About 1774–75 dan Fodio began his active life as a teacher, and for the next 12 years he combined study with peripatetic teaching and preaching in Kebbi and Gobir, followed by a further five years in Zamfara. Dan Fodio wrote more than a hundred books concerning religion, government, culture, and society. His writings addressed what he saw as the flaws and demerits of the traditional Afrikan and the nominally Afrikan Muslim leadership. He was critical of corruption at various levels of administration along with injustice regarding ordinary people's rights. He criticized the heavy taxation and obstruction to the business and trade of the Hausa states. He felt the existing Afrikan Muslim elites was greedy, and commingled paganism and Islam, in violation of Shari'a law.
During the 1790s, dan Fodio was allowed to establish a separate community at Degel, where he felt he would establish a model community. His teacher, Jibril ibn 'Umar, argued that it was the duty and within the power of religious movements to establish the ideal society free from oppression and vice. However, starting in 1797–98 the Sultan Nafata, realizing dan Fodio’s community represented a state within the state, reversed his liberal policies. In 1802, the ruler of Gobir Yunfa, who was a former student of dan Fodio's, turned against him and attempted to assassinate him. In 1808, Yunfa would be killed by the jihadis as they seized Gobir.
Dan Fodio and his followers fled into the western grasslands of Gudu. There, he was proclaimed the Amir al-Muminin (Commander of the Faithful), and acting as both political as well as religious leader, he declared and pursued a jihad, raising an army. His jihad against Gobir was only the beginning of a political and social revolution, which spread from Hausaland throughout modern Nigeria and Cameroon, and reverberated across West Afrika. This was the jihadist movement led by the Fulani. Dan Fodio's army was largely composed of Fulani nomads, who held a powerful military advantage with their cavalry, and the Hausa peasantry whose economic and social oppression by their rulers made them willing allies. Launched in 1804, the jihad lasted for six years, and had several purposes: it was meant to revive and purify Islam; to eliminate syncretist beliefs and rituals; to remove all innovations contrary to the Qurʾan and Shari'a; and to reduce taxation and remove trade restrictions. This religious revolution had political outcomes--it united the Hausa states under Shari'a and by 1812 the Hausa and lesser states became part of the Islamic State known as the Caliphate of Sokoto.
Despite dan Fodio religious fanaticism or devotion, depending on perspective, his understanding of Islam was not strictly based on Arab culture. We know this because dan Fodio's teachings encouraged literacy and scholarship among men as well as women and several of his daughters emerged as scholars and writers. Hence the misogyny of Arab culture did not invade dan Fodio interpretation of Islam. But to assume this is only partly true. Because the dualism in Islamic thought allowed him to make a clear distinction between Muslim and non-Muslims and his teachings only applied to Muslims. All those that refuse to submit were subject to what the Qurʾan prescribed for them--enslavement. Unfortunately with jihad comes slavery--that has been the history of Islam elsewhere so why would we expect it to be otherwise in Afrika.
Even dan Fodio's elevation of the status of women applied to Muslim women only--under the Sokoto State, which was a slave state, more than half of the enslaved were females (who according to the Qurʾan can be sexual exploited). So despite dan Fodio admirable qualities, his erudition, his piety, his faith, as a Muslim he accepted the Qurʾan, Hadith, and Shari'a, all of which would result in dire consequently for the Afrikans that refused to submit to Islam. As a practitioner of traditional Afrikan spirituality, I have a problem when assessing the role of Usman dan Fodio in West Afrikan history. Dan Fodio was the father of the jihadist movement that attacked traditional societies, established a slave society, exploited women, all based on dissociated worldview of Arabs. To Muslims he is often affectionately referred to as Shehu in Nigeria. Some followers consider dan Fodio to have been a mujaddid, a divinely inspired "reformer of Islam". But as a historian, a Pan Afrikanist, an Afrocentric teacher, and a follower of traditional Afrikan spirituality, my view of him is at odds with theirs. How can it be otherwise?