Nana Asma’u is the smartest and most influential women you’ve probably never heard of. She was a teacher, princess, scholar, social reformer, teen mother — and the original glass ceiling smasher. Oh, and in her spare time she just happened to revolutionize education for African women in the massive Sokoto Caliphate. In this episode, Emily explains how her story challenges stereotypes of Muslim and African women — including how she used her mad poetry skills, religious training, branding savvy, and strategic genius to create educational opportunities and careers for women that **still exist today**
Links & Additional Resources:
Nana Asma’u by Heba Amin (notice the malfa she’s wearing)
The Sokoto Caliphate was huge! To get a sense of just how much area it covered, take a look at this map from African Diaspora Maps:
For more information on how Nana Asma’u and her father Usman dan Fodio’s views on education were related to their Muslim faith and Sufism, read “Nana Asma’u Tradition: An Intellectual Movement and a Symbol of Women Rights in Islam During the 19th Century DanFodio’s Islamic Reform” by Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u. Here’s a brief excerpt we liked:
Islam has the precedence in calling of human rights, their protection and the conception of the individual, society, and the state as the guardians of human rights in the sense that human rights are essentially religious duties. Whoever, performs these duties is rewarded and whoever neglects them gets punished (cited in Al-Hageel 2001:117).
Islam provided legislation on human rights fourteen centuries ago, and provided all assurances for protecting those human rights for the whole scheme of life. The provisions and principles guaranteeing the rights of humans were explicitly and thoroughly stipulated in the Holy Qur’an and the honourable Sunnah fourteen hundred years prior to their declaration by any secular system.
And this description of ‘Yan taru is fascinating:
The greatest of Asma’u’s contribution which signifies her political and intellectual sophistication, is the ‘Yan taru movement. A movement which is the backbone of her teaching philosophy and the soul of her reform strategy, hence the genesis of the Nana Asma’u tradition.
Asma’u established a cadre of literate, itinerant women teachers (Jajis) who disseminated her instructive poetic works among the masses. Trained by Asma’u, these women were extension teachers using Asma’u’s works as lesson plans and mnemonic divices through which they instructed secluded women in the privacy of their homes… Nana Asma’u’s training of Jajis and the ‘Yan taru was community work whose primary tool was the spoken word.
Asma’u relied on each Jaji to act as a mentor and to bring groups of women to her. To each she gave a large malfa hat made of fine silky grasses. Usually worn by men, the hats have a distinctive balloon shape because they are intended to be worn over turbans. A Malfa was also (and remains) one of the marks of the office used by the Inna of Gobir, the chief of women devotees of bori. Asma’u deliberately took up the symbol, and by giving each Jaji a Malfa, she at once devalued its uniqueness and transformed what it stood for From being symbolic of bori, it turned into an emblem of Islam.
This article, “Nana Asma’u: A Spark Who Continues to Illuminate“, talks about not only the history of ‘Yan taru, but also how Nana Asma’u’s influence is still felt today in the modern iterations of ‘Yan taru across the globe. To read more about modern ‘Yan taru, check out here and here.
If you’d like to learn more, you can buy a copy of the biography One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe written by Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd, two of today’s leading experts on Nana Asma’u. Several extended excerpts are available online here. Below is a small taste:
Nana Asma’u’s training of jajis and the ’yan-taru was community work whose primary tool was the spoken word. In keeping with the attitude of reverence for the word that lies at the heart of Islam, her scholarship and dissemination of it were expressive of the spirit of Islam in both content and form. Not all her poetic verse was theological tract, but all of it was relevant to some layer of the community, whether scholarly or unschooled. Captured Hausa men and women were new in the Caliphate, and needed to know practical things: how to dress, how to pray, how to reshape the common details of their lives into Islamic form. Asma’u’s works not only informed women on these matters, but also reinforced Sufi characteristics and the principles of the Sunna by outlining in praise poems the spirituality and moral characteristics that made a person noteworthy. It was not a person’s wealth or political achievements that were significant, but faith and right living. Asma’u cites the asceticism and teaching skills of long-dead Sufi women, and the benevolent characteristics of her brother Bello, the caliph, as examples to be followed. The message she conveys in these works is that worldly greatness is not a worthy aim, but personal goodness—patience and generosity—is what makes a person pious.
As we mentioned in the podcast, Nana Asma’u’s poetry was used to instruct women across the caliphate. Here’s an example from her poem “Sufi Women”, where she mentions several exemplary women for her students to emulate:
The teacher of women, Habiba
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)
When her dear friend Aisha died, Nana Asma’u wrote a moving elegy for her:
Oh my eyes weep liberally for my loved one
as a consolation for my grief and a companion for my
Shed copious tears for the loss of Aisha
the noblest of my dear ones of my age group, my
The depth of my sadness and loneliness after her death has
O the multitude of sorrows, the deepening of my gloom!
Know you not that love, when firmly established, is
There is no child who could make me forget that love
and no brother, nothing which could soothe me, not even
all sorts of riches.
Therefore my heart withers from worrying:
sigh after sigh rises up from my grief;
Tears have continued to flow constantly
as if they would never dwindle or cease….
I cry for her with tears of compassion
and of longing and sympathy for her, and loving friend
ship. (Lamentation for Aisha II, vv. 1-2, 7-11, 14)
And if you’re still hankering for more about Nana Asma’u, check out this 8-part video of the lecture “West African Roots of American Islam” given by Beverly Mack on youtube. She talks about Asma’u mostly in parts 1, 2, 3, and 5.