Read an Excerpt
the Introduction: Women and Sufism
Since the beginning of consciousness, human beings, both female and male, have walked the path of return, of recognition and reunion with the Source of Being. Though in this world of duality we may find ourselves in different forms, ultimately,
within Truth, there is no male or female, only Being. Within the Sufi traditions, the recognition of this truth has made possible the spiritual maturation of women in a way that has not always been possible in the West.
From the earliest days onward, women have played an important role in the development of Sufism, which is classically understood to have begun with the
Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad brought a message of integration of spirit and matter, of essence and everyday life, of recognition of the feminine as well as the masculine. Though cultural manifestations have layered over some of the original purity of intention, the words of the Qur'an convey the equality of women and men before the eyes of God. At a time when the goddess-worshiping
Arabian tribes were still quite barbaric, even burying infant girls alive because male offspring were preferred, this new voice of the Abrahamic tradition attempted to reestablish the recognition of the Unity of Being. It tried to address the imbalances that had arisen, advising respect and honor for the feminine as well as for the graciousness and harmony of nature.
In the early years of this new revelation, Muhammad's beloved wife Khadija filled a role of great importance. It was she who sustained, strengthened, and supported him against his own doubt and bewilderment. She stood beside him in the midst of extreme difficulty and anguish and helped carry the light of the new faith. It was to Muhammad's and Khadija's daughter, Fatima, that the deeper mystical understanding of Islam was first conveyed, and indeed she is often recognized as the first Muslim mystic. Her marriage with the close friend and cousin of Muhammad, 'Ali, bound this new manifestation of mysticism into this world, and the seeds of their union began to blossom.
As the mystical side of Islam developed, it
was a woman, Rabi'a al'Adawiyya (717–801 C.E.),
who first clearly expressed the relationship with the Divine in the language we have come to recognize as particularly Sufic, by referring to God as the
Beloved. Rabi'a was the first human being to speak of the realities of Sufism with a clear language that anyone could understand. Though she experienced many difficulties in her early years, Rabi'a's starting point was neither fear of hell, nor desire for paradise, but only love. Her method was love for God because "God is God; for this I love God . . . not because of any gifts,
but for Itself." Her aim was to melt her being in God. According to her,
one could find God by turning within oneself. As Muhammad said, "He who knows himself knows his Lord." It is love that carries and sustains us through this process. The door of Sufism will finally open only with Love,
because—though knowledge may be important and can assist in our discrimination along the way and may help us to reach the threshold—it is ultimately through
Love that we are brought into unity of Being.
Throughout the centuries, women as well as men have continued to carry the Light of this
Love. For many reasons, in many places, the women have been less visible than the men, less verbal, less demonstrative in society at large, but nevertheless active participants. Within some Sufi circles that developed over the centuries, women were integrated with men in ceremonies; in other orders women gathered in their own circles of remembrance and worshiped apart from men. Some women devoted themselves to Spirit ascetically, apart from society, as Rabi'a did; others chose the role of benefactress and fostered circles of worship and study. Many of the great masters with whom we are familiar had teachers,
students, and spiritual friends who were women and who greatly influenced their thought and being. And wives and mothers gave support to their family members while continuing their own journey toward union with the Beloved.
'Arabi, the great Islamic metaphysician (1165–1240 C.E.),
tells in his writings of time spent with two elderly women mystics who had a profound influence on him: Shams of Marchena, one of the "sighing ones," and
Fatima of Cordova. About Fatima, with whom he spent a great deal of time, he says:
I served as a disciple one of the lovers of God, a gnostic, a lady of Seville called Fatimah bint Ibn al-Muthanna of Cordova. I served her for several years,
she being over ninety-five years of age. . . . She used to play on the tambourine and show great pleasure in it.
I spoke to her about it she answered, "I take joy in Him Who has turned to me and made me one of His Friends [Saints], using me for His own purposes. Who am I that He should choose me among mankind? He is jealous of me for, whenever
I turn to something other than He in heedlessness
the opposite of remembrance,
and thus a lapse from true awareness into illusion], He sends me some affliction concerning that thing.". . . With my own hands I built for her a hut of reeds as high as she, in which she lived until she died. She used to say to me,
"I am your spiritual mother and the light of your earthly mother."
When my mother came to visit her, Fatimah said to her, "O light, this is my son and he is your father, so treat him filially and dislike him not."
Bayazid Bestami (d. 874), another well-known master, was asked who his master was, he said it
was an old woman whom he had met in the desert. This woman had called him a vain tyrant and showed him why: by requiring a lion to carry a sack of flour, he was oppressing a creature God himself had left unburdened, and by wanting recognition for such miracles, he was showing his vanity. Her words gave him spiritual guidance for some time.
Another woman for whom Bestami had great regard was Fatima of Nishapur (d. 838), of whom he said, "There was no station [on the Way] about which I told her that she had not already undergone." Someone once asked the great Egyptian
Sufi master Dhu an-Nun al-Misri, "Who, in your opinion, is the highest among the Sufis?" He replied, "A lady in Mecca, called Fatemah
Nishapuri [Fatima of Nishapur], whose discourse displayed a profound apprehension of the inner meanings of the Qur'an which were astounding."
Further pressed to comment on Fatima, he added, "She is of the saints of
God, and my teacher." She once counseled him, "In all your actions,
watch that you act with sincerity and in opposition to your lower self
[naft]." She also said, "Whoever doesn't have God in his consciousness is erring and in delusion, whatever language he speaks, whatever company he keeps. Yet, whoever holds God's company never speaks except with sincerity and assiduously adheres to a humble reserve and earnest devotion in his conduct."
The wife of the ninth-century Sufi al-Hakim at-Tirmidhi was a mystic in her own right. She used to dream for her husband as well as for herself. Khidr—the immortal prophet who mysteriously appears in order to assist a devoted servant of God—would appear to her in her dreams. One night Khidr told her to tell her husband to guard the purity of his house. Concerned that perhaps Khidr was referring to the lack of cleanliness that sometimes occurred because of their young children, she questioned Khidr in her dream. Khidr responded by pointing to his tongue: she was to tell her husband to be mindful of the purity of his speech.
Among the women who followed the Way of Love and Truth, there were some who rejoiced,
and some who continuously wept. Sha'wana, a Persian, was one of those who wept.
Men and women gathered around her to hear her songs and melodious discourses.
She used to say, "The eyes which are prevented from beholding the Beloved,
and yet are desirous of looking upon Him, cannot be fit for that Vision without weeping." She was not only "blinded by tears of penitence, but dazzled by the radiant glory of the Beloved." During her life she experienced intimate closeness with the Friend, or God. This profoundly influenced her devout husband and son (who became a saint himself). Sha'wana became one of the best-known teachers and guides of her time.
One of those who rejoiced was Fedha, who was also a married woman. She taught that
"joy of heart should be happiness based on what we inwardly sense;
therefore we should always strive to rejoice within our heart, till everyone around us also rejoices."
For the most part, the words of such saintly women from centuries past come from traditional accounts of their comments or from poems that developed around their words, rather than from writings of their own. Though the Qur'an strongly encourages the pursuit of knowledge and education for women as well as men,
women sometimes received fewer opportunities than men in similar circumstances.
I will not be attempting here to address the evolving role of women in exoteric
Islam, as it is varied and complex. We must recognize, though, that women in general around the world have often faced prejudicial treatment because of their gender.
Islamic society as well as within our own, difficult treatment of women has occurred—in some cases obvious, in some cases insidious. Though local cultural overlays and male-dominated jurisprudence may have increased restrictions on women in various areas, the Qur'an basically enjoins mutual respect and valuation of the human being regardless of sex or social situation. Within
Sufism, this more essential Qur'anic attitude has
The cultures in which Sufism was practiced tended to convey more material orally than in written form, and women in particular may have had less of a tendency to write, preferring instead to simply live their experience. Nevertheless,
there were women who wrote of their mystical experience in songs, in journals,
and in critical exposition. As Western scholarship brings more of these works into translation, more of the story of Sufism is becoming accessible to us.