Last update: 2021-02-02 10:06:36
You say “women in Islam” and—leaving aside Jesus’s mother and Muhammad’s wives and daughters because of their exceptional status—you immediately think of mystical literature. Indeed, it is in the Sufi milieu that several prominent female figures blossomed, such as the ascetic Rābi‘a al-‘Adawiyya (713–801), whose dazzling sayings continue to gain wide favour up to these days.[i] However, if Rābi‘a is a story unto herself for her exceptional choice of celibacy, ‘Ā’isha al-Bā‘ūniyya, the poet and mystic from whom we take our classic for this issue, is more of a “normal” figure. And therefore more representative of a trajectory which was possible in classical Islamic society, at least in its upper echelons.[ii]
‘Ā’isha was born in Damascus during the second half of the fifteenth century to an eminent family. Her father was the chief judge of the Syrian metropolis under the last Mamluks and he ensured that she received a thorough education: at the age of eight, ‘Ā’isha had already memorized the entire Qur’an. Whilst in Mecca on pilgrimage with her family, the girl had a vision of the Prophet of Islam. This experience led her towards Sufism, within a branch of the Qādiriyya brotherhood with which her family had close ties.
On a non-specified date, ‘Ā’isha married Ibn Naqīb al-Ashraf, a member of another high-ranking Damascene family. The couple had at least one daughter and one son. In 1513 a widowed ‘Ā’isha moved to Cairo, capital of the Mamluk sultanate, in search of a post for her son in the state administration. During the journey, however, she was robbed by marauders and left in a state of utter destitution. In this predicament she found help in a family friend, Ibn Ajā who, thanks to his position as minister and confidant to the sultan al-Ghawrī, succeeded in getting ‘Ā’isha’s son employed in the state chancellery. After spending three years in Cairo, mother and son travelled back to Syria, accompanying their patron to Aleppo, where the sultan was preparing for war against the Ottomans. Al-Ghawrī granted the woman a personal audience, being perhaps worried by the thought of the imminent military clash, in which he was indeed to lose his life. After meeting the sultan, ‘Ā’isha returned to Damascus, where she died shortly afterwards, in 1517.
Despite their brevity, these biographical details allow to understand certain aspects of the text we are offering in translation, a brief treatise on the mystical path composed at the request of a Sufi ‘brother’. They explain, for example, the mention of children and the family, which strips the closing lines of any conventionality. And they give depth to the initial praises addressed to the Prophet (‘Ā’isha specialised in this genre): a sequence of rhyming clauses, they should be read as the first steps of a dance with a rising tempo. And, naturally, the education she received explains the cultured character of her work, constructed as it is through an interweaving of quotations from the Qur’an, the hadiths and the sayings of earlier mystics, in an alternation of prose and poetry.
If the author herself sometimes risks disappearing behind the quotations, she re-surfaces forcefully in the conclusion, dedicated to the fourth and last root in the Sufi path, i.e. love. Here the wording becomes more intimate and personal, peaking in the last poem, in which ‘Ā’isha summarizes her entire doctrine. From all eternity and by pure grace, God chooses some men and women from amongst His creatures and pours out His most especial love upon them. These friends of God become thus channels of grace for the rest of humankind. Her tones are vibrant: what a contrast to the weary secular panegyrics of her epoch! The best of post-classical Arabic poetry is to be sought here.
The reader will not miss several assonances with Christian thought, such as the very choice of the Arabic word for love, mahabba (“charity” in Arab Christian terminology). And yet points of correspondence they are and not derivations, because the text’s most noteworthy aspect is that it gushes forth in its entirety from within the Islamic experience, sustained in particular by a single verse of the Qur’an, “a people He loves and who love Him” (5:54). This verse recurs unceasingly in the text, accompanied by its equivalent “God being well-pleased with them and they well-pleased with Him” (5:119; 58:22 and 98:8). Feminine genius inspired ‘Ā’isha to dwell on this aspect of the Qur’anic God, giving it priority over other, more masculine traits such as power and lordship. It is “Islam Viewed by a Woman,” to quote the title of a book by Nayla Tabbara reviewed in this issue.
And yet, both for the author and for the Sufi thought from which she draws, the longed-for access to the Divine Presence (the union with God, but here the word is different from the one used by Christian mystics) passes through the Ego’s annihilation. An annihilation understood not only in the moral sense, as a form of mortification, but also, and above all, in its ontological sense. The creature must disappear to make room for the Creator. After all—so the Sufi maintain—such an annihilation is only apparent, insofar as human existence is itself only illusory. The Islamic profession of faith, “There is no god but God” is thus taken to its extreme: God alone exists. It is the sea of Oneness and the desert of Singleness in which ‘Ā’isha plunges.
It is precisely on this point that the Christian proclamation diverges (and can, perhaps, be grafted onto). The difference in fact lies not in the method to follow along the path, but in its goal. Von Balthasar expressed this idea in a compelling way, in an attentive comparison with Jewish and Muslim mysticism.
This drive to empty out the self means trespassing into God […]. The reason for this drive is the inability to conceive how a finite being can possess definitive value and ultimate dignity next to an all-being God (or Absolute).
Christianity overcomes such uncertainty by its central assertion that God, in order to hold to the name love, wills to be in himself gift and fruitfulness. It is his sovereign will to accord space within his unity to the “other.” Christianity asserts that this positive otherness of God justifies the being-other of the creature in relation to God. The “other in God” can even be this “other in creatureliness” without abandoning the difference of God/creature. Only in this way, it seems to the Christian, are the axioms of Judaism and Islam definitively established.[iii]
Yet, the full scope of these lines can only be understood by someone who has at least sensed the radical call addressed to us by ‘Ā’isha and the tradition she speaks for.
To cite this article
Martino Diez, “The Mystical Itinerary of a Friend of God”, Oasis, year XV, n. 30, December 2019, pp. 102-104.
Martino Diez, “The Mystical Itinerary of a Friend of God”, Oasis [online], published on 30th November 2020, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/the-mystical-itinerary-of-a-friend-of-god