Dr. Debbie Downer Discourses on the Lives of Early Pious and Sufi Women by Laury Silvers

Silvers, Bio Pic FRBlogI’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. <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Nu%27aym" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Abu Nuaym’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 North American Muslim novelist, retired academic and activist. She is a visiting research fellow at the University of Toronto for the Department for the Study of Religion. Her historical mystery, The Lover: A Sufi Mystery, is available on Amazon (and Ingram for bookstores). Her non-fiction work centres on Sufism in Early Islam, as well as women’s religious authority and theological concerns in North American Islam. See her website for more on her fiction and non-fiction work. 

Author: Laury Silvers

This is no longer my active website. Please go to www.llsilvers.com

22 thoughts on “Dr. Debbie Downer Discourses on the Lives of Early Pious and Sufi Women by Laury Silvers”

  1. Thanks Dr. Debbie…no just kidding…

    I too get so frustrated when people try to make a whole ginger bread house out of a trail of crumbs in Muslim Herstory. I don’t know if it is apologia in the context of western Islamaphobia or simply romanitc thinking. Sometime, I just say, you do the math: f these were such great times why can only the women be numbered?

    So two points I take from our checkered and uneven history: 1) the history of misogyny cannot be erased by the freedom or expression of a few women, even though we are glad to have them. So I agree with you, we need not forget that pervasive cultural reality.

    And 2) we must WRITE our own legacy in THIS time, so no one will speak for us in the future and to leave a better trail for future generations to follow–or to change, as it moves them.

    Thanks again for your precision of analysis.


    1. Thank you so much. I really, really, really want this to all end up someplace positive as you are saying here. We must write our own legacy that is not trapped by those narratives that are serving a male-centered order. I love Omaima’s “Rings” piece (linked above). I love that she gave it as a paper at the conference at BU in honor of you. I think she nicely steers through things in thinking about writing our own stories. I also really love Bernadette Brooten’s work on early Christian women. She so inspires me because of how she does this work through exacting scholarship.


      1. Thanks Laury for this enlightment. I think you point a very important thing here that goes beyond of women in islam and one can find in all religions: How the stories about women in religion is used to disempower women and keep us in the “right path” subjecting to a divine where the narrative aims reinforcing patriarchy through a fake idea of autonomy, even of leadership. I have heard things like “Why our sisters need to engage in social life and activism? They are leaders already. A woman is a leader in her house when she organizes the budget to use wisely the money of her husband”. I was talking about this few days ago with another muslim feminist about this and I am happy to know I am not the one looking with the same glasses. Sending you a big hug.


  2. I like your analysis that much of women’s history is prescription rather than description. I am working on the story of Jezebel, which is the flip side of this: she is held up as an example of how not to behave: strong, supportive of her husband, true to her own deities.


    1. Oh, that would be great to see! I hope you’ll share it with us all when it is complete. I’ve learned so much from my friends and colleagues Kecia Ali and Aisha Geissinger on reading for gender in the early texts. I am so indebted to them. This insight comes from their guidance, particularly Geissinger.


  3. I found a very thoughtful and valuable read. It strikes me as an excellent balance of religious integrity with attunement to justice and historical/methodological honesty. I will refer back to this in the future. I hope others read it and learn from it.


  4. Dear Dr. Debbie —

    I have a problem. It’s such a downer to live in patriarchy. Can’t I just imagine it away? At least in the past?

    Thanks for your advise. I’m sure it will help a lot.

    Yours truly,
    Feminist-in-training Tinker Bell

    P.S. Thanks for pointing my friend Nancy in the right direction. She’s a realist, who believes we should base our activism and scholarship on reality, not wishful thinking.


    1. Oh Tinker Bell! I am so happy for your friend! I don’t think we can imagine it away. But I hear that asking men, “Pretty Please” works. I’m too much of a scaredy cat to try, though.


  5. I didn’t think this was a Debbie Downer at all. Forgive me, I’m not a scholar but while reading your post, I was reminded of my Catholic friends relationship with Mary pbuh. Her example was held up to them as something completely unattainable because God created her pure and you are filthy. And I see this when I hear my brothers in faith speak about the Houris or the earlier women of Islam; held up to us in 2014 because we are not pure or good ( as if they are themselves are the perfected example of the Prophet pbuh!). Thank you for voicing my misgivings. Peace.


    1. Thanks, yeah, it wasn’t meant to be a downer. I mean, I don’t think it’s a downer. I just hear that often enough that I wanted to show that it’s not! So thank you!!!!


      1. And yeah, the parallels are very clear. Everyone’s had to deal with it. I think that’s partly what Nancy was getting at in her reply, people have also been doing critiques of this for sometime too. It probably feels pretty old news to feminists who have been at this for a long time. There are women who have been doing this sort of critique in Islam as well, like Fatima Mernissi, but Sufism works in it’s own way that has so far been somewhat resistant to critique (especially in the popular sphere). I think it’s hard to be a person on the Sufi path and have to deal with this…easier not to especially if you are in a Sufi order that functions on a gender-equal basis (like mine).


  6. Thanks for this thoughtful and careful piece.

    I look at the old stories much the same way I look at fairy tales- kinda fun, maybe a few glimmers of how to deal with problems and/or psychological insights, but in the end I find myself seeking out stories like Zipes’ “Don’t Bet On the Prince” (feminist re-constructed fairy tales) and thoroughly enjoy the reconfigurations.


  7. Salaams Laury, thanks for writing this – it is important to speak honestly about things like this; misrepresenting the past prevents us from learning from it. I just came across an article related to this, that you would probably be interested in:

    “‘All Women are Guides’: Sufi Leadership and Womanhood among Taalibe Baay in Senegal” (2010)


    This is from the abstract: “While these women sometimes draw on global discourses of gender equal-ity, to a much larger extent they base their religious authority on embodying and performing the interiority and submissiveness conventionally associated with pious women”


    1. Yes! Joseph is a friend. I love his work. In my next blog, I was going to talk about strategies and was going to discuss his work, so now you’ve confirmed I should. Thank you!


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