A revered political leader, Islamic scholar and military commander, Tall founded a brief empire covering much of what is Guinea, Senegal, and Mali.
The tenth of 12 children, Tall in 1828 embarked on Hajj returning in 1830 with the title Alhajj. He was then initiated into Tijaniyya, assuming the role of the Khalifa of the Tijaniyya Sufi brotherhood in Sudan.
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Tall took the honorific title Khalifat Khatim al-Awliya and that would become the basis of his authority necessary to lead Africans, according to historical reporting.
From 1831—1837, he settled in Sokoto, Northern Nigeria where he took several wives, one of whom, it was reported was the daughter of the Fula Caliph of the Sokoto Caliphate, Muhammed Bello—son of Usman Dan Fodio. Fodio was a religious teacher, revolutionary, military leader, writer, and Islamic promoter.
In 1836 Saidou Tall moved to Imamate of Futa Jallon. He then moved to Dinguiraye in present-day Guinea in 1840 to prepare for his jihad. It was said that there in Dinguiraye, he mobilized his followers into a professional army.
Fifty thousand strong, tooled with French ammunition Tall reportedly declared a jihad against people he considered pagans, European intruders as well as incompetent rulers of Futa Toro and Futa Jallon.
Tall was said to extremely appeal to the residents of his birthplace based on local grievances against the military elites. His community was also said to appeal to rootless individuals of mixed ethnic background who found new social identity and opportunities for conquest under the aegis of Islam. His Jihad began with the conquest of Futa Toro and by 1862 his empire included Timbuktu, Masina, Hamdallahi, and Segu.
Tall’s Toucouleur army went into conflict with the French who were attempting to establish their commercial supremacy along the Senegal river around 1857. He besieged the French colonial army at Medina Fort. However, the siege failed on July 18 of the same year when Louis Faidherbe, French governor of Senegal, arrived with relief forces.
According to historians, Tall disappeared mysteriously from the cliffs of Bandiagara in Mali, an area known for its dramatic landscape, in 1864.
He was succeeded by his son Ahmadou (1836-1897) who fought and defeated the French in April 1893 in Bandiagara.
During that battle the French seized the sword Tall bequeathed his son. It had a French-made blade and a handle shaped like a bird’s beak.
French colonialists also looted books belonging to Tall, according to El-Hajj Mamadou Mactar Thiam, a descendant of the Muslim scholar.
“They took everything, including his library, in Segou, and I hope that all our books that are now in France will be returned to us,” Thiam told BBC Afrique.
France, however, returned the sword belonging to the 19th Century Senegalese Islamic scholar and ruler last month as part of the French government’s commitment to give back key items of cultural heritage it stole from its former West African colonies.
A report commissioned by the French President last year recommended the country amend its strict heritage laws to allow for the return of thousands of African artworks looted during the French colonization.