Karatun Allo: The Islamic System Of Elementary Education In Hausaland


Dr. Sulaiman Khalid




Department of Sociology, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto



1.0             INTRODUCTION


This chapter explores general issues pertaining to elementary system of Islamic education (karatun allo) in Hausaland.  It laid particular emphasis on its evolution, school organization, place of knowledge and scholarship in Islam and the socio-economic status of teacher (malam) in the society.  The chapter concluded with a short discussion on the relative advantage the system has over western-type (boko) education in the predominantly agrarian environment.



Islamic education in Hausaland is as old as the spread of Islam in the area which began as early as the eleventh century through the deliberate activities of Muslim traders and itinerant scholars as well as migration.  By the fifteen century the reputation of some Hausa state capitals as Muslim metropolis was already high enough to attract many students and scholars.  According to the “Kano Chronicles”, Malams from Senegal arrived in Kano during the reign of Yaqub (1452-1463).  A fifteen cenutry ruler of Zazzau appointed a malam from Mali as one of his subordinate chief (Abdurrahman and Canhan, 1978), which seems to indicate that there was a Muslim scholar community from which to make the choice.  About this time also, the neighbouring Gao, Djenne and Borno were overflowing with schools and scholars of international repute, and the book market was a flourishing business (Smith, 1987:32 ).


The intellectual activities compared favourably with what obtained in Italy about the same time.  In Kano, Al-Maghili wrote his famous al-mantiq (Aristotelian Deductions) and The Obligation of the Prince about the same time Cicero’s classical treatise On Moral Obligation and Machiavelli’s The Prince were published in the second half of the fifteenth century.  In the seventeenth century, Katsina produced native scholars like Muhammadu Dan-Marina (d.1655) and Muhammadu Dan-Masani (d.1667).  On the eve of the Sokoto Jihad, Yandoto, then the headquarters of Katsina (Last, 1967) stood as a citadel of learning and Degel near Alkalawa, the headquarters of Gobir Kingdom, was something of a university village.  Many of the Habe kings were about this time educated Muslims from Kano to Gobir and Zamfara.


It is clear that there must have existed an important class of Ulama who were significant preservers and teachers of Islamic learning.  According to Smith (1987:35): ‘‘they possessed a vast fund of Qur’anic knowledge, and were in addition particularly well-informed in traditions, law, Rhetoric and classical Islamic history.’’


The extent of their knowledge of Arabic writings is particularly remarkable, which suggests that facilities for Islamic education were far more advanced in this period than is usually believed (Hiskett, 1957).

Sultan Muhammed Bello testified to that when he wrote in this Infaq al-Maysur that:


Indeed there are not to be found in these countries ordinary people more scrupulous than they in reciting the Qur’an and readin it and memorising it and writing it out.  And the ordinary people did not cease to be thus to the beginning of Jihad (cited in Kani, 1975:27).


The establishment of an Islamic state in the name of Sokoto Caliphate at the beginning of the 19th century provided an enabling environment for the growth of education.  Besides, the jihad leaders did run their own schools and embarked on fierce religious campaigns which in themselves led to the growth of education.  As a matter of state policy the leaders of the Caliphate gave top priority to education.  In his Jawab Shafin wa’l Kitab, Muhammed Bello said: “we will attach to him (the village head) a tutor who will instruct their children and a learned man who will lead them in their prayer ...” (cited in Abubakar, 1983:211)    Consequently, schools were organized in all nooks and corners of the Caliphate and the state endowed it and supplied it with collection of books.


Indeed, in the early years of colonial rule, British colonial officials in Northern Nigeria were fascinated by the existence of a formal system of Islamic education.  According to the 1931 census figures, two-thirds of Northern Nigeria’s 10 million inhabitants were Muslims.  It also had, the government estimated, 30,000 to 35,000 Islamic schools enrolling 200,000 to 360,000 pupils (Hubbard, 1975).


            2. The Makarantar Allo: Its Features and Structures

At the centre of Islamic education is the Qur’an itself, and every Muslim out, ideally, to have learned the sacred text or some portions of it by heart.  With the ascendancy of western type (boko) educational system, in the present day Qur’anic schooling in Hausa land is increasingly viewed by parents as an important of religious component for their children.  Often, the children divide their time between western-type schools in the morning and Qur’anic schools in the afternoon.  It is for this purpose that makarantun allo (Qur’anic schools) – institutions where young children learn to recite the Qur’an by rate – exists in all Muslim communities.


A typical Qur’anic school is located in a mosque which serves the dual purposes of a place of worship and a school.  Most of the schools are however in other places, e.g. special building for the purpose, the verandah or porch of the malam (teacher), under trees, inside compounds, etc.  The notion of an entrance examination, which an aspiring student must take before he can enter a given level of the educational system, is foreign to traditional Qur’anic school system.  So, too, are the final examinations conferring qualifications, in which Western education so often culminate.


The pupils sit on the mats, bare floor or ground either in a semi-circle or straight line.  Each child holds his written wooden slate (allo) and recites the verses of the Holy Qur’an.  The method of instruction is as follows, the teacher recites to his pupils the verse to be learnt and they repeat it after him.  He does this several times until he is satisfied that they have mastered the correct pronunciation.  Then the pupils are left on their own to continue repeating the verse until they have thoroughly memorized it.  The verse is then linked with the previously memorized verses and in this way the pupil gradually learns by heart the whole Qur’an.  At this level, hardly is any attempts made to enable the pupils understand the meaning of what they recite or write.  The teacher only pays particular attention to the reading and writing skills of every pupil as well as keep tract of his attendance even though no formal registers are kept.


The relationship between teacher and pupil is generally intimate and personal.  The teacher is always ready to pardon a late-comer if he is convinced that his lateness was caused by some engagement at home.  Whenever he uses the cane, wrote Fafunwa (1974) “he does so with fatherly levity and caution” (p.62).  As for disciplinary measures, the long whip is always handy to deal with erring pupils, and leg chains are sometimes used to confine truants to the school premises for a number of days as a punishment (Sulaiman, 1994).


The school schedule is extremely flexible and allows for each parent to send his child to school at the most convenient period for both the parent and the child.  This is one reason why it is possible for children to combine both formal primary education with the Quranic school.  Moreover, each child is allowed to progress at his or her own pace and therefore the length of time t takes a pupil to finish learning how to read the whole Qur’an depends on his intelligence and commitment, and also the encouragement and support he receives from his parents.  Even though there is no sessional examination or test and that the malam treats each pupil according his or her capabilities, intelligence and individual problem, the spirit of competition is always there among age-mates, brothers and sisters (Mai’adua, 1994).


The exact times of the beginning of classes vary from area to area, and from teacher to teacher.  In most of the schools there are three sessions.  In a study conducted by Yahya (1977) at Kano, the school sessions are classified as follows:-


1)         Morning                      5.00 am – 11.00 a.m.

2)         Evening                      3.00 p.m. – 4.00 p.m.

3)         Night                           8.00 p.m. – 11.00 p.m.


Mubi (1985) however came out with the following schedule:-

1.         Morning                      5.00 a.m. – 11.00 a.m.

2.         Afternoon                   2.00 p.m. – 4.00 p.m.

3.         Night                           7.00 p.m. – 10.00 p.m.


Although there exist no water-tight division of pupils into classes, three categories of Quranic pupils are distinguishable: the kotso (nursery stage), the tittibiri (elementary stage), and the gardi (adolescent/adult stage).  The kotso stage consists of children of about four years or even less.  They normally come to school in the company of their more elderly brothers and sisters.  At this stage the children are grouped together and instructed orally.  They learn to recite the shorter chapters of the Qur’an and are taught some Islamic rituals like ablution, daily prayers, etc.  The tittibiri stage is where the pupils of about five to fourteen years old start to read the Arabic alphabets.  He first learns the reading of unvowelled letters babbaku) of the same short chapters he memorized at kotso stage.  This is followed by the reading of vowelled letters as well as words farfaru), after which he starts writing the Quranic verses on his allo while he is guided either by the malam or by some senior pupils in the school.  Straight reading is continued with switch-over from pupil’s allo to loose pages of the text of the Qur’an up to the last chapter.  By the time he reaches gardi stage, the pupil has in most cases completed the reading of the Qur’an at least once.  He also knows some basic principles of Islam.  The main task at this stage is to improve the art of reading the Qur’an with a view to committing it to memory. This is usually the last stage of general Quranic education.  While the step-by-step learning process seems to be universal to Hausa society, the categorization of pupils into kotso, tittibiri,  and gardi is not.  In Sokoto area for example, only two categories of Islamic pupils are recognized: the ‘yan makarantar allo (elementary [Quranic] pupils) and ‘yan makarantar ilmi (higher Islamic studies students). Often, the education stops here.


But if a student wishes to go further, he will proceed to makarantar ilmi or school of higher Islamic learning.  The makarantar ilmi is the school of advanced learning which covers the whole range of Islamic literary, theological and legal education.  In most schools, the pupil starts with either treatises or booklets on theology (tawhid).  This is followed by books on Islamic jurisprudence (fiqhu), the exegesis of the Qur’an (tafsir), and sayings and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (Hadit).  At the stage of studying advanced books of Islamic jurisprudence, some Quranic school students embark on learning various branches of Arabic language starting with Arabic grammar followed by Arabic literature (Lemu, 1994).  The teaching method is the time-honoured one of reading and commentary, in which the teacher reads a passage from a text, then delivers his commentary upon it.


            3. Socio-Economic Status of Malams in the Society

In Sokoto, as in other parts of Hausa land, prior to the advent of colonialism, descent determined whether one was born a talaka (commoner) – and therefore destined to make a living as a peasant, artisan or bara (client of someone) -- or a basarake (aristocrat or title-holder) and thus able to live off peasants, artisans, traders and slaves.  However, other factors operated alongside descent in the determination of social differentiation and mobility.  One of these factors was Islamic education.  The Hausa title for scholar is malam (pl. Malamai).  The word is a Hausa corruption of the Arabic mu’allim (a learned man) and is now used by the Hausa as a courtesy title, similar to Mr. in English.


Islamic learning offered to a peasant one of the few routes for achieving upward mobility as a malam, a scribe, or a minor official n the state’s patrimonial bureaucracy (Lubeck, 1986).  Though people were indeed born into scholarly families, or traditions, their becoming scholars – in other words their pursuit of education – was largely a matter of choice and conscious effort.


During the classical days of Sokoto and Borno caliphates, malams were accorded grants and privileges called ‘mahram’.  The mahram was a written document given to a Quranic school teacher by a certain ruler certifying that the bearer, his family and descendants, and sometimes his followers were exempted from some state obligations such as military conscription, taxes, palace duties, and so on.    The document sometimes specifies grants of land allocated to the bearer, his family and his disciples to cultivate, free from taxation, confiscation and any form of field control (Ashigar, 1997).  In addition, Muslim scholars and their schools were among the principal beneficiaries of proceed of zakat tax.  According to Malam Mahmud Koki (Skinner, 1977) who participated in the assessment, collection and redistribution of zakat in Kano emirate in the period immediately before the advent of British occupation, various Muslim scholars, most of whom had schools, were attached to a specific Jakada (emir’s agent) from whom they obtained their share of zakat.  After collection, that Jakada would have it ready and then send word to scholars attached to him to go to the appropriate village or town to collect it.  The malam would then hire women to thresh the corn for them, pay the women for the work, and load the grain onto donkeys and return home.  A particular Jakada could be associated with many scholars, and vice versa.  The informant himself recalled how he had received zakat on behalf of his teacher.


This state patronage which predated the Sokoto Caliphate had been important in the creation of a specialized class – the scholars – with sufficient standing and influence to have a voice or nuisance value in the management of public affairs even before the jihad.  The principal jihad leaders and all the flag-bearers who waged the holy war against the Hausa kingdoms in their various provinces were Qur’anic school teachers.  In the process of the jihad itself, this power deriving from learning was taken a step forward when the scholars initially dominated power-sharing and the decision-making process.  However, with the emergence and ascendancy of the dynasty of Shehu Danfodiyo and its dependent dynasties, ‘’scholars lost place to the dynasts but still performed an important role as judges, advisors and generally as agents of social and political indoctrination” (Abubakar, 1982:24).


The British occupation of the defunct Sokoto Caliphate has divested the Muslim scholars of nearly all their role and influence in government and administration of their society.  A completely new system of education was imposed on the society.  The Arabic scripts which were used in courts and administration were replaced with Roman scripts thereby making graduates of Qur’anic school system of education irrelevant to the colonial administration.  However, some of them who benefited from the integration of Qur’anic with Western education managed to hold positions in the society as Area Court Judges, teachers of Arabic and Islamic Studies in government educational institutions, etc.  But for the majority of the malams traditional Qur’anic school teaching remained their principal vocation.


Generally, Qur’anic education system places emphasis on the production of teachers (or clerics).  And for those who become teachers, Qur’anic instruction is the first stage in the system of education that offers satisfaction not measure only in religious terms but also in socio-economic terms (Peshkin, 1972).


            4. Teaching and Learning as Acts of Worship (ibadat)

In a typical Qur’anic school there is no formal system of fee-paying.  The students however contribute what they can by way of sadaqa or alms of the upkeep of the school.  This may not be more than a few Naira coins or a couple of kola nuts, but can be a more substantial gift in cash or kind if the donor or his parent is wealthy.  “It seems there is an unwritten code, recognized by all, and depending on the individual’s status, which governs how much shall be given” (Hiskett, 1974:141).  On the whole, the teacher gets just enough to sustain himself and maintain his dignity and worth, but generally he is not wealthy.  In principle, he teaches in order to discharge his duty as a literate Muslim to guide others in their religion.


Indeed, learning and scholarship are considered as acts of worship, a fulfillment of God’s commandments Who said:


A company of every party should go forth to gain sound knowledge in religion to enable then to teach their people when they come back to them (Qur’an 9:127).


Yet another verse of the Holy Qur’an exhorted the faithfuls to constantly seek for knowledge from cradle and keep in mind the fact that “above every possessor of knowledge is one more knowledgeable” (Qur’an 12:38).  Above all, they should constantly pray, “Oh! Lord, increase me in knowledge’’ (Qur’an 24:52).

The Prophetic Traditions are even more emphatic about knowledge.  Several ahadiths describe learning and wisdom as equal to worship, and of men of learning as successors to the prophets.

The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr.


God ease the way to paradise for him who seeks learning.


Angels spread their wings for the seeker of learning as a mark of God’s approval of his purpose


Whoever follows the road to knowledge Allah will show him the road to paradise.


He who has an ambition in this world must acquire knowledge.  He who has an ambition in the Hereafter must acquire knowledge and he who has ambition in both this world and Hereafter must acquire knowledge to achieve it

(Ahmad b. Hambal, vol.196).


With particular reference to the teaching of the Qu’ran, he said:

"The best of you is he who learns the Qur’an and cares to teach it" (ibid).


Thus learning in Islam is viewed more as an act of worship than a process of acquiring wisdom and skills, and the teacher (malam) is not just a mere functionary who draws salary either from the state or from a private organization.  Far from that, he was a spiritual figure, a model to be emulated.  The teacher was required not only to be a man of learning but also to be a person of virtue, a pious man whose conduct by itself could have an impact upon the minds of the young.  It is not only what he taught that  matters, what he does, the way he conducts himself, his deportment in class and outside, are all expected to conform to an ideal which his pupils could unhesitatingly accept and emulate.


The ancient seats of learning in Islam, according to Tibawi (1979), grew up around certain personalities who attracted pupils by reason alike of their learning and their piety.  This had wide repercussions.  It helped to sustain and strengthen the foundations of ethics and it sets before the young a model or virtue which they could unquestioningly follow.  Therefore, by virtue of their position as the chief custodians of knowledge and values, Muslim teachers were discouraged from charging tuition fees – an act that may lock the school gates against the poor and less-privileged members of society – even though the practice of charging fees was well-established, at least in Tunisia by the ninth century (Hitti, 1981).  Al-Ghazali (d.1111), for instance, maintained that a Muslim teacher should not accept payment for teaching religious subjects, but could be paid for teaching ‘extra’ subjects such as mathematics and medicine (Tibawi, op.cit).  The teaching of religious subjects, in Al-Ghazali’s opinion, was a personal duty of the believer and should be done without charging fees.  This does not, of course, prevent the student from working for his Quranic teacher or the student’s parents from giving the teacher gift in recognition for what he was doing for their child.


Accordingly, the size and prestige of the school depend on the degree of public recognition that it wins, although Hiskett (1974) has observed that the proprietor’s status is to some extent hereditary and must have the charisma of a learned family behind him.  They also tend to specialize in and thus become well-known for their expertise in certain branches of Islamic knowledge, and even specific texts.


Overall, the malam in Hausa society is considered of high value and accorded high respect and revered by all classes of people at all times.  In some cases of disputes between individuals or groups of people, malams were often called upon to act as effective arbitrators.  “They are also sought after by rulers, businessmen and anybody desperately in need of special prayers and divine succour in every respect.”  (Lemu,1994: 34 ).



           6. The Socio-Economic Context of Karatun Allo

Qur’anic educational system succeeded where formal education failed because it had perfectly adjusted itself to the economic life of the people.  The academic time-table and school calendar was designed in such a way that it will not take away the benefits of full-time apprenticeship and assistance of young children in farm-work.

Conversely, the modern schools as they operate today are in competition with the agricultural practices.  The children are expected to be at school from 8 o’clock in the morning to 2 o’clock in the afternoon from Monday to Friday, at the same time when their parents were busy working of the farmlands.  Thus, the system removes the benefits of full-time assistance of children from communities that are heavily reliant upon child labour.  This calls for a re-examination and redefinition of child labour and child abuse for each country, even for each area in a country – and redefined from time to time.  Child labour is conventionally defined as “any physical engagement of the child either paid or unpaid, directed to alleviating adult burden outside or inside home to make a living for himself or help the adult make a living” (Steele, 1974).  In the industrialized countries of the West this is viewed as a form of child exploitation or abuse.  On the contrary, child labour in Hausa society is greatly influenced by what are considered the rights and obligations of children by the system of kinship, some aspect of which consist of preparation for the adult sexual division of labour.  So child labour depends on normative attitudes towards children in society, the culturally-determined roles and functions of children, the values by which the activities of children are judged, and by the nature of socialization process.  Hence it threatens to break the thread that is holding together the chief survival mechanism for the family (gida) structure that is fat shrinking into smaller units.  Therefore, since formal education in its existing form is neither significantly relevant nor compatible with the agricultural way of life, its relative unpopularity with the rural people is only natural.


The system has many more features which makes it more appropriate for the rural agrarian communities.  For example, although in the past, Qur’anic schools did train people who later served as judges, scribes, teachers and other functionaries in the Native Administration, they did not, and still do not, as a rule, recruit people for employment.  Hence, these schools do not alienate children from their traditional occupations as the formal schools do.  In essence, it has been observed that even those migrant pupils (almajirai) who settled in the cities during the dry-season or those who settled for a period of one or more years in order to study the Qur’an did go back to their agricultural way of life after graduation.


Flexibility of attendance is another feature of the Qur’anic schools.  Regular attendance, though required, is not rigidly enforced.  This enables those whose economic and social commitments prevent them from maintaining regular attendance to attend school at their own time and convenience.  Commenting on this flexibility, Bray et al., (1986:80) stated that:


The Islamic system is in many respects far less dependent for its operation on specific administrative, institutional and organizational patterns.  It also tends to be much more flexible and, as one scholar comments, has ‘an admirable leisureliness’.


Moreover, the Qur’anic schools have multiple entry points which also are not fixed.  Students can enroll into the schools at any time of the year, provided it is a session.  In contrast, the local primary schools have a single entry point at the beginning of each academic year in October, and the admission exercise involves a number of formalities which are often complicated by bureaucracy.  Once the exercise is over, no single child can be enrolled into the school until the following year.


Another important feature which makes Qur’anic schools system more readily acceptable to the ordinary men in the society is its egalitarian outlook.  The Kano State Committee on Almajirai (1988) had cause to draw the attention of the government to the fact that:


Primary education is expensive so much that the parents can neither afford its direct cost nor the routine expenditure for the children.  The absence of these economic problems in Qur’anic schooling often makes the parents to prefer the system (p.9)


Considering the perennial nature of poverty in the rural Hausa society, not many parents could afford the cost of school fees, uniform, text and note-books, feeding and transport money, and such other expensive features of formal education system.  Therefore, even though the values of Western education are recognized in most parts of Hausa land, the need to escape the problems of its economics it seems by far out-weighs the desire to acquire it.  This is in sharp contrast with the Qur’anic school system which seems to be egalitarian in out look in perfect rhythm with the dominant economic activity of the people – agricultural production.








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