1793 - 1865
Poet, Teacher, and Follower of Islamby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Most Muslims consider jihad, holy war for Allah, a spiritual duty. Some wage this holy war against anyone who opposes Islam. Although the most common understanding of jihad is a physical war, "some Muslims interpret jihad to mean mental or spiritual striving". 1 This was the case for Nana Asma'u. Her jihad was a fight for her own personal holiness.
Nana Asma'u was born as a twin to her brother Hassan in 1793. She was the 22nd child of her father, Shehu Usman dan Fodio. Her father was a devout Muslim and he led his family in the ways of Islam. All his children were brought up with lots of prayer, contemplation, and recitations of the Qur'an. 2 This religion began at about 610 AD when a man named Muhammad supposedly received "messages from God which he was to convey to his fellow Meccans. These messages or revelations were later collected and [they] form the Qur'an. They asserted that God was one (Allah) and that he was both merciful and all-powerful, controlling the course of events. On the Last Day he would judge men according to their acts and assign them to heaven or hell." 3As Islam grew, it came to the area where Asma'u's family originated. Because of this heritage, her parents named her after the girl from a legend who took food to the prophet Muhammad when he was a fugitive. It is significant that they gave her this name instead of the usual 'Hussain' for a female twin. 2 They did not realize that she would give her life to the advancement of their prophet's teachings.
Until Asma'u was eleven years old, she lived "in a village called Degel situated in the dry, sandy plains of Hausaland, which form part of the Western Sudan." 2 This region in Africa is south of the Sahara Desert and is now the nation of Nigeria. During the time Asma'u was a child, there were seven city states in Hausaland. Each was governed separately and, therefore, hostility was rampant. In the midst of these city states, Fulani villages were scattered about. The Fulani were a people group that originated in the Middle East but eventually migrated to North Africa, then Senegal, and then present day Nigeria. 4 Dan Fodio, Asma'u's father, was the leader of a Fulani village, Degel. This was the environment that Nana Asma'u grew up in.
In 1804, while the U.S.A. was putting a stop to violent Islamic pirates in Tripoli, Nana's father declared a jihad on the seven Hausa city states, "whose rulers he condemned for allowing Islamic practices to deteriorate. Local Fulani leaders, motivated by both spiritual and local political concerns, received Usman's blessings to overthrow the Hausa rulers. With their superior cavalry and cohesion, the Fulani overthrew the Hausa rulers and also conquered areas beyond Hausaland." 5 Dan Fodio became the caliph, an Islamic spiritual leader, of this new federation.
While dan Fodio increased his influence, Asma'u left her family at the young age of fourteen, which was common for that period. She married a man named Usman Gidado in 1807. She bore him five sons. Later, they moved to the city of Sokoto which was built by Asma'u's half-brother, Muhammad Bello, in 1809. 6
Education was extremely important to Nana Asma'u. Her father was a great Islamic scholar and prolific writer. For the culture of that time, she was unusually rich in education. Asma'u spoke four languages: Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa, and Tamachek. 7 Throughout her life, she wrote 65 poems. She believed that seeking knowledge was a necessary pursuit in life if one behaved like a respectable, married woman. This type of woman only left the house to get food or education. 7 To advance education, she trained women in Islam who, in turn, trained other women. "Asma'u's 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 framework." 6 These greatly respected teachers that Asma'u trained were called "jajis". The jajis worked to disperse the teachings of Muhammad (compiled in a Muslim holy book, the Sunna) and Asma'u's poems. Because of this, one can conclude that her greatest contribution to 19th century Africa was education.
Besides educating women, Asma'u made another impact in her society. She had a great influence on the Sokoto caliphs, especially Muhammad Bello. He became the caliph in 1817 when their father, Usman dan Fodio, died. 5 "Asma'u's scholarship was well respected because it actively supported the.promotion of Islam". 6 They admired her and drew from her wealth of knowledge. In this way, Asma'u affected that region.
Throughout her life, Nana Asma'u strived to become "good". As a Muslim, she believed that she could not enter Heaven unless she was good enough. Asma'u wrote in The Path of Truth, "Those whose [good] deeds exceed the bad ones will be saved only through the salvation of Ahmada [their prophet Muhammad]. Those whose bad deeds exceed on the day will perish, unless they are saved by Ahmada." 7 She had no assurance of salvation and, like the prophet Mohammad, constantly lived in the fear of being sent to Hell when she died if her performance in life wasn't good enough. Therefore, she earnestly strived to please Allah. In 1865, Nana Asma’u died at the age of 72. She left a legacy of the importance of education. Through her poems and teaching, she was able to reach many, many people in the region of Africa which is now Nigeria. She significantly advanced the teachings of the prophet Muhammad and her religion, Islam.
Nana Asma'u did not believe in the Truth that Jesus Christ claimed was uniquely through himself to the Father. Salvation through Christ is not received by good works. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast." If one has faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, he is saved because of God's grace. God's grace is given because His Son, Jesus Christ, paid the death penalty that God's justice requires of sin.
Although Nana may have accomplished her jihad for Allah as defined by the prophet Mohammad, according to the prophet Jesus Christ, who Muslims also honor, Nana's efforts were in vain. Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)
up6 Jameel Yusha'u, Muhammad. Nana Asma'u Tradition: An Intellectual Movement and a Symbol of Women's Rights in Islam During the 19th Century Dan Fodio's Islamic Reform. Bayero University, Kano: Dept. of Mass Communications, 2004.