I’ve been called a downer because I take what seems like a jaundiced perspective on the early history of pious and Sufi women. There is a tendency in some scholarship, and nearly all contemporary popular treatments of these women’s lives, to over-focus on the positive. They fasten to aspects of their lives that we (post) moderns regard as “positive” or even “liberating,” while ignoring what we find less attractive or troubling. For them, these treatments tell a story of a lost tradition of feminine and egalitarian spirituality representing a golden period that we only need to reclaim to overcome the present state of sexist affairs in our religion. I know these kinds of stories work for women, or they would not keep retelling them. But they don’t work for me.
Let me be clear on two things first:
1. There are scholarly treatments that focus mainly on the positive, but in ways that ultimately challenge male authority. Most notably, Rkia Cornell’s groundbreaking introduction to and translation of Sulami’s collection of women’s biographies in Early Sufi Women. Sadiyya Shaikh’s powerful reimagining of Ibn al-`Arabi’s gendered cosmology, Sufi Narratives of Intimacy. And Omaima Abou Bakr’s superb discussion of reclaiming women’s voices, “Rings of Memory.”
2. I think we can safely argue that prior to the development of exclusive Sufi networks in the 4th/10th century, early pious and Sufi men and women interacted in ways that demonstrate their mutual respect and companionship. There are a sufficient number of accounts of women and men as friends, colleagues, teachers and students of one another to prove the point. But the history is a bit more complicated than my neat summary suggests. We partly can confirm these relationships because other men did not approve and their complaints are recorded in the literature. These imagined egalitarian narratives of the past tend to ignore any complicating factors such as this. To my mind, they do not empower women, but rather leave men in charge of women’s history and worship today. How?
Using Women’s Stories to Lie about the Past
The majority of pious and Sufi women have been left out of the major sources that have come to define the tradition of Sufism itself. There are a few sources that collected transmissions about women from the early period. Some three hundred extant accounts of these early women survive in the collections of Ibn al-Jawzi and Abu `Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami. But these numbers are insignificant compared to the number of men mentioned. Abu Nu`aym’s numbers in the Hilya were so starkly imbalanced–28 women (and these were mainly women of the Prophet’s family and Qur’anic figures) to 649 men–that Ibn al-Jawzi himself complained about it.
BUT you would never know this to listen to conservative talking heads. They use these stories to support an ideal patriarchal past. They cite recent work on female hadith scholars as if it proves that women were equal to men in authority then, or that their numbers were substantively equal when nothing could be further from the truth. When we do the same, even as we relay stories of powerful and authoritative pious and Sufi women, we prop up the conservative narrative that all was well back then and the problem with patriarchy is that we are doing it wrong.
Prescriptions not Depictions
Many of the stories that come down to us are less depictions than prescriptions of proper behavior for women then and now. In the cases where the existence of such women can be verified in the earliest sources, it can be shown that many accounts have been reworked to such an extent that the depiction of a woman’s worship may be just an invention of men. These reworkings and the major Sufi manuals and treatises show that by the 5th/11th century historically-contingent gender norms of male authority and female submission–not to mention political norms of the caliph’s dominance over his subjects–came to characterize the method by which knowledge of God is realized. For instance, Hafsa bint Sirin is transformed from a deeply spiritual, scholarly, and socially engaged woman (in mixed-gender circumstances) into a nearly silent recluse who never left her place of prayer for thirty years. Her legacy, thus transmitted, teaches us that good women are silent, passive, and disengaged from the world.
Other stories are manipulated in meaning. It is said that the great Rabia al-`Adawiyya would only eat bread and salt. One day she craved an onion to eat with her bread. Just then, a bird flew in with an onion stalk in its mouth and dropped it before her. She reached for it, then stopped. The onion had only come to her as a result of her own desires. On one level, this story is about learning to seek satisfaction in God’s will rather than our own. But consider how such stories work in the lives of women. I’m not the only one who was told this story as a warning against the ego’s desire to want more than my gender-marginalized lot.
I have been told that while the idealized narratives may not be historical, they tell the inward truth about the divine-human relationship. If so, that requires accepting that the divine-human relationship is a patriarchal one.
Prescriptions Depend on a Rosy View
The suffering or difficulties these women experienced at the hands of men must be overlooked if we are to willingly take on prescriptions requiring submission to the male order of things. If we knew the history, would we so easily accept the wisdom of women’s exclusion from religious authority, from (actual) circles of remembrance, or from having a voice?
Idealized stories of women wandering from place, mad with divine love, teach us that women who are properly submitted to God transcended their bodies or were protected from harm. The accounts seem to suggest the latter what with claims that wild dogs ran from them or that lions lay down with lambs in their presence. The idealizations banish concerns, or even the thought, that any woman wandering alone would have been assaulted or raped.
I have a friend who says she loved these stories for this reason; they held out hope that she could escape the harm and control of men if she only worshipped harder. I have been told point blank that if I were submitted, I would be beyond caring about the troubles of “this world” caused by men. My interest in these women’s lives in the past, and my concern for women’s safety in the present, is proof of my lack of spiritual realization.
There is a Sufi story about the Prophet (sa) and Abu Bakr (ra). They were walking down the road and Abu Bakr spied the rotting carcass of dog. As they drew near the dog, he held his robe out to keep the Prophet from seeing it. But the Prophet pulled him back, looked at the dog, and said, “How beautiful its teeth are!” You cannot see the beauty without looking at the carcass.
For me, divine presence and beauty is found in the reality of life, not in the imaginings of life.
There is no need to keep recreating the same gendered models in our spiritual lives simply because these women had to live through it, and the texts–and later, even methods of guidance–were formed to reinforce it. The lived reality of their lives was the reality of all lives, ease and pain, but also gendered exclusion, and, for too many, violence. So let us take strength and guidance from these powerful women, the fullness of their lives, their struggles, their ease, and their realized intimacy with God through it all. How is that a downer?
Laury Silvers is a Muslim academic and accidental activist. She is a sessional professor at the University of Toronto for the Department for the Study of Religion. She writes on Sufism in Early Islam, as well as women’s religious authority and theological concerns in North American Islam. See her website for her publications.
Categories: Foremothers, Gender, Gender and Power, General, Islam, Muslim Spirituality, Patriarchy, Power relations, Spirituality, Textual Interpretation, Women Mystics, Women's Agency, Women's Spirituality, Women's Suffering