“The Spotlight” brings to light the stories of Muslim women of the past and present. In this instalment, We look into the historical legacy of Nana Asma’u Bint Usman Dan Fodio; a remarkable West-African Muslim leader and Scholar from the 18th Century.
This Essay on Nana Asma’u is the first in a series of essays celebrating ‘Black Muslim Excellence’ in the month of February
Growing up, I remember feeling out of place in my Islamic history classes at Madrasah. Islam had originated in Arabia amongst the Arabs, and its message had been delivered by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), an Arab man. And although we were taught about Bilal, a slave who happened to be the first black man to accept Islam, there was always this feeling of cultural confusion as to just how Arab I needed to be, to be truly Muslim.
Black African history is inextricably tied to Islam. However, racism within Muslim communities has witnessed the erosion of the centrality of blackness over the centuries. Movies and books about Muslim history portrayed characters I couldn’t relate to on a personal level. “Muslim” practically meant “Arab” and “Black Muslim History” on a global scale was always about black slavery and how Islam came to liberate black people from poverty and servitude. This made me curious about Black Muslim history in Africa. Was there more to Black history than Slavery and Emancipation? Were there more powerful narratives to counter the back-handed compliment given to portray all black Muslims as lowly figures who rose out of their abject poverty to become ‘respectable’ Muslims?
While it is true that there were black Muslims who were enslaved, it is equally true that there were black Muslims who were Kings, Queens and leaders in different worlds. Despite this history, blacks continue to not only be called “abd” – an Arabic word for “slave” but also treated as “inferior” and “not Muslim enough”. So it was no wonder that when I eventually came across the remarkable history of Nana Asma’u bint Usman Dan Fodio, a Black African Muslim princess and leader who looked just like me in her skin colour, physical features and dressing, I was over the moon.
Tucked away in the tropical region of Nigeria, flourishing with rain forests, oil palm, and fertility; a spark kindled an invigorating female empowerment, leadership, and Intellectualism. That spark was Nana Asma’u bint Usman Dan Fodio, a legendary woman who apart from being the sister of the head of state and the daughter of a political and spiritual leader, chose to build her own legacy rather than sit back to live a fleeting life of luxury. She was an Islamic leader who was well-known amongst the men and women of her time not only for her educational movement but also for her ability to mediate political disagreements. She was also a polyglot who could speak fluently in Arabic, Hausa, Fula and the Tamasheq language of the Tuareg.
The story of Nana Asma’u began before her birth. It’s tucked beneath the perception, wisdom and vigour instilled in her by her father, Usman Dan Fodio, who himself was taught by his mother Hawa, and his grandmother Ruqaya. Usman Dan Fodio was the founder of the Sokoto empire who declared the African caliphate at the time the Ottoman caliphate waned and struggled to the East. The influence of his female teachers made him realise the utter lack of education and suppression of women in the region. Against the oppressive socio-political situation, which was predominant in other Muslim regions around the world, including the Arab and Asian worlds, Usman Dan Fodio began to rally against the religious leaders of the time for imposing domestic duties on women instead of promoting personal intellectual and religious education for them. In his address to the women, he said:
“O! 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 in obeying her husband. This is not more than 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 cloths, and do other things which they desire while they fail to teach you that which Allah and His apostle have prescribed for you.”
The rule of Usman Dan Fodio was revolutionary, improving the status of women and ensuring that they had equal rights as their male counterparts. Little wonder Nana Asma’u, his daughter became the epitome of women’s liberation at the time. West African Muslims glorify her, celebrate her efforts in expanding the rights of women to intellectualism and to active participation in the affairs of society, reasserting rights that had been selfishly snatched away in preceding generations.
Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u, a Nigerian researcher, in his work titled Nana Asma’u’s tradition: An Intellectual Movement and a Symbol of women’s rights in Islam, stated that “Nana Asma’u’s legacy is an answer to those who view women as exploited, oppressed and relegated to the rudiments of home management and service to the children especially under Islam.”
Several western researchers have taken the time to study the life and achievements of this inspiring woman and written books to celebrate her works. Amongst them is Jean Boyd who gained access to her works in 1975 and wrote a book titled The Caliph’s Sister in her honour. The book is a detailed biography and legacy. After writing the book, Jean Boyd collaborated with another researcher, Beverly Mack to compile the poetry and religious treatises of Nana Asmau into the Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman dan Fodio (1793–1864) which was subsequently translated into Arabic, Fula and Hausa languages. Boyd and Mack eventually researched into her socio-political life and co-authored a book titled One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe.
Nana Asma’u was recognised for many achievements amongst which were her intellectual merit. She was an effective teacher of both men and women, as well as a leader of women educators. She was a prolific poet who wrote and recited long lines of poetry covering diverse themes. One such poem could entail 1,200 verses and take 6 hours to recite. She wrote the Tafseer (explanation) of the Quran, Biography of the Prophet, and Tibb al-Nabawi (Medicine of the Prophet). She translated the Quran into Fulfude and Hausa, as well as Ibn al-Jawzi’s Sifaatu Safwa, during a difficult time in her life. She has over 60 published works that have survived and are being studied until this day.
Bullock K, a western researcher, in his work titled, Towards the full inclusion of Muslim women in the Ummah: An Activist’s perspective stated that there was a high level of Inclusivity for Muslim women in their communities during the time of Nana Asma’u and this was evident by the following:
- The women had equal access to power in all dialogues and decisions that shaped their communities.
- They had equal political, social, economic and spiritual rights as their male counterparts
- They had their private lives free of extraordinary difficulties (e.g. Illiteracy, Poverty and Domestic Violence) which could hamper their abilities to be involved in their communities.
Amongst the many achievements of Nana Asmau bint Uthman Dan Fodio, the most impressive of all remains the Yan-Taru Legacy. In 18th century West Africa, now modern-day Northern Nigeria, when her father, Usman Dan Fodio outlawed the oppressive patriarchal customs and granted Women their social and political rights, Nana Asmau began a legacy that was to span through generations — the Yan Taru Movement, to educate and socialise women, unifying them under the banner of reformed Islam, regardless of their ethnicity, age or first language.
In their book, “Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma’u 1793–1864” Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd stated that Nana Asma’u combined an ability to speak directly to rulers and scholars with a determination to educate illiterate rural women at the bottom of the social scale; the very poor women without connections to the elite who could neither write their names nor recite the fatiha, the open verses of the Qur’an. For these women, Asma’u wrote works in Hausa, their first language, and since she could not visit them all, as they were amongst hundreds of villages and hamlets, she devised the plan of the Yan-Taru to bring them to her.
Nana Asma’u educated and trained hundreds of women around the Sokoto caliphate who thereafter traveled to several distant places to educate other women. She created a hierarchy of women teachers known as Jajis — the leaders of the caravan — who traveled throughout the caliphate educating women in designated student’s homes. In turn, each of these Jajis used Nana Asmau’s and other Scholars’ writings to train corps of learned women called the Yan — taru — those who congregate together. To each Jaji, Nana Asma’u bestowed a malfa — a hat which was a traditional symbol of office tied with a red turban. The Jajis, therefore, became the symbols of the new order and of education even outside the women’s community.
Almost two hundred years later, the Yan-Taru legacy lives on. Present — day Jajis travel beyond the shores of Africa to educate women around the world. One such Jaji, Dylia bint Hamadi Camara explained in an interview with Margari Aziza Hill, the founder of Muslim Anti-Racism, in the essay Nana Asmau Bint Uthman Dan Fodio; A spark who continues to Illuminate thus: “We have the name of all the jajis before me so mine comes after a long line of the unbroken chain of scholarship and service to women, children and the Ummah at large.”
Jaji Dylia further explained that Nana Asmau’s methodology of learning still educates men, women and children across the world. In the United States for instance, the ‘Yan Taru Education Foundation and Charitable Trust’ has chapters in Pennsylvania, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, California, Baltimore, Pittsburg, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland, Florida and Massachusettes with hundreds of women in intensive training, seminars and classes. Present-day Jajis like Dylia travel internationally using email, video conferencing and text messaging to educate their students on Classical Islam. They also have a website at Yantaru.com. Nana Asma’u is an epitome of black excellence. She was not just a woman. She was an extraordinary black African Muslim woman whose impact was and is still being felt all over the world. Her legacy gives me confidence. It makes me proud that I come from a powerful line of Black women whose energy and vigour I carry with me everywhere I go. It is a story to be told when issues of “anti — blackness” creep into the wider Muslim circles. It is a point of reference for men, Muslim and non-Muslim alike when the rights of women stand a potential threat of being violated. This history is our legacy. It is something to call ours; a heritage to keep us soaring high in life even in the face of all forms of subjugation and discrimination.
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Wardah Abbas is the Founding Editor of The Muslim Women Times. She is a Lawyer, Writer and Social Justice activist.