The early origin of the Hausa people is shrouded in mystery. Some scholars believe they originally came from the Sahara, as did the Bantu, while others feel that they migrated from the region of Lake Chad. Still another school believes they were the region’s original inhabitants.
The rise of the Hausa city-states dates from approximately 500 to 700 c.e. In a unique arrangement, the city-states were centered on their place in the general Hausa society and did not owe their prominence to specific political power as in the Bantu (Bantu) Mutapa kingdom.
Cotton grew readily in the great plains of these states, and they became the primary producers of cloth, weaving and dying it before sending it off in caravans to other states within Hausaland and to extensive regions beyond. Biram was the original seat of government, while Zaria supplied labor.
The region was largely united between Lake Chad and the Niger River to the west, opening up to Hausa traders a vast part of Africa. Daura is the first known truly unified kingdom. It was around the 12th century that the Hausas became the dominant nation in this region, although they were threatened by Kanem Bornu, which had replaced the earlier realms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai.
Dominant in Kanem, the Kanuri people embraced Islam and began a series of jihads, or Islamic holy wars, to widen their kingdom. Among the Hausas, Islam appeared at the same time but was spread peacefully by traders and missionaries, unlike the jihads of the Kanem empire. At the same time, native Hausa beliefs continued to be held by the majority of the population.
Because of their wide trading influence, Hausa became the common language of West Africa as Swahili did on the east coast. Hausa trade caravans would stop at places called zongos, which eventually developed into centers of Hausa habitation throughout West Africa. Zongos also became the Islamic centers of each town, associated with mosques, madrassas (schools), and waqfs (charities).
However strong an influence culturally, the Hausas in modern Nigeria came under increasing pressure from the Fulanis, a militarized Islamic society determined to conquer by jihad. The Fulanis appeared in the region by the fifth century, apparently also after a long migration from the Sahara, as it became a desert.
They reached Mauretania by the beginning of the first century, and from the fifth to the 11th centuries in what was then the Senegambia region. The Fulanis, also known as the Fulbes, were one of the first African cultures to convert to Islam, formed their own class of Muslim imams or and clerics, the Torodbe. This occurred between the eighth and 14th centuries in the Takrur region.
The Fulanis set their imperial goals on conquering the Hausas. By the early 1800s, the Hausas had become absorbed politically—but not culturally or socially—into the Fulani Kingdom in Nigeria. The Fulanis went on to found the Islamic caliphate of Sokoto. Under the rule of Usman Dan Fodio, Sokoto would become perhaps the most powerful Islamic state in the region.