- Feminist or Simply Feminine?Reflections on the Works of Nana Asmā'u, a Nineteenth-Century West African Woman Poet, Intellectual, and Social Activist
Nana Asmā'u, a remarkable West African Islamic woman poet, intellectual, and social activist who flourished in the first half of the nineteenth century, offers an alternative to the popular stereotype that the Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad have historically sanctioned the abuse and low social status of women throughout the Islamic world. By focusing on the life Nana Asmā'u, who distinguished herself as one of the most eloquent of the "Fodiawa" reformists, one can trace not only formation of the esthetic canons of West African Arabic literature but aspects of Islamic discourse in this literature as it relates to the role of women. The term "Fodiawa" refers to the dynasty of the great Islamic reformer Shaykh 'Uthmān b. Muhammad Fodiye (1754–1817)—Asmā'u's father—whose early nineteenth-century jihad resulted in the radical transformation of the old Habe, or Hausa, states of present-day northern Nigeria from a domain of crass corruption and administrative incompetence into a powerful and well-ordered Islamic theocracy known as the Sokoto Caliphate.
A forceful and determined champion of a radical return to the fundamentals of "pure" Islam, the shaykh lists the abuse of women among the major forms of unwholesome innovation introduced by generations of Islamic [End Page 54] malams and jurists since Islam was introduced to the region in the fourteenth century. The seclusion of women was apparently introduced as early as the fifteenth century by the then Emir of Kano, Muhammad Rumfa. From then until the beginning of the shaykh's jihad in 1804, seclusion had established itself throughout the Hausa-speaking world as a modus vivendi and as part of the defining characteristics of the Hausa Islamic woman. But, in his reformist zeal, the shaykh saw the practice as a major obstacle that must be exorcized in order to bring the Muslim community of believers back to what—in his view—should be its perfect state of health.
In light of the above, it is by no means surprising to find such a large and active group of women among the scholars, intellectuals, and writers in practically all generations of the Fodiawa. As a matter of fact, the roots of this remarkable intellectual and artistic ferment go back two generations before the birth of the shaykh. The shaykh's grandmother Rukkaya was a notable teacher and poet; and so too was his mother, Hauwa. Of his four wives, three—Maimuna, Aisha, and Hauwa—distinguished themselves as poets and scholars, and together with his fourth wife and only known concubine, they bore him sons and daughters, many of whom distinguished themselves in similar intellectual and artistic pursuits. Of the female Fodiawa poet-scholars, by far the most notable were Fādima (d. 1838), Khadīja (d. 1856), Maryam (c. 1810–c. 1880), and the subject of the present paper, Nana Asmā'u (c. 1793–c. 1865).
Born on November 11, 1793, Asmā bt. 'Uthmān b. Muhammad Fodiye, a.k.a. Nana Asmā'u, was a twin. She and her twin brother, al-Hasan b. 'Uthmān b. Muhammad Fodiye, are numbered as the shaykh's twenty-second and twenty-third children, respectively. Both twins distinguished themselves as scholars and poets. Unfortunately, al-Hasan died too young to leave a decisive mark on the African Islamic literature of the age. However, he produced three collections of qasīdah verses, including a verse list of Islamic Caliphs. Asmā'u, however, lived long enough to establish herself, not only as a versatile poet and translator but as one of the most distinguished female poets, intellectuals, and social activists in the history of African and Arabic Islamic letters. A trilingual writer, she is the author of eight qasīdah in Arabic, three prose works in Arabic, forty-two long poems in her mother tongue, Fulfude, and twenty-one poems in Hausa, the language of the conquered indigenous people absorbed into her father's caliphate. Her complete works have recently been collected and translated into English with illuminating notes and...