Chapter Five

Women of Islam and Sufism

© Copyright 1991/2017 by Timothy Conway PhD

In moving westward to examine the religions of the “people of the Book”—Judaism, Christianity, and Islām (the “nomadic monotheisms”)—we begin with a look at Islām. Though it is the last of the three to emerge in the Middle East, Islām is undoubtedly the least known of these traditions for most of my English-speaking readers (many of whom might unfortunately be prejudiced against Islām due to political events which have occurred over the last few decades). Islām is also the world’s second largest religion, after Christianity, with around one billion adherents worldwide by the early 1990s. Islām means “complete submission to God (Allāh),” and was founded by Prophet Muammad (571-632), based on his life and sayings (ʼaḥādīth) and, most importantly, on the Qur’ān sacred scripture, comprised of a series of divine revelations given to him by archangel Jibrā’il (Gabriel) while he was in deep trance-states. Islām involves Five Pillars: 1) the profession of faith (the shahāda: “Lā ilāha illa ‘Llāh,” “there is no god but God,” and “Muḥammadun rasūlu’Llāh,” “Muḥammad is His Prophet”), 2) five-times daily prayer (alāh or ṣalāt), 3) giving of alms (zakāh), 4) day-time fasting (sawm or siyam) during the lunar month of Ramadān, and 5) the pilgrimage (ajj) to Mecca in Saudi Arabia (site of the sacred meteorite shrine, the Kābah, and of Mt. Hirā, where Muḥammad enjoyed his first divine revelations from Gabriel).


In Islām, the Divine Allāh—though actually completely formless, transcendent, and beyond gender—is nevertheless almost always described in male terms, by the pronoun “He.” Yet it is interesting that a few of the traditional 99 Names of Allāh are traditionally “feminine” in their connotation and grammatical form, most notably, the first two Names—yā Ramān (O Merciful) and yā Raīm (O Compassionate)—employed so frequently in that standard opening invocation used by every Muslim: “Bismillāh ir-Raḥmān ir-Raīm...” (“In the Name of God, most Merciful, most Compassionate...”)

There is evidence that ancient Arabia was, in many of its tribal circles, a matrilineal society, and practiced the sadiqa marriage wherein females chose their husbands and the couple lived in her tribe; moreover, the woman could initiate divorce proceedings if she ever desired. In other circles of ancient Arabia, the patriarchal ba’l marriage was practiced—the earliest form of which was marriage by capture, later by purchase. In this situation, a woman went to her husband’s tribe and was treated as mere property. Gradually this form of marriage replaced the sadiqa partnership, and, by the time of Muḥammad, women were chattel, having virtually no rights. Female infanticide, wife-beating, and divorcing of women without support—all these practices were rampant among the savage men of Arabia. [1]


Early Islām saw definite improvements in woman’s rights, due to Muḥammad’s kindness toward females. An orphan boy who grew up working as a shepherd, Muḥammad ibn Abdullah later came to work for Khadījah (c.560-620), one of the few socially powerful women of her day, a 40 year old, twice-widowed, wealthy caravan owner living in Mecca. Khadīja fell in love with him and proposed a marriage, which he accepted. She would have six children with him (four daughters survived), in addition to co-managing the caravan business with him, and she would often accompany him up to nearby Mt. Hirā for meditation on the one true God, disinterested in the surrounding Arab worship of nature spirits and lesser deities. Khadījah is dear to Muslims as the first Umm al-Mu’minīn (mother of the faithful) for her recognition of Muḥammad’s prophetic mission, her repeated encouraging of him to undertake his calling, and her emotional and financial support after his initial encounters with angel Gabriel around 610-612 CE. After twenty happy years together, Khadījah died. Though Muḥammad had idealized monogamy, after her death he eventually wound up marrying perhaps as many as twelve women, also having a number of concubines, in line with Arab customs of the day and the need to maintain a lifestyle that would look “impressive” in the minds of the Arabian patriarchs. Naila Minai states:


“While he married some women because they were old or widowed [there had been numerous male deaths during those days of chronic war, and Muhammad had made it a special virtue for men to marry widows] and others because he was personally attracted to them, he also married to strengthen political alliances... He made a sincere effort to treat every wife equally, devoting a night to each in turn. Although he never established with any of them as deep a spiritual rapport as he had enjoyed with Khadija, he gave each wife freedom to develop her own talents.” [2]


Among these wives of Muḥammad, we hear of Sawdah, a very devout widow; Zaynab, devoted to charitable works and revered as Umm al-Masakin, “Mother of the Poor”; and `A’ishah (c.614-78), who, having been tutored by her husband in the new religion since her marriage to him at age ten, was the one to whom Muḥammad directed his followers to go for counsel in his absence (Muḥammad spent much of his time with `A’ishah, including his last days; he had declared: “She is the only woman in whose company I receive my revelations [from Gabriel]”). `A’ishah is said to have learnt the text of the Qur’ān by heart, known medicine and astronomy, and had a great reputation for wisdom; she is also noted for her political activism, especially after Muḥammad’s passing, having become a “one-woman shadow cabinet to the ruling caliphs,” though later, after having helped foment the first Muslim civil war, she was admonished by the male leaders to stay out of politics. `A’isha and Umm Salama, a tremendously beautiful, later wife of Muḥammad (he would also spend much time in her company), and, after his passing, `A’isha’s political rival, were both considered the chief authorities on Muḥammad’s life and teachings. These women were consulted in the compilation of the ʼaḥādīth, or Sayings of the Prophet, which, along with the Qur’ān, formed the basis for Muslim theology and Muslim law (the Sharī’ah). (`A’ishah was credited with 1210 sayings from Muḥammad, though the official compilers accepted only 174.)


In terms of women’s rights, Muḥammad improved them considerably, yet he did not wish to antagonize Mecca’s authoritarian patriarchs by going too far with his reforms. On a semantic level, he made an important change from the Arab term designating a wife, aqila, “tethered one,” to karina, “joined.” In terms of actual altering of laws and customs:


“Female infanticide was outlawed. Education was to be open to girls as well as boys. The girl’s interests were to be considered when marrying her off. ... She was to be allowed to choose her own spouse.... The grown-up daughter was to be respected as an individual—so much so that the marriage contract could be tailored to her specific needs: the bride could impose conditions on her contract. ... Her rights in marriage were also clearly spelled out: she was entitled to sexual satisfaction [Muḥammad enjoined “foreplay” upon husbands] as well as economic support. ... Upon marriage a man had to pay his bride a dowry which, was to be her nest egg against divorce or widowhood. If the woman stayed married to her husband until his death, she also inherited a part of his property. ... Nor was divorce to consist any longer of merely throwing the wife out of the house without paying her financial compensation.” (Minai) [3]


Wife-beating would also be severely discouraged by Muḥammad and by the Qur’ān, though it is still practiced in many places, such as among the “traditional urban” people of old Cairo; the Qur’ān also limited polygamy—which had run amok in the Arab world—to four wives, and only if a man could provide for all of them and deal with them “justly” (Muḥammad’s excess of four wives was considered to be “a Prophet’s perogative”).


These are significant changes (—though, sadly many of them would not last for very long). The holy Qur’ān repeatedly uses the inclusive phrases, “Muslim men and women,” and “the faithful men and women.” Several ʼaḥādīth (sayings) of Muḥammad make quite clear his benevolent views regarding women: “Women are the twin-halves of men,” “Do not prevent your women from coming to the mosque,” “The world and all things in it are valuable; but the most valuable thing in the world is a virtuous woman,” and “Heaven lieth at the feet of mothers.” [4] In terms of the religious domain, in Islām the souls of women and men were considered by the Qur’ān and by Muḥammad to be equally pure, and Paradise was open to both; the five-fold Muslim religious duties were the same for both women and men. And in the early years of the movement, when the Prophet established the community at Medina in 622 a few years after Khadījah’s passing, women participated fully with men in all activities of worship and prayer.

There is more evidence of Muḥammad’s appreciation for women in the religious field: when some women complained that the advice from the Qur’ān seemed to be exclusively addressed to men—since in Arabic the masculine is used when referring to both men and women—Muḥammad thereafter began to report Qurānic revelations using “he and she” language (such as the laboriously, but fairly worded passage in sura number xxxiii, 35). Furthermore, he also allowed ...


“…A few of the learned women ... [to act] as imams (the equivalent of ministers in Islam, which does not have an ordained clergy). As he chose the most learned and respected man in a group to lead the prayers when he was absent, Muhammad appointed the most learned woman to lead when only women congregated for prayer. On the other hand, Umm Waraqah, one of the best students of the Quran, was asked to be imam for both the men and women of her large household. She did not set a precedent for later generations, however, since Muhammad never specified the conditions under which women could be imams. Today, women may lead only women. Those who are well versed in the Quran and the Hadith serve as imams and teachers mainly in sexually segregated societies.

      “Under Islam, poetesses rediscovered their role as historians, journalists, propagandists, social critics, and cheerleaders of their community. They celebrated the ideals which united their Islamic tribe, moved men to defend them against enemies [some of the women themselves fought ardently], and sang of their victories. ... The undisputed poet laureate in Muhammad’s time was a woman named al-Khansa.” [5]


At some point later in Muḥammad’s career, women became segregated from the men in the mosque, most probably because Muḥammad disapproved of some of his wives and their family-factions feuding with one another. It was around this time in his life that he began to receive some Qurānic messages and give sayings (ʼaḥādīth) which subsequently would be used by sexist male Muslim theologians to create a severe double standard against women. For instance, he had his wives stay in a ḥarīm, an enclosed area of his home for women only, in line with the Meccan policy for aristocratic women (this would later be applied to all middle and upper class Muslim women). He advised that his wives, in line with aristocratic women of other regions, veil their bodies when they went out—a policy that later Muslim lawyers would interpret to mean complete veiling of women’s faces in general—the purdah practice of wearing the ḥijāb, which has occasioned so much trouble for Muslim women down through the centuries. (Note that Muslim customs also enjoin modesty for the male: in strictly “traditional” Muslim countries, such as Iran, it is illegal for men to wear shirts which reveal bare arms or chest—and the men are severely punished for a repeat infraction.)


The disparaging of women would reach the point where, as Jane Smith reports, an often-quoted ʼaḥādīth attributed to Muḥammad (yet undoubtedly spurious) has him saying that women pray better at home than in the mosque, and best of all in their own closets. Sure enough, within a few years after Muḥammad’s passing, women were forbidden to worship in the mosque, despite Muḥammad’s clearcut earlier instructions to the contrary.


Fortunately, the Prophet’s influential widows, revered as “Mothers of the Believers,” subsequently succeeded in getting the Muslim male authorities to allow women to come to the mosque for public worship, though they were forced to accept segregated areas therein, such as in the back of the mosque, behind a barrier, or on a different floor. (Note that women were also forbidden to go on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca unaccompanied by a male.) Smith tells of how a number of contemporary Muslim writers are urging a return to the practices of the earliest Muslim community, with women no longer banned from the mosque or relegated to marginal areas as they generally have been, but participating fully in worship, side by side with the men. [6]


With regard to that ḥadīth, “a woman’s place is in her home,” which is either spurious or later in origin, because it is contradicted by the early ḥadīth that men should not prevent their women from coming to the mosque, a latter-day scholar, Mohammad Wahīd Mirya, has declared that women of Islām are not really considered to be of inferior status because of this saying. In accounting for the paucity of historical details about notable Muslim women, he says that their names and noble qualities are not usually mentioned because of a


“… false notion of respectability. To the Muslims, women are a sacred trust, the “harīm or haram,” which has to be guarded with jealous care and protected from the prying eyes of the populace; they are not to be dragged into the limelight of publicity, and their deeds, however noble, should not be broadcast, since they were meant for the special benefit of their male relatives.” [7]


Whether or not one approves of this sense of “propriety,” which is, of course, based on an attitude that men “own” their women, at least we have here one major reason why the stories of many holy Muslim women are untold or are narrated only in brief details. Incidentally, this Muslim notion of propriety leads to the oft-expressed view that, in comparison to Western women (i.e., women of Europe and America), Muslim women have more respect, if less social freedom, while Western women have more social freedom, but less respect. Thus many Muslim women themselves have not thought their seclusion to be evil and have resisted any attempts to “liberate” them. (One wonders, however, just how much actual respect Muslim women have in their societies; Lawrence Rosen reports that in a place like Morocco, women are commonly referred to as habl el-Shitan, “the rope of Satan.”)  


After Muḥammad’s passing, the fate of Muslim women took a decided turn for the worse. Minai reports, “Although Aysha and Umm Salama had been close advisers to Muḥammad in both political and religious matters, neither they nor other women were invited to elect the caliph (spiritual and temporal leader) who would thenceforth guide the Islamic community.” (Remember that Aysha was only 18 at the time; Umm Salama was probably also quite young in those days.) Denise Carmody, who has outlined the ambivalent nature of the earlier and later passages from the Qur’ān regarding women (the later ones maintaining that “men are in charge of women,” that women are “unclean” because of menstruation, that women are a sexual “danger” to men, and that women should be veiled and covered in public and restrained as much as possible from even going into the public arena), has elaborated how most of the scripturally-ordained rights for women brought in by Muḥammad, listed in an earlier quote herein, were later largely revoked by male Muslims.


Various misogynist abuses crept back in, males began again to view women as semi-human—nothing more than instrumental devices to breed sons—and, due to the purdah practice, women were removed from the public realm and kept out of the mosques altogether or cordoned off to a remote, out-of-the-way corner. Since the mosques were the cultural, educational, and religious centers, women soon became, as Carmody tells us,


“… completely marginal culturally. They were shunted into the backwaters socially, psychologically and economically which impeded their whole human development. So impeded, they were unfit for public life—a vicious circle practically impossible to stop. This was especially true of middle and upper-class women, for peasant women had to farm, cook, and weave. Their lives were hard, but some of them had a little dignity as wives, nurses, or fortunetellers. Religiously, women’s seclusion meant that they had little instruction in their faith or encouragement to fulfill its duties. Therefore, Muslim women generally became woefully superstitious or uninterested. One survey done in the 1950s opined that ninety percent of Islam’s veiled women neither prayed nor performed their other obligatory duties.” [8]


We should know that the harīm has not always been an entirely negative circumstance, especially in smaller oasis towns. That adventurous journalist and former United Nations correspondent, Naila Minai, has written from her own experience of temporarily living with the women of one harīm in Tozeur, in the Tunisian Sahara:


“As the weeks passed... it was so much easier to accept the harem system and work within it, as the women around me did. For those who knew the rules the harem doors were in fact open. As [one woman explained to Minai] ... all she had to do was ask to go out or be taken out wherever a male escort was necessary to legitimize her presence. Not even an adult woman considered the requirement insulting to her maturity. On the contrary, she was proud that the men took elaborate precautions on her behalf.

      “Women organized many fascinating activities on their own. Among the most popular were religious, or rather, parareligious, functions [such as the “sacred picnics” to local saints’ shrines and attending women’s prayer meetings of one of the many Muslim religious sects flourishing in the oasis, which were like “sacred parties”].

     “To think that I’d once felt imprisoned in the harem! ... I began... to like the feminine world of parties, religious outings, and simple cooking and weaving sessions at home. It might not have fulfilled me for life, but it temporarily satisfied my huge appetite for physical and mental activities, including being in touch with the world around me. If I were a permanent resident, I could have exercised great influence over the affairs of the oasis [at Tozeur, where Naila stayed for a while], for the harem was a powerful decision-making, social welfare, and public relations center. Not only were marriages made there, help for neighbors in need was organized with remarkable speed. The support was psychological as often as it was material. For example, harem pressure inspired many a mean husband and mother-in-law to shape up. It was also through the women that the latest news on every aspect of oasis life was disseminated, as were new remedies and ideas. Men who ignored harem power risked their domestic tranquility and public dignity.” [9]


It might also be pointed out that in many harīms, and in certain schools for girls (such as in Turkey), young females were/are taught a modicum of their religion and also the Qur’ān by resident shaikhas (female religious teachers), and some of these girls might become ḥāfiẓas, knowing the sacred text by heart.


The bottom line, however, is that the harīm, purdah, banning of women from the mosque (or the later practice found in most Muslim communities of keeping them crowded together in the worst section of the mosque), and so forth, were all designed to keep women “one down” to men in the balance of power in the Muslim world and so must ultimately be considered unjustifiable. Muḥammad’s early vision of equality for women had been lost (just as Jesus’ egalitarian vision had been lost and overcome by patriarchal customs in the Christian world centuries earlier, as we shall learn in a subsequent chapter).


In today’s world, Muslim law—except where it conflicts with the local laws of the nation (such as in the U.S.) ...


“…makes it harder for women than men to obtain a divorce and provides them half the inheritance of their brothers. A Muslim man may marry a Jew or a Christian, but a Muslim woman is not allowed to marry outside the faith. Although adultery is strictly forbidden, polygamy is permitted. (It is not encouraged, however, and is practiced in only a few countries, such as Saudi Arabia.) Birth control is frowned on by traditional Muslims, while abortion is allowed only when a mother’s life is in danger... Women are not supposed to socialize with men outside their family and must pray separately... Women are encouraged to stay home with their children rather than work.” [10]


The fact is that, in the changing urban world of the 20th century, more and more women are entering the labor market, and so leaving the “secluded life.” And in the pastoral areas, such as among the Qashqa’i nomads of Iran, and among many other villagers or nomadic tribespeople, women are economically of equal importance as the males, and so tend not to be victimized by many of the Muslim practices prevailing in the larger towns and urban areas of the Middle East.


Let us at this point continue learning of the notable women of Islām from early times up to the present. Earlier we named Muḥammad’s most notable wives. He also had four daughters, of whom the most revered is the youngest, Fātima al-Zahrā (c.606-32), regarded as Khayr nisā’ al-`ālamīn, “the best of women in the world,” and the “perfect housewife” to her husband ‘Ali (d. 661; Muḥammad’s cousin, and last of the “Four Righteous Caliphs,” after Abū Bakr, Omar, and Othmān). Muḥammad is said to have promised Fātima “in heaven you will be the chief of all women.” With her husband, Fātima is the favorite subject of many Shī’ite Muslim legends. Fātima had two sons, Hussain and Hassan (later martyred—and also the subject of many legends), and two daughters, who are the only descendants of Muḥammad, through whom his authentic spiritual lineage is said to emanate. Consequently, Fātima, ‘Ali, their children, and their friends, the “companions of the ledge,” as well as Khadījah are considered especially holy by the Shī’a Muslims (the minority group produced by Islām’s first schism, mainly found in Iran) and by the Sūfīs, who comprise the rather “heterodox” mystical core within Islām. (Sūfīs, like Shī’ites, see ‘Ali as Muḥammad’s “spiritual successor.”) Indeed, some Sūfī theologians regarded Fātima as the first qutb or spiritual head of the Sūfīs.  


Muḥammad’s mother, Amina died when he was six. After her passing, Muḥammad was looked after by Aiman, whom he greatly loved. After his death, Muḥammad’s disciples would visit her, because of “her perfection in religion.” Some Muslim women were renowned for their efforts in war on behalf of the cause of the new religion. And `Atiyya and Salit are remembered for bravely nursing the wounded during these battles.


Zubaydah, the queen of Hārūn al-Rashīd (the `Abbāsid dynasty ruler at Baghdad from 786-809), was known in the empire as “swiftest to perform pious deeds and the readiest in benefactions.” She refused to take revenge when her only son was killed by Ma’mūn, son of a slave girl in the palace. At Zubaydah’s palace, one could hear the melodious daily recitation of sections of the Qur’ān by the one hundred girls and young women resident there. Zubaydah made the pilgrimage to Mecca six times, also founding many inns, wells, and so forth, to promote the welfare of the large numbers of her fellow pilgrims. [11]


Numerous women would shine in the powerful mystical movement of Islām mentioned a moment ago known as Sūfīsm. The prose and poetry of the Sūfīs take us far, far into the glorious depths of spiritual love, joy, truth and beauty. Yet it is the sad fact that in Sūfism, as in many of the ancient traditions which stress world-transcendence, a strong ambivalence toward women is evident. One finds in the literature a number of those pathetic, misogynist statements against “woman,” condemning her as an “embodiment of the deluding world,” seeing her as “inferior” in her capacities, and strongly favoring the male ascetic as ideal. There were, as we have seen, elements in the later Qur’ān revelations which led to these views; moreover, many of the areas into which Islām rapidly spread and Sūfism flourished—such as Iraq, Persia, Syria, and Egypt—were strongly patriarchal and denigrating toward women. Last but not least, cultural historians have shown how, during the rule of the increasingly degenerate caliphs at Baghdad, the model for Muslim women became the highly-prized slave-girl concubines (bought by the thousands from slave-traders), trained from their birth in all variety of worldly arts (music, dance, poetry, lovemaking, etc.), hence the Muslim women received more reward from their fathers and husbands for mimicking this sensual “courtesan role” than for developing a deep spirituality. Curiously and rather tragically, many of the wives and concubines of the caliphs and other royalty would spend much of their lives as nun-like celibates after they had been “passed over” by males who became more attached to other women in the harem. Many of these rejected women undoubtedly took up the life of prayer and became quite holy, though their names have been completely forgotten by historians, if ever even recorded at all.


Sūfism was an attempt to discover and live an authentic God-Realization amidst an increasingly decadent and/or legalistic Muslim world. It was a movement which never fully aligned with the orthodox scholastic circles of Islām, and commenced with a number of pious individuals going out into the desert regions on the fringe of the settled areas, living as isolated anchorites or in small groups of individuals. They practiced tremendous austerities, such as fasting, all-night prayer vigils, and so forth (of course, this situation exactly matches what happened in Christianity, with the Desert Fathers and Mothers going out into the deserts of Egypt and Palestine from the 4th century onward to rediscover the spirit of genuine Christianity). The central aim in Sūfism, as in all “multilevel,” authentic spirituality, is to undergo the great “extinction” (fanā) of the sense of separate selfhood, which results in the “glorious life” (baqā) of non-dual, panentheistic God-consciousness.


Early Sūfism never seems to have discriminated against women attempting to find God in this way. Indeed, since there was never any real clergy in Islām, every man or woman could directly practice the submission to Allāh, take a Sūfī teacher, and practice the self-purifcation (tazkiyat al-nafs) and remembrance of God (ḏikr or dhikr, zikr) leading to fanā and baqā. The Qur’ān clearly states: “And men and women who remember Allāh much, Allāh has prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.” (XXXIII.35) Thus, the highest ranks of sainthood in Sūfī literature, termed the “servant of God” (`abd Allāh) or the “friend of God” (ḥabīb Allāh or walī Allāh), was applied equally to both men and women of notable sanctity.


In Sūfī hagiography there is a clear recognition of certain women for their outstanding holiness. `Umar Ridā Khalāh’s voluminous work, A`lām al-nisā’ fī `ālam al-`arab wa’l-islām, which is not even an exhaustive account, lists fully 2,556 distinguished women and gives their life-sketches. Unfortunately, however, in comparison to male Sūfī saints down through the centuries, in this work and in other hagiographical collections, there is not nearly as much written about women saints—and there is certainly very little available to English-speakers in the Western world. The reason for the smaller and fewer life-sketches and collections of teachings from women saints may simply be due to that “false notion of respectability,” outlined by Mirya above, or due to the fact that literate historians and hagiographers were primarily if not exclusively male, and for reasons of simple propriety these male authors may not have spent as much time around women auliyās (saints) as around male ones. [12]


A towering figure among the earliest recognized Sūfī saints is a woman, Rābi‘a al-‘Adawiyya‚ of Basra, Iraq (713-801), whose legend states that she was a slave girl set free by her master when he realized her tremendous sanctity and degree of God-absorption. Rābi‘a went on to live a simple, contemplative, relatively isolated and evidently vegetarian or vegan lifestyle (she chided some of male visitors for not being in harmony with the natural world and its creatures because of meat-eating). Having “lost herself in God,” she never married. Occasionally she taught with great spiritual authority and mystical depth the hundreds of disciples who sought her counsel, including contemporary male saints such as Hasan of Basra. It is often claimed that, in her teachings, Rābi‘a introduced into the rather austere ideas of the early ascetic Sūfīs the element of completely selfless, devotional love for God alone, but some scholars now claim that she was not exactly the first to usher in this devotional element. Be that as it may, her exclusive devotion to God and emphasis on pure love is remarkable and certainly was the major influence on later tradition of love-oriented Sūfīs. A good part of the reverence shown Rābi‘a by males no doubt accrues from the fact that she transcended those qualities of the so-called “weaker sex” which tend to incur the wrath of intolerant or insecure males. Farīd ad-Dīn ʿAṭṭār (d. 1221), an esteemed medieval Sūfī saint, reproduced the details of Rābi‘a’s life in his hagiographical work on saints—in which she is the sole woman featured. He evidently felt a need to justify her place in his collection: “When a woman becomes a ‘man’ in the path of God, she is a man and one cannot any more call her a woman.” [13] There is an old adage in Sūfism that “the seeker of God is masculine,” indicating the need for a strong, brave, fearless nature. Those women who became known in the Sūfī world for their sanctity were, therefore, regarded as having transcended their femaleness and now become “male.”


Other early Sūfī women saints can be found from Rābi‘a’s time in Basra and Syria. Sayyida Nafīsa (d. 824) was the great-grand-daughter of Hasan, son of Ali and Fatima, and was esteemed for her great devotion and energy. Frederick Denny tells us: “She made the Pilgrimage to Mecca thirty times, fasted frequently, observed night prayer vigils regularly, and was so thoroughly versed in the Qur’an and its exegesis that no less a personage than the Imām al-Shāfi’ī is said to have greatly admired her. She dug her own grave and, before expiring, recited the Qur’an 190 times...”


Female Sūfī scholar Margaret Smith informs us of Maryam of Basra‚ and Rīhāna al-Wāliha, other women who typified a strong devotional orientation, frequently engaged in all-night meditative vigils, “weeping for God,” enduring the many trials and tribulations which lead to complete fanā. Annemarie Schimmel, one of the most highly respected Sūfī scholars of our own day, has brought to light further cases of acknowledged female sanctity within the Sūfī/Muslim tradition, hampered by the paucity of biographical details or teachings in the Sūfī literature. Schimmel mentions female descendants of the Prophet, like the aforementioned Sayyida Nafīsa‚ and Sayyida Zaynab‚ (13th-14th century), women praised for their piety, virtue, and charismatic powers, whose tombs in Cairo are still visited by devout Sūfis and Muslims (the term “Sayyida” indicates they were female descendants in the blood line coming from Prophet Muḥammad, one reason why they would be popular among the Muslim masses, for whom blood lines from the holy have a special reality as transmission lines of baraka, “grace” or “blessing force”; for example, people who are blood-descendants of a saint, that is, shorfa, are themselves considered to partake somewhat in that sanctity). Schimmel goes on to say:


“A considerable number of women of the ninth and tenth centuries are mentioned in the Arabic and Persian sources for their extraordinary achievements in piety and mysticism. And there were even women mystics who were guided by Khidr himself [the eternal Guide] and received spiritual instruction from him. In addition to these ascetics and mystics ... mention must be made of those who were married to the leading Sufis of their time. The pious Rābi‘a the Syrian, wife of Ahmad ibn Abī’-Hawārī, was noted for her constantly changing mystical states, which she expressed in lovely verses. In later times, the wife of al-Qushayrī ... is noted for her piety and learnedness; she was also a well-known transmitter of Prophetic traditions [the sayings, or ʼaḥādīth]. In the formative period of Islām, the most impressive figure among the married Sufi women is, no doubt, Ahmad Khidrūya’s wife Fātima of Nishāpur‚ (d. 849). She consorted with Dhū’n-Nūn and Bāyezīd Bistāmī [two of the great male saints of that day] and seems to have guided her husband in religious and practical matters. It is said that Dhūn-Nūn once refused a gift sent by her because it was given by a woman; she informed him that the true Sufi is he who does not look at the secondary causes—in this case a female—but at the Eternal Giver.” [This Fātima was also allegedly acutely clairvoyant.] [14]


A leading Persian Sūfī master, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, living in London, has performed a much-needed service in compiling Sufi Women [15], in which he has presented for the English-speaking audience the names of 124 illustrious women of Sūfism, giving whatever biographical or anecdotal details are available on them (again, unfortunately, these are often quite scanty) and reproducing their wise, challenging, inspirational and sometimes sublimely humorous sayings (which often humbled the male Sūfi teachers who met these women!). In Nurbakhsh’s work one finds the lovely tales of the aforementioned Rābi’a of Basra, Halimah of Damascus‚ and her disciple Rābi‘a of Syria (9th century), Fātemah of Nishāpur, Rīhāna/Reyhānah, Nafīsa, Zaynab, plus many other women renowned for their God-realization, piety, humility, ascetic detachment, raptures, miracles, and/or wisdom. Again, we must use the power of active imagination to flesh out the scanty details of their lives and try to gain an image of the holiness with which these women were imbued, lest they simply be reduced to names on a page.


‘Obaydah and Bardah-ye Sarimiyah of Basra (late 8th cent.)—both were highly learned gnostics who went blind with their many tears for God; Achi (n.d.), a noted wonderworker, buried at Tabriz; Fātemah Omm ‘Ali of Balkh (9th cent.), a “model on the Sūfī way” who gave all her riches to the poor; Tohfah (9th cent.), a slave-girl who became an ecstatic minstrel, transforming her master and others; A’eshah of Nishāpur (d. c.958), a very wise, ascetic, and highly realized gnostic; Hafsah (n.d.), a great ascetic and wonderworker; Zojlah ‘Abedah, a slave-girl who became an ascetic and “the most learned person (of her time) in Syria and Iraq”; Shams al-Foqarā (13th cent.), an esteemed ascetic/wonderworker and colleague of saint Ibn ‘Arabi; Fakhr al-Nesā (13th cent.), a miracle-worker and disciple of Jalāluddīn Rūmī; Fakhriyah of Basra (d. c.1352), “the greatest Sūfī of her time,” “her grace was extraordinary,” still felt at her tomb in Mecca; Fātemah Barda’iyah (n.d.), a gnostic famous for her wise, paradoxical sayings; Princess Zobaydah (19th cent.), a mystic, poetess, and benefactress of the poor; Bibi Hayāti (d. 1853), wife of Nur ‘Ali Shah of Persia, and esteemed mystic poetess; and many others. Reading about these powerful, grace-full women, one only wishes that many more anecdotes, details on their life-stories, and teachings were available to us.


Schimmel relates that a number of Muslim and Sūfī religious leaders claimed to have received not only their first religious instruction but also their preliminary training in the mystical path from their mothers. Bībī Zalīckā, the mother of Nizāmuddīn Auliyā, and the mothers of Ibn Khafīf, Farīd Ganj-i Shakar, and ‘Abdu’l-Qādir Gīlānī (and the latter’s aunt) are some among these influential women. A number of old women are esteemed in Sūfī tradition for their holiness and/or their aid and counsel rendered to famous male Sūfī saints. As typical of these holy female elders, Schimmel and Nurbakhsh tell of Fātima Bent al-Mosanni, of Cordova, (12th-13th cent.), who inspired Ibn ‘Arabi with her miraculous powers and incredibly fresh, youthful, even girlish appearance, though she was around 95 years of age—divine love had completely transformed her countenance. A popular story is that of the simple old black woman, Lallā Mīmūnah, greatly revered in North Africa, who walked on water in order to catch up with a learned boatman and learn from him the “proper” way of reciting the Muslim ritual prayer! Nurbakhsh has translated several dozen stories from Dhū’l Nūn and other Sūfī masters concerning women (old and young) whose fervent devotion to God strongly edified these male shaikhs (spiritual leaders). [16]     


Carmody and Minai have drawn attention to several Muslim women, perhaps with Sūfī influence, who were famous for their purity and learning: Shuhda bint al-Ibari‚ (d. 1178) of Baghdad came to be called the “glory of womankind,” with numerous disciples (mainly male) seeking her out for her degree of religious learning and expertise on the ʼaḥādīth; Karima bint Ahmad‚ (d. 1066) was an important transmitter of ʼaḥādīth; Zaynab bint al-Sha’ri (d. 1219) and Amat al-Wahid, famed as a brilliant judge, were noted scholars. These are rare achievements for women in the Muslim world of their time. [17]


Women saints have flourished in Muslim India and Sind (Pakistan), though we only have a relative few names and spare details of their lives. Bībī Fātimah Sam came to Delhi between 1210 to 1236 as a wandering, unmarried spiritual teacher; her burial shrine at Kaka Nagar, New Delhi, is a popular shrine. The illustrious Fātimah Jahānārā Begum (c.1613-1683), daughter of Mughal Emperor Shāh Jahān, became a disciple (along with her brother Dārā Shikōh) of the Qādiriyya Sūfī saint, Mullā Shāh Badakshi, in 1640-1, and it is said that she was later considered worthy of becoming his khalifa (successor), had “such a thing been possible” for a woman in those days. Jahānārā was revered in the Delhi and Agra areas as being a Sūfī saint, allegedly having attained “the full knowledge of God.” Her burial shrine in the Nizāmuddin Auliyā section south of New Delhi is a popular one. She was “possessed of a rare beauty combined with rich intellectual talents.” And though she never married, she was very fond of children, helping them and the needy, and greatly supporting her father and brothers (including the hostile fundamentalist, Aurangzeb, who executed her brother Dārā and imprisoned their father, Shāh Jahan). She was very devoted, not only to her Qādiriyya master but also to the Chishtiya Sūfī saints of the area, and she built several beautiful mosques and gardens. Zībunnisā (1638?-1702?), niece of Jahānārā and daughter of Aurangzeb, was another pious, virtuous Mughal princess whose name has come down to us. She evidently became a ḥāfiẓa (one who knows the Qur’ān by heart) by age seven, and, even more unusual, became quite proficient in math and astronomy. Imprisoned by her father for many years, she wrote during this period some Persian Sūfī poems of great pathos. [18] Bībī Jamāl Khātūn, sister of Jahānārā’s and Dārā’s first guide, Miān Mīr, was an outstanding saint of the Qādiriyya Sūfī order during its formative years in the Punjab region. Unfortunately, little is known concerning the details of her life. Bībī Rāni, wife of Sayyed Kirmani of the Punjab, is said to have also become a spiritual teacher, initiating her four sons as Sūfīs. [19]


In Sind (now Pakistan), one of the most famous saints was Bībī Fātimah Hajrānī, a ḥāfiẓa and Persian poetess who performed many miracles. The celebrated Sūfī saint, Nizāmuddīn Auliyā, met her and held her in great esteem. The 19th century scholar Richard Burton who mentioned Bībī to the Western world also spoke of the numerous Sindhi faqīrānī (feminine for faqīr, a holy person adopting strict poverty, faqr), a few of whom rose to the high rank of murshid, or spiritual teacher/guide. A present-day female scholar, Saadia Khawar Khan Chishti, the only woman on the Council of Islamic Ideology of Pakistan, has mentioned the existence of one Rābi‘ah Basrī, “a truly great saint of Pakistan who passed away a few years ago [1980s] leaving behind her valuable spiritual work entitled Fazān-i-murshid [not yet translated into English], which is a living testimony of her sainthood.” [20]


Schimmel optimistically observes present day trends:

“It is remarkable that in modern times Sufi teaching is, to a large extent, carried on by women again. ... Some of the most genuine representatives of mystical tradition, directors of souls, in Istanbul and Delhi (and probably in other places as well) are women, who exert a remarkable influence upon smaller or larger groups of seekers who find consolation and spiritual help in their presence.” [21]


Schimmel does not give any names, but I am aware of a number of women Sūfī saints or teachers who have flourished over the last century. By far the most renown was the long-lived Gūl Rukh (1790/1820-1931), popularly known as Hazrat Bābājan or “Holy Mother” to her many thousands of Muslim, Hindu and other devotees in India. Bābājan is one of those classic worldwide cases of a “fool for God,” what in the Indian Sūfī tradition is termed a “majdhūb,” someone who appears completely unconventional and free of body consciousness, even apparently crazy, and yet exudes a definite aura of sanctity and divine power from within. We will here explore in some depth her life story. Gūl Rukh was born to a royal Muslim Pathan family of Baluchistan in northwest India (now Afghanistan) perhaps as early as 1790. She became a ḥāfiẓa, someone who learns the Qur’ān by heart, and grew fluent in Persian and Arabic, in addition to her native Pushtu. She led a cloistered life in purdah, probably spending much of her time reflecting on the meaning of the more inspiring verses she had learned from the Qur’ān. At age 18, this young Muslim princess fled the marriage proposal arranged for her and somehow made her way through dangerous territory eastward to Peshawar, thence to Rawalpindi, about 100 miles to the southeast (both now in Pakistan), in each place gleaning authentic Sūfī teachings and practices from the morass of popular, pseudo-mystical “Sūfī” carryings on. In or near Rawalpindi, she lived the ascetic life for some years, and at one point she apprenticed to a Hindu guru, after which she purportedly spent nearly 17 months in solitude, probably in a cave in the nearby mountains. Subsequently Gūl Rukh traveled south further into the Punjab, and eventually came to Multan (also now in Pakistan), sometime in the 1850s, where she trained under a Sūfī meditation teacher, perhaps learning how to enter the formless, ego-free states of awareness known in Sūfism as fanā. After attaining such spiritual heights, she returned to her Hindu guru in the Rawalpindi area, where she stabilized in that final state of God-realization known as baqā (these two final stations of Sūfism, incidentally, are virtually identical to the Hindu “final two states” known as nirvikalpa samādhi and sahaja samādhi, which have seen occurring amongst a number of Hindu spiritual masters; parallels to these stages can of course be found in the Buddhist, Taoist, Hasidic and Christian contemplative traditions as well). It is said that Gūl Rukh was perfected in realization (fanā-baqā) at age 65.


After this she roamed over northwestern India for an indeterminate number of years, living as a mendicant, eventually arriving in Bombay (for the second time) around 1900. Here she wandered about, begging small amounts of food, occasionally visiting several male Sūfi saints in the area, though probably as their mentor, not as their student. In April, 1903, Gūl Rukh set sail for Mecca, to make the ajj (sacred Pilgrimage). En route to Mecca, she impressed a number of her fellow passengers with her wisdom and spiritual depth, and purportedly saved the boat from catastrophe in a severe storm through her miraculous powers. It is said that when she came to Mecca, she was no longer supplicating the Lord or seeking anything for herself, but was simply “re-charging” the holy sites there with the baraka which flowed through her. Sometime between 1903-7 Gūl Rukh reappeared in India, at Poona, a popular British hill-station 100 miles east of Bombay. Though very old by this time, and shabbily dressed in simple white cotton pants and long tunic with a thin shawl, she was quite magnetic, and people were drawn to her like moths to a flame. At first she had no fixed abode, but moved about the city, always being seen out in the open, usually with several people around her. Sometimes these were sincere aspirants, sometimes merely the curious attracted by this charismatic qalandar (a Sūfī dervish of unorthodox tendencies, unaffiliated with any major Sūfī order). She slept very little and ate almost nothing (later in life she would give away to the needy and/or share with her visitors most of the food offered to her by her devotees). She subsisted mainly on the milky Indian tea (laced with sugar) offered to her by vendors and devotees. At one point during her early years in Poona, Gūl Rukh was given a bath by a well-wisher, the last one she ever took—yet such was her spiritual purity that she was always fragrant as a flower and her deeply wrinkled skin (she had a fair, sunburnt complexion) remained perennially fresh and clean. She possessed a sweet, deeply resonant voice, clear blue eyes and she wore her thick white hair as a long mass of tight curls. Short in stature and somewhat bent and rounded through the shoulders, she nevertheless was still quite agile up until her last few years.


By about 1910, Gūl Rukh had settled under a neem tree in a makeshift shelter of gunny sacks (“inferior to the most rudimentary nomadic tent”), in the squalid Char Bavadi area near the British cantonment, a mosquito-infested place overrun at night with drunkards, hemp smokers, and thieves. Here she endured the pests—of both animal and human variety—as well as the harsh weather—cold winter nights, high winds, and monsoon deluges. This unlikely place began to noticeably improve within the decade, for the local riffraff began to revere her and change under her saintly influence, and an increasing crowd of more respectable Hindus, Muslims, and some Zoroastrians would also come. They all came to receive her potent blessings, hear a word of counsel (she gave no discourses as such) and perhaps also hear her occasional, nondual, mystic utterances, spoken by the Divine Principle through her mortal frame: “It is I who have created all! I am the source of everything in creation. I am the Truth (anā’-l-aqq).” There was an awesome power behind these words, and Char Bavadi was soon a place of pilgrimage for throngs of people, each of whom she called her “child” (“bacha”). In the presence of Hazrat Bābājan, as she was now reverently called, Persian-Urdu devotional songs (qawwalis) were sung, incense was burned, sacramental food was offered to all, and many souls were transformed by the penetrating, grace-infusing gaze of this Godly woman. Within a few years, thousands of Indians counted themselves as Bābājan’s devotees. Two eminent spiritual masters in the area, Tajuddin Bābā (d. 1925) and Meher Bābā (née Merwan Sheriar Irani; 1894-1969), were her spiritual “sons.” In January 1914, she initiated the 19 year-old Merwan (Meher Bābā) into a deep trance state of absorption in formless God-consciousness by giving him a brief kiss on the forehead... Within half an hour he was experiencing a profound infusion of energy and spent the next three days in a deep, immobile trance state, wandering around the next nine months in a somewhat mobile trance state, without eating, drinking, or sleeping—a rather powerful initiation! This anecdote should serve to indicate something of Bābājan’s stupendous force of the baraka flowing through her. Dr. Abdul Ghani Munsiff, her biographer and devotee, Paul Brunton, who met her briefly in her last year, and Priya Ma F. Taleyarkhan, a noted Indian actress who met her twice, all reported on the amazing baraka emanating from Bābājan’s gaze, which noticeably transformed their consciousness, affording them glimpses of the spiritually awakened state. They also all strongly felt that Bābājan was completely aware of their destiny and guiding them on subtle levels.


Bābājan was a striking, mysterious, paradoxical phenomenon in many ways. Though she clearly loved people and often flashed a beautiful, charming smile upon her visitors, she also could also seem very aloof. Like some other highest-level spiritual masters, she gave the appearance of not being much interested in this world, instead more focused on another, subtler domain. She frequently spoke in cryptic, enigmatic terms, often muttering to herself, though she could also give clear—albeit terse—spiritual instructions to those who needed them. She gave no set “teaching” but evidently preferred to directly work transformations in her visitors through the “grace-ful” power of her baraka. And she was not averse to playing pranks on those afflicted with spiritual pride so as to bring them into a more humble, pure-hearted attitude. Her physical condition was unstable—one day she would be running a high fever, the next day she would be fine. It was commonly thought that Bābājan often took on the psychic impurities of her visitors, burning them out in her own body. Many times she was seen to be rubbing off invisible contaminants, probably this psychic dross of negative tendencies she was removing from her visitors (these tendencies are known in India as vāsanas or samskāras). Yet on one occasion a devotee personally removed hundreds of ants which had invaded her body, though she seemed not to mind their presence in the least. Again, Bābājan used to wear some tight rings on her fingers, and once a wound opened up on a finger on her left hand, gangrene set in, maggots infested it (Bābājan would happily let these “children” feed off the flesh), and the finger finally fell off! Like everything, she saw this as part of God’s “wonderful game.” How to account for such things? She seemed to have been one of those completely awakened sages who perceives all events very literally in the manner of a “lucid dream,” perfectly realizing that all phenomena are but the play of formless divine consciousness sporting in form. Everything which happens then—“pleasurable” or “painful”—feels like a thrilling stream of pure energy emanating from the Divine Mind.


Devotees would bring gifts to her by day, and Bābājan would give them away or let the thieves steal them by night. Once, a thief forcibly removed some golden bracelets put on her by a devotee, causing the wrist to bleed; he was caught after some devotees in the vicinity yelled out, but when asked by a policeman to prosecute the man, she instead declared that the policeman should arrest those who had been yelling for “disturbing the peace.” Bābājan would calmly let the ignorant children of orthodox Muslims throw stones at her because of her “blasphemous” statements of identity with the Supreme, yet would sometimes become angry at certain visitors for their materialistic urges. People would try to address her as “Mother,” but she would retort, “I am a man, not a woman,” in line with that rather sexist saying of Muḥammad’s that “a lover of the world is a woman, ... a lover of God is a man.”


Numerous miracles were associated with Bābājan, especially clairvoyance and healings of every kind of condition. With regard to the latter, Bābājan would hold the afflicted part of the person’s body, mysteriously call out to an invisible presence, shake the pained part of the body several times, and tell the samskāras (evil tendencies) to go, and the person would inevitably be healed. Once she is said to have miraculously saved many people from dying in a fire at a theatre twenty miles away. On another occasion, some Baluchi soldiers noticed her and were shocked to see the woman they had buried alive many years before up in the Punjab area under the orders of the local ulama (Muslim theologians) for her unorthodox, blasphemous-sounding statements of identification with the Godhead. Seeing the miracle of her survival, these soldiers fell down in tears of remorse at her feet and became, along with many of the other soldiers in the vicinity, her staunch devotees. (Yet brave soldiers were also known to flee in fright when she would occasionally manifest her “teacher’s anger”—which often arose for no apparent reason. Again we note that some God-realized masters are inscrutable, whose ways cannot be neatly explained.)


Bābājan never moved significantly from her spot under the neem tree for all the years after she settled there. Her immobility was apparently due to psychic work she was doing on that precise spot. In any case, she had no privacy, and was always available to anyone who came. In the very last years of her life she allowed herself to be driven daily by car to the Bund Gardens of Poona, where she would sit under a mango tree for two hours, “giving audience in her accustomed manner of warm responses, flashing rebukes, cryptic allusions and terse instructions,” returning afterwards to take up her position under the neem tree. Meher Baba, her most beloved spiritual son (over whose picture she was sometimes seen to shed tears of joy and love) donated much of the funds for her marble burial shrine under the neem tree when this amazing Sūfī matriarch passed away September 21st, 1931, her lavish funeral procession unequaled by that of any dignitary or aristocrat in the history of the region. It is said by many that Bābājan was about 130 or 140 years old at her time of “transition.” Others think such a figure is a priori impossible, ignoring the fact that medical records on certain individuals and records of many saints have indicated that it is indeed humanly possible for people to live well past one hundred years, especially those who have mastered the art of peace, and have attuned themselves to the Life-Force through certain kinds of meditation, breathing, and radically simple diet. In any case, we need not think that Bābājan, now without body, is no longer a presence for us. Her tomb is still a potent shrine, for it is obvious that the Divinity she invoked while in the body is still available for those who are sincere and open to experiencing God through her intercession. [22]


Another formidable, aged female Sūfī saint of India, simply known as “Bībīji,” has been described by Swāmi Rāma among his remarkable meetings with holy persons of India. This woman sage, 93 years old at the time Swāmi Rāma met her some years ago, never slept at night and lived completely naked at her small dargah (dwelling place) in Agra (about 125 miles south of Delhi), where she was revered by Muslims and Hindus alike (though, not surprisingly, many folks did not understand her mysterious ways). Swāmi Rāma was greatly impressed with her deep love for God, her total self-surrender, her ecstasies and the light emanating from her eyes. “One day she smilingly cast off her body. A light like that of a star was witnessed by twelve of us who were sitting around her. The light came out of her heart and sped toward the sky like lightning. She remains in my heart always.” [23]


In this century, Indian Sūfism—especially as promulgated by saint Hazrat Inayat Khan (of the musically-oriented Chishti order) and by avatār Meher Bābā—has influenced the rise of several female Sūfī teachers on the Euro-American Sūfī scene. These include the following women.... Murshida Rābia Martin (1871-1947) of San Francisco became in 1910 the first western initiate of Hazrat Inayat Khan, and was selected by Khan to be his successor in the Western branch of his Sūfī Order upon his sudden death in 1927. Unfortunately, European male disciples of Khan’s did not accept the appointment of Martin, mainly because she was female. But Murshida Martin continued to teach a number of disciples in America in the Sūfī Order. The late Murshida Ivy Oneita Duce (1895-1981) was appointed by Martin as her successor before her own passing. Murshida Duce had a colorful career: early in life she sang, studied law, worked for the Red Cross during World War I in Paris (a severe case of influenza while there ended her singing career), crisscrossed the Andes mountains numerous times as a bank executive’s assistant, and then, after marrying a geologist and businessman, she traveled the world meeting and hosting various heads of state and idustrialists. All the while she was studying meditation and esoteric practices. In 1945 she began to train under Murshida Martin until the latter’s death in 1947; the next year she went to India with her clairvoyant daughter Charmian to complete her transformation under Meher Bābā—whom Martin had felt to be the leading Sūfī master of the age. Meher Bābā confirmed Duce as Martin’s successor, made her his disciple, then sent her back to the U.S. after some months as both student and teacher (the only spiritual teacher ever appointed by Bābā), promising to spiritually guide all her murīds (pupils); but much of the Sūfī Order membership would not accept either her or Bābā as their new spiritual directors—many left, strongly vilifying Duce. Martin’s and Duce’s western Sūfī movement was chartered by Bābā in 1952 as Sūfism Reoriented, incorporating many Hindu Vedānta elements (several of Meher Bābā’s teachers were Hindus), and emphasizing love for God and selfless service. Murshida Duce, a humble, charming lady, spent her remaining years editing Bābā’s major works and heading her Sūfī Order in Walnut Creek, California (northeast of Berkeley), which flourished during the 1960s and 1970s as thousands of seekers found their way to her door. A number of other Western women came to Meher Bābā back in the early 1930s and became leading disciples: society lady Elizabeth Patterson and Italian actress Norina Matchabelli (d. 1957) set up up the huge Meher Spiritual Center, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, assisted by long-time Bābā lovers Kitty Davy, Jane Barry Haynes, Fred and Ella Winterfeldt, Filis Frederick, et al. French artist Rano Gayley, English actress Delia DeLeon, and English ballet dancer and teacher Mary Margaret Craske are a few of the other well-known Bābā lovers. Of course, there were numerous Persian-Indian women close to Bābā in his mandali, living at an ashram in Meherabad, such as his sister, Manija Sheriar Irani (1918-96), and Mehera Irani (1907-89), who came to live at Bābā’s āshram at age 15, along with her mother and several others, the first females to do so. Mehera was especially regarded as being “part of Bābā.” These were definitely the two women closest to Bābā. Others included the “spiritual mother,” Gulmai Irani (1882-1962), Naja (Bābā’s cook), Dr. Goher Irani, Masi, and Valu.

In addition to Murshida Rābia Martin, several Western women stand out as disciples of Hazrat Inayat Khan: Murshida Vera Corda (1913-2002) was a longtime spiritual director and children’s educator in the Sūfī Islāmia Ruhāniat Society, especially active in northern California’s Marin County. She trained a female disciple, Walia Lazewski, of Larkspur in Marin County, as her successor. Murshida Bhakti was a prominent western female disciple of Inayat Khan, her husband, Fatha Engle, was Khan’s secretary, and their daughter, Sheikha Qahira Qalbi (Jalelah Engle Fraley; b. 1933) was trained by Khan’s son/successor Pir Vilayat Khan. Sheikha Qahira is a minister in the Universal Worship, and a healing conductor in the Sufi Healing Order, and since the late 1970s has led individual and group retreats for Pir Vilayat Khan’s Sufi Order in the West. She has headed Sufi centers in the region of L.A. since 1970. A mother of six children, she currently lives with her husband (Tansen-Muni) on a small avocado farm near Camarillo in southern California, and frequently travels to teach Chishti Sūfīsm in the U.S. and Europe. Hayati (Helena Stadlinger), into her 90s teaching and living near Oakland, California, was a another female student of Hazrat Inayat Khan. She was, according to an American Sūfī woman, Rashida Tessler (who furnished me with some of these names), a tiny woman, but a real spiritual “powerhouse.” (Tessler also mentions Guin Miller, wife of Sūfī teacher Joe Miller, both were born in 1904 and died in 1992, as a lady who had a powerful influence through her example and teaching on a number of women in the S.F. Bay Area.) Mention here can be made of Hazrat Inayat Khan’s daughter, Nūr’un’nisa Inayat Khan (1914-44), who died fighting on behalf of the French resistance movement in World War II. She forgave the man who tortured her to death, and a movie has been made about her in French, “Madeleine,” referring to her code name. This young Indian woman was regarded by her brother, Pir Vilayat Khan, as “the first woman Sufi saint of the West.” Mihr’un’nisa Douglass, a disciple of Murshid Samuel Lewis and of Pir Vilayat Khan, is a classically-trained vocalist from her childhood, and director of the acclaimed Bay Area Sūfī Choir, also a spiritual teacher in her own right. Author Taj Inayat Glantz, of the Sūfī Order in Ross, California, and Suria Less, a psychologist, author and feminist living in Ojai, Calif., are also disciples of Pir Vilayat Khan, and serve as teachers of the Sūfī way (note that Pir Vilayat’s movement no longer uses special titles such as “Pir” or “Murshid” for people empowered as teachers).


Freida Waterhouse and her disciple Ana Perez, a psychologist, are other Sūfī teachers from the San Francisco Bay Area. Russian-born Irina Tweedie (1907-99) was educated in Vienna and Paris before moving to England upon marrying; after experiencing the death of two different husbands, she traveled to India in 1959 and trained intensively under a North Indian Sūfī/Vedānta teacher simply known as “Bhai Sahib” (“respected brother”); he was actually a Hindu with a Muslim teacher, lineage unknown. Tweedie evidently became his sole successor and since his passing in 1966 taught in London, Germany, Switzerland and the U.S., drawing some 300 students. Around 70 people, including her successor, Llewellyn, attended the daily meditation session at her home in London. [24]


Indian Sūfism is considered by strict Muslims to be overly “tainted” with Hindu Vedānta elements. Yet even in the very “Muslim” quarters of the Middle East today, as in days of old, there have been women teaching, such as suggested by Schimmel. Naila Minai reports from French sources on Mama Sliman, a remarkable, self-taught woman who in the 1920s became the leader of an association of holy women among the Mzab Berbers around Ghardaia in the Algerian Sahara. These virgins, divorcées, and widows taught religion and recited the prayers on special occasions. Mama Sliman, four-times divorced, after assuming leadership of this female society, built a school for girls, wrote voluminously, and assembled a civil and moral code, which she and her sister saints imposed on men and women alike. O.M. Burke encountered during his travels several decades ago a striking young woman of about 28 years of age, Arifa, who was teaching a privately-meeting group of Sūfī men and women in Istanbul, Turkey. The Halveti-Jerrahi order of Turkey, established in Europe and America (Germany, U.S., England, Holland, Belgium, Greece, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria) by the illustrious Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak Efendi (d. 1987), has included a number of women sheikhahs, such as the wife of Sheikh Muzaffer’s successor, Sheikh Sefer Dal Efendi of Istanbul, and Sheikhah Jamilah Bayrak, scholar, artist, and wife of Sheikh Tosun Bayrak of N.Y., another leading disciple of Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak Efendi. Fariha (Philippa Friedrich) is an American-born sheikhah at the Masjid al-Farah of New York, led by Nur al-Jerrahi (Lex Hixon). The two were given empowerment by Muzaffer Ozak Efendi at the same time, but Nur al-Jerrahi is the one who explicitly leads and teaches at Masjid al-Farah; Fariha counsels the women on a more informal basis.


In the authentic Turkish Mevlevi zikr circles taught in the northern San Francisco Bay Area by Sheikh Jelaluddin Loras (b. 1950, son of the late Turkish master Suleyman Dede who was in the lineage of 13th century saint Jalāluddīn Rūmī), women are being trained as semazens (who enact the whirling dervish dances), the first time (to my knowledge) that this has happened in that lineage. High-level female Sūfī adepts have been especially prominent in the movement organized around the Sinhalese Sūfī master, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (d. 1986), in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Women are also to be found as more-or-less equal participants in the meetings and activities of the Persian Nimatullāhi Sūfī order led by Sheikh Javad Nurbakhsh of London (with centers across the U.S. and Canada), as well in the aforementioned, Americanized, Indian-Sūfī-influenced Sūfism Reoriented (chartered by Meher Bābā and led until her passing by Murshida Ivy O. Duce), the Sūfī Order in the West (led by Hazrat Inayat Khan’s son, Pir Vilayat Khan), the Center for the Dances of Universal Peace (founded by Murshid Samuel Lewis in the 1960s in San Francisco), the Sami Mahal, Sufi Islamia Ruhaniat Society/Mentorgarden, and a number of other groups. [25]


In passing, we learn that the Baha’i faith, a Persian ecumenical religion with strong influences from Shī’ite Muslim adventism, Sūfīsm and Zoroastrianism, had from its start as one of its thirteen principles the equality of the sexes. Predictably, many women were to be found among its earliest followers. The Baha’i Faith or Babism, now numbering some 4.5 million members worldwide, was founded through the inspiration and messianic claims of Mirza `Alī Muḥammad, the Bāb (1819-50) and Mirza Husayn ‘Alī aka Baha’u’llāh (1817-92), who moved from Tehran to Baghdad, thence to Akka/Acre, Israel. The Baha’i Faith was subsequently spread by Baha’u’llāh’s son, Abbas Effendi aka Abdu’l-Bahā (1844-1921) and the latter’s grandson, Shoghi Effendi (d. 1957). The movement is now headquartered in Haifa, Israel. In this clergy-less religion, which, despite its noble ideals, has been unfortunately marked by much hassling over leadership almost since its inception, a few Baha’i women are notable:


“One of the earliest and most outstanding followers of this movement ... [was] best known through her title, Qurrat ul`Ayn (1815-1851). The daughter of a mullah [religious teacher] of Qazvin, and the wife of a leading mujtahid of the time, she was apparently quite a remarkable, intelligent woman, well-versed in the religious sciences, studies usually restricted to men, and she astonished her entourage by boldly participating in learned discussions with the local notables and ulama [religious and legal authorities]. Her conversion to Babism was swift, thorough, and equally bold. [Comte de] Gobineau writes: ‘Not content with a mere passive sympathy, she publicly professed her master’s faith. She turned against not only polygamy but also the veil, and she appeared face unveiled in public places, causing much fright and scandal amongst her kin and amongst pious Muslims. Her public preaching, however, was applauded by an already great number of persons who shared her enthusiasm, and [helped] widen the circle [of followers].’ Qurrat ul `Ayn broke her ties with her Muslim relatives, left her husband, and devoted her life to missionary activism, not only converting but also assuming leading roles on the battlefield when the Babis revolted [against the Shah and the forces which had killed the Bab in 1850]. [After being arrested, she refused to recant and was put to death.] She died a martyr to the cause, but her memory and especially the poems she wrote kept alive the Babi spirit of revolt.” [26]


Agnes Baldwin Alexander encountered the new Baha’i faith in Rome in 1902 and then spread it to Hawaii. Ruth White (d. 1958), an American Baha’i, severely questioned Shoghi Effendi’s authority and the unhealthy build-up of a Baha’i organization, a more political one at that, both of which directions Abdu’l-Baha himself had eschewed; her views led Ahmed Sohrab (d. 1958) and Julie Chandler (d. 1961) to form an independent Baha’i network of “Free Baha’is” in New York City, called the New History Society (now known as the World Union of Universal Religion and Universal Peace, headed by Hermann Zimmer.)


Returning to our discussion of Islām and Sūfism, let us look for other examples of female leadership and/or participation in different areas of the far-flung Muslim world...


According to scholar Jane Smith, in Iraq some Muslim women have enjoyed hereditary positions as mollas/mullahs, religious teachers. “They receive money for such responsibilities as holding public sessions (qrayas) in which stories are read about the life of Hussain, the martyred grandson of the Prophet.” Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good reports the same phenomenon happening in Iranian provincial towns such as Maragheh (a predominantly Azerbaijani town in northwest Iran, one of a number of towns especially dedicated to the memory of Hosein/Hussain): some females are to be found among the predominantly male mullahs or rowzehkhans at the numerous and various kinds of religious gatherings in Iranian society, singing of the martyrdom of Imam Hosein and others, and the suffering of their women (this tale of suffering is for Shī’ite Muslims symbolic of the perennial struggle between innocent good and the forces of evil). [27]    


Smith points out how Iraqi women have been more involved than men in dealing with the spirit world (—again we note how this is a widespread role for women in the different religious cultures). It is the Muslim women ...

“…who know how to ward off evil jinn [spirits], to cajole the spirits of the rivers and fields, to apply special formulae ... In Egypt, the Sudan, and a few other areas, women (particularly middle- and lower-middle-class women) occasionally hold what are called ‘zār ceremonies,’ rituals designed to rid them of supposed spirit possession.” [28]


Some of these activities are related to socioeconomic status within a social group; for instance, Lois Beck, from her observations of the nominally Muslim Qashqa’i nomads of southwest Iran, has stated, “Neither sex has exclusive access to or control over the supernatural. In societies where females are more subject to the demands and restrictions of patriarchy than Qashqa’i women, they often seek recourse in supernatural powers or conditions to mitigate their positions, posing a threat to men’s more secular powers. (Men in subordinate positions find such recourse, too.) But as has been seen for the Qashqa’i, there is no marked asymmetrical relation between the sexes nor much mutual opposition or antagonism, and neither sex uses the offices or powers of ‘religion’ to effect force over or instill fear in the other.” [29]


Muslim women in general are more involved than men in those “sacred picnics” wherein they visit the shrines of deceased Muslim/Sūfī saints. In many cases it is women who become the “carekeeper of the tomb, a position of some honor and responsibility,” says Smith. Daisy Hilse Dwyer reports on power of the female in heavily-Sūfī-influenced Morocco; there are the muqaddama, “representatives of saints,” who caretake the zawiya, or burial shrines; in many instances these women carry out religious functions, curing illnesses, telling fortunes, offering protection from evil spirits or help during perilous times (e.g., childbirth), and sometimes doing the ritual shaving of infants on the fortieth day. There are also those women (and men) who are blood-descendants of saints (called murabta when the lineage is through male links), and thus inheritors of baraka, or grace; they sometimes have special powers, such as healing ability (Lalla Zahara, a direct descendant of the male founder of the ben Nasriy Sūfī order, was a murabta famed as a curer of stomach ailments; Dwyer states that most curers in Taroudannt and elsewhere in Morocco are women, and most of these claim to have received their gift through inheritance). Moreover, certain female “saints”—some of them anthropomorphized objects—are revered by Moroccans, such as Lalla Soliha, visited by girls who seek suitable mates; Lalla Mimuna, a holy date palm, is the meeting place for a Sūfī group and the site where the old women devotees predict the coming year’s weather; Lalla Mbaraka, a cloth-wrapped stone, is carried by the faithful to assure their personal health. Last but not least, Dwyer points out that it is the Moroccan women who have real “decision-making power” by determining through their influence the allegiance of their families toward certain saints and Sūfī orders. [30] Nancy Tapper comments on the Shahsevan nomads of northeast Azerbaijan, Iran, some of whose women have made the pilgrimage (always accompanied by a male relative) to the shrine of the famous Imam Reza at Mashhad, and—because it is believed that a deceased saint’s baraka, or blessing force, is especially available at his or her burial spot—these women are considered to be infused with a special power, and are subsequently known by the title of Mashhadi; they are among the few women who pray regularly, and their opinions on religious and secular matters is highly valued, not only in the women’s subsociety but also among the men. Unlike the Shahsevan and other Muslim women who specialize in folk magic and herbal medicine, and whose relations with clients is a more private affair, the mashhadi are public figures and have a real leadership role in the women’s subsociety. [31]


We have touched on the topic of burial shrines and their baraka, or power of grace. Schimmel reports that North Africa is quite rich in sanctuaries devoted to women saints, and that Anatolia (Turkey) and Iran (Iraq, etc.) also have numerous shrines where more-or-less historical, God-realized women are buried and who are supplicated by local women for their saintly, intercessory help. [32] Evidently the number of burial shrines devoted to women saints is considerably less than the number of monuments to male saints, but they persist, nevertheless.


A very important shrine in the Sūfī world is Meryem-Ana, honoring Mary (Meryem, Maryam), mother of Jesus. She is most highly esteemed by Sūfīs among the several highly-regarded women of the Biblical tradition. Mary is revered by Sūfīs as a model of purity—she whom “God hath purified and chosen above all women”, also considered “the symbol of the spirit that receives divine inspiration and thus becomes pregnant with the divine light.” [33] As an illustration of Meryem’s status in the eyes of Sūfīs, many Sūfīs who first visit Turkey are enjoined to start their pilgrimage by climbing the mountain near Ephesus upon which she is said to have dwelt in her later years before “ascending bodily to heaven” (as the Christians believe). Hundreds of pilgrims (Sūfī, Muslim, and Christian) are to be seen every day ascending the mount, and the blessing force (baraka) at this place is quite palpable to the majority who visit.


Speaking of the Sūfī attitude toward Biblical women, the ancient story of Pharoah Potiphar’s wife and her passionate love for Joseph (now known by Western scholars to be fictitious, a duplicate of an earlier Egyptian tale) was interpreted by Jewish rabbis as a sign of woman’s base nature—but Sūfīs, in light of Sura 12 of the Qur’ān, see her love as an apt symbol for the enrapturing power of divine love. Moreover, Eve, the original woman, is not made by the Qur’ān to be the cause of downfall for Adam: Satan/Iblis is the cause, and both Adam and Eve are considered to have been equally responsible for giving in to his temptation (note here that Islām rejects altogether the Christian idea of “original sin”—every child is born pure). [34]


Sūfīs have also in differing times and places been given to honoring the feminine principle by 1) viewing God through the medium of female beauty or referring to God as the “essence”—rendered by the grammatically feminine word dhāt (such as in the works of eminent theologian and mystic, Ibn ‘Arabī, who spoke of the “woman creator”). 2) Sūfīs often regard the Divine allegorically as the exquisitely wonderful female lover (as in the mystical odes of the Egyptian, Ibn al-Fārid, or in the old Arabic tale of Majnūn and his love for Laila); in illustrations of the Rubaiyat and other similar works, God or the guide is often rendered in female or androgynous form in the allegory of the “cupbearer” who brings the “intoxicating wine” of divine grace and/or God-Realization. 3) Some eminent Sūfī mystics have seen the Muḥammadan Reality (al-aqiqa al-  Muḥammadiyya) symbolized by the legendary beautiful women of early Arabic poetry (as in the work of al-Jīlī of Baghdad, d. c.1428). 4) Finally, many Sūfīs regard the soul “herself” as the feminine element, the “bride” longing for the divine Groom/Allāh (such as in the poetry of Sindhi and Punjābi saints and mystics—an identical “bridal mysticism” genre is found in medieval and later Christianity). [35]


In other traditions we have noted the existence of women’s religious orders. In the Muslim/Sūfī world, there are no ordained nuns, just as there are no formal monks (though some Sūfīs have lived ascetic, celibate, meditative lifestyles that could be regarded as either eremitic or cenobitic). Denise Carmody has stated (though without giving references) that “there are evidences that in the early centuries there were convents of Islamic women.” She is perhaps referring to the “convents which provided religious education for all women and refuge for the divorced and abandoned ones” which Naila Minai says were built at Baghdad and elsewhere by some of the early Muslim princesses such as Khayzuran and Zubaydah. [36] In the later medieval period of Sūfism there were evidently some convents where women could gather in pursuit of the mystical path or of religious life in general (such as in Turkey, Egypt, and elsewhere), [37] but virtually all the Sūfī orders of past and present noted by historians and scholars have been exclusively male. The chief exception was the Bektashi Sūfī Order (supposedly founded circa 1300) of Ottoman Turkey, which viewed women as absolutely equal with men—this undoubtedly reflects a unique egalitarianism which flourished in Anatolia for centuries. Women participated, unveiled, in the same initiation ceremony as men, and in common festive meals and gatherings, all of which made this group highly suspect in the minds of males outside the Order; indeed, by the 17th century the Bektashis were the most disreputable of Sūfī orders, not only for their inclusion of women, but also for their use of wine and incorporation of Shī’ite Muslim elements. (By the 20th century, they had come to utilize some Christian elements as well.)


The Turkish Yasavi order and the highly respected Khalwati/Halveti Sūfī order (founded c.15th century), famed for its intense spiritual retreats, have also been noted for their unorthodox procedures of admitting women to public meetings.


In China, where, as Barbara Pillsbury reports, there live “somewhere between five and twenty-five million Muslim women, a far greater number of women than the total population of many countries in the Near Eastern heartland of Islam” (remember that “not all Middle Easterners are Muslims and not all Muslims live in the Middle East,” and note that Muslims in China are quite distinct from the Han Chinese and mainstream society over the dietary issue of not eating pork), not only have women (except in the northwesternmost regions which have conditions similar to those in the Middle East) traditionally enjoyed monogamy with their non-polygamous husbands, gone unveiled, and not been excluded from the religious practice of praying five times a day—women’s mosques and female religious leaders actually flourished in pre-Communist China, and may again be making a comeback with the increased tolerance for religion finally being shown in that country in recent years.


“Of Peking’s thirty-six mosques, for example, three were exclusively for women. In the city of Kaifeng women’s mosques constituted more than half the total—eight of fifteen.... There, as in other large cities of China, Muslim women were led in prayer and educated in Islam and Arabic by female ahungs. ... [Compared to male ahungs,] female ahungs ... generally had fewer years and less formal kind of training. In many cases they were wives, sisters, or daughters of the male ahungs who performed parallel functions in mosques where juma (Friday) congregations were almost exclusively male. ... Female ahungs in these mosques gave girls and women basically the same instruction in Islam as Muslim boys and young men received from male ahungs in the male-attended mosques, with the exception that girls generally received less intensive instruction and did not continue their studies as many years as did their male counterparts. ... While a man’s chief Islamic duty seems to have been representing his family in public prayer, that of a woman has been to maintain a Muslim home and raise their children and grandchildren to be good Muslim adults. ...

     “Where the concentration—or perhaps religiosity—of Muslims was not great enough to support a women’s mosque, women customarily prayed at home. There is evidence that women’s mosques did exist, however, in the cities of Hankow, Kaifeng, Nanking, Peking, Sama (on Hainan island), Shanghai, Shenyang, Tientsin, and in Shangtung and Shensi provinces. Chinese Muslims explain that the existence of separate women’s mosques meant only separation for the “convenience” of prayer and not segregation in any sense of purdah. Muslims of both sexes point out that it is not quite seemly for men to perform prostrations [during prayer] behind women and vice versa.” [38]


Pillsbury reports that on Taiwan, where some 20,000 Muslims live in more dispersed fashion, women come to the five mosques and though “still outnumbered at Friday prayer, ... they are nevertheless there alongside the men and value the fact that custom now permits them to participate when they want.”  

“There are no women’s mosques and no female ahungs on Taiwan but there are two organizations whose members are all women. These are the Chinese Muslim Women’s Association and the Shih Niang (meaning something like ‘knowledgeable women’). This latter group exists primarily for the purpose of preparing for Islamic burial the bodies of deceased Muslim women. Neither organization is autonomous but exists as a subgroup within two larger organizations ... in which both women and men are members but which men dominate.” [39]


Certain circles of Sūfism in Southeast Asia, where Muslims are also quite numerous, allow for women practitioners. In the words of Julian Baldick:

“[At] the college of Rejoso in East Java, ... one finds a flourishing development of Sufism in combination with academic studies... hundreds of villagers, women outnumbering men, attend weekly meetings.... The Naqshbandi village of Babussalam in North Sumatra ... has 1300 inhabitants ... all of whom have to join the brotherhood. Two special houses, for men and women respectively, are set aside for retreats, with fasting and praying in cells. But by 1976 the number of people choosing to take part in these retreats [and meetings] was dropping...” [40]


In Indonesia, Baroroh Baried reports on developments among the women.  The Aisyiyah organization was founded in 1917 in Yogyakarta by Kyai Haji Akhmad Dahlan as the women’s wing of his Muḥammadiya Islamic reform movement. In 1922, the Aisyiyah, which had begun to be led more by women, such as his wife, Nyai Akhmad Dahlan, established in Yogyakarta a mosque for women only, and afterwards more and more places saw the rise of these women’s mosques, known as “Musalla Aisyiyah.” Here women could come together to pray five times daily, congregate socially, hold religious courses, run kindergartens and distribute food as alms to the poor. Later, in 1928, Aisyiyah joined with seven other women’s organizations to form what is now the Indonesian Women’s Congress. Aisyiyah has founded numerous vocational schools for girls, maternity clinics, hospitals, and fostered rural development through its “Qur’ān reading classes.” In these ways, Aisyiyah has brought religion and significant social change to Muslim women of Indonesia. [41]


On the more bizarre side of the feminine element within Islam, the wild practices of the Hamadsha Sūfī brotherhood (founded in early 1700s) among the lower classes of people in and around Meknes, northern Morocco, involve dancing by both men and women until all go into trance, at which point an effeminately dressed homosexual man enters and lets out some of his own blood (which the women lick and smear onto a baby; later, he blesses them). ‘Ayisha Qandisha, a female jinn spirit, prominent over other spirits, plays a large role in the activities (—all this seems to be a survival of the ancient cult of goddess Astarte, brought from the Near-East centuries ago). [42]


With regard to the strictly male-oriented Sūfī orders, many of these allowed women to be attached to them as “lay members.” For instance, in the 13th century, in the Middle East, Sind and India, woman affiliated with the Suhrawardi Order were noted—even more than the men—for their piety in constantly practicing the vocal “remembrance” (dhikr) of the formula, “There is no god but God” (Lā ilāha ill’Allāh) while doing their domestic chores. [43] Daisy Hilse Dwyer reports that in Morocco (and probably in other regions where Sūfī influence is strong) formal organizations of older women devotees are to be found ...

“…who congregate and worship at shrines that are specially designated for their use. These groups [associated with the Jilaliy, ben Nasriy, and Derqawiy Sūfī orders] have formally designated leaders who are chosen either by the women themselves, as is the case for the Jilaliyyat leader who is selected for her strength of character, or by the male hierarchy of the order, as is the case for certain rural Derqawiyyat. Moreover, all these groups have ongoing, formally initiated memberships. The new initiates bring gifts of sugar, tea, or other comestibles; then the group blesses them, invokes God’s grace, and passes their rosaries through the hands of its members. Through the initiation, the women are believed to commit themselves to the order for life.

     “Although ignored and scorned by men, these female groups have numerous functions that are regarded by their members as essential to society [such as showing recognition to the ancestors, predicting the following year’s weather, etc.]. ...

      “From a male perspective, these groups are peripheral ... [and] seldom mentioned, a bias that reinforces the notion that men alone have formal religious organizations. ... Despite threats from outside and despite male disdain, the Jilaliyyat, ben Nasriyyat, and Derqawiyyat continue on. ... The old devotees are respected for their religiosity by most younger women, who often state that they later intend to join the female auxiliaries’ ranks.” [44]


In light of what Dwyer is reporting, it is highly probable that such formal Sūfī women’s groups have existed throughout the centuries in a number of places and have gone unnoticed by modern historians simply because their existence was not reported by male scribes of the times. As the saying goes, “lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.”

Many noted cases are on record of wealthy and pious Muslim women founding and/or endowing with food and money the Sūfī khāniqāhs (centers of Sūfī practice), hosting Sūfī gatherings in their homes, providing for the support of Sūfī saints, and so forth. Thus, the male Sūfī world owes much to women and could not have flourished without these noble souls.   


Women philanthropists also have functioned in the larger Muslim context (not just the Sūfī world). Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot has written of the wealthy Egyptian women who, because they have inherited property according to Muslim law, have been able to set up charitable endowments and organizations, “which among them covered the large majority of social services that exist in Egypt today.” As a case in point, Hidiya Hanim Barakat (1898-1969) was born of well-to-do parents, and educated in a French convent in Egypt. After her marriage in 1918, she fearlessly distributed nationalist propaganda in spite of the fact that British authorities had made it a criminal offense to do so; these and other efforts led her to become known as the “little soldier” among her companions. A born organizer, she helped empower the Mabarrat Muḥammad Ali al-Kabir philanthropic association, which, though set up by two Egyptian princesses, especially through Hidiya’s inspiration as treasurer (and after her election as president in 1952), “developed into the largest and most active organization in the country,” involved with setting up or empowering clinics, dispensaries, and hospitals. (“By 1961 the Mabarra had created twelve hospitals in Egypt of which one-quarter of the beds were free of charge, and eighteen dispensaries and clinics where patients were treated free or for a nominal fee of something like $0.05, and supplied with medication. Over a twenty-year span the Mabarra institutions had treated over thirteen million patients, and were frequently the only medical installations in some territories.” [45]) Other notable ladies of the Mabarra included Amina Hanim Sidqi and Mary Kahill‚ who were tireless in serving the sick and hungry. Hidiya and her friends also established the Société de la Femme Nouveau in 1919 to set up trade-schools for girls, child care centers, orphanages, and the like. Ms. Marsot writes:

“The list of achievements that the women of these two organizations planned includes a series of “firsts”—a child care center, popular kitchens in working-class areas where the workers could have a proper, balanced meal for a nominal price, birth control clinics, a home for elderly women, a rehabilitation center for the disabled war veterans. All their projects were enthusiastically supported by the government, when they were not planned jointly, and then turned over to the government, like the rehabilitation center. In 1964 the major hospitals were nationalized and the Mabarra turned over all its institutions, then invested its funds in other fields like child care centers and orphanages. That is why Hidiya Barakat was awarded the highest decoration a grateful country can offer. She was due to receive it on the very day she died suddenly of a heart attack. Hidiya Barakat, Amina Sidqi, and Mary Kahill were pioneers who set an example of achievement. ... These indomitable women showed what their whole sex could achieve through determination and hard work.... Mme. Sadat gave Hidiya the accolade for her social work when she was inaugurating a project after Hidiya’s death, She said that in the field of social work in Egypt, ‘we are all pupils of Hidiya Barakat.’” [46]


Sattareh Farman Farmaian (1921-2012 ) grew up in the luxurious, beautiful, if rather crowded, town-like compound in Teheran, Iran, overseen by her wealthy, benevolent father; she was the 15th of 36 children, born to the third of his eight wives. The wives and children lived separately from the father—who was responsible for more than a thousand people—in a strictly ordered, tranquil world. All the daughters were given education, according to their father’s progressive wishes, and when Sattareh reached college age she bravely set out for America, an unthinkable move for someone of her background. She matriculated at USC with a degree in social work and eventually returned to her motherland where, in 1958, she set up Iran’s first school for training her fellow citizens in social work. This project lasted until 1979, when the Ayatollah’s regressive policies led to her being arrested and deported. Her just released biography makes for a highly interesting window onto past traditions and future possibilities for Muslim women. [47]


Currently, the world is witnessing a widespread rise of Muslim fundamentalism or Islamic radicalism, most of it formulated and funded by the Wahhābi strain of rigid legal interpretation coming out of Saudi Arabia (adhering to the ancient Hanbali school, smallest of the four traditional Sunni legal schools of interpretation of sharī‘ah law). Its regressively conservative, intolerant nature does not bode well for women’s rights, in terms of either social freedom or egalitarian religious practice. This may come to encroach upon the situation of Sūfī women in the Middle-East and elsewhere, such as Asia, where the majority of Muslims reside. [Update: This fundamentalism would certainly rain down horror for women in Afghanistan with the rise of the Taliban in the mid-1990s, where women lost most of their civil rights they had enjoyed for generations under Sūfī leaders, such as their right to practice their professions as teachers, doctors, lawyers, community organizers, etc., and many were publicly executed for various perceived “violations” of sharī‘ah. A similar reign of terror occurred with the rise of al-Qaeda and in later years a particularly regressive, totalitarian offshoot, the Daesh, a.k.a. ISIL or ISIS, which declared a caliphate state in 2014.]


Yet we can all pray that the egalitarian spirit of Muḥammad in his earliest vision for the Muslim community may one day again become the rule rather than the exception, so that Sūfī and all other Muslim women have equal chances to properly learn the details of their faith, pray in the mosques alongside their brethren, and become absorbed in Allāh, the One who Transcends and Pervades all, the One Who Alone IS.