Nana Asma’u (full name: Nana Asma’u bint Shehu Usman dan Fodiyo, Arabic: نانا أسماء بنت عثمان فودي; 1793–1864) was a princess, poet, teacher, and daughter of the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, Usman dan Fodio. She remains a revered figure in northern Nigeria. Nana Asma’u is held up by some as an example of education and independence of women possible under Islam, and by others as a precursor to modern feminism in Africa.
Nana Asma’u was born some eleven years before the Fulani War, and was named after Asma bint Abi Bakr, a companion of the Muslim Prophet. The daughter of the Sufi-inspired and Fulɓe-led Sokoto Caliphate's founder and half sister of its Muhammed Bello (the second Sultan of Sokoto), she outlived most of the founding generation of the Caliphate, making her an important source of guidance to its later rulers. From 1805, members of the Caliph's family came to great prominence, including the Caliph’s female relatives. While Nana Asma’u became the most prominent, her sisters Myram and Fatima, and the Caliph's wives Aisha and Hawwa played major literary and political roles in the new state. Like her father, she was educated in Qur'anic studies, and placed a high value upon universal education. As exemplars of the Qadiriyyah Sufi school, the dan Fodio and his followers stressed the sharing of knowledge, especially that of the Sunnah, the example of the prophet Muhammad. To learn without teaching, they thought, was sterile and empty. Thus Nana Asma’u was devoted, in particular, to the education of the Muslim women. Like most of the rest of her family, she became a prolific author.
Writer and counselor
Well educated in the classics of the Arab and Classical world, and well versed in four languages (Arabic, the Fula language, Hausa and Tamacheq Tuareg), Nana Asma’u had a public reputation as a leading scholar in the most influential Muslim state in West Africa, which gave her the opportunity to correspond broadly. She witnessed many of the wars of the Fulani War and wrote about her experiences in a prose narrative Wakar Gewaye "The Journey". As the Sokoto Caliphate began as a cultural and religious revolutionary movement, the writings of its leaders held a special place by which later generations, both rulers and ruled, could measure their society. She became a counselor to her brother when he took the Caliphate, and is recorded writing instructions to governors and debating with the scholars of foreign princes.
Amongst her over 60 surviving works written over 40 years, Nana Asma’u left behind a large body of poetry in Arabic, the Fula language and Hausa, all written in the Arabic script. Many of these are historical narratives, but they also include elegies, laments, and admonitions. Her poems of guidance became tools for teaching the founding principles of the Caliphate. Asma'u also collaborated closely with Muhammed Bello, the second Caliph. Her works include and expand upon the dan Fodio's strong emphasis on women leaders and women's rights within the community ideals of the Sunnah and Islamic law.
Others of her surviving written works are related to Islamic education: for much of her adult life she was responsible for women's religious education. Starting around 1830, she created a cadre of women teachers (jajis) who traveled throughout the Caliphate educating women in the students' homes. In turn, each of these jajis in turn used Nana Asma’u's and other Sufi scholars writings, usually through recited mnemonics and poetry, to train corps of learned women, called the ’yan-taru, or “those who congregate together, the sisterhood.” To each jaji she bestowed a malfa (a hat and traditional ceremonial symbol of office of the pagan Bori priestesses in Gobir) tied with a red turban. The jajis became, thus, symbols of the new state, the new order, and of Islamic learning even outside women's community. In part this educational project began as a way to integrate newly conquered pagan captives into a Muslim ruling class. It expanded, though, to include the poor and rural, training teachers who traveled across the sprawling Caliphate.
Nana Asma’u continued legacy rests not just on her literary work and role in defining the values of the Sokoto state. Today in Northern Nigeria, Islamic women's organisation, schools, and meeting halls are commonly named for her. She re-entered the debate on the role of women in Islam in the 20th century, as her legacy has been carried by Islamic scholars and immigrants to Europe and its academic debates. The republishing and translation of her works has brought added attention to the purely literary value of her prose and poems.
- David Westerlund wrote: “She continued to be a source of inspiration to the present day.”
Mary Wren Bivins. Telling Stories, Making Histories: Women, Words and Islam in Nineteenth-Century Hausaland and the Sokoto Caliphate. London: Heinemaan, 2007.
- Boyd, Jean (1989). The Caliph's Sister: Nana Asma'u 1793-1865: Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader. Totowa NJ: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd. ISBN 0-7146-4067-0.
- Excerpt from Mack, Beverly B. and Jean Boyd. One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. Includes two translated poems of Nana Asma’u.
- Jean Boyd and Murray Last quote the Algerian scholar Ismael Hamet writing for a French audience in 1898, lamenting the "Ligues Feministes d'Europe" did not know of Nana Asma’u's legacy. See The Role of Women as "Agents Religieux" in Sokoto p. 283
- One Woman's Jihad: Nana Asma'u, Scholar and Scribe. - book review by Aisha R. Masterton. African Arts, Winter, 2001.
- Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u Nana Asma'u Tradition: An Intellectual Movement and a Symbol of Women Rights in Islam During the 19th Century DanFodio’s Islamic Reform. Department of Mass Communications, Bayero University, Kano. Paper Presented at the Conference on Sokoto Jihad Organized by the Centre for Hausa Cultural Studies Kano, at the Murtala Muhammad Library, 7–8 June 2004.
- Beverly B. Mack and Jean Boyd, One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000).
- Jean Boyd and Beverly B. Mack (eds), The Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, daughter of Usman dan Fodiyo 1793-1864 (East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1997).
- Jean Boyd. Distance Learning from Purdah in Nineteenth-Century Northern Nigeria: The Work of Asma'u Fodiyo. Journal of African Cultural Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1, Islamic Religious Poetry in Africa (Jun., 2001),pp. 7–22
- Jean Boyd, Murray Last. The Role of Women as "Agents Religieux" in Sokoto Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne des Études Africaines, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1985), pp. 283–300.
- Jean Boyd, West Africa, in Suad Joseph, Afsaneh Najmabadi, (eds) Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures, New York, Brill Publishers (2003) pp. 327–329 ISBN 90-04-12818-2.
- Katja Werthmann The example of Nana Asma’u, D+C: Development & Cooperation, InWEnt gGmbH, No.03 2005.
- Margaret Hauwa Kassam. Some Aspects of Women's Voices from Northern Nigeria,African Languages and Cultures, Vol. 9, No. 2, Gender and Popular Culture (1996), pp. 111–125