Who was Nana Asma’u of Africa?
Nana Asma’u was a respected Hausa-Fulani Islamic scholar, poetess, and educator of both men and woman during the period of the Sokoto Caliphate of Western Africa Empire that later became part of northern Nigeria, and a devoted Qadiri Sufi.
Born in 1793, she was the daughter of Usman Dan Fodio, founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, and reflects the importance placed on education for both men or women among the Muslim Hausa-Fulani, an ethnic group of northern Nigeria and which always had a religious foundation.
She began attending school at age five that was situated in the large compound built by her father. Usman Dan Fodio was a renowned scholar and the head of the Fulanis community in the region known as Toronkawa. Her father’s qualities of sincerity, humility, tolerance, and a firm conviction in sharing and teaching the sunnah of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW) molded Asma’u.
Asma’u was well-educated in the classics of the Arab and Classical world, and well-versed in four languages (Arabic, the Fula language, Hausa, and Tamacheq Tuareg). She had a public reputation as a foremost scholar in the most influential Muslim state in West Africa, which allowed her to correspond broadly. Also, Asma’u memorized the Quran, was knowledgeable in Hadith, and conversant in military knowledge.
One of her most impressive accomplishments was developing a whole educational technique that allowed people who were illiterate to learn basic religious knowledge.
Yan Taro (the associates or disciples) was the name of this educational system and parts of Nigeria and the United States still use it today. Yan Taro is a school of women teachers (jajis) who traveled to rural areas to improve Hausa women’s education that began about 1830.
These bands of women teachers (jajis) would travel throughout the Caliphate educating females in their homes. Each of these jajis used Nana Asma’u’s and other Sufi scholars’ writings, usually through recited mnemonics and poetry, to train units of learned women, called the ’yan-taro, or “those who congregate together, the sisterhood.” These jajis became symbols of the new state, the new order, and of Islamic learning even outside the women’s community.
Asma’u saw many social and moral afflictions that troubled the lives of common folks like cheating and corruption in trade and selling, bribery, the leniency in enforcing the law upon the rich and the elite, limiting opportunities of education for women, and dodging payment of zakat by the wealthy.
She believed that society had a much better chance of eradicating itself of these moral and material vices if the education of women were on concepts of morality, ethics, and justice; also trained to contribute with their intellect and skills as productive and equally contributing members of the community.
Asma’u used her talent as a poet to educate the public and convey her message to society. She wrote numerous poems narrating her father’s struggles for the Hausa people with a calling to pursue a life of higher principles of justice, peace, and excellence. Likewise, several of her poems and writings touched upon the empowerment of the Hausa women to take control of their circumstances and work towards their improvement.
Asma’u didn’t restrict herself to the pen but worked on the ground for the betterment of women. Every day, she would visit the women in the community, listen to their issues, help iron out conflict, encourage adherence to ethical and moral standards, emphasize the value of education while condemning cheating, falsehood, gossip, slander, and any other forms of behavior that may lead to moral ruin. The Yan Taro system wasn’t just about women’s education but it also provided a network to women to ensure control and authority over their lives, decisions related to their children, economics, and other social welfare problems.
The Yan Taro system’s success is due to its sincere intention and concern for the safeguarding of fitra (the good nature inherent in all human beings), spreading of knowledge that ties one to their faith, culture, heritage, and otherworldly sciences, and preservation of a healthy, positive, and righteous environment. Asma’u’s method and creation of an effective model for teaching and learning concentrated on two things; educating and training older women in the community and teaming them up with young girls to receive the same training. Therefore, the mentor/coach and student relationship were the main foundation of the Yan Taro method.
Nana Asma’u was a major innovator in women’s education of the Muslim Hausa-Fulani community. More than 150 years after her death, the Yan Taro is still alive today as the modern-day Jajis travel beyond the shores of Africa to educate women around the world.
In the United States, for example, the ‘Yan Taro Education Foundation and Charitable Trust’ has chapters in Pennsylvania, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, California, Baltimore, Pittsburg, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland, Florida, and Massachusetts with hundreds of women engaged in rigorous training, seminars, and classes.
Asma’u remains an admired figure in northern Nigeria and is an example of education and independence of women possible under Islam, and by others as a pioneer of modern feminism in Africa.