In the early days of Islam, Muslim women enjoyed leadership and community building roles. Unfortunately, cultural manifestations corrupted the understanding of their rights. However, women continued to excel as scholars in the field of religious sciences. One fourth of Hadith, Prophetic sayings that form the corpus of Muslim faith have been collected from women transmitters. Many women jurists gave fatwa’s, religious verdicts and no objections were raised when opinions differed from their male contemporaries.
Interestingly, Islamic history acknowledges that while some men were often found guilty of fabricating Hadith, not a single woman was ever accused of such a charge. Their intellectual integrity in conveying religious truth has never been in doubt.
As spiritual masters and exemplars of Islamic piety, Muslim women made their mark in history as scholars, poets, individual mystics, ascetics and founders of Sufi schools. They served as respected teachers, and guides in the same way as did Muslim men, often-surpassing men in their understanding of the Qur’an and Islamic spirituality. As Sulami, a tenth century Iranian scholar wrote a rare study of eighty Sufi women.
One of the most striking aspects of the female Sufis is the certainty expressed in their relationship with God and His love for them. Sufis themselves credit the famed mystic woman Rabia Basri of the late eighth century with the development of the philosophy of Divine Love. Consumed by passion for God, Rabia fostered circles of worship and study. She taught that God be loved for His sake alone, not for the fear of Hell or want of Paradise.
Other early women mystics include Umm Haram whose tomb is in Cyprus, Rabia bint Ismail of Syria, Muadha al Adaiyya of Syria, Nafisa of Makkah, Zainab and Ishi Nili of Persia and Fatima of Nishapur who lived in Makkah. All these women made major contributions to the vitality of Islamic thought.
Ibn al Arabi, of the thirteenth century, one of the greatest Sufi Masters of all time wrote of Shams of Marchena and Fatima of Cordova, two women mystics profoundly influencing him. Bayazid Bistami, the famous ninth century mystic, when asked about his master, he said it was an old woman he had met in the desert. He also spoke of Fatima of Nishapur as one of his teachers, describing her as an advanced mystic. Dhun Nun the great Egyptian Sufi Master too, acknowledged her scholarship and piety.
Someone asked Dhun Nun, ‘Who, in your opinion, is the highest among the Sufis?” He replied, ‘A lady in Mecca, called Fatimah Nishapuri, whose discourse displayed a profound apprehension of the inner meanings of the Qur’an. She is of the friends of God, and my teacher.’ She counseled him, ‘In all your actions, watch that you act with sincerity and in opposition to your lower self. Whoever doesn’t have God in his consciousness is erring and in delusion, whatever language he speaks, whatever company he keeps. Whoever holds God’s company never speaks except with sincerity and assiduously adheres to a humble reserve and earnest devotion in his conduct.’
Sayyida Nafisa of the early ninth century lived in Egypt, gaining a reputation for piety and knowledge of Islam. People in vast numbers sought her prayers. Many religious scholars including Imam Shafai, who founded one of the four major schools of Islamic jurisprudence, attended Nafisa’s discourses and discussed matters of religious law with her. Before Imam Shafai died in 820 CE, he had requested that Nafisa perform funeral prayers for him. His body was taken to her house, for her constant fasting had rendered her too weak to travel.
Despite outward male or female forms, in the Sufi doctrine there is no space for ‘I’, for all that exists is ‘Thou’, the One Divine reality.