Nana Asmau

Nana Asma’u (1793-1864) was the daughter of Usman dan Fodio, founder of Sokoto Caliphate which was one of the most powerful kingdom’s in northern Africa of the time. She was active in politics, education, and social reform; she was a prolific author, popular teacher, and renowned scholar and intellectual. For some, Asma’u represents the education and independence that is possible for women under Islam and remains a model for African feminists into the present. Erudite and well versed in Arabic, Greek, and Latin classics and fluent in Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa, and Tamacheq, Asma’u was reputed to be a leading scholar in the most influential Muslim state in West Africa. She represented the number of highly educated Muslim women of the time. Bearing witness to the Fulani Jihad (1804-1810) in which her father conquered Nigeria and Cameroon, she recorded her reactions in The Journal. Asma’u also left an impressive corpus of poetry which is comprised of historical narratives, elegies, laments, and admonition, which became tools for teaching men and women the principles of the caliphate. Later, she became her brother’s advisor when he took the caliphate and according to contemporary sources, Asma’u debated with governors, scholars, and princes.

Asma’u was also influential on women’s education during the caliphate. Beginning in 1830, she formed a group of female teachers who journeyed throughout the caliphate, educating women. Becoming symbols of the new state, these female teachers, or jajis, used the writing of Asma’u and other Sufi scholars to train women from all areas, including poor and rural regions. This educational project began to integrate the pagan portions of the newly conquered empire with the existing Muslim state and culture. Education and literacy have been hallmarks of Islam since its inception. Any society that impedes equitable access to salvation by controlling or limiting who can get an education eschews the tenets of Islam; so for the Qadiriyya community to which Asma’u belonged, to deny women equal opportunity to develop their God-given talents was to challenge God’s will.

Today, in northern Nigeria, Islamic women’s organization, schools, and meeting halls are frequently named in her honor. With the republication of her works, she has become a rallying point for African women for the cause of women’s education.

Throughout her poems, there are noticeable absence of gender bias. This perspective is in keeping with the belief in Sufism of the equitable position of men and women; the “soul has no gender.” It is clear from other works by Asma’u that she is well aware of the importance of describing women’s roles when appropriate. Asma’u focuses on women in her largest piece of work ‘The Path of Truth’ and spent nearly a fifth of the entire work directly addressing women. These “women’s verses” are liberating. This may surprise feminists who are “apt to be suspicious towards Islam which they consider a sexist tool of oppression” (Coulon 1988: 114) and those historians who believe the Shehu “insisted on secluding Muslim women”. We know from the Shehu’s own writings on the subject that many of the educated elite wanted their wives to stay at home but failed to teach them anything, treating them “like household implements which became broken after long use and which are then thrown out on the dung heap”.

In this context, therefore, Asma’u’s words are very significant for she says that women have a duty to seek knowledge, which by implication means taking the initiative and acting according to their consciences. She said, “Seek,” not “Wait until someone does something for you,” and, yes, she said women must obey their husbands, but only their lawful demands.

Mack, Beverly B. and Jean Boyd. One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000.
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