If the name in this title was unfamiliar to you, you won’t be forgetting it again very soon after reading this. This is the story of the great Lalla Fatma N’Soumer, an important figure of resistance against French colonial invasion in Algeria. She was born Fatimah Syed Ahmed, later given the term “Lalla”, a title given to women of noble standing, and she lived from 1830 to 1863.
Fatimah was was born in 1830, the year the French invaded Algeria. Her father ran a Quranic madrasah, and she would often partake in these, even though it was predominantly for boys. She began her memorisation of the Quran at this time and completed it at an early age, becoming a hafidha and a student of knowledge.
When marriage was arranged for her in her late teens, she refused, choosing instead to dedicate herself to Islamic knowledge and worship. It is said in some accounts that she would worship excessively during the day and night, and had a great aptitude for learning the Deen. While not reaching the level of a faqih (jurist) per se, she was still visited by people from places to ask for her guidance on matters. Hence the appellation of “lallah” to her name.
Upon the death of her father, she took over as convenor of the madrasah he ran along with her brother, thus becoming in charge of producing huffadh (memorisers) of the Qur’an. The madrasah in those times saw children from villages and elsewhere come to live and stay as they memorised and learnt the Qur’an. She thus also fed the poor and was in charge of the development of these children.
In 1849 she finally met the enigmatic resistance figure “Muhammad ibn Abdullah” – better known as Boubaghla – who was a veteran of several battles and campaigns against the French. He came to the region of Kabylee, which was the last area of Algeria left without being in total control of the French. Ibn Abdullah was amazed that a woman used to inspire people with her speeches and arousing renditions to jihad. The two joined forces and fought the French.
Fadhma and Boubaghla were kindred spirits fighting for the freedom of their people. After Boubaghla’s death in 1854, Fadhma was given command of combat by the great council of combatants and important figures of the Kabylie’s tribes.
General Boubaghla and the Lalla Fatma n’Soumer, by Félix Philippo
She led a strong resistance against Marshal Jacques Louis Randon’s 13,000-strong French army. She gave them a lesson of courage, and determination. As well as making speeches arousing people to fight the French, she is known to have organised the resistance effort on a practical level, by organising women to make food and prepare medicine for warriors. Armed with an unshakable faith, Fatma threw herself in bloody battles to push back the enemy. During the battle of Tachekkirt, led by Boubaghla at the time, Randon was captured, but managed to escape later. During the famous battle of Oud Sebaou, Fatma was only 24 years old, and headed an army of men and women; she took control, and led her people to victory, a victory heralded throughouth Kabylie. The mosques, zawiyas, and Qur’anic schools sang praises in honor of the heroine of the Djurdjura.
Not willing to accept defeat, Randon asked for reinforcements, with his forces reaching 35,000 men. He asked the people of Azazga to help him reach Fatma N’Soumer’s quarters, to end “her legend, and misdeeds.” The response to his emissary was “Go to the one who sent you, and tell him our ears cannot hear the language of him who asks us to betray.” Such was the loyalty and respect of the people for Fatma. In response, Randon promised the people of Azazga constant exposure to his cannons. One can only imagine the brutality of the French against the Azazga people, which were later defeated. Fadhma did not give up, and mobilized her people to “fight for Islam, the land, and liberty. They are our constant, and they are sacred. They can neither be the object of concessions nor haggling.” Her strong personality and inspirational speeches had a strong influence in all of Kabylie, as shown by the sacrifice and determination of the people during all the battles, especially those of Icherridene and Tachkrit,where the enemy troops were greatly defeated. The latter took place on July 18 – 19, 1854, and resulted in a heavy death toll (over 800 dead) for the French troops.
Defeated, Randon finally asked for a ceasefire, which Fatma N’Soumer agreed to. She was planning to use the ceasefire period to improve her organization and reinforce her troops. Fields were plowed and sowed, and arms factories were installed in all corners of the region. However, just like with Samori Toure, or Behanzin, the French did not respect the ceasefire. In 1857, after only three years, they broke their word (as always) and launched offensives in all large cities which had been hard to overtake until then.
Fatma, whose influence motivated the freedom fighters, appealed to the people for a last and supreme effort. Surrounded by women of the region, she directed the fight and encouraged remaining volunteers. However, they lost the battle, and Fatma was arrested on 27 July 1857, in the village of Takhlijt Ath Atsou, near Tirourda. The French soldiers destroyed her rich library, which contained a rich source of scientific works and a plethora of Islamic books from the region. They also spent her fortune, which had been used toward caring for the disciples of her father’s madrasah.
Lalla Fatma N’Soumer died in 1863, from the hardship of incarceration in Béni Slimane, from the news of her brother’s passing, and the frustration from her inability to act against French aggression on her people. She was only 33 years old.
This incredible woman’s efforts for Islam and her people make her a huge inspiration for our sisters today. Combining her Islamic knowledge with her desire to free the Muslims from colonialism and tyranny, rank her among the greatest soldiers of this Ummah, and though she died young, she achieved more than many did in their entire lives. We ask that Allah (swt) grant her the highest jannah and make her legacy an example for us in our own troubled times.