Thirteenth-century Sufi poet, mystic, and legal scholar Muhyī al-Dīn Ibn al-‘Arabī gave deep and sustained attention to gender as integral to questions of human existence and moral personhood. Reading his works through a critical feminist lens, Sa‘diyya Shaikh opens fertile spaces in which new and creative encounters with gender justice in Islam can take place. Grounding her work in Islamic epistemology, Shaikh attends to the ways in which Sufi metaphysics and theology might allow for fundamental shifts in Islamic gender ethics and legal formulations, addressing wide-ranging contemporary challenges including questions of women’s rights in marriage and divorce, the politics of veiling, and women’s leadership of ritual prayer. The following is an excerpt from Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn ‘Arabī, Gender, and Sexuality.
Once upon a time, a wise and generous story unfolded. This is how it might be imagined. It is Cairo on a sweltering afternoon, and the faithful are streaming into a beautiful, simple mosque. The Friday (jumu‘a) prayers are about to begin. In the courtyard, people take their ablutions in the cool fountain water that provides welcome relief from the heat of the Cairene afternoon. A group of women sitting close together is silently reciting the Qur’ān. An old man, his face kissed gently by time, is sitting easily upright with eyes closed, meditating on the beautiful names of God. Two old friends, both returning to the city after years of travel, trade, and learning, are greeting each other with a tender embrace. A young man, hands raised in supplication, is softly murmuring his deepest yearnings into the hearing of the omniscient One. As the call to prayer is given, a hush falls over the crowd, with each person repairing to his or her private supplications before the sermon begins.
The preacher ascends the stairs to the pulpit. She is the accomplished spiritual savant Umm Zaynab Fāṭima bint ‘Abbās al-Baghdādiyya, not only the spiritual leader (shaykha) of the Ribāṭ al-Baghdādiyya but renowned among the religious divines of Cairo as a jurist (faqīha) who provides practical legal responses to people’s questions (muftiyya). And yes, it is the fourteenth century. And no, there is no outrage or shock among the congregants that Shaykha Fāṭima is preaching to a mixed gathering of males and females in a mosque. In fact, Shaykha Fāṭima’s reputation as a scholar has traveled with her to Cairo. While living in Damascus, she had trained as a jurisconsult among an elite group of Hanbalī scholars known as the Maqādisa, having studied with one of the great teachers of the city, Shaykh Ibn Abī ‘Umar. Among the women of Damascus and more recently Cairo, she has come to be loved and revered as the wise one who provides refuge and guidance in their spiritual strivings.
She has studied with no less than one of the leading male intellectuals of her time, the protean Taqī al-Dīn ibn Taymiyya. In public circles, he has on occasion praised Shaykha Fāṭima, not only for her intelligence and knowledge but also for her personal qualities of enthusiasm and excellence. Yet on this hot day in the Cairene mosque, he sits among the congregants unable to quell his state of discomfort. To his great chagrin, Shaykha Fāṭima easily, even presumptuously, ascends and descends from the pulpit as if unaware of the fact that she is, after all, only a woman. This woman appears to be oblivious to any limitations of her sex. As he leaves the mosque after the service, Ibn Taymiyya realizes that his unease and acute irritation with Shaykha Fāṭima’s presence on the pulpit had so overwhelmed him that he had not even heard a word of her sermon. He goes home and falls into a restless afternoon sleep.
Ibn Taymiyya later recalled this incident: “It unsettled me that she mounted the pulpit to deliver sermons and I wished to forbid her.” In Ibn Taymiyya’s inner struggle to stop this self-assured woman from public preaching, he saw the Prophet of Islam in a dream. The Prophet put an end to his anxieties and, according to Ibn Taymiyya, rebuked him, saying, “This is a pious woman.” The prophetic instruction quelled Ibn Taymiyya’s agitation, reconciling him with Shaykha Fāṭima’s role as public preacher.
Who would have thought that one of the most renowned mujtahids of the premodern Muslim world, Taqī al-Dīn ibn Taymiyya, an individual whom many present-day chauvinists claim as their religious luminary, would have been subdued into accepting a woman’s authority by a dream? Indeed, it was no less than the prophetic command that had castigated the Hanbali jurisconsult. This dream not only challenged his fourteenth-century gender lenses but continues to do so for others today, providing a stark contrast with the visions of women that are promoted by the contemporary votaries of Ibn Taymiyya. Very few of Ibn Taymiyya’s followers will energetically recover this view of their intellectual exemplar, either in terms of its gender implications or of the Sufilike recognition of a prophetic dream. But many Muslims have not had the good fortune of an emancipatory prophetic dream foretelling that women’s spiritual equality does in fact have social and ritual implications.
From Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn ‘Arabī, Gender, and Sexuality, by Sa‘diyya Shaikh. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Sa‘diyya Shaikh is senior lecturer of religious studies at the University of Cape Town.
- My creative rendition of this story is based on an anecdote chronicling Ibn Taymiyya’s response to Shaykha Fāṭima’s preaching, recorded by Safadī, A‘yān al-‘asr wa-a‘wān al-nasr, 4:28.↩
- For Maqrīzī’s description of Shaykha Fāṭima, see Al-Mawāʿiz wa al-‘i‘tibār bi dhikr al-khitat wa al-‘athar, 3:602-3.↩
- ‘Asqalāni, Al-Durar al-kāmina fī a’yān al-mi‘a al-thāmina, 3:226.↩
- For this incident, see Safadī, A‘yān al-‘asr wa-a‘wān al-nasr, 4:28.↩
-  Ibid.↩
- Hashmi, “Women” analyzes the complex roles and social relationships in the lives of women religious leaders (including Fāṭima) in Mamluk Cairo and Damascus.↩