The practical spirituality of Muslim women

I promised that today I’d post the notes from a Ramadan lecture for women that I gave yesterday at Quba Institute:

When I was asked to give this talk on a spiritual theme, I knew I was going to get myself in trouble. First for talking about tasawwuf and talking about women in Islam. Being from the Bay Area, California you have a lot of people talking about spirituality, being spiritual and not religious, a lot of New Age groups, including Muslims and those who claim to be Sufis but not Muslim and Muslims who claim to be Sufi, but do not follow Shariah. When I first became Muslim and put on hijab, a young woman of Middle Eastern background came up to me and told me that she was spiritual and focused on the inner aspects of the faith, while I was focusing on the outward. This is a false dichotomy. Even in the English language, there is no clear line that separates spiritual development and outward religious practices:

Main Entry: 1spir•i•tu•al
1 : of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit : incorporeal 
2 of or relating to sacred matters b : ecclesiastical rather than lay or temporal 
3 : concerned with religious values
4 : related or joined in spirit 
5 a : of or relating to supernatural beings or phenomena

Main Entry: mys•ti•cal
1 a : having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence b : involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality 
2 : mysterious, unintelligible

Islamic spirituality or mysticism is often portrayed as something outside the bounds of Islam. Orientalists have often focused on mystical Islam, a term we often called Sufism, as something distinct from Sunni Islam. Muslim reformers have rightfully critiqued some practices of popular mysticism that entail practices of shirk (associating partners with Allah) and bida’ (innovation), which entails privileging practices or concepts over the sunnah with the assumption that one can outdo the Prophet (s.a.w.). Muslims have used the term Sufi to talk about those who practice tasawwuf, a science focused on purifying the heart. While there are practices popular Sufism that fall outside the bounds of Sunni Islam, the science itself is deeply embedded in our rich Islamic heritage. Imam Ghazali points us to the wholistic purpose of tasawwuf. In his work Ayuhal Walad, he says:

If you read or pursue knowledge, your knowledge should reform your heart and purify your soul; if you had one week to live you would of course not occupy yourself studying the science of jurisprudence ,… morality and scholastic theology and the like because these sciences would not help you. You would rather engage yourself in monitoring the state of your heart and in apprehending the characteristics of your soul, shunning attachment to the world, purifying your soul from the blameworthy characteristics, occupying yourself with the love and worship of Allah and adopting praiseworthy characteristics.

The second issue I had in preparing this lecture involved the lack of classical and historical sources about Muslim women scholars, in what Rkia Cornell calls, “The Veiled Tradition. This raises the question: Why aren’t there many women’s voices in Muslim scholarship? There are many possible answers to this question. Muslim women are less socially visible than Muslim men, as Rkia Cornell points out, and they run a greater risk of being overlooked in historical record. Medieval Muslim men did not hold women in high regard due to their patriarchal cultural values. The source could be from outside of Middle Eastern Cultures, classical Muslim scholarship inherited from the Greek tradition a disdain towards women. Some Greek thinkers even doubted that women had souls. And there could be some more positive reasons for why Women’s works are hard to come by. Women were busy doing, rather than engaging in polemics and public behavior. Finally, Muslim men were held to universal standard, male scholars did not enhance gender differences. So they saw no need to develop separate manuals for women. Now that we acknowledged a void, we do have to acknowledge the sources that we do have for gaining an understanding of Muslim women’s spirituality: the Quran, Hadith Literature, Preserved Poetry written by women, and Biographical Dictionaries (i.e Muhammad Ibn Sa’d (148/764-230/845); Abu ‘Abd Ar-Rahman As-Sulami (d. 1021); and ad-Din Abu Al-Faraj Ibn al-Jawzi Sifat Al Safwa (d. 597/1201)

While there is not distinction between Muslim men and women’s spiritual potential, Muslim women have developed distinct spiritual practices due to their role in their respective societies and communities. The agency of Muslim women in interpreting and applying the universal principles of the Quran and sunnah is often veiled because women were often focused more on embodying the Tradition rather than writing or engaging in public debate about it and the social institutions of seclusion that sought to keep women’s identity private in order to preserve their honor. I will first explore concepts of womanhood in the English and Arabic language and link those up with some important terminology on spiritual practices found with Sufi traditions. I will then explore the primary examples that we have for understanding the relationship women should have with their Lord. I then hope to tie these concepts and examples to begin to think about how we can inculcate these spiritual values.

Since this talk is about Muslim women, and the feminine perspective on spiritual practices, I think it is important to discuss how we are defining women and the feminine. I believe it is important to understand Womanhood and the Concept of Niswa in Islam.

Main Entry: 1fe•male
Function: adjective
1 a (1) : of, relating to, or being the sex that bears young or produces eggs (2) : pistillate b (1) : composed of members of the female sex (2) : characteristic of girls or women 2 : having some quality (as gentleness) associated with the female sex

Main Entry: 1fem•i•nine
Function: adjective
1 : female 1a(1)
2 : characteristic of or appropriate or unique to women 3 : of, relating to, or constituting the gender that ordinarily includes most words or grammatical forms referring to females

Main Entry: wom•an
1 a : an adult female person b : a woman belonging to a particular category (as by birth, residence, membership, or occupation) —usually used in combination 
2 : womankind 
3 : distinctively feminine nature : womanliness
4 : a woman who is a servant or personal attendant

Main Entry: wom•an•hood
1 a : the state of being a woman b : the distinguishing character or qualities of a woman or of womankind

The Arabic word corresponding to woman is Imra’ah Arabic Synonyms of Imrah/ the indefinite of al-Mar’ah. A few Arabic terms with corresponding masculine nouns will be important for this talk: Imra’ah/mara’ (woman/man) –>Muru’ (manliness) and Niswah/Fatuwwa (womanhood/young manliness)

“In abstinence from things unlawful or in chastity of manners, and having some art or trade; or in abstaining from doing secretly what one would be ashamed to do openly; or in the habit of doing what is approved; and shunning what is held base; in preserving the soul from filthy actions; and what disgraces in the estimation of men; or in good manners, and guarding the tongue, and shunning impudence; or in a quality of mind by preserving which a man is made to persevere in good manners and habits.”

The Toa of Islam, 266.

Jahili Arabs didn’t inculcate muru’a for transcendent values or for Allah, they did it to save face. This was transformed in Islam.

Means young manliness; It comes from the word fata, meaning young and encompasses the meaning of chivalrous young man.

  • Servitude and constant remembrance of God
  • Seeking company of good people (good fellowship) and hospitality
  • Being introspective
  • Focus on remembering one’s own defects
  • Guarding one’s soul against all temptations

There are two sources for futuwwa in the Quran: Abraham (Willing to sacrifice his son and established hospitality) and the people of the Cave. Women can be practitioners of futuwwa, the term itself is gender neutralSulami uses the term niswa/niswan as the counterpart to fita/fityan. The later denoting groups of young men who practice futuwwa. Niswah is about perfecting the complete person, not just about perfecting essentialized feminine traits. Insan al-Kamil- perfect human is the highest spiritual state. The complete person manifest masculine traits: brave, courageous, chivalrous, detached and feminine traits: gentle, intimacy, merciful, devoted. Insan is not gender specific. Who are the examples of those who have come into full Niswan? We have, according ot our tradtions, four perfect women: Mariam, Asiya, Khadija, and Fatima. We can look to women mentioned in the Quran. We also have the examples set by the Mothers of the Believers and the righteous women throughout history who followed their examples.

The most important source for understanding the relationship women should have with Allah subhan wa ta’ala is the Quran. What most scholars agree upon is that the Quran holds women as spiritual equals to men.

“Whoever does wrong will be recompensed accordingly. And whoever does good, male or female, as long as they are believers, they will enter Gardens, provided for therein without stint.” [6] Al-Qur’an 40:40

“The believing men and women are supportive and protective friends unto each other. They enjoin the right, forbid the wrong, establish regular prayer, pay the poor due, and are dutifully obedient to God and His Messenger. They will receive the Mercy of God. Surely, God is Almighty, Wise.” Al-Qur’an 9:75

Women are also mentioned in the Quran. One example is the comparison between wicked women and righteous women, Nuh and Lot’s wives in comparison to Mariam and Asiya 66:10-12. I know I am so much like my mother, I think I am becoming more like a carbon copy each day. So as Muslim women, we need spiritual mothers to model ourselves after. And we have them, as outlined in Surat al- Ahzab 33:6

“The Prophet is closer to the believers than their own selves, and his wives are their mothers”

I looked at the biographies of the Mothers of the Believers and saw some common traits: charity, fasting, praying at night, sacrifice. These were the same virtues I  consistently found in account of the women in Sulami’s work on Sufi women and Aisha Bewley’s Biographical diction.

Khadijah bint Khuwailid

1. Was the first to believe
2. One of the four perfect women
3. “The best of women in the world are Mary and Khadeejah” (27)
4. traits: endured hardship, spent her wealth to help Muslims

Aisha bint Abu Bakr

1. Endured poverty, hunger, and hardships
2. Endured slander
3. Submitted her case to Allah
4. Allah’ answer in Surat Yusuf 12:18; Answer Surat An-Nur 24:11
5. Scholar of Islamic jurisprudence with knowledge of hadith
6. Science of jurisprudence, medicine, and poetry
7. Narrated 2210 Ahadith, 297 were reported Sahih

Sawdah bint Zam’ah

1. Known for her good humor
2. Spent all her money on the poor and needy
3. Fasted frequently, prayed at night, sincere belieer

Umm Habeebah bint Abu Sufyan

1. Became Muslim despite her father’s, Abu Sufyan, opposition
2. Migrated with her husband, when he apostasized, she left him
3. Accepted the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) proposal
4. Before her death, she sought forgiveness from her co-wife

Umm Salamah

1. An early convert, subjected to torment by leaders of the Quraish
2. Migrated with Abu Salama
3. Known for her God fearing nature, strict adherence to her religion, frequent worshipping
4. Eagerness to please her Lord and His Messenger

Juwairiya bint al-Harish

1. Her marriage to the Prophet freed a hundred people from Banu Al-Mustaliq; she was a blessing to her people, Aisha reported
2. She spent long hours worshipping Allah

Hafsah bint ‘Umar

1. Memorized the Quran by heart
2. Good friends with Aisha

Zainab bint Khazaimah

1. When her husband died in the Battle of Uhud, she did not give into depression, but continued to treat the injured and caring for them
2. Known as the Mother of the Needy

Safiyya bint Huyay

1. Captive on the day of Khaibar
2. Was loyal to Muhammad and became a sincere believer
3. Loyal to companions, helped Uthman when they held layed siege to his house

Zainab bint Jahsh

1. Aisha reported “I have never seen anyone better in religion, more God-fearing, more honest in speech, nor better in maintaining the ties of kinship, nor more generous in giving charity, nor more self sacrificing in the performance of charitable deeds and those deeds which bring one closer to Allah the Almighty, the All Powerful than Zainab.”
2. Worked with her hands and gave proceeds to charity

Maimoonah bint Harith

1. Known for her piety, purity, devotion to worship and abstemiousness
2. Standing in prayer at night and fasting
3. Narrated 46 Hadith
4. Muhammad testified to her and her sisters’ faith, “The sisters are believers: Maimoonah, Umm al-Fadl, and Asma’”

And let us not forget Fatimah (May Allah be pleased with her). She, like Khadijah, deserve their own lectures. One story is particularly touching and should provide us insight into how we should respond to hardships. When she complained to her father, the Messenger of Allah, of the fatigue she experienced through hard work, he said, “I will give you something better than that which you ask.” He told her to say 33 times each: alhumdulllah, Subhan Allah, Allahu Akbar. This to me is so profound. When faced with problems, we should find comfort in remembrance of our Lord.

The next part of my lecture involves historical women and the example they set for us in understanding women’s spiritual practices.

Sayidna Nafeesah
Nafisah bint al Hassan ibn Zaid, ibn al-Hassan ibn Abu Talib (145/762)
Her great grandfather was the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) grandson, Hassan. Nafisah was married to Ishaq Ibn Ja’far, a renowned scholar. Nafisah was a cholar in her own right, where many scholars read under her and attended her classes. Imam Shafi’ visited her, he sometimes prayed at her place and she prayed with him. She memorized Quran at an early age, studied Hadith. She spoke truth to power, chastising Ahmad Ibn Tulun for his injustice on behalf of the peple. Nafsiah spent long hours in night worship and fasted often.

Many of the examples that I have used are from Aisha Bewley’s biographical dictionary of Muslim women, but more importantly from Sulami’s biographical dictionary of Sufi women. Much of his work focuses on practical spiritual practices of the Sufis. One of the great things about this work is that Sulami shows how women on the spiritual path sometimes rebuked their male counterparts.  Rkia Cornell points out how often in this genre it is a woman is given the task of pointing out the overblown ego of Sufi masters for their spiritual pride. Most Sufi men responded to the criticism with humility. After reviewing the biographies of the Mothers of the Believers and biographical entries on spiritual women, I saw three themes: they frequently fasted in the day time, prayed at night, and gave in charity. They also had humility in their own spiritual practices and often thought of the hereafter and the Day of Reckoning.

Traits of the spiritual women mentioned in biographical dictionaries:
Spiritual states, love of Allah, praying during the day and fasting at night, Ecstatic states, devotion, acstecism, performed a lot of dhikr, attending dhikr circles, Gnostic, organizing dhikr circles, scrupulousness, strong himma, Hafiz al Quran, known for reflection, known for zuhd, taqwa and righteousness, did not leave the house for decades, they were mothers, daughters, wives, transmitted hadith, sayings, recited Awrad (pl. wird), in constant state of fear and taqwa, majnun with love for Allah, performed miracles as signs of Baraka or Karama

Rabi’ah al-‘Adiwiyya- many students of Sufism have read at least one of her poems.

Fatimah of Nishapur 143-144

Lalla Mimuna: a Black woman who asked the captain of a ship to teach her the prayer when she could not remember the words, she ran after him and walked on water.

Mumina bin Bahlul– Ahmad Ibn Abi l-Hawari reported, “There is something that my heart is preocupppied with.” He asked, “What is that?”She replied.“ I want to acknowledge the blessing of Allah in every glance , or to acknowledge my incapacity to be grateful for the blessing in every glance. Ahmad Ibn Abi l-Hawari told her “You desire what minds are not guided towards.”

Jahanara- eldest daughter of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahall. She was a amember of the Qadiriyya tariqa and wrote a number of texts including a book of tasawwuf called Risala-i Sahibiyya and a biography of of Shaykh Chisti . She composed poetry and studied Quran. She was a patron for many poets and writers and completed a mosque under her patronage. (85)

Nana Asma’u- daughter of ‘Uthman Dan Fodio and Muhammad Bello’s sister. She was a scholar in her own right and created an education reform for women in her society.

Conclusion: Practical Spirituality for the Everyday woman
Within Traditional Islamic Literature, man is used normative. However, some scholars have argued that few people have the right to call themselves real men. But what does woman mean? Depends on who is defining it. Many of the classical Sufi treatises didn’t hold women in high esteem. Women were associated with the dunya. They were also considered deficient due to intellect or that aspects of their ibadat were interrupted do to their menses. But the reality is that women are one of the beloved things of our messenger (s.a.w):

“Three things of this world of yours were made lovable to me: women, perfume and the coolness of my eye was placed in the ritual prayer.”

There were four perfect women, meaning that this state is possible. We should all strive to overcome our shortcomings and perfect our character. How do we do that? By inculcating ‘Abudiyyah, the idea of servitude. Ta’abbud means making oneself a slave. Sulami considers this the essence of women’s Sufis. Sufi women are inspired by their servitude and their methods are distinguished from men. Ibn ‘Ata’  writes that “Ubudiyya is a combination of four traits: to be true to one’s covenants, to preserve moral rectitude, to be satisfied with whatever one finds, and to patiently bear what has been lost.” According to Imam Ghazali “‘Ubudiyya (becoming a servant of Allah)comprises three things: The first: the careful observance of the command of the sacred law; the second: satisfaction with decree, fate and the dispensation of Allah the Exalted; Third: forgoing pleasing yourself in order to seek the pleasure of Allah the Exalted. “Service (khidma) is also related to Adab (appropriate actions), related to service (khidma). Imam Ghazali says that “Whosever is steadfast and makes his manners and morals beautiful in dealing with people and treats them with forbearance is a Sufi.”

As wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, neighbors, friends we can think about service to others, we can give charity with our time and wealth. Let us not forget the important charity of smiling. Another important characterstic as Muslims is that we should develop hospitality:

Volume 8, Book 76, Number 482:
Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should talk what is good or keep quiet, and whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should not hurt (or insult) his neighbor; and whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, should entertain his guest generously.”

Developing our character we move closer to the state of complete personhood, complete womanhood, Insan al-Kamil. This is what Sulami calls Niswan. We can come into Niswan as a spiritual woman through reflecting on our Lord’s Bounty by being grateful and finding good in each day. We also have to work on purifying our intentions constant. We should avoid hypocritical showing off, Riya’. This is one of the spiritual benefits of being a woman and for our female scholars. Few women are rock star scholars, instead they are hidden gems bolstering our communities. Still, we can fall prey to Imam Ghazali says: “Riya is born of exalting mankind. Perceive people as subjected to the power of the Exalted and consider them as inanimate objects in their inability to attain contentment and misery.” We also should constantly perform Tawbah (seeking forgiveness), asking Allah to forgive us for our shortcomings and help us overcome them. As spiritual women, we should follow the examples of our spiritual mothers and focus on understanding True reality (al-Haqq), that Allah is Transcendent and the Ultimate Reality. We have to deeply reflect on Allah as the True Power and conider the imminence of the Day of our reckoning when we will be held accountable for our actions.

Insha’Allah we can continue the dialog as we give voice to our experiences as Spiritual women. Any good from this lecture comes from Allah and any faults are my own. I would like to thank Quba institute and the community for the warm welcome I received. It was a humbling experience and I hope that we provide a space for the many hidden gems in our community to shine. Please make du’a that Allah keeps us guided and purifies our intentions. Ameen.

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