context of the Qur’an as a valuable book and a companion for all the Muslims, and then followed in rank by the Hadith books and other scholarly works on various aspects of jurisprudence and other sciences. The type of Islam that was introduced in central Sudan was book and literary oriented. Indeed, the main source of Islamic orientation was the North Africa, the Egyptian or the al-Azhar tradition, which more or less had established unreserved respect for scholars and books. 

The North African intellectual tradition was extended to Timbuktu, Sankore and Jenne where Islamic learning was first institutionalized in West Africa. As a result, schools of varying degrees were established in those cities. Sankore was renowned for the well established schools of international standards that flourished in it. Timbuktu is still being explored for its wealth of literary materials, manuscripts, and traces of scholarship tradition of West Africa.[6] 

A manuscript page from Timbuktu showing a table of astronomical information (Source)

By extension, the Timbuktu educational system was to a large extent, adopted in Nigeria. Consequently, the presence of Islam in this region served as the foundation for the development of schools and book culture among the people. From schools for beginners, both adult and children used slates known as allo for learning; followed by makarantun ilmi i.e. schools for high and advanced studies. Books containing other sciences were also studied. The curriculum and method of teaching at all levels in the schools were aimed at training and producing ulama’- scholars who may in turn establish their own schools and train students in the future.

The next stage is the study of Hadith books. Some of the books studied at this level include Arbauna Hadith, Muwatta of Imam Malik , Jami’ al Saghir  of Suyuti and then Bukhari, Muslim and other major Hadith books. Books on different aspects of Grammar, Syntax, Phonology and Rhetoric, such as Ajurumiyah, and others were studied.   Also Shu’ara al-Jahili, Muqama of al-Hariri were valued for their rich Arabic literature and vocabularies, while al-Burdah and al-Ishiriniyat after being the prophet’s eulogy, also teach Arabic vocabularies.[7]

In the process:

The teacher’s work is to translate, elucidate the text after the student has read a sentence or line aloud. The teacher has a set speed, tone of voice and vocabulary different from that he normally uses… Courses continue until a book is finished in six months or more…There is no formal academic licensing or organization. The quality of work is left to the individual and his student audience is the only examination he is likely to face."[8] 

Young girl reading the Qurʾān, Ibadan, Nigeria (Source)

Learning in books had as early as the 15th and 16th centuries become fashionable among Muslims in Nigeria. The noble and rich persons were involved in the learning process. Quite a number of Hausa rulers studied under different immigrant scholars. For example, Sarkin (King of) Kano Umar (1410-1421) learned fiqh with as-Sheikh Dan Gurdum who taught him the doctrine of Zuhd (ascetism), a doctrine that was responsible for his leaving his throne to the Galadima in order to pursue his ascetic life at the countryside. Sarki Muhammad Rumfa (1463-1499) studied under al-Maghili, Sarki Abd Allah (1499-1509) with Shaykh Ahmad Al-Timbucti and Sarki Abubakar Kado (1565-1573), studied al-Shifa’a under Sheikh Abd al-Azizi al-Qairawanii.[9]  The same story could be found in Borno under the Mais (rulers of Borno) who were said to have studied different aspects of Islamic sciences from the scholars they employed purposely to teach them and their immediate families. That was in addition to paying hugely from the public treasury scholars from all corners and crannies of the Borno Empire to teach and educate the people.[10]

It is beyond doubt that at this level of education and process of learning, books are the only raw materials and finished goods. That was the stage that, Murray Last describes as ‘book oriented, with a marked skill required in classical Arabic. Scholars of this tradition taught text and sought out copies of new books. As exceptional Arabists, they were employed as tutors at royal courts.[11] Apart from enrolling into various schools established in the region, students started trooping into the North African institutions for studies. Notably, the role of al-Azhar University in the training and development of scholars from the Nigerian areas was indubitable.  

al-Azhar University, Cairo (Source)

As early as the 13th century Mai Dunama established hostels (Riwaqs) in al-Azhar to accommodate Kanem Borno students. This clearly indicates that a large number of Kanem Borno students at the time were either studying or had obtained admission into al-Azhar University. This also shows the commitment of the Kanem Borno rulers to encourage and strengthen the scholarship culture and education among their people. [12]

Thus, E. D. Morel commented that, not long after the introduction of Islam in West Africa; many Negros rivalled their Semitic or Berber teachers in Knowledge and erudition. [13]  The most remarkable contribution of the indigenous scholars in Nigeria could be seen in three major fields:

a) Original literary (Arabic) contribution in all fields of human endeavors.

b) Providing commentaries to previous books available in the region (to highlight specific issues affecting the people and practice of the religion in this part of the world).

c) Invention of new indigenous scripts characters known as Ajami (Arabic scripts in indigenous languages).  The Ajami mainly in Hausa, Kanuri, Nupe and Youruba (the major Muslim languages in Nigeria), provided opportunity for inhabitant speakers literate in Arabic to read and write in their local languages, via customized Arabic letters.  That contributed to the widespread literacy among the Nigerian Muslims more than any other people in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, apart from the Ethiopians none of the African tribes invented scripts of their local languages, than the Islamized peoples of Hausa, Nupe, Kanuri and Yoruba Muslims. The level of expertise and sophistication in Arabic language and the ingenuity of the Nigerian Muslim scholars were indeed remarkably exceptional.[14]

Hausa Ajami manuscript (Source)

Background to Muslim Scientific and Medical Research in 19th Century Nigeria

Two Nigerian men reading  and learning - from E. H. Duckworth (1893-1972) Photograph Collection (Source)

The period of the nineteenth century and its intellectual and academic attainments signified an accomplishment and crowning of all the scholarly and educational tradition that had existed for centuries in this region. It was a century considered as the melting point of both foreign and home-based intellectual legacies. The scholars of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries left behind their works which served as first hand information to the nineteenth century scholars.  The same as they remained aware of those materials produced in other parts of the Muslim world, so they were with the books produced in Nigeria over the centuries.

Stewart argued, that the level of utilization of foreign as well as indigenous literature by the 19th century ulama in Nigeria contributed significantly to their exposure and sophistication in all fields of study including science and medicine; they were directly or indirectly influenced by southern Saharan Sheikhs… Shehu Usman Danfodiyo’s debt to Jibril Ibn Umar’s teaching among the Ait Awari of the Iullemmenden in Adrar has been widely discussed. Ahmad Lebbo’s connections with Azaouad Kunta political and religious counsel is well known; and al-Hajj Umar seems to have been influenced at least indirectly by the Idaw Ali Shaikh of Shinqit at an early date. [15] 

Thomas Hodkin also stressed that the influence of the Maghrebi scholars and teaching style continued to be felt in this area. The stimuli especially from the al-Azhar University, through the influence of its West African graduates, the Salafiya (the reforming ideas associated with Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida), was transmitted mainly through Maghreb, and Wahabiyya influence. In their political aspect according to him, these movements have been essentially anti-traditionalist, anti-Mouraboutic and they stressed for a development of a reformed and modernized type of Islamic education, through the study of the literature and books imported from the region.[16] The result of the new curriculum and teaching style as well as books that were introduced across the Sahara contributed to the emergence of MalamsUlama -who continued to pursue a powerful tradition of Arabic learning, which indeed persist to the present day.[17]

Al-Azhar University founded in 970 CE (Source)

The triumvirates (Shehu Usmanu bin Fodiyo, Abd Allah bin Fodiyo and Muhammad Bello bin Shehu Usmanu) maintained that the main source of their educational development and attainment was the extended Islamic tradition of scholarship and a combination of local and international intellectual output. That was why Shehu Danfodiyo considered their works as part of the inherited treasures of the Ummah and not an isolated or invented norms.

Shehu Danfodiyo said:

All our works are explanation of what had been generally treated in works of previous scholars. The works of previous scholars are explanations of what was generally treated in the Book (Qur’an) and Sunnah."[18]

The caliber of scholars of the 19th century Sokoto tradition was indeed of highest repute that could be found in any society. They had the conviction that Islam is inseparable with knowledge and science; and that science and spirituality were intertwined and aimed at bringing people closer to God and ensuring them comfort and happiness in both this world and the next.

According to Smith:

The academic ideals, the tradition of learning which the mujahidun sought to follow and develop were not, of course something, which they invented themselves. They were the time-honored ideals and traditions of scholarship, which had formed the basis of intellectual endeavor in the Islamic world for centuries: traditions and ideals which the ancient universities of the Islamic world had been founded to preserve…the Islamic idea of knowledge is universalist in nature embracing knowledge of God and his creation including knowledge of anything to be found in the universe (emphasis added)."[19]

Photo of residents of Sokoto 1900 (Source)

The nineteenth century Nigeria was indeed a historic time of intellectual revolution, which transformed the region as one of the greatest citadels of learning in the world. The book and literary achievements were holistic and provided the newly established Ummah with all it required academically and intellectually.

In this regard, Ismail noted that: