“Women, a warning. Leave not your homes without a good reason. You may go out to get food or to seek education. In Islam it is a religious duty to seek knowledge. Women may leave their homes freely for this.”

 The above quote is not from a twenty-first century liberal feminist writer or similar, but from Nana Asma’u, a respected nineteenth-century scholar and daughter of one of the greatest influences on the spread of Islam in Nigerian history, Sheikh Uthman Dan Fodio.

 Nana Asma’u was born in Degel, near Sokoto in 1792 to Dan Fodio’s wife Maimuna. She was named after Asma bint Abi Bakr, an associate of her father’s. As can be expected she received a strong Islamic upbringing and education in her childhood. She memorised the Quran comprehensively and received training in Islamic law. She also learnt to speak Arabic, Fulfulde (the language of the Fulani), Hausa, and Tamacheq (the language of the Tuareg). She had been born before her father embarked on the holy war, thus she experienced the full organic growth of the movement and was deeply schooled in the teachings that grounded the caliphate. Although her father was a renowned and powerful man, he lived a disciplined, frugal lifestyle, which he also expected of his children.

 A studious, serious minded and highly intelligent young woman, the lessons Asma’u learnt stuck with her. The most significant lesson imparted to her by her father was to seek knowledge. This was wholly Islamic, since the Qur’anic prescriptions of Prophet Muhammad that all Muslims should seek knowledge throughout their lives were exceptionally clear. In particular, Dan Fodio impressed on his daughter that gaining knowledge without sharing it with others was a sterile way of living and indeed should be frowned upon. Asma’u therefore immersed herself in her father’s extensive library, delving into texts on Islamic philosophy.

 Nana Asma’u got married in 1809 and delivered her first child in 1813 at the age of 20. In addition to fulfilling her duties to her family, she had begun her lifelong assignment of composing and writing poetry. She started out translating the teachings and poems of her father into Hausa, so as to make them accessible to the poor. In 1820 she wrote her firs long poem, “The Way of the Pious”, which provided guidance on morality. She began also to write strongly focused works on the role of women. She celebrated the efforts of women who performed what some may have deemed mundane roles. Her reasoning was that women were indispensable in the structure of society.

 As the jihad progressed, it became obvious that there was a growing need for the education of women, as a lot of women in the conquered territories were non-Muslims. This led Asma’u to establish a corps of women known as the Yan Taru (the disciples). This consisted of women either beyond childbearing age or yet to marry, who would have the freedom to travel widely, educating other women, especially the rural area. Her work was encouraged by Sultan Muhammad Bello, her brother.

 Nana Asma’u also conducted classes herself at her home for women, with her students numbering in the hundreds. After classes, she would hold court, attending to the long line of female visitors who would come to see her with various complaints and problems. Most of these problems required an interpretation of the law, in which she was well learned. In a bid to make the Quran more accessible, she translated it to Hausa. She went on to compose over 60 surviving works in prose and poetry, published in 3 languages, which included historical narratives, elegies, poems of guidance and laments; these were written in Arabic and are still studied today

 Nana Asma’u legacy remains, both in the eventual spread of women’s education in Northern Nigeria and in the high quality of work she produced, which are still studied by scholars all over the world today. She died in 1864.

 – By Chidinma Chukwuma


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