Sufi Women : Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi

Sufi Women

by Deborah Addington on 04/21/11

Yup.  That's right.  Sufi women.  As in Friends of Allah (Allah al-Haqqi).  As in intelligent, gifted intellectual and spiritual leadership within Islam.  As Muslims.  And as women and other non-male gendered beings.  And just so you know, I only use that language because it's the easiest and I am not in the mood to have that discussion.  I do not feel that males or maleness is the defining standard against which all other embodiments should be evaluated.

I don't know about you, but when I think of dervishes (darvish), like those in the Mevlevi Order of Sufism, the image that pops into my head is that of all men, wearing the white robes and honey-colored fezs of the order, spinning gracefully, absorbedly, and looking like exquisite flowers in a magical garden.  I like the image of manflowers, but somehow it isn't a complete picture for me, a monocultured garden.  I've just always accepted the image of darvishes as male, and the only one; it was all I knew.

A few weeks ago, I went to a zikr (prayer meeting) of the Mevlevi Order.  There were darvish and darvishi.  There were women turning, right alongside the men.  It took my breath away.  It felt somehow complete.

Today I learned that up until about the fourth century, Sufism (not what it was really called then) had women involved at pretty much every level.  Women could be seen, with men, in public, turning towards/with Allah.  Women were honored as scholars, jurists, philosophers, prophets, saints and practitioners 

Then it stopped, for a lot of complex reasons having to do with mashups in geography, politics, religion, culture and more.

Guess when women and other non-male gendered folx were finally officially allowed by the head of the Mevlevi Order to start turning again in public, in mixed gender settings?


For the last five-hundred-plus years, women and intergendered Sufi practitioners couldn't pray with their brothers in public, by turning.  They're still frowned on, these integrated practices; many attempt to refute them by saying, “Well, of course, they can't be Muslim.  That can't be Islam.”

Mevlana said, "In your body is a precious jewel.  Seek that."  It doesn't specify which kind of gendered body has a jewel within; sounds to me like it means all bodies.  One of the unique features of Islam as it emerged (especially while Muhammad (mpbuh) was alive), was the inclusive and fair treatment of women in society.  For the first time, women had a voice in religion and a say in society. They were honored and protected accordnig to the needs and demands of their world at that time.  Remember: everything is contextual, and to understand something, we hafta look at it where it came from, not where we want it to be.

Okay, so, no. It didn't last all that long--all this juicy, egalitarian goodness.  But my point is that it's there, embedded in Islam.  Today, we see a lot of this dispute centered around hijab, divorce, and the proper role of women in the world and in Islam. But one thing Mevlana Rumi knew that would benefit us all to remember is that the Mevlevi community--which is Islamic-- is known for its emphasis on "the art of living the life of a true human being," and that art has no gender.

For your further reading pleasure, not just about Sufi women but about Muslim women in general, please visit:

and check out this fantastic NPR program about women and hijab, discussed (gasp!) by the people who atuatlly wear it:

Be sure to scroll further down the page to view the nifty multimedia presentation that adds depth to the stories.

May peace be upon you!

Comments (2)

1. Miguel Garduque said on 5/6/11 - 03:24PM
A wonderful write up in a small attempt to dissuade from the commonly accepted notion, both within the West as well as among the more fundamentalist and supposed orthodox practitioners of Islam, that woman have never held any role of prominence and respect at any time in its long history.
2. David said on 5/9/11 - 07:57AM
Deborah-- It's great that you have cultivated this critical view of historical gender issues without losing the sense of reverence for and enjoyment of the tradition's depths. It is not easy to keep this balance, something the world needs more of. Bravo!

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Welcome to my Mevlana blog!  The purpose of this is twofold: one is to help me, as a grad student, distill the abundance of information I'm getting from Dr. Ibrahim Farajaje's doctoral-level course on Jala al-Din Mevlana Rumi's work, especially the Masnawi.  The other purpose is to see how well I can absorb this complex information, synthesize it and cough it back up accessibly.  With the terror-instilling "radicalization of Islam" rhetorc that's currently being spewed all over us, this information will, I hope, help readers to come to new and deeper understandings of Islam.  Please feel free to share this blog widely and at will.
Questions? Stuff you'd like to know? Comments?  Just drop me an email.  Thanks for visiting!
my "Hu"
Calligraphy in the shape of a Sufi nafs tombstone hat.  I can't translate--yet.
My first written word in Arabic: "Hu"
Ney, the Reed Flute