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A real hope for Muslim women of our time

· ​Women and women saints ·

In the conclusion of her monograph on Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, the great mystic of Basra who died in 801, the English scholar Margaret Smith wrote: “There is a multitude of holy women [...]. They undoubtedly represent the most sublime loftiness that Muslim women can attain. Because of the respect that Muslim men have shown them and the example that these holy women offer to other Muslim women, it is possible to nourish a real hope that for Muslim women of our own time too there is a possibility of advancing towards a higher standard of religious and social life”.

“Ahmad Ghazzali with a Disciple” (The Encounters of the Lovers, 1552)

The first edition of Margaret Smith’s book dates back to 1928. At that time, even though it was beginning to be threatened, the power of holy men and women over the consciences of the faithful and the importance of the holy sites dedicated to them in the both urban and rural areas was far greater than it is today. The transformations undergone by the contemporary Islamic world coincide to a large extent with a twilight of the saints, to take up the title of James Grehan’s book (2014) on popular religion in Syria and Palestine between the 18th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. As from this period, as well as redrawing political boundaries, new territorial divisions redesigned sacred geography and people’s imaginations. At both ends of the ancient Ottoman Empire, after the First World War the mausoleums of holy people were turned into museums, as in the Turkish Republic, or completely razed to the ground, as in Saudi Arabia. In other countries of the region, where discontinuity was not quite so brutal, faith in saints lost its social influence and intellectual prestige in the face of the ascent of the secularist and fundamentalist ideologies. The disenchantment of the new intellectuals is captured in its dramatic dimension in a paradigmatic novella by the Egyptian writer Yahya Hakki, The Lamp of Umm Hashim, published in 1944.The lamp in the title is the one hanging beneath the dome in the Mosque of Sayyida Zaynab, which dominates the poor neighbourhood of Cairo where Ismail’s family lives, consisting of his parents and an orphaned cousin. When Ismail, who has recently returned from London where he studied medicine for seven years, discovers that his mother uses the holy oil from the lamp to heal the diseased eyes of his cousin, he rushes in fury into the mosque and destroys the lamp with blows from a stick. Ismail carries out his iconoclastic act in the name of “science” as opposed to “superstition”. For the new secularist leaderships, as for the theologians who condemn the cult of saints, popular “superstition” is a deviation from the truth that must be corrected, if necessary by violent means.

:  “Layla and Majnun”, Azerbaijani rug

In fact, in the context of modernization from the top down, the twilight of the saints entails a further dwindling of the power of the popular classes, given that in Islam holiness is in the first place vox populi, a recognition from the bottom which often confers authority on the humblest people. One example of this is the widespread veneration of holy women, despite the discreet presence of women in the written sources. The certainly fictional figure of Su’ud, the teacher of Dhu-l-Nun who died in 859 and is described in this issue by Francesco Chiabotti, accumulates various forms of marginality common to other figures of women saints: she was not only a former slave and black but also a former singer and courtesan.

The active role of the people in the creation of saints does not necessarily involve a conflict with the theology of the literary classes. As Nelly Amri’s article – a little later in this issue – shows, the theory of holiness worked out by Ibn ‘Arabi, which justifies the possibility for a woman to reach the highest level of holiness and also to be a prophet, has provided the anonymous author of the hagiography of the Tunisian holy woman Mannubiyya with the conceptual frame that enables him to consecrate with a book the cult of a woman “enraptured with God” who during her life had challenged the rules of the separation between the sexes, giving rise to severe condemnation on the part of her contemporaries.

The success of Sufism until modern times is also due to its role as a bridge between popular faith and theology, as well as between the profane and the religious culture, the poetic imagination and the visionary faculty.

In addition to the weakening of broad classes of the population excluded from the benefits of modernization, the twilight of the saints coincided with the crisis of authority linked in Islamic culture to the notion of holiness. Tarbiya, the Arabic term for education, from a verb which means “to bring up”, “to raise”, is semantically close to the Latin auctoritas, derived from the verb augeo. The generative character of the transmission of knowledge is symbolized by breast-feeding. The Sufi teacher is in fact sometimes portrayed as a wet nurse. The Prophet’s ability to accept the descent of the divine Word with a virgin heart is connected to another female symbol. According to some commentators this is the explanation of the epithet ummi (more often understood as “illiterate”), which is attributed to him in the Qur’an (7,157). In his comment on this verse Baghawi (d. 1122) cites a tradition which suggests that this prophetic faculty is accessible to all believers. According to this tradition, God announces to Moses the advent of the community of Muslim believers, describing it in these words: “I shall put my Pacifying Presence (sakîna, equivalent to the Hebrew shekinah) in their hearts and they will recite the Torah by heart, reading it in their hearts: men and women will recite it, the free man and the slave, the small and the great”.

“Layla and Majnun Faint on Meeting” (Nezami, Khamsa 1550-1660)

“Abdallah Ibn Mas’ud, the Prophet’s companion of humble origins whose special authority was recognized because of his understanding of the Qur’an with the intelligence of his heart, was called Ibn Umm Abd, the “son of the mother of a servant”, a nickname which refers to his being the son of his mother rather than of his father, because only his mother enjoyed religious prestige for her faith and her familiarity with the Prophet. According to Ibn Mas’ud, the Prophet said: “God will not sanctify (yuqaddisu) a people who do not give the weak their due”. He himself described God’s friends as those who “ask for rain and are heard, cause the earth to germinate, pray against tyrants who are broken into pieces and keep scourges away”. “Intimacy” (uns) with God gives his friends the courage to speak to him with unheard of freedom in their prayers of intercession. Another fruit of this intimacy is the trust of animals, a subject which frequently recurs in the hagiographies of Muslim ascetics of the earliest period.

It is said of Rabi’a that animals did not flee from her because of her total abstinence from animal foods. Of the black slave woman, Maymuna al-Sawda it is recounted that she took the sheep to graze and that while she was praying they mingled fearlessly with wolves. The ascetic Abd al-Wahid ibn Zayd (d. 793) went to seek her having heard a woman in a mental asylum say that Maymuna would be his bride in paradise. He found her clad in a tunic embroidered with the words “not to be bought or sold”. In this tale, as in the idyll between Su’ud and Dhu-l-Nun, intimacy with God re-establishes, together with friendship between human beings and animals, that between women and men, dislodging the core of violence inherent in relationships of domination.

It is not surprising that the Sufi sources continue to offer resources to Muslim women scholars and thinkers committed to reconnecting the modern discourse on the rights and dignity of women with the classical patrimony. This remains up to date not only because it gives a voice to an ideal of egalitarianism but also because of its ability to bring to centre state the permanent conflict of this ideal with the profound social and psychological forces which hinder its realization.

Samuela Pagani




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 19, 2019