As one of the first but many entries for this blog, I interviewed the sisters of Yantaru. Yantaru is an organization founded on the life, scholarship and activism of a Nigerian scholar, poet, teacher and activist Nana Asma'u. Nana Asma'u 1793-1865 (may God have mercy on her) was the daughter of the Sokoto caliph Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio (may God have mercy on him). She was responsible for the all over education of the women in the newly found caliphate. Her family was linked to the tariqa of Shaykh Abdul-Qadir al-Jilani, or the Qadiriyya tariqa. Women found it very hard to study and learn the deen of Islam so Nana Asma'u created poetry to help facilate learning and created programs that educated women on their rights and duties in Islam. She left behind a vast corpus of work in Arabic, Fulfulde and Hausa. Today, the women of Yantaru have picked up from where Nana Asma'u left off.
For more information on Nana Asma'u, please read One Women's Jihad, Nana Asma'u Scholar and Scribe.
Could you tell our readers how Yantaru become the organization that it is today? How did you guys come up with this idea for a women's organization modeled after the life and example of Nana Asma'u?
Yan Taru was a word used in the Sokoto Caliphate, to refer to the women who were the backbone of an educational movement established by Nana Asma'u during the reign of her brother Caliph Muhammad Bello (1817 - 1837). The Sokoto Caliphate was established by Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio in 1804 spanned an area comparable in size to western Europe, in modern day terms it consisted of large part of Nigeria, parts of Togo, Benin republic, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. It remained in existence till it’s dismantlement in 1904 by the British. However the last Caliph appointed a successor (Sultan Muhammad Mai Wurno) before his death to make the hijra to Sudan, the present Sultan of Mairurno, Sultan AbuBakr is a descendent of this general.
The Yan Taru was a group of itinerant female student-teachers. Women and girls who left their homes and made the long arduous journey to Sokoto, primarily on foot. The women unable to make the journey to seek knowledge would send sadaqa, which would then be used to run the charitable works of Nana Asma'u. Today, hundreds of women from the countries of Nigeria and Niger continue to make this same journey, albeit, mostly by bus. The Yan Taru Foundation is just an extension of this system being applied to the American socio-cultural context. We incorporated as a non-profit foundation in April this year.
Yantaru places much of it's focus on women's education. Do you think that such educational initiatives are missing in our American Muslim community or do you see Yantaru simply taking the education of Muslim women to a new level?
Yes, unfortunately, there is a tremendous lack of educational initiatives not just for women but for Muslims as a whole in the United States. Traditionally Islam was spread around the world through the centuries by scholars, pious merchants and amirs, but in America, for the most part, our mosques and community centers are run by doctors , engineers and PhDs who do not have a solid foundation in traditional Islamic education, and hence our mosques do not impart this or make education a priority. The Rasul (peace and blessings be upon him) was primarily a teacher and our mothers, Ummuhat ul-mu’mineen, were his closest students, and were teachers of his companions as well. Shaykh Uthman and Nana Asma’u stressed the importance of knowledge during their lives and this was a distinguishing feature of their community, and is what lead to their success. And if we are to have spiritually and materially thriving Muslim communities in the United States it must be based on a solid traditional education that is connected by a scholarly chain to the Rasul (peace and blessings be upon him).
Ma sha Allah, their are small pockets of activity across America, last year their was a women’s deen intensive in California with several female teachers, just last month there was a Sisters' Two Day Weekend Program in Chicago with local female teachers (http://www.madrasaprogram.org) Shaykh Uthman said there should be a scholar in every city. Women are sometimes taken advantage of because of a lack of education (on the woman’s part and on the man’s) because they are unaware of their rights. And sometimes women violate the rights of others due to the lack of a solid traditional education. There was a beautiful piece of nasiha that Habib Ali gave to sisters of the Yan Taru in San Diego a few years back, it essentially addresses how true Islam gives men and women the guidance to develop healthy and balanced relationships based on obedience to their Creator; these basic things are necessary for us to know in order to be able to adequately prepare ourselves for the Day of Reckoning. In sha Allah, a transcript of this talk will be available shortly in the Yan Taru library www.yantaru.org/library.
Could you please talk to us about Nana Asma'u and why Yantaru chose her to be the role model for your group? Islam is filled with many exceptional women in it's history but what was it about Nana Asma'u that inspired the creation of Yantaru and its goals?
Jean Boyd (author of the Caliph’s Sister and co-author of One Woman’s jihad) wrote a short book introducing Nana Asma'u, it is available in our digital library and is a good start for a person who wants an overview of her life but in a nut shell Nana Asma’u was an Islamic leader, Scholar, Poet and social activist. As the daughter of Shaykh Uthman ibn Fodiyo, the leader of the Sokoto Caliphate, Asma'u was a role model and teacher for other Muslim women as well as an Islamic scholar, linguist and writer. She developed a method of bringing women to her for learning called the Yan Taru movement, which has continued to exist until the present. She taught women, old and young, through poetry. These poems contained the teachings of Islam, which they memorized and then returned home to teach. She left a large body of writing in Arabic, Fulfulde and Hausa. She was 72 when she died.
We didn’t really choose her, rather Allah ta’ala choose her for us. We are women who adhere to the community and methodology established almost 200 years ago by the great Islamic scholar Shaykh Uthman ibn Fodiyo and Nana Asma’u was one of his greatest students. Like you say there are great women throughout Muslim history, foremost of them being the Ummuhat ul-mu’mineen, Imam Suhaib Webb’s Mothers of the believers CD set is a great introduction to these remarkable women. The Imam not only mentions the obvious contributions, like teaching, but he also highlights the subtle things they did that made their communities strong, their powerful impact and their legacy linger.
Ma sha Allah, we are also blessed to have various great women in all regions of the world people like Fatima bin al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn al-Daqqaq al-Qushayri, Karima al-Marwaziyya, Zaynab bint Sulayman, Fatima bint Abd al-Rahman, Umm al-Fath Amat as-Salam, Hafsa bint Ibn Sirin, 'Amra bin 'Abd al-Rahman, Umm al-Darda' 'Abida al-Madaniyya, 'Abda bin Bishr, Umm Umar al-Thaqafiyya, Nafisa bint al-Hasan ibn Ziyad, Khadija Umm Muhammad, 'Abda bint Abd al-Rahman, Sitt al-Wuzara, A'isha bin Abd al-Hadi, Sitt al-Arab and Daqiqa bint Murshid.
We also have women from lands whose women scholars are generally not cataloged in the biographies, lands like sub-Saharan Africa, East Africa, Malaysia, The Indian subcontinent, Europe, Central Asia and China to mention a few.
We look at the world she was in and it bears so many similarities to out world, although it was a different era (19th century) and a different geographical region (sub-Saharan Africa)
1. They were dealing with Muslim men who would not teach their womenfolk or let them seek knowledge elsewhere
2. They were a minority in the land, there were a great number of non-Muslims and nominal Muslims
3. They were dealing with new converts and how to properly integrate them into the society
4. They were dealing with inter religious marriage and the religious instruction of children who wouldn’t get any at home
5. They were dealing with some men who oppressed their womenfolk, men who capitalized on the fact that their womenfolk were ignorant of this great religion.
6. Another problem in their society was bori (a pre-Islamic spirit possession cult), which could be likened to neo-paganism, which is a problem in our society today.
Yantaru is currently sponsoring a poetry and a clothing design contest. How do the arts play a role in the aims of the Yantaru?
The arts are essential, especially in this age. We are living in an age where Muslims need to use art and culture as a vehicle for calling Muslims to the practice of the deen and inviting non-Muslims to this way of life. Dr. Umar Abdallah mentioned in one of his talks, how the arts really effect the way a person perceives him/herself and the effect popular culture, in particular film, has on a society. The Harlem Renaissance, was predominantly a cultural movement of change. Amir Suleiman, Native Deen, Mecca2Medina and M-team, are a few Muslim artists who effectively use the arts to inform and educate.
Our beloved prophet (peace be upon him) had poets around him, Nana Asma’u used poetry to teach, mainly because it is easier to memorize and the people of the land had a strong oral literary tradition, her father Shaykh Uthman used to recite poetry in the marketplace, hence using the arts to teach and covey the deen is by no means new. People have such a capacity to memorize, even little kids memorize lyrics, youth who might easily flunk a high school class, are able to memorize a tremendous amount of data in the form of musical lyrics and can compose a rap (freestyle) at a second notice, ma sha Allah the human being has an amazing ability to store, utilize and retrieve information.
Arts are usually categorized into performing and visual arts, we are attempting to address both, performing through our poetry contest and the visual arts via the design contest. The design contest is essentially an effort to recognize and highlight the creativity and talent of Muslim women. Fashion has a large impact so we would like to help facilitate a means for Muslim women to design and wear their own Islamic outfits. Through this contest we hope that talented designers are discovered, sisters have an opportunity to enjoy expressing their creativity, and we all realize that Islamic attire can be beautiful, diverse, and fashionable.
Do you have plans to start regional chapters throughout the United States. I noticed that there are some members located in California and Pennsylvania?
Our growth is organic, wherever there are students of our Shaykh (Sultan Abubakr, a descendant of Shaykh Uthman) you will find the Yan Taru, at the moment we have members in California, Pennsylvania, Texas, Alabama and Georgia. We are going to expand our membership to include people who support our work or volunteer with us, this will be called “Friends of Yan Taru” and people can open these chapters anywhere, look for more information regarding this on our site in the up coming months.
Yantaru also offers programs and literature in Spanish. In your view, how do you see Yantaru addressing the growing current of Latino-American converts to Islam, who are looking for Spanish material and programs.
We are working on putting together folders filled with Dawah material, to make it into a convenient carry-around package for those who wish to learn more about Islam. We hope to work together with Latino Dawah Organizations to make Spanish material available wherever the need arises, and establish a team that will encourage the propogation of Islam. We hope to not only provide written information, but follow up and interact with the people who have asked for and received material. We want them to be able to ask questions and hopefully through our answering them, they will grow in love with the deen, and see that it is not only a religion, it is a way of life. Also, we are currently working on putting together "New Shahada" baskets that will Insha Allah contain all the basic necesities for a new Muslim. It will contain items such as Hijab/Kufi, Quran, prayer rug, and more, Insha'Allah.
Yantaru offers classes for spiritual health, such as fiqh and tasawuf, lectures on healthy diet and exercise and offers business expertise to Muslim women. Talk to us about the holistic aspect of Yantaru's educational outreach and why you decided to include all these areas of interest rather than just focusing on one?
Islam is a both a complete way of life and spiritual path so the Yan Taru Foundation tries to reflect this, we want women to have healthy bodies, pure hearts who are empowered economically, all these things are important in establishing strong families and communities and inviting non-Muslims to embrace Islam.
Finally, what are the future plans of Yantaru? What role do you see your organization playing with the American Muslim umma?
We hope with Allah’s permission to reource for women and children, Muslim and non-Muslim, locally and nationally, some of the services we plan to provide are as follows:
1. Provide distance learning courses and course packs
2. Publish audio, visual and other material for children.
3. Social welfare services for people in need in particular women and children by establishing a women’s centre, which would house an adult’s library, children’s library, mother and baby room, prayer area, kitchen, office space, gym, health resources centre and business resource centre.
4. Encouraging and facilitating entrepreneurship in women through seminars, publication and workshops and interest-free loans to budding entrepreneurs
5. Establishing a girls summer camp where girls can spend time immersed in activities that strengthen and nourish the mind body and soul.
In addition to our concern for the woman as a servant of Allah we are concerned with the woman’s social interactions as a sister, mother and wife. To this end we plan to publish books written by traditional male and female scholars on this insha Allah.