Violent protests at a mosque in Egypt named for one and mortar attacks at a shrine in Syria named for the other have obscured the powerful teachings and extraordinary lives of two powerful Muslim women from the past – women who have lent more than just their names to the history of Islam and the location of present-day conflicts.
Since millions of protesters began flooding into Egypt’s Tahrir Square last week, the supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi – dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood – have been camping out in front of the Rabia el-Adawiya mosque. The irony here is that the Islamist party that many feel treats women as unequal has been rallying at a mosque named after the most famous female mystic in Islam who died around 801.
At the time that Rabia el-Adawiya lived in Iraq, she was praised by women and men alike for her mystic devotion to God and her life of Sufi simplicity and sincerity. Carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other – to set fire to heaven and put out the flames of hell – she famously proclaimed:
“O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell,
and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise.
But if I worship You for Your Own sake alone,
withhold not from me Your everlasting Beauty.”
Rabia is considered by scholars to be the first proponent of the Sufi understanding of God/Allah as “the Beloved.” The past respect afforded to her as a pious believer and influential teacher of both men and women stands in stark contrast to the way women in Egypt today have been treated by both the Muslim Brotherhood and by predatory protesters in Tahrir Square, where sexual assault is rampant.
Hasan of Basra, a famous Sufi in his own right and a contemporary student of Rabia's, once said, “I passed one whole night and day with Rabi’a speaking about the Way and Truth, and it never passed through my mind that I was a man, nor did it occur to her that she was a woman.”
Unfortunately, today, too few Muslim men respect the capacity of Muslim women to guide and inspire. Aside from any questions about the legitimacy of President Morsi's ouster in Egypt, one can only hope that the recent change in government will help give all Egyptian women (along with other disenfranchised groups) more power to shape domestic policy, as well as Egypt’s role on the global stage.
Around the same time that the Muslim Brotherhood began surrounding the Rabia El-Adawiya mosque a couple weeks ago, skirmishes broke out in Syria at the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab – one of the most revered sites for Shiite Muslims in the world. Zeinab, as the granddaughter of the prophet Muhammad, is beloved by both Muslim women and men alike – and she even has a shrine in Cairo.
When I first visited the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab in Syria right before the war broke out, I was struck not only by the shrine’s majestic mirror mosaics, towering marble columns, and golden dome, but also by the immense spiritual and communal power of the women – from all over the world – packed within its walls (not to mention the men praying outside of them).
But now the shrine of one of Islam’s most revered women has become a prime target of Sunni rebel mortars. And with many Lebanese and Iraqi Shiite fighters killed in Syria being commemorated at home as “martyrs in the defense of the holy shrine of Sayyida Zeinab” – regardless of where they fought – the centrality of her symbolic presence in the conflict is clear.
One senior Shiite cleric, Ali al-Amin, has decried the violence committed in her name: “Sayyida Zainab does not want bloodshed in the name of defending her shrine, but rather unity and shunning sedition.”
The landscapes of Egypt and Syria are scattered with the splendid shrines of powerful Muslim women – women like Sayyida Ruqayya and Sayyida Nafisa, often called the patron saints of Cairo, and Shaggar al Durr, who ruled Egypt as sultan in the 13th century. Unfortunately, Egyptian and Syrian women today are struggling to have their voices heard above the gunfire and roar of the angry masses. This, in spite of their brave and consistent presence in places like Egypt’s Tahrir Square – where last week, at least 100 women were reportedly sexually assaulted, many of them raped in public.
With all the violence against women that the power struggles of battling political egos and civil war can bring, the visionary women of today – not just the women of yesterday, like Rabia el-Adawiya and Sayyida Zeinab – must be welcomed into the heart of the action to help resolve these brutal conflicts. Their presence is more essential than ever for ushering in much needed peace and prosperity – and perhaps even the healing compassion of the Beloved.
Emily O'Dell is the Whittlesey Chair of History and Archaeology at the American University of Beirut.