Gender and Sexuality
Written by: Nancy Khalek
One of the most common plaints about Sufism is that it is remarkably open to women's public performance of worship. There are famous female Sufis, whose careers and hagiographies date to as early as the late 8th- and early 9th-century C.E. Rabia al-'Adawiyya (d. 801) was famous for her desire to worship God neither for fear of hell nor desire for paradise but out of love. In certain stories associating her with another great early figure of Sufism, Al-Hasan al-Basri, she is seen to surpass him in both wisdom and piety.
Perhaps due to a readiness to integrate local culture, in some Sufi circles women and men participate in ceremonies together. In other cases, orders are comprised entirely of women, with women teachers, called shaykhas. The Qubaysiyyat in Syria and Lebanon are among the most popular and populous female orders in the Middle East today.
But women's participation in teaching and learning among Sufis is not limited to the modern period. Ibn Arabi (d. 1240 C.E.) listed two female Sufis among his teachers, Shams and Fatimah. He referred to Fatimah as a Gnostic whom he served for several years. Another famous Fatimah, Fatimah Nishapuri, lived in Mecca in the 9th century, and was regarded among the greatest of Sufis by her male contemporaries.
In terms of sexuality, Sufism has occasionally been controversial in one respect: its use of the language of eroticism and passion to describe the relationship with God, the Beloved. As in all branches of Islam, Sufism does not prescribe celibacy. Many famous Sufis were married and had children, though others were indeed celibate. Al-Ghazzali actually wrote on the virtue of sexuality and marriage when practiced properly and when inclusive of the desire to procreate.
Overall, therefore, an aversion to sexuality itself is not a major issue for Sufis any more than other desires. It does not stand out among other physical desires, such as the need for food or sleep. Yet the language of love and passion is an enormously important aspect of Sufi literature in discussing a relationship with God.
Love imagery is expressed in the following poem by Rumi, entitled "Love is the Master":
Love is the One who masters all things;
I am mastered totally by Love.
By my passion of love for Love
I have ground sweet as sugar.
O furious Wind, I am only a straw before you;
How could I know where I will be blown next?
Whoever claims to have made a pact with Destiny
Reveals himself a liar and a fool;
What is any of us but a straw in a storm?
How could anyone make a pact with a hurricane?
God is working everywhere his massive Resurrection;
How can we pretend to act on our own?
In the hand of Love I am like a cat in a sack;
Sometimes Love hoists me into the air,
Sometimes Love flings me into the air,
Love swings me round and round His head;
I have no peace, in this world or any other.
The lovers of God have fallen in a furious river;
They have surrendered themselves to Love's commands.
Like mill wheels they turn, day and night, day and night,
Constantly turning and turning, and crying out.
In this poem, Rumi, the lover, is completely helpless, like a piece of straw blown about by a hurricane, or a helpless animal tossed into the air. Elsewhere, love is an all-consuming fire, in which the Sufi is consumed as by a fire:
Should Love's heart rejoice unless I burn?
For my heart is Love's dwelling.
If You will burn Your house, burn it, Love!
Who will say, 'It's not allowed'?
Burn this house thoroughly!
The lover's house improves with fire.
From now on I will make burning my aim,
From now on I will make burning my aim,
for I am like the candle: burning only makes me brighter.
Abandon sleep tonight; traverse for one night
the region of the sleepless.
Look upon these lovers who have become distraught
and like moths have died in union with the One Beloved.
Look upon this ship of God's creatures
and see how it is sunk in Love.