Original guest post
“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs only to those who prepare for it today.”-El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz
I intended to write this article for International Women’s Day but time did not permit. This article is a short profile of Nana Asma’u’s pivotal role as Muslim leader in the 19th century. Nana’s father, Usman Dan Fodiyo, like his daughter is famous in his own right and I plan to write an article on him in the near future. Usman Dan Fodiyo was the first ruler of the Sokoto state and was succeeded by his son Muhammad Bello who was also a half-brother to Nana Asma’u.
There are a few things I wanted to mention about the Qadirriyya Sufi order before I delve into Nana Asma’u’s life. The Qadirriyya order was a decentralized order. Unlike some Sufi orders which focus exclusively on the spiritual dimension and break from traditional Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), the Qadirriyya order in Dan Fodiyo’s region focused on the Sunnah (saying and traditions of The Prophet Mohammed (SAW).
Education was important to the Qadirriyya order. “The Qadirriyya order sought to serve by teaching, preaching, and practical work while rejecting materialism.” The goal was not to consume yourself in the material world to the point where you forget about the spiritual dimension but live in the world while staying connected to spirituality.
Joining the Qadirriyya order was as simple as a hand shake and saying Ziker (liturgy) in remembrance of the eponym of the order, Abdul Qadir Jilani, after whose teachings the order was modeled. This made it very easy for locals in Dan Fodio’s region to join. It did however demand a certain level of spiritual discipline like praying, fasting and general asceticism. In practical terms Dan Fodiyo sought a balance where Fiqh would develop virtuous outward behavior, Tawhid (realizing the unity/Oneness of God) would be the basis of beliefs and Sufism would develop the spiritual dimension. While a few royals joined his ranks many of Dan Fodiyo’s followers were commoners.
Usman Dan Fodiyo’s teachings came into conflict with the ruling authorities, whom he felt were not properly practicing Islam, this lead to his followers being threatened. Thus Dan Fodiyo and his followers made hijra (migration) and eventually strengthened their numbers which infuriated the authorities, thus began what is known as the “Sokoto Jihad.” This is the context in which his daughter Nana Asma’u(1793-1864) grew up.
Asma’u was a West African princess, scholar, Sufi mystic, poet, teacher, educator, wife, mother, and actively involved in politics and social reform. Asma’u was born a twin, the custom was to name twins after Hassan and Hussein the Prophet’s grandsons. Dan Fodiyo however decided break from tradition and named her after Abu Bakr’s daughter Asmā’ bint Abu Bakr suggesting that he had spiritual intuition that she would be special.
Asma’u was tutored as a child in various subjects from fiqh and tawhid to Islamic philosophy and mysticism. Her poetry focused on getting people to live a righteous life and turning back to God. Her poetry and writings also focused on war, as well as women and their roles in the community. She tried to lead people on the Prophetic path.
She married Gidado Dan Laima with whom she had six sons, their first born died as an infant. Laima later became chief adviser to the Sokoto Caliphate under Muhammed Bello. Asma’u would help organize the Muslim community under the Sokoto Caliphate.
By forty Asma’u would be called Uwargari (Mother of the People). She was also fluent in several languages: Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa, and Tamacheq Arabic. She was also “Erudite and well versed in Arabic, Greek, and Latin classics.” She liked rare books which she avidly collected and would also use to teach her students.
In her poetry, in addition to dealing with the political issues of her time, she also took time to praise the good deeds of everyday people regardless of their status. Take for example excerpts from two elegies she wrote.
Her elegy for Na’Inna, her uncle who was an average citizen who held no official position.
Elegy for Na’Inna:
He was cheerful, loved his family to visit him. Acted likewise with his neighbors. He told them many things. He did not concern him self with worldly happenings May God forgive his sins.
Or an Elegy for her neighbor Halima.
Elegy for Halima:
She was a fine woman with lots of common sense. She loved children and adults treating them fittingly with respect. She was religious and kept close relationships in good repair. Acting always with never ending patience.
Many of Nana Asma’u’s poems can be found reprinted in Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma’u 1793-1864 by Beverley Mack and Jean Boyd.
First one The Path of Truth:
For there is [in Paradise] no illness, no ageing, no poverty, no death: we remain for ever. Forever in enjoyment, relaxation and pleasant talk We walk in Paradise, we have seen Muhammada… The houses are made of gold, the clothes of silk We drink from fragrant rivers of Salsabil with Ahmada. The bodies of people are as beautiful as rubies or red coral, Their ornaments are jewels and topaz. They feel no sadness of heart and do not think sad thoughts They are forever in Paradise together with Muhammada.
“If anyone asks who composed this song, say That it is Nana, daughter of the Shehu, who loves Muhammada. You should firmly resolve, friends, to follow her And thus you will follow exactly the Sunna of Muhammada.”
Also here is an elegy Asama’u wrote for Dan Fodiyo’s friend Umaru al-Kammu’s daughter Aisha. Umaru’s children married Dan Fodiyo’s children, one those marriages was that of Umaru’s daughter Aisha who married Muhammad Bello.
“The death of the beloved Aisha reminded me of those who have passed away from among wise and pious sisters. My sorrows, my loneliness, and my melancholy increase the flow of tears on my cheeks into torrents. At the loss of the noble Aisha. Oh, what a woman! She had all the virtues Of pious women, humble to their Lord; Of the women who have memorized the Qur’an by heart and who do extra In prayers, alms-giving, then recitation of the Qur’an, defending the unjustly treated, carrying the burdens of many responsibilities. She was a guardian of orphans and widows, a pillar of the community, ensuring harmony. I am desolate over losing her, for she was my bosom friend, my confidante, from our earliest days. This is no surprise; the love we had for each other came to us from our fathers before us; it was not short-lived. God in Heaven, judge her with pure forgiveness and make room for a grave in perpetual light. On the Day of Judgement preserve her from all that is feared, from everything terrifying on that day. And place her in Paradise with our Shaykh, her father and her husband in the heavenly abodes.”
She was also not one to bite her tongue even to her own allies for their behavior. Take the case of Dan Yali “the son of the Fulani patriarch, Muhammad Moyijo who had offered a safe haven to the Shehu after the Community was forced to leave Gudu in 1803.” Dan Yali was known for his strange behavior which initially was generosity but eventually changed into him squandering his wealth and being very gullible and easily tricked into giving his wealth .
“The new caliph, Ahmad Rufai ɗan Shehu, dismissed him,” Asma’u praised his dismissal writing :
“Thanks be to God who empowered us to overthrow ɗan Yalli Who has caused so much trouble. He behaved unlawfully, he did wanton harm And caused hardship… We can ourselves testify to the Robberies and extortion in the markets, on the Highways and at the city gateways.”
Asma’u was and is a role model for many women in West Africa. Asma’u was also a writer of battles she witnessed particularly in the battles that came to be known as the Sokoto Jihad (1804-1830). Asma’u didn’t only teach students (both men and women) in her own community but she also was part of a network of women teachers whom she trained to teach women in the rural areas.
Asma’u was following in the footsteps of the Prophet’s wife Aisha who was a general, scholar and teacher. West Africa is also not alien to empowered Muslim women, take for example the General Amina of Zaria mentioned by Muhammad Bello in chapter seven of his text Ifaq al-Maysur (The Wages of the Fortunate) which covers much of the history of West Africa, talking about Husana history.
Amina of Zaria was said to have been a brilliant military tactician and general and credited as being the first person to establish a government over all seven of the Husana regions. She also developed fortified walls “Amina was also responsible for the development of well-fortified walls around the city of Zazzau … called ganuwar Amina, or Amina’s walls.”
In popular discourse you have pundits and journalists regularly talking and writing about how Boko Haram and ISIS represent Islam’s discourse on women and education. However, two centuries ago you had Asma’u’s famous call,“In Islam, it is a religious duty to seek knowledge. Women may leave their homes freely for this.”
When we think of Islam and the role of women or Islam and the African diaspora Nigerian-American’s like Saheela Ibraheem one of the world’s smartest teenagers should come to mind. Lets also recall scholars, educators and leaders like Nana Asma’u and Amina of Zaria, they more closely represent Islam than Boko Haram or ISIS ever did or ever will.
Nana Asma’u’s story is a riposte to the orientalist image of Muslim women in history that marks them as invisible and oppressed beings. Nana, is a role model for many, one who reminds us today that it is possible to be devout in faith, an artist, a just leader and a mystic–at the same time. Nana’s empowerment and support of women’s education is far removed from the bellicosity and anti-education ideology of group’s such as Boko Haram, in contradistinction to them she was a life long learner and teacher who truly valued education.
Note: unless otherwise stated most of this information is referenced from Nana Asma’u One Woman’s Jihad Scholar and Scribe by Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd