The history of Muslim women is a history of action, acumen and resilience. It is a history of intelligence, interest and stamina. It is a history of personal power, community care and global grit. And few exemplify this history like Nana Asma’u of the early nineteenth century.
Nana Asma’u’s life was sandwiched between the French Revolution, which concluded in the year of her birth, and the United States Civil War, which ended the year of her death. She was born in 1793, married in 1807, and had her first child at twenty years old in 1813. Six years later she wrote her first known long work of prose poetry. In 1817 she lost her father, Usman Dan Fodio, whom she admired and held up as a spiritual example for others for the rest of her life. Her beloved brother and colleague died in 1837 and her husband, who was her confidant and dear friend, passed away in 1849.1
Nana Asma’u lived during the Sokoto Caliphate, a successful African Caliphate spanning the area near Lake Chad in the East and Middle Niger in the West. The Sokoto did not fall to colonial rule until 1903.
Usman Dan Fodio: Caliph, Father, and Advocate
Usman Dan Fodio, Nana Asma’u’s father, was a transformative and charismatic leader, revered by his students and followers, and respected by his enemies and would-be dissidents. He declared the African Caliphate while the Ottoman Caliphate waned and struggled to the East. His was a mission. He viewed the scholars and leaders who had long been in authority as people of innovation and sin. He said, “They are undoubtedly unbelievers, even though they profess the religion of Islam, because they are polytheists who turn away from the path of God and raise the flag of the worldly kingdom above the banner of Islam.”2
His greatest complaint was the lack of education among women, and the scholarly promotion of that status quo. He railed against the ulama (Islamic scholars) for encouraging domestic duties for women instead of personal intellectual and religious education and encouraged women to demand an education. He spoke directly to Muslim women when he said,
“Oh Muslim women, do not listen to the words of the misguided ones who seek to lead you astray by ordering you to obey your husbands instead of telling you to obey God and His Messenger. They tell you that a woman’s happiness lies on obeying her husband. This is not more than a camouflage to make you satisfy their needs. They impose on you duties which neither God nor His Messenger imposed on you. They make you cook, wash clothes and do other things which they desire while they fail to teach you that which Allah and His apostle have prescribed for you. Neither God nor His apostle charges you with such duties.”3
The Shehu was vocal against those who would oppress women and refuse them an education and he was an activist in his home, where he ensured that his daughters were educated as well as his sons. All of the children attended classes in the mornings and late afternoons. They learned to read and memorized the verses of the Quran in between household chores and worship practices.
Asma’u and her twin brother Hassan were the 22nd and 23rd children of the Shehu, yet they were raised under gentle fatherly attention and advice.4 It is said that Asma’u inherited her father’s karama, or personal miraculous blessings. When she was fifteen, the army general, Asma’u’s older brother and later inheritor of the Caliphate, was locked in a battle and Asma’u’s father sought her help. He said to his daughter, “You see how Bello is struggling at Alkalawa,”5 at which Asma’u took up a burning branch and pointing it toward the direction of the battle said, “Burn Alkalawa.”6 She was later to be told that her brother had won the battle because the battlefield burned. This story became part of the oral history of the Sokoto, and contributed to Asma’u’s honor amongst her people.
Her Public Life
Public life in nineteenth century Western Sudan was centered on education. An educated person was one who was well versed in Islamic law, Quran, Hadith, languages, military science, and community values. Nana Asma’u was literate in three languages (Arabic, Fulfilde, and Hausa) and fluent in four. She was a hafitha (one who memorized the Quran), knowledgeable about hadith, experienced in military science and an expert in the ability to translate sacred text into practical community values. She was well known for her scholarship, her influence and her vision.7
Her Status Among Colleagues
Asma’u’s writings tell of her leadership role and the few letters preserved in the collection that are written to her underline her elevated place in society. She exchanged letters with Aliyu b. Ibrahim at a time of controversy wherein a dispute about whether or not Muhammad Bello (Caliph and brother to Nana Asma’u) had become a Tijanniyya8. The prose introduction to the original text says, “Aliyu son of Ibrahim known as 'Ahijo' took to his heart the poetry of Umaru son of Sheikh Muhammad son of Sheikh al-Mukhtar, and the poetry of our leader, Asma’u, daughter of Usman, the spiritual light of his times.”9 He writes to her with great reverence:
The girls [referring to the poems of Nana Asma’u] who came to me wore flowing robes and walked proudly
They were the two daughters of a noble lady, her name?
It is a plural noun.
She is famous for her erudition and saintliness which
Are as a bubbling spring to scholars
Her knowledge, patience and sagacity she puts to good
Use, as did her forebears.10
Here we are told that the Ahijo (meaning leader) was influenced by an earlier poem from Nana Asma’u, and then his own poem acknowledges her good qualities. Both his prose introduction and the poem itself make clear Asma’u’s status. She had sent a communication, and he responded with respect, and humility.
In another exchange between Nana Asma’u and Sheikh Sa’ad, a scholar from Gwanda, we again recognize great respect and reverence in his letter to her:
Greetings to you, O woman of excellence and fine traits!
In every century there appears One who excels.
The proof of her merit has become well known, east and west, near and far.
She is marked by wisdom and kind deeds; her knowledge is like the wide sea
Sincere greetings, benefactions and felicitations from one who loves your family.
Restless from travelling deserts I long to meet you and your good traits again.
From someone like you, welcome and acceptance is sought, for them, that the happiness of any person would be fulfilled.
Indeed I was delighted and gladdened by what I heard from you, even though I could not see you.
I praise God for having graced me with your concern about me while I am far away.
I do not deserve your concern while I am away, but I pray for our forgiving Lord’s love
The heart ends up longing for its Lord, for such is the love of His servants
If Sa’ad has ever been fortunate and happy, it is due to the abundance of your beneficence and overflowing grace.11
This testimony to Nana Asma’u’s role in society tells us that she was well-known, that her approval was sought by men as well as women and that it was suspected that she was the inheritor of her father’s spiritual authority. The line, “In every century there appears, one who excels.” refers to the hadith of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ that foretells of a renewer of religion that would appear every hundred years to revive and renew Islam for its followers.12 Sheikh Sa’ad indicates that he thinks this person is Nana Asma’u (whereas Asma’u herself had often said it was her father.) This is a significant claim, and one that Asma’u does not reject in her response to him.
Finally Asma’u is also recorded to have written to a Mauritanian scholar who she refers to as Brother – indicating their status as intellectual and spiritual equals. In this letter she is congratulating him for his pilgrimage in what is an exchange between leaders where she is welcoming him to stop on her land.
Honor to the erudite scholar who has left his home
To journey to Medina
He intends to visit the holy places whose radiance
Illuminates the earth
His immense knowledge will ease and enhance his pilgrimage
We are overjoyed
To welcome the caravans of this pilgrim to the Beloved one
Our noble, handsome brother
The hem of whose scholarship others cannot hope to touch.
He came bearing evidence of his learning
And the universality of his knowledge…13
Here, and elsewhere, Asma’u’s words elevate the status of the receiver of her poem. She, as a person of authority, delegates legitimacy and spiritual rank to the recipient. We understand that she approves of this scholar.
The three aforementioned examples underline Nana Asma’u’s public, local and widespread influence. Her authority was not garnered by oppression or wiles, but rather intelligence, her sense of duty to write and contribute her voice to the public discourse, and her spiritual status.
In 184214 Aliyu b. Muhammad Bello became Caliph and Asma’u’s role as elder and only living memory of Degal15 increased her authority and strength. She made herself available for students and their questions in her home, and continued to be involved in public life, but her thoughts turned to the plight of rural women and the upcoming generations. She feared the long-term effects on the next generation of the thousands of new converts who were still culturally entrenched in animist beliefs and the occult. She believed in the transformative power of educated women, and as such she developed an innovative system of education that succeeded in educating thousands of women in her lifetime. The system was called Yan Taro (meaning to gather together), and is still in existence in parts of Nigeria and the United States of America in the twenty-first century.16
The curriculum was a series of educational poems in the spoken language of the people. These poems were meant to teach the beginner basic religious knowledge, the intermediate learner more advanced knowledge, and the advanced learner could move on to more advanced learning using the poem as her base. Nana Asma’u wrote these poems with an eye to the oral culture of her people. They could be memorized before they would be read, and read before they would be written. Further the women could use these poems as ammunition against patriarchal oppression and recite them to their husbands when needed.17 One example of curriculum in poetry is her poem “The Quran”. Here she writes a poem in thirty verses to teach one hundred fourteen names of chapters of the Quran. It teaches not only the names, but the order as well, a beginning primer to the ultimate goal of memorization of the book itself. The following is a short excerpt;
And the poem continues, weaving the names of the chapters in sentences facilitating their memorization.
How could she deliver the poems to the rural areas, which were great distances apart and the roads between them were fraught with danger? For this she recruited teams of teachers. The team included one advanced learner past the years of child rearing and one advanced learner still in her pre-marriage age (over 40 and under 14). Together they would sit with Nana Asma’u learning the curriculum for that season, and then together they would trek to their assigned village, where they would stay and teach the women. Sometimes they would return to Nana Asma’u with questions and thorny problems they needed help with, and sometimes they would bring her a woman with her own questions.20
During this time there were occult women who had garnered the respect of village women with their spells and promises of quick fixes. These women wore a large hat that signaled their status in society. Asma’u took note of this symbolism and crowned her teachers with their own hat, this one wrapped with a red cloth in a ceremonious manner.21 Hence she borrowed from a symbolism already in existence to further the authority of the women she sent out to teach. When Jean Boyd went into rural Africa in 1981, she met one of the descendants of these teachers. Her name was Hauwa and she vividly described the days of the Yan-taro (Nana Asma’u’s teaching system) and her own role as Jaji (leader). She could recite every student of Nana Asma’u, including her first, signifying the importance of these women in rural life.22
Activism in Verse
Nana Asma’u further raised the status of her students and legitimized female scholarship with beautiful elegies after their deaths. She writes of her student Hauwa’u and describes principles of her system. The following is an excerpt:
I accept what has happened, and remember Hauwa’u
Who loved me, a fact well known to everybody.
During the hot season, the rains, harvest, when the Harmattan blows,
and the beginning of the rains,
She was on the road bringing people to me.
She warned them to journey in good faith, for she said intention was important.
As for myself I taught them the religion of God in order to turn them From error and instill in them the knowledge of their obligatory duties.23
She goes on to describe her teachings and their orthodoxy. In this way she staved off wary men who looked with suspicion upon these active women of knowledge. She wrote of other students and elegized them along with the male scholars and leaders she honored in elegy. Her poems became a voice of activism, gently forming a culture of respect, value and necessity for women’s education.
Nana Asma’u’s authority grew against the backdrop of her father and leader Usman Dan Fodio, who fought the subjugation of women publicly and privately. She was surrounded by scholarly and educated women and grew to be a prolific writer, visionary and authoritative figure. Her legacy for generations of strong African women, who still refer to her example, demonstrates the real transformative effect she had on her society. Her loving relationship with her father, brothers and husband, and the relationships of mutual respect and admiration between her and other leaders of the continent, all demonstrate a woman who was not fighting patriarchy in her inner circles, but rather working to create the same culture of equality and respect at every level of society. Her innovative educational system stood as a wall of justice, pushing back against misogyny and uplifting women in every village and town. Nana Asma’u, in her writings, her relationships, and her educational system, was a transformative leader, whose legitimacy came from a traditional model that she, and her father and the other leaders of her time, found in the life of their Prophet ﷺ and the history of their religion.
She leaves a legacy for young men and women around the world; a legacy of social change, cultural development and spiritual enlightenment. Her legacy for Muslims is especially poignant. As the community struggles to revive the female voice in scholarship, her words echo forth and call us all to make space for our women scholars, to support our women students of knowledge and to open our institutions for female leadership. The legacy of Nana Asma’u lives on in every young woman who cares deeply for her community and makes a lifetime commitment to scholarship and positive cultural change.
Azuonye, Chukwuma, “Feminist or Simply Feminine? Reflections on the works of Nana Asma’u, a Nineteenth-Century West African Woman Poet, Intellectual and Social Activist.” Meridians: Feminism, race, transnationalism Vol. 6., no. 2. 2006 54-77
Boyd, Jean., The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u 1793-1865 Teacher, Poet, and Islamic Leader. New York: Frank Cass Publishers, 1989
___________. “Distance Learning from Purdah in Nineteenth-century northern Nigeria: The Work of Asma’u Fodiyo.” Journal of African Cultural Studies. Volume 14, Number 1, June 2001, 7-22
Boyd, Jean, and Beverly Mack., Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma’u, 1793-1864. United Kingdom: Interface Publications and Kube Publishing, 2013.
_________. Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman ‘Dan Fodiyo (1793-1864). Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1997.
Dangana, Muhammad., “The Intellectual Contribution of Nana Asma’u to Women’s Education in Nineteenth-Century Nigeria.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 19.2: 285 Sept. 2015
Mack, Beverly, B., and Jean Boyd., One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000
Mack, Beverly, B., Muslim Women Sing: Hausa Popular Song. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2004
______________. “’This Will Not Be Handled by the Press:’ Problems-And Their Solution-In Preparing Camera-Ready Copy For The Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, 1793-1964” History in Africa, Vol. 25, 1998, 161-169
____________. “Nana Asma’u’s Instruction and Poetry for Present-day American Muslimahs.” History in Africa, Vol. 38, 2011, 153-168
1. Boyd, Jean., The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u 1793-1865 Teacher, Poet, and Islamic Leader. New York: Frank Cass Publishers, 1989
2. Dangana, Muhammad., “The Intellectual Contribution of Nana Asma’u to Women’s Education in Nineteenth-Century Nigeria.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 19.2: 285 Sept. 2015
3. Ibid p. 2
4. Boyd, Jean., The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u 1793-1865 Teacher, Poet, and Islamic Leader. New York: Frank Cass Publishers, 1989
7. Boyd, Jean., The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u 1793-1865 Teacher, Poet, and Islamic Leader. New York: Frank Cass Publishers, 1989
8. An alternative Sufi movement. Bello’s father, the Shehu was Qadiriyya, hence the controversy.
9. Boyd, Jean, and Beverly Mack., Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman ‘Dan Fodiyo (1793-1864). Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1997. 287
10. Ibid, English p. 287 and Arabic p. 681
11. Boyd, Jean, and Beverly Mack., Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman ‘Dan Fodiyo (1793-1864). Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1997. English p. 284-286 Arabic p. 678-680
12. “God will raise for this community at the end of every hundred years the one who will renew its religion for it.” Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 37, Hadith number 4278
13. Boyd, Jean, and Beverly Mack., Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman ‘Dan Fodiyo (1793-1864). Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1997. English p. 287 Arabic p. 681
14. Boyd, Jean., The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u 1793-1865 Teacher, Poet, and Islamic Leader. New York: Frank Cass Publishers, 1989
15. Degel refers to a time of great hardship for the early Sokoto community. They had traveled through Gobir lands, preaching and teaching Islam to those who knew little of it or had not heard of Islam before that. This proselytizing became a threat to the Gobir kings and he ordered the Shehu to leave under threat of attack. There was an attempted assignation against the Shehu, and then an all out attack against some of his followers at Degel. During these marches and military challenges, womenfolk were considered an integral part of the group, and not to be left behind for fear of the loss of their religious scholarship. Indeed after the attack at Degel, it was the bloodstained women who returned to the house of the Shehu to report the attack on his followers.
16. Mack, Beverly, “Nana Asma’u’s Instruction and Poetry for Present-day American Muslimahs.” History in Africa, Vol. 38, 2011, 153-168
17. Mack, Beverly, B., and Jean Boyd., One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000
18. Boyd, Jean, and Beverly Mack., Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman ‘Dan Fodiyo (1793-1864). Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1997. 38-43
19. Spelling changed from the transliteration of Mack and Boyd to reflect more accurate Arabic phonetic sounds.
20. Mack, Beverly, B., and Jean Boyd., One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000
22. Boyd, Jean., The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u 1793-1865 Teacher, Poet, and Islamic Leader. New York: Frank Cass Publishers, 1989
23. Boyd, Jean, and Beverly Mack., Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman ‘Dan Fodiyo (1793-1864). Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1997. 252
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