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Women, a warning. Leave not your homes without 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.
—A Warning, II¸Nana Asma’u, 1856
Known For: Poet, Scholar
Dates: Hijri 1208 – 1281 (AH)
Common Era 1793 – 1864 (CE)
Nana Asma’u was the daughter of Usman dan Fodio, founder of Sokoto Caliphate which was one of the most powerful kingdom’s in northern Africa of the time. For some, Asma’u represents the education and independence that is possible for women under Islam and remains a model for African feminists into the present.
Erudite and well versed in Arabic, Greek, and Latin classics and fluent in Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa, and Tamacheq, Asma’u was reputed to be a leading scholar in the most influential Muslim state in West Africa. She represented the number of highly educated Muslim women of the time. Bearing witness to the Fulani Jihad (1804-1810) in which her father conquered Nigeria and Cameroon, she recorded her reactions in The Journal. Asma’u also left an impressive corpus of poetry which is comprised of historical narratives, elegies, laments, and admonition, which became tools for teaching men and women the principles of the caliphate.
Later, she became her brother’s advisor when he took the caliphate and according to contemporary sources, Asma’u debated with governors, scholars, and princes.
Asma’u was also influential on women’s education during the caliphate. Beginning in 1830, she formed a group of female teachers who journeyed throughout the caliphate, educating women. Becoming symbols of the new state, these female teachers, or jajis, used the writing of Asma’u and other Sufi scholars to train women from all areas, including poor and rural regions. This educational project began to integrate the pagan portions of the newly conquered empire with the existing Muslim state and culture.
Today, in northern Nigeria, Islamic women’s organization, schools, and meeting halls are frequently named in her honor. With the republication of her works, she has become a rallying point for African women for the cause of women’s education.
Mack, Beverly B., and Jean Boyd. One Woman’s Jidad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000.
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