Living as a Muslim minority in the West, I have often not only felt frustrated by religious intolerance here, but also by intolerance from within Muslim communities which do not fully honour the rights accorded to women in Islam nor provide many outlets for women to become scholars. This was also the case in late 18th century West Africa, in what is now modern day Northern Nigeria, when Uthman Dan Fodio criticised oppressive customs and encouraged female education. Nana Asma’u bint Uthman Dan Fodio (1793-1864) was a product of her father’s commitment to quality Islamic education for women. She became a legend in her own right, and through her writings and education movement, Yan Taru, she has inspired countless women for generations.
As a Nigerian with dual American and British citizenship, researcher Rukayat Modupe Yakub is well aware of the legacy of Nana Asma’u. Rukayat points outs, “For so many Muslims, Nana Asma’u is still unknown, but for those who are familiar with her she was an educator, writer and poet who was passionate about education. For this reason you find schools in places like Nigeria named after her.”
In addition to her poetry and education movement, Nana Asm’au is also considered an Islamic leader who was known for her ability to mediate political disagreements. She was fluent in Arabic, Hausa, and the Tamasheq language of the Tuareg. Like her father and brothers, Muhammad Bello and Abdullahi, Nana Asma’u was a prolific writer who left a tremendous literary legacy. She wrote to keep her father’s memory alive in the minds of the people and in support of her brother Muhammad Bello’s Caliphate. At 27, she was given the task of organising her father’s corpus of works, all the while overseeing a household of several hundred people and ensuring that they were properly provided for.
Jean Boyd gained access to Nana Asma’u’s works in 1975 and later wrote The Caliph’s Sister, which provides a detailed biography of her life and legacy. Boyd collaborated with Beverly Mack to compile poetry and religious treatises into the Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman dan Fodio (1793-1864). The book compiles her impressive body of poems and treatises in Arabic, the Fula language, and Hausa. Mack and Boyd also co-wrote a book which analyses the social and political function of many of her poems titled One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe.
Rukayat says that Nana Asma’u continues to serve as an important inspiration because “She was involved in social work and had political clout, she was a mother and wife, sister of the head of state, daughter of a legendary political and spiritual leader; she could have had any life she wanted, but she chose to be of service.” Around 1830, Nana Asma’u trained a group of women to travel around the Sokoto Caliphate to educate other women. Each woman in this cadre held the title ‘jaji’ (leader of the caravan) to designate their role as female leaders.
One hundred and eighty years later, Dylia bin Hamadi Camara is one such jaji who explains, “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 explains that the methodology of learning that Nana Asma’u developed still educates men, women, and children. In the United States, the Yan Taru Education Foundation and Charitable Trust has chapters in Pennsylvania, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and California with thirty-three women in intensive training and intensive seminars and classes which are open to the public. Teachers like Jaji Dylia travel internationally and use email, teleconferencing and text messaging to educate their students on classical Islam.
While preparing for a trip to Guinea, Dylia stated her next goal is to translate Nana Asma’u’s teachings into French because the Francophone world has largely been unaware of this rich legacy. My hope is that we begin to learn more and more about the named and unnamed women who have been responsible for educating our Ummah. They have passed on a rich legacy, one that reminds me that even when faced with the greatest challenges, we as women can still be brilliant and provide guiding lights for others.
Margari Aziza Hill is an educator and writer living in the Philadelphia area. She earned her B.A. in History at Santa Clara University and M.A. in History of Islam in Africa at Stanford University