Historically, South Asia has been a land of Sufis—many eminent Sufis arrived from various parts of the world and settled there. South Asian history provides ample evidence of the lives and contributions of these devotees. However, the focus of that history has tended to be on male Sufis. Where women appear in history at all, they are recorded as relatives or followers of male Sufis rather than Sufi saints in their individual capacity. Their contributions in the development of Sufism are either ignored or marginalised.
The history of Islam is full of women mystics who achieved high status in the spiritual order. Rābi’a al-‘Adawiyya (Rabia Basri) was one of the most influential Sufi saints of the eighth century. She was an intellectual who tutored people and left a strong legacy for Muslim women to follow her to attain spiritual elevation. The two most prominent teachers of one of the greatest Muslim scholars, poet and mystic, Muhammad bin Ibn al-’Arabī, were women: Shams from Merchana and Fatima from Cordoba. Some other prominent names of early Sufi women include Halima of Damascus, Rabi’a bint Ismail, Lubaba, Fatima of Damascus, Sha‘wana, Ghufayra al-Abida, Dhakkara, and Fātima al-Barda‘iyya. These women had been participating and contributing to diverse activities in Sufi traditions.
Those early Sufi women in Islam laid the foundations for women’s participation in Sufism around the world, particularly in South Asia, where women had been central to the propagation of Sufi traditions for centuries. But history has not been fair in recognising their contributions. As Annmarie Schimmel mentions in her book, Mystical Dimensions of Islam:
“Names of women saints are found throughout the world of Islam, though only few of them have been entered into the official annals… the area in which women saints flourished most is probably Muslim India.”
The Sufi women of South Asia were not only practising saints but some of them were also the mothers of the leaders of the major Sufi orders. One such example is Hazrat Bibi Zulaykha, the venerated mother of Shaikh Nizamu’d-Din Auliya (d.1325), one of the leading Sufi saints of India and the founder of the Chishti-Nizami order. He was only five when his father died. His mother, Bibi Zulaykha raised him. Mohammad Yasin records in his book, Reading in Indian History:
“It was her who kindled the spark of Divine love in him, which later moulded his entire being and dominated his thought and action.”
Shaikh Abdul Haq Muhaddis Dehalvi also provides some more interesting information about this beautiful mother-son relationship in his Persian work, Akhbaru’l-Akhyar. He mentions that Shaikh Nizamu’d-Din Auliya used to say about his mother:
“Walida mara ba Khuda Ta’ala asna’I bud.” (My mother was the way towards the kingdom of God.)
On another occasion, he sheds light on her reliance on God or Tawakkal, one of the cornerstones of Sufism.
When the house was bereft of food, she consoled him by saying:
“Imroz ma mehman-e Khdayem.” (Today we are the guests of God.)
Even after her death, Shaikh Nizamu’d-Din Auliya used to visit her tomb regularly.
Similarly, another prominent Sufi woman, Hazrat Bibi Fatima Sam, lived in Delhi in the 13th century. Whatever fragmented information is available about her suggests that she was an adopted sister of Hazrat Baba Farid (d.1265) who always admired her piety and sanctity. She regarded Baba Farid and his brother, Shaikh Najamu’d-Din Mutawakkil, as her own brothers.
The Malfuzaat (Discourses) of Shaikh Nizamu’d-Din Auliya (RA) suggests that he was an admirer of her poetry and had memorised a famous hemistich composed by her:
“A person who is seeker of ‘Dive Love’ and at the same time concerned with the safety and security of his personal life, cannot become a true lover.”
Shaikh Abdul Haq Muhaddis Dehalvi writes about her thus: “Bibi Auliya was one of the most pious ladies of her time.”
Another prominent female Sufi named Bibi Sahiba Kalan (d.1803) was a leading scholar-saint of the Afghan Empire. Bibi Sahiba studied theology, Islamic law and medicine and was recognised as a great educationalist and mystic. She travelled to North India, Central Asia and Arabia and built and managed educational institutes and shrines. Only a very limited historical record is available about her life and work. Dr Waleed Ziad from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has recently collected extensive information about her remarkable achievements through his fieldwork across Afghanistan and Pakistan. His forthcoming book, Sufi Masters of the Afghan Empire: Bibi Sahiba and Her Spiritual Network, will give a detailed account of the life of Bibi Sahiba as the “most exalted saint” of the age.
Tahera Aftab records in her book, Sufi Women of South Asia: Veiled Friends of God, many prominent yet forgotten Sufi women of South Asia. Some of them are mentioned below:
Hazrat Bibi Rasti (Bibi Pakdaman), mother of Shaikh Rukn-i-Alam (d.1335) was the daughter of Sultan Jamal’d-Din of Farghana, a state in Central Asia and came to India with her family. She was married to Makhdum Shaikh Sadaru’d-Din Arif Qattal (d.1286) son of Shaikh-ul-Islam Bahau’d-Din Zakariyya (d. 1267).
Hazrat Bibi Raushan Ara (1279 - 1342), a daughter born into an Indian immigrant family in Mecca, travelled to Delhi in 1321 along with her brother, Pir Saiyyid Abbas Ali, and his wife. Shaikh Hasan Shah, a Qadri Sufi of Delhi, sent her and her brother to Bengal where she died in 1342 and was buried in the village of Kathulia in Bashirhat district near the Ichhamati river.
Hazrat Ma Sahiba Ashraf-i do-jahan (d.1369) came from Bokhara to Korchi, a town on the banks of river Krishna and subsequently moved to Multan.
The Sufi women of South Asia played a central role in promoting Sufi teachings and traditions as mystics, mentors, poets, patrons, and mothers of male Sufi saints. Gender plays an interesting role in Sufism and several male Sufi saints preferred to have a strong female character in their love stories, such as Sassi, Sohni, and Hir. Similarly, Sufi poets such as Baba Bulleh Shah and Amir Khusrau always had a dominant female voice in their poetry.
The invaluable contribution of women in the development of Sufism in South Asia is one of the most important and beautiful aspects of Sufism in that region. The remarkable life stories and struggles of those women deserve remembrance and celebration in a comparable manner as the stories of the male Sufis.
Rehman Anwer was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan. He studied Human Rights at Kingston University, London. He is an activist and has been working on several human rights-based campaigns in the U.K. Rehman is currently serving as a public servant focussing on promoting community cohesion and tackling hate crime. His published writing has primarily highlighted human rights violations and societal issues. The Fundamentals of Sufism, his first book, was published by Broken Leg Publications.