[Over a richly coloured Persian miniature painting of a prince surrounded by courtiers, the following text appears in a black box: State Library of Victoria. Love and Devotion: Persian Cultural Crossroads: 'Women in Rumi's spiritual circle' – Dr Zahra Taheri. Chair: Dr Gillian Green.]
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[Dr Zahra Taheri stands at a podium in front of a detail from a Persian manuscript showing a seated man, with a flaming aureole around his head, and a woman holding hands.]
Dr Zahra Taheri: I'm going to talk about … women in Rumi's circle, actually. This is a part of the chapter I have written on Rumi and women in the book I published in 2007 in Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
Maulana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, the most prominent mystic poet in Persian literature, is among the Sufi masters who have gone beyond the boundaries and Sufi traditions to open a broader space in their teachings for the feminine. In his spiritual teachings, not only do feminine images and metaphors have great significance, but women are held in high regard in his spiritual circle as followers – murid, companions and spiritual guides.
In his didactic composition on speculative mysticism, the Masnavi, Rumi employs both feminine and masculine characters to play side by side in the scene of his interwoven stories in order to narrate the human being's struggle in the path of discovering his or her hidden darkness and unrevealed luminosity. The self is developed consequently through a journey towards recognition and balance, and the essential role of women is thus not different … no different from that of men.
In his didactic storytelling, Rumi is the narrator of the paradoxical nature of the human being, who is made up of an earthly body and a heavenly spirit, and the source of his or her being, regardless of sexuality, comes from both darkness and light. Rumi's view of the paradoxical nature of the human being has a strong root in the Qur’anic commentary literature of the Sufi tradition and can be traced to the mystical interpretation of the myth of creation, according to which, Adam, who represents humankind, was created from the opposite elements – darkness and light. God formed the human being's body from clay and gave him life by breathing in him from his spirit. This is from Qur’an. Clay is considered to be an element carrying pure darkness, while God's spirit is the source of absolute light. Therefore, the human being's nature is a paradoxical combination of body and spirit, soft and hard, and manifestation of darkness and light.
One of the major instances in which Persian Sufi exegesis discusses the uniqueness of the human being's position in the creation due to this totality is Kashf al-Asrar, written by Rashid al-Din Abu al-Fazl Maybudi in 12th century. Maybudi narrates the myth of creation in enchanting poetic language using powerful imagery and metaphors to interpret the human being's totality, for which Adam was placed above all over beings, even the angels. Quotation from Kashf al-Asrar:
I created Adam in the most beautiful shape and form and selected him among all over created beings. I entrusted him with my love and made him worthy of being the selected in my kingdom. I manifested the elements of sensation and the jewels of the sacred and the sources of tameness in his body, then I ordered the chosen angels and all other created beings to put their forehead on the earth and prostrate themselves in front of his throne, telling them that he is the master and you are servants, he is the friend and you are the obedient.
End of quotation.
Being created of clay, which is dark in its essence, and spirit, which is connected to the source of absolute light, the human being in the Masnavi is the narrator of this complexity and paradox. Observing the feminine characters in Rumi's colourful stories through the lens of this totality and paradox helps one understand how women have been glorified and praised as creators, khaliq, on one occasion, and portrayed as human beings who failed to recognise the way from the world, referring to pitfalls, on another.
In search of the value of feminine in Rumi's teachings, special attention should also be paid to his father's mystical teachings. It was undoubtedly the significance and values assigned to the feminine in Baha Walad's mystical preaching which provided the basis for Rumi's viewpoint on women. In one of his sermons referring to the creation of the human being, Baha Walad came to the conclusion that the feminine is the cause of the means of realising divinity, wilayat. He even broke the norm of Sufi sermons and went beyond the borders of the tradition of Sufi preaching to portray candidly the moments of his revelation through the narration of his intimate feelings toward, and his personal moments with, his wife.
This approach to the feminine has no antecedent in Sufi teachings before his time and did not repeat after him. In his mystical masterpiece, the Ma‘arif, feminine metaphors and imagery are at the core of whatever is creative and nourishing; and ultimately, women's ability to give birth is considered the same as God's ability to create.
This belief in the creative feminine had a profound impact on Rumi's doctrine and flourished in his teaching in the Masnavi, where in the story of the Bedouin and his wife, he uses the term khaliq, 'creator', for women:
Translation from Nicholson:
The Prophet said that women prevail exceedingly over the wise and intelligent while, on the other hand, ignorant men prevail over women, for in them, the fierceness of the animal is imprisoned. They lack tenderness, kindness and affection, because animality predominates over their human nature. She, woman, is a ray of God. She is not that earthly beloved. She is creative. You might say she's not created.
To denote the concept of creator, Rumi uses the word khaliq, one of God's sacred names, which is forbidden to be used as a human attribute. For this reason, the renowned translator of Rumi, Reynold Nicholson, has translated this word as 'creative', not 'creator'. As a learned Islamic scholar and gnostic, Rumi is fully aware of what he has declared by using the word khaliq for women, and in order to clarify the fact that the creator is God and women are just like him, he uses the term gu’iyaa, which means 'as if' in Persian. The following may be a more accurate translation for the last verse:
She, woman, is a ray of God's light. She is not just earthly beloved. She is not just that earthly beloved, as if she is the creator, not the created.
In the collection of his sermons in prose, Fihi ma Fih, also, Rumi chooses womanhood ability to nurture and the privilege of child-bearing as metaphors for the sacred in order to underscore the vital personal and evolving nature of the sacred. By employing feminine images and metaphors, Rumi explained the Divine's secret in human being's heart as a foetus inside the body of a pregnant woman who grows regardless of what the woman eats and where she sleeps and regardless of her outward experience, whether in the time of war or peace.
In the scene of Rumi's personal and social life also, women occupied a broad space, as has been recounted in Manaqib al-‘Arifin by his biographer, Ahmad Aflaki. Rumi had a close relationship with the female members of his extended household. Fatima Khatun, his daughter-in-law, Sultan Walad's wife, is one of the most distinguished women in Rumi's family. She was greatly loved and highly revered by Rumi, who had personally taken charge of educating and instructing her. Being the daughter of Rumi's spiritual master, Salah al-Din Zarkub, Fatima Khatun is, in Rumi's belief, the holy meditator of her father's spiritual power and the source of bounty and blessing to all human beings.
Kira Khatun, Rumi's second wife, also has been portrayed in Aflaki's accounts as a woman with an outstanding personality and power who was highly esteemed and respected by Rumi and his followers, murids. Having been allotted a share of Rumi's school organisation income, Kira Khatun was financially independent and had a source of financial support to the family as well. Even after Rumi's death, she and her daughter, Malika Khatun, were receiving their share from the income of school organisation … of Rumi's school organisation. According to Aflaki's account, in one occasion, from 7000 royal dirham donated to Rumi's school, 1000 dirham was sent to Kira Khatun. It is worthy of mention that the share assigned to Kira Khatun was equal to the share of Sultan Walad.
Among other women in Rumi's household, Mutahhara Khatun and Sheref Khatun – Sultan Walad's daughters, who were given the title 'ascetic' and 'gnostic' by Rumi – were believed to be the possessor of sainthood, sahib-e vilayat, by his murids. These two ladies had disciples among the Seljuk royal women. Aflaki himself was one of Sheref Khatun's disciples and learned the rules and manners of Sufi masters, ‘adab-e mashayekh, under her supervision.
The name of two concubines has also been mentioned in Sultan Walad's household, Sombeli and Nusrat. Sultan Walad married these two women after his wife's death. Regardless of their position as slave girls before marrying Sultan Walad, they have been called with the respectful title of khatun, 'lady', wherever Aflaki mentions their names. They had rights equal to those of other women in the family, and their sons inherited their spiritual leadership of the path after the death of Sultan Walad's first son, Amir ‘Arif. There has been not any report of Rumi himself having any concubines in his home, although there are mentions of the servants who helped his family with their housework. Nonetheless, he believed in the slaves' equal human rights with other free people and remained respectful to concubines. He had entitled Majd al-din Maraghi’, Roman slave girl, as the truthful and pious seddiqa.
Aflaki's account of Rumi's reprimand of his daughter over the rights of the slave girl who was treated improperly and beaten by her, indicates Rumi's extremely sensitivity to the usual unjust behaviour towards slave girls. Rumi's female family members, Kira Khatun and Fatima Khatun particularly, were fully aware of the significance of his high spiritual and social status, trying to save the order's leadership for their descendants by emphasising their inherited sainthood. They apparently were not comfortable with the fact that Rumi had appointed Husam al-Din Chelebi his successor, believing that the spiritual leadership of the order should remain in the family.
According to Aflaki, after Rumi's death, one of the close confidantes of Fatima Khatun blamed Sultan Walad for not struggling to take over the leadership of the path. Opposing Husam al-Din's succession, she reminded Sultan Walad that he was the one who deserved the position. After Rumi's death, in a conversation with Husam al-Din, Kira Khatun also pointed to spiritual connection between the father and the son by narrating her dream of Rumi appearing as a phoenix and spreading the shadow of his wings on Sultan Walad. Although Sultan Walad saw a mystical interpretation for the dream, Kira Khatun succeeded in drawing Husam al-Din's attention to the missing link between himself and Rumi.
The tradition of initiatic ancestry which was chosen by Rumi did not continue after Husam al-Din's death. The leadership of the path returned to Rumi's family through the succession of his son, Sultan Walad, and was eventually inherited by his offspring. A point so far overlooked is that women appear to have played a significant role in returning the spiritual leadership of Rumi's path back to his family.
Fatima Khatun also was a great supporter of the social and spiritual status of her son, Amir ‘Arif. Amir ‘Arif not only lacked Rumi's knowledge, vision and intuition, he seems to have been ill-tempered and impatient, occasionally boasting about his spiritual power and social status, considering himself Rumi's sword and the source of God's bounty. Not surprisingly, some of Rumi's disciples and followers did not consider Amir ‘Arif qualified for such a high status, a spiritual status. The women of Rumi's household, therefore, had to support his position by emphasising the sanctity and holiness he inherited from Rumi through kinship and blood.
In addition to family members, the names of two female mystics have been recorded as Rumi's companion. Aflaki has narrated an account of Rumi's meeting with a female mystic, Fakhr al-nisa’, who carried the title Walia-ye-Kamila – 'the perfect saint'. She was believed to have reached such a high stage in spiritual experiences that Rumi shared with her the moments of his revelation. One of the Fakhr al-nisa’s companions and Rumi's murids regards as a saint, Waliya, herself was Nasim Khatun, who apparently came from a modest background. She once decided to arrange a sama’ ceremony, the sacred dance, for Rumi and his companions and – being financially incapable of affording such a gathering – thought of selling her veil in order to provide the expenses. Upon learning about this, however, Rumi prevented her from selling the veil and himself arranged the sama’ in her residence.
There is a letter recorded in the collection of Rumi's letters, Maktubat, written to a woman whose name is not mentioned but is addressed as the unique lady whose precious presence, Rumi writes, has been the refuge for dervishes and guidance for the wayfarers, wayfarers of the right path. In the letter, Rumi praises this woman for attending a stage so high in spiritual experience from which she can observe the meanings concealed from other people. This, according to Rumi, is the stage of certitude and knowledge through which she has witnessed what is presumption for others.
In another letter, written to the powerful Seljuk minister Mu‘in al-Din Parwana, Rumi supported a female mystic to return to her convent she had been living in and which was, at the time of writing the letter, occupied by the minister's relatives. In this letter, Rumi uses the title of Sufi for the woman and describes her as a pious ascetic. This woman apparently resided in a convent, khanqah, in Konya. Several royal women of the Seljuk court also were Rumi's murids, or followers. And he occasionally visited them, preached to them and wrote letters to them.
Gorji Khatun, the favourite wife of King Ghiyath al-Din Key Khosrow II, was the most famous among Rumi's female murids and one of the most powerful queens in Seljuk court. She had a great influence on the court's affair as well as on her husband's decisions. Zarrinkoub, the renowned historian of Sufism, relates … a fascinating anecdote about Gorji Khatun once requesting that a portrait of her face be engraved on the coin alongside that of the sultan. Since engraving the image of a woman, a woman's face, on the coin was against the traditional and considered a disgrace to the kingdom, the son convinced her ... the king, the sultan, convinced her that the image of the sun and the symbol … as the symbol of her beauty and power, be engraved along with his portrait.
There's another letter in the collection of Rumi's letters addressed to Fakhr al-Khavatin, 'the pride of womankind', which has been most probably written to the same queen. She had a close relationship with Rumi's wife and occasionally showed her gratitude and devotion to Rumi by sending gifts and offering to his school ... offerings to his school organisation. A circle of royal women who were Rumi's followers was formed around this Seljuk queen. These women gathered on Friday night and invited Rumi for preaching and sama’, the spiritual dance. Most important of all was Rumi's … profound understanding of the women's status and their social and religious limits and hardships.
Perhaps a very significant letter documented in the Maktubat is written to Governor Atabak-e A’zam about a young woman from a notable family who was supposed to marry him. The governor had postponed or cancelled the wedding due to the spread of gossip about his bride-to-be. This letter indicates clearly Rumi's position against the social habit of defaming and disgracing women, which, in his understanding, was not only harmful and even life-threatening to them but also damaging to their families' dignity. In this letter, Rumi defends the accused girl by pointing to the history of the harmful social habits, reminding the grand governor that people of weak judgement have throughout history not only accused women but also the saints, prophets and even God. In this letter, Rumi defends the girl and stands firmly behind the dignity of her family by mentioning that disgracing and defaming her would be equivalent to disgracing him, Rumi, and his family. He considered dealing with this issue – which in his opinion, amounts to a social sickness – so important that he assigned his representative, Hesam al-Din, to follow up the case relentlessly with the accusation … until the accusation is clear.
Another account of Rumi's encounter with a prostitute indicates his awareness of women's social hardship not to be limited to the notable families, his murids or the female members of his extended family. Aflaki relates that passing through a famous caravanserai in Konya, Rumi encounters a woman of bad fame ... of bad reputation, who lived there with her servants. She respectfully approaches Rumi, who instead of ignoring or insulting her – a common behaviour of many religious scholars and Sufis towards such women – starts a long conversation with her. At the end of the conversation, Rumi expresses his admiration for her sincerity, and later he explains that his respect for the prostitute lies in the fact that her appearance and outward image is in harmony and balance with her inner self, contrary to many pious people's hypocrisy and insincerity; she is who she is.
We should not ignore the possibility that these kinds of accounts might have been exaggerated to a certain extent by Rumi's murids and devotees before being recorded by his biographer, Ahmad Aflaki. Nevertheless, the significance of such narrations remains highly invaluable, since it indicates that for Rumi's followers, the respect of this spiritual leader for a woman of bad reputation was not a sign of imperfection – rather, it was considered to be sacred as the wondrous act of Keramat.
Rumi is among the mystics in the history of Sufism who believed in the sacredness of music and poetry. Therefore, music and poetry were at the heart of his spiritual practices. His inclination towards the sacred dance sama’ is generally considered to be the result of Shams-e Tabrizi's teaching. Sultan Walad, however, relates a different account, indicating that a woman played a significant role in encouraging Rumi to the practice of sama’ before Shams-e Tabrizi's arrival in Konya. As one of the loyal murids of Rumi's father, Baha Walad, and highly respected by him, this woman – namely, the wife of Khaja Sharaf al-din Samarqandi – after the death of her husband, emigrated with his master's family from Khorasan to Anatolia. She married her daughter Gowhar Khatun to young Rumi in Larandeh and later came to be known as the greatKerain Rumi's family. Aflaki directly quotes from Sultan Walad, who considered her grandmother to be Rumi's first sama’ instructor and teacher. Quotation:
Before Shams-e Tabrizi, my grandmother Kera-ye Bozorg, the great Kera, taught my father how to perform the sacred dance sama’ in the movement of his hands, and later, Shams taught my father to dance in the movement of his feet.
This woman is believed to be the first to plant the joy of dancing in the garden of Rumi's mind. Rumi's belief in the sacredness of music had a great impact on his behaviour towards and respect for musicians, including women musicians. His view of women musicians was beyond the commonly held beliefs and prejudices of religious scholars and even the religious law, since music was not considered unlawful in his teachings. He believed that the sound of music is equal to the evening prayer in the sense that both call people to the truth. The prayer calls one's outer self to the service and presence of God and the music calls the inner self to love and knowledge. He described the status ... sorry. He ascribed the state of the men of God as a state of deadly thirst which has no cure other than being quenched with the water of music and dance.
Rumi's meeting with a female musician and singer named Tavous Khatun, who was residing in Ziya’ al-din Wazir caravanserais in Konya, indicates that he was respectful of women musicians' gift and skill. Accepting Tavous Khatun's invitation, Rumi entered her room, and after saying his prayer there, blessed the woman with a piece of his turban. There are also several accounts … in Manaqib al-‘Arifin indicating that Rumi's female murids, particularly the circle of royal women, had gatherings every Friday night and invited him for preaching and the spiritual dance sama’. In those gatherings – which usually took place in Shaikh-e Khavatin's residence – after Rumi's sermons on meanings and mysteries of the spiritual path, women musicians played reed and tambourine for the sama’ performance in his presence.
While women were allowed to arrange sama’ ceremony for Rumi and his murids in their house, their participation in sama’ ceremony and sometimes even their presence was not allowed by other Sufis contemporary to Rumi. A renowned Sufi contemporary of Rumi, once – performing a sama’ ceremony in Konya – objected severely to the presence of a group of women who had performed sama’ in a separate section of the convent, khanqah, and expressed disrespect towards them.
From the viewpoint of the history of Persian literature, Rumi is a master mystic poet and the creator of the two monumental literary masterpieces: the great Divan, the collection of his mystical lyrics; and his didactic work, the magnificent Masnavi. Therefore, he himself is considered to be the initiator of his spiritual path and the one who completes his mystical school of thought. In Anatolia, however, after Rumi, his path grew to be a major Sufi order, called Molavi. Throughout the first few centuries after Rumi's death, his successors continued to treasure his legacy of recognising women and respecting their rights to equality with the male murids in spiritual practices as well as in their position in the order. Rumi's son, Sultan Walad, continued to have a close relationship with the circle of his father's female followers and murids as well as the royal women of Seljuk court.
The most important case to mention regarding the situation of women in the order during his time is the position of a woman as his representative in the city of Towqat. Khosh Leqa’ Qunavi was placed in charge of the direct direction of a Sufi convent in Towqat and had her own murids in that region. She had a close relationship with Sultan Walad's wife Fatima Khatun and on a trip was Kira Khatun's companion. She kept her position until the time of Amir ‘Arif, when a serious argument is reported between her and a well-known preacher over his criticism of Rumi's grandson, Amir ‘Arif.
Amir ‘Arif's relationship with his female followers has been reputed to be more personal and emotional rather than spiritual. His most notable murid among the royal women of Seljuk court was the daughter of King Ghiyath al-Din Key Khosrow II. She was the principal financial support of Rumi's school organisation. Pasha Khatun, the queen of Sultan Oljayto Mohammad Khodabandeh, also was one of his murids. She once invited Amir ‘Arif for a visit to her husband's court in Erzrum for a long time ... and for a long time ... did not allow him to return to Konya. Soon after he returned to Konya, Pasha Khatun passed away, and Amir ‘Arif's tremendous grief and emotional mourning in her funeral has been taken as the sign of an unfulfilled love between him and the queen of Erzrum. The name of another woman, known as the daughter of Oriya, is also among Amir ‘Arif's female murids and companions.
Throughout the two centuries after Rumi's death, his spiritual teachings were widely spread in rural areas in Anatolia and many practical ceremonies, some of which, such as the kitchen services, did not seem to be in harmony with the essence of Rumi's doctrines and teaching … were intermixed with his teachings. During the time when his path broke the boundaries of city borders and spread throughout the suburbs and remote villages, women enjoyed full equality with men in spiritual practices as well as in holding the spiritual offices of masters, representatives and convent keepers.
In the first few decades of the 11th century, a woman named Dastina was appointed representative of her father Shah Mohammad Chalapi in Qara Hesar Khaneqah. She used to wear Sufi costumes and was in charge of managing the affairs of her convents. Her successor also passed the position to his daughter. She also used to wear the Sufi costumes, including a multi-layered long hat with a long scarf and the Sufi cloak, khirqa. She started to take charge of directing all ceremonies assigned to the position of the spiritual guide, including the lengthy ceremony of saying prayers, offering remembrance and reciting the Masnavi with a group of dervishes in Sama’ khaneh, the hall of spiritual dance.
Due to the wealth and financial power of the order, resulting from the vast endowments, as well as social status of the order's leadership, during the following three centuries – between 11th to 13th century – the leadership of the order was transferred back to the cities from the rural areas. Furthermore, the order gradually transformed to a governmental endowment … governmental endowment institution. In this period, the women … women's role in Molavi order enormously declined, and their presence in the scene of the path as guides, spiritual leaders and convent keepers gradually faded out. Women's participation in the ceremonies and spiritual practices as well as their rights and freedoms faced severe restriction. From this period onward, gradually, the name of women was almost eliminated from the history of the order. Thank you.
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