Women & Sufism
Camille Adams Helminski
Since the beginning of consciousness, human
beings, both female and male, have walked the path of reunion with the
Source of Being. Though in this world of duality we may find ourselves in
different forms, ultimately there is no male or female, only Being. Within
the Sufi traditions, the recognition of this truth has encouraged 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 covered 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
in favor of male offspring, this new voice of the Abrahamic tradition
attempted to re-establish the recognition of the Unity of Being. It tried
to address the imbalances that had arisen, advising respect and honour 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, Fatimah, to whom the deeper mystical
understanding of Islam was first conveyed, and indeed she is often
recognized as the first Muslim mystic. Her marriage with 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 A.D.), who first expressed the
relationship with the divine in a language we have come to recognize as
specifically Sufic by referring to GOD as the Beloved. Rabi'a was the
first human being to speak of the realities of Sufism with a language that
anyone could understand. Though she experienced many difficulties in her
early years, Rabi'a's starting point was neither a fear of hell nor a
desire for paradise, but only love. "GOD is GOD," she said, "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."
Ultimately it is through love that we are brought into the unity of Being.
Throughout the centuries, women as well as
men have continued to carry the light of this love. For many reasons,
women have often been less visible and less outspoken than men, but
nevertheless they have been active participants. Within some Sufi circles,
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 in the West
are familiar had female teachers, students, and spiritual friends who
greatly influenced their thought and being. And wives and mothers gave
support to their family members while continuing their own journey towards
union with the Beloved.
Ibn Arabi, the great "Pole of Knowledge"
(1165-1240 A.D.), tells of time he spent with two elderly women mystics
who had a profound influence on him: Shams of Marchena, one of the
"sighing ones," and Fatimah of Cordova. Of Fatimah, 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. When 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
Him in heedlessness, 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.'1
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 shoed him why: bey 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 Fatimah Nishapuri (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 Dho'n-Nun Mesri, "Who, in your opinion, is the
highest among the Sufis?" He replied, "A lady in Mecca, called Fatimah
Nishapuri, whose discourse displayed a profound apprehension of the inner
meanings of the Qur'an." Further pressed to comment on Fatimah, he added,
"She is of the saints of GOD, and my teacher." She once counselled him,
"In all your actions, watch that you act with sincerity and in opposition
to your lower self (nafs(." 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."2
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 mysterious one, would appear to her in her dreams. One night he
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 him in her dream.
He 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 continually wept. Sha'wana, a Persian, was one
of those who wept. Men and women gathered around her to hear her songs and
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." Sha'wana was not only "blinded by tears of
penitence, but dazzled by the radiant glory of the Beloved."3
During her life she experienced intimate closeness with Friend, or GOD.
This profoundly influenced her devout husband and her son (who became a
saint himself). She became one of the best-known teachers 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."4
For the most part, the words of women in Sufism that remain from centuries
past come from traditional accounts of their comments or from poems that
developed around their words. Though the Qur'an strongly encourages
education for women as well as men, women sometimes received fewer
opportunities for instruction than men in similar circumstances. In this
article I will not attempt 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. Within 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 Islamic 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 prevailed.
Furthermore, the cultures in which Sufism existed 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 did write of their mystical
experience in songs, in journals, and in critical exposition. As Western
scholarship translates more of these works, more of the story of Sufism is
becoming accessible to us.
As this story unfolds, we are discovering the lives and work of many Sufi
sisters. Among these was Fatimah or Jahan-Ara, the favorite daughter of
Shah Jahan, the Mogul emperor of India (1592-1666). Fatimah wrote an
account of her initiation called Risala-i Sahibiyya, which is known
as a beautiful and erudite exposition of the flowering of Sufism within
Aisha of Damascus was one of the well-known mystics of the fifteenth
century. She wrote a famous commentary of Khwaja 'Abdo'llah Ansari's
Stations on the Way (Manazel as-sa'erin) entitled Veiled Hints
within the stations of the Saints (Al-esharat al-khafiys fi'l-manazel al-auliya').5
Bib Hayati Kermani belonged to a family immersed in the Sufi tradition.
Her brother was a Shaykh of the Nimatullahi Order, and she became the wife
of the master of the order. After her marriage, she composed a divan
(collection of poems) that revealed her integration of both the outer and
the inner knowledge of Sufism.
Among the Bektashis, an order in which women have always been integrated
with men in ceremonies, many women have continued the tradition of
composing sacred songs (illahis). In 1987, a songbook entitled
Gul Deste ("A Bouquet of Roses") was published in Turkey. It brings
together sacred hymns written by women and men of the Bektashi tradition
from the nineteenth century to the present.
Sufi women around the world today continue to teach and share their
experience personally as well as in written form. In the Sudan, for
instance, there continue to be shaikhas (female shaikhs) who
are particularly adept in the healing arts. In the Middle East, women
continue to mature in many Sufi orders. In Turkey in particular, the
teachings continue through women as well as men, perhaps even more so now
than in the past because of Ataturk's proscription of the sufi orders
early in the century, which drove much of Sufi practice into private
homes. One luminous lady, Feriha Ana, carried the Rifai tradition in
Istanbul until her recent death; Zeyneb Hatun of Ankara continues to
inspire people in Turkey and abroad with her poems and songs.
In central Turkey, the mother of a friend of ours one day heard someone
knocking and answered her door. A man stood at her threshold with a
message. He had come to ask her to lead a Naqshbandi women's circle. He
explained that his Shaykh, who lived quite a distance away, had
seen her in a dream and had sent him to the place that had been indicated.
When she protested that she did not know his Shaykh and felt
inadequate for such a responsibility, the man replied, "Do not worry. Our
Shaykh has seen your purity. He says that whenever you have a
question you should hold that question in your heart, and in your dreams
he will bring you the answer." Thus began her apprenticeship.
Sufi schools spread from the Middle East to Europe long ago, and new waves
continue to arrive. Irina Tweedie, author of Daughter of Fire,
recently conveyed an Indian branch of the Naqshbandi line back to her
native England. Her work is being continued here in America through the
Golden Sufi Centre of California.
A popular strain of Sufism that has been very welcoming of women is the
Chishti Order, which was brought to America by Hazrat Inayat Khan. Of the
many women involved, Murshida Vera Corda is perhaps the best-known; her
work with children in particular has been a great inspiration to many
One branch of Sufism that has become better-known in the West in recent
years is the Mevlevi. Within this tradition, which was founded upon the
example of Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi, women have always been deeply
respected, honoured, and invited to participate in all aspects of the
spiritual path. Rumi's family itself had a long tradition of recognizing
the spiritual beauty and wisdom of women. It was his grandmother, the
princess of Khorasan, who first lit the spark of inquiry in Rumi's father,
Bahaeddin Weled. Under her care, he grew to be the "sultan of the learned"
and a great spiritual light in his time. Rumi's mother, Mu'mine Hatun, a
devout and saintly lady, was very dear to him. She died shortly after
Rumi's own marriage to Gevher Hatun, the daughter of one of Bahaeddin's
closest disciples. Gevher Hatun had grown up beside Rumi, listening to his
father's discourses. This beautiful woman, who was known to have the heart
of an angel, was the mother of Sultan Weled, to whom Rumi's own teacher,
Shams-i-tabriz, conveyed many mysteries. In his Conversations (Maqalat),
Shams himself stressed the equal capacity of women to be intimate with the
Ineffable and to "die before death."
Mevlevi shaikhas have often guided both women and men. Rumi 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, though they sometimes performed together with
men.) One of Rumi's chief disciples was Fakhr an-Nisa, known as "the
Rabi'a of her age." In recent years, seven centuries after her death, it
was decided to reconstruct her tomb. Shaykh Suleyman Hayati Dede, who was
then the acting spiritual head of the Mevlevi Order, was asked to be
present when she was exhumed. He later told of how, when her body was
uncovered, it was totally intact and the fragrance of roses filled the
Of course such women have always existed and have brought much light into
this world; one might ask how anyone could think otherwise. Unfortunately,
in many parts of the world and many spiritual traditions, this has been
questioned. Within Sufism, however, women and men have always been
respected as equals on the spiritual path. Everyone is expected to
establish his or her own direct connection with the divine, and women are
no different from men in this capacity.
Within Sufism, the language of the Beloved and the recognition of the
feminine helps to balance some of the old cultural stereotypes that were
sometimes used in expository writing and which the Western media have
chosen to highlight. Rumi often speaks beautifully of the feminine,
presenting woman as the most perfect example of GOD's creative power on
earth. As he says in the Mathnawi, "Woman is a ray of GOD. She is
not just the earthly beloved; she is creative, not created."
It is precisely this creativity and capacity for love and relationship
that suits women so well for the Sufi way of opening to relationship with
the divine. As we come to recognize the magnificence of the benevolent
Source of Life, we can come to see ourselves in harmony with it. Each
surah (chapter) of the Qur'an begins with Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim,
which means "In the name of GOD, the Beneficent, the Merciful." Rahman
speaks to the fundamental beneficence inherent in the divine nature,
Rahim to the particular mercy that manifests. Both words come from the
same root, which is the word for "womb." GOD's mercy and benevolence is
always emphasized as being greater than His wrath; the encompassing
generosity and nurturance of the divine is the milieu in which we live.
As women, we come from the womb and carry the womb. We give birth from the
womb and can find ourselves born into the womb of Being. Mary, the mother
of Jesus, is very much revered in Sufism and Islam as an example of one
who continually took refuge with the divine and opened to receive divine
inspiration within the womb of her being. As women, we have great capacity
for patience, for nurturing, for love. A contemporary male Sufi teacher
once described an ideal guide as one who is like a mother -- one who is
always there, without demands, willing to instruct and set limits, but
also willing to stay up all night to nurse a suffering child.
Sufism recognizes that committed relationship and family are not contrary
to the flowering of spirituality, but rather are wonderful vessels for
spiritual ripening. The beauty of partnership, children and family are
great blessings, containing the inspiration, the breathing in, of the
divine. As we deepen our capacity for relationship and fidelity in the
human sphere, we also increase our capacity for relationship with GOD.
We need to stand together in the light. The way is opening in our own time
for greater recognition of equal partnership. We have much to learn form
each other, and male and female need to recognize each other so that we
can come to balance within ourselves as well as creating balance outwardly
in the world. The male attributes of strength and determination also
belong to women; the feminine attributes of receptivity and beauty also
belong to men. As we look to the divine in each other, encouraging each
other to rise to the fullness of is or her own divine nature, we push
against our limitations until they dissolve and a gift unfolds. As we
learn to witness the miracle of creation, a time comes when "where-so-ever
you look, there is the Face of GOD; everything is perishing except the One
Whether we choose celibacy or committed partnership, whether we are female
or male, the same work remains of polishing the mirror of the heart, of
being in remembrance moment by moment, breath by breath. Each moment we
reaffirm the inner marriage until there is no longer lover or Beloved but
only Unity of Being. Little by little, we die to what we thought we were.
We are dissolved into Love, and we become love, GOD willing. As Rabi'a
"In love, nothing exists between breast and Breast.
Speech is born out of longing,
True description from the real taste.
The one who tastes, knows;
The one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of Something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist?
And who lives as a sign for your journey?
1Ibn 'Arabi, Sufis of
Andalusia, tr. R.W.J. Austin (Sherborne, Gloucestershire: Beshara
Publications, 1988), pp. 25-26
2Javad Nurbakhsh, Sufi Women, tr. Leonard Lewisohn
(London: Khaniqah-Nimatullahi Publications, 1990), p. 162
3Margaret Smith, Rabi'a the Mystic and Her Fellow Saints in
Islam (San Francisco: Rainbow Press, 1977 ), pp. 146, 148
4Nurbakhsh, p. 165
5Ibid., p. 147
6Charles Upton, Doorkeeper of the Heart: Versions of Rabi'a
(Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1988), p. 36
here is by the kind permission of
Camille and Kabir Helminski