Recent developments concerning the unearthing of women figures in Muslim history have shown the importance of documenting the histories of Muslim women of the past and the present. The future generations of women will be damned if we fail to record the works and achievements of the women before them. For centuries, women have slept on this duty, making it easy for our history to be whitewashed and for the later generations to be brainwashed. In the twenty-first century, we are saying “no more”.
It has become clear that there are ongoing attempts to erase phenomenal women from history and render them as mere mythical figures who never existed.
One of such attempts is the most recent compilation of twenty reasons why Queen Amina of Zaria never existed in a twitter thread which went viral. It’s quite unfortunate that people would go to such lengths to prove that women never did achieve remarkable things. It is however our duties as women to preserve these histories for the women after us.
Much of what was documented about Queen Amina of Zaria is based on the precolonial African history recorded by Muhammed Bello, the son of Uthman Dan Fodiyo, in his book, Ifaq al-Maysur which happens to be the most authentic and genuine source of history in Northern Nigeria. Another early source that mentions Queen Amina is a map called the Planisphere of Domingos Teixeira, which was made in 1573 and names a place in Africa as “Castelo Damina,” the Castle of Amina. Other important details were based on oral tradition which had for centuries been the source of most of Africa’s undocumented history. As with most histories, some details of her life remain largely in dispute among historians. However, her existence and legacy are a matter of general acceptance.
According to the majority of historians, the warrior queen, Amina of Zaria, also known as Amina Sarauniya Zazzau was born in the year 1533, to her father, Nikatau and her mother, Bakwa. Her birth occurred during the reign of her grandfather, King Zazzau Nohir, who obtained his family’s wealth through trade of leather goods, cloth, kola, salt, different metals and horses, over 200 years before the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate. The name “Amina” was an Arabic name which was influenced by trade relations between the Arabs and the North African Berbers, centuries before Uthman Dan Fodiyo brought Islam to the region. Amina was born the eldest of three royal siblings including her younger sister, Zaria and her younger brother, Karama.
According to anthropologist David E. Jones, Amina’s grandfather, Zazzau Nohir, discovered her talent and skills for leadership at an early age. He allowed her to attend state meetings and gave her all the necessary knowledge she needed to become a great leader. Her grandmother Marka, the favorite wife of Zazzau Nohir, once saw her holding a dagger. This however did not shock Marka, rather, she acknowledged that Amina held it exactly as a warrior would. At the age of 16, when her mother, the powerful Bakwa of Turunku, ascended the throne of Zazzau, Amina was named Magajiya, heir apparent and was given forty Kuyanga, female slaves.
Queen Bakwa reigned at a time when the Hausa kingdom was rife with military campaigns to expand commerce. This was a period when the Hausa people displayed advanced skills in the industrial arts of weaving, tanning, and metalworking—as opposed to the inhabitants of the neighbouring territories and cultures, whose economies were based on agriculture. The Hausa people invaded neighbouring territories that were inhabited by the Jukun and the Nupe people, to control trade and to expand the Hausa communities into more desirable environs. In turn, the Hausa people were conquered during those years by other tribes including Mali, the Fulani, and the Bornu people. The reign of Queen Bakwa was relatively more peaceful and prosperous than in the previous years. However, the sixteen-year-old Amina seized this opportunity to occupy herself in honing her battle skills, under the tutelage of the soldiers of the Zazzau military.
As was customary during the period, the throne of Zazzau was inherited by Amina’s brother, Karama, upon the death of Bakwa in 1566. Although Karama was younger than Amina, custom dictated that the male prince would take precedence irrespective of his age. Her younger sister, Zaria after whom the Kingdom of Zazzau was renamed by Queen Bakwa, eventually fled the region and little about her was known thereafter. Following the death of her brother in the tenth year of his rule, Amina ascended the throne as the twenty-fourth Habe, as the rulers of the Kingdom were then called. By that time, she had grown into a fierce warrior and had earned the admiration of the Zazzau military. It was a period when men did not feel threatened by women in powerful positions. Women at that time could oust men who were not performing their duties effectively. Amina established her authority as the leader of the Zazzau troops even before she came to rule the city-state.
The reign of Amina occurred at a period when the kingdom of Zazzau was positioned at the cornerstone of three major trade passages of northern Africa, linking the Sahara region with the remote markets of the southern forest lands and western Sudan. By that time, the empire of the powerful and more dominant Songhai people had fallen and the resulting competition for control of trade routes drove the Hausa people into further battles with the neighbouring settlements during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was not until much later that a peace pact between the Hausa and the Fulani people finally brought about lasting peace to the region which not only expanded the territory of the Hausa people of north Africa to the largest borders in history but also survived into the colonial era of the nineteenth century. Queen Amina’s domain of Zazzau is now the capital of the present-day emirate of Kaduna in Nigeria.
Queen Amina’s Reign
Shortly after inheriting the throne, Queen Amina commenced what was to be known as the first in an ongoing series of military engagements associated with her rule. She was the commander of an immense military band of up to 20,000-foot soldiers and 1000 cavalry troops and personally led the Army of Zazzau through an ongoing series of campaigns, continually waging battles throughout her sovereignty. She tried to annex several surrounding cities up to Nupe and ruled Kano and Katsina at the cost of 34 years of almost uninterrupted warfare.
Her reign was marked by military expansionism. Although her military campaigns were marked as efforts to establish safe trading routes for Zazzau and other Hausa traders across the Saharan region, her efforts efficiently paid off in significantly expanding the limits of Zazzau territory to the largest boundaries. Historian, P. J. M. McEwan, stated that Amina, “conquered all the towns as far as Kwararafa [to the north] and Nupe [in the south].” By all indications, she came to rule much of the region known as Hausaland and beyond; an area then known as Kasashen Bauchi, before the settlement of the so-called Gwandarawa Hausas of Kano in the mid-1600s.
In modern-day Nigeria, Kasashen Bauchi makes up the middle belt of Nigeria. In addition to Zazzau, the city-states of central Hausaland included Rano, Kano, Daura, Gobir, and Katsina, an area of approximately 500 square miles. Queen Amina ruled the entire region, along with all the connected trade routes linking western Sudan with Egypt on the east and Mali in the north. She built walls around the encampments of the conquered territories for both socio-economic and political reasons. Some of the walls survived into modern times and are an enduring testimony to her glorious reign.
Walls marked boundaries and defined settlements, preventing uncontrollable entry and invasion as well as providing psychological and physical safety and security to the people in unstable times. Politically, the walls were prestigious. They were a measure of a ruler’s ability to command the labour of his or her subjects. A 15-kilometre wall surrounding the modern-day city of Zaria dates back to Amina and is known as ganuwar Amina (Amina’s wall).
Because the Hausa people of Zazzau were well skilled in the metalworking crafts, Queen Amina was able to introduce the use of metal armour, including iron helmets and chains, for the protection of her army. Although according to some historians, Queen Amina got the idea for the metal armour from a neighbouring Hausa King, called Sarkin Kanajeji, whose soldiers wore metal armour for protection during battles. Nevertheless, the innovative practice of using metal armours during battles arrived in Hausaland during the reign of Queen Amina.
According to oral tradition, Amina took a new husband from amongst the slaves of war after every battle. Each man was slain after spending one night with the Zazzau queen. The exact circumstances of Amina’s death are not known. The nineteenth-century Muslim scholar Dan Tafa says that “She died in a place called Attaagar. This account was corroborated by Historian Sidney John Hogben, who stated that Queen Amina died in the year 1610 during a military campaign at Atagara near Bida in Nigeria.
According to Muhammed Bello, son of Uthman Dan Fodiyo, in his book, Ifaq al-Maysur
“Strange things have happened in the history of the seven Hausa States, and most strange of these is the extent of the possessions which God gave to Aminatu, daughter of the ruler of Zazzau. She waged war in the Hausa lands and took them all so that the men of Katsina and the men of Kano brought her tribute. She waged war in Bauchi and against the other towns of the south and of the west, so that her possession stretched down to the shores of the sea.
He claimed that she was “the first to establish government among the Hausa,” and she forced Katsina, Kano and other regions to pay tribute to her.
In the twenty-first century, the memory of Amina has come to represent the spirit and strength of womanhood. For her exploits, she earned the epithet of Amina, Yar Bakwa ta san Rana (Amina, daughter of Nikatau, a woman as capable as a man). The obstacles facing women in Nigeria and across Africa may persist, but the legacy of women such as Queen Amina point to the possibilities that exist for African women to change the narratives of their communities.
Historians J. F. Ajayi and Michael Crowder think that Queen Amina’s reign was in the fifteenth century rather than the sixteenth century. Ajayi and Crowder attribute their conclusion to information found in the Kano chronicles which were documented in the nineteenth century. The records, which are believed to portray the history of Africa with some accuracy, date Queen Amina back to the time of Sarkin Dauda whose father was believed to have ruled from 1421 until 1438. Ajayi and Crowther believe that historians may have confused the reign of Da’ud, conqueror of Macina, who ruled from 1549 until 1582 with that of Sarkin Dauda of the fifteenth century.
According to Ajayi, Hausaland suffered desperately from the aggression of the Songhai empire during the sixteenth century, and it may be unlikely that the expansionist policies of Amina took place at such a difficult time. Zaria and many other Hausa kingdoms had, by that time, fallen to the control of Songhai and had suffered further aggression from Bornu to the east. Such domination by Songhai and Bornu, if depicted with accuracy, contradict the possibility that the Hausa people achieved expansive domination during the sixteenth century.
Another local chronicle of Zaria, written largely in the nineteenth century but extending to 1902, and published in 1910, details a list of the rulers of Zaria Kingdom and the duration of their reigns. However, this chronicle does not mention Queen Amina but mentions her mother, Bakwa Turunku dating her reign back to 1492–1522. Based on this, Historian Abdullahi Smith places the reign of Queen Amina after 1576.
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