So it is no surprise to find that Sufism, seeking the mystical apprehension of God, has always been a fertile place for women within Islam. Rabia of Bosra (717-801) was one of the well-known early Sufi mystics. She is reputed famously to have gone through the streets with a flaming torch and a bucket of water, saying that the torch was to burn down paradise, and the bucket to put out the flames of hell; so that we would love God for Himself alone, not from fear of hell or for the reward of paradise. Rabia wasn’t an isolated example. In the tenth century, Al-Sulami wrote a book with 231 entries on women Sufis. Women functioned as formal directors in the early period. Unayda (early 10th century) is reported to have had 500 male and female students. They also had less formal roles as mentors and preachers. Early Sufis would gather for religious discussion and to do dhikr (reciting the names or attributes of God in order to focus on Him more fully). With Rabia, they emphasized love for God, together with purity, abstinence and piety, seeking to gain tawhid – oneness with God – gained through a Tariqa (pathway), together with tawakkul – reliance on God.
Sufism offered the devotee a sense of union with God. It also (especially for non- educated classes) offered a pattern of social life in socio-religious cults, which afforded some security against uncertainty, and changes in state authorities. Sufism tended to compromise with local forms, enabling the spread of Islam through popular practices more quickly in India, Central Asia, Turkey and Africa. However the preeminent Muslim theologian al-Ghazali (1058-1111) claimed Sufism as a legitimate expression of Islam.1 Ibn al-‛Arabi (d. 1240) was a more controversial Sufi teacher. Influenced by women teachers, he is notable for the amorous imagery with which he describes love for God in his poetry. He taught that Adam was really the first female, for Eve was born from his inside, an act repeated by the second Adam, Mary, in generating Jesus. Ibn al-`Arabi was convinced that women could reach the highest ranks in the hierarchy of the saints, and chose women as fourteen of the fifteen individuals to whom he gave the khirqa, the patched frock of the dervishes. 2
By the 12th and 13th centuries, the more formalized Sufi orders were developing. These were characterized by the use of dhikr, or wird (litanies), and prayer beads, along with music, dancing and body movement to contribute to an ecstatic state. Saints’ tombs and relics became venerated and places of pilgrimage. Entry to the Sufi order was through initiation ceremonies, and blessing was transmitted through the leader3‐ , who had total authority over the disciple. “Thou shalt be in the hands of thy Shaykh like a dead body in the hands of its cleanser.”4‐ The famous Sufi poet Rumi (1207-1273) mentions Sufi women holding meetings in their homes to which he was invited, and Helminski describes how:
There have often been Mevlevi shaykhas (female of shayk) who have guided both women and men. Mevlana (Rumi) himself had many female disciples, and women were also encouraged to participate in sema, the musical whirling ceremony of the Mevlevis. (Women usually had their own semas, but sometimes performed semas together with men.)‐5
As Sufi orders grew more structured, women were usually connected through their husbands or brothers, with only occasionally more formal teaching roles. However many of the orders also had women’s circles that were (and continue to be) led by women. Some suggest that perhaps a quarter of the participants involved in these orders were women.
As well as Sufi orders, women’s institutions known as ribat in North Africa (or khanqah in India ) developed as refuges with Sufi links. Sabra describes them:
Usually founded by a prominent female patron, the ribaat functioned as a home for single women, usually widows or divorcees. What makes it of particular interest is that not only the patrons and beneficiaries but also the administrators, or shaykhas, were women. The shaykha was charged with the responsibility of leading the women in the ribaat in prayer and dhikr, and with giving them lessons in Islamic law. … Although some of the women who lived in these institutions were impoverished, others came from elite families and chose to live out their final years in pious poverty.‐6
Women continue to be involved in Sufi orders today, in Muslim countries and among Muslim women in the western world also. Helinski mentions the Naqshabandi, Chishti, Bektashi and Mehlevi orders among those with women leaders as well as participants.‐7 North African Sufi groups where women are involved include the Tijanni, Qadiri, Rahmani, Isawi and Nasiri, among others. Women make pilgrimage to the tombs of saints (both female and male saints) seeking blessing or healing, and perform dhikrs there; or in their own homes, as in places like Chechnya and Dagestan.
Some elements of Sufi orders have been taken up into the da’wa movements that are part of contemporary piety for many Muslim women. These include the use of dhikr, also an emphasis on teaching, the practical application of teaching on piety and personal life, and participation in a wider organized religious group.
As well as acknowledging Muslim women’s desire to find closeness to God, the history of Sufism reminds us of the importance of offering women opportunities to gather together in groups as women (as well as with men), for practical teaching on the way of the Messiah, and for structured prayer, worship and meditation on the Word. It also brings into focus the significance of the relationship between learner and teacher, within the wider women’s group to which they belong. This pattern of teaching in the context of people’s everyday life issues, of relationship between teacher and learner, and of community, with group worship and prayer, is a way of discipleship that reflects and builds on the lives and environments of Muslim women. And it echoes Gospel patterns, modeled by the Messiah who taught women and men, and who in his death and resurrection, tore open the veil that separated us from knowing God face to face.
1 In his book “The Revivication of the Religious Sciences” (‘ihya’ ‛ulum al-din).
2 Schimmel, Annemarie. Tran. Susan H.Ray. My Soul Is a Woman. The Feminine in Islam. New York & London: Continuum, 2003:47.
3 Shaykh, pir/murshid in Persia, India or muqaddam in North Africa.
4 Rahman, Fazlur. Islam. 2nd ed. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1979:154.
5 Helminski, Camille Adams. Women of Sufism. A Hidden Treasure. Writings and Stories of Mystic Poets, Scholars and Saints. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2003: xxiv.
6 Sabra, Adam. “Poverty.” Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures. Leiden- Boston: Brill, 2007:491.
7 https://sufism.org/sufism/writings-on-sufism/women-and-sufism-by-camille-adams- helminski-2
© When Women Speak … January 2018
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she writes, teaches, trains, and supervises students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women. Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and DTh (Melbourne School of Theology).