Nana Asma'u Tradtion: An Intellectual Movement and a Symbol of Women Rights in Islam During the 19th Century DanFodio’s Islamic Reform.
Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u
of Mass Communications
essentially pertains to the intellectual and moral nurturing of
individual human beings, as well as positive transformation and
development of society. The learned, the alim, is first of all the
pattern of conduct to be emulated by the people. He is the ‘master’
who nurtures the individual to excellence, and for a society of social
change, he serves as a focus, a pivot. The primary concern of the
scholar in the Islamic intellectual tradition is to improve the
intellectual and moral state of the individual, and safeguard the
well-being of the community. The scholar in this tradition, and
especially in the West African setting emerges with a distinct and
unique personality. As we are already familiar with towering scholars
such as Abd al-Karim al-Maghili, Ahmad Baba al-Timbukti, Mukhtar al-Kunti,
Usman DanFodio (Suleiman; 1997:VII) and Nana Asma’u.
Asma’u is a product of the 19th century Sokoto Jihad. She
is a woman scholar, poet, community leader, political commentator, and
socio-cultural engineer whose mountain of knowledge cannot be equaled to
her contemporaries. She was active in politics, education and social
reform, she was a prolific author, popular teacher and reknowed scholar
and intellectual (Mack & Boyd; 2000:1).
qualities possessed by Nana Asma’u made her a distinguishable figure
and a model for those who have the zeal for learning, and at the same
time she is an answer to those who view women as exploited, oppressed
and relegated to the rudiments of home management and service to the
children especially under Islam.
BACKGROUND OF NANA ASMA’U
Asma’u Fodio, a twin, was born in about 1793 in Degel, a small
settlement lying 25 miles north west of Sokoto, which was only an
unimportant harmlet in the year of her birth (Boyd’s 1989:1).
Asma’u’s twin brother was named Hassan, but instead of the name
Hussaina, the Shehu chose “Asma’u” for his daughter, a name that
recalls the extraordinary seventh-century Asma bint Abubakar daughter of
one of the early Muslims (Abubakar). The historical Asma became famous
for unhesitatingly aiding her father and the Prophet Muhammad when they
were being hunted by their enemies by taking food to them while they
were hiding (Mack & Boyd; 2000:7).
classical Islamic education shaped Asma’u’s view of the world. This
was not simply rote memorization of the Qur’an, although this approach
is one by which children first assimilate the word of God, but it
involved a rigorous programme of study beyond the initial phase. Tutored
by her family, Asma’u studied Islamic philosophical text on prayer,
mysticism, legal matters, fiqh (which regulates religious conducts), and
tawhid (dogma) (Ibid).
women were familiar with both the battlefield and scholarly endeavours
in which men were engaged. As was true in the seventh century for Aisha
(RA), the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, so too the nineteenth century women
of Sokoto were eye witnesses to battles during the Jihad. Principal
among these was Nana Asma’u, the Shehu’s daughter. Asma’u’s
scholarship was well respected because it actively supported the major
tenets of the Jihad. The promotion of Islam, and the end of oppression
of Muslims. She taught both men and women, was fluent in four languages,
composed didactic and philosophical works in whatever language suited
her intended audience. Asma’u was egalitarian in training non-Muslim
refuges as she was comfortable communicating with revered Muslim
scholars far across West Africa (Mack & Boyd; 1997:2). As listed in
an outline chorology of her life by Boyd & Mack (1997:17-20) her
life can be summarised as follows.
history of Nana Asma’u is still a subject of research. To summarize
everything, the following is the account of her life from the time she
was born in 1793. Asma’u was brought up by Shehu’s wives Aisha and
Hauwa, Muhammed Bello’s mother after the death of her mother in 1795.
Asma’u married Usman Gidado in 1807, and moved to live in Sokoto, the
town built by Muhammad Bello in 1809 and gave birth to her first son
Abdulqadir in 1810.
translated Tabban Hakika (be sure of God’s truth) a poem written by
Shehu in 1811 which was a plain guide to rights and responsibilities
under Islamic Law. In 1820 Asma’u gave birth to her second son and
wrote her book “The Way of the Pious”, a book about morality and
working for the community. Between 1824 to 1829 Nana Asma’u and her
husband Gidado hosted
commander Huqh clapperton; She wrote ‘Give Us Victory’, “Elegy for
Abdullahi”, wrote the Qur’an and received her first grandchild
Halilu from her son Abdulqadir and at the same time gave birth to her
third son Usman.
1832 Asma’u was established as “Uwar gari” and gave birth to her
fourth son Abdullahi Bayero”. From 1834 to 1839, she wrote “A
warning”, “forgive me” gave birth to her fifth son Muhammad Laima,
“Elegy for Bello”, “Elegy for my sister Fadima” and translated
the Qur’an and wrote Elegy for Buhari. Between 1840 to 1854 Asma’u
authored the “Story of Shehu”, “Remembrance of Prophet”, “The
path of Truth”, “Elegy for Gidado” her husband after his death in
1874. She translated the Qur’an into Arabic and several other works
such as “Islam, Sokoto and Wurno”, “Destroy Mayaki” “ Elegy
for Na’Inna” and “Remembrance of the Shehu”.
for Aisha I & II”, “Elegy for Mustapha”. “The Battle of
Gawakuke”, “A warning”, “Elegy for Zahratu”, “Prayer
Rain”, “Elegy for Hauwa’u”, “Reasons for seeking God”, were
written between 1855 to 1861. Nana Asma’u died in 1863 after writing
“Elegy for my niece Fadima” and “Dan Yalli”.
CONCEPT OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN ISLAM
discussing the issue of Women Rights in Islam, there is the need to give
a brief account on the principles of human rights in Islam, a concept
that is viewed by many as a western creation. Whereas, the concept of
human rights in Islam predates the 1948 universal declaration of human
rights. A closer look at philosophy of the Sokoto Jihad portray nothing
but the institutionalization of human rights which in essence was the
foundation laid by Prophet Muhammad (SAW) during his twenty three years
to Al_Qardawi (1994); Human rights in their entirety have never been a
byproduct of modern life nor an innovation of the West. 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).
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. (Al-Hageel; 2001:118).
messenger of divine guidance, Prophet Muhammad (may peace and blessing
be upon Him) made his declaration for human rights in his last
pilgrimage saying “O people! All of us belong to one father and one
God, one father and one religion, you are all the sons of one father,
Adam, and Adam was created from dust; you will all be buried under the
earth soil. No Arab is superior to a non-Arab, nor is a non-Arab
superior to an Arab, except by having a greater degree of God
consciousness”. This Prophet’s declaration of human rights was made
before the American and the French made their declarations of human
rights… In this way Islam has succeeded in eradicating all forms and
means of divisiveness, class and race discrimination on the basis of
parental lineage. Allah Almighty says:
Mankind! We have created you from a male and a female and made you into
nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most
honourable of you with Allah is that (believer) who has at-Taqwa (i.e.
one of the muttaqqeen (pious one}) verily Allah is all-knowing, all
Human rights in Islamic Sharee’ah can be summed up as follows:- (cited in al-Hageel; 2001:126-128).
AND WOMEN RIGHTS
understand what Nana Asma’u symbolizes and the rights accorded to
women by Islam within whose context Nana Asma’u was able to establish
an intellectual kingdom there is the need to understand the rights given
to women by Islam.
who studies the history of the ancient nations prior to Islam will find
that the woman in such societies was not recognized as having any rights
whatsoever, she could be bought and sold like livestock and property.
She had no inheritance rights and she was owned rather than an owner.
However, most of those who prevented them from disposing of the little
they might have in their possession. The husband was viewed as
possessing the right to dispose of his wife’s property without her
consent, and there were differences of opinion among men in some
countries as to whether a woman is a human being with a soul and an
eternal spirit like those of the man, whether she should be instructed
in religion, whether it was valid for her to engage in acts of worship,
or whether se could enter paradise in the after life or not. One of the
Byzantine council is reported to have decreed that the woman is an
unclean animal devoid of a spirit of rights, but that she is obliged to
serve and that her mouth should be muzzled to prevent her from laughing
or speaking because she is “the snare of satan”. The greatest of the
secular legal codes known to have existed among the ancient nations
prior to Islam allowed a father to sell his daughter, and even to burry
her alive. There were also those among them who believed that a man who
killed a woman was not liable for punishment or even the payment of
blood wit (At-Hageel; 2001:188).
instruction given to Muslims in the Qur’an refers to both male and
female believers alike. They have been given the same religious duties
and will be judged according exactly the same criteria (Maqsood;
According to Al-Hageel (2001); the enlightened principles brought by Islam in connection with women’s position and rights may be summarized as follows: -
Holy Qur’an tells us that in terms of reward on the day of
resurrection, women have equal standing before Allah with men:
Muslim men and women
believing men and women
devout men and women
true men and women
men and women who are patient and constant
men and women who give in charity
men and women who fast (and deny themselves)
men and women who guard their chastity
men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise
them has Allah prepared forgiveness and a great reward” (Al-Ahzab
These then are ten qualities which the Qur’an describes both women and men share equally, and the reward which they share together namely, “forgiveness and a great reward”.
some western scholars have acknowledged the right Islam accorded to a
woman. Evenlyn Koon in his book ‘The search for God” states that:
Islam came, it restored the woman’s freedom, causing her to become a
partner to the man, with the same rights as he enjoys and the same
responsibilities. The man has no basis for claiming superiority over the
woman, except in so far as he possesses greater physical strength or
practical resources. When he acts in the role of leader toward(s) her,
he does so in the capacity of a guardian, enfolding her in his powerful
arms, defending her with his life, and supporting her with what his
hands have earned; beyond this, however, the two of them are equals both
in good times and in bad. This truth is what God expresses in the words,
‘And woman shall have rights similar to the rights against them,
according to what is equitable, but men have a degree (of advantage)
over them” (Al-Baqrah
to Roger Carodet:
to the Qur’an, the woman has the right to dispose of what she owns,
which is a right that most western laws did not grant her, and those of
France in particular, until 19th century. With regard to
inheritance, it is true that the female inherits half the share
inherited by the male; however, this is compensated for by the fact that
all financial obligations, especially the burden entailed in the
family’s assistance of others, fall on the male’s shoulders, while
the woman is exempted from all such responsibilities. The Qur’an also
gives the woman the right to ask for divorce, a right which the woman
did not obtain in the west until thirteen centuries later.
ASMA’U TRADITON AS AN INTELLECTUAL MOVEMENT
view of Islam as a purgatory for women underlies most works written on
Muslim women. They are commonly depicted as isolated from men, passive
actors in the so-called public domain, confined to their kin groups, and
so on. Such views have limited the discussion of women to the … topics
of veils, honour and shame, patriarchy, kinship and polygamy. [Though
this does not under estimate the value of such topics, but the position
of woman in Islam is an all encompassing phenemenon] (Abdalati 1997;
Alhibri 1982, Izzedin 1953 cited in Arebi 1991:99-100).
do we know whether a person is included or discriminated in a given
community? For indeed there is the need for a criteria in which we can
use to evaluate the contributions made by Nana Asma’u that later
translates into a movement.
According to Bullock (2002:68-69); the three main criteria for a person to be fully included in a community are:
a person to fit into any of the criteria mentioned by Bullock, he must
possess extraordinary qualities capable of incorporating the people,
moving them as partners in progress and standing firmly in defense of
their interest and general well-being. Therefore, Asma’u’s
responsibilities went beyond those involved with teaching. She was a
highly educated scholar, upon whom the best scholar in the community
could depend, an efficient manager, and a consummate mediator. One of
her first state duties, at the age of twenty seven, was to facilitate
the organization of the Shehu’s works after his death. This was a task
so important that the ‘Ulama in Sokoto today draw a parallel between
it and the compilation of the Qur’an after the Prophet Muhammad’s
death (Pbuh). Such a task required her quadri- lingual skills and
intimate knowledge, which were extensive, since he had been writing
since the time he was twelve. Furthermore, this project would have
required an extraordinary memory to allow her to catalogue innumerable
pages of unbound texts that had suffered decades of use and
transportation from one encampment to another during the Jihad years.
Only someone who was of unquestionable trust, and whose ability was
revered would be equal to the job (Boyd & Mack; 1997:8).
Bullocks first criteria of inclusion, we can see that Asma’u was the
woman chose by Bello to lead the caliphate women in the paths of ordoxy,
to turn them if necessary from the slippery slopes leading to what she
herself called ‘The Satan named bori”. (Boyd; 1989:44). Asma’u was
identified as Sarkin Mata duka (Chief of all women) by captive women, as
an uwar-gari figure by the general populace as a mother of the
faithful’ by her peer group; and as a Shaikha (scholar) whose writings
transcended gender by the intelligentsia. She functioned as one of
Bello’s aides to integrate women into a society whose ideology was
rooted in Islam. A woman was able to earn herself a living by spinning
an occupation over which woman had a monopoly to the extent that they
organized the marketing of spun thread either through direct purchase or
through commission agents. There was also a market fun by women for
women near Gidado’s house which, in a much attenuated form, existed
until the 1970s (Ibid).
second criteria of inclusion was being “a respected partner in
dialogue and decision making”. This can be seen when Nana Asma’u
involves her concern in the same year as the ‘miracle’ at Alkalawa;
Asma’u talked to the Shehu when men were getting their share-out of
official appointments. Asma’u asked him, “what about us, the
women?” and he replied “you will be over all the women. The women of
the caliphate belong to the women and the men belong to the men”
(Cited in Boyd & Mack: 1997:12).
Asma’u was by far the most prolific writer and influential woman to
have emerged in the western Sudan during the nineteenth century; what is
more, her influence carried over into the world of men. So kind …. her
charity was a thousand fold. But she carried it to the places where
decisions were made. She was not a surrogate man; she led no troops on
the battlefield like Queen Amina, was in charge of nor tax collectors
like the Inna, in her role as the Sarki’s aide, and headed no
religious cult like the Inna, In her role as the head of bori, she made
stringent and apt observations in her political verse as a wearer of the
Shehu’s mantle, but remained decorously within the confines of her
home. (Boyd; 1989:99).
third and final criteria provided by Bulluck was having a free private
life devoid of extraordinary difficulties (e.g. illiteracy, poverty and
domestic violence) that hamper his or her ability to be involved in
community. According to Boyd (1989:45):
separate from the legal cases were the problems associated with the
rivalries present in polygamous households. Gidado himself had five sons
by Asma’u and 21 sons plus 21 daughters by other wives and concubines.
There were jealousies and stresses in such situations. Each wife tried
to secure the affection of her husband and promote the interests of her
own children, activities which stirred competitive feelings in her
co-wives. The use of kwarce (charms) to overcome rivals was only one way
of upsetting the peace; back biting gossip was another. These were
condemned by Asma’u who taught her students to be patient. She
instructed them to distance themselves from prohibited sins such as
lying, avarice, hatred and envy, and she advocated as an alternative to
Kwarce resource to Qur’an.
main work was in the education of women in order to equip them to bring
up the next generation of children within the desired ideological
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
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 (Mack & Boyd; 2000:76).
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 (Ibid:89).
a Jaji left Asma’u to return to her home village, she walked in the
midst of her group of women students, her distinguishing headgear
lending utmost respectability to the group. She probably carried a copy
of Asma’u’s latest work (ibid:79). The women came to seek for
knowledge from Asma’u because those who wished to pursue their studies
had to seek out to the recognized masters, wherever they might be found
and enroll themselves as their pupils (Johnston; 1967:27).
why have the Muslim women came across in orientalists literature as
isolated strangers and as individuals alienated from their society,
while on the other hand, they are used as a vehicle for constructing an
image of the whole culture. (Arebi, 1991:100) and feminists who believe
that women are disadvantaged because of their sex; and that this
disadvantage should be overthrown (Heywood; 1998:238) could still not be
accepted in Muslim communities?
to Arebi (1991:104):
contention is that Muslim women have been unable to adopt the western
model of feminism for three reasons:
first reason has to do with the insistence of the liberation movement on
wages as a liberating force.. women realize that work, as it relates to
them, is a created need deliberately built into economic system so as to
“push” them to it, causing them to work out of deprivation, not to
achieve any self-realization… The second reason why Muslim women do
not relate to the western model is the insistence of western movements
that family and kinship ties are a hindrance to women’s liberation.
The third reason is connected with west’s identification of “the
problem” of Muslim women as a religious problem.
aims at the perfection of human personality irrespective of gender,
class, race or ethnic affiliation. This is achieved through knowledge.
Three things constitute human perfection; will, knowledge and work. Nana
Asma’u had the will, she possessed the knowledge and worked for the
common good of all. According to Ibn Badis “Man’s life from its
beginning to its end, is based on these three elements: will, knowledge
and work. These three are in their turn dependent on another three: work
is dependent on the body, knowledge on the mind, and will on the
behaviour. Sound knowledge and strong will are the products of wise
behaviour, useful work and robust body. Therefore, mankind must care for
and look after these three; the mind, behaviour and body. The mind
should be fed on knowledge, the behaviour of the Holy Prophet should be
approximated, and strength should be given to the body by balancing
diet, avoiding injury and working”. (El-Tayeb; 1989:271).
main achievement of Nana Asma’u and the entire Jihad movement is on
scholarship. This notable achievement of the Sokoto Jihad movement in
the field of Islamic scholarship informed the perception of the
historian of the Sokoto caliphate such as Smith (1979), who describes
the movement and by extension the caliphate, as an intellectual
movement. (Usman: 2003:21).
entire Jihad movement and the principal actors still remain unsung
heroes especially in our schools. If you ask a primary school pupil in Madabo,
who is Mungo Park or Lord Lugard? He will quickly tell you the answer in
order to show you that he is a good student of Social Studies. But ask
him who is Nana Asama’u? He will ask you “wacece Nana Asma’u”?
For this reasons, the following recommendations are hereby made:
Muslim woman is given every opportunity in Islam. She is a mother, a
guardian and an eye for the community. Those who claim that Islam
discriminates against women are either ignorant of the Islamic
provisions regarding women, or they are set to achieve certain
the advice given by Al-Mahmoud (2001:34) is very useful:
in Islam, by following the Right path and by your good behaviour, you
will provide society with a good and a respectable generation, which
knows its obligations towards Allah and society. Sister, you are the
only one capable of making your home a school, in which your children
will learn everything that is good and beautiful. You should strive to
bring up a generation based on moral values and ethics. Do not hand your
kids to a non-Muslim nursemaid or send them to a non-Islamic school. If
you do so, you will contribute, intentionally or unintentionally, in
guiding them to a religion and faith other than theirs. Sister, do not
be responsible for your children’s deviation and misguidance, because
Allah (SWT) accepts no other religion except Islam.
A.U. (2004): Sunset at Dawn,
Darkness at Noon: Reconstructing the Mechanisms of Literacy in
Indigenous Communities; 7th Professorial Inaugural
Lecture, Bayero University, Kano.
S.A. (2001): Human Rights in
Islam and their Applications in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; First
edition, King Fahd National Library, Riyadh, Saudi-Arabia.
S (1991): “Gender Anthropology in
the Middle East: The Politics of Muslim Women’s. Misrepresentation. The
American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences. Volume 8 Number 1
I. S. (2001): Winning the Heart
of Your Husband: Deluxe Printers, London.
J. (1989): The Caliph’s Sister,
Nana Asma’u 1793-1865 Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader: Frank Cass,
K (2002): “Toward the Full
Inclusion of Muslim Women in the Umma: An Activist’s Perspective” American
Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, Volume 19 Number 4.
Boyd J and Mack, B.B. (1997): Collected
Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman ‘dan-Fodio (1793-1864)
Michigan State University Press, U.S.A.
S.E. (1989): “The Ulama and
Islamic Renaissance in Algeria” American Journal of Islamic Social
Sciences Volume 6 Number 2.
A (1998): Political Ideologies:
An Introduction; worth publishers, New York, U.S.A.
H.A.S (1967): The Fulani Empire
of Sokoto Oxford University Press, London
B.B. and Boyd, J. (2000): One Woman’s Jihad; Nana Asma’u Scholar and
Scribe, Indiana University Press, U.S.A.
R.W. (2003): Teach Yourself
Islam: Bookprint Limited, London.
I. (1997): “Scholars of the
Sokoto Caliphate” New Nigerian Newspaper, April 21, SS VIII.