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.”