In the early Islam, women were considered inferior, but due to the evolution of mysticism as a cult that emerged from within the Islamic faith, it has made many women attain the level of sainthood that was earlier a preserve for men only. The Islamic religion has a caste system for the priesthood that was strictly for men.
According to Smith (1977), “It is the development of mysticism or Sufism within Islam, which gave women their great opportunity to attain the rank of sainthood.” The objective of the mysticism is to renounce the worldly things and become clean so that one can have total devotion to God.
Al-wahatiyya in Al-Sulami (1021) defined Sufism as “…rejecting all worldly means of support and ending all worldly attachment.” Thus, the religion of mysticism is about focusing on the heavenly interests and purposes rather than getting involved with the people or material things.
Mysticism regards gender equality in serving God because “in the spiritual life, there could be neither male nor female. All whom God had called to be the saints could attain, by following the Path, to union with Himself, and all who attained, have their royal rank, as spiritual beings, in the world to come” (Smith, 1977). The Sufi women aimed at perfect union with God by making sure that they had no extra burden from the world to carry as they had better relinquish their burden through repentance than continually carry the burden in the sinful world.
Mysticism is a form of religion among Sufi women where the women are the leaders in its establishment and development. Rabi’a of Basra was chosen to be the first woman saint to lead mysticism because she the Islamic region no longer restricts women from reaching sainthood.
The Sufi women heaped lot of praises to the Rabi’a that she was devoted to God like men; hence, she is more than just a woman. Smith (1997), describes Rabi’a as “the head of the women disciples and the chief of the women ascetics, of those who observed the sacred law, who were God fearing and zealous… and she was one of those who were pre-eminent and experienced in grace and goodness.”
The religious qualities of Rabi’a made her to be given chance to lead in the growth of mysticism by the Sufi woman. The biography of the saint Rabi’a is so fascinating and mystical she grew without parents, become a slave and her devotion to God made her master release her. When she was free, she experienced direct communication with God as the sakina glory of God shone over her head when she prayed.
Rabi’a took her pilgrimage to Mecca and on her way, the ass she was using to carry her luggage died and Instead of seeking help from strangers, she refused saying that she was dependent on God only but not His creatures. She earnestly prayed until a miracle happened when her ass stirred up and the she continues on her pilgrim journey. God in the desert directly answered the prayers of Rabi’a and this encourages her to devote her life to God more.
When Rabi’a successfully completed her pilgrimage, she went back to Basra where she become devoted to God and walk according to mystic Way of renouncing the world and asceticism. Rabi’a resolved to remain celibate because she considered marriage as a hindrance to the attainment and fulfillment of the highest will of God.
According to Smith (1977), “…purgation was the first stage towards stage towards the attainment of the mystic’s goal, and asceticism was enjoined on all who entered the novitiate.” The Way of mysticism begins when one renounce the worldly distractions like marriage as in the case of Rabi’a and then a process of daily devotion in order to be made clean and free from sins.
Fatima is another Sufi woman of Nishapur who demonstrated sainthood. She was the oldest Gnostic and many people come to seek her so that she can interpret and reveal the secrets within the Quran. She was very famous due to her great devotion to God in that many commended as the second Mary. Fatima (Al-Sulami, 1021) said, “One who acts for the sake of God while desiring to witness Him is a Gnostic, whereas one who acts in the hope that God will notice him is the sincere believer.”
Fatima dedicated her life in the service of God and many people realized her devotion. Abu Yazd (Al-Sulami 1021) admits that, “In all of my life, I have only seen one true man and one true woman. The woman was Fatima of Nishapur. When informed her about one of the stages of spirituality, she would take the news as if she had experienced it herself.”
Other Sufi women have been shown to have strong mystic beliefs; taking their time in solitude while praying and fasting, renouncing the world pleasure like marriage, even though against cultural and religious persuasions of Muslims depicts how the women of Sufi are zealous in their services to God
Islam and Mysticism
Mysticism is a cult within the Islamic religion because some of its teachings are not solely based on the Quran but other sources. The Rabi’a experience during her pilgrim in the desert is like to the Biblical experience of Moses, the sakina glory corresponded to halo in Christianity.
The concepts of purgation and repentance have Biblical origin. Quran teaching recognizes the teachings of the prophet Muhammad as the central to the beliefs of Muslims. Smith (1977) proves that, “the title saint was bestowed to women upon equality with men, and since Islam has no order of priesthood and no priestly caste, there was nothing to prevent a woman from reaching the highest religious rank in the hierarchy of Muslim saints.”
The mysticism grew because when the women were given equal chance of serving God, they exercised Islamic belief out of the context of Quran and introduced their fundamental beliefs of asceticism, celibacy and purgation as the necessary requirement to attain highest level of mysticism. The Muslim theologians were against mysticism as the movement of the Sufi women because of their sainthood, their influence and the form of worship they were practicing.
The religion of mysticism is depicted as the religion of women and that the women are the most devoted in their service to God. The devotion of Rabi’a, Fatima and other saints is that of asceticism and their experiences impact greatly on the religious and social aspects of their societies.
Many men praised their good works and service to God. For example, a man had to say this about Fatima, “In all of my life, I have only seen one true man and one true woman. The woman was Fatima of Nishapur. When informed her about one of the stages of spirituality, she would take the news as if she had experienced it herself” (Al-Sulami, 1021).
Fatima is equated to a man in her capacity of serving God meaning women have been treated as inferior in their abilities to serve God with the great zeal as men. The establishment of mysticism gave women a chance to be equal with their male counter parts and attain sainthood. Smith (1977) quotes Attar that, “saintship may be found in a woman as naturally as in a man.” The prophets teach that, what matters to God is the purpose of the heart and not the outward appearance.
The Sufi women are the women who serve God with great zeal. The emergence of mysticism provided gender equality in the Islamic religion thus women explored their capacities to reach sainthood and incorporated other believes other than the Islamic beliefs that lead to their rejection by the Muslim theologians. Mysticism is a form of religion among Sufi women that involve asceticism and purgation so that one can appear worth to worship God and attain eternal bliss.
Mysticism has demonstrated the women’s ability to serve God equally as men, dismissing the cultural and societal perceptions that had limited and degrades their pursuits of eternal life. Their male counter parts and theologians were appalled by the influence of the Sufi women, threatening the own influence on the religion and the society. Thus, mysticism becomes the appealing religion to women because of the freedom from the restricting Islamic laws and culture.
Al-Sulami, A. (1021). A Memorial of Female Sufi Devotees, Fons Vitae.
Smith, M. (1977). Rabi’a the Mystic. The University of Texas Press.USA
Early Sufi Women