Pre-colonial Northern Nigeria


Documentary evidence at our disposal suggests that earlier in 17th century West Africa some Ulama (scholars) of Kanem -Bornu were highly skilled in the science of Ilm al-Awfaq (the science of magic squares). By the 18th century, the Borno kingdom became the most important center of learning of Mathematics in the Central Sudan attracting peoples from adjacent areas linking this at times to the occult sciences.

There is ample evidence to prove that the scholars of Hausaland and Borno were also consulting Coptic Solar Calendars in determining their economic activities. The recovery of a book written probably in Egypt on agrarian activities, from Bauchi in 1973 points to the fact that some aspects of of the agricultural sciences were being diffused in this area.The book, which is copied in a Sudanic script, contains mathematical charts dealing with agronomic activities such as the right time of harvest; the various directions of the wind;time of germination; and the seasons during which insects appear. A conversion table to lunar months is also made at the beginning of the book as a guide for the users of the chart.

It seems that some scholars in the Central Bilad al- Sudan especially the area of Katsina, were well versed in numerology and astrology. The recovery of some books from Katsina areas such as Borno by the late Professor M.A. al-Hajj and other researchers suggests that the scholars of Katsina were versed in these occult sciences .

The 19th century Jihad movement in Hausaland has been rightly described as an intellectual revolution which threw the door of academic pursuit open in all its ramifications. Education was a major preoccupation of the Sokoto Jihad. There is ample evidence to suggest that Shaykh Uthman b. Fudi was teaching both simple and advanced arithmetic (al-Yasir wa al-Gharib) to his students. Another evidence of the incorporation of arithmetic and related sciences in the syllabi of the schools in 19th century Hausaland is to be found with Abd al-Quadir b. al-Mustafa who is reported to have studied medicine, astrology, arithmetic, logic and astronomy.

Extract from

Ahmad Kani, Arithmetic in the pre-colonial Central Sudan in

Gloria Emeagwali (ed) Science and Technology in African History, Edwin Mellen, NY, 1992

Dr Kani is Professor of History. He has taught at Ahmadu Bello University and also served as the Dean of Arts at the University of Sokoto.

Africa-related sites on Maths (Ohio State Univ)

See related material and bibliography on African Mathematics:

The Newsletter of the Commission for the History of Mathematics in Africa

See also works by Ron Eglash:

  • When Math World Collide: Intention and Invention in Ethnomathematics, Science, Technology and Human Values, 1997, 79-97;
  • Ron Eglash, Bamana Sand Divination: Recursion in Ethnomathematics, American Anthropologist, 99 (1) 112-122;
  • Ron Eglash, African Fractals, Modern Computing and Indigenous Design, Rutgers University Press, 1999


Back to Home Page