Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma’u 1793-1864.

This is a Book Review by Amidu Olalekan Sanni

by Jean Boyd and Beverly Mack 

Until very recently a dominant stereotype in the Western discursive tradition portrayed Africa as a ‘Dark Continent’ and her women as subalterns who lived on the margins of history. The work under review not only invalidates this negative assumption, but also establishes the lasting influence of Nana Asma’u (1793-1864), ‘the most prolific woman writer and influential lady to emerge in the Western Soudan in the nineteenth-century’ (p. 173). This six-chapter work highlights the history of Sufism in West Africa—the esoteric platform on which Asma’u’s sociointellectual upbringing and engagement was built; the routines in the house of the state officials, especially in relation to harems, slaves, and concubines; and the events that led to the establishment of the Sokoto caliphate in 1808, especially those relating to migration and wars. The social infelicities of the antebellum migration, and the postwar social dislocations suffered by women inspired Nana Asma’u to establish ‘Yan Taru’ (The Associates), a movement that undertook the education, edification, social welfare, and empowerment of rural women through trained local facilitators (Jajis). This movement, which came into being by the first quarter of the nineteenth century, not only survived British colonialism but also continued into modern Nigeria in the form of women’s rights and activist groups, as demonstrable with Women in Nigeria (WIN) founded in 1982, and the Federation of Muslim Women Associations of Nigeria (FOMWAN) founded in 1985.

Yan Taru’s replication and transformation as far afield as North America is further proof of its universal relevance. This is a central, if not the central, subject matter of this work. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the organisation promotes the original ideals of Nana Asma’u, albeit in an urban setting, through the appropriation of modern information facilities and intellectual enterprise.

For example, since 2005 it has published a bimonthly newsletter, Yan Taru, and in 1985 founded the Sankore Institute. The Institute has engaged not only in facilitating the ‘restoration of cultural ties between African-Americans and Africans’ (p. 219), but also in promoting African Islamic heritage, particularly the values of the Sokoto Qadiriyya community, as well as translating the writings of the Fodios into English (see This narrative goes a long way in establishing that women’s leadership in intellectual, social, and spiritual voyages had never been lacking in the West African Sufi tradition.

A particular merit of this work is that the personal experiences of the two authors arising from their extensive field studies and stays in Nigeria enhances the probative value of their analyses of works by and on Nana Asma’u. These analyses also provide insights into her intellectual credentials, social orientation, and the nature and quality of her interaction in a conservative cultural landscape in which she also collaborated with men in the production of poetry and prose pedagogic materials in Arabic, Fulfulde, and Hausa for the community, particularly women. The work also provides an objective assessment of women and their roles in the caliphate where they ‘are allowed more liberty’, and of the harem as a place of honour rather than ‘a place where women were sequestered, waiting to provide sex service in turn’ (p. 69).

There are, however, some inadequacies and drawbacks in this otherwise outstanding work. References to the landmass south of the Sahara as sub-Saharan Africa (p. 13) has become less than eirenic due to its inherent pejorative undertone; Sudanic Africa has become a more-acceptable term. Although past Eurocentric authors and travellers’ accounts may be pardoned for being unaware of local developments in the political and intellectual terrain of colonial and/or postcolonial Nigeria or for simply choosing to ignore them, this cannot be extended to modern authors bivouacking in the terrain of the narratives.

The claim that there were no records or minutes of events at the Sokoto caliphal courts during colonialism (p. 157) is not true, as can be gleaned from Muhammad S. Umar’s enlightening study Islam and Colonialism: Intellectual Responses of Muslims of Northern Nigeria to British Colonial Rule (Leiden: 2006). Also, the claim that ‘Asma’u’s works had not yet been published’ (p. 173) is absolutely incorrect. A cursory look at the bio-bibliographical notice on Asma’u in John Hunwick’s Arabic Literature of Africa (Leiden: 1995, pp. 162-172) indicates that a number of her works, some with English translations, have been published since the last quarter of the twentieth century, as has her major prose work on paraenetic, the Tanbīh al-ghāfilīn. In fact, as early as 1968 Isaac A. Ogunbiyi made available to the reading public materials from the works of Nana Asma’u, (Isaac. A. Ogunbiyi, ‘Further Light on Asma’u bint ’Uthman bin Fudi’, Research Bulletin of the Centre for Arabic Documentation 11 (1975): 26-37) and has followed this up with the publication as text editions and translations of her other works. Evidence of the circulation of Ogunbiyi’s pioneering publication of Asma’u, as later updated, among the Sokoto intellectual and academic elites is not altogether lacking, even while one of the authors of the title under review was in the Caliphate. Nikki Merritt, unnoticed by our authors, also presents an insightful description of Asma’u’s elegies (Nikki Merritt, ‘Nana Asma’u, Her Elegies and the Possibility of ‘insider alternatives’, African Languages and Cultures 7.2 (1994): 91-99). It is exceedingly strange that Boyd and Mack could fail to notice, even en passant, John Hunwick’s monumental reference work on West African Islamic intellectual legacy already noted above. The concluding chapter (pp. 187-231) on scholars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would also have benefitted from the insights afforded by recent studies on Muslim women’s education in Nigeria. These criticisms notwithstanding, this work brilliantly illustrates the enduring legacy of Asma’u as a quintessential local educator, a Muslim family woman, and above all, a social mobiliser with universal appeal.

Amidu Olalekan Sanni

Lagos State University, Nigeria

Oxford Center for Islamic Studies (OCIS), UK

Published in: Uncategorized on March 6, 2020 at 17:29  Leave a Comment  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: