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Exploring the Golden Era Of Dagbon Kingdom: The Impact of Moliyili Scholars and Its Fall

The history of the African continent is marked by the rise and fall of powerful kingdoms, each with its unique cultural heritage, traditions, and stories. One such kingdom was Dagbon, a beacon of knowledge, wealth, and progressiveness that thrived for over two centuries. However, the kingdom eventually crumbled under the weight of various factors, including despotism, slave raids, and the impact of colonialism. In this article, we will explore the fall of Dagbon, examining the events that led to its demise and the lessons that can be learned from this once-great kingdom.

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The Alfanema: A Powerful and Prestigious Force in the Golden Era of Dagbon kingdom

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the court of the Kari naa, illustration from Binger 1892, When he visited Dagbon.

The alfanema were followers of Shaykh Sulayman Bagayugu of Timbuktu, who lived in a town called Moliyili situated a few miles from Yendi. They were historically distinct and wielded significant power and prestige in a complex and layered social reality. The alfanema were known as “Mole” in Dagbonkingdom, and the leader of their town carried the title Yidan Mole.

They were not only religious leaders but also craftsmen and experts in a range of fields. This article highlights the influence of Islamic institutions on Dagbonkingdom and the impact of the reforming Ya Nas on power dynamics among the ruling classes and the Muslim estate. The Mole provided a variety of services to society, including religious, medical, and magical ones, and played important roles in the administration and local celebrations and ceremonies.

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The alfanema were a significant force in Dagbon kingdom, with their knowledge and expertise in various fields making them a powerful and prestigious group. They played an essential role in the administration and various cultural ceremonies, and their influence was felt in the wider society. The deployment of Islamic institutions by the central state apparatus of the kingdom created a regulated set of Islamic social forms of life and a commercial economy.

The reforms implemented by the Ya Nas aimed to redistribute power among senior families/lineages in the ruling classes and senior members of the Muslim estate. The alfanema’s role in Dagbon kingdom exemplifies the complex interplay between religion, culture, and politics in the history of West Africa.

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Tolon Naa Yakubu Tali in a hand shake with some colonial masters.

Moliyili: The Hub of Learning, Craftsmanship, in the Golden Era of Dagbon Kingdom

Moliyili, located near Yendi, was a hub of learning and craft industries. The name “Moliyili” translates to “the meeting place or house of the learned man” in the Dagomba language which is Dagbani. Yidan Mole Buba, the founder of the settlement, established it in the 1720s as a religious and educational center. Moliyili also provided sanctuary for those deemed outcasts by society or seeking refuge from political conflict.

The educational program at Moliyili focused on religious devotion, including Sufi mysticism, as well as the acquisition of practical skills, including theoretical knowledge of the natural world, and was open to males and females. As part of the royal reform program, Yidan Mole Buba was granted land by Ya Na Andani Sigili in recognition of his services during the Dagbon-Gonja wars and the wars of expansion in the Oti River valley.

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The scholars of Moliyili were not only educators but also had control over material production and were involved in commerce. They accumulated wealth and held positions of social and political power, with their intellectual orientation and creative ethos being an important aspect of their social activity. They created various artifacts and events that reflected social and technical possibilities.

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An Illustration of Yendi in the 17th-18th century

Even though Moliyili no longer exists, its archive remains as an institutionalized form of knowledge organization. The manuscripts within the archive are written in a language that has Arabic vocabulary, but the syntactical structure appears to be more similar to that of Dagbane. Overall, the Dagbon Kingdom’s peak was a time of significant cultural and intellectual importance that shaped the history and legacy of the Dagbon people. This resulted in administrative centralization, territorial conquests, and consolidation, as well as greater social discipline, all of which contributed to the flourishing of the society.

The erudite of Moliyili played multiple roles, functioning not only as teachers and scholars but also as leaders in material production such as agriculture, mining, and crafts, as well as active participants in commerce, which allowed them to accumulate wealth and gain social and political dominance.

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They controlled the technical means of production and had authority over the labor of various groups including students, commoners, and slaves. Alfanema learning had a multifaceted nature that included metaphysical and esoteric, empirical and technological, abstract and concrete, and meditative and practical elements. The ulama employed religious and magical explanations in their texts not for the sake of metaphysical speculation but to provide real-world solutions.

In other cases, they offered naturalistic explanations, such as classifying water quality according to mineral content. Moliyili served as a dynamic structure for producing and disseminating social and technical practices that were essential to the functioning of the Dagbon political economy and network of power relations. The intellectuals at Moliyili created written and oral texts that were linked to questions of authority and legitimacy, and mapped out social and technical possibilities.

In the society’s surplus extraction process, trade and crafts took precedence over agriculture as a primary source of elite wealth, with administrative centralization, territorial conquests and consolidation, and tighter social discipline all serving as means of maintaining the relations of ruling.

These factors led to greater cultural homogeneity and a flourishing Dagbon kingdom. Although Moliyili no longer exists, its archive continues to serve as an institutionalized form of knowledge organization, providing insights into the history and legacy of the Dagbon Kingdom Peak.

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Illustration Of Salaga by Binger

The Comprehensive Expertise of Moliyili’s Intellectuals:

The intellectuals of Moliyili were not only scholars and teachers but also had a strong influence on the material production, commerce, and agriculture of the community. They possessed comprehensive knowledge of various technologies including textile production, mining, dyeing, and agricultural practices, such as cultivating cotton, arboriculture, and raising livestock. Furthermore, their knowledge of medicinal plants and pharmacology suggests that they had a well-established medical system in place.

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Moliyili had a craft school and a quarry dedicated to mining and processing iron ore. The community also had farmland for growing crops and vegetables, producing cloth, and dying them in different colors obtained from trees. Additionally, a black and white cotton plantation was located on the hill. The combination of these resources and the expertise of the scholars allowed for the production of high-quality textiles, iron tools, and other crafts.

The Moliyili scholars’ extensive knowledge and diverse skill set allowed them to exercise control over various aspects of the community’s material production. With their expertise in agriculture, mining, and crafts, they were able to establish a self-sufficient and thriving community.

Their practical knowledge was complemented by their theoretical understanding, as evidenced by their works on medicinal plants, pharmacology, and other topics. In summary, the scholars of Moliyili were instrumental in the development and success of the community.

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Illustration of Scholars from Moliyili

Exploring the Archives of Moliyili Scholars and Other Learning Centers in Dagbon:

Within the archives, there are numerous manuscripts that directly relate to the Moliyili scholars of production. One notable work is a concise text entitled “The Names of Foods in the Land of the Dagomba” (Ta’am asma’ fi al-ard Daghumbawiyyu).

This manuscript serves as a comprehensive guide to the various food and ‘industrial’ crops that could be cultivated in Dagbon. Alongside these crops, it also provides detailed information about the land’s animal husbandry and wildlife, while cataloging the different types of water sources, including their respective mineral content.

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One manuscript found in the archives of the Moliyili scholars focuses on the technology behind paper production. It provides a detailed account of the process involved in creating both light and heavy paper using Sterculia Tomentosa and Ficus Tinctoria, respectively, which are known as Pùlùmpuŋ sabe and heavy paper in Dagbani language.

Another text delves into the technology of iron production and describes the various rituals, obligations, and prohibitions that smelters were required to follow. Additionally, the archives contain works that explore medicinal practices and diseases related to the eyes.

For instance, one manuscript features a description of zondara, which is a type of blindness caused by cutting facial scars at the temple that leads to the severing of muscles and blood vessels that supply the eyes. Although it may not result in blindness during childhood, it can cause blindness later in adulthood.

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Dagbon Cheifs with engineers from the Volta Dam contraction tteam

The Moliyili scholars were also known for their skills in diagnostic medicine and pharmacology. Two notable medical practitioners, Wali Ibrahim and Yahya ibn Salih, wrote manuscripts on the topics. Ibn Salih, who was widely known for his expertise in treating smallpox by vaccination, authored a popular medical treatise with sections on preventative medicine, curative medicine, and war “medicine.”

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Finally, the archive contains texts that combine astrology and numerology as explanatory categories and as modes of interpretation, with some of the alfanema practicing paronomasia and numerological homologising.

The Mole archive contains an 18th-century map that displays the location of seven mosques situated in the Oti River Valley of eastern Dagbon, along with the order in which they were constructed. However, the mapping of these mosques in the Oti Valley holds more significance than being merely a symbolic discussion or literature on a particular social geography.

Other Learning Centres In Dagbon

Apart from Moliyili, other centers of learning existed in Dagbon. Muslim clerics from Hausaland settled on a plot of land given to them by Yaa Naa, which later became Kamshegu – a small community located a few miles away from Yendi. They played a significant role in the region during the eighteenth century. These individuals were also scholars, artisans, and technical experts, but their expertise lay in introducing a water storage technology.

Grave of Kamshe Naa Zanjina at Kamshegu - Moliyili Exploring the Golden Age Of Dagbon Kingdom
The team of Dagbon Media Foundation at the Grave of Kamshe Naa Zanjina at Kamshegu

This group, known as the Asachiya, was led by a scholar with the title Yidan Asachiya, or leader of the cistern builders, and they were responsible for constructing cisterns. some of these cisterns can still be found in Kamshegu.

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The intellectual and technical accomplishments of the Mole and other Muslim scholars did not arise solely from the work of a few exceptional individuals. Instead, these achievements were the result of a well-structured configuration of knowledge and learning, a complex network of institutions (such as mosques, schools, and libraries), and a division of labor that included specialization.

Finally, Sufism, or mystical doctrine, served as a guide for personal conduct and provided the conceptual framework for an empirical form of scientific inquiry (such as the development of classificatory categories and experimentation) and technology. Mysticism was not simply a passive reflection of culture, education, or institutions; it was a conscious effort to comprehend the natural world’s diverse manifestations.

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Photo of a community in Dagbon Taken by the Basel Mission

The Loss and Legacy of Intellectual Material in Moliyili

The loss of Arabic books and manuscripts from Moliyili, an organized center of learning in Dagbon, was discussed. These materials were seized and transported to Christianborg Castle in Accra and eventually to Copenhagen, Denmark. As a result, the community suffered a great loss of intellectual material.

In the 1940s, many inhabitants of Moliyili began to leave the area, taking what was left of the intellectual material with them. Unfortunately, due to poor storage, much of the material was eventually consumed by dump and termites. Additionally, some materials borrowed by local scholars were never returned and became untraceable.

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Over the years, several European, American, and Ghanaian scholars visited the family home to collect information and manuscripts. However, there was no means of copying them at the time, so some borrowed the manuscripts with the promise of returning them, but never did. One scholar mentioned was Phyllis Ferguson.

last year, an abandoned box of old Arabic scripts belonging to a deceased family member of the Moliyili was discovered. Sadly, the manuscripts had been reduced to flakes and powder and had to be disposed of.

Despite the loss of intellectual material, the enduring cultural and religious legacy of Moliyili is the Damba festival, which was started there and subsequently adopted by the Ya Na as a state festival under the Yidan Moli’s guidance. The continued existence of the office of Yidan Moli is another legacy, as the Yidan Moli performs important roles in the performance of funerals of chiefs and the installation of regents of some Dagbon skins.

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Photo of a mosque in Dagbon taken by the Bassel Mission

The Tragic Fall of Dagbon: Exploring the Factors Behind the Decline of a Once Prosperous Kingdom

Yendi, the capital of the Dagbon Kingdom, was once a beacon of knowledge, wealth, and progress that lasted for over two centuries. However, like all things, it eventually crumbled under a range of factors. T. E. Bowdich’s “Mission from Cape Coast to Ashanti, with a statistical account of that kingdom, and geographical notices of other parts of the interior of Africa,” provides a glimpse into the last era of Yendi before its decline.

T. E. Bowdich notes, According to the Moors, he was informed that it would take seven days to travel from Sallagah NE to Yendi, the capital of Dagombas, via the Inta town of Zongoo.

Upon his arrival at Yendi, Bowdich describes it as being larger than Kumasi, the capital of Ashanti, with better-built and ornamented houses. He notes that the Ashantis lost themselves in the streets due to the size of the town. The king at the time, had reportedly been converted by the Moors who had settled in the town in great numbers.

Bowdich further describes the markets at Yahndi as being animated scenes of commerce, constantly crowded with merchants from almost all countries of the interior. He notes that horses and cattle abound in the town. Yahndi, according to Bowdich, was named after the numeral one, from its pre-eminence.

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Under the leadership of Ya Na Andani II, the relationship between the ruler and some Muslim scholars became tense. According to the Muslim perspective, the once friendly association turned into a strained one. Additionally, Andani II’s harsh treatment of Muslims caused the population of Dagbon to decline, and he was even accused of executing an innocent Muslim scholar. Meanwhile, Imam Umar of Kete Krachi believed that the activities of Samori, Babatu, and other slave raiders had only caused destruction and fear, which negatively affected the city’s viability.

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The Sword of Babatu the slave raider in Yendi

The Impact of the German Conquest and Partition of Dagbon

Ya Na Andani II’s reign coincided with the arrival of western colonial powers into Dagbon, particularly the Germans. Local traditions collected in Yendi suggested that the arrival of a star in the sky and the scholars believed it was a warning of the German invasion, and some scholars believed that it was divine retribution for the sins of the Dagbon. On December 4, 1896, the Dagbon army attempted to stop the German army’s advancement at Adibo, but was defeated due to the superior military power of the Germans.

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Grave of Kambon Nakpem Ziblim (Commander of the Dagbon Army against the German Army)

The horror felt by the local population during the German advance was stressed in local traditions. In Imam Umar of Kete Krachi’s poem “Labarin Nasaru (Zuwan Nasara),” written in 1903, the citizens were horrified by the ruthless behavior of the German troops towards the local population in Dagbon in 1896. The Germans burned down houses in Yendi, resulting in several leading Muslim families losing all their books and documents, including the family of al-Hājj Abū Bong b. Muhammad b. Ibrāhīm b. al-Hājj Muhammad.

While some scholars believed the German conquest was divine retribution, others in Yendi did not apply a moral or cosmic interpretation to the event, at least not at first.

Upon his return to the pillaged city of Yendi, Ya Na Andani II immediately enlisted the support of the Muslim scholars, or at least those who remained loyal to him. He provided them with cattle and plenty of cowries to create charms that would ward off the white man from ever returning to their land.

These charms were placed on the branches of the kapok and baobab trees in Yendi, and some were buried on various roads throughout his kingdom, including the yendi-bassari road, yendi-demon road, yendi-Sansanne-Mango road, yendi-Salaga road, karaga-Gambaga road, Savelugu-diari road, tamale-daboya road, and kumbungu-yagaba road.

Despite the efforts of the Scholars and other preventative measures, on May 10, 1900, the German flag was raised in Yendi and Dagbon was divided among the imperial powers. The Germans set up a military base in Yendi and exerted control over the entire German-controlled territory.

The German administration was known for its strict and uncompromising rule. Similar to the British, the Germans abolished slave raids, banned the trading of slaves, and shut down all slave markets, which greatly impacted the slave trade merchants. Moreover, many slaves fled from their owners, which added to the difficulty.

In addition to these measures, German trade policies such as imposing caravan taxes caused the migration of several Muslim traders from the German-controlled areas to the British-controlled territory. Violation of rules and regulations was dealt with harshly, much to the dissatisfaction of the local population. They even remarked that they preferred seven months in an English jail to seven days in a German prison, since the English punished people by imposing fines or imprisoning them rather than using physical force. Phyllis Stevens estimates that Yendi had around 6,000 residents before the German destruction, as noted in Wilks’ 1975 work on the subject. However, during German rule, the population decreased to approximately 3,000 people.

Lessons for Rebuilding Dagbon: Unity, Collaboration, and Preserving Culture

The fall of Dagbon provides valuable lessons for current leaders, Islamic scholars, the educated, and the youth on how to rebuild the kingdom to its past glories and create a brighter future.

Firstly, leaders must prioritize the well-being of their citizens and avoid despotism and oppression. Leaders must work towards building a harmonious relationship with all religious and ethnic groups in the kingdom, fostering mutual respect and tolerance. Additionally, they must prioritize education, as knowledge and progressiveness were crucial to Dagbon’s success in the past. This includes investing in infrastructure and creating opportunities for young people to pursue education and training.

Islamic scholars can also play a vital role in rebuilding Dagbon. They can promote religious tolerance and provide guidance to leaders on how to lead justly and compassionately. Islamic scholars can also use their knowledge and influence to encourage the pursuit of education, as well as promoting peace and unity among the people of Dagbon.

The educated and youth of Dagbon have a responsibility to take ownership of their future. They must be proactive in advocating for their rights, promoting education, and using their skills and knowledge to contribute to the development of their kingdom. They can also work together to promote unity and tolerance among all groups in Dagbon.

In conclusion, the fall of Dagbon is a cautionary tale, but it also provides valuable lessons for the rebuilding of the kingdom. By prioritizing the well-being of citizens, promoting education and progressiveness, fostering religious and ethnic tolerance, and working together towards a common goal, Dagbon can become a thriving kingdom once again. The responsibility falls on the leaders, Islamic scholars, the educated, and the youth to work towards a brighter future for


The story of Dagbon serves as a reminder of the fragility of power and the importance of good leadership. Despite its vast resources and rich cultural heritage, the kingdom was unable to withstand the forces of despotism, slave raids, and colonialism. However, it also reminds us of the resilience of the human spirit and the power of hope. Even in the face of adversity, the people of Dagbon continued to fight for their freedom and their way of life. As we reflect on the lessons of this once-great kingdom, let us strive to build a better future for ourselves and our communities, one that is marked by compassion, wisdom, and a commitment to justice for all.


Ambassador Ibrahim Abass ( personal conversation “The Loss and Legacy of Intellectual Material in Moliyili“)

Bowdich, T. E. (1819). Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee: With a statistical account of that kingdom, and geographical notices of other parts of the interior of Africa. London: Griffith and Farran. Retrieved from https://ia904506.us.archive.org/28/items/missionfromcapec00bowd/missionfromcapec00bowd.pdf

Launay, R., & Soares, B. F. (1999). The formation of an ‘Islamic sphere’ in French Colonial West Africa. Economy and Society, 28(4), 497-519. doi: 10.1080/03085149900000015

Kea, R. (n.d.). Science and Technology in 18th Century Moliyili (Dagomba) and the Timbuktiu Intellectual Tradition. University of California, Riverside. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6r32r6g0

Weiss, H. (2008). The making of the ‘Muslim sphere.’ Journal of African History, 49(2), 165-186. doi: 10.1017/S0021853708003673

Wikipedia. (2021, April 3). Battle of Adibo. In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Adibo

Kumtili Dikpong

A young enthusiastic Dagbana from Yendi. All i wish is to make a positive impact in Dagbon and the world at large. I am an earth science graduate from UDS and my hobbies are researching and photography.