Syed Rezaul Karim explores how Sufi traditions and beliefs afford women the utmost respect and veneration
Women through the ages in all cultures and religions have suffered the role of the subordinate. In to-day's world there are talks about equality of man and woman with regard to women's rights and role in society.
Most religions treat women as less than equal to man. In Christianity she is blamed her for the "original sin," the seduction of Adam to eat the forbidden fruit culminating in their exit from heaven. It is unthinkable for a woman to preside over a Hindu temple as a high priest as much as it is impossible to see the Pope in the Vatican in the form of a woman.
Nor is it possible to visualise an Imam of the Kaba Sharif as a woman. Luckily there does not exist a priestly class in Islam to interfere on behalf of the ordinary man and woman. The Quran speaks very clearly of individual responsibilities. Surah 82 states: "No soul shall have power to do ought for another." No one soul can intercede for another. It is the individual responsibility that matters only.
Shariah is an Islamic legal framework -- an assortment of codes within the bounds of which a Muslim has to navigate his/her material and spiritual life. Shariah codes were compiled almost two centuries after the Prophet's death. Viewed differently, Shariah is the shell of religion, the outward cover of faith. It can be compared to a body, which houses the soul. If the soul is inert, the Shariah is dead too.
Over the course of time, simple Quranic precepts have been interpreted more and more narrowly. "Customs and attitudes lacking any and all Quranic foundation have become increasingly rigid. This rigidity in turn, has taken on an almost canonical character. Much of what is represented as 'Islamic' today stems from these increasingly petrifying stratifications," observes the late Professor Anne Marie Schimmel who devoted her life to understanding Islamic culture.
Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam developed in the early eighth century, began as an ascetic movement where the central role was played by a woman, Rabia-Al-Adawiya (b. 717). Rabia of Basra as she was known was credited with "having transformed somber asceticism into genuine love mysticism." She declared: "I want to pour water into hell and set paradise into fire, so that these two veils disappear and nobody shall any longer worship God out of fear of hell or hope of heaven, but solely for the sake of his eternal beauty."
Sufis are therefore more concerned with the yearning and pain of soul in search of God's love and proximity rather than with the norms and nuances of Shariah. One of the greatest Sufi saints, Hazrat Bayezid-Al-Bustami said: "Because of superficial thoughts what appears to be hypocrisy in the enlightened ones is in fact better than what is felt to be sincerity in the beginner."
Women in Sufi perception can be gleaned through the Quranic verse, Al-Bakara where Allah declares: "Women are a garment onto you and you are a garment onto them." A scientific interpretation of this in religion would mean one is the "alter ego" of the other. The garment being a portion or aspect of a person is frequently used to represent the whole person.
It was the development of Sufism within Islam which gave women their great opportunity to attain the rank of sainthood. Al-Hijwiri, the 11th century saint and scholar buried in Lahore popularly known as Data Ganz Baksh who authored Kashf-al-Mahjub wrote: "You must know that principle and foundation of Sufism and Knowledge of God rests on saintship." Attar the 12th century mystic and poet who embraced martyrdom, observed: "The holy prophets have laid down that 'God' does not look upon your outward forms."
It is not the outward form that matters, but the inner purpose of heart.
The great Andalusian Sufi master, Ibn-al-Arabi (d. 1240) conjures up the Sufi perception of woman from the saying of our prophet Hazrat Mohammad (SM): "God has made dear to me from your world woman and fragrance and the joy of my eye is prayer."
Ibn-al-Arabi interpreted this as the Prophet did not love woman for natural reasons, "he loved them because God made them lovable." Fragrance is associated with feminine element on the one hand and holiness with the other. The word "fragrance" connects "woman" with "prayer." Sufis dealt with this mysterious relationship as food for thought.
We know of Quranic exhortations and the prophetic traditions elevating the status of "mother" to a very high pedestal deserving love and care. It is no wonder then to find what Moulana Jalaluddin Rumi the greatest mystic poet and a Sufi saint wrote on woman: "She is a ray of God, she is not that earthly beloved / she is creative, you might say, she was not created."
Sufi masters identify the human soul with the feminine element. She is the divine gift to Adam to comfort him in his loneliness. "She is the manifestation of that divine ocean which she had left, hence her greatness," remarks Professor Schimmel. The divine reveals itself most beautifully in woman, felt Ibn-al-Arabi.
We can conclude with the following remark of Moulana Jalaluddin Rumi: "The body is like Mary. Each of us has a Jesus (within) but our Jesus will not be born before we experience pain. If pain never comes Jesus will return to his origins along with the same mysterious path by which he came and we remain behind, bereft and deprived of any benefit."
Syed Rezaul Karim is a former MD of Hoechst Bangladesh Ltd.