2 of 6: Early Sufi Women

March: we will read and discuss Early Sufi Women – up to page 71.

Please share your thoughts on this section below – and continue to comment in the previous post if you are still reflecting on part 1.

15 thoughts on “2 of 6: Early Sufi Women

  1. saimma Post author

    Dear friends,

    Much delayed catching-up on my reflections for this wonderful book, please forgive me.

    I was deeply touched by the conversation on this thread and some of you know how it impacted me to make some decisions in the ‘real’ world.

    What came across very strongly for me in this section was the effect of language – how these women are written about, how the language speaks to me, indeed what barriers I have against certain types of language, and then further musings on how I might react to certain segments were they written in different language. Of course all this is my ego work but sitting with your reflections and over time I have come to realise that a lot of my inner work involves allowing for the ‘softer’ descriptions of women to speak as powerfully as ‘stronger’ descriptions…I could class this as the masculine/feminine language difference…I have always used more masculine terminology in life to describe what is good and important to me…I cringe when people use the word ‘cute’, especially in (what I deem) inappropriate contexts. I would much rather use something like ‘striking’ or ‘stunning’. I see this as my opening towards what I have always previously regarded as sentimentality – a difficult prospect as we are continuously warned against sentimentality on this journey. But it is my own skewed perspective that needs work, and I think I need time to sit with ‘cute’ and ‘pretty’ a little more. Perhaps it is time to reclaim the original meanings of these words and give them back their strength without changing their inherent beauty and softness.

    One way I have of justifying the language of this segment is that it was men writing about the women – and of course they had their own biases of language about how to describe women…

    So once I got past the language (zzzz)…on to the content…

    I was deeply stuck by the story about Rabia and her inability to get to the Kaaba, and how the last (as well as the first) step on the path is taken not by the mystic, but by God Herself. Also, as Hana has said, the everyday-ness of Rabia’s life, how the Divine was present in everything, even yeast!

    Fatima of Damascus rebuking a sheikh for talking too much and not perfecting the art of silence…how I wish her spirit could rise today and say that to some of these online mullahs…

    Perhaps fittingly, Shawana made me cry when someone asks her to pray to God for him and she replies, “Is there anything between you and God that makes you think He/She would answer?” I think instead of crying out and fainting I would have dissolved into dust and disappeared into the breeze due to mortification…I feel nebulous as I write this…again echoed by Aisha of Nishapur when she says “When one feels lonely in her solitude, this is because of his lack of intimacy with her Lord.”

    And Lady Nafisa…my goodness…I pray one day to visit her tomb. Thank you Daliah for your beautiful reflection on this saint. Her example especially I think needs to be revitalised and embodied as a Living Saint today…as Hana states, the relationship between her and Imam Shafi, praying Ramadan evening prayers, her leading his funeral prayers from her bed…!! What a revolution this could cause in our patriarchal society! How can we bring it about?!

    Deep love

  2. Dew Point

    Salams! I’ve posted this blog on The Living Tradition, and would like to share it with all of you. Much love, Daliah

    Of Saints and Matchmakers

    As I was growing up, Islam’s benevolent female saints existed in my imagination as otherworldly matchmakers.

    Common features of my family’s infrequent summer holidays with relatives in Egypt were visits to mosques enclosing the shrines of Sayyida Zainab and Sayyida Nafisa, two descendants of the Prophet Muhammad who have come to be regarded as Cairo’s patron saints, may God grant them peace and blessings. My mother, often with her sisters who lived in smaller cities along the Suez Canal, would arrange mini pilgrimages to these grand Cairene mosques for a single purpose: to pray for suitable partners for their unmarried children.

    Amidst weeps and whispers, they would gather around the mausoleums of these saints offering earnest prayers to rescue their single daughters and sons from the matrimonial side lines. From beyond the divide between this world and the next, these venerable women of faith would intimately identify with the anguish experienced by mothers unwed children and act as intermediaries with God in removing the obstacles blocking the perfect partner from springing forth – at least that was the hope of my female kin.

    While my own memories of these visits are vague and likely layered by personal accounts relayed by my mother over the years, the urgency placed on marriage left me feeling perplexed. The more I found myself becoming the focal point of the prayers, the more frustrating and painful these pilgrimages became.

    By my mid- and then late 20s, the cultural pressures to wed young and my inability to make it happen inadvertently alienated me from faith, and obscured my view of the spiritual significance and prowess of these female saints. My only encounters with them were a manifestation of socio-culture pressures that dictate a woman’s value lies solely in her success as a wife and mother, a line of thinking that left me jaded and confined rather than empowered by their presence.

    It took a serendipitous encounter with Sayyida Zainab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and Sayyida Nafisa, who descended from the Prophet through his grandson Hasan, many years later when I was 31 for me to reimagine their places in my life.
    That year I experienced a profound spiritual encounter with God which I often refer to as an “awakening”. Following a moment of discerning clarity one morning in late May 2010, I was consumed by ecstatic Divine love and yearned to surrender myself to Him/Her, a state of existence known as Islam.

    In the days that followed, I sought to understand the transformation taking place in my heart and found nourishment from two sources.
    The pages of the Quran, which I read from cover to cover for the first time, enlivened my soul with lessons on how orienting my life around prayer, charity, fasting, patience in adversity and good deeds would bring consistent fulfilment and peace. I found comfort in assurances that the Almighty places no burden on a soul greater than it is able to bear, and that He/She provides believers “a light to help you walk in.”

    The first of many lights that illuminated my journey I discovered in a Dubai bookstore just days after my awakening. Called “Women of Sufism: A Hidden Treasure,” the book conveyed Islam’s honour and respect for the feminine through a compilation of writings and stories about mystic poets, scholars and saints. Its author, Camille Helminski, has since become one of my greatest living spiritual role models.

    It was in a chapter entitled “A Jewel of Knowledge” that I was reacquainted with Sayyida Nafisa and Sayyida Zainab. Nafisa, I read, was renowned for her ability to cure eye ailments and dedication to acts of worship like prayer, fasting and charity. So immense was her religious wisdom that “even her great contemporary, the Imam al-Shafi’i, used to come and listen to her discourses and enter into discussions with her.”

    In later readings about Sayyida Zainab, I discovered she was a teacher known for her eloquence and clarity. Her defiance against oppression and injustice and devotion to God were so monumental that even witnessing the slaughter of her brother Hussain, the Prophet’s grandson, during the Battle of Karbala only deepened her Self Surrender.

    These stories and many others of Islam’s remarkable women left me wanting to emulate rather than run away from them. While Islam holds marriage in high regard, my new spiritual role models weren’t revered for their successes at being wives and mothers, which I’m certain they excelled at. Rather, they were venerated for their active roles in society, their use of knowledge to inspire and teach their peers, men and women, their ability to face incredible hardship with patience, and truly surrender their souls in a union with God.

    Learning about the lives of the saints whose shrines I shirked at visiting years earlier liberated me from the cultural pressures that regarded being unmarried as a failure and a fault. Rather than denounce my marital status for not conforming to social norms, they taught me to accept the path God had chosen for me and start looking inward for fulfillment, because the transience of relationships to things, people and places rarely offer enduring satisfaction.

    As prayers for my marriage from my mother and aunts continue to accumulate, I could say that Cairo’s patron saints have already interceded on my behalf as matchmakers of a different sort. Peering into their lives inspired how I would seek to forge the most significant union of all, my bond with God. I’ve become more receptive to the echoes of Divine Love reverberating across the universe and, I hope, more generous and gracious in sharing them in my roles as a daughter, sister, friend, manager and God willing someday, partner.

    “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it”
    – Jalaluddin Rumi


  3. saimma Post author

    Friends – please see new post on Skype call invitation with Shaikha Camille, and recorded meditation added to Resource page.

  4. adila

    The following passage really struck me and is working its way further and further into my being. Strangely the meaning at first seemed crystal clear to me, but is has since turned into a nebulous fog, though fascinates me nonetheless.

    In reference to Fatima of Nishapur who was a teacher to Dhu an-Nun, he relates that he heard her say: ‘When God ignores a person, he will wander aimlessly in every city square and will prattle constantly with every tongue. When God does not ignore a person, He silences him except for the truth and compels him to hold Him in reverence and sincerity’.

    What grips me most is the “silences him except for truth”…I wonder if the word that has been translated as truth was Haqq/haqq, and whether this reflects its double meaning ‘rights’ as well as ‘truth’?

    It’s interesting that I’m less concerned with the notion of God ignoring a person.

    For me this gives me much to consider…political, personal, (dare I say) old injustices, new responsibilities. I think peace in the world will be brought forth by those on the margins. Because they might show us where we’ve gone wrong.

    In our own gatherings I’m always walking the tightrope of ‘shall I speak, what might be the benefit of that, would it be intellectual positioning, or might I be a voice of solidarity’. I tussle with having a voice, I know so many of us have been pressed into silence, in recent years I have been given the privilege of being heard in a community that “practices the art of listening”.

    Aside from this, what comes up for me in relation to the reading is knowing that we are sold certain archetypes for a multitude of reasons. Its interesting that often the archetypes that are presented for women are the virgins, the ascetics, lest we forget that the world is not a thing to be attached to. Don’t be so attached to the material world, is an instruction often given to those that are impoverished, and I’d argue especially reserved for women.

    I suppose the thing to mull over and consider, for me at least, is what archetypes I find inspiring? What enlivens me, and helps me to go with the grain of my being? The virgin and the ascetic doesn’t really work for me, its so far removed from the world I want to live an integrated life in. I think for me the the messenger of God is a real life example of living an integrated life, and yet often its not the life accessible to women. Not for lack of wanting, rather social mores render this unavailable.

  5. The Alternative Muslim

    Salams. I’m sorry that I haven’t been contributing, I feel that I don’t have anything to say that would add depth into this amazing conversation you are all having. I am thoroughly enjoying both the reading and the thought provoking posts here, mashallah. What a blessing to be apart of this group and getting such wonderful insights to spiritual connection, Alhamdulilah. For me, the chapters are beautiful reminders of what I can be striving for in my daily life. They are important inspirations and the women that Sheikha Camille included in the text are so diverse that this alone reminds me that Allah created differing paths for each of us to reach His Light and to be in His Presence.

  6. Anna

    Salaam dear hearts,
    I’ve been so moved by all of your open sharing around what these beautiful sisters/mothers of ours have revealed and shown us about our path and about ourselves. Reflecting further last night and this morning, two things arose that I would like to offer:
    First, on asceticism. I think to some degree this is a matter of one’s own (pre)disposition – for me it has always been harder to be in my body than out of it and so asceticism seems like a release from the heaviness and denseness of human experience in the material realm. Having an ice cream on the beach, for example, for me is a mostly unpleasant idea (so many intense sensations and strong contrasts: the bright sun, the hot sand, but then the too-coldness of the ice cream – argh!) whereas the thought of meditating in a cave is delightful :). And yet I have learned – painfully, over the years – that the point of being human is to bring body and soul together. So the life lesson for those like me who would like to just detach and float away is that no, you don’t get off so easy, you have to actually be grounded in a physical experience in order to bring heaven to earth in microcosm.
    Second, I feel like what I am hearing from our discussion here goes beyond asceticism as such and goes into a more collective pain or wound around feeling we have to prove ourselves worthy of the Divine love, that we either have to go beyond being ‘just’ women or that we have to cut off the offending parts of ourselves and become a gender-neutral soul or spirit. As Siema said it is striking to observe how the ways of being identified as a woman have changed so little over the centuries, and that as spiritual seekers we still find ourselves in some sort of ambiguous category of ‘other’. But for me what stood out in these readings was also the way that these women defined themselves in relation to the Divine rather than the society around them. And I think that, if one is able to reach that point of only seeing the face of the Beloved wherever one turns, inshallah, that is where the contradictions and conflicts would resolve, because one is then seeing oneself with the eyes of wholeness and that all-encompassing acceptance that is the essence of Hu’s Compassion and Mercy. May we all know the sweetness of that embrace, Ameen…

  7. Hana

    Salaam Friends,

    I read some of these posts before reading these chapters. Thank you Selma and Asma for articulating feelings I shared too, held with considerable shame – difficulty connecting with the ascetic path and reconciling this with my view of “womanhood” in its completeness, and indeed the Sunnah of the “middle way”. I think a lot of defensiveness comes up for me around this, I struggle with what is being asked of me on the ‘spiritual path’, what I am attached to and what I should be “giving up”…

    In fact now reading these chapters (with of course the benefit of many intervening conversations, watching the beautiful sohbet on the archetype of the Lover – thank you Daniel! And an extremely “synchronous” masnawi class…) I experienced something different from these women!

    I was struck by the Love, the power, the sisterhood, the WIT in all of these stories, especially that of Rabia al-Adawiyya. There is something that feels very deeply feminine in that the deepest mystical secrets from the time of our Prophet were held, gestated and birthed by these brave and unconventional women. And something so powerful and uncompromising about the Love they held and how it guided their lives ; the only example I can think to compare to this is the love of a mother. Indeed it really feels that these are the mothers of the primordial religion… In it I feel there is deep guidance for the feminine parts of all of us to continue to nurture, protect and serve the secrets they handed on.

    The feel of the time from the description of these stories also surprised and touched me. It seemed as if society allowed a freer, more equal and open exchange of ideas and knowledge between men and women, certainly more so than our experience today!. The story of Sayidda Nafisa and Imam Shafi praying together in Ramadan touched me deeply, I can only imagine the scandal if something like that occurred in some of our communities today!

    The other surprise was the extent to which these women came across as so human – I LOVED (and was deeply comforted by) the story which suggested that EVEN Rabia of Basra worried about the yeast in her baking during her prayers!!!

    This collection in these chapters, for this one, really brings alive the richness, diversity and inspiration in our tradition and the importance of being told these stories unselectively.

  8. Siema

    Selma, thank you – I haven’t read this section in full yet and I havent read a lot generally on sufi women but in respect of Rabia I too have wondered about this.
    As I read about how Fatima was called Al Batul “the virgin” or “the devoted one” BECAUSE of her asceticism it made me wonder about how the term virgin, particularly in reference to Mary, is used towards women only and has come to mean something very different. Also, couldnt this use of the word asceticism in theory, also be related to married persons? eg the Prophet and Aisha would spent nights praying, and days fasting.
    I wonder too – considering the patriarchy and misogyny which women had to deal with (not that I think its disappeared now) – perhaps they chose not to marry because they would have faced challenges that a male ascetic would not have? I also want to add that I do feel comfort in the fact that there are sufi women revered that were not married and did not have children (as with myself) as I think often that is how women are seen – in relation to the men or children in their lives.

  9. Selma

    Thanks Daniel for your post.
    Is the way to God through asceticism? I believe based on observation and reading, that there are two types of seekers, those who weep at the thought of God, when reading the Quran, etc (they are under the influence of the names of Majesty) and those who get overwhelmed by joy and happiness under the same circumstances (and are under the influence of the names of Beauty). I think that we know more of mystic men than of ascetic men because the mystic men were teachers or preachers or had a social jobs whilst ascetic men tended to live hidden or to be low key. I obviously have no statistic to back up such hypothesis. I was trying to say we should not perpetuate the myth that a woman saint has to be ascetic outwardly to be taken seriously. I attend Dhikr sessions in Tunis and the expectation is strongly that a woman has to leave ‘Donya’ (literally the world, implying that she has to become a rug sac and only live for God).
    We should compel stories about women saints who were not ascetic and glorify them too to restore a balanced view on the different paths taken by sufi women. I think we can only do it through modern records. That said here is an example of a woman saint that was not defined by asceticism.
    The saint of Tunis, Al Sayyeda Aisha al-Mannubiyya (d. 1267) (by Nelly Amri, Sindbad-Actes Sud, 2008) was a lover of God who refused to marry and left the family house (against family objections) to settle in a poor area of Tunis, open her house to women in need and give them the chance to learn a handcraft and earn a living. Al Sayyeda Aisha al-Mannubiyya was also the only woman who attended the teaching and Dhikr sessions of the Sheikh Abou Hassan Al-Shadhili in Tunis. The sheikh had 40 companions in total, some of whom did not approve of her mixing with them but could not object to it in front of Al-Shadhili.

    I embrace our differences although I admit that I find hard to communicate and live with someone who weeps at hearing Dhikr and Quran and thinks more about God’s Wrath than his Beauty.

    Asma, my asceticism consists of resisting the best chocolate cakes in the world because they contain a drop of alcohol. You might find some practical explanation of the stages of the path to God in the audios of Dr Allawi about the ‘ Path of the Wayfarer to Knowledge and Certainty By Khawaja Abdulla Ansari’. http://www.aliallawi.com/aud_Manazil.php. There is a mention of the stage of asceticism (stage 6 or 7 can’t remember) and how it should be just a step towards further spiritual progress.

  10. Daniel

    Asma/Selma – did you see the Threshold newsletter in February? There was a link to a YouTube video which presents Abdul Hayy Darr in conversation with Camille Ana and Kabir Dede. Abdul Hay addresses the very issue you are interested in, especially between 5mins 30 and 7mins. Camile Ana is nodding in agreement at his comments on how the school of love developed from Rabia to Rumi, with excessive asceticism gradually being abandoned in favour of ecstasy/astonishment in the face of everyday life (and the reasons why this happened). Camille Ana then gives a beautiful example of ecstasy/astonishment in the face of everyday life.

    Here is the link:

    Much love,

  11. Asma

    It would be nice to have Camille Ana’s view as the author of the book regarding Selma and my difficulties-certainly Selma ,I relate to much of what you said-is this definition of perfectly acceptable and extraordinary Divine centred existence an example of a woman of that time in practice?How to emulate such devotion even in minor regular practices-also Prophet was far more kind to his kinsfolk and herd than these women appear?Or are we just too weak minded nowadays?

  12. Selma

    Having read in the past the book by As-Sulami on Sufi women (Dhikr an-Niswa al-Muta ‘abbitdat as-Sufiyyat, Rkia Cornell) and later the present book, I must admit that I struggled to connect with these women Saints. Partly because their level of asceticism is so developed and the way they treat themselves is almost like a punishment for being on earth, not reflecting outwardly at least Mercy and Love as I understand it (This obviously reflects more my lack of knowledge/spiritual development). I learnt with time that people’s style of worship/spirituality is under the influences of their inner composition which makes me wonder where are the other women who are not inclined towards asceticism? Was there a bias in reporting about ascetic women Saints mainly whilst those who were just “mystics”, they were not deemed so saintly? I wonder if women had no choice (unconsciously) except to be so harsh with themselves, basically asexual, to be free to worship God, to move around freely and to have contact with sufi men. The literature tells us about these accomplished Women but not about how they interacted with mystic/religious men and women for spiritual guidance/discussions during their early spiritual developmental stages, which is the thing that interest me the most as I see so many women being put doing when they seek advice.
    I know that I should not judge and the Ladies were probably doing more to help society and women in particular in their discreet way, after all Sayyeda Nefissa was and is still a mercy to the people of Cairo.
    Is continuous fasting a way to kill any remains of the lower self and to be perfect? Were they not perfect already? Were they not already experiencing the Presence of the Divine or were they after something else?
    Selma, from the London Threshold group.

  13. Asma Khan

    As with every time I read this book, reading about the stature of these women..my sheer inadequacy and the facile nature of my so called spiritual pursuit is shown for what it is…but how to overcome the guilt at not putting the Divine as always central when Rabia of Basra especially.. seemed to never be satisfied with her quest?..Mevlana and the male sufis seemed to have more equanimity with the never truly knowing and SEEMED kinder to themselves – clearly a chapter is not enough to understand. And I have learnt from her total uncompromising reliance on God alone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s