“It is a religious duty to seek knowledge; women may leave their homes freely for this.” — Nana Asma’u
Nana Asma’u lived between 1793–1864 in modern day Nigeria and is a perfect example of a Muslim inspired by the Prophet Muhammad and his legacy of furthering women’s rights. She was a scholar, a politician, and a poet; she also led an educational reform for women in the Sokoto Caliphate. In one poem she writes:
“Such knowledge enables you to follow God and the
Insight into the Sunna will carry us to Ahmada.
Wishing for a Muslim everything that you
Wish for yourself is [in keeping with] the character of
Muhammada.” (vv. 19-21, 28)
When her father first formalized the Sokoto Calphiate, there were many non-Muslim pagans in rural areas who had no exposure to reading or writing. Her job was to integrate these people into society and give them education. She was successful in her mission and formed female study groups and formalized mnemonic devices to memorize Surahs in the Qur’an. The women in these societies learned reading and writing by studying the Qur’an and, more importantly, in Nana Asma’u’s educational reforms, she was strongly influenced by the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. In one poem, Nana Asma’u states:
“She was most revered and had great presence.
I speak of Aisha, a saint
On account of her asceticism and determination.
And Joda Kowuuri, a Qur’anic scholar
Who used her scholarship everywhere….
There were others who were upright
In the community of the Shehu; I have not listed them.
Very many of them had learned the Qur’an by heart
And were exceedingly pious and zealous.”
(Sufi Women, vv. 68-70, 73-74)
In this poem of hers, Nana Asam’u lauds female Islamic scholars through history, demonstrating how much educational opportunities for women in Islamic society were valued. She describes these women as being incredibly pious and upright. Aisha was a woman who was a frequent subject in the poetry of Nana Asam’u; in ”One Woman’s Jihad,” the author notes, “The first describes Aisha’s accomplishments as a devout Muslim who cared for orphans and widows, promoted community harmony.” Nana Asam’u was an active advocator of women’s rights and education. Her father, Usman Dan Fodio, led a social revolution and founded the Sokoto Caliphate. . His entire family was incredibly progressive. Usman Dan Fodio’s son, Muhammad Bello, according to Dr. Ahmad Bangura, “dedicated an entire book, Kitaab An-Nasiha (1836), to the subject of women who inspired rulers, taught the masses and commanded great respect. When Bello became caliph, he made use of Nana Asmau, then only twenty-seven, as one of the powerful instruments for fashioning society. And in this she succeeded, thus earning her place in history and in the hearts of her people as one of Sokoto’s major caliphal leaders.” Nana Asam’u was not an exception to the rule in the Sokoto Caliphate; Dr. Ahmad Bangura further notes, ”Nana Asma’u’s leadership and intellectual profile is by no means an isolated phenomenon in the region. West Africa has an old tradition of women leadership. There is also evidence of distinguished scholarly women in the region, notably in Timbuktu. Also, Nana Asma’u was not the only woman writer and leader in the Sokoto caliphate. Some of her sisters were also writers and exercised leadership.”
Nana Asma’u promoted virtuous values and was a cultural icon in her society. She is a great example of a powerful Muslim woman.
One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe