As I was growing up, Islam’s benevolent female saints existed in my imagination as otherworldly matchmakers.
Common features of my family’s infrequent summer holidays with relatives in Egypt were visits to mosques enclosing the shrines of Sayyida Zainab and Sayyida Nafisa, two descendants of the Prophet Muhammad who have come to be regarded as Cairo’s patron saints, may God grant them peace and blessings. My mother, often with her sisters who lived in smaller cities along the Suez Canal, would arrange mini pilgrimages to these grand Cairene mosques for a single purpose: to pray for suitable partners for their unmarried children.
Amidst weeps and whispers, they would gather around the mausoleums of these saints offering earnest prayers to rescue their single daughters and sons from the matrimonial side lines. From beyond the divide between this world and the next, these venerable women of faith would intimately identify with the anguish experienced by mothers unwed children and act as intermediaries with God in removing the obstacles blocking the perfect partner from springing forth – at least that was the hope of my female kin.
While my own memories of these visits are vague and likely layered by personal accounts relayed by my mother over the years, the urgency placed on marriage left me feeling perplexed. The more I found myself becoming the focal point of the prayers, the more frustrating and painful these pilgrimages became.
By my mid- and then late 20s, the cultural pressures to wed young and my inability to make it happen inadvertently alienated me from faith, and obscured my view of the spiritual significance and prowess of these female saints. My only encounters with them were a manifestation of socio-culture pressures that dictate a woman’s value lies solely in her success as a wife and mother, a line of thinking that left me jaded and confined rather than empowered by their presence.
It took a serendipitous encounter with Sayyida Zainab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and Sayyida Nafisa, who descended from the Prophet through his grandson Hasan, many years later when I was 31 for me to reimagine their places in my life.
That year I experienced a profound spiritual encounter with God which I often refer to as an “awakening”. Following a moment of discerning clarity one morning in late May 2010, I was consumed by ecstatic Divine love and yearned to surrender myself to Him/Her, a state of existence known as Islam.
In the days that followed, I sought to understand the transformation taking place in my heart and found nourishment from two sources.
The pages of the Quran, which I read from cover to cover for the first time, enlivened my soul with lessons on how orienting my life around prayer, charity, fasting, patience in adversity and good deeds would bring consistent fulfilment and peace. I found comfort in assurances that the Almighty places no burden on a soul greater than it is able to bear, and that He/She provides believers “a light to help you walk in.”
It was in a chapter entitled “A Jewel of Knowledge” that I was reacquainted with Sayyida Nafisa and Sayyida Zainab. Nafisa, I read, was renowned for her ability to cure eye ailments and dedication to acts of worship like prayer, fasting and charity. So immense was her religious wisdom that “even her great contemporary, the Imam al-Shafi’i, used to come and listen to her discourses and enter into discussions with her.”
In later readings about Sayyida Zainab, I discovered she was a teacher known for her eloquence and clarity. Her defiance against oppression and injustice and devotion to God were so monumental that even witnessing the slaughter of her brother Hussain, the Prophet’s grandson, during the Battle of Karbala only deepened her Self Surrender.
These stories and many others of Islam’s remarkable women left me wanting to emulate rather than run away from them. While Islam holds marriage in high regard, my new spiritual role models weren’t revered for their successes at being wives and mothers, which I’m certain they excelled at. Rather, they were venerated for their active roles in society, their use of knowledge to inspire and teach their peers, men and women, their ability to face incredible hardship with patience, and truly surrender their souls in a union with God.
Learning about the lives of the saints whose shrines I shirked at visiting years earlier liberated me from the cultural pressures that regarded being unmarried as a failure and a fault. Rather than denounce my marital status for not conforming to social norms, they taught me to accept the path God had chosen for me and start looking inward for fulfillment, because the transience of relationships to things, people and places rarely offer enduring satisfaction.
As prayers for my marriage from my mother and aunts continue to accumulate, I could say that Cairo’s patron saints have already interceded on my behalf as matchmakers of a different sort. Peering into their lives inspired how I would seek to forge the most significant union of all, my bond with God. I’ve become more receptive to the echoes of Divine Love reverberating across the universe and, I hope, more generous and gracious in sharing them in my roles as a daughter, sister, friend, manager and God willing someday, partner.
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it”
– Jalaluddin Rumi