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Islamic Society ( 11 Feb 2018, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Case of the Women Sufis


By Chandan Gowda

May 23, 2016

Getting a sense of the influence of these saints will help us understand the shaping of our moral worlds

Mastani Maa, a Sufi saint, was usually found praying or meditating or doing zikr (a devotional exercise of rhythmic repetition of God's name or a short prayer). Her love of God was boundless. If Mastani Maa's visitors found her doing Zikr, they would seat themselves on the opposite side and meditate upon God.

One day, a group of men, women and children dropped by to see her. Finding her engaged in Zikr, they sat down opposite her and began to meditate. They did not break for food or water. Around midnight, Mastani Maa opened her eyes. She was moved to see that her visitors had waited this late, without food and water, to meet her. She asked them to put the empty earthen pot lying in a corner on the stove.

She then asked them to fill it with the leaves, stones and soil from the courtyard and cook them in water. She then beseeched (dua) God for help. Soon afterwards, rice was seen boiling inside the pot. Mastani Maa's visitors looked at her questioningly. She reassured them, "There is nothing unique about this. It is all God's love. He provides food through stones, soil and leaves, doesn't he?" Mastani Maa lived in Bangalore. It isn't clear when she lived here or where she came from. Since she belonged to the Majzoob Sufi order, she wore thick iron bangles and anklets. She gave her blessings to all, irrespective of the communities they belonged to. Hazrath Khwaja Qaseer, a famous contemporary Sufi saint in Bangalore, had sent his disciples to attend her funeral.

When they let him know that her face had turned yellow after her death, he felt certain that she was a great Sufi. Her tomb, which is in a side alley of Tannery Road, continues to attract many of the faithful in the present. I learnt about Mastani Maa and her miracle in writer Fakir Muhammad Katpadi's Sufi Mahileyaru (Women Sufis, 2010). Katpadi's account offered a new slice of Bangalore's history.

While little is known about the lives of the two dozen Sufi saints whose dargahs exist in the city, the lack of an adequate account of Mastani Maa, or of Saiyada Bibi and Saiyadani Maa, the other women Sufis from Bangalore, whose dargahs exist, respectively, in City Market and in Richmond Town, is to be regretted a bit moresince the official annals do not easily recognize women as Sufi Saints. Indeed, the Sufi is usually imagined as a male saint.

The leadership of the various Sufi orders, where disciples learnt the techniques of attaining the mystical experiences of the divine, tended to reside in men. When women did become, on a rare occasion, the head of a Sufi order, their powers were curtailed in various ways (for ex. they could teach but not initiate disciples, or, initiate only female disciples). The Bektashi order in Ottoman Turkey was the lone exception: men and women had equal rights of spiritual apprenticeship and organizational leadership.

Women Sufi saints are found all over the Islamic world, including the Middle East, North Africa, the Indian sub-continent and South-East Asia. Not all of them had had formal training within a Sufi order. Several of them were locally recognized to have had spiritual merits and venerated as saints. Annemarie Schimmel, the scholar of Sufism, mentions a delightful example. Lalla Minunah, a poor woman in Western North Africa, asked the captain of a boat to teach her the ritual prayer.

But she forgot what he taught her. To relearn it from him, she ran on the water to reach the departing boat, praying throughout, "Mimunah knows God, and God knows Mimunah." She is revered as a saint in North Africa. Besides North Africa, Schimmel notes, Anatolia and Iran have a large number of shrines of women saints. Women devotees visit there for help in resolving family problems.

But the largest number of women Sufi saints, she adds, are found in India and Pakistan, especially in the regions of Sindh and Punjab. Men are not admitted to many of the shrines that have been built for these saints. Legends on the lives and deeds of these saints are very many.

Schimmel records an unforgettable one: "As elsewhere in the Muslim world, we find in Sind whole groups of women saints, like the haft afifa, "the Seven Chaste," who escaped a group of attacking soldiers and were swallowed by the earth before their virtue could be touched." In his major study, Karnatakada Sufigalu (The Sufis of Karnataka, 1998), Rahamat Tarikere, the literary critic, identifies several women Sufi saints in the state: Niyaamatbi of Gauribidanur; Zarinaabi of Kadur; Bibi Fatima of Gulbarga; Saiyadani of Ramadurga; Mustanima of Harapanahalli Bagur.

Tarikere adds, "No 'history' of the achievements of these women saints exist. But their influence on the places they lived in is large." Getting a sense of this influence will help arrive at a better understanding of the shaping of our moral worlds.

Chandan Gowda teaches at Azim Premji University