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Protagonists of a Muslim tradition

Investigation on female Sufism

Everything starts with a woman from present day Southern Iraq: Rabi'a, which means fourth. She is the fourth child of a large family, who ends up being sold into slavery. She is then released and dedicates herself to the passionate love of God

Rab'ia is numbered among the most first figures among the Muslim mystics to apply the term passionate love ('ishq or in Greek èros) for the Beloved. You cannot cite Râbi’a without telling the extremely valuable story of her mission: one day the woman began to run through Baghdad with a fiery torch in one hand and a bucket filled with water in the other. The inhabitants then ask her what she's doing, and she, while seeming possessed, replies: "I'm going to heaven to cast fire within Paradise and to pour water in Hell, so that neither of them remains. Then my purpose will be clear: that the faithful look to God with neither hope nor fear. Because, if there were no hope of Heaven or fear of Hell, would they, perhaps, not worship Him, the King, alone and would they not obey his orders? ".

This text is very important both for Muslims and especially for Sufis, as well as for Christians: this woman has become for everyone the symbol of pure love towards God. Jean-Pierre Camus, the Bishop of Mans, in the seventeenth century wrote a work entitled Caritea or the perfect love. Who is this Caritea? Well it is precisely Râbi’a, the Sufi woman of our story and the whole work of the bishop is aimed at analysing the example and illustrating exactly what this pure love is (Christian).

The first centuries of Islam are also the first centuries of the great Sufi mystics, who begin to form a doctrine, of the schools and in the final analysis of the “religious” Orders. Until around the twelfth century, talking about Sufi’s is to talk of real true mystics, and especially to talk of male figures. Sufism in fact can be defined as the internal transmission (but also esoteric and mystical) of the Qur'anic message communicated directly from God to the Prophet Muhammad and, from this, to the spiritual teachers. The “apostolic" succession is therefore a fundamentally male transmission, from master to master and all derivations originate from the Prophet. This however does not mean that throughout history there have been great female figures and female groups.

In medieval Anatolia, there was a group of so-called women of the village of Rum (Anatolia), or Baciyan-i Rum, female heirs of a tradition dating back to a mystic of Central Asian Ahmet Yesevi. In fact, the role of women in Ottoman Sufism, although not institutionalized, has always been practical and effective. Studies and current research shows more and more the high number of female figures who have left an indelible mark. As for the so-called whirling dervishes or Mevlevi, in rare but well attested cases, women were also spiritual teachers. However there is less certainty regarding the existence of women's groups within the whirling dervishes. Beyond the question of the legitimacy of female teaching and the possibility of groups of both sexes being able to gather around a woman, the true fact is that a woman in Sufism reaches a level of spiritual refinement higher than that of a man.

In the nineteenth century Ottoman Empire there are numerous female poets and many are affiliated to the Order of the Whirling Dervishes, such as Leyla Haným, Tevhide Haným and Þeref Haným. Regarding the latter, I like to recall some verses that have a truly Christian taste to them: "Welcome oh Messiah of the rounds (circle) / to the resurrection of this heart overflowing with anguish."

Even today, amongst the descendants in a direct line to Rumi, the founder of the Mevlevi order, there is a woman of great spiritual quality: Esin Celebi, who loves to remember having studied at Aleppo in the schools of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Her stories are imbued with a deep religious sense and openness to diversity, just like her ancestor. I will never forget the very detailed story of her special devotion to the Virgin Mary, a figure that has a large part in the Qur'an itself. Esin enjoys the respect of all in Turkey and her activities in favour of spreading Mevlevi spirituality has become one of the goals of her life. She herself says of the Order of the Whirling Dervishes "it appears that since the time of its foundation much importance to women has been given. For example, in Konya, Þeref Hatun, the daughter of Sultan Veled - daughter of Rumi and the true legislator of the Order - had numerous male disciples."

Esin is not the only spiritual heir of Sufism in current day contemporary Turkey. Closely linked to this spirituality is another woman, Nur Artiran. When asked about the meaning of Sufism, she replies without hesitation: "My endeavour is to comment on the Mesnevî di Rûmî, with my voice that comes from the heart and direct it to my world and my inner life." Her latest and very successful book uses a phrase from Rûmî as her title, Love is like a trial . In her you can clearly see the desire and the divine passion, which is typical of Sufism. I am sure also that "if it is difficult for a man to be wise a woman’s effort to serve humanity is no less difficult." What impressed me most about this woman, a disciple of one of the last official commentators of Mesnevî di Rûmî, is her experience which she recounts publicly. About her guide, she offers me this beautiful testimony of faith and life: "Can Þefik, this is his name, he was my teacher, and through Rûmî, he opened to me the doors to the inner religious life."

One of the first times I met Cemalnur Sargut was at the annual celebration of the birth of the Prophet of Islam. That evening, Cemalnur was welcoming the Christian religious authorities. I will never forget the moment when she saw me, because she called me over with such a sweet and deep expression, "My son" ( evladim ). Of course, in Turkish, a woman can always call a man using this term - a woman beggar in the street can also use this term - but I perceived it as a loving call.

Cemalnur is a true spiritual leader, she attracts large crowds of young Turks, she intervenes in international debates and is the spokesperson of an Islam both traditional and at the same time open to modernity. When I meet her disciples I am surprised at the openness and tolerance that Cemalnur practices and teaches. She accepts them as they are, without demanding a radical conversion: she does not impose the veil (which she herself does not wear except during prayer), she does not impose a radical transformation, but she leads her followers to a reorientation of their lives towards God, towards the divine good. She, too, is rooted in Sufi tradition. Besides her strictly spiritual activities, her association regularly organizes conferences on Sufism. What attracts one to this figure o

f withdrawn features, but imposing inner personality is her capacity to be welcoming. She manages to be a true spiritual mother who welcomes everyone. When asked what Sufism is, Cemalnur replies: "Finding happiness and peace in times of distress and crisis."

Many other women and under all latitudes of the Muslim world could further illustrate this passionate love of God. I still think of Nayla, in Lebanon and of Hela and her mother Nelly in Tunisia and Sema in Pakistan and who knows how many others. Of course Sufism officially continues to be transmitted from male teacher to male disciple, but the female spread of Sufism has taken on a particular and unique style. The sense of love for God and for man is so human in the body of a woman that, by the very fact of its existence, it emanates a divine fragrance.




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 24, 2020