Female Islamic Saints


I. An artistic impression of Nana Asma‘u using prayer beads.

Nana Asma‘u (1793–1864) was a Fulani princess, scholar, author and educator of the Qadiri order. Her father, Usman ɗan Fodiyo and his wife Maimuna. Usman was a teacher of the Maliki madhhab who called for the reform of local Islamic practice and governance and formed the Sokoto Caliphate. Asma‘u was raised by her father’s wives ‘A’ishah and Hawa’u, also called Iya-Garka and Ina-Garka respectively, who were deeply involved in mysticism and asceticism, with the latter being disposed to almsgiving. Religious practice at the time was still largely influenced by traditions of spirit possession, against which Usman preached. Following the harassment of his followers, Usman withdrew from Hausa territory, declaring independence when Asma‘u was 11. This act spurred the jihād, or armed insurrection, that resulted in the overthrowing of the Hausa kings and the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate in 1804 in what is now northern Nigeria, as well as the establishment of Asma‘u’s political future.

Asma‘u and her family belonged to a Sufi revivalist movement in the now called sub-Saharan Africa in the 18th century that focussed on common education, particularly in the Qadiri order, placing her in a family of religiously educated and prolific writers. She was herself a ḥafīẓah, having memorized the Qur‘an, and she was fluent in Fulani, Hausa, Arabic and Tamachek. She was married to the former Sokoto vizier Giɗaɗo ɗan Laima at 14, and as she matured into her 30’s, she established the movement of the yan-taru, or the “disciples”. The yan-taru was composed of jaji, female teachers trained in Islamic matters who travelled the Caliphate educating women wearing a malfa, a straw woven wide brimmed hat that was worn originally by priestesses of the Hausan Bori religion. She was very devoted to the principles and teachings of the Qadiri order and thus advocated adhering to an orthodox traditionalist interpretation of Islam and close following of the sunnah, or prcatices of Muḥammad, and so expressed these teachings mnemonically and didactically in her poetry, which she disseminated along with other Sufi and educational writings through the jaji in lessons to less educated women. Her poetry consisted of historical works as well as lamentful, praising and admonishing pieces that were often focused on women. She wrote prose as well, including an autobiography about her experience of the Fulani jihād.

II. A modern rendition of a woman in traditional Fulani dress, commonly attribured to Nana Asma‘u.

Additionally, Asma‘u was highly influential politically as well as academically. When her half brother Muḥammad Bello succeeded their father as Caliph, she advised him, and she went on to outlive four of the first Sokoto Caliphs. Out of her sisters Hadiza, Faɗima, and Maryam, who were also scholars, Maryam continued the yan-taru after Asma‘u. Like the other women in her family, Nana Asma‘u greatly contributed to the Fulani literary heritage and the legacy of women’s education in Islam. By 40, she garnered the title Uwar Gari, “Mother of All”, and she is remembered reverently in northern Nigeria, where women’s and girl’s schools are still named after her.

Not necessarily considered a saint.

Photo Reference

I: Boyd, Jean. The Caliph's Sister: Nana Asma'u, 1793-1865, Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader. United Kingdom, Taylor & Francis, 2013.

II: Artist unknown.

Other Reading

Boyd, Jean, et al. One Woman's Jihad: Nana Asma'u, Scholar and Scribe. United States, Indiana University Press, 2000.

Boyd, Jean. The Caliph's Sister: Nana Asma'u, 1793-1865, Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader. United Kingdom, Taylor & Francis, 2013.

West AfricaQadiri OrderSufiAuthorMysticEducatorScholar.