The life and works of Nana Asmau are a precursor of feminism in Africa and Hausa land Nana Asmau Daughter of Uthman Danfodio, founder of the Sokoto caliphate carved a path of her own to spread Islam around the pre-colonial Hausa city-states.
Nana Asmau also known as Asma’u bint Shehu Usman dan Fodio and Nana Uwar Daje, sister to one of the Shehu’s successors, Muhammad Bello, was born in 1793 in the Sokoto Caliphate established by her father. She was an Islamic scholar, poet, and educational leader in what is now Northern Nigeria. Nana Asma’u used her writings to help Shehu in his quest to break the syncretistic practise of Islam in Hausaland, convert more people to Islam, and help the newly reformed community of faithful Muslims maintain their orthodox religious practice. As one of the longest surviving members of Shehu’s family and of the Degel community, her prolific literary output and enduring presence helped shape the reputation of the Shehu, Muhammad Bello, and early 21st-century scholarship of the Sokoto Caliphate.
She outlived most of the founding generation of the Caliphate and was 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 Maryam and Fatima, and the Caliph’s wives Aisha and Hawwa’u played major literary and political roles in the new state.
As a Fulani scholarly family of long-standing members, Nana Asma’u benefitted from an early childhood education taught by the scholarly Fulani women of her family. Like her father, she was educated in Quranic studies and placed a high value upon universal education. As exemplars of the Qadriyya Sufis, Dan Fodio and his followers stressed the sharing of knowledge, especially that of the Sunnah(Traditions 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 Muslim women.
She transformed that tradition of women as the first teachers of Islamic religious knowledge. Nana Asma’u educated not only children but men and women and established the yan-taru (the associates or disciples), a school of women teachers who travelled to rural areas to improve Hausa women’s education. Starting around 1830, she created a cadre of women teachers (jajis) who travelled throughout the Caliphate educating women in the students’ homes. In turn, each of these jajis used Nana Asma’u’s and other Sufi scholars’ writings, usually through recited mnemonics and poetry, to train crops 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 the women’s community. Her writings continue to be read, memorized, and recited: the yan-taru concept of making education accessible, especially to women, continues into the 21st century and has expanded into the United States.
Nana Asmau was well educated in the classics of the Arab and Classical world, and well versed in four languages: Arabic, Fula Language, Hausa, Tuareg and Tamasheq. She had a public reputation as a leading scholar in the most influential Muslim state in West Africa, which allowed her 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 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 counsellor to her brother when he took the Caliphate, and he has also recorded writing instructions to governors and debating with the scholars of foreign princes. Among her more than 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 Muhammad Bello, Her half brother.
Nana Asma’u’s continued legacy rests not just on her literary work, but also on her role in defining the values of the Sokoto state. Today in Northern Nigeria, Islamic women’s organisations, 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. Her work as an Islamic scholar proved that women have a scholarly role to play in the spread and teaching of Islam.
Her life proves that unlike what is commonly believed, women thrive as intellectuals and can play important political and religious roles in their society and excel at them. The republishing and translation of her works has brought added attention to the purely literary value of her prose and poems. She is the subject of several studies, including Jean Boyd’s The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u 1793–1865: Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader (1989), described as an “important book” that “provides a good read for the nonspecialist willing to discard common stereotypes about women in Africa”, and One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe by Beverly B. Mack and Jean Boyd (2000). The Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman dan Fodiyo 1793–1864, edited by Boyd and Mack, was published in 1997.
In 2019 Governor Aminu Waziri Tambuwal of Sokoto state has directed the state ministry of lands and housing to provide suitable land for the immediate take-off of Nana Asma’u University of Medical Sciences in Sokoto to be established by the Sultan foundation.