#2 Book Thoughts: Nana Asma’u — A Western African Legacy

Muslim female scholars. How little information is available to us about these formidable women of our past that a narrative of their non-existence has almost been created. The elders of our community lament that the ‘girls nowadays’ are lost causes, following the stars of today from the way they dress to what they aspire to be. But what begs the question is, can we blame them? When these girls aren’t exposed to the female giants of their past, isn’t it only natural that they will start looking elsewhere?

One of these giants was Nana Asma’u. Although I had come across her name, I knew little else about her. It makes you wonder, how many giants from the past exist that have been buried away completely unknown to the masses? How many people have left their mark in history, have left behind something bigger than themselves and then silently took to their graves only for people to continue benefitting for generations after?

The hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) comes to mind:
“When a person dies, all their deeds end except three: a continuing charity, beneficial knowledge and a child who prays for them,”

May Allah make our deeds ever continuing. Ameen.

Ok, back to the book.

Nana Asma’u was a scholar, educational leader and renowned poet and author of the 19th century in West Africa. She was the daughter of the founder of the Sokoto caliphate (now Northern Nigeria), Usman Dan Fodio. She was someone who played a role in the establishment of that caliphate.

She was also someone who noticed a problem in her community and made it her mission to set down the solution. This then became something that lived past her, and became the legacy she left behind. Nana noticed the lack of good education available for the women in the rural areas and so set up a network to provide a space for them to get access to knowledge and also a community. She trained women to become educational instructors, who would then travel to different villages to teach the women there. This resulted in a large spiderweb network of women that stretched across the caliphate. This network was called the Yan Taru — ‘those who congregate together, the sisterhood’.

I learnt a lot from this book. Although it is meant to be a biography of Nana, what I loved was that it gives the reader a complete context of the world she was born into and the world she left behind.

It also showed the reader how a figure like Nana Asma’u was born. She was no random coincidence. She was not an anomaly — ‘a woman who broke free from the ways of her culture to do something great’. She was rather the direct result of the very culture and community she grew up in.

Her father, revered as The Shehu, was a reformer of his time. He was a man who made it his sole aim to bring his people back to their religion, away from the polytheistic traditions that had seeped into their culture over years. This included reminding them of their obligation towards education — equally for both men and women. And as a result, he was able to cultivate a community where education was pursued ardently , where the scholarly voice of a woman was seen as equal of her male counterpart.

This was the community Nana grew up in.

Sometimes it’s easy to isolate the credit we give to the great figures of our past solely to them. But we forget that these figures were born as a result of the people who suckled them to greatness. This book reminded me of the importance of developing our communities today. For they are the ones who will be raising our children tomorrow, whether we like it or not.

The book continues past Nana’s life too. We are shown how the caliphate that the Shehu worked to develop soon flourished to become one of the most literate territories of then. We also see how it all disappeared. No prosperous territory existed during that era except that colonialism soon arrived at their doorstep to rip it apart.

This scholarly nation, overnight, became a group of illiterate and backward people. Not because these colonised people decided to throw their books behind their backs. But because the colonial power defined what education and literacy was — one had to go through their colonisers education syllabus to be deemed educated.

Just learning about this one fact made me reassess the various statistics presented to us in the present day. Yes, numbers do not lie…but liars use numbers.

Overall, I’m so glad I came across this book. Once again, I realise how much more there is for me to learn. Just like Einstein said ‘the more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know’.

One thing to note: This book is more on the heavy side of non-fiction. It reads more as an academic piece rather than a story. So be aware that it’s a book that is meant to be read slow. I really hope, in the future, stories like hers are more accessible to all ages.



I write to make sense of the world, to make sense of myself. Instagram: @neemu.reads

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I write to make sense of the world, to make sense of myself. Instagram: @neemu.reads