We take you on a brief walk in the life of Nana Asma’u Bint Usman ‘dan Fodio, the Nigerian Muslim feminist from history.
Nana Asma’u Bint Usman ‘dan Fodio, 1793-1864, was the daughter of the founder of the Sokoto caliphate, Usman dan Fodio, who preached that the marginalisation of women in education and the community bred corruption in a society.
Tutored by her family, Asma’u studied Islamic philosophical text on prayer, mysticism, legal matters, fiqh (which regulates religious conducts), and tawhid (dogma). She was educated in the Koran as well as Arabic, Greek and Latin classical literature. Nana Asma’u could speak fluently in Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa and Tamacheq Tuareg.
Though many claim the concept as a western creation, Human Rights in Islam predates the 1948 universal declaration of human rights. The philosophy of the Sokoto Jihad portray nothing but the institutionalisation of human rights which in essence was the foundation laid by Prophet Muhammad, fourteen hundred years prior to their declaration by any secular system.
Nana Asma’u combined prolific writing, teaching, and poetry to project her views that learning without teaching was sterile. She taught both men and women, composed didactic and philosophical works in whatever language suited her intended audience. She also trained non-Muslim refuges as she was comfortable communicating with revered Muslim scholars far across West Africa.
However, Asma’u’s responsibilities went beyond those involved with teaching. She was a highly educated scholar, upon whom the best scholar in the community could depend, an efficient manager, and a consummate mediator. One of her first state duties, at the age of twenty seven, was to facilitate the organisation of the Shehu’s works after his death. This was a task so important that the ‘Ulama in Sokoto today draw a parallel between it and the compilation of the Qur’an after the Prophet Muhammad’s death (Pbuh).
When her half brother, Muhammed Bello, became the second Caliph, Nana Asma’u became one of his trusted counselors. In this capacity, 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.
She became regarded as the 'Chief of all women', when she created a company of women teachers, around 1830,called the yan-taru, or “those who congregate together, the sisterhood”. The teachers themselves were called Jajis. The jajis were trained in scholarly Sufi writings as well as Nana Asma’u’s writing as well. The jajis were sent out into the Caliphate and taught women in their homes both in literature and religion. They eventually spread the message out to rural areas.
The teachings of Nana Asma’u made Muslim women feel more confident about themselves to derive a solid sisterhood, which enforced a supportive and sustaining community.
Asma’u was one of the most prolific writers and influential women to have emerged in the western Sudan during the nineteenth century and her influence carried over into the world of men.
She led no troops on the battlefield like Queen Amina or in charge of nor tax collectors like the Inna in her role as the Sarki’s aide, or headed no religious cult like the Inna in her role as the head of Bori, but she made stringent and apt observations in her political verse as a wearer of the Shehu’s mantle, as well as excelled within the confines of her home.
Asma’u established her legacy as one who addressed the structures and needs of continental African women battling burdening structures of patriarchy. She paved the way for contemporary African feminists like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Joyce Banda, Leymah Gbowee, and other Nigerian women who have strong voices about issues that concern women today.
We stan a feminist icon!