Pingyang and the Army of the Lady

Princess Pingyang Photo Credit- Epoch Times

Pingyang was born in 600 to Li Yuan, a peasant who had risen through the army to become a commander.  She was the only daughter to him and his second wife Duchess Dou.  She did have two older sisters from Li Yuan’s first marriage, however, Pingyang spent more time with her four brothers.  As was customary, she was given in marriage when she was quite young.  Her chosen husband was Cai Shao, the son of the Duke of Julu.  By all reports, Pingyang was a dutiful and loving daughter, sister and wife.  However, her loyalty was put to the test when everything went sideways.

During this time, China was ruled by the Sui dynasty emperor, Yangdi.  Yangdi has gone down in history as a paranoid man who was one of China’s greatest villains.  He murdered his father to get to the throne and squandered China’s wealth on failed foreign exploits, of which he lost all of them.  Then Yangdi decided on an extensive building program, which had an extraordinary death toll.  He put men to work rebuilding the Great Wall, and 6 million were killed.  He put men to work building the Grand Canal, and there was a 40-50% death rate.  He raised taxes and no one could pay them because there was no one left to work the farms.  Yangdi had conscripted all the able bodied men into the army.  People chafed under this burden and began rebellions, which were put down with excess force.   Yangdi grew more and more suspicious of everyone.  Then in 615 a popular street balad went around that the next emperor would be named Li.  This this is kind of like saying the next president will be named Smith as it is an extremely common name.  However, Yangdi was already suspicious of Li Yuan.  He was a wildly popular general who had risen from the peasantry.  Plus he was rumored to have a birthmark in the shape of a dragon under his left armpit, which obviously meant he was destined to be emperor.  Who can argue with the armpit, right?  He ordered Li Yuan arrested and executed as a threat to the Empire.  Just for fun, he also accused Li Yuan of having sex with two of the emperor’s favorite concubines.

Li Yuan had no wish to become a rebel leader, but it was that or be killed on trumped up charges.  So,  he put together of more than 30,000 aided by the neighboring Turks, who admired him enough to forge a truce with him not to attack Chinese lands as long as he was in charge while he was still general.  Then he sent secret messages to his four sons and Pingyang’s husband to aid him.  Unfortunately, Cai Shao was the head of the palace guard and the family was living in the palace.  They were sitting ducks for the emperor’s rage.  Cai Shao and Pingyang discussed what to do.  Cai Shao wanted to join his father in law, but didn’t want to leave Pingyang in a prime spot to be kidnapped, ransomed, killed or all three.  However, Pingyang could take care of herself.  Her husband escaped to join the army and Pingyang escaped as well and went to the family’s estates in the province of Hu.  When she arrived in Hu, PingYang found everything in a mess.  People were starving because of a severe drought on top of the fighting that seemed to be everywhere.  To aid her people, Pingyang opened her personal food stores to them.  It was something they didn’t forget.

From Hu, Pingyang watched her father, husband and brothers’ forces fight tooth and nail with emperor’s army.  They fought hard and bravely, but they were outnumbered.  Pingyang wasn’t the kind of woman to sit around and wait while she watched her family destroyed.  She took action.  Going to the families she had just saved from starvation, she began recruiting her own army.  She even convinced a local highwayman and his men to join.  With this start of 10,000 men, Pingyang began convincing imperial allies to desert.  This was an amazing accomplishment for a woman not yet twenty in ancient China.  Women did not command armies, and certainly did not issue orders to men.  However, she was able to both command and train an army worthy of battle.  In a few months, Pingyang was able to raise more than 70,000 troops and the marched to take the capital of Hu under the banner of the “Army of the Lady”.  In a genius public relations move, Pingyang decreed there was to be no looting, raping and plundering in conquered lands.  In fact, she would distribute fresh water and food to the inhabitants.  This gesture of goodwill swelled her army even more.

Yangdi was not pleased with this turn of events and diverted troops from his fight with Li Yuan to take care of this troublesome woman.  He immediately got his behind handed to him.  She was able to link her army with her father’s and together, they marched on the imperial palace in Daxingcheng.  Emperor Yangdi fled south and was killed in 618, ignobly strangled by his own advisors in a bathhouse.  Li Yuan was now the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, taking the name Emperor Gaozu.  He promoted his daughter, Pingyang, to marshal, which came with a military staff.  All of this along with the new honor of being Princess Zhao of the Tang dynasty.

Sadly, Pingyang died two years later at the age of 23 of unknown causes.  Her father buried her with full military honors.  Some people in court questioned why a mere woman would deserve such honors.  Emperor Gaozu simply said, “She was no ordinary woman.”


Hürrem Sultan- From slave to queen

Born Aleksandra Ruslana Lisowska around 1502, little Nastia as she was known would never have dreamed she would rise to become a queen.  She was born in the town of Rohatyn in Polish Ruthenia, which is now in Western Ukraine.   Legend has it her father was an Orthodox priest.  Some time in the 1520’s, Nastia’s world turned upside down when she was captured by the Crimean Tartars at the tender age of 12.  Raids by the Tartars into this region were not uncommon, and Nastia was soon taken to the slave markets of Kaffa.  From there she went on to Istanbul, where she was selected for the sultan’s harem.  The sultan of the Ottoman Empire at this time was Süleyman the Magnificent.  He had just recently ascended the throne as the tenth Ottoman Sultan at a relatively young twenty-six.  He was described by Venetian envoy Bartolomeo Contari as “tall and slender but tough, with a thin and bony face. Facial hair is evident but only barely. The sultan appears friendly and in good humor. Rumor has it that Suleiman is aptly named, enjoys reading, is knowledgeable and shows good judgment.”

Young Nastia was sent to the Old Palace to be trained in palace etiquette.  There she was given the name Hürrem, which means “the smiling one” in Persian for her cheerful disposition.  From the moment Süleyman laid eyes on her, he was smitten.  Hürrem became his most prominent consort next to his two previous favorites, Gülfen and Mahidevran.  Mahidevran especially did not take to kindly to this, and Hürrem had rivals.  Mahidevran was the second ranking concubine in the hareem, and mother of the heir designate.  I’m sure she thought she could get rid of this young upstart in no time.  Mahidevran picked a fight with Hürrem and beat her badly, probably thinking that was that.  She did not count on Süleyman’s devotion.  Mahidevran and her son Mustafa were banished to the provincial capital of Manisa.  It was ostensibly to train the heir designate, but in reality it was to rid Hürrem of a rival.  Soon Hürrem was the favorite.  Nine months later, Hürrem and Süleyman’s first son, Mehmed, which gave her the title of Haseki, or mother of a prince.

Hürrem devoted herself to Süleyman and her new country.  She asked for instruction in the Islamic religion and eventually converted.  On her conversion day, he freed her and Hürrem was no longer a slave.  French historian Fontenelle tells this story, and if it is true this woman was brilliant.  Shortly after her conversion ceremony, Hürrem told Süleyman sadly that she was unable to have sexual relations with a man she was not married to according to her new religion.  He didn’t want her to sin, did he?  Süleyman certainly did not want to lead his beloved into sin and tried to abstain.  He lasted three days.  After that, he married Hürrem in a sumptuous formal ceremony that shocked the empire.  There was a 200 year old custom of the Ottoman imperial house that sultans did not marry their concubines.  They weren’t done busting traditions.  Usually to keep a woman from gaining too much power over the sultan and prevent feuds between blood brothers, a concubine was allowed to have only one son.  Hürrem and Süleyman had six children.  Traditionally, a concubine went with her son when he was old enough to a province.  Hürrem  stayed with Süleyman for the duration of her life, moving into his quarters in the Topkapi as the first woman to do so.  She was given the unprecedented title of Haseki Sultan, which put her on the same level as empresses consort in Europe.

Her new position gave her more access to greater education opportunities, and she began learning Ottoman language, mathematics, astronomy, geography, diplomacy, literature, and history.  She also had a great interest in alchemy and chemistry.  In fact, in the excavation of Edirne Palace, her laboratory and tools for perfume making was discovered.  This coupled with her great influence over Süleyman, sent rumors flying that she was a witch.  Anyone caught repeating these slanders were punished harshly.  However, this was a court of intrigues.   Hürrem wanted her children on the throne not Mustafa the son of her old rival.  After Süleyman had been on the throne 46 years, there were rumblings that Mustafa was going to take power.  Rumor had it Hürrem encouraged Süleyman to take Mustafa out.  Whether or not she did, Mustafa was executed and it was Hürrem’s son who eventually took the throne.  However, she did not flinch when her younger son Beyazid stirred up a riot against his father and was eventually executed.  The Ottoman Empire was a tough room.

There is evidence Hürrem used her great influence with her husband in state matters.  In a previous post, we discussed how her relationship with the wife of Sigismund I of Poland may have saved her old homeland from invasion (Please see this post for more information: )  It is also believed she may have influenced Süleyman to exert greater control on Crimean Tartar slave raiding.  Known in Europe as Roxelana, or the The Ruthenian One, ambassadors knew she had her husband’s ear.  Like her husband, Hürrem was a prolific builder and commissioned two Koranic schools, fountains, several mosques, a soup kitchen and a women’s hospital.  Her bath, the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamam, is still in use today.

The türbe (mausoleum) of Hürrem Sultan in Süleymaniye Mosque at Fatih, Istanbul.

Hürrem passed from an unknown illness on April 15, 1558.  Süleyman was devastated and she was buried in a domed mausoleum adjacent to his own.  In honor of her cheerful nature, her mausoleum depicts the garden of paradise.  After her death, Süleyman wrote poetry bemoaning his loss and loneliness.

My resident of solitude, my everything, my beloved, my shining moon
My friend, my privacy, my everything, my shah of beautifuls, my sultan
My life, my existence, my lifetime, my wine of youngness, my heaven
My spring, my joy, my day, my beloved, my laughing rose.
My plant, my sugar, my treasure, my delicate in world
My saint, my Joseph, my everything, my Khan of my heart´s Egypt.
My Istanbul, My Karaman, my land of Rum
My Bedehşan, my Kıpchak, my Bagdad, my Horosan
My long-haired, my bow like eyebrow, my eye full of discord, my patient
My blood is on your hands if I die, mercy o my non-Muslim
I am a flatterer near your door, I always praise you
Heart is full of sorrow, eye is full of tears, I am Muhibbi and I am happy.

Süleyman followed her less than ten years later and was succeeded by their third son, Selim II, as his two older brothers predeceased him.  


Empress Wu Zetian


A 17th-century Chinese depiction of Wu, from Empress Wu of the Zhou, published c.1690. No contemporary image of the empress exists.

In the East as in the West, female rulers were not the norm.  In China, the famous philosopher Confucius is reported to have said a woman ruling was as unnatural as a “hen crow like a rooster at daybreak.”  Huh.  A regular John Knox, that guy.  Well cock-a-doodle-doo, Confucius, because this is the story of Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty, the only female emperor in Chinese history.  Originally, named Wu Zhao she was given the name Zetian, which means “emulator of heaven”, after death.  Sources about Wu Zetian’s life are a hodgepodge, which some condemning her as the devil himself and others testifying she was an absolute angel.  As we know, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Wu Zetian is believed to have been born in Wenshi County, Shanxi Province around 624 CE.  She was born to a wealthy family as her father was Wu Shihuo, a chancellor of the Tang Dynasty.  Her father encouraged her education and Wu Zetian learned to play music, read the classics, write poetry and the art of oration.  These were traditionally male only skills.  However, the Tang dynasty was a time of relative freedom for women as they were not required to live as submissively as women in other time periods in Chinese history.  On top of being witty and smart, Wu Zetian was also strikingly beautiful.  It was no surprise when she was selected as a concubine for Emperor Taizong at age 14.  One source says she caught Taizong’s eye when she attempted to tame the emperor’s horse.  No one had been able to do it, but Wu Zetian asked to try armed with an iron whip, an iron mace and a dagger.  The story claims she said she would first whip the horse and if that didn’t work she would hit it in the head.  If even that didn’t work, she’d slit its throat with the dagger.  Damn.   Apparently, Taizong liked her moxy and scooped her up.

Concubines were not just playthings of the emperor, but actually had court jobs to do.  Wu Zetian was put in charge of the laundry.  Supposedly, she engaged the emperor in a discussion about Chinese history while changing his bed sheets. He was stunned by her education and intelligence.  He had her moved from the laundry to the position of his private secretary.  He gave her the pet name of “Mei-Niang” meaning “beautiful girl” and she was his favorite concubine.  From this position, she met all the notables of court including the heir to the throne, Prince Li Zhi, Taizong’s son.  Li Zhi fell hard for Wu Zetian despite the fact he was married to someone else and she belonged to his father.  The two began a torrid affair.  When Taizong died, their idyll was supposed to have been over.  Wu Zetian was sent to Ganye temple to become a nun like the rest of Taizong’s concubines after his death.  Li Zhi was proclaimed Emperor Gaozong, but he didn’t forget his love.  Gaozong broke all the rules and sent for Wu Zetian as one of his first official acts as emperor.  She became the first of his concubines despite the jealousy of Gaozong’s wife, Lady Wang, and his former first concubine, Lady Xiao.  These two were going to be trouble as the actively conspired against Wu Zetian.  They did not know who they were dealing with.

Wu Zetian recounts how she got rid of these rivals, in a brilliant yet brutally ruthless fashion.  Lady Wang had not children, but Lady Xia had a son and two daughters.  Wu Zetian gave birth to two sons in quick succession, Li Hong and Li Xian.  The birth of two sons made Wu Zetian rise higher in Gaozong’s favor and made Lady Xia and Lady Wang ready to spit nails.  So when Wu Zetian’s daughter born in 654 CE was found strangled in her crib, Wu Zetian blamed Lady Wang.  She was the last person seen in the nursery and had no alibi.  The story grew that Lady Wang and her mother had formed a coven of witches which included, surprise surprise, Lady Xian.  Lady Wang got divorced, they all got exiled, and any children were disowned.  Wu Zetian was raised to empress of china and her sons designated as heirs to the throne.  The part that makes this horrifying?  Some sources claim that Wu Zetian strangled her own infant daughter to make this happen.  Wu Zetian’s account blames Lady Wang, but later Chinese historians paint Wu Zetian as a ruthless killer and blame her for her daughter’s death.  There is no way to know what exactly happened.  

With her rivals out of the way, Wu Zetian and Gaozong began what could be considered a joint rule.  She played the part of a respectable wife, but anyone at court with a pair of eyes knew she was the power behind the throne.  Gaozong was often in ill health and developed a debilitating eye disease in 660. During those times Wu Zetian publically took the reigns of government.  Even sources that were biased against her begrudgingly admitted she ruled well, rooting out corruption and helping the common people.  She and Gaozong were referred to as the Two Sages.  She challenged the Confucian beliefs against female rule by having histories written about famous women.  She also replaced Daoism with Buddhism as the state religion.  However, several sources indicate she was ruthless in rooting out her enemies at court as well and was not afraid to use treachery or torture.  The lives of her sister, her elder brothers and her mother are all added to her murder total.

In 683, Emperor Gaozong died of what is believed to be a stroke.  The reigns of power did not change much when her eldest son took the throne as Emperor Zhongzong.  However, Zhongzong and his wife Lady Wei were not going to play nice with mom.  They tried to take too much power for Wu Zetian’s liking and Lady Wei was openly disrespectful.  When Zhongzong refused to discipline her, Wu Zetian had him charged with treason and the two of them were banished.  She had her younger son crowned as Emperor Ruizong and kept him under house arrest.  She claimed Ruizong had a severe speech impediment and Wu Zetian was forced to issue decrees for him.  Soon even this was not enough and Ruizong and his wife were forced to abdicate in 693 on trumped up charges of witchcraft.  Wu Zetian took the throne in her own right, and thus begins the period of time known as the “reign of terror”.

As can be expected, many members of the court and government were not happy with this arrangement.  A coup was mounted and was put down, but it was now open season on traitors at court.  According to one source, she eradicated fifteen family lines that were not loyal to her.  The methods were brutal and included false treason charges, executions and enforced suicides in which she made them kill themselves in front of her.  Her secret police and spy networks from her days under Gaozong were still active, and became that much more powerful.

Not every change was a bad one, however.  Wu Zetian reformed the government to reduce spending and efficiency.  She hired her officials on a merit based system instead of through family connections as before.  She also instituted a “suggestion box” system for reforms.  It was also brilliant to anonymously rat out enemies.  The system is described by historian Kelly Carlton as follows, “Wu had a petition box made, which originally contained four slots: one for men to recommend themselves as officials; one where citizens might openly and anonymously criticize court decisions; one to report the supernatural, strange omens, and secret plots, and one to file accusations and grievances”.  To emphasize her difference from her husband’s regime, she changed the dynasty name from Tang to Zhou and called her reign Tianzhou, or “granted by heaven”.  She also proclaimed herself an incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha.  Chinese Buddhism was at its height under her rule, so this was a smart move.  Under her rule education improved and the Silk Road was reopened improving trade.

However, it couldn’t last.  After so many years of fighting to stay in power, Wu Zetian began to get distracted.  She began spending less time governing and more time with her young lovers, the Zhang Brothers.  Court was scandalized as Wu Zetian was in her eighties and they were in their twenties.  This was perfectly fine when emperors did this, but for a woman?  Scandal.  Unfortunately, she also began to get paranoid and ordered a purge of the government.  Court officials could no longer take this behavior, and in 704 CE forced Wu Zetian to abdicate and her favorites the Zhang Brothers were murdered.  Former emperor Zhongzong were brought back and installed as Emperor of China.

After Wu Zetian’s death, she was buried next to Gaozong.  However, the stele erected outside the tomb to record her accomplishments were left blank.  Much like the Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut (For more on her, please see this post: ), her name was blackened and her accomplishments were attempted to be blotted out.  After a power struggle, Zhongzong was deposed by his brother Ruizong with the help of his sister Princess Taiping.  Then Ruizong abdicated and his son Li Longji succeed him.  Taiping tried to rule her nephew the way her mother ruled her father and brothers, but it did not work.  She committed suicide, and Li Longji decreed no member of Wu Zetian’s family would be able to hold office again.  However, he kept up all Wu Zetian’s reforms.  That is her true legacy.


Bona Sforza

Bona in 1517

One would generally think the Queen of Poland would be….well….Polish.  In this case, she was not.  Bona Sforza, as her name would indicate, was Italian.  However, as the wife of King Sigismund I she exercised great power over the country.

A member of the powerful Sforza family of Milan, Bona was born on February 2, 1494 the second child of Gian Galeazzo Sforza, sixth Duke of Milan and his wife Isabella of Naples.  Fun fact, Isabella is thought be some to be the inspiration for the Mona Lisa.  Raised in Bari and Milan, she was educated by the imminent Italian humanists Antonio de Ferraris and Crisotomo Colonna.  From them she learned mathematics, history, classical literature, Latin, , law, theology, geography, natural science, and how to play several instruments.  Bona was also raised on stories of the dangers of the Ottoman Empire and the great explorers of the day.  In short, she was a perfect Renaissance princess.  Sadly, Bona was the only one of her four siblings to live to adulthood.

As part of a powerful family, Bona was expected to make a good marriage.  One problem.  Her great uncle  Ludovico Sforza was constantly at odds with everyone.  He was in a feud with both France and the Pope, so options in France, Italy or Spain were extremely limited.  So the family turned east, and with the help of the House of Hapsburg secured a match for Bona with the widowed Sigismund I of Poland.  The prospect must not have been that exciting for a young girl as her future husband was called “Sigismund the Old”.  Bona was no spring chicken herself, being unwed and 24, but Sigismund was twenty-seven years older than her and quite rough around the edges to the polished Italian lady.  Despite all this, the two were married on April 18,1518 and Bona was crowned Queen of Poland.

As can be expected, the first few months were difficult.  Bona was coming into a culture and climate that was vastly different than the sunny Italy of her youth.  Even the food was different as the diet was heavy on meat and missing the vegetables she was used to.  Bona became known as the Culinary Queen, as she introduced  “włoszczyzna”, literally Italian vegetables, to the area.  She planted a garden near Wawel castle complete with celery, carrots, parsley and leeks.  These vegetables made their way into the Polish and Lithuanian diets along with the words for these vegetables.  She also introduced Italian artists to Poland, including her court favorite Bartolommeo Berrecci.  HIs masterpiece is the Sigismund Chapel at Wawel Castle Cathedral in Kraków.  It is considered “the most beautiful example of the Tuscan Renaissance north of the Alps”.

Bona and Sigismund had six children, however, if the Polish court thought Bona was only going to be a mother of heirs, they were sadly mistaken.  Raised in the centers of power in Italy, Bona began building her own base of support from the Polish nobility.  She was also able to leverage her relationship to the Medici Pope Leo X to influence clerical appointments in her favor.  Despite her upbringing and the help of the Habsburgs in securing her marriage, Bona came down on the side of the Ottoman Empire against the Habsburgs.  Her correspondence with Hurrem Sultan, the legal wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, is thought to have been critical in saving Poland from attempted invasion by the Ottoman Empire.  This correspondence has been lost to time, however, Hurrem sent personal gifts to both Sigismund and his son.  Hurrem was originally from Poland, and all signs point to them having a close relationship.  

Of her children, one son and four daughters survived to adulthood.  Her daughters went on to become powerful in their own rite:  Queen Isabella of Hungary, Duchess Sophia of Brunswick-Lüneberg, Queen Anna I of Poland and Queen Catherine of Sweden, Duchess of Finland.  However, her son and heir became her greatest disappointment.  Sigismund II August succeeded his father after his death in 1548.  However, Sigismund August did not inherit the ruling ability of either his father or his mother.  He concentrated on romance and art rather than running the kingdom.  His first wife was the choice of his father and Bona bitterly opposed it.  Elizabeth of Austria was a Hapsburg, and was in frail health.  The journey from Austria to Poland exacerbated her epilepsy and she began having daily seizures.  Her father-in-law was sympathetic, but Bona was openly hostile.  Sigismund August was indifferent.  He found his new wife unattractive and busied himself with affairs.  Elizabeth made the mistake of calling Bona by her title “the Old Queen”, which Bona detested.  Not a great way to get in good with your mother-in-law.  The poor girl died two years into the marriage.

At this point Sigismund August was on the marriage market again, and Bona expected to get him a more suitable wife this time.  However, that was not on Sigismund August’s mind and he married his outstandingly beautiful mistress Barbara Radziwiłłówna.  Not only was she not Bona’s choice, but she was a Lithuanian Calvinist from an ambitious family.  Bona had worked diligently to keep Protestantism from taking root in Poland, even though she allowed Protestant views to be discussed.  Having one as Queen?  Not happening.  Bona was livid and was not quiet about it.  She headed the campaign to annul the marriage, which included slut shaming Barbara, accusing her of poisoning her first husband and witchcraft to seduce the young king.  The marriage was recognized despite Bona’s efforts and Barbara was crowned Queen of Poland on December 7, 1550.  Bona was removed from court and moved to Mazovia, and was supposedly content with her farms and orchards.  However, when beautiful Barbara died mysteriously in May 8,1551, rumors went round that she had been poisoned on Bona’s orders.  Then rumors went round that this was not the first time Bona had removed a distasteful daughter-in-law.  Remember poor sickly Elizabeth.  Bona was Italian.  They did those things, you know.

Eventually the rumors got to be too much and Bona returned to the Bari of her childhood eight years after the death of her husband.  Her son had married another Hapsburg, this time Catherine of Austria, and she wasn’t going to fall into the line of suspicion if another daughter-in-law got sick.  However, Bona herself was the one who became ill and died under mysterious circumstances.  It is believed that at the instigation of her old enemies the Habsburgs, she was poisoned by her trusted officer, Gian Lorenzo Pappacoda.  Apparently, Philip II owed Bona quite a little bit of money.  Pappacoda forged the will the day before to forgive the debt.  He was rewarded with a title and an annual salary.

Sigismund August died without an heir, so all of Bona’s consternation about his bride was for not.  His sister Anna and her husband Stefan Batory took the throne and ruled as King and Queen.


Nana Asma’u

Artwork by Heba Amin -
Artwork by Heba Amin –

There is a lot of talk in the news about the education of girls.  In fact in recent history Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for daring to go to school and being female at the same time.  However, education for women was not always considered taboo in Islamic cultures.  Nana Asma’u is a perfect example of this.

Born Nana Asma’u bint Shehu Usman dan Fodiyo in 1793 as the daughter of Usman dan Fodio.  He was the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, which was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Northern Africa.  Usman dan Fodio led the Fulani Jihad, which conquered Nigeria and Cameroon.  She was named after Asma bint Abi Bakr, who was a companion of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.  She was educated in the Koran as well as Arabic, Greek and Latin classical literature.  Nan Asma’u could speak fluently in Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa and Tamacheq Tuareg.  Her family followed the Qadiriyyah Sufi tradition, which taught the sharing of knowledge was paramount to their faith.  Learning without teaching was considered sterile and empty.  It was their duty to further knowledge of the Sunna, the exemplary way of life set forth by the Prophet Muhammad.  Following this tradition, Nana Asma’u became an advocate for the education of Muslim women.

As a young woman, Nana Asma’u was a primary witness to her father’s conquests during the Fulani Jihad.  Usman dan Fodio was a traveling Islamic scholar through the Hansa kingdoms of Gobir and Yunfa, however his teachings began to run contrary to the leadership.  He advocated self defense for his students, and when they applied these tactics against government tax collectors and other officials, the king of Gobir was not amused.  Usman dan Fodio was exiled in 1804, which kicked off the JIhad with his followers declaring him to be the Amir al-Mu’minin, or commander of the faithful.  At this time Nana Asma’u was a young woman of twelve, and we have her first hand account of the battles in Wakar Gewaye, or “The Journey” .  This was the first of her prolific written works.  Over forty years, she left behind more than sixty surviving works.  Many of these are poetry written in the Arabic, Fula and Hausa languages.  The range from laments, instructions and elegies to historical narratives.

When her half brother, Muhammed Bello, became the second Caliph, Nana Asma’u became one of his trusted counselors.  In this capacity, Nana Asam’u was no shrinking violet.  She debated with governors, scholars and princes as well as weighing in on legal decisions.  This was not unusual as her works reveal Muslim women who held prestigious and powerful positions in the hierarchy of the Caliphate.  Her sisters, Myram and Fatima, and the Caliph’s wives,Aisha and Hawwa, were also active in literary and political roles in the Caliphate.  This directly contradicts the negative stereotype of women being kept in an inferior position because of religion.  She also taught students, both male and female together.

Around 1830, she created a company of women teachers called the yan-taru, or “those who congregate together, the sisterhood”.  The teachers themselves were called jalis.  The jajis were trained in scholarly Sufi writings as well as Nana Asma’u’s writing as well.  She used the example of Aisha Bint Abu Bakr as an example of modesty and learning for Muslim women.  One of her poems used by the jajis as a teaching tool states “I bring all women to Aisha; Aisha, the Noble Daughter of Al-Siddiq… She was held in esteem by the Prophet.”  The jajis were sent out into the Caliphate and taught women in their homes both in literature and religion.  They began with the newly conquered pagan peoples, integrating them into the ruling class of the new Muslim government.  The jajis were given a malfa, which was a hat and traditionally the symbol of the pagan Bori priestesses in Gobir.  This malfa was then tied with a red turban.  They also carried with them a copy of Nana Asma’u’s book The Path of Truth, which emphasized the following of the Sunna.  The opening doxology describes the pillars of Islam and sets the tone for the additional lessons:

You should always be clean and wear clean clothes.
Look well to the details of your religion so that we may all
be united with Ahmada.
You should seek religious knowledge and stop straying from
The Path. Do not be one of the lost in the next world.
Such knowledge enables you to follow God and the
Insight into the Sunna will carry us to Ahmada.
Wishing for a Muslim everything that you
Wish for yourself is [in keeping with] the character of
Muhammada. (vv. 19-21, 28)

Eventually, the jajis expanded their teaching from the noble classes into the poor rural areas.  They in turn trained other teachers to facilitate the continuation of learning.

Although Nana Asma’u died in 1864, her legacy is still strong in Northern Nigeria.  Many organizations, schools and meeting halls are named for her.  She has also been an example for the role of women in Islam in the 21st century.  Muslim scholars have pointed to her life as following in the footsteps of the Prophet.  “Nana Asmau  is the perfect example of a Muslim inspired by the Prophet Muhammad, and his legacy of furthering women’s education.”