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NANA ASMA’U

Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader (1793-1864)

NANA ASMA’U sits in the pantheon, of the great educators of Africa. Taught by female scholars – such as Aisha – in her family, as well as by her more well known father (Usman dan Fodio), uncle (Abdullahi dan Fodio) and older brother (Muhammed Bello), she gained a deep knowledge of Quranic teachings, as well as four languages – Arabic, Fulfude, Hausa and Tamachek: a paramount aid, in her pioneering educational endeavours.

Nana Asma’u’s life was sandwiched between the French Revolution, which concluded in the year of her birth, and the United States Civil War, which ended on the year of her death. She was born in 1793, married in 1807, and had her first child at twenty years old in 1813. Six years later she wrote her first known long work of prose poetry. In 1817 she lost her father, Usman Dan Fodio, whom she admired and held up as a spiritual example for others for the rest of her life. Her beloved brother and colleague died in 1837 and her husband, who was her confidant and dear friend, passed away in 1849.1 

Nana Asma’u lived during the Sokoto Caliphate, a successful African Caliphate spanning the area near Lake Chad in the East and Middle Niger in the West.  The Sokoto did not fall to colonial rule until 1903.

Her first years were spent in the religious community of Degel, in northern Nigeria, established by her revered father. In this spiritual enclave, she was the recipient of the highest in pedagogy, as well as piousness.

From this great springboard, she dived into the problem of female education. Most girls in northern Nigeria were/are married between the ages of eleven and fourteen and unless they had a supportive husband, father or older brother, their education came to an end. The new bride soon came to know the seclusion of the married female, rather than the association of fellow students. Originating from a tradition of supportive men, Nana Asam’u knew she had the backing of her father when she set up the Yan Taru organisation. The Yan Taru organisation was a collective of travelling teachers, trained by herself – then sent out into the villages and towns, to where the underdeveloped lived, shrouded by seclusion.

Her school, which preceded the Yan Taru project, taught men, as well as women – and those not of her faith. Nana Asma’u was also an archivist – of her father’s work; a governmental advisor, to her brother; a community mediator of wide renown; writer of works, on diverse subject matter, such as law, medicine and education; a poet, who used her poetry as teaching  aids; a translator, who used her skills as a polyglot, to enhance the options to learning. She was also a mother of six – and the manager of a large household. When at the time of writing, there is still overwhelming illiteracy, amongst the women of northern Nigeria, Nana Asma’u, an early 19th century figure, was truly monumental: a humane, saintly spirit, honoured by all. Women, as well as men, spoke well of her; the young, the old; Hausa as well as Fulani; traditional believer, as well as the follower of Islam. She was on a mission – and everyone was included.

As we celebrate the founder, we celebrate her legacy also. The Yan Taru mission continues: in Nigeria, Niger and parts of America.[**]


“The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u, 1793-1865, Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader” by Jean Boyd (Source)


Nigerian students (Source

* Glossary

  • Sarkin Ruwa – chief of the river; Hausa official, in charge of ferrying and trade.
  • Sunna/Sunnah – recommended living for Muslims, as represented by the life of Prophet Muhammed.
  • Bismallah – Islamic recitation – ”in the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate”.
  • Na gode – Hausa term for thankyou.
  • Qalifa/Caliph – leader of the Islamic community.
  • Baghdad Scholars – renowned academics; paramount figures, in the House of Wisdom.
  • Sad’aka – servant/concubine.
  • Fadawa – Hausa official.
  • Shehu and Bello – her father and brother, founders of the Sokoto Caliphate.
  • Almajiri – Islamic students, forced to beg for their daily sustenance.
  • Eunuch – castrated slave.
  • Tuffam – milk drink, served with or without sugar.
  • Pinaari – Fulani word for kohl/mascara.

** Bibliography and References

  1. Beverly B. Mack and Jean Boyd, One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000). (Link)
  2. Beverly B. Mack and Jean Boyd, Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma’u 1793-1864 (Kube Publishing Ltd, 2013)
  3. Jean Boyd. Collected Works of Nana Asma’u Daughter of Usman ‘dan Fodiyo (1793-1864)  (Michigan State University Press, 1997) [Link]
  4. Jean Boyd. The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u, 1793-1865, Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader (Routledge, 2013)
  5. Beverly B. Mack. Muslim Women Sing: Hausa Popular Song (Indiana University Press, 2004)
  6. Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u. Nana Asma’u Tradtion: An Intellectual Movement and a Symbol of Women Rights in Islam During the 19th Century DanFodio’s Islamic Reform (Bayero University, Kano, (Link)
  7. Sutura Sa’idu Mukoshy. Nana Asma’u: An Annotated Bio-bibliography (Islamic Academy, 1995)
  8. LLC Books. Nigerian Sufis: Usman Dan Fodio, Nana Asma’u, Sheikh Muhammed Jamiu Bulala (General Books LLC, 2010)
  9. MuslimHeritage.com: International Women’s Day (Link)

 

 

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