We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more Gender Themes - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result

Gender Themes

[This entry contains three subentries:

Shīʿī Devotional Literature

Shīʿī devotional literature encompasses a variety of genres, both prose and verse, is typically hagiographical and commemorative, and focuses on the family of the Prophet Muḥammad (ahl al‐bayt). Hagiography and Karbala literature, the two genres of devotional writing that predominate in Shīʿism, both focus on the exemplary piety and charismatic personalities of Muḥammad's blood descendents, and the women of the ahl al‐bayt figure prominently in this literature. The Prophet's daughter Fāṭimah al‐Zahrāʾ, granddaughter Zaynab bint ʿAlī, and Fāṭimah Maʿsūmeh, the sister of the eighth Imam Reza, are the subjects of an extensive and vibrant hagiographical corpus written in various Islamic languages, including more recently English and French. Karbala devotional literature is written from the imagined perspective of the women of the ahl al‐bayt who survived the battle and were taken prisoner to Damascus, where they spread the message of Imam Ḥusain's martyrdom in 680 CE

Gender themes permeate Shīʿī devotional literature. Poems and narratives about the ahl al‐bayt present these individuals as ideal Muslims and social and ethical exemplars to be imitated. Through the socially engaged examples of the women and men of the ahl al‐bayt, Shīʿī devotional literature conveys important religious lessons and messages. Family relationships and their attendant responsibilities, marriage, commitment to social justice, the proper observance of cultural rituals, and countless other mundane activities of daily life shape the gendered themes that permeate Shīʿī devotional literature.

Hagiographical Literature.

Hagiography is a dynamic genre of religious writing that praises the piety and spiritual accomplishments of individuals socially recognized as worthy of veneration. There are three distinguishing characteristics of Shīʿī hagiography: First, it does not emphasize asceticism as a preliminary sign of spiritual attainment. Second, it is centered on networks of kinship, a direct blood relationship to the Prophet Muḥammad through Fāṭimah and/or ʿAlī being essential. Third, although hagiographical traditions tend to minimize women's capacity for spiritual attainment, the women of the Prophet's family constitute significant religious role models for both Shīʿī women and men. Clearly, this third characteristic is functionally dependent on the first two. What makes Shīʿī hagiography unique is its inclusion of women as full human beings whose spiritual attainments are expressed in gendered terms. The women of the ahl al‐bayt are simultaneously portrayed as mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives; as learned in the religious sciences; and as brave heroines.

Fāṭimah al‐Zahrāʾ in Shīʿī Hagiography.

Beginning around the tenth century, hagiographical texts composed in Arabic, Persian, and in later centuries, Urdu, portray Fāṭimah al‐Zahrāʾ as a transcendent figure whose generative light (nūr) was the source of prophecy that established her as the mother of the Imamate (umm al-āʾimma). Fāṭimah is extolled for her role as the witness to her family's suffering. Shīʿīs believe that she visits every assembly of mourning (majlis‐e ʿazā) to gather the tears shed for Imam Husain and the heroes of Karbala. Hagiographical traditions on Fāṭimah accord her the ultimate authority for interceding on the Day of Judgment. She will intercede on behalf of those loyal to her family and condemn those who were not. Hagiographies of Fāṭimah portray her as a saint, venerated for her humanity, with attendant feelings, emotions, and desires. These hagiographical traditions also portray Fāṭimah in her very human roles of mother, daughter, and wife, and as a woman with material and emotional needs

Miracle stories (muʿjizat kahānī) are a distinctively South Asian genre of hagiographical literature typically recited in the home and reflecting women's everyday experience and concerns (Schubel, 1993, p. 37). One of the most popular of these miracle tales is Bībī Fāṭimah kī kahānī (The Story of Lady Fatimah), which narrates the story of Fāṭimah's invitation to a Jewish wedding in Medina. Fāṭimah is ashamed to attend the wedding because her clothing is in tatters and she knows that her family's poverty will be cruelly mocked. As she laments her misfortune, angels descend from heaven and adorn her in richly embroidered robes and sumptuous jewels. When Fāṭimah arrives at the wedding, the women lose consciousness, causing consternation for all. Fāṭimah exhorts the women to pray to God, for it is he who has the power to raise the dead back to life. Fāṭimah prays for the unconscious bride and brings her back to life. Awed by this miracle, the male and female wedding guests convert en masse to Islam.

This story is also popular in the Persian Shīʿī hagiographical tradition, where it is presented in the dramatic form of the taʿziyeh (passion play) popularly known as ʿarūs‐e Quraysh (The Wedding of the Qurayshi Daughter). During the Qajar dynasty (1785–1925) in Iran, taʿziyeh reached its zenith as a hagiographical performance genre, and The Wedding of the Qurayshi Daughter was so popular that women traveled great distances to watch this account of Fāṭimah's piety and power (Mottahedeh, 2005, p. 81).

Karbala Devotional Literature.

Karbala devotional literature was written in both prose and verse form and is a popular genre of Shīʿī literature, composed in Arabic and Islamic languages such as Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Bengali, and Swahili. The centrality of the feminine in the marthiya (elegy) finds its origins in pre‐Islamic Arabia, where women spontaneously composed laments at the graveside of deceased male relatives. For pre‐Islamic Arabian women, tribal notions of honor (ʿizzat) prohibited expressions of grief, except through the ritualized conventions of the marthiya, through which women were expected to weep as they extolled the merits (rithāʾ) of the deceased. The Arabic marthiya was a distinctly feminine genre of poetry. With the advent of Islam, and particularly following the battle of Karbala, this literature became associated with Imam Husain's martyrdom and the women of the ahl al‐bayt. The conventionalized style that developed out of the pre‐Islamic Arabic marthiya tradition and its status as a feminine poetic genre lent itself to Shīʿī Karbala devotional literature. The first marthiya lamenting the martyrdom of Imam Husain is attributed to his sister Zaynab. At the court of the Umayyad caliph Yazīd, following the battle of Karbala in 680 CE, Ḥusain's sister Zaynab was given the special role of the dhākirah, or rememberer (an orator of the heroic actions and suffering of the heroes of Karbala). Thus began the Shīʿī tradition of remembrance. Because women were the only survivors of the battle of Karbala (with the exception of Imam Husain's son ʿAlī Zayn al‐ʿābidīn, who became the fourth Imam), Karbala devotional literature use the feminine voice and feminine emotions, and this usage established the ritual context in Karbala devotional literature in which the female relatives of Imam Ḥusain mourn the loss of the battle's heroes. Zaynab's voice is especially important in Karbala devotional literature, since Shīʿī believe that God bestowed on her the role of messenger of Imam Husain's martyrdom. Because Zaynab provided the first testimony of the events of Karbala and what had befallen the Prophet's family, all the rest of Shīʿī commemorative literature exists as a form of second memory. Following the battle of Karbala, literary forms such as the marthiya came to refer specifically to Imam Ḥusain's martyrdom. These forms of commemorative literature essentially remained a feminine genre even though male writers have typically composed Karbala commemorative literature by invoking the voices of the female survivors of the battle, and thus have engaged in a form of literary transvestitism. The memory of Karbala is refracted through a feminine idiom, and the emotional remembrance of that event is distinctly female‐centered.

The Feminine Voice in Karbala Devotional Literature.

The sixteenth‐century Ṣafavid court poet Moḥtasham Kāshānī wrote a Persian‐language marthiya known as the Karbalā‐nāmeh (Karbala Narrative; also known as the Haft Band), in which he assumes Zaynab's voice and emotion as she delivers two apostrophic speeches to her grandfather Muḥammad and mother Fāṭimah al‐Zahrāʾ, who lay buried in Medina. By using Zaynab's voice, Moḥtasham emotionally engages the listener with Zaynab's grief and exhortations for justice while also motivating men and women to follow her model of faith and bravery.

Zaynab is typically portrayed in Karbala devotional literature as a larger‐than‐life heroine endowed by God with the responsibility to spread the message of what has befallen her family. In the Karbalā‐nāmeh, Zaynab's status as the messenger of martyrdom is affirmed through her apostrophic speeches to Muḥammad and Fāṭimah. Zaynab's speech to Muḥammad is so impassioned that it “sets the world aflame.” She punctuates each statement of how the Imam has suffered with the declaration “This is your Ḥusain!” Following her speech to her grandfather, Zaynab addressed her mother in her grave with such powerful words that she “roasted the beasts of the earth and the birds of the air.” This second speech is more political in tone: Zaynab calls upon her mother to bear witness to the bloodshed that has taken place and to enact justice for the iniquitous acts that have harmed the ahl al‐bayt. Karbala devotional literature conventionalizes Zaynab as a fearless leader committed to justice and as the preserver of the Shīʿī community in the battle's aftermath. Zaynab's example guides Shīʿīs in how correctly to remember Karbala, and through her words and actions, she teaches men and women how to imitate Imam Husain and his family's model of faith and sacrifice.

Gender Themes.

Other women of the ahl al‐bayt also serve as imitable models for the Shīʿīs. Like Zaynab's, their representation is a combination of conventionalized characterizations found in Karbala devotional poetry throughout the Shīʿī world and their embodiment of localized cultural and gender ideals. After Zaynab, the second most popularly invoked female figure in Karbala devotional literature is Imam Husain's youngest daughter, Sakīnah (also known as Roqayya in the Perso‐Arabic tradition). Just three or four years old, Sakīnah survived the battle of Karbala and was brought as a prisoner of war to Yazīd's court in Damascus. According to tradition, Sakīnah died from her grief while imprisoned. In Arabic, Persian, and Urdu Karbala devotional poetry, Sakīnah is portrayed as the beloved favorite of her father Ḥusain and her uncle ʿAbbās, who was martyred when he tried to fill waterskins at the bank of the Euphrates River in order to quench his niece's thirst. Touching domestic vignettes in Karbala devotional literature seek to intensify the grief that Shīʿīs devotees feel for these heroes, portrayed as gentle and caring family men.

One of the most popular events in South Asian Karbala literature is the battlefield wedding of Imam Ḥusain's daughter Fāṭimah Kubrā to her cousin Qāsem. According to a tradition first mentioned in Rowẓat al‐Shohadā’ (Garden of the Martyrs), Ḥusain Vāʿez Kāshefi's early sixteenth‐century Persian hagiography of Fāṭimah and the Imams and a chronicle of the battle of Karbala, after their wedding, Qāsem went to the battlefield, where he fought valiantly and was killed before he could consummate his marriage to Fāṭimah Kubrā. By the seventeenth century, Rowẓat al‐Shohadā’ was introduced to the Shīʿī Qutb Shahi dynasty of Hyderabad, and it was quickly translated into the vernacular languages of Deccani‐Urdu and Telugu. This vignette rapidly became popular, and translations of Kāshefi's text were embellished with South Asian Muslim marriage customs, transforming Fāṭimah Kubrā and Qāsem into an idealized Indian bride and groom. Sakīnah figures prominently in this Karbala literature about the seventh Muharram Mehndī (referring to a popular prenuptial ritual in which the groom's feet and hands are decorated with henna) as the idealized sister‐in‐law aggrieved by her inability to perform the customary prenuptial rituals required of a respectable Muslim family.

Shīʿī devotional literature is didactic as well as experiential. Through a variety of strategies of narrative engagement, the men and women of the ahl al‐bayt are brought to life, presenting a variety of gendered selves and practices. Shīʿī devotional literature elevates the spiritual achievements of the ahl al‐bayt while simultaneously presenting them as real men and women, yet it also transforms them into culturally and socially relevant gendered beings whose model can be imitated.



  • Aghaie, Kamran Scot, ed. The Women of Karbala: Ritual Performance and Symbolic Discourses in Modern Shiʿi Islam. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005. These essays explore the ways in which women participate in Muharram rituals and the role of feminine voices and emotions in Shīʿī devotional literature. Find it in your Library
  • Clarke, Lynda. Some Examples of Elegy on the Imam Husayn. Al‐Serat 12 (Spring and Autumn 1986): 13–28. Includes a useful analysis of the history and function of women's voices in Arabic marthiya. Find it in your Library
  • Mottahedeh, Negar. “Karbala Drag Kings and Queens.” Drama Review 49, no. 4 (Winter 2005): 73–85. Explores the female roles traditionally played by young men and boys in Qajar‐era (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) taʿziyeh and the element of transvestite performance. Find it in your Library
  • Pinault, David. “Zaynab bint ʿAli and the Place of the Women of the Household of the First Imams in Shiʿite Devotional Literature.” In Women in the Medieval Islamic World: Power, Patronage, and Piety, edited by Gavin R. G. Hambly, pp. 69–98. New York: Palgrave, 1998. In‐depth assessment of the meaning and function of Zainab's voice and emotion in Shīʿī devotional literature. Find it in your Library
  • Pinault, David. Horse of Karbala: Muslim Devotional Life in India. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Chapter 4 assesses women's roles in Shīʿī devotional literature in South Asia. Find it in your Library
  • Ruffle, Karen G. Gender, Sainthood, and Everyday Practice in South Asian Shiʿism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. An ethnographic and literary analysis of the use of gender themes in Karbala devotional literature and Shīʿī hagiography in Hyderabad, India. Find it in your Library
  • Schubel, Vernon J. Religious Performance in Contemporary Islam: Shiʿi Devotional Rituals in South Asia. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. Chapter 2 focuses on the role of miracle narratives in the household rituals of Shīʿī women in Karachi, Pakistan.
  • Sharīʿatī, ʿAlī. “Fatima Is Fatima.” In Shariati on Shariati and the Muslim Woman, translated by Laleh Bakhtiar, pp. 75–214. Chicago: Kazi, 1996. Based on a series of lectures delivered in Tehran in 1971 in which Fatimah is portrayed as a revolutionary model for Iranian women and men. Find it in your Library
  • Sharif, Tayba Hassan Al Khalifa. “Sacred Narratives Linking Iraqi Shiite Women across Time and Space.” In Muslim Networks: From Hajj to Hip Hop, edited by miriam cooke and Bruce B. Lawrence, pp. 132–154. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Focuses on Iraqi Shīʿī women refugees in the Netherlands and how they have used the religious narratives of Karbala to tell their own personal stories of exile and loss. Find it in your Library

Karen G. Ruffle

Ṣūfī Devotional Literature

The poetic, biographic, and didactic compositions of Ṣūfī devotional literature from the ninth through twelfth centuries drew a strong connection between the earliest foundations of Islam, particularly the sunnah of the Prophet Muḥammad, and Ṣūfī belief and praxis. Perhaps because of this, the wives and daughters of the Prophet also served as models of faith and devotion for female Ṣūfī practitioners, particularly through the ṭabaqāt genre of sacred biography. The corpus of Ṣūfī devotional literature that emerged from the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries added philosophical, narrative poetry, epic, and metaphysical works that borrowed heavily from pre-Islamic Persian literary forms. Here, too, women are represented among the ranks of the Ṣūfīs, while the development of tropes of the feminine reached its zenith in this period. Since the explosion of print culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ṣūfī devotional literature has adopted and adapted new media forms as these emerged in the public sphere, from chapbooks to the Internet and new social networking media. It has also continued to chronicle the lives of female Ṣūfī saints, although the devotional activities of ordinary women, particularly as these involve patronage of Ṣūfī shrines and pīrs, are sometimes condemned. Essential themes of devotion to God and his representatives on Earth, the spiritual development of the individual, and the importance of service to others have remained intact within this body of literature, but its audience has broadened. It comprises a broad collection of genres, including reprints of medieval books and treatises; hagiographies, including biographical collections; discourses, usually compiled and arranged by the disciple(s) of a renowned shaykh; letters, particularly correspondences between shaykhs and their disciples; ta’wil, or esoteric interpretations of the Qurʾān; collections of devotional poetry; popular literature on healing, magic, numerology, and similar topics; and a variety of didactic and ethico-moral writing.

Early Ṣūfī Devotional Literature: Ninth to Twelfth Centuries.

There is little evidence of the poetry and metaphysical formulas penned by female Ṣūfīs before the ninth century; even the poetry and composed by the famous eighth/ninth century mystic woman of Baghdad, Rabiʾa al-ʿAdawiyya (d. 801), survives only in the literature written by subsequent generations. The work of al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 868) contains the earliest known written accounts of Rābiʿah, including some of her poetry. Rābiʿah, rumored to have spent some time as a singer before embarking on the Ṣūfī path, elevated the secular love poetry associated with this class of women during the Umayyad and early Abbasid eras into esoteric teachings on the relationship between God and the mystic seeker. She is credited with bringing the theme of love as the ideal path to God into the world of Ṣūfīs, ushering it into a central place in Ṣūfī poetry and mystical practice. However, the development of love poetry, and love as the quintessential mystic path to God, had been unfolding even prior to Rābiʿah's time; elements of the pre-Islamic qaṣīdah (ode), khamrīyah (wine-poem), and Persian Sasanian courtly love poetry had been its primary sources.

The ninth to twelfth centuries saw the development of numerous additional forms of Ṣūfī devotional literature, among them “shath” (ecstatic sayings), biographies (especially the genres ṭabaqāt and tadhkira), treatises outlining different beliefs and methods of pursuing the spiritual life, and ethical literature combined with manuals of practice. None of these were intended for general public audiences, nor did they take the place of personal instruction under the tutelage of a spiritual master (shaykh or pīr). Instead, these various forms of devotional literature served to highlight particular developments in Ṣūfī metaphysical thought and defend viewpoints that were under attack. Besides the narratives of Rābiʿah's life and work, the few stories of women included in such works as al-Sarrāj's (d. 988) Kitāb al-lumʾa; al-Kalābādhī's (d. 1000) Kitāb al-ta’arruf li-madhhab ahl-al-tasawwuf and Ma’ani al-akhbār, and al-Ghazālī's (d. 1111) Ihyaʾ ulūm al-dīn, should be understood in this vein, rather than as a testament to these women's accomplishments alone. Among the numerous genres of Ṣūfī ethico-didactic literature, futuwwa (spiritual chivalry) manuals served to both highlight the importance of upholding certain moral precepts and to emphasize particular forms, or branches, of Ṣūfī praxis. In this regard, the work of Abu Abd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī (d. 1021), author of Kitāb al-futuwwa al-ṣufīyya (Book of Ṣūfī Chivalry), is particularly important for outlining what Rkia Cornell has argued was a woman mystic's counterpart to this praxis.

Cornell's translation of al-Sulamī's Dhikr al-niswa understands al-Sulami's use of the term niswan, derived from niswa (a spiritual category of women), to mean “practitioners of female chivalry.” If al-Sulami did intend to trace a quintessentially “women's” spiritual discipline, however, his effort stands out for its uniqueness. Many of the women whose stories are relayed in the sacred biographies of this time period remain unnamed, identified primarily by their actions or their encounters with notable male spiritual seekers. Some are identified by their first names, or by their family or geographic affiliations. By the end of this period, the inclusion of biographies of women, usually as an appendix to a major work on Ṣūfīs and other important figures from Islamic sacred history, had become an accepted literary convention, exemplified by such works as Ibn Saʾd's (d. 845) Tabaqat al-Kubr and Abu Nu`aym al-Isfahānī's (d. 1038) Ḥilya al-Awliya.

Medieval and Early Modern Ṣūfī Devotional Literature: Thirteenthth to Eighteenth Centuries.

The thirteenth century marks the flowering of Ṣūfī devotional literature and its development as a popular idiom of poetic and narrative expression. With it began the age of Jalāl al-dīn Rūmī (d. 1273) and Ibn al-ʾArabī (d. 1240), whose poetry and narratives have remained a central influence on Ṣūfī thought and devotional life. The thirteenth century also witnessed the expansion of creeds and guidelines developed by earlier Ṣūfīs, reflecting an increased preoccupation with the “inner sciences” (metaphysical knowledge, gnosis), and with sacred history (including the history of Sufism). In this period too, idioms expressing the human–divine relationship became standard fare in Ṣūfī and Ṣūfī-themed writing. Depictions of women were, at best, ambivalent: although some authors praised the spiritual prowess of extraordinary women, most depicted women as morally deficient, imperfect in their faith, and obstacles on the (male) mystic's path to God. Poetic and narrative uses of the feminine principle, however, served as a mark of, and guide to, the ideal stance of the mystic. Ṣūfī literature drew liberally from the symbolism of womanhood, casting gender reversal—in which the male poet or mystic takes on the persona or qualities of a woman—as a means to overcoming the selfish ego (nafs), and as an exemplary way to reach the Divine. Notably, the elaboration of the trope of lover and Beloved, in which the mystic lover longs for a glimpse of the Divine Beloved, abasing himself and ultimately ceding his entire being to a vision of Divine Unity, became the quintessential model of mystic endeavor. Women, too, were also cast in this mold of spiritual seeker in Ṣūfī (and Ṣūfī-inspired) poetry and narratives.

In one form of expression, the trope of the mystic lover courting death to reach his or her Divine beloved was recast in the language of star-crossed lovers doomed to die and thus achieve union or fana’, the ultimate goal of the mystic in classical Ṣūfī formulations. This trope dominated Persian and Persianate Ṣūfī writing from the fourteenth century, as seen in depictions of the wandering, grief-stricken female soul, in the guise of legendary South Asian heroines such as Hīr and Sassī, who achieved final union with their beloved Ranjha and Punnu. The retelling of the Persian romance of Khusrau, Shīrīn, and Farhād, popularized by the poet Niẓāmī (d. 1209), was adapted and recast in musings on human–divine love by Ṣūfī mystics from Ḥāfiz (d. 1390) to Ḥaẓrat ʾInayat Khān (d. 1927). In the 26,000-verse Mathnawi of Jalāl al-dīn Rūmī (d. 1273), the mystic journey to God is expressed in feminine terms through short moralistic tales, while other Ṣūfī poets elaborated tales popular throughout the Muslim lands: Yusūf and Zulaykha, taken from the Biblical and Qurʾānic story of Joseph as a slave in the house of Potiphar; the Prophet Muḥammad's mi’rāj, or journey to Heaven; and Layla and Majnūn, an Arab legend in which the hero, deprived of his beloved flesh-and-blood Layla, loses his mind but gains a vision of the eternal Divine. Metaphysical–philosophical treatises also expounded the meanings of female and feminine as qualities of humanity and reflections of aspects of the Divine, as in the examples of Ibn al-ʾArabī's al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya and Al-Insān al-kullī.

Although mystic poetry and narrative didactic tales dominated the landscape of medieval Ṣūfī devotional literature, the production of biographical writing continued to expand. As the Ṣūfī orders proliferated, demand for knowledge about the founders—and representatives—of these mystic associations increased. The convention of appending the stories of women to large collections of sacred memorials continued, too. Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1200) included 240 Ṣūfī women among his biographies of saints, but his successors were, comparatively, less attentive to including women among the ranks of the saints. Farīd al-Dīnʿ Attar's (d. 1220) Tadhkirāt al-Awliya contains the story of only one female saint, Rābiʾa al-ʿAdawiyya. Jamī's (1492) work, Nafaḥāt al-uns, contains 570 biographies of Ṣūfī men and 34 biographies of Ṣūfī women. Maulana Fazlullāh Jamālī's (d. 1535 or 1536) Siyar al-‘Arifin and Abdul Muḥaddith Dihlawī's (d. 1642) Akhbār al-Akhyār each incorporate the stories of only a handful of holy women. By the eighteenth century, tadhkiras had become a major source of information about saints whose fame was well known within and across the Muslim-majority lands.

Ṣūfī Devotional Literature from the Nineteenth Century: Beyond the Society of Mystics.

The nineteenth century saw a renewed interest in the classical literature of Sufism; this was fueled in part by Muslims’ encounters with European colonialism, and in part by the birth of what has been labeled “neo-Sufism,” characterized by a spirit of renewal and reform (tajdid wa-islah), by the activism of its adherents, and by its attention to the foundational sources of Islam. Reform-minded Ṣūfīs were among the most prolific writers, producing didactic literature that defended their practice of Sufism as being in accordance with Islamic Sharīʿah, while the ideal Ṣūfī shaykh was regarded as much for his ability to serve as moral exemplar of Islam as for his ability to perform miracles. The biographical literature of this period emphasized the genealogy of the shaykh as part of the evidence for his moral character. This fueled popular demand for details about the spiritual accomplishments of his female relatives. In some cases, the life stories and work of women of saintly lineages served to highlight the prestige of an entire Ṣūfī order, as in the case of Nana Asma’u (d. 1864) poet, diplomat, educator, and daughter of Shaykh ʾUthmān dan Fodio, founder of the Sokoto Caliphate in today's Nigeria.

Since the early twentieth century, Ṣūfīs have addressed female audiences, penning didactic-etiquette literature, as in the case of Maulana Ashraf ʾAli Thanawī's Bihishtī Zewar (d. 1943). Works like these also contained the stories of saintly women of Islamic and Ṣūfī heritage. The twentieth-century Ṣūfī master both drew upon older trends and established new ones by writing biographies exclusively dedicated to female saints, as in the case of the Niʾmatullāhī shaykh, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh's (d. 2008) Sufi Women, published in 1983. By the close of the twentieth century, many Ṣūfī orders from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East had spread outward to Europe, Australia, and the Americas. A legacy as well as a sign of their widespread appeal has been the willingness of some orders to engage discussions of the increasing relevance—and visibility—of women in the orders. The proliferation of cheaply printed demotic literature (of various genres) since the late nineteenth century has reflected this relevance and visibility. In some cases, it has allowed women on the margins of formal membership in the Ṣūfī orders to develop their own healing practices, drawing upon information in books on “magic,” and Qurʾānic prayer formulations to attract clients who are willing to pay them for remedies such as amulets. In other cases, it has been the women of Ṣūfī orders who have taken it upon themselves to highlight the accomplishments of women Ṣūfīs, thus underscoring the importance of women to the development of some of the central concepts, institutions, and practices of Sufism.


  • Elias, Jamal. “Female and Feminine in Islamic Mysticism.” Muslim World 78, no. 3–4 (July–October 1988): 209–224. Find it in your Library
  • Mojaddedi, Jawid. The Biographical Tradition in Sufism: The tabaqat genre from al-Sulāmī to Jāmī. Richmond, Surrey, U.K.: Curzon Press, 2001.
  • Murata, Sachiko. The Tao of Islam. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992. Find it in your Library
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. “Persian Sufi Literature: Its Spiritual and Cultural Significance.” In The Legacy of Medieval Persian Sufism, edited by Leonard Lewisohn, pp. 1–10. London: Khanaqahi Nimatullahi Publications, 1992. Find it in your Library
  • Nurbakhsh, Javad. Sufi Women. New York: Khanaqahi Nimatullahi Publications, 1983. Find it in your Library
  • Pemberton, Kelly. Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2010. Find it in your Library
  • Roded, Ruth. Women in Islamic Biographical Collections: From Ibn Sa’d to Who's Who. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1994. Find it in your Library
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. My Soul Is a Woman: The Feminine in Islam. New York: Continuum Books, 1997. Find it in your Library
  • Smith, Margaret Muslim Women Mystics: The Life and Work of Rabi’a and Other Women Mystics in Islam. Oxford: Oneworld Books, 1994. Reprint, 2001. Find it in your Library
  • Al-Sulami, Abu Abd al’Rahman. Dhikr an-niswa al-mutaʻabbidat aṣ-sufiyyat. Translated, with an introduction, by Rkia Cornell as Early Sufi Women: Dhikr an-niswa al-mutaʻabbidat aṣ-sufiyyat. Louisville, Ky.: Fons Vitae, 2005. Find it in your Library

Kelly Pemberton

Sunnī Devotional Literature

Sunnī devotional literature is one of the most popular types of Islamic literature, written for the believers to develop or heighten feelings of devotion toward God, the prophets, and Muslim mystics. The purpose of devotional literature is to explain religion and give strength and comfort in affliction and spiritual uplifting. This kind of literature includes but is not limited to prayers, hymns, songs, autobiographical narratives about the prophets’ and saints’ lives, and guides to prayer and spiritual growth. Based on Qurʾānic teachings and the sunnah of the Prophet Muḥammad, its main concern is the exemplary Muslim life, emphasizing the relationship between the individual and the community and the individual and the divine. Despite the fact that gender themes occupy a significant portion of Sunnī devotional literature, creating a significant space for feminine sanctity, very little research has been done on the origins, influence, and significance of gender in Sunnī devotional literature.

The Qurʾān is the primary devotional literature for Sunnī women. In Sunnī tradition, women participate actively in devotional expression. The Qurʾān refers to several specific women who triumphed spiritually, despite worldly trials: Asiya, the wife of Pharaoh, who was thought to be the same woman who saved the life of the infant Moses; Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus (66:11–12); and the Queen of Sheba as a model of wisdom and leadership (27:23–44). Qurʾānic devotions on prayer are used for educating, equipping, and encouraging women to know, love, enjoy God, others, and themselves. For instance, Muslim women recite special devotional prayers from the Qurʾān from the time of conception through delivery, including prayers to help a woman conceive and others for having a healthy, beautiful, and God-fearing child. An example of such prayer is the prayer of the Prophet Zakariah in his old age for his barren wife: “O my Lord! Grant me from You, a good offspring. You are indeed the All-Hearer of invocation” (3:38). The ḥadīth literature calls the woman who dies during pregnancy and childbirth a martyr. Therefore, the Qurʾān encourages a prayer for parents: My Lord! Forgive me and my parents. Bestow Your mercy on them as they took care of me when I was young” (17:24).

The second and most prominent gender theme in Sunnī devotional literature is related to the birth of the Prophet Muḥammad, known as mawlid. In Sunnī circles, the 12th of Rabiʾal-Awwal is more famous than other months of the Muslim calendar. The mawlid was first celebrated by the Shīʿī Fatimid dynasty in Egypt between 969 and 1171 CE. Some prominent Sunnī leaders also started to observe it as a special celebration. The first mawlid text by a Sunnī scholar was written by Muḥammad ibn Salama al Qudaʾi (d. 1062 CE), who was a prominent Shāfiʿī judge and historian (Katz, 2007). The mawlid texts have historically been recited during the celebration of the Prophet's birth and include narratives about the Prophet's mother Amina. For instance, the mawlud in Turkish by Süleyman Çelebi in the fifteenth century describes the physical experience of Amina's delivery, when she was giving birth to the Prophet, and how a white bird came floating and stroked her back to relieve her pain. When this verse of the poem is recited, the women participants in the mevlud (Turkish spelling of mawlid) ceremony are sprinkled by the cantor with rosewater and stroke each other's backs.

The third type of Sunnī devotional literature in which women especially excelled is visionary or spiritual autobiography. Khadīja, ʿĀʾishah, and Fāṭimah are the ultimate archetypes in Sunnī devotional literature, which presents their narratives as inspiring examples of the perfect women. The influence of this kind of literature is so profound that Fāṭimah became the most popular name throughout the Muslim world. The Sunnīs shared with Shīʿīs devotional literature celebrating Fāṭimah as a figure. Her other popular names are common between both Muslim communities, such as Batul owing to her modesty, al-Mubarakah (the blessed), al-Zakiyah (the virtuous), al-Siddiqah (the righteous), al-Radiyah (the satisfied), al-Muhaddithah (the eloquent), al-Zahra (the blossomed), and al-Tahirah (the pure). Moreover, she was often compared to the Virgin Mary, bringing the reader's attention to the similarities between these two blessed women. The mother of Fāṭimah is the pious Khadīja, who, like the Virgin Mary's mother St. Anne, herself became a mother of the sacrificial son, Ḥusayn. In some societies, such as Egypt, popular religious practices even overlap around the two figures in Muslim and Christian local religious folk celebrations. The devotional literature as well as the practice of women glorifies the female presence in the religious imaginary. Many Sunnī mawlid style works, such as Süleyman Çelebi's Wasila al-Najat, devote a special chapter to her “death,” which is titled The Death of Fatima al-Zahra, or Fāṭimah's Features. This section of Wasila al-Najat describes the last days of the Prophet and how Fāṭimah welcomes Azrael (the Angel of Death), who came to take the Prophet's soul. After the death of Muḥammad, Fāṭimah expresses her deep sorrow and never ceases her mourning. Although Fuzuli, a famous medival Azerbaijani poet, was a Shīʿī, his Hadiqat al-Saadah, with a full chapter on Fāṭimah (Chapter Four), was used by Sunnī Turkish Muslims to learn about her life. Perhaps the most famous story about Fāṭimah in Sunnī devotional prayer is the following narration: One day Fāṭimah asked her father, Muḥammad, to provide her with a servant to help her in household chores. However, instead of giving her a servant, Muḥammad advised her to say subhan-Allah, alhamdulillah, and Allahu-akbar [Glory to God, All praise is due to God, and God is the Greatest] thirty-three times each when she went to bed, which would be better than having the servant that she had asked for.

Similar spiritual and devotional autobiographies were often written by both men and women. However, men were more active in producing devotional literature than women because of social and political circumstances. Nonetheless, vocal heritage is more influenced by women's religious narratives than the devotional written literature. Sufism also allows more contribution by women in formulating images, as men have more influence on devotional literature related to fiqh. For instance, in the Sunnī world, different narrations about the life of a famous mystic, Rābiʿa-ʿAdawīya al-Qaysiyya of Basra (d. 801), by three famous Sunnī Sufi writers, Abū Hamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm (1145/1146–1221 CE), Farīd ud-Dīn, and ʿAttār, are well-known. The purpose of this book was to express the importance of this woman who established the Doctrine of Selfless Love, which is well expressed in her prayer: “O my Lord, if I worship Thee from fear of Hell, put me in hell, and if I worship Three in hope of Paradise, exclude me thence, but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, then withhold not form me Thine Eternal Beauty” (Smith, 1994, p. 50). As a mystic, Rābiʿa's major contribution to ritual prayers was her emphasis on the centrality of the love of God in religious experience. She declared that her love for God allowed no room for love even of his prophet. Rābiʿa “gives a clear idea of a woman renouncing this world and its attractions and giving up her life to the service of God” (Smith, 1994, p. 9). In Sunnī communities, females, therefore, could play an important role as the spiritual leaders (shaykhas) for their students and disciples. For instance, one of the spiritual leaders of Muḥammad Ibn ʿAli Ibn ʿArabī's (b. 1165 CE) was Fāṭimah of Cordoba, who was in her nineties then.

In general, the early autobiographies of Fāṭimah, Khadīja, and other famous Muslim women are models for the Muslim life and guides to devotion. Similar autobiographies were often written in later centuries by Ṣūfī orders. However, there is a lack of research in the field of identifying and translating Sunnī women's devotional literature. There is a need to explore answers to many questions, including the oral and written methods of composition of these ritualistic prayers and stories, their audience, their awareness of a female visionary tradition, and so on. Nevertheless, the devotional literature for Sunnī women describes an area of female experience of mysticism, spirituality, and subjective experience of the divine, which was intended to nurture the devotional meditations. Women not only learned these meditations, but also contributed to its formation and richness and provided the structure and content of the devotional literature. Moreover, it proved that Muslim women could teach men what God or His prophet and Muslim saints had taught.


  • Isgandarova, Nazila. “Islamic Spiritual Care in a Health Care Setting.” In Spirituality and Health: Multidisciplinary Explorations, edited by A. Meier, T. O’Connor, and P. Van Katwyk. Waterloo, ON: WLU Press, 2005: 85–104. Find it in your Library
  • Isgandarova, Nazila. “Muslim Spiritual Care and Counselling.” In The Spiritual Care Givers Guide to Identity, Practice and Relationships: Transforming the Honeymoon in Spiritual Care and Therapy, edited by T. O’Connor, E. Meakes, and C. Lashmar. Waterloo, ON: WLU Press, 2008: 235–243. Find it in your Library
  • Isgandarova, Nazila. “Mosques as Communities of Memories vis-à-vis Muslim Identity and Integration in the European Union.” European Journal of Economic and Political Studies 2, no. 2 (2009): 61–70. Find it in your Library
  • Isgandarova, Nazila. “The Compassionate Engagement in Islam.” [yjhm.yale.edu/essays/nisgandarova20100302.htm] Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.
  • Isgandarova, Nazila. “The Contribution of Muslim Charities in the West to International Development.” OIDA International Journal of Sustainable Development 1, no. 1 (2010): 39–44. Find it in your Library
  • Isgandarova, Nazila. “The Concept of Effective Islamic Spiritual Care.” The Journal of Rotterdam Islamic and Social Sciences 2, no. 1 (2011): 101–103. Find it in your Library
  • Isgandarova, Nazila. “What the Spiritual Caregiver Should Know While Dealing with Survivors of Ethnic Violence.” Khazar Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences 14, no. 3 (2011): 35–50. Find it in your Library
  • Katz, M. H. The Birth of the Prophet Muḥammad: Devotional Piety in Sunni Islam. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2007. Find it in your Library
  • Smith, M. (1994). Rābiʿa: The Life and Works of Rābiʿa and Other Women Mystics in Islam. Oxford: One world Publications, 1994.

Nazila Isgandarova

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2020. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice