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 Maulana Sheikh Muhammad al-Nasir Kabara (RA)

Life and Times

The Amirul Jaysh, Sheikh Nasir Muhammad Kabara (RA), Life and Times

Sheikh Nasir Muhammad Umar Kabara, a noted Islamic scholar and philsopher was born in 1912 in  Guringuwa village outside Kano, Nigeria. His grandparents came from Kabara, a town under Timbucktu kingdom. His third generation grandfather - also from Kabara in Timbucktu -  Mallam Umaru, also known as Mallam Kabara was the only one from the lineage to settle in Adakawa in Kano city, before moving on to what is now known as Kabara ward, named after him.  He was an accomplished Sufi in Timbucktu before departing for Kano.

The first thing Mallam Kabara did on settling in Kabara ward was to establish a school in 1787, of a sort commonly referred as Zaure School where the outer entrance hall of his house was converted into an Islamic school. This school possibly among the oldest recorded schools in Kano is now part of the Darul Qadiriyya household of Sheikh Nasiru Kabara.

The youthful Nasiru was extremely enthusiastic in his search for knowledge. His first encounter with advanced Islamic learning system - long after he had graduated from the normal Allo (Qur'an read from wooden slates) schooling system, emerging extremely fluent in Arabic language, Islamic jurisprudance and Linguistics - was with Bad'ul Amli and Murshida, both treatises on Tauhidi; the unity of God. Next followed a voracious apepite for other books and soon he had completed his studies of  Ahlari, Iziyya and Risala: all books necessary for a proper understanding of Islam. Because in Islam there is no concept of copyright, soon after the youthful Nasir was himself typesetting the Risala and Ishiriniya (book of poetry in praise of the Prophet) and selling them.

His learning process was essentially self-motivated, with of course appropriate encouragement from his main teacher: Mallam Natsugune. Consequently, the youthful Nasiru was a voracious searcher of Islamic knowledge, being far ahead of his contemporaries - indeed he was actually preaching to his classmates his advanced understanding of the meaning of the Quran; thus sowing the early seeds of his entry into Tafsir at such tender age.

In Kano of that era - 1920s - there were five advanced schools; essentially what can be considered pre-university schools now - where the young Nasiru used to go, on his own, to further his knowledge. These schools were:

1.  The House of Deputy Imam of the City Central Mosque, located in the Daneji ward

2.  The House of Mallam Ibrahim, Chief Judge of Kano at Yakasai ward

3.  The House of Bichi Circuit Judge, Alhaji Musdafa at Kurawa ward

4.  The House of Sheik Abdulkarim (Mallam Sambo) at Ciromawa ward

5.  The House of Chief Imam of Zawiyya, Mallam Inuwa at Mayanka ward

These schools had extensive reference libraries containing collections obtained from various North African scholastic centers. All form the central core of Nasiru's thirst for further knowledge.

Even at that age, his acquisition of knowledge was more than rote learning; he questioned what he did not understand from his teacher; thus being extremely revolutionary in his understanding of Islamic knowledge. The traditional perception of the relationship between the pupil and the master in the Islamic schooling system rarely gives room for interactive acquisition of the knowlege. Nasir did not accept such didactic relationship, and consequently, with diffidence and respect, always requests for further elaboration of what he did not understand of what he learnt from his teachers - who themselves were only too willing to oblige the young scholar. This was not suprising, even in the "archaic" 1930s Kano, considering the fact that some of his other teachers were graduates of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest university in Africa. Thus Nasiru Kabara combined two intellectual traditions: his Timbuctu ancestry when Timbuctu itself was a citadel of learnig in the Sudan; and his contact with visiting scholars and professors from Al-Azhar in the 1930s in Kano.

Among the local residents in Kano who joined the Qadiriyya at this time (1937) was a young lad, Muhammad Nasir Kabara, who was destined to bring great changes in the tariqa and not only to introduce the celebration of the birthday of Shaykh Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, a festival which was not practiced by the North Africans, but also to carry the use of bandiri to every corner of Hausaland.

At the age of seventeen, Muhammad Nasir was really too young to be accepted as a member of the Qadiriyya but, as his grandfather, Mallam Nakabara - an extremely well learned Mallam - wished him to enter the order, Shaykh Sa'ad had a little choice but to give him the wazifa. Although a youth, Nasir was not only well read in classical Arabic literature and sciences but he was also conversant with the learning of Sufism and the works of the leading sufi scholars of the time.

When the Amir of Kano Abdullahi Bayero went on the hajj Nasir sent a letter through Wali Sulaiman to the Khalifa of the Qadiriyya, Shaykh Abu al-Hassan as-Sammani, the grandson of the founder of the Sammaniyya, asking him to give him an ijaza to become muqaddam of his own zawiya. The Shaykh was astonished to hear of such a highly learned youth and he sent a jubba and cap to Nasir together with a letter of appointment as a muqaddam. Although Nasir did not immediately separate himself from the community in Alfindiki, as Shaykh Sa'ad was still alive, his actions were regarded as innovations by the Arabs. In 1949 Nasir made the Hajj and met the new Khalifa, Shaykh Hashim and Shaykh Muhammad of Mauritania. On his return journey, he visited the Sudan, where he met with Shaykh Muhammad al-Fatih b. Shaykh Qarib Allah, Khalifa of the Sudanese Samaniyya. He also visited other Arab countries where he learnt many things concerning the hadra and bandiri organization. By 1950 Sheikh Nasir was in many ways far more versatile and eclectic than his teachers; and having successfully made Sufism acceptable to wider audience, he was thus able to make Qadiriyya penetrate into every part of the country.

Thus since about 1958 Nasiru Kabara has been considered the leader of all branches of Qadiriyya in Kano. The lines of authority within the leadership   structure, however, may be viewed in terms of both the individuals whose authority extends over several branches and the particular patterns within each branch.

Nasiru Kabara received his original authority in Kuntiyya and Ahl al-Bayt from Ibrahim Nakabara, who was the dominant figure linking nineteenthand twentieth-century Qadiriyya in Kano. Ibrahim (ca. 1867-1941) was Fulani and his grandfather was originally from Katsina. He learned a wide range of subjects from his father: law, theology, literature, logic, and grammar. He learned astrology from Mahmud Kabara; law (the Mukhtasar) from the babban mallami, Abdurrahman al-Sayudi; and sufism (especially Qadiriyya) from his father and from Ibrahim of Zaria, who had come to Kano. By the age of thirty, he had become a legal adviser to Emir Aliyu. He was offered the position of alkali (judge) but refused on the conviction that mallams should not be involved in government. He did not travel outside Kano and continued his position as legal adviser under emirs Abbas, Usman, and Abdullahi Bayero. He was also the personal mallarn of Emir Usman. Ibrahim did not write books, although he did possess his own written commentaries on the Mukhtasar. His home in Kabara ward was a center of higher learning in Hausaland. One section of his compound was set aside for studies of theology and mysticism, and another section was set aside for studying law. He was not an ardent proponent of solitude (khalwa). Although there were other leaders of traditional Qadiriyya in Kano during this period, Ibrahim's authority was reinforced by his personal qualities of piety and knowledge and by his effectiveness as a teacher of mallams. He was not succeeded in this authority by his son but by his student Nasiru Kabara, who exhibited these same qualities.

Nasiru Kabara"was "given" to Ibrahim na Kabara as a child and grew up in his household. As a Fulani, Nasiru has had access to the Traditional Qadiriyya mallams in Kano. Through his abilities as a scholar and teacher, he became the likely heir to Ibrahim na Kabara."

During the period from 1935 to 1955, Nasiru was successful in establishing direct contact with the primary sources of Qadiriyya authority in Khartoum, Timbuktu, and Baghdad; and thus he became increasingly independent of Traditional Qadiriyya lines of authority. His trip to Baghdad in 1953 was a turning point in his career. It established his authority directly within the international headquarters of Qadiriyya; while in Baghdad he studied classical and modern aspects of Qadiriyya, and subsequently he introduced or interpreted much of this material for a Nigerian audience; his sole traveling companion to Baghdad was the wealthy merchant, Sanusi Dantata. As a result of the trip, Nasiru secured the financial support for his campaign to reform Qadiriyya and extend it to a mass level.

Upon his return from Baghdad, Nasiru opened his own Qadiriyya mosque and declined to attend the mosque of Muhammad Sidi. By 1956 most of the leadership and laity had aligned with Nasiru and a rapprochement was reached with Muhammad Sidi. During this period Nasiru traveled throughout northern Nigeria opening mosques and appointing muqaddams. He also nurtured his contacts in the Arab world, returning twice to Baghdad and visiting Khartoum, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Tehran, and Amman. In 1958 he was appointed headmaster of Shahuci judicial School and Library in Kano. In 1961 he opened his own Islamiyya Senior Primary School in Gwale ward and has continued teaching advanced subjects in his own home.

In 1949 Nasiru was appointed to the emir's Council of Advisers by Abdullahi Bayero. When Muhammad Sanusi became emir in 1954, however, Nasiru was replaced on the council by Reformed Tijani mallams. During the reign of Sanusi, Nasiru served as a legal consultant to the Northern Muslim Court of Appeal and continued as one of the two tafsir readers in the palace (q.v.). With the appointment of Ado Bayero as emir in 1963, Nasiru again became an adviser to the emir. Since 1963 he has been a member of the Kaduna Council of Mallams and has been on numerous local and regional committees, ranging from the Kano Native Authority Committee on Prostitution to the Northern Nigerian Special Committee on Education in Kano Province.

Despite his involvement as a government mallam, Nasiru Kabara has maintained a base of authority independent of the administrative structures in Kano and northern Nigeria. He has been largely responsible for making Qadiriyya acceptable to the common man, both Fulani and Hausa, and has been an important intermediary between the Fulani ruling class and the Hausa commoner. He has translated the theology and mysticism of Qadiriyya into the Hausa idiom.

In addition to the functions of initiation, training, and intermediation, the Qadiriyya leadership in Kano has responsibility for financing and organizing the various activities of the brotherhood and for communicating with all segments of the brotherhood, local and national. In the transformation of the brotherhood from an elite to a mass organization, a major leadership function has been the inspiration and administration of ritual.

Most of the Reformed Qadiriyya members do wuridi in groups led by an imam. The exact nature of the wuridi varies with the subgroup within Qadiriyya. The total time expended in each group would be about thirty minutes per day. Some Qadiriyya (Salamiyya) imams also lead bandiri sessions about twice a week in the evenings. During these group prayer sessions the leader-follower nexus is strongly reinforced, partly by the traditional relationship of an imam to those who "pray behind."

Reformed Qadiriyya has placed a special emphasis on group celebration of the founder's birthday (Mauludin Abdulkadir). This ceremony is specifically identified with Reformed Qadiriyya and was initiated in Kano by Nasiru Kabara in about 1959. It serves as a yearly meeting for brotherhood leaders and members from throughout northern Nigeria. Delegations from each of the major northern cities congregate in Kano for a full day of prayers and activities. The central feature of the day is a group procession, arranged by area delegations, from the home of Nasiru Kabara in the Jarkasa area of Kabara ward to the Kano Qadiriyya burial ground west of Kano City, where prayers are said over the graves of Kano Qadiriyya saints. The procession also serves as the only time in the year when men, women, and children all participate in the same worship service. The order of procession indicates roughly the hierarchy of authority within the Qadiriyya elite; there is an inner core of muqaddams who accompany Nasiru Kabara during this period.

From the patterns of authority and community withiin Qadiriyya in Kano several points may be summarized:

(1) Association with Qadiriyya in the nineteenth century was limited to Fulani mallams and administrators (who derived their authority from the leaders of the Fulani Jihad) and to North African Arabs (who did not integrate themselves religiously into the Kano Milieu).

(2) With the establishment of colonial rule, elements in the Kano Arab community reaffirmed their own spiritual links with North African sources of spiritual authority.

(3) Members of the Hausa mallam class began to associate with this renewed form of North African Qadiriyya and were rccruited into leadership positions within one generation.

(4) Part of the success of Qadiriyya in the Hausa sector was due to an emphasis on group worship and the focusing of activities within local mosques.

(5) The "legitimate" successor to the leadership of traditional Fulani Qadiriyya in Kano (Nasiru Kabara) affiliated with independent lines of Qadiriyya authority as a reinforcement of his "inherited" authority and sought to consolidate the Arab, Hausa, and Fulani sections of Qadiriyya.

(6) This was accomplished partly by extending Qadiriyya from an elite base to a mass base. In this process, the support of wealthy Hausa merchants was essential. On the mass level, Reformed Qadiriyya was also a rdection of emergizng Kano nationalism which demanded that religious authority be shifted from Sokoto and North Africa to Kano itself.

(7) Because of the mass base of Reformed Qadiriyya, it was no longer possible for the Qadiriyya elite to identify completely with the Kano ruling class. Thus, while brotherhood leaders might act as advisers to the ruling class, they have usually guarded their status as nongovernment mallarns.

(8) Perhaps as a consequence of the shift from an elite to a mass base, the brotherhood leadership became involved in two relatively new functions: the interpretation of doctrine for local use and the inspiration, through ritual and ceremony, of group and mass worship.

Doctrines of Authority and Community in Reformed Qadiriyya

Whereas Traditional Qadiriyya in Kano relied heavily on the nineteenth century Jihad writings as the major sources of Qadiriyya doctrine the leaders of Reformed Qadiriyya have themselves been prolific writers. Like the Fulani Jihad writers, the contemporary Qadiriyya writers are concerned to relate classical Islamic thought to local circumstances. In the interim period between the Jihad writings and the contemporary writings, there was "a dearth of Qadiriyya literature in Kano. None of the major leaders during this period, Ibrahim na Kabara, Ali Musa, Saad b. Ahmad, Sharif Garba, Sidi Muhammad, and Muhammad Sidi-wrote on Qadiriyya. The Reformed Qadiriyya movement, associated with Nasiru Kabara and Ahmad b. Ali, has not only produced its own literature but has revived an interest in the Jihad classics," has introduced works on Qadiriyya from the Arab world," and has inspired local Hausa "praise poets" " to express themselves on brotherhood matters. Nasiru Kabara hase written about 150 works in all. 

The amount of systematic theology in the writings of Nasiru Kabara has been minimal; his primary purpose seems to be to relate the history and elements of the brotherhood in terms understandable to contemporary Kano society and to stimulate an identification with the saints of the brotherhood. The writings of Ahmad b. Ali cover many of these same topics. There is no specific praise of the Shaziliyya way, as distinct from Qadiriyya, and much of the literature contains poems that are sung at worship gatherings. Another Reformed Qadiriyya leader in Kano, Adamu na Ma'aji (q.v.), seems mainly concerned with chains of authority and conditions of initiation."

The writings of brotherhood leaders such as Nasiru Kabara and Ahmad b. Ali espouse the community and authority of Qadiriyya on two major grounds: affiliational (primarily on the basis of direct personal experience) and communal (primarily on the basis of loyalty to the nineteenth-century Jihad tradition). Within the category of affiliational appeal, there have been five areas of doctrinal exposition: the origins and spread of Qadiriyya, the elements and requirements of Qadiriyya, the benefits and blessings for those who follow Qadiriyya, personal praise of the Qadiriyya saints, and general preaching.

With regard to the spread of Qadiriyy, Nasiru Kabara describes in Alnafahat the Qadiriyya shaykhs in history and the distribution of Qadiriyya among the continents of the world." In Naf' al-'ibad, he discusses the Qadiriyya caliphate throughout history. In Ithaf al-khald'iq he presents the genealogy of the founder, 'Abd al-Qadir, and a considerable amount of biographical data. He also mentions some of the successors of 'Abd al-Qadir in the contemporary world.

With regard 4o the requirements of Qadiriyya, Nasiru Kabara elabarates in Al-nafabdt the details and the nature of the brotherhood ceremonies." In the Naf' aVibad he describes the Qadiriyya daily voluntary prayers." In the Ithaf al-khald'iq he discusses the necessities and voluntary aspects of ablution, washing, taimama (symbolic washing with dust), prayer, prostration, giving of alms, fasting, pilgrimage, and other Islamic rituals for those who follow Qadiriyya. In Da'wat al-ghawth he elaborates on the conditions for following Qadiriyya.

With regard to the benefits of Qadiriyya, all of the above-mentioned writings refer to the personal satisfactions and blessings that accrue to those who follow Qadiriyya. Nasiru describes the "glorious benefits" for the followers of Qadiriyya and assures them of the best reward.

With regard to the praise of Qadiriyya saints, it is clear that instead of being a perfunctory gesture it is a culmination of the past that is directed into the brotherhood experience. In Naf al-'ibad, Nasiru inscribes the prayer he offered while at the tomb of 'Abd al-Qadir in Baghdad.

The praise of a primary saint, 'Abd al-Qadir, should not obscure the central fact of all the reformed brotherhoods: an individual is encouraged to do addu'a (al-du'a), that is, to pray directly to God. Nasiru exemplifies the passion and symbolism of such a prayer in the Subhdt al-anwar.

Finally, general preaching has always been a function of the religious authorities who try to induce conversions through individual volition. Such preaching is invariably in the vernacular language (in this case Hausa); and if it can be fashioned into poetry, it will be sung by minstrels near and far. Nasiru Kabara has been particularly successful in his general preaching.

Nasiru Kabara identified in the Subhat al-anwar, five branches of Qadiriyya in Hausaland, one of which is Usmaniyya. In various other works, he refers to Usmaniyya al-Fudawiyya and identifies himself with this branch. In the Naf al-'ibad he includes the prayer he read when he visited the tomb of Usman dan Fodio, and it is clear that he regards Muhammad Bello, son of Usman, as among the founders of Usmaniyya. Nasiru writes that he hopes to visit Bello at Wurno (the assumption being that Bello is not dead). While Nasiru does not include any reference to special ritual associated with Usmaniyya, it is clear that the Jihad leaders are considered to be of special importance. The continual identification of them with Qadiriyya is clearly intended to remind their descendants not to desert the "faith of their fathers." The Hausa poem by Ibrahim Makwarari (Begen Shehu Abdulkadir) is illustrative of the way in which Nasiru is regarded as the successor to the Jihad leaders.

With regard to the alleged doctrinal prohibition against change of brotherhood, there has been an attack on mallams who encourage such conversion, primarily those associated with Reformed Tijaniyya. The doctrinal basis of this attack is stated by Nasiru Kabara in Al-nalabat, where he suggests that the Tijani mallams are "fabricating" if they assert that one tariqa is better than another. He argues for a strict prohibition against leaving the Qadiriyya brotherhood, supporting his argument with verses from the Qur'an and traditions of the Prophet. He asserts that when a person has promised to do something religious, such as follow a brotherhood, he must keep that promise. He criticizes the Tijaniyya specifically for assuming it can convert persons from other brotherhoods, suggesting that this was not the policy of the original Tijani leaders and that the practice is a false modern innovation .


He has published well over 150 treatises and books explaining various aspects of Islamic philosophy, Arabic and Hausa linguistics. His writing career started quite early in his life in his youth. Perhaps not surprisingly, his first treatise was on Abdulkadir Jilani, the founder of the Qadiriyya Islamic Philosophical movement. His method of writing usually follows the medieval scholastic tradition widespread in the middle-east. Thus he combines commentary with critical appraisal. A classical example of his approach is provided in the intellectual conjectures-and-refutations arguments of Al-Ghazali in his Tahaful Falasafa, and Ibn Rushd's counter-commenterary, Tahaful Tahafut.

His writings follow a specified and characteristic pattern; beginning with the praise of God, then the rationale of the writing under consideration and the proposed title of the work., followed by an abstract and then the main exposition. An example is his exposition on arm positioning during prayers which he explained in Kan Ul Fasab. He started by priasing Shehu Abdulmahal-al-Shawani a leading exponent of Shafi'iyya movement which supports Saddlu (dropping the arms by the side during the standing portion of the prayer). He then brings a Prophetic tradition (Hadith) which shows the Prophet's support for such arm positioning. Subsequently, the then brings more Prophetic traditions which explained the stands of both Sadlu and Kablu (crossing the arms on the chest during the standing portion of the prayer).

In his various writings, Sheikh Nasiru Kabara has clearly brought out the concept of Kanawiyya, a connation of Kano as an intellectual entrepot in medieval Africa.  Some of the books and treatises he has published are included below.


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