One of my favourite verses of the Quran is Surah Al Azhab which makes it clear that spiritual blessings are intended for both righteous men and women who are equal in the eyes of God. The woman “auliya” meaning friend of God appeared in the early history of Islam and the dignity of sainthood was conferred on women as much as men.
The doctrine of Sufism which seeks Union with God through love and devotion does not leave space for the distinction of sex. Islam has no order of priesthood and nothing prevents a woman from achieving great mystical heights. Sufis themselves have chosen the famed mystic woman Rabia al Basri (717-801 CE from Basra, Iraq) as the representative of the first development of mysticism in Islam. Rabia was consumed by love and desire for God and a famous anecdote explains the Sufi attitude. Rabia was found running while carrying a fire torch in one hand and a pail of water in the other. When people asked the meaning of her actions, the Sufi replied, “I am going to burn paradise with the fire and dampen the fires of Hell with this water so that people love God for the sake of God and not for want of paradise or the fear of Hell”.
Among the other early women mystics are Umm Haram (who brought up Prophet Muhammad) whose tomb is in Cyprus, Rabia bint Ismail of Syria, Muadha al Adaiyya of Syria, Nafisa of Mecca, Zainab and Ishi Nili of Persia. These women made major contributions to the vitality and development of Islamic thought. For Sufis, it is the inner purpose of heart that matters and not outward forms. Some amongst Delhi Sufi women are recognised the world over.
Bibi Fatima Sam’s shrine is in Kaka Nagar facing the Oberoi Hotel in Delhi and the tombstone recognises her title as the Rabia of Delhi. The mystic woman is frequently mentioned in the published discourses of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325 CE), who met her when she was alive and continued to visit her shrine for meditation. Commenting on Bibi Fatima’s spiritual status, the Sufi master said “When the lion has come out of the forest, nobody asks if it is male or female.” She was the adopted sister of my master Baba Farid Ganj e Shaker. Bibi Fatima Sam once told me “The saints will cast away both worldly and religious blessings to give a piece of bread or a drink of water to someone in need. This is a spiritual state one cannot obtain by one hundred thousand fasts and prayers.
You may seek love and you may seek soul.
“Seek them both, but it won’t be easy”.
It is believed that after her death she appeared in a fellow Sufis dream and said “One day by appointment I went to the revered Lord and passed some angels who asked, ‘Who are you and why should you be proceeding so carelessly?’ I replied, ‘I have sworn an oath that I shall not move till God himself summons me’; the wife and the daughter of Prophet Muhammad came and I fell at their feet. They said ‘Fatima Sam, who is there like you today? God has sent us in search of you’. I said, ‘I am your slave; but I have sworn an oath’. Then the decree came from God: ‘Fatima Sam speaks rightly. You both must depart and leave her alone.’ Then I heard God call, ‘Come to Me, to Me.’ I moved and spoke to the lord.”
Bibi Zulekha known as Mai Sahiba is the mother of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Widowed early, she brought up her son and daughter Bibi Jannat under great hardship earning a living by weaving cloth. When there was nothing to eat in the house, Mai Sahiba would say,”Nizamuddin. Today we are the guests of God”. She explained to the children that God sent down spiritual nourishment which was different than the taste of worldly food.
Mai Sahiba was a pious woman completely devoted to God. One new moon she said, “Nizam! At whose feet shall you put your head next month”? The Shaikh with tears in his eyes said, ” At whose care shall you entrust me?. “I will tell you tomorrow” Mai Sahiba replied and directed him to go and sleep in the neighbouring house of Shaikh Najeeb ud din Mutawakkil, Baba Farids brother and disciple. In the early hours of the morning the maid servant rushed to call Mai Sahiba’s son who hurried to the house. She held his right hand and said, “O God. I entrust him to Thee” Having said this, Mai Sahiba breathed her last.
Mai Sahiba’s shrine is on Sri Aurobindo Marg earlier known as the Adhchini village. The shrine is visited by hundreds of devotees, specially women. It is believed that Mai Sahiba cannot bear the sorrow of a woman and bestows her blessings on them immediately. Whenever in acute distress Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya used to go and pray at his mothers shrine and said his prayers were always answered. Jahanara (1614-1681) daughter of the Emperor Shahjahan, like her brother Dara Shikoh was a Sufi and like him an the authour of biographical works on contemporary and historical Sufi saints. Jahanara wrote a biography of her Sufi mentor Mulla Shah as well as a literary biographical account of the famous Sufi of Ajmer, Moin al-Din Chishty (d. 1236). In “The Confidant of Spirits” the Princess uses the word faqira the feminine form of faqir to signify her own spiritual vocation as a Sufi woman.
Image: Tomb of Princess Jahanara (1614-1681)
Jahanara spent many weeks along with her father Shahjehan at Ajmer seeking the blessings of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz. The princess details her spiritual activities at the shrine and her mystical experiences. “Praise be to God as I attained the happiness of pilgrimage to the illuminated and perfumed tomb of the revered saving master. I went to the holy sanctuary and rubbed my pale face on the dust of the threshold. From the door-way to the blessed tomb I went barefoot, kissing the ground. Having entered the dome, I went around the light-filled tomb of my master seven times, sweeping it with my eyelashes, and making the sweet-smelling dust of that place the mascara of my eyes. Of Khwaja she wrote,
Our Moin ud-Din is annihilated in God,
And after that he subsists in the absolute essence.
The Sufi princess is buried in a small white marble tomb, open to the elements and devoid of any dome opposite her beloved Sufi Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. The inscription on her shrine reads as follows:
He is the Living, the Sustaining.
Let no one cover my grave except with greenery,
For this very grass suffices as a tomb cover for the poor.
The annihilated faqira Lady Jahanara,
Disciple of the Lords of Chisht, Daughter of Shahjahan the Warrior
(May God illuminate his proof).”