Medieval Female Mystics of Islam

‘Minarets, Cairo’ by Arthur Streeton, 1897.

A review of Arezou Azad, “Female Mystics in Mediaeval Islam: The Quiet Legacy.” (Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 56 (2013) 53-88).

Andrea Cabrera

The article, “Female Mystics in Medieval Islam: the Quiet Legacy” was written by Arezou Azad, who is a Leverhulme Research Officer of the Oriental Studies Faculty at the University of Oxford.

In this paper, we find a brief and summarized information about a 9th century female mystic Umm ʿAlī, from Balkh.

Azad starts by mentioning the lack of reliable sources that may enable researchers to find more female mystics from the past, which can be due to some external reasons that do not outline lack of interest from women’s side, lack or preparation or possible social repression. In fact, as the article mentions, a great number of female scholars were found during the first century after the advent of Islam, then we find another peak of female presence during the 9th century, declining again until the 12th and 13th centuries, where we find once again traces of female scholars.

Umm ʿAlī, despite being a Sufi, can be considered a good example of determination and commitment toward education. Born in a wealthy family from the upper class, Umm ʿAlī is the granddaughter of a governor from the Abbasid regime in Balkh, which helped her inherit a great amount of money, enough to pay for her journey to Mecca to perform Hajj and her studies in that city for a period of 7 years.

In the paper we find two versions of Umm ʿAlī: the first one is an educated “worldly” woman who even lectures her husband, the renown Sufi scholar Abū Ḥāmid Aḥmad Khidrawayh, on how to hold dinner for another famous Sufi scholar. She was manly enough to ask her husband to marry her to her teacher, in front of whom she even removed the veil from her face, provoking her husband’s jealousy.

The second version shows us a more refined and centered woman, who supported all of her husband’s views. The masculine attributes are not mentioned, nor the nominal marriage to her mentor.

Due to lack of references it is hard to conclude which version is the accurate one, for example whether she just pursuing increasing her knowledge at any cost. The article leaves the door opened for the reader to create her/her own opinion of Umm ʿAlī, but highlights her educational achievements and the great importance that female education was given in Islam, which unfortunately, has been fading away because of some un-Islamic views.

Ikram Hawramani

In her paper, University of Birmingham professor Arezou Azad studies the career of the medieval female mystic Umm ʿAlī Fāṭima of Balkh.

Azad complains that it is often difficult to distinguish fact from myth in the accounts on Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya (d. 801). This is the case with lives of the Sufi saints since their disciples and admirers, removed from them by generations and centuries, naturally felt a strong urge to elevate their masters to the highest spiritual stations. Therefore Sufism never developed strict criteria for telling fact from fiction when it came to information on the lives and sayings of the saints.

Azad also complains that most recent research has focused on Rābiʿa. Her paper is a contribution toward shifting the focus to other female mystics of Islam. She mentions that over the past two decades (meaning 1993-2013), studies have revealed that women exercised far more power than was previously believed. This is a welcome observation and in keeping with my contention that the historical reality of male-female relationships is that women were always equal partakers in all civilizations, despite what feminist theories of historical misogyny might suggest (of course, the existence of some misogyny has always been a fact). And based on this contention, I hope to work toward contributing a post-feminist, or what I simply call a humanist, perspective toward the study of women that assumes from the get-go that men and women are already equal in power, worth and civilization-forming ability. A study by University of Western Ontario professor Maya Shatzmiller found that “women were involved in economic life in medieval Islam to an important degree.”

Columbia University professor Richard W. Bulliet has stated that the inclusion of women in the classical biographical entries were often due to their kinship ties with the compiler. This is in keeping with Darwinian theories of kinship where humans are wont to see people of closer kinship as “more human” than people of more distant kinship. It is to have a female-excluding worldview in a masculine scholarly culture, but kinship ties make it difficult for the male writer to uphold this exclusionary view toward closely related females. While a man may have a general view toward women, this view is difficult to uphold toward women he knows personally. An aunt, for example, is automatically excluded from the female category in the mind and included in the human category instead, this making it much more likely for the male writer to treat her on human terms rather than mere female terms.

Azad mentions that the 14th century Egyptian scholar Ibn al-Ḥājj (d. 1336 CE) spoke against women sitting across men during learning sessions, considering inappropriate. But she makes the astute remark that rather than his perspective, rather than representing a widely-followed norm and prescription, actually represents the opposite. Women’s free mingling with men in mosques had become a reality and this scholar simply tried to express his disapproval of it. In my book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Understanding Islam and Muslims, I caution against viewing Islamic scholars’ statements as representations of norms since they often actually represent the opposite; they are anti-norms that they only wished to become norms. When Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201) complains about various errant practices in the Baghdad of his time, while a casual reading by a past Orientalist may have led him to think of the Baghdadian culture of the time as a theocratic society controlled by scholars, the evidence actually suggests the exact opposite: scholars had little power to control their societies, showing the great freedom enjoyed by the Muslims of the time. The reality of Islamic societies is that the elite of Islam (the scholars and the devout Muslims) often as a class stand against the elite of society and the “ordinary” Muslims. The Islamic elite always pull in one direction (toward a better practice of Islam), while the rest of society often pulls in the other direction (toward slackness and freedom). In this way a dynamic equilibrium is reached that cannot in any way be honestly described as a theocracy.

However, it is true that in classical Islam there was often a partnership between the social elite and the religious elite, as Azad discusses. But I believe this does not disprove my thesis since we have numerous examples of the religious laxity of many of the social elite of classical Islam. It was, for example, an extraordinarily pious step when one of the Abbasid caliphs decided to ban alcohol drinking-houses, showing that the Caliphate’s usual policy had been one of tolerance toward such an un-Islamic aspect of their society.

In her paper, Azad focuses on the career of Umm ʿAlī Fāṭima of Balkh, a female mystic and a member of the elite of Balkh’s society mentioned in a number of Sufi-oriented Iranian sources. She was taught tafsīr by Ṣāliḥ b. ʿAbdallāh al-al-Tirmidhī (d. 853-4) and transmitted his book in this field. She stayed seven years in Mecca after performing the pilgrimage in order to seek knowledge. This was not unusual. Davidson College professor Jonathan Berkey mentions that out of 1075 women listed in a biographical dictionary of the fifteenth century, 411 obtained a similar education.

Umm ʿAlī’s husband was the judge and mystic Abū Ḥāmid Aḥmad b. Khiḍrawayh (probably died 854-5). Umm ʿAlī took the interesting step of proposing to her husband. Al-Ḥujwirī (d. 1077) mentions (to use Azad’s translation, the first note in brackets is mine):

When she changed her mind [about not marrying], she sent someone [with a message] to Aḥ mad: “Ask my father for my hand.” He did not respond. She sent someone [again with a message]: “Oh Aḥmad, I did not think you a man who would not follow the path of truth. Be a guide of the road; do not put obstacles on it.” Aḥmad sent someone [with a message] to ask her father for her hand.

Azad narrates an anecdote in which Umm ʿAlī “removes the veil from her face” upon meeting the famous mystic Abū Yazīd (Bāyazīd) al-Biṣtāmī (d. 874 or 877-8) Al-Ḥujwirī recounts this as “Fāṭima niqāb az rūy bar-dāsht” (Fāṭima removed the niqāb from her face) (while her husband was present). This suggests that she merely broke a social convention rather than Islamic law—she did not necessarily remove her full ḥijāb. She simply trusted the great mystic enough to break social convention and let him see her face, believing that he would not objectify her for her beauty and attractions but continue to see her as a fellow human mystic. Elsewhere it is mentioned that once when Bāyazīd comments on the henna designs she has on her hand, she decided to stop learning with him, believing that this was an unacceptable breach of etiquette—the great mystic had taken note of her external appearance. Thus rather than suggesting any laxity toward religious law, the anecdote suggests her high character and her bravery in breaking social convention due to the trust she had in the power of the mystical path upon men.

In conclusion, Azad’s study is a very welcome contribution to rejuvenating the legacy of Islam’s great women in the classical period.

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