Born in 1793, Nana Asma’u was a princess, poet, teacher, and a daughter of the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, Usman dan Fodio. Of all these, Nana is revered as an advocate for the education of Muslim women.
Named after Asma bint Abi Bakr, who was a companion of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, Nana was educated in the Koran as well as Arabic, Greek and Latin classical literature. She could speak fluently in Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa and Tamacheq Tuareg.
Nana’s family was part of a fundamental Islamic sect, known as the Qadiriyya, who focused on the pursuit of knowledge as a spiritual path. They believed that sharing knowledge was important, so, Nana followed her family tradition and became devoted to the education of Muslim women.
She published her first long poem, “The way of the Pious” in 1820, and it was followed by 60 more, which is studied in international academic institutions till date.
Nana became the first pioneer of women’s education in what later became Northern Nigeria. She trained a large network of women as educators and placed a strong emphasis on women leaders and rights of women within the community ideals of the Sunnah and Islamic law.
These women educators were called Yan-Taru or the sisterhood. They memorized Nana’s poetry as teaching devices to use in instructing Islamic women and traveled throughout the Caliphate educating women, who passed on their education to others.
She was an accomplished author and respected scholar in communication with scholars throughout the sub-Saharan African Muslim world.
Having witnessed many of the Fulani War, she wrote about her experiences in a prose narrative, Wakar Gewaye, “The Journey,” and left a large body of poetry, historical narratives, which also include elegies, laments, and admonitions, which became tools for teaching the founding principles of the Caliphate.
Nana was also a highly respected adviser on policy matters to her brother, Sultan Mohammed Bello of Sokoto.