Beginnings: Degel and the Hijra

“Muslim women! Do not listen to the speech of those who are misguided and who sow the seed of error in the heart of another; they deceive you when they stress obedience to your husbands without telling you of obedience to God and His Messenger (May God show him bounty and grant him salvation), and when they say that the woman finds her happiness in obedience to her husband.”

The words above were written by Usman dan Fodio, often referred to by as “Shehu”. With these words in mind, perhaps it comes as no surprise that the household he came from was egalitarian in terms of education. The Fodio family was a scholarly one where everyone was educated regardless of gender. They were Toronkawa, Fulani who traced their ancestry to the Futa Toro region near the Senegal river and settled in the region that is now Nigeria in the 16th century. They were also largely Sunni Muslims affiliated to the Qadiriyya Sufi order.

dan Fodio, whose name is associated with Islamic scholarship and means “son of the learned”, was himself taught by his mother and grandmother. In Muslim communities across the “Western Sudan”, women scholars were not uncommon. Among these Sunnis with Sufi leanings, knowledge was priority. Scholars would travel from village to village, learning and teaching. When they worked, it was to get money to continue learning. Throughout this region, scholars wrote manuscripts and poetry on subjects ranging from philosophy. The regional connections ranged from Timbuktu to Kanem-Bornu, to as far as modern day Sudan where Sufi communities have a myth of the Shehu travelling there to marry a pious woman. Scholars frequently exchanged ideas and communicated through letters.

To dan Fodio, washing clothes and the like took the backseat when it came to the pursuit of knowledge. He spared no words calling out the customs of married men that he considered oppressive. He wrote;

“Some women are in trouble…because their husbands think of nothing but sex…some men eat huge meals away from home without caring to know if their wives have enough to eat…they are hot-tempered and when angry refused to speak to their wives…others never joke happily with them nor do they share their sexual attentions equally amongst them…they sit stroking their beards in contentment outside homes which are little better than hovels…they are hard by nature and fault-finding by disposition…they confine their wives too closely…they neither educate them themselves nor allow them to benefit from being educated by others…”

Nana Asma’u in Degel
But this series not about dan Fodio, it is about his daughter. Probably the most documented woman in Nigerian history, Nana Asma’u was born and raised in Degel in 1793. Located on the dry savannah where rain only fell four months each year, Degel was an unfenced hamlet near Sokoto. Asma’u was also a twin, and her name is unusual as twins re usually named Hassan/a and Hussein/a. Her given name may have been influenced by her father’s karama giving him insight into the kind of person Asma’u would become. Karama refers to knowledge beyond the physical world, that is telepathy or premonition. dan Fodio was known to possess karama. For the Fodio family was not only learned, it also experienced paranormal phenomena. For example even though he wasn’t there, dan Fodio apparently saw Asma’u riding into Kano on horseback as part of the entourage following her niece’s marriage to the Emir of Kano Sulaiman.

Her childhood was in some ways idyllic. It was likely spent learning how to read and memorise the Quran under the tutelage of Hadija, her eldest sister. Hadija was in charge of teaching the young ones (both girls and boys) in dan’ Fodio’s house and leading them in daily prayer. They would write down Quranic text on wooden writing boards using vegetable ink then read and memorise under the tutelage of Hadija. dan Fodio took a special interest in his children’s education so one can imagine him talking with Asma’u about what she had learned during the day. Things changed after an initial attempt on dan Fodio’s life was made in the palace of the Chief of Gobir, Yunfa. Wary of the growing influence of the scholar, the chiefs and kings of Hausaland viewed him with suspicion and wanted to curb his power. In 1803, a more overt attack on dan Fodio’s students followed.

Thus, dan Fodio left Degel on hijra (Arabic for migration), growing his own army and launched his own offenses. Of course dan Fodio’s army was nothing compared to the army of Gobir, which enjoyed chain mail suits, horses, Tuareg soldiers on camels, a wide arsenal of weapons to say the least. Asma’u was ten or eleven years old when she first witnessed the bloodshed and brutality of war, this heavily influenced her character which appears steely in her works. Asma’u witnessed and may have been involved in strategical meetings, cleaning swords stained with the blood of slain men, preparing food such as kilishi (spicy stripes of beef jerky) and a muesli-like millet pack, building forts, as well as the hunger and thirst that came when food was short in camp. Asma’u would go on to write poems about what she witnessed during this time, about the joys of victory and the harshness that came with too little food and water.

A Bakousso. Réception du Ghaladima
A Bakousso. Réception du Ghaladima

The Sokoto Jihad
The war, now known as the Sokoto jihad, lasted for four years. The jihad her father waged was not against people who were not Muslims but against the Muslims who engaged in behaviour he considered unislamic deviations. Among the Fulani, it was men wearing necklaces and plaiting their hair, or wooing couples having the freedom to seek time alone, and making divorce hard for women. For the Hausa and urban dwellers, it was merchants miscounting grain in order to pay less tax, property theft and gathering to induce spirit possession in bori worship. On the other hand, the people of Gobir naturally felt resentful towards the Caliphate and viewed them not as Islamic reformers but usurpers.

Asma’u was married during that period of war. She was 14 years old at the time however her marriage may have been arranged by her father when she was 12 years old. In the society, girls were married young to quite older men. The marriage started with a proposal that was the start of a long engagement that would give both parties time to get to know each other. Her husband was Gidado, a friend of her beloved brother Bello. Bello was Asma’u’s closest fried and her writing and literary mentor. About seventeen years older than Asma’u, Gidado had studied with Bello when he was young. They both travelled, visiting scholars and collecting books when the times were peaceful. In war, Gidado fought next to Bello and would often transfer messages between Bello and dan Fodio. Both men were close friends and could apparently read each other’s minds. Asma’u and Gidado would end up collaborating, writing together and borrowing from the other’s works.

Even with the tense situation, Asma’u enjoyed the full treatment of a new bride. Doused in perfumed water, hands and feet coloured in henna et al. A year later the event that would eventually lead to a major victory for dan Fodio took place. The burning of Alkalawa is credited to Asma’u where according to legend Asma’u pointed towards the city with a burning brand and the words; “Burn Alkalawa” leading to a fire that consumed the city. After the fall of Alkalawa, the people of Gobir either fell into capitivity or fled to Tsibiri where they would continuously launch raids against the Sokoto Caliphate.

dan Fodio remained in Gwandu and divided management of the newly formed Caliphate between the family. Asma’u would play an important role in the Caliphate particularly in educating women in urban and rural areas.

What I read
Jean Boyd & Beverly Mack (2013), Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma’u, 1793-1864
Jean Boyd (1999), The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u, 1793-1865, Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader

Image sources
Ecrivain public, Memoire Vive
A Bakousso. Réception du Ghaladima