Abu ‘Abd ar-Rahman As-Sulami
Rkia E. Cornell, translator
Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999. 270p. Paper. $24.95 ISBN 1887752064.
Early Sufi Women covers two topics currently in vogue among Western
scholars of Islam: Women and Sufism. Given the current spate of negative
publicity Islam is suffering, this is a timely book. It reminds the reader
that burqa-clad non personhood is not the normal state of women in Islam,
nor is legalistic asphyxiation of the spirit its main characteristic.
The present work is a first ever English translation of Dhikr an-niswan
al-muta ‘abbidat assufiyyat (the book of Sufi Women) by Abu ‘Abd ar-Rahman
As-Sulami (937-1021 CE) who wrote it as an appendix to his larger work on
male Sufis called Tabaqat assufiyya. The manuscript from which this
translation is made was thought to be lost until recently and was only
discovered in Riyadh in 1991. Thus it is probably the “oldest Sulami
manuscript in existence” dating to 1081 CE, as well as the earliest
hagiographical work on Sufi women (44).
In the Introduction, women’s Sufi tradition is called “a veiled tradition”
while an attempt is made to unveil this tradition by way of translation of
this early manuscript on Sufi women. This unveiling, as it were, is to the
point of making manifest the role Muslim women played in the religious and
spiritual domains of Islamic life and practice in early Islam. This work
counters the myth prevalent in some circles that, throughout Islamic
history, Muslim women were deprived of spiritual rights, by way of
retelling the stories of spiritually accomplished women. This effort also
highlights the fact that the conservative view of women as being incapable
of spiritual chivalry is neither universal nor authoritative. Indeed Muslim
societies are not homogenous, and the diversity and differences of opinion
concerning the role women play in forms of piety and mystical expressions
Thus the current work under review is important for four reasons: 1) It
comes from a formative period of Islam when legal and theological positions
were in ferment; 2) It focuses on practical rather than speculative Sufism;
3) It recalls the importance of women during the formative period of Islam,
which was passing from memory even at the time the original work was
written; and 4) It includes a splendid introduction to the author and his
period; both the introduction as well as the translation are supplied with
The author, Abu ‘Abd ar-Rahman as-Sulami was born in Nishapur, and lived in
proverbial “interesting times.”(1) The Muslim world was divided into three
competing Caliphates (The Umayyads in Cordoba; The Fatimids in Mahdiyyah,
Tunisia, soon to be in Cairo, and the ‘Abbasids in Baghdad). The
Sunni/Shi’i split was still fresh and the legal lines between the two not
completely solidified. Nishapur was an important military and commercial
center at the time and experienced a veritable cross-fertilization of
ideas, which sometimes led to violence among adherents of various
philosophies. The Mu’tazila/Ash’ari controversy regarding the relation
between reason and revelation was current. The two major legal schools of
Shafi’i and Hanafi were well represented. For our purposes, it is important
to recall that Shaf’i, who died in 820 CE developed the concept of usul
al-fiqh (“roots of jurisprudence”) which holds that inspiration from God
(ilham) is admissible for legal decisions when the Qur’an and Sunnah do not
have clear rulings. This school appealed to the Sufis of Nishapur at this
time regarding legal matters. Philosophically, they tended toward Ash’ari
since they suspected that the Mu’tazila elevated human reason to the point
where they expected God to conform to their imaginings.
As-Sulami’s father, Husayn Muhammad al-Azali was a Sufi of the “path of
blame” (Tariq al-Malama) which flouted external laws in order to draw
external opprobrium and internal blessing upon them. While obviously
scandalous, this was not necessarily insane. For example, when as-Sulami
was born, his father sold off all of his possessions and gave the proceeds
to the poor. This was not to put his son into poverty or to appear overly
pious, but because the new father thought to himself: “A son has been given
to you and you have nothing to give him. If he becomes righteous, he will
be a patron for the righteous. But, if he becomes an evildoer, he has been
given no means to do evil” (31)(2). The tension between outward law and
inner servanthood was thus impressed upon the young man.
His father was absent most of as-Sulami’s life(3), thus he was raised by
his mother’s side of the family and given an excellent education, since
they were a very prominent family. The Shafi’i concept of “roots of
jurisprudence” along with the concept of ilham combined with the young
man’s sensibility to the outward/inward dichotomy caused him to set out to
“usulize”(4) Sufi doctrine so that it may be codified along the same lines
as the hadith literature. The model set was tabaqat (levels or classes)
which codified hadith literature according to the veracity of its sources.
The seminal model was Muhammad Ibn Sa’ad’s (d. 845 CE) al-Tabaqat al-Kubra
(The Greatest Generations)(5) which included portraits of all the bearers
of tradition from the companions of the Prophet to his own contemporaries.
Likewise, as-Sulami includes hadith-style isnad, or chains of authority.
Since these would have given specific knowledge to contemporary readers and
function as a kind of evidence for the overall veracity of the stow, the
translator offers the modern reader footnotes when necessary to enhance
understanding of the text.
As-Sulami was a noted systematizer in his day and his works were widely
spread (considering each copy had to be hand-written). Many of his lost
works are only known by reference in other extant manuscripts. His works
were generally in three genres: 1) Sacred biographies (of which the Dhikr
an-niswa is one); Treatises on Sufi institutions and practices; 3) Qur’anic
commentaries.(6) As mentioned above, the Niswa is actually a portion of a
larger work, the Tabaqat as-Sufiyyah (Generations of Sufis) which is an
abridgement of the even larger Tarikh as-Sufiyyah (History of Sufis).
For the purpose of “usulization” of Sufi doctrine, as-Sulami sets out to
trace the origin of Sufi practices and doctrines while classifying them in
light of the Sunnah, thereby distinguishing the defective doctrines from
the helpful and original ones. His concern is primarily with the acts of
the pious rather than with philosophical speculation. He treats women as
equals to men in their ability to gain exalted levels of intellect ‘aql and
religious observance din and thus presents them as models of imitation for
men as well as women. In this aspect, as the translator rightly points out,
as-Sulami’s book “challenges the legitimacy of modern restrictions on
women’s participation in Sufism by demonstrating that in Sufism’s formative
period, women were not so often excluded from the public aspects of
spiritual life” (20-1).
This work presents eighty-two vignettes of Sufi women in bilingual fashion
with the Arabic text facing the English text.(7) This may add slightly to
the cost of the book, but is extraordinarily useful in helping to
familiarize the English-speaking student of Islam with the classical idiom
while supplying clarification to those more familiar with Arabic that would
not be otherwise available as the text is not readily found in any other
format.(8) The arrangement is more by region than chronologically.
The two main schools are those of Basra and Syria. Basra is the earlier,
flourishing in the 7(th) and 8(th) centuries CE. This would include the
famous Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya (d. 801 CE), who had almost a century of
feminine tradition to draw on in this city. Some of the women of Basra at
this time met in underground circles called saradib and did not usually
meet openly with men. Their characteristic observances included prayer,
fasting and night vigils. Other characteristics include buka, weeping for
the sinful nature of humanity, which is also enjoined upon men by Abu Hafs
of Nishapur (156), and wara’, or systematic avoidance of evil, since the
believer is the slave of God. The famous Rabi’a is depicted as a
spiritually disciplined woman in charge of her mystical states rather than
as an overly emotional soul (74-81).(9)
The Syrian school is linked to the Basra school by Ahmad ibn Abi al-Hawari
and his wife Rabi’a bint Isma’il. Chronologically, this school comes along
a bit later, around the turn of the 9(th) century CE. The Syrian women
spoke of love (mahabba), intimacy (uns) as well as fear (khawf) of God
(64). By the second half of the ninth century, women Sufis mix more freely
with men and even travel sometimes with them. Women’s contributions to the
realm of Sufism were widely recognized. After all it was a Sufi woman,
Rabi’a, who first introduced the notion of pure or `Divine Love’ into the
mystical world of Islam, influencing numerous others who followed in that
Through Divine Love or mahabba, which is the only form of pure love, the
seeker is able, with endurance, to transform oneself from the earthly
practices of self-denial and self-discipline to a higher state of
awareness. By focusing on the love the Sufi attains knowledge (ma’arifa)
that is otherwise hidden from him/her. This self denial encompasses all
aspects of one’s being and is reflective of a highest form of conscious
living. Thus looking at one of Rabi’a’s prayers one can locate the energy
moved by love for rather than fear of the divine majesty of God.
O God! If I worship Thee in fear of Hell, burn me in Hell; and if I worship
Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship Thee
for Thine own sake, withhold not Thine Everlasting Beauty!(11)
The translator notes that as-Sulami’s use of the term, “niswa/niswan”
relates to a masculine counterpart “fitya/fityan”, the latter pair denoting
groups of men who practice futuwwa (young manliness) or chivalry (66). In
doing so, even though he does not seem to advocate separate feminine
spiritual circles, he does imply that women have a “corporate identity” and
have a form of Sufic chivalry of their own. Chivalry, even though often
defined in patriarchal terms, is gender neutral, at least in the spiritual
sense, since it deals with the servitude towards and constant remembrance
of God, seeking the company of good people, to be introspective and having
a focus on removing one’s own defects and to guard one’s soul against all
Women have the same capability as men to become slaves of God rather than
slaves of self and as this collection shows women in early Islam not only
had their own Sufi movements and schools of female asceticism but they were
known for advising men by virtue of their spiritual status which comes not
by virtue of gender, but by the humble practices that lead them closer to
their Lord. Thus in the words of Prof. Annemarie Schimmel:
Throughout the ages we find names of pious women who pursued the mystical
path, either independently or as consorts or mothers of Sufis. Many of
their names are noted in the hagiographical works, and the memory of many
saintly women is kept alive in small sanctuaries found in North Africa,
Anatolia, and particularly in Muslim India. This role of women is not
astonishing since in the Islamic Middle Ages women participated in various
aspects of social life…. In the mystical life, women have played an
important role to this day; even some successful leaders in the modern
traditions have been women.(13)
Like religion in general, Sufism has been affected by modernity and its
response to modernity has been to try to adapt and modify its practices,
and in some places this meant shrouding it in a more conservative cloak,
thus displacing the role women played in it in the past.(14) This is to say
that historical performance is one thing, and contemporary situation is
another. Women’s role in the religious life of contemporary Muslim
societies varies depending on many external factors, including but not
limited to Wahabi influences.(15) Indeed as mentioned in the Introduction
to this excellent work, today “it is rare to find a Sufi order that accepts
women as a matter of policy,” with the exception of some groups in Moroccan
and Turkish Sufism (18-9).(16)
Over all this work is a rich resource and would be quite useful for those
interested in issues concerning women in Islam. In our view this work goes
a long way in disseminating a better understanding of the role of Muslim
women in history. To conclude, in the words of Prof. Nasr, this work is a
“testament to the role of women in the Sufi tradition in the past and to
female spirituality in Islam in general.”(17)
(1) The translator suggests Richard W. Bulliet. The Patricians of Nishapur:
A Study in Medieval Islamic Social History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1972) for detailed description of the city.
(2) Quoting Abd ar-Rahman Jami. Nafahat al-uns (Tehran: Kitabfurushi-e
(3) Al-Azali either died or went to Mecca, never to return. He supposedly
met the Sufi luminary, Abu al-Qasim al-Junayd (d. 910 ce) in Baghdad.
(4) The translator credits Vincent J. Cornell with coining the term,
(5) Muhammad Ibn Sa ‘ad, al-Tabaqat al-Kubra (Cairo: Dar al-Tahrir, 1970).
(6) Cf. Gerhard Böwering. The Minor Qur ‘an Commentary of Abu ‘Abd
ar-Rahman as-Sulami (Beirut, 1995) for a recent translation of one of
(7) An appendix includes translation of another sixteen short bioal-Jawzi.
(8) The manuscript was only discovered in 1991 in the library of Muhammad
Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.
(9) Michael Sells. Early Islamic Mysticism (New York: Paulist Press, 1996).
(10) Margaret Smith. Rabi’a the Mystic and her Fellow-Saints in Islam
(Cambridge: University Press, 1928); and Annemarie Schimmel. “Women in
Mystical Islam,” in Women and Islam, ed. Azizah al-Hibri (Oxford: Pergamon
Press, 1982) and My Soul is a Woman: The Feminine in Islam, tr. Susan H.
Ray (New York: Continuum, 1997).
(11) A. J. Arberry, Sufism (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 42-3.
(12) Summary of a description of chivalry by Khwaja Abdallah Ansari (d.
1089 CE) cited in Sachiko Murata. The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender
Relationships in Islamic Thought. (Albany: State University of New York
Press, 1992), p. 267.
(13) Annemarie Schimmel, “Aspects of Mystical Thought in Islam,” in The
Islamic Impact, eds. Yvonne Y. Haddad, Byron Haines and Ellison Findly
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1984), p. 114-5.
(14) Elizabeth Sirriyeh. Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defence, Rethinking and
Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World (Richmond: Curzon Press, 1999).
(15) Many modern reformers, even though influenced by Sufism, were critical
of Sufi practices that to them seemed outside the purview of the main
teachings/pillars of Islam. Muhammad Abdul Wahhab of Najd (d. 1791) is well
known for his rejection of Sufism and regarding it as heretical.
(16) Prof. Schimmel has written about Samiha Ayverdi, a Turkish woman who,
with her fellow Sufi women, “carried on the tradition of the Rifa’i order”
in Istanbul. See Schimmel, “Women in Mystical Islam,” op. cit. p. 145. For
Moroccan Islam, the translator suggests Vincent J. Cornell. Realm of the
Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism (Austin, TX: University of
Texas Press, 1998); see also Daisy Hilse Dwyer, “Women, Sufism, and
Decision-Making in Moroccan Islam,” in Women in the Muslim World, ed. Lois
Beck and Nikki Keddie (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978).
(17) Seyyed Hossein Nasr, From the comments on the back cover.