A response to an email exchange on Chomsky, dissent and extremist Islam on an internal MCRC mailer… An alumnus invited comments on an article by Ali Eteraz (The Huffington PostChomsky Dissent Not Enough). What troubled me was NOT the article, but the mail preceding it. A well intentioned mail by a young liberal (and since categories are important for her – a Hindu) media professional, with a lot of concern/ empathy for the “Muslim” community but there’s something about it… Also this message was not cleared on a Jamia Millia internal mailer – no surprises for guessing why – perhaps when they are through with building gates with fancy Arabic sounding names that probably no student/ visitor understands, they will take stock of the reality of how closed in they have become!

hi there….i heard Jamia is opening a center dedicated to left wing activist
Noam Chomsky…thats cool…but here’s an interesting write up on radical leftie
dissent and extremist Islam that needs to be seen in perspective. minorities all
over the world..be they religious, cultural, linguistic, racial, sexual etc etc
are often persecuted.

whether its Muslims in Gujarat or Pandits in Kashmir or Christians in
Orissa….3 wrongs don’t make a right. in india the `left-liberal intelligensia’
(i consider myself part of atleast the first half of that phrase) justifiably
speaks up against oppression of Muslims and Christians.

but what abt places where Muslims are in a majority…. shouldn’t we speak as
strongly abt oppression of minorities, women etc in the same voice there. why
should we allow Hindu right wingers like the BJP and Bajrang Dal to appropriate
that space? do we reduce our credibility as liberals by not speaking up when
extremist Islam (as ugly as extremist Hinduism) raises its ugly head?

i have lived and worked for 3 years in Dubai, UAE and have seen the ugly
concoction of Western style capitalism and Islamic extremism… .oppressive
censorship, no rights for women and minorities, barbarian laws (like cutting off
a thief’s hand) etc.

so i choose to speak against extremism everywhere.. .against Hindu Shiv Sainiks
in India…the killers of our innocent Muslim brethern in Gujarat, Kashmiri
terrorists who killed and ousted Hindus from the state & who would throw acid on
the face of a girl not wearing a burqa, Pakistani radicals who co-erce Hindus
there to convert….oil rich sheikhs with harems on the one hand and anti-women
laws on the other….

thats where people like noam chomsky and arundhati roy (both of whom i
otherwise admire) let me down….lets pls not have double standards. as roy
herself once said, “its not abt Hindus or Muslims, its about fundamentalism. ”

comments invited….read the following piece… incidentally written &
forwarded by a muslim….

it would be good to make our group mailer more than just a forwarding of job
postings…. those are good to have but it could also be a means to stay
connected & united as alumni plus an exchange of ideas stated respectfully. ..

if we genuinely care about the minorities in our country and the world
over…we must have the courage to speak up against those who misrepresent them.
we must have the courage to go against the current and stand alone if the need
be. just lip service like “hindu, muslim, sikh, isayee….sab hain bhai bhai” is
not enough.

the difficult questions must be asked. people are killed in the name of
religion in our country….and this is a vital question of our times. as indian
citizens we must all be concerned about the India we will leave behind for our

comments invited….



Hi N______,

Thanks for posting this article – It is very well written, as was a lot of
writing on The Huffington Post. Though I am aware of the facts cited in the
article, there is something in your email that disturbs me and I cant quite
figure out what it is. The opening of Noam Chomsky Complex, housing the Centre
for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies in Jamia Millia Islamia- provokes an alumni to
write an email on Islamic extremism. Hmmm. Interesting, but let me begin with a
few caveats:-)

A] When I write/ forward something from my email address of
iram_ghufran@…, I do not write as a Muslim – If and when I do that, I
will make sure that all are informed on the list – Then, that particular piece
and only that piece of writing, should be read as one written by a “Muslim”. I
refuse to be bracketed in quasi administrative categories of religion and gender
to voice an opinion 😉

B] I am not making a case for the Left in India.

C] I completely agree with you that the problems of Kashmiri pundits and their
exile is not given due consideration by the State, the Left leaning
intelligentsia, the non Left liberals, the neo cons et al.

D] Your accusations regarding Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy are not new. Though
Ali Eteraz’s text is well written, I disagree with him. If Roy speaks against
illegal detentions and rapes and tortures and deaths in Kashmir, the onus of
speaking about the exile of lakhs of Kashmiris (Pundits and non Pundits) does
not automatically lie with her. There are hundreds if not thousands of educated/
aware/ articulate liberals all over the country who can do the job. I do not
need a Chomsky or a Roy to say that a huge number of Kashmiri pundits are living
in abysmal conditions in camps, that the State is not concerned about their
political rights nor their futures. Besides, Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky are
not writing for ‘Muslims’ alone. A close reading of texts by these people shows
a larger conceptual thematic at work. Their writings have mostly been a
critique of the State and big business through an investigation of State
policies. Chomsky’s work, take ‘Manufacturing
Consent’, for instance, has been, about the role of media in representing and
reporting stories of ‘American atrocities’ in Latin America (Slavadore,
Guatamala, Peru) where the victims were largely practicing ‘Christians’ in a
‘Christian’ ‘dominated’/ majority society. When Roy wrote against the State’s
policies on the Narmada issue, she was not writing for generic and
constitutionally determined categories of ‘tribals’ or ‘Hindus’, when in fact it
can be safely assumed that most of the victims were ‘tribals’ and ‘Hindus’.

Coming back to your email, there is an evident concern about the ‘bad press’
that Islam and “Muslims” are getting – but is the category of religion
sufficient to make sense of contemporary Islamic extremism? In my opinion,
religion as a category provides for a very limiting understanding of social
realities and lived experiences. Religion rarely has space for dissent,
specially monotheistic faiths like Islam. Creating an acceptance for dissent in
religious practices of Islam has had a history that is fraught with conflict.
The Hurufiyas, Bektashis, Ahmadiyas, Sufis etc have all suffered a puritan
backlash at some point or another. Since, I am not an authority on Islam, I will
not venture into the territory of what Islam as a religious practice codifies/
deems illegal. The facts mentioned in Ali Eteraz’s article are true. Kurdistan,
Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Italy, England,
Germany, Holland, Canada – It seems as if there is a fast
spreading, virulent virus of terrorist attacks, fatwas, illiteracy, bigotry,
etc etc – that seems threatening – and I understand your fear. But I’m not sure
if the answer is within Islam (as a religious practice).

Whether we agree/ disagree, Islam is practiced in a lot of ways throughout the
world and the Koran is interpreted in various ways . This has allowed Islam to
accommodate a variety of pre Islamic/ ‘non Islamic’ practices into its fold.
I’m sure that many of us would agree, that a lot of these practices are today
under threat, by what can be termed as extremist Islam – largely dependent on a
Wahabi reading of the Koran and the Hadith. But at the end of the day, one cant
say that the Wahabis are “un Islamic”. So, who will decide what is “Islamic” and
what is not? A particular kind of reading of the Koran will show intolerant
views on adultery, homosexuality, pre marital sex etc – while another will not –
So at this juncture discussing finer points of Islamic jurisprudence seems as
futile as the idea of a religion that “essentially teaches us to be loving,
responsible, non-materialistic and spiritual human beings”. What if it does not?

Honestly speaking, I am a little skeptical of looking at Islam as a homogeneous
faith/ religion. Each of the situations (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey) you
mentioned arises out of a complex set of circumstances – social, historical,
political, economical and ideological – though one can conveniently trace the
source of all problems to the Wahabis – who see Islam as an exclusive club,
where membership is governed by strict codes of ‘religious’ behaviour –
anything outside it, is deemed kufr, shirk, haraam etc However, I will also say
that blaming it all on the Wahabis is a convenient route that many liberal
scholarship on Islam in the recent times has taken. It’ll be sad if September
11/ December 13/ July 07 are seen as incidents arising out of extremism in Islam
exclusively. Extremism in Islam as a religious practice – Yes. But what else?

It is unfortunate that Kashmir was appropriated by religion, that Iraq is seen
as a “Muslim” problem, that Palestine (itself wrought by internal politics
between “Islamic” groups) and Hezbollah (with its love- hate relationship with
the ‘commies’ in Lebanon), are seen only through the prism of Islam. The
American currency – each Dollar note contains the statement ‘In God we Trust’ –
Who is this God? Is it a secular God? Is s/he a Christian God of the Americans
that funded the Taliban, that stifled most of the movements for democracy in
West Asia?

Why is it that Indians are welcomed and Pakistanis are hated in Kabul? If all
‘Muslims’ follow ‘one’ Islam, then there should be a ‘Muslim brotherhood’ – But
that is clearly not the case.

I am sure you will agree that anyone who objects to ‘right wing’, does not
automatically become ‘left wing’ and am not sure what the credentials are for
entering the ‘liberal intelligentsia’ club – so my location at the moment is in
flux. I very strongly feel that its high time when we drop the social niceties
of – “God is one and all religions are paths to the same God”! We can continue
arguing for and against the “muslim” veil till kingdom come, we can keep going
back to the rich cultural traditions of the Islamicate world in order to make
sense of its violent present, we can keep interpreting and re interpreting the
interpretations of the Koran in search of statements that will allow us to claim
the faith as peaceful, but we also have to re orient our thought on Islam and its
extremist face to take into account contemporary politics and genealogies of
political Islam.

Also if you are at a liberty to travel, please visit Riyadh and try to meet
Aisha al Mana – You must have heard of her – or meet any of the women who
participated in the demonstration to allow Saudi women to drive alone. I know of
a Saudi lady who had her passport confiscated for 4 years because she drove a
car – by her self! Dissent proved a little too expensive but the struggle is


PS : I am not very comfortable by your seemingly romantic ideas on religion.
Many atheist friends would disagree on that front- but its a discussion for
another time and place 🙂

PPS: Censorship on the Jamia site is disturbing but not unexpected. A University
campus that can be stormed by about 2000 policemen, where innocent/ unsuspecting
students can be beaten and arrested -many still bearing the marks of the police
lathis. (http://www.pucl.org/reports/National/khaki_prejudice.htm) – Well! Thats
Jamia for you. We in this group have had incidents of Temporary Silences,
where people have been ‘muted’ and sadly there was no public outrage at the
censorship – I guess it was deemed’ important by the moderator to silence that



Veiling as a cultural practice that predates Islam, today finds itself confined within the discursive framework of representation and stereotype, oppression and freedom, identity and choice, of the “homogeneous” entity called the “Muslim woman”. In the midst of debates around these, the nondescript black burqa, struggles for a narrative beyond the permissible limits of mainstream discourse.

The contemporary burqa as a form of purdah or veiling practice encompasses more than a simple veil covering the face, head or body of the “good Muslim woman”. Lost in the debate are countless narratives of women for who perchance may be wearing the burqa out of choice, custom, social pressure, or religious conviction but then they are more than the garment that covers them.

Without going into Quranic exegesis on the veil or getting trapped by feminist discourses ranging from Fatema Mernessi to Irshad Manji, the proposed research is an attempt to look at the burqa and its wearer outside the framework of “Muslim” identity.
My key questions remain:

What are the prisms of looking at the burqa clad woman?

What are the possible ways to define her besides as a “Muslim” woman?

for the full text, go to – Proposal on Veiling Practices (Pages)

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
are immense.

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
extensive notes.

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
Sa’di, 1958).

(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
as-Sulami’s tafsirs.

(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.



Interesting site….

Feminist Science Fiction: Fantasy and Utopia

This site is essentially a complex bibliography that lists and cites and describes sf & critical works from a feminist perspective. Plots are described of complete works. Works that are already complete are reviewed, discussed, and described, and consequently there are spoilers.



Wikipedia entry on Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain


Found this poem on a blog. The bogger in turn found this on a website with a page for women. The website belongs to the Worldwide Islamic Network of Women; the acronym they use is WINOW.


For an exegesis on the poem 😉 visit



Be Proud of Hijab

You look at me and call me oppressed,
Simply because of the way I’m dressed,
You know me not for what’s inside,
You judge the clothing I wear with pride,
My body’s not for your eyes to hold,
You must speak to my mind, not my feminine mold,
I’m an individual, I’m no mans slave,
It’s Allahs pleasure that I only crave,
I have a voice so I will be heard,
For in my heart I carry His word,
“O ye women, wrap close your cloak,
So you won’t be bothered by ignorant folk”,
Man doesn’t tell me to dress this way,
It’s a Law from God that I obey,
Oppressed is something I’m truly NOT,
For liberation is what I’ve got,
It was given to me many years ago,
With the right to prosper, the right to grow,
I can climb mountains or cross the seas,
Expand my mind in all degrees,
For God Himself gave us LIB-ER-TY,
When He sent Islam,
To You and Me!

I really don’t know what to make of this. On the one hand, I agree that there are stereotypes regarding women in veil, in burqas, in hijabs – stereotypes that project a veiled woman as a passive subject, always to be seen as oppressed, needing the help of her more liberated/ emancipated sisters and brethren!

But I would be very wary of this almost celebratory tenor of writing and self-image of “Muslim” women as propagated by this poem and website… Very different from Zeib un Nisa’s ‘I will not lift my veil’ 😉 Probably because this hijab is rooted in religion while Zeib un Nisa’s veil was more of a cultural construct… I think….

Also keep tabs on


The website of National Organization for Women… You’ll know why, if you have visted Gates Of Vienna…

by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was born into a Bengali Muslim upper-class family in the small village of Pairaband in the district of Rangpur, north of present day Bangladesh, then a part of the colonial British province of Bengal Presidency. Her date of birth is not known. However, a nephew of hers posits Dec. 9, 1880.

The Secluded Ones, has humorous essays that expose some ridiculous consequences of the practice of Purdah.

(from http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Hossain.html )

 Report Fourteen

The following incident happened about twenty-two years ago. An aunt, twice removed of my husband, was going to Patna from Bhagalpor; she was accompanied by her maid only. At Kiul railway junction, they had to change trains. While boarding the train, my aunt-in-law stumbled against her voluminous burqa and fell on the railway track. Except her maid, there was no woman at the station. The railway porters rushed to help her up but the maid immediately stopped them by imploring in God’s name not to touch her mistress. She tried to drag her mistress up by herself but was unable to do so. The train waited for only half an hour but no more.

The Begum’s body was smashed – her burqa torn. A whole stationful of men witnessed this horrible accident – yet none of them was permitted to assist her. Finally her mangled body was taken to a luggage shed. Her maid waited piteously. After eleven hours of unspeakable agony she died. What a gruesome way to die!



To think that this was written in the early part of the 20th century… very enjoyable with plenty of food for thought…

 Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1905)

One evening I was lounging in an easy chair in my bedroom and thinking lazily of the condition of Indian womanhood. I am not sure whether I dozed off or not. But, as far as I remember, I was wide awake. I saw the moonlit sky sparkling with thousands of diamond-like stars, very distinctly. All on a sudden a lady stood before me; how she came in, I do not know. I took her for my friend, Sister Sara. “Good morning,” said Sister Sara. I smiled inwardly as I knew it was not morning, but starry night. However, I replied to her, saying, “How do you do?” “I am all right, thank you. Will you please come out and have a look at our garden?” I looked again at the moon through the open window, and thought there was no harm in going out at that time. The men-servants outside were fast asleep just then, and I could have a pleasant walk with Sister Sara. I used to have my walks with Sister Sara, when we were at Darjeeling. Many a time did we walk hand in hand and talk light-heartedly in the botanical gardens there. I fancied, Sister Sara had probably come to take me to some such garden and I readily accepted her offer and went out with her. When walking I found to my surprise that it was a fine morning. The town was fully awake and the streets alive with bustling crowds. I was feeling very shy, thinking I was walking in the street in broad daylight, but there was not a single man visible. Some of the passers-by made jokes at me. Though I could not understand their language, yet I felt sure they were joking. I asked my friend, “What do they say?” “The women say that you look very mannish.” “Mannish?” said I, “What do they mean by that?” “They mean that you are shy and timid like men.” “Shy and timid like men?” It was really a joke. I became very nervous, when I found that my companion was not Sister Sara, but a stranger. Oh, what a fool had I been to mistake this lady for my dear old friend, Sister Sara. She felt my fingers tremble in her hand, as we were walking hand in hand. “What is the matter, dear?” she said affectionately. “I feel somewhat awkward,” I said in a rather apologizing tone, “as being a purdahnishin woman I am not accustomed to walking abut unveiled.” “You need not be afraid of coming across a man here. This is Ladyland, free from sin and harm. Virtue herself reigns here.” By and by I was enjoying the scenery. Really it was very grand. I mistook a patch of green grass for a velvet cushion. Feeling as if I were walking on a soft carpet, I looked down and found the path covered with moss and flowers. “How nice it is,” said I. “Do you like it?” asked Sister Sara. (I continued calling her “Sister Sara,” and she kept calling me by my name). “Yes, very much; but I do not like to tread on the tender and sweet flowers.” “Never mind, dear Sultana; your treading will not harm them; they are street flowers.” “The whole place looks like a garden,” said I admiringly. “You have arranged every plant so skillfully.” “Your Calcutta could become a nicer garden than this if only your countrymen wanted to make it so.” “They would think it useless to give so much attention to horticulture, while they have so many other things to do.” “They could not find a better excuse,” said she with smile. I became very curious to know where the men were. I met more than a hundred women while walking there, but not a single man. “Where are the men?” I asked her. “In their proper places, where they ought to be.” “Pray let me know what you mean by ‘their proper places’.” “O, I see my mistake, you cannot know our customs, as you were never here before. We shut our men indoors.” “Just as we are kept in the zenana?” “Exactly so.” “How funny,” I burst into a laugh. Sister Sara laughed too. “But dear Sultana, how unfair it is to shut in the harmless women and let loose the men.” “Why? It is not safe for us to come out of the zenana, as we are naturally weak.” “Yes, it is not safe so long as there are men about the streets, nor is it so when a wild animal enters a marketplace.” “Of course not.” “Suppose, some lunatics escape from the asylum and begin to do all sorts of mischief to men, horses and other creatures; in that case what will your countrymen do?” “They will try to capture them and put them back into their asylum.” “Thank you! And you do not think it wise to keep sane people inside an asylum and let loose the insane?” “Of course not!” said I laughing lightly. “As a matter of fact, in your country this very thing is done! Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women, shut up in the zenana! How can you trust those untrained men out of doors?” “We have no hand or voice in the management of our social affairs. In India man is lord and master, he has taken to himself all powers and privileges and shut up the women in the zenana.” “Why do you allow yourselves to be shut up?” “Because it cannot be helped as they as stronger than women.” “A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests.” “But my dear sister Sara, if we do everything by ourselves, what will the men do then?” “They should not do anything, excuse me; they are fit for nothing. Only catch them and put them into the zenana.” “But would it be very easy to catch and put them inside the four walls?” said I. “And even if this were done, would all their business, political and commercial – also go with them into the zenana?” Sister Sara made no reply. She only smiled sweetly. Perhaps she thought it useless to argue with one who was no better than a frog in a well. By this time we reached sister Sara’s house. It was situated in a beautiful heart-shaped garden. It was a bungalow with a corrugated iron roof. It was cooler and nicer than any of our rich buildings. I cannot describe how neat and how nicely furnished and how tastefully decorated it was. We sat side by side. She brought out of the parlour a piece of embroidery work and began putting on a fresh design. “Do you know knitting and needle work?” “Yes; we have nothing else to do in our zenana.” “But we do not trust our zenana members with embroidery!” she said laughing, “as a man has not patience enough to pass thread through a needle hole even!” “Have you done all this work yourself?” I asked her pointing to the various pieces of embroidered teapoy cloths. “Yes.” “How can you find time to do all these? You have to do the office work as well? Have you not?” “Yes. I do not stick to the laboratory all day long. I finish my work in two hours.” “In two hours! How do you manage? In our land the officers, magistrates — for instance, work seven hours daily.” “I have seen some of them doing their work. Do you think they work all the seven hours?” “Certainly they do!” ” No, dear Sultana, they do not. They dawdle away their time in smoking. Some smoke two or three choroots during the office time. They talk much about their work, but do little. Suppose one choroot takes half an hour to burn off, and a man smokes twelve choroots daily; then you see, he wastes six hours every day in sheer smoking.” We talked on various subjects, and I learned that they were not subject to any kind of epidemic disease, nor did they suffer from mosquito bites as we do. I was very much astonished to hear that in Ladyland no one died in youth except by rare accident. “Will you care to see our kitchen?” she asked me. “With pleasure,” said I, and we went to see it. Of course the men had been asked to clear off when I was going there. The kitchen was situated in a beautiful vegetable garden. Every creeper, every tomato plant was itself an ornament. I found no smoke, nor any chimney either in the kitchen — it was clean and bright; the windows were decorated with flower gardens. There was no sign of coal or fire. “How do you cook?” I asked. “With solar heat,” she said, at the same time showing me the pipe, through which passed the concentrated sunlight and heat. And she cooked something then and there to show me the process. “How did you manage to gather and store up the sun heat?” I asked her in amazement. “Let me tell you a little of our past history then. Thirty years ago, when our present Queen was thirteen years old, she inherited the throne. She was Queen in name only, the Prime Minister really ruling the country. “Our good Queen liked science very much. She circulated an order that all the women in her country should be educated. Accordingly a number of girls’ schools were founded and supported by the government . Education was spread far and wide among women. And early marriage also was stopped. No woman was to be allowed to marry before she was twenty-one. I must tell you that, before this change we had been kept in strict purdah.” “How the tables are turned,” I interposed with a laugh. “But the seclusion is the same,” she said. “In a few years we had separate universities, where no men were admitted.” “In the capital, where our Queen lives, there are two universities. One of these invented a wonderful balloon, to which they attached a number of pipes. By means of this captive balloon which they managed to keep afloat above the cloud-land, they could draw as much water from the atmosphere as they pleased. As the water was incessantly being drawn by the university people no cloud gathered and the ingenious Lady Principal stopped rain and storms thereby.” “Really! Now I understand why there is no mud here!” said I. But I could not understand how it was possible to accumulate water in the pipes. She explained to me how it was done, but I was unable to understand her, as my scientific knowledge was very limited. However, she went on� “When the other university came to know of this, they became exceedingly jealous and tried to do something more extraordinary still. They invented an instrument by which they could collect as much sun-heat as they wanted. And they kept the heat stored up to be distributed among others as required. “While the women were engaged in scientific research, the men of this country were busy increasing their military power. When they came to know that the female universities were able to draw water from the atmosphere and collect heat from the sun, they only laughed at the members of the universities and called the whole thing ‘a sentimental nightmare’!” “Your achievements are very wonderful indeed! But tell me, how you managed to put the men of your country into the zenana. Did you entrap them first?” “No.” “It is not likely that they would surrender their free and open air life of their own accord and confine themselves within the four walls of the zenana! They must have been overpowered.” “Yes, they have been!” “By whom? By some lady warriors, I suppose?” “No, not by arms.” “Yes, it cannot be so. Men’s arms are stronger than women’s. Then?” “By brain.” “Even their brains are bigger and heavier than women’s. Are they not?” “Yes, but what of that? An elephant also has got a bigger and heavier brain than a man has. Yet man can enchain elephants and employ them, according to their own wishes.” “Well said, but tell me please, how it all actually happened. I am dying to know it!” “Women’s brains are somewhat quicker than men’s. Ten years ago, when the military officers called our scientific discoveries ‘a sentimental nightmare,’ some of the young ladies wanted to say something in reply to those remarks. But both the Lady Principals restrained them and said, they should reply not by word, but by deed, if ever they got the opportunity. And they had not long to wait for that opportunity.” “How marvelous!” I heartily clapped my hands. “And now the proud gentlemen are dreaming sentimental dreams themselves.” “Soon afterwards certain persons came from a neighbouring country and took shelter in ours. They were in trouble having committed some political offense. The king who cared more for power than for good government asked our kind-hearted Queen to hand them over to his officers. She refused, as it was against her principle to turn out refugees. For this refusal the king declared war against our country. “Our military officers sprang to their feet at once and marched out to meet the enemy. “The enemy however, was too strong for them. Our soldiers fought bravely, no doubt. But in spite of all their bravery the foreign army advanced step by step to invade our country.” “Nearly all the men had gone out to fight; even a boy of sixteen was not left home. Most of our warriors were killed, the rest driven back and the enemy came within twenty-five miles of the capital. “A meeting of a number of wise ladies was held at the Queen’s palace to advise as to what should be done to save the land. “Some proposed to fight like soldiers; others objected and said that women not trained to fight with swords and guns, nor were they accustomed to fighting with any weapons. A third party regretfully remarked that they were hopelessly weak of body. “‘If you cannot save your country for lack of physical strength,’ said the Queen, ‘try to do so by brain power.’ “There was a dead silence for a few minutes. Her Royal Highness said again, ‘I must commit suicide if the land and my honour are lost.’ “Then the Lady Principal of the second university (who had collected sun-heat), who had been silently thinking during the consultation, remarked that they were all but lost, and there was little hope left for them. There was, however, one plan which she would like to try, and this would be her first and last efforts; if she failed in this, there would be nothing left but to commit suicide. All present solemnly vowed that they would never allow themselves to be enslaved, on matter what happened. “The Queen thanked them heartily, and asked the Lady Principal to try her plan. “The Lady Principal rose again and said, ‘before we go out the men must enter the zenanas. I make this prayer for the sake of purdah.’ ‘Yes, of course,’ replied Her Royal Highness. “On the following day the Queen called upon all men to retire into zenanas for the sake of honour and liberty. “Wounded and tired as they were, they took that order rather for a boon! They bowed low and entered the zenanas without uttering a single word of protest. They were sure that there was no hope for this country at all. “Then the Lady Principal with her two thousand students marched to the battle field, and arriving there directed all the rays of the concentrated sunlight and heat towards the enemy. “The heat and light were too much for them to bear. They all ran away panic-stricken, not knowing in their bewilderment how to counteract that scorching heat. When they fled away leaving their guns and other ammunitions of war, they were burnt down by means of the same sun heat. “Since then no one has tried to invade our country any more.” “And since then your countrymen never tried to come out of the zenana?” “Yes, they wanted to be free. Some of the police commissioners and district magistrates sent word to the Queen to the effect that the military officers certainly deserved to be imprisoned for their failure; but they never neglected their duty and therefore they should not be punished and they prayed to be restored to their respective offices. “Her Royal Highness sent them a circular letter intimating to them that if their services should ever be needed they would be sent for, and that in the meanwhile they should remain where they were. “Now that they are accustomed to the purdah system and have ceased to grumble at their seclusion, we call the system ‘Murdana’ instead of ‘zenana’.” “But how do you manage,” I asked Sister Sara, “to do without the police or magistrates in case of theft or murder?” “Since the ‘Murdana’ system has been established, there has been no more crime or sin; therefore we do not require a policeman to find out a culprit, nor do we want a magistrate to try a criminal case.” “That is very good, indeed. I suppose if there was any dishonest person, you could very easily chastise her. As you gained a decisive victory without shedding a single drop of blood, you could drive off crime and criminals too without much difficulty!” “Now, dear Sultana, will you sit here or come to my parlour?” she asked me. “Your kitchen is not inferior to a queen’s boudoir!” I replied with a pleasant smile, “but we must leave it now; for the gentlemen may be cursing me for keeping them away from their duties in the kitchen so long.” We both laughed heartily. “How my friends at home will be amused and amazed, when I go back and tell them that in the far-off Ladyland, ladies rule over the country and control all social matters, while gentlemen are kept in the Murdanas to mind babies, to cook and to do all sorts of domestic work; and that cooking is so easy a thing that it is simply a pleasure to cook!” “Yes, tell them about all that you see here.” “Please let me know, how you carry on land cultivation and how you plough the land and do other hard manual work.” “Our fields are tilled by means of electricity, which supplies motive power for other hard work as well, and we employ it for our aerial conveyances too. We have no rail road nor any paved streets here.” “Therefore neither street nor railway accidents occur here,” said I. “Do not you ever suffer from want of rainwater?” I asked. “Never since the ‘water balloon’ has been set up. You see the big balloon and pipes attached thereto. By their aid we can draw as much rainwater as we require. Nor do we ever suffer from flood or thunderstorms. We are all very busy making nature yield as much as she can. We do not find time to quarrel with one another as we never sit idle. Our noble Queen is exceedingly fond of botany; it is her ambition to convert the whole country into one grand garden.” “The idea is excellent. What is your chief food?” “Fruits.” “How do you keep your country cool in hot weather? We regard the rainfall in summer as a blessing from heaven.” “When the heat becomes unbearable, we sprinkle the ground with plentiful showers drawn from the artificial fountains. And in cold weather we keep our room warm with sun heat.” She showed me her bathroom, the roof of which was removable. She could enjoy a shower bath whenever she liked, by simply removing the roof (which was like the lid of a box) and turning on the tap of the shower pipe. “You are a lucky people!” ejaculated I. “You know no want. What is you religion, may I ask?” “Our religion is based on Love and Truth. It is our religious duty to love one another and to be absolutely truthful. If any person lies, she or he is�.” “Punished with death?” “No, not with death. We do not take pleasure in killing a creature of Good, especially a human being. The liar is asked to leave this land for good and never to come to it again.” “Is an offender never forgiven?” “Yes, if that person repents sincerely.” “Are you not allowed to see any man, except your own relations?” “No one except sacred relations.” “Our circle of sacred relations is very limited; even first cousins are not sacred.” “But ours is very large; a distant cousin is as sacred as a brother.” “That is very good. I see purity itself reigns over your land. I should like to see the good Queen, who is so sagacious and far-sighted and who has made all these rules.” “All right,” said Sister Sara. Then she screwed a couple of seats onto a square piece of plank. To this plank she attached two smooth and well-polished balls. When I asked her what the balls were for, she said they were hydrogen balls and they were used to overcome the force of gravity. The balls were of different capacities to be used according to the different weights desired to be overcome. She then fastened to the air-car two wing-like blades, which, she said, were worked by electricity. After we were comfortably seated she touched a knob and the blades began to whirl, moving faster and faster every moment. At first we were raised to the height of about six or seven feet and then off we flew. And before I could realize that we had commenced moving, we reached the garden of the Queen. My friend lowered the air-car by reversing the action of the machine, and when the car touched the ground the machine was stopped and we got out. I had seen from the air-car the Queen walking on a garden path with her little daughter (who was four years old) and her maids of honour. “Halloo! You here!” cried the Queen addressing Sister Sara. I was introduced to Her Royal Highness and was received by her cordially without any ceremony. I was very much delighted to make her acquaintance. In the course of the conversation I had with her, the Queen told me that she had no objection to permitting her subjects to trade with other countries. “But,” she continued, “no trade was possible with countries where the women were kept in the zenanas and so unable to come and trade with us. Men, we find, are rather of lower morals and so we do not like dealing with them. We do not covet other people’s land, we do not fight for piece of diamond though it may be a thousand-fold brighter than the Koh-i-Noor, nor do we grudge a ruler his peacock throne. We dive deep into the ocean of knowledge and try to find out the precious gems, which Nature has kept in store for us. We enjoy Nature’s gifts as much as we can.” After taking leave of the Queen, I visited the famous universities, and was shown some of their manufactories, laboratories and observatories. After visiting the above places of interest we got again into the air-car, but as soon as it began moving, I somehow slipped down and the fall startled me out of my dream. And on opening my eyes, I found myself in my own bed lounging in the easy-chair!

Originally published in The Indian Ladies Magazine, Madras, India, 1905, in English. The text presented here is from Begum Rokeya Rochonaboli,, Bangla Academy, 1993.



Where Women Rule And Mirrors Are Weapons: Amardeep Singh

This site has an interesting write-up on Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Watchout for the blogroll too.