Ibāḍism in the Medieval Sahel

By Kristina L. Richardson

For centuries the Sunnī Mālikī madhhab has predominated among Muslims of northern and western Africa, but before the 12th century, Shīʿī, Khārijī, and Ibāḍī legal schools vied for dominance.[1]

Merchants living under the Ibāḍī Rustamids (779-909, capital in Tāhart) and in independent Khārijī states in the western Maghrib, such as the Barghawata along the Atlantic coast (744) and the Idrisids of Fez (788), traded among themselves. They also developed trans-Saharan trade routes that connected the north with markets in the western and central African Sahel. (il means ‘shore’ in Arabic. Like the Mediterranean, the Sahara functions as a vast connective space, on whose northern and southern shores humans settled.)

Image source: Roman Loimeier, Muslim Societies in Africa: A Historical Anthropology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), Map 4.

Although these Ibāḍī and Khārijī ruling dynasties were largely overrun by the Shī‘ī Fāṭimid dynasty (909-1171), and their subjects dispersed or absorbed into the new order, the Ibāḍī – Khārijī influence endured among Berber and Black communities in the Sahara and Sahel. A Japanese-Malian team of archaeologists have excavated a 10th-century mosque in the city of Gao—Kawkaw in Arabic—that was likely an Ibāḍī house of worship.[2] It is certainly the earliest mosque excavated in the western Sahel. Several clues point to strong Ibāḍī  influences in Gao before the 11th century that were lessened with an emergence of competing influences.

The first Islamic funerary epitaph in Gao dates to 1013 CE, and its absence before this date probably stems from Ibāḍī  discouragement of the practice.[3] Another major social change is evidenced in the introduction in the second half of the 11th century of new construction techniques, namely using baked brick cubes, instead of stone.[4] The city’s increasing religious diversity may have engendered these new cultural practices. The 12th-century author al-Zuhrī claimed that “the people of this city [Gao] profess Judaism,”[5] perhaps referring to a community of Maghribī Jewish merchants. In 1352 Ibn Battuta describes a Malian village inhabited by black merchants, white Ibāḍīs, and white Mālikīs:

After a journey of ten days from Īwālātan [Walata in southeast Mauritania] we reached the village of Zāgharī. It is a big village inhabited by traders of the Sūdān called Wanjarāta with whom live a company of white men who are Kharijites of the Ibāḍī sect called Ṣaghanaghū. The whites who are Sunnīs of the Mālikī school are called by them tūrī.[6]

In Arabic geographies and travel literature and in archeological remains and funerary epigraphy of Gao, we recover historical links between Black and Amazigh Ibāḍīs, Mālikīs, and Jews living in the Maghrib, Sahara, and Sahel. What does the oral literature of peoples of the Niger River basin have to teach us about these communities?

Abū Yazīd, the Sahel-born Ibāḍī imām

Abū Yazīd Makhlad b. Kaydād al-Nukkārī (ca. 270/883 – 336/947), the Nukkārī Ibāḍī leader who led a four-year revolt against the Ismā’ilī Fatimids, was born in Gao or Tādmakka in modern-day Mali. His father was a Zanāta Amazigh merchant, who circulated between his home in the Tūzar oasis of southern Tunisia and the Sahel. In fact, it was in Tādmakka that he purchased Sabīka (or Subayka), the Hawwāra Amazigh woman who would give birth to Abū Yazīd. Abū Yazīd himself grew up in Tūzar, studying Qur’ān and the doctrine of the Nukkārī sect, a branch of Ibāḍism.

In the 800s, a group of Ibāḍīs refused to recognize the second imām of the Rustamid Ibāḍī dynasty, based in Tāhart (modern-day Algeria), and established their own imamate. These outliers were known as the Nukkār (‘the deniers’). By 318/930, our Abū Yazīd was living among the Hawwāra clan in the Aurès Mountains in western Tunisia, when the Nukkār imam Abū ʿAmmār the Blind passed the imamate on to Abū Yazīd. In 943 Abū Yazīd set in motion his plot to unseat the Ismā’ilī Fāṭimids, viciously attacking the Fāṭimid city of Mahdia. Eventually, Abū Yazīd was cornered in a mountain fortress, severely injured and captured by the man who would go on to become caliph Manṣūr billāh. His corpse was stuffed with straw and paraded through coastal towns.

So, what makes this story of rebellion remarkable? Its afterlife. Following the sound defeat of their leader, Abū Yazīd’s supporters dispersed to the Tunisian island of Jerba, to Jabal Nafūsa, and into southern Ifriqiyya.[7] Did some supporters or at least news of Abū Yazīd reach Ibāḍī communities of the Sahel? Hausa oral literature suggests as much. In the central Sahel, Abū Yazīd’s story was recast as Hausa myth, and his Arabic name Bantuized as Bayajida.

According to the myth, Bayajida was a great and brave Baghdādī prince who traveled to the central Sahel from his Iraqi homeland. He fought against the pagan Ziduwa, that some scholars considered to have represented the Shiʿa. “In Hausa the plural of Shīʿah would be Shiʿawa or Shʿuwa and the changing of the glottal stop for the implosive ‘d’ of Hausa, to become the Shiduwa or Ziduwa of the Hausa versions of the legends is a simple and natural move.”[8] In the legend, Bayajida triumphs, then sets up a kingdom in the city of Daura. His six sons founded the six Hausa city-states of Kano, Katsina, Zaria, Gobir, Rano, and Biram.[9]

Through a creative restoration, a defeated Ibāḍī imām was transformed into a courageous legend, probable evidence of Hausa receptiveness to Ibāḍī thought before the spread of the Sunnī Mālikism that would come to diminish its influence and reach.

Source: Anne Haour, Outsiders and Strangers, p. 24.


[1] The Khārijīs did not accept ʿAlī’s submission to arbitration to determine whether he or Muʿawiya was the legitimate caliph and left (Arabic: kharaja) the ‘party of ʿAlī’ in 657 CE. The Ibāḍīs are an offshoot of the Khārijīs and emphasize peaceful egalitarianism.

[2] Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara, ed. Alisa Lagamma (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 66; Shoichiro Takezawa, Mamadou Cissé and Mamadi Dembélé, “Fouilles archéologiques à Gao Ancien: découverte du palais royal le plus ancien en Afrique de l’Ouest,” in Sur les traces des grands empires: Recherches archéologiques au Mali, ed. Shoichiro Takezawa and Mamadou Cissé (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2017), 198-200.

[3] On the spare presentation of Omani Ibāḍī cemeteries, see Birgit Mershen, “Pots and Tombs in Ibrāʾ, Oman. Investigations into the archaeological surface record of Islamic cemeteries and the related burial customs and funerary rituals,” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 34 (2004): 165-79.

[4] Takezawa et al., 209.

[5] Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, ed. N. Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2000), 97.

[6] Ibid., 287.

[7] The migrations of Ibāḍī scholars and their works are traced in Paul M. Love, Jr., Ibadi Muslims of North Africa: Manuscripts, Mobilization, and the Making of a Written Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[8] W. K. R. Hallam, “The Bayajida Legend in Hausa Folklore,” The Journal of African History 7, no. 1 (1966): 54.

[9] Hallam, 47-60; Anne Haour, Outsiders and Strangers: An Archaeology of Liminality in West Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 22.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Kristina L. Richardson, Ibāḍism in the Medieval Sahel, Islamic Law Blog (Mar. 18, 2021), https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/03/18/iba%e1%b8%8dism-in-the-medieval-sahel/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Kristina L. Richardson,, “Ibāḍism in the Medieval Sahel,” Islamic Law Blog, March 18, 2021, https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/03/18/iba%e1%b8%8dism-in-the-medieval-sahel/)

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