I have never been faced with the challenges of living as a black Muslim minority in the West. I was born in Nigeria and grew up in Nigeria. But often when I hear the thoughts and experiences of my friends who have experienced “anti-blackness” and “Islamophobia” both within their circles and in the wider communities, I can’t help but feel their pain; the pain of being treated like an alien in your own birth land. Being “black”, “Muslim” and “Woman” at the same time comes with a lot of complexities. It’s either you’re too black to be Muslim or too Muslim to be black. Even within the black Muslim community, the God-given rights of women are not being honoured. And there are little to no outlets for black Muslim women to make a great impact in the wider communities. This brings me to ask the question “Who are the role models for black Muslim women and what were their contributions to the growth and development of Islam?”
I recently came across research done by Margari Aziza Hill titled Nana Asmau Bint Uthman Dan Fodio; A spark who continues to Illuminate and I was thrilled. How many black Muslim women know of her legacy? How many of us knew about this legendary woman who apart from being a wife and mother as well as the sister of the head of state and the daughter of a political and spiritual leader, chose to build her own legacy rather than sit back to live a fleeting life of luxury. She was an Islamic leader who was well known amongst the men and women of her time not only for her educational movement but also for her ability to mediate political disagreements. She was also a multi-linguist who could speak fluently in Arabic, Hausa, Fula and the Tamasheq language of the Tuareg. She was a prolific writer who left a tremendous literary legacy. Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u, a Nigerian researcher, in his work titled Nana Asma’u’s tradition: An Intellectual Movement and a Symbol of women’s rights in Islam, stated that “Nana Asma’u’s legacy is an answer to those who view women as exploited, oppressed and relegated to the rudiments of home management and service to the children especially under Islam.
At the young age of 27, Nana Asma’u was given the responsibility of overseeing a community of over 700 people and ensuring that they were well catered for. She also took up the task of writing to keep her father’s legacy fresh in the minds of people and organizing his great corpus of works. Several western researchers have taken the time to study the life and achievements of this inspiring woman and written books to honour her works. One of them is Jean Boyd who gained access to her works in 1975 and wrote a book in her honour titled The Caliph’s Sister – a detailed biography of her life and legacy. After writing the book, Jean Boyd collaborated with another researcher, Beverly Mack to compile the poetry and religious treatises of Nana Asmau into the Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman dan Fodio (1793-1864) which was subsequently translated into Arabic, Fula and Hausa languages. Boyd and Mack finally looked into her social and political life and co-authored a book titled One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe.
Of the many achievements of Nana Asmau bint Uthman Dan Fodio, the most striking of all remains the Yan-Taru Legacy. In the 18th century West Africa, now modern-day Northern Nigeria, when Uthman Dan Fodio outlawed the oppressive patriarchal customs and granted Women their social and political rights under Islam, Nana Asmau began a legacy that was to span through generations – the Yan Taru Movement. This movement was dedicated to educating and empowering women in West Africa. Nana Asma’u educated and trained hundreds of women around the Sokoto caliphate who in turn traveled to several places to educate other women. She created a cadre of women teachers known as Jajis – the leaders of the caravan – who traveled throughout the caliphate educating women in designated student’s homes. In turn, each of these Jajis used Nana Asmau’s and other Scholars’ writings to train corps of learned women called the Yan – taru – those who congregate together. To each Jaji, Nana Asma’u bestowed a malfa – a hat which was a traditional symbol of office tied with a red turban. The Jajis, therefore, became the symbols of the new order and of education even outside the women’s community.
Almost two hundred years later, the YanTaruu legacy lives on as the modern – day Jajis travel beyond the shores of Africa to educate women around the world. Dylia bint Hamadi Camara is one such Jaji who explained in an interview with Margari Aziza Hill thus: “We have the name of all the jajis before me so mine comes after a long line of the unbroken chain of scholarship and service to women, children and the Ummah at large.” Jaji Dylia further explained that Nana Asmau’s methodology of learning still educates men, women and children across the world. In the United States for example, the ‘Yan Taru Education Foundation and Charitable Trust’ has chapters in Pennsylvania, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, California, Baltimore, Pittsburg, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland, Florida and Massachusettes with hundreds of women in intensive training, seminars and classes. Modern day Jajis like Dylia travel internationally using email, video conferencing and text messaging to educate their students on Classical Islam. They also have a website at Yantaru.com.
Another Western researcher, Bullock K. in his work titled, Towards the full inclusion of Muslim women in the Ummah: An Activist’s perspective stated that there was a high level of Inclusivity for Muslim women in their communities during the time of Nana Asma’u and this was evident by the following:
This is the legacy we should promote in Black History Month. Nana Asma’u bint Uthman Dan Fodio was not just a woman. She was an extraordinary black Muslim woman whose impact was and is still being felt all over the world. This is a heritage for black Muslim women to be proud of; a story to be told when issues of “anti – blackness” creep into the wider Muslim circles. It is a point of reference for Men, Muslim and non-Muslim alike when the rights of women stand a potential threat of being violated. Stories like these and many more are what we should tell our children, to arm them with something to call their own; a legacy to keep them soaring high in life even in the face of all forms of subjugation and discrimination.
Wardah Abbas is a lawyer turned full-time writer. She has been published in various magazines, online media platforms and anthologies. She is particularly passionate about women’s liberation and dismantling the global patriarchy and is currently co-working on a book on human rights for Muslim women. When she is not running around with her two-year-old toddler, taking online coding classes on Pluralsight or bleeding out honest words on Medium, She can be found struggling to meet’s a client’s deadline on a writing assignment. Catch up with her on twitter @Wardah_abbas or Medium @Wardahabbas