Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mystic Women of Islam

One of my favourite chapters in the Quran is Surah Al Azhab which clarifies that our ranking with God is based on piety, not gender. Allah addresses men and women in the same breath: "O believing men and women, obedient, truthful, patient, humble, charitable and fasting men and women...."  

According to Islam, the creation of Eve was not an afterthought; it was part of the primordial design of Creation. In the Quran, God says: "And everything we have created in pairs" (51:49). The Quran does not blame Eve for tempting Adam to eat the forbidden fruit; it holds Satan responsible for leading them both into sin.

Leadership roles
In the early days of Islam, Muslim women enjoyed leadership and community-building roles. Though cultural influences later corrupted the understanding of their rights, women continued to excel in religious science and there were several scholars of note. A quarter of the Hadith or the Prophet's sayings that form the corpus of Muslim faith, were gleaned from women. Interestingly, while Islamic history acknowledges instances of men fabricating Hadith, no woman was ever accused of this. Their intellectual integrity in conveying religious truth has never been in doubt. Women jurists passed fatwas or religious injunctions and these were respected even if they were in contravention of male opinion.

As spiritual masters and exemplars of Islamic piety, Muslim women often made their mark. There were any number of women scholars, poets, mystics, ascetics and founders of Sufi sects. They were leaders in their own right, often surpassing men in their understanding of the Quran and Islamic doctrine. Sulami, a 10th century Iranian scholar, compiled a rare study of 80 women Sufis.

Divine love
Many theologians refer to the Prophet's daughter Fatima, as the head of the Sufi order. A striking aspect of women Sufis is their intimate relationship with God and complete surrender to Him. Sufis credit Rabia Basri, eighth century mystic, with initiating the philosophy of Divine Love. She said that God be loved for His sake alone and not for reward of heaven or fear of hell.

Other women mystics include Umm Haram whose tomb is in Cyprus, Rabia bint Ismail and Muadha al Adaiyya of Syria, Nafisa of Mecca, Zainab and Ishi Nili of Persia and Fatima of Nishapur who lived in Mecca.

Ibn al Arabi, one of the greatest Sufi masters of all time, wrote that two women mystics, Shams of Marchena and Fatima of Cordova, had a great influence on him. About Fatima, he wrote: "I was her disciple...for several years.... She once told me 'I take joy in Him Who has turned to me and made me one of His Friends, using me for His own purposes'."

Bayazid Bistami, ninth century mystic, described Fatima of Nishapur as his teacher and would refer to her as an evolved soul. Dhun Nun, the Egyptian Sufi master, also acknowledged her scholarship and piety. When someone asked Dhun Nun who was the highest among Sufis, he replied: "A lady in Mecca, called Fatima Nishapuri, whose discourses bring out the essence of the Quran."

Fatima is said to have counselled him: "In all your actions, watch that you act with sincerity and in opposition to your lower self. Whoever doesn't have God in his consciousness is erring and in delusion, whatever language he speaks, whatever company he keeps. Whoever holds God's company, never speaks except with sincerity and assiduously adheres to a humble reserve and earnest devotion in his conduct."

Scholarship and piety
Women mystics either rejoiced or wept in devotion. Sha'wana, a Persian seeker would weep. She would say: "The eyes, prevented from beholding the Beloved, and yet desirous of looking at Him, cannot be fit for that vision without weeping." People would flock to hear her songs and discourses.

Many would seek out Sayyida Nafisa, a ninth century Egyptian known for her scholarship and piety, for her blessings. Several religious scholars, including Imam Shafai, founder of one of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, attended Nafisa's discourses and discussed matters of religious law with her. Before he died in 820 AD, he expressed his wish that Nafisa conduct his funeral prayer. But constant fasting had rendered Nafisa too weak to travel so Imam Shafai's body was taken to her in deference to his wish.

Despite the outward male and female form, there is no place for 'i' within Sufism; all that exists is 'Thou', the One Divine Reality. 

Sadia Dehlvi in The Times of India. More Here. 

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