A 19th century African philosopher: the biography and philosophical writings of Abd Al-Qadir Ibn Al-Mustafa (Dan Tafa)

including the three philosophical works attributed to him

On Philosophy in Africa

Philosophy is simply defined as "the love of wisdom" and like all regions, Africa has been (and still is) home to various intellectual traditions and discourses of philosophy. Following Africa's “triple heritage”; some of these philosophical traditions were autochthonous, others were a hybrid of Islamic/Christian and African philosophies and the rest are Europhone philosophies1 

While the majority of African philosophical traditions from the first category (such as Ifa) were not transcribed into writing before the modern era, the second category of African philosophical traditions (such as Ethiopian philosophy and Sokoto philosophy) were preserved in both written and oral form, and among the written African Philosophies, the most notable works are of the 17th century Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob, eg the 'Hatata'2 and the works of Sokoto philosopher Abd Al-Qādir Ibn Al-Mustafa (Dan Tafa) the latter of whom is the subject of this article

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Biography of Dan Tafa: west Africa during the Age of revolution

West Africa at the time of Dan Tafa birth was in the midst of a political revolution led by highly learned groups of scholars that overthrew the older established military and religious elites, leading to the foundation of the empires of Sokoto in 1806 led by Uthman dan Fodio and the empire of Hamdallayi in 1818 led by Amhad Lobbo, among other similar states.

Birth and Education

Dan Tafa was born in 1804, during the migration of Uthman Dan Fodio's followers which preceded the establishment of the Sokoto empire, he was born to Mallam Tafa and Khadija, both of whom were scholars in their own right. Mallam Tafa was the advisor, librarian and the 'leader of the scribes' (kuutab) in Uthman's Fodiyawa clan (an extended family of scholars that was central in the formation of the Sokoto empire) and he later became the secretary (kaatib) of the Sokoto empire after having achieved high education in Islamic sciences, he also established a school in Salame ( a town north of Sokoto; the eponymously named capital city of the empire, which is now in northern Nigeria) where he settled, the school was later run by his son Dan Tafa.3 Khadija was also a highly educated scholar, she wrote more than six works4 in her Fulfulde language on a wide of subjects including eschatology and was the chief teacher of women in the Fodiyawa her most notable student being Nana Asmau; the celebrated 19th century poetess and historian5

Dan Tafa’s Studies

Dan Tafa studied and wrote about a wide range of disciplines as he wrote in his ‘Shukr al-Wahib fi-ma Khassana min al-'ulum’ (Showing Gratitude to the Benefactor for the Divine Overflowing Given to Those He Favors) in which he divides his studies into 6 sections, listing the sciences which he mastered such as the natural sciences that included; medicine (tibb), physiognomy (hai'at), arithmetic (hisaab), and astronomy (hikmat 'l-nujuum), the sciences of linguistics (lughat), verbal conjugation (tasrif), grammar (nahwa), rhetoric (bayaan), and various esoteric and gnostic sciences the list of which continues,6 plus the science of Sufism (tasawwuf). It was in the latter discipline that he was introduced to Falsafa (philosophy) under his main tutor Muhammad Sanbu (his maternal uncle), about who he writes:

"As for Shaykh Muḥammad Sanbu, I took from him the path of Taṣawwuf, and transmitted from him some of the books of the Folk (the Sufis) as well as their wisdom, after he had taken this from his father, Shaykh ‘Uthmān; like the Ḥikam (of Ibn ‘Aṭā’ Allāh al-Iskandarī), and the Insān al-Kāmil (of ‘Abd al-Karīm al-Jīlī), and others as well as the states of the spiritual path."7

In summary,  "Dan Tafa was raised in the extraordinary milieu of the founding and early years of the Sokoto Caliphate exposed to virtually all of the Islamic sciences transmitted in West Africa at the time, from medicine, mathematics, astronomy, geography, and history, jurisprudence, to logic, philosophy, Sufism".

Folio from the ‘Shukr al-Wahib fi-ma Khassana min al-'ulum’ from a private collection in Maiurno, Sudan


Dan Tafa’s writings

Dan Tafa wrote on a wide range of subjects and at least 72 of his works are listed in John Hunwick's “Arabic Literature of Africa vol.2” catalogue (from pgs 222-230) .His most notable works are on history, for which he is best remembered, especially the ‘Rawdat al-afkar’ (The Sweet Meadows of Contemplation) written in 1824 and the ‘Mawsufat al-sudan’ (Description of the black lands) written in 1864; both of which include a fairly detailed account on the history of west Africa, he also wrote works on geography such as the ‘Qataif al-jinan’ (The Fruits of the Heart in Reflection about the Sudanese Earth (world)"8 which included a very detailed account of the topography, states, history and culture of west Africa and the Maghreb, and even more notably, he wrote ‘Jawāb min 'Abd al-Qādir al-Turudi ilā Nūh b. al-Tâhir’ (Abd al-Qādir al-Turūdī's response to Nüh b. alTāhir); a meticulous refutation of the Risāla of Nuh Al-Tahir, in which the latter, who is described as "the doppelgänger of Dan Tafa in the Ḥamdallāhi empire", was trying to legitimize the status of Ḥamdallāhi’s ruler Ahmad Lobbo, as the prophesied "12th caliph" by heavily altering the Tārīkh al-fattāsh; a famous 17th century Timbuktu chronicle on west African history9.

Dan Tafa had thus established himself as the most prominent and prolific writer and thinker of Sokoto such that by the time of German explorer Heinrich Barth's visit to Sokoto in 1853, Dan Tafa was considered by his peers and Barth as:

"the most learned of the present generations of the inhabitants of Sokoto… The man was Abde Kader dan Tafa …on whose stores of knowledge I drew eagerly"10

Folio in the ‘Rawdat al-afkar’, from a private collection in Maiurno, Sudan

Folio in the ‘Mawsufat al-sudan’, from a private collection in Maiurno, Sudan

The Philosophical writings of Dan Tafa

Above all else, it was his writings on philosophy that set him apart from the rest of his peers; in 1828 he wrote first philosophical work titled 'Al-Futuhat al-rabbaniyya' (The divine Unveilings) described by historian Muhammad Kani as: "a critical evaluation of the materialists, naturalists and physicists' perception of life … matters relating to the transient nature of the world, existence or non-existence of the spirit, and the nature of celestial spheres, are critically examined in the work"11

He followed this up with another philosophical work titled 'Kulliyāt al-‘ālam al-sitta' ('The Sixth World Faculty) that is described by professor Oludamini as: "a brief but dense philosophical poem about the origins, development, resurrection, and end of the body, soul, and spirit, as well as a discussion of hyle (prime matter)"12 and later in his life, he wrote the 'Uhud wa-mawāthiq (Covenants and Treaties) in 1855. which is a short treatise written in a series of 17 oaths taken by the author, its described by Muhammad Kani as: "an apologia to his critics among the orthodox scholars who viewed philosophy with skepticism"13.

According to Muhammad Kani and John Hunwick, these three works fit squarely within the genre called Falsafa ie; Islamic philosophy. Falsafa isn't to be understood as a philosophy directly coming out of Islam but rather one that was built upon centuries of various philosophical traditions including Greek, Roman, Persian philosophy14 and Quranic traditions. Practitioners of Falsafa include the famed Islamic golden age philosophers such as Ibn sina (d. 1037AD),  Ibn Arabi (d. 1240AD) and Athīr al-dīn Abharī(d. 1265AD) ; especially the latter two, whose work is echoed in Dan Tafa's "sixth world faculty". Dan Tafa's general philosophy can be read mostly from his two of his works ie; his last work; "covenants and treaties" which was written both in defense of philosophy and religion but also outlines his personal philosophies and ethics. and his second work; “On the sixth world faculty”.

folio from ‘Uhud wa-mawāthiq’ (covenants and treaties) from a private collection in Maiurno, Sudan

1: On "covenants and treaties” : philosophy's place in the wider Muslim world and Sokoto in particular

In the few centuries after establishing the "house of wisdom" in which Arabic translations of classical philosophical texts were stored, read and interpreted, Muslim political and religious authorities were faced with a dilemma of how to welcome the 'pagan' intellectual traditions of these texts into the ‘ulum uid-dın’ ( ‘‘sciences of the religion’’) where Islamic wisdom was meant to be sought and realized15, a dilemma they seem to have resolved by the 12th century when Falsafa was integrated with the disciplines of theology (Kalam) and Sufism (Tasawwuf) but the disputes and tension regarding the permissiveness of a number of 'sciences' meant that philosophy wasn't always part of the curriculum of schools both in the Islamic heartlands and in west Africa; which made the method of learning it almost as exclusive as that of the "esoteric" sciences that Dan Tafa asserted that he learned, this "exclusive" method of tutoring philosophy students was apparently the standard method of learning the discipline in Sokoto and it was likely how his uncle Muḥammad Sanbu taught it to him, even though Dan Tafa implied In his oaths that he had been teaching it to his students at his school in Salame.

The integration of philosophy and theology in Islam however, was in contrast to western Europe where philosophy and theology drifted apart during the same period16 although there were exceptions to this rule, as even the enlightenment-era philosophers included "defenders of Christianity/religion" such as  German philosopher Friedrich Hegel; a contemporary of Dan Tafa.

It is within this context of the tension surrounding the permissiveness of philosophy that Dan Tafa wrote his apologia. In it, he unequivocally states his adherence to his faith while also lauding the necessity of reason; for example in his 1st oath, seemingly in direct response to his critics who likely charged him with choosing rational proofs as his new doctrine, he explains that:

 "The evidences of reason are limited to establishing the existence of an incomprehensible deity and that Its attributes are such and such. But the evidences of reason cannot fathom in any way Its essential reality"

therefore he says: 

"I have taken an oath of covenant to construct my doctrine of belief upon the verses of the Qur’an and not upon evidences of reason or the theories of scholastic theology"17

He then “moderates” the above oath, writing in the 2nd oath that:

"I have taken an oath and covenant to closely reflect upon the established precepts and researched theories regarding the majority of existing things and upon what emerges from the influences which some parts of existence have upon others. I have not disregarded the benefits and blessings which are in these precepts. Further, I have refrained from being like the mentally shallow who say that created existence has no effective influence, whatsoever. In holding this position, I remain completely acquainted with the fundamental Divine realities from which all things have emerged."18 

The 1st oath was likely influenced by Uthman Fodio defense of taqlīd, while his argument that rational proofs alone can't reveal the existence of God was similar to the one stated by Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) in which the latter writes "If we had remained with our rational proofs – which, in the opinion of the rational thinkers, establish knowledge of God’s essence, showing that “He is not like this” and “not like that” – no created thing would ever have loved God. But the tongues of the religions gave a divine report saying that “He is like this” and “He is like that”, mentioning affairs which outwardly contradict rational proofs". And the 2nd oath, while not contradicting the first, leaves plenty of room for Dan Tafa to consider "researched theories" on the things in nature without disregarding the befits in their principles

He continues with this moderation in the 3rd oath by implying that there is no contradiction between the proofs of reason and the authority of the Qu'ran, writing that:

"I have taken an oath and covenant to weigh and measure all that I possess of comprehension with the verses of the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet …Whoever doubts this, then let him try me"

in this oath, Dan Tafa defends his knowledge and use of philosophy stating that he weighs it with his faith and is steadfast in both, so much that he invites anyone among his peers to an intellectual debate if they wish to challenge him on both. This oath is also related to the 9th oath in which he writes:

"I have taken an oath and covenant to closely consider the established principles which underline worldly customs. For, these principles are an impregnable mainstay in knowing the descent of worldly affairs, because these affairs descend in accordance with these principles"

the worldly customs here being a reference to practices that are outside the Islamic law which aren't concerned with worship eg the study of philosophy and esoteric sciences which are the subject of this work.

Dan Tafa also takes care not to offer the above intellectual debate (of the 3rd oath) on account of his own pride (…"let him try me") but rather in good faith, as he also writes in his 4th oath:

"I have taken an oath and covenant that I will not face off or contend with anyone in a way in which that person may dislike; even when the bad character of the individual requires me to. For, contending with others in ways that are reprehensible is too repugnant and harmful to enumerate. This oath is extremely difficult to uphold, so may Allah assist us to fulfill it by means of His benevolence and kindness."

In this apologia, Dan Tafa however seemingly yields to his critics by promising to end his teaching of philosophy, leaving no doubt he was tutoring some of his students in Salame the discipline of Falsafa, as he writes in his 10th oath:

"I have taken and oath and covenant not to invite anyone from the people to what I have learned from the philosophical (falsafa) and elemental sciences; even though I took these sciences in a sound manner, rejecting from that what is in these sciences of errors. Along with that, I will not teach these sciences to anyone in order that they may not be led astray; and errors will thus revert back to me"

this was the first explicit mention of falsafa in these oaths but it was certainly the main subject of this apologia. In this oath, he promises to refrain from teaching philosophy to his students to prevent them from being led into error that would revert back to him, he nevertheless continues defending his education in philosophy writing that he took it "in a sound manner".

In his oaths he also includes ethical concerns that were guided by his personal philosophy for example in his 7th oath he writes that":

"I have taken an oath and covenant to not compete with anyone in a right which that person has a greater right over than me. Rather, I will stop with the fundamental right which is mine until it is they who compete with me in my right. Then at that point, I will contend with them with the truth for the truth regardless if that right of mine is of a religious or worldly nature. Realize that the prerequisites for reclaiming and demanding one’s rights is well known with the masters of the art of disposal" 

The above oath could be seen in practice when a promise made to Dan Tafa's by the Sokoto ruler Ali Ibn Bello (r. 1842 to 1859) to make Dan Tafa the Wazir, was instead passed on to another, but Dan Tafa continued advising Ali Ibn Bello despite the latter breaking his promise to give him the Wazir office which he, more than anyone else, was fully qualified for, and all this happened in 1859, after he had written this work19

And in his 8th oath he writes:

"I have taken an oath and covenant not to take two distinct causative factors or more in seeking after my worldly affairs. Rather, I will stop with a single cause and will not add any additional causative factors until the one I relied upon fails. Then I will change to another causative factor for earning wealth. This is mainly in order not to make things constricted for other Muslims in their causative factors"

This could also be seen in practice at the educational institution that Dan Tafa operated which continued to be his primary source of income, and from where he continued writing books, advising Amirs and teaching his students. He also devised an exam to test the leaning standards of the Sokoto scholars that consisted of cunning historical and legal questions, many of his works contain critiques and recommendations on how various disciplines should be studied and taught20

2: “On the sixth world faculty”: the development of intellect and prime matter

"oaths an covenants" is in part, a summary of his earlier philosophical works especially the one titled "on the sixth world faculty" in which he writes on the development of intellect:

"On the Development of the Intellect:

The development of intellects is by firm patience Its striving in actions …

It brings news of all matters, And seeks to clarify what is required and what is supererogatory for them

And it holds your soul back from its lusts, And eliminates aggression to prevent injuries" 

He continues …

 "On prime matter:

The [prime] matter is the fixed entities Before their attributes are qualified by existence

And the continuous rain (dīma) is like the soul, from it arises Warmth with coolness, and they spread

And so follows wetness and dryness And the rest of four basic elements Then appear the spheres and the planets Orbiting them, and likewise the fixed stars

The motions perpetually traverse the spheres Running with darkness and illuminating the kingdom (al-mulk)

Then from them appear the engendered beings [the kingdoms] Which are multiple and composite Like the mineral, plant, and animal [kingdoms]

They differ in their governing principle From which they become hot and dry [fire], cold and wet [water] And the inverse of these concomitants occurs [hot and wet (air), cold and dry (earth)] In accordance with natural transformation At the places of land and sea

As for animals, their nature is different … (continued)"21

The above excerpt is from the "sixth world faculty" as translated by Oludamini, who describes the who work as "characterized by a density and concision that seems to necessitate an oral commentary". Dan Tafa's philosophy on prime matter can also be analyzed through the Avicenna and Aristotelian philosophies of prime matter (Hylomorphism)

Dan Tafa’s writings of Philosophical Sufism

also included among his writings are those termed "Sufi philosophies", and they include works such as 'Nasab al-mawjūdāt' (Origin of Existents)  which describes the origin of each existent thing in terms of its essence, its attributes, its governing principle (nāmūs), and its nature. And another work titled 'Muqaddima fī’l-‘ilm al-marā‘ī wa ta‘bīr' which is an introduction to the science of dreams and their interpretation from the perspective of both natural philosophy and philosophical Sufism, and other works like the 'Muqaddima fī’l-‘ilm al-marā‘ī wa ta‘bīr', 'Naẓm al-qawānīn al-wujūd', etc.


The rest of Dan Tafa’s works

Unfortunately, in 1898, during France’s African colonial wars, the Voulet–Chanoine military expedition (which was a very notorious and scandalous campaign even for the time), the French soldiers, who were passing through northern Sokoto, “burning and sacking as they went”, also invaded and burned Salame to the ground22, "and took away with them valuable books"23 what survived of Dan Tafa’s large library and school were these 72 works, 44 of which are in the private collection of his son; Shakyh Bello ibn Abd’r-Raazqid, which is currently in Maiurno, Sudan24

Folio from ‘Nasab al-mawjūdāt’, from a private collection in Maiurno, Sudan


As the works of Dan Tafa demonstrate, Sokoto was home to a robust system of education during west Africa's intellectual zenith that included a vibrant tradition of Falsafa (philosophy) and various sciences, this tradition was similar to that in contemporaneous centers of learning in the Muslim world. While it's unclear to whom these philosophical works were addressed, the nature of his writing suggests they were addressed to his peers rather than his students although the need for oral commentary leaves open the possibility that he taught these works in his school. Dan Tafa's apparent exceptionalism among the surviving west African philosophical writings is mostly a result of the neglect of west African literary traditions rather than an evidence of absence; for example, Dan Tafa was taught everything he knew while in Sokoto which was unlike many of his west African peers who travelled widely while studying and teaching and some went even further, eg Salih Abdallah al-Fullani from guinea whose work is known as far as Syria and India25 added to this, Dan Tafa's works were only known in his region (northern Nigeria) unlike peers such as Nuh Al Tahir whose works were known in nigeria, Mali, Mauritania and the Senegambia.

Yet despite this, the wealth and depth of Dan Tafa's philosophical writings attest to the existence of a vigorous tradition of philosophy studies and discourses in west Africa including those that were transcribed into writing.

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Deep knowledge: Ways of Knowing in Sufism and Ifa, Two West African Intellectual Traditions, by Oludamini Ogunnaike, pgs 10-18


Ethiopian philosophy vol3, by claude sumner


The Life of Shaykh Dan Tafa by Muhammad Shareef, pg 28


Arabic Literature of Africa: The writings of central Sudanic Africa Vol.2, by John Hunwick, pg 161


John Hunwick, pg 162


Muhammad Shareef pg 31


Philosophical Sufism in the Sokoto Caliphate: The Case of Shaykh Dan Tafa by Oludamini Ogunnaike, pg 141, in ‘Islamic Scholarship in Africa: New Directions and Global Contexts’


A Geography of Jihad. Jihadist Concepts of Space and Sokoto Warfare by Stephanie Zehnle pg 85-101


the Tārīkh al-fattāsh at work; A Sokoto Answer to Ḥamdallāhi's Claims, pg 218-222 in Sultan, Caliph, and the Renewer of the Faith


Henrich Barth, travels vol iv, pg 101


John Hunwick, pg 222


Philosophical Sufism by Oludamini Ogunnaike pg 152


John Hunwick pg 230.


Precolonial African Philosophy in Arabic by Souleymane Diagne, pg 67 of “A Companion to African Philosophy”


Souleymane Diagne, pg 68


Deep knowledge by Oludamini Ogunnaike, pg 6


Philosophical Sufism by Oludamini Ogunnaike pg 150


muhammad shareef's translation


The Life of Shaykh Dan Tafa by Muhammad Shareef pg 46


Muhammad Shareef pg 46


philsophical sufism by Oludamini Ogunnaike pg 168)


The sokoto caliphate by murray last pg 140)


Literature, History and Identity in Northern Nigeria by Tsiga, et al. pg 26


The Life of Shaykh Dan Tafa by Muhammad Shareef pg 50


Arabic Literature of Africa: Writings of Western Sudanic Africa vol4 by John Hunwick pg 504-5