In 2019, Nigerian-American rapper Jidenna released a music video for his song, “Sufi Woman.” The song and video go beyond Islamic mysticism, with references to spiritual practices like brujería and tarot as well. Orientalizing lyrics aside – “Sufi woman / read me Rumī ‘til I fall asleep upon your bosom” – the music video, directed by poet and screenwriter Fatimah Asghar, celebrates the spiritual practices of Black, Indigenous, and brown women and femmes who are often sidelined in mainstream conversations about spirituality dominated by white wellness practitioners.
While Sufism has become trendy, with a rise in people engaging with the translated works of Rumī, Muslim women continue to face discrimination for practicing their faith. Visible spiritual practices in particular, such as wearing the hijab or praying, are constantly associated with patriarchy and narrow-mindedness in the Western imagination. Perhaps this explains Sufism’s rising popularity among non-Muslims – in certain translations of Sufi thought, its Islamic aspects have been heavily sanitized.
For some of us, Sufism lets us revisit Islam instead. Growing up alienated by organized religion and its patriarchal institutions, I believed Sufism’s focus on one’s inward relationship to the divine would offer me the key to a utopic, non-institutionalized Islam. In the abstraction and philosophizing of Sufism, I found myself searching for space to be a Muslim woman.
In Sufi Narratives of Intimacy, Sa’diyya Shaikh explores how patriarchal Islamic theologians often constructed women as sexual, carnal, and thus irrational and chaos-inspiring, while associating maleness with spirituality, intellect, and rationality. Denigrating earthly existence and the body through such gendered language, these scholars suggested there was a vast distance between humanity and God.
Shaikh is interested in how 12-13th century Sufi philosopher Ibn ‘Arabī’ challenges these patriarchal constructions. One influential way is through his doctrine of waḥdat al-wujūd, or unity of being, which emphasizes intimacy and connectedness with God rather than the patriarchal norms of separation and hierarchy.
How many Muslim women can relate to the ways organized Islam and its patriarchal institutions have constructed religious spaces that often feel alienating and tyrannical, inspiring fear rather than connectedness? These spaces often promised me peace, but rarely delivered. The idea that God was to be feared felt especially wrong to me when this doctrine was wielded so confidently by men in positions of power in my religious community to dictate and surveil the social conduct of women. Rather than humbling humanity before its Creator, religion seemed to be used to humble women before men. And while the notion of the female body as shameful is certainly not endemic to organized Islam, which Muslim woman has not felt the sentiment fly in her face when she steps into a mosque and has to hunt for the women’s section, secluded downstairs or in some hidden corner of the premise?
For Ibn ‘Arabī, all of creation is female in relation to God, who “impregnates each being with existence.” In these sensual descriptions, Ibn ʿArabī emphasizes God’s longing to be known as the impetus behind all of creation, rather than a desire for unadulterated power. This collapses patriarchal hierarchies that consider God entirely independent of humanity. A human being’s yearning for God is also essential to his or her process of spiritual fulfillment. Ibn ‘Arabī’s view of human emotions as critical to spirituality thus challenges the patriarchal philosophies that consider emotions part of a devalued, feminine realm that obstructs the masculine, intellectual pursuit of truth.
How many Muslim women can relate to the ways organized Islam and its patriarchal institutions have constructed religious spaces that often feel alienating and tyrannical, inspiring fear rather than connectedness?
Ibn ‘Arabī’s challenge to patriarchal theologies reminds me of Audre Lorde’s criticism of the ways the erotic is denigrated and used to alienate women. In her influential essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Lorde points out that the erotic has been “misnamed by men and used against women” in the ways it is constructed as psychotic and hedonistic. This troubles Lorde as it collapses the distinction between the pornographic and the erotic. While the pornographic emphasizes “sensation without feeling,” the erotic embraces feeling, turning it into a powerful source of knowledge. Lorde criticizes the view that there is no place for the erotic in spirituality, that the spiritual person is someone who does not feel. By constructing feelings as not only constitutive of knowledge but critical to spirituality, Lorde’s view echoes Ibn ‘Arabī’s writings.
I first read Ibn ‘Arabī in the summer of 2020, out of interest in the literary qualities of his The Universal Tree and the Four Birds. Sufism was not unfamiliar to me but the only Sufis I knew were the rural saints (pirs) of my family, who asserted powerful influence in their local village in Punjab, Pakistan by providing spiritual intercession in exchange for money. My father grew up skeptical of Sufism because of its earthly corruption in his community, where the guise of spirituality was used to extort money from the marginalized. Still, I had my own romantic, intellectual notions of Sufism. Introduced to Rumī in my teenage years, I was drawn to the poetic and philosophical aspects of Sufi thought. There, I felt like I could hold the thorny debates of organized Islam at bay.
The Universal Tree and the Four Birds is a beautiful text. Its motifs of nature and its philosophical meditation on unity with the divine followed me everywhere that summer – while I was hiking in the Rockies with my family, rock climbing with friends in Squamish, or watching the waning sunset alone on a cliff above Wreck Beach.
One day, I took shrooms with two of my friends. We had spent hours laughing and crying to each other over FaceTime that year, bonding over our shared struggles growing up as Pakistani Muslim immigrant women – the pain we saw our mothers go through, how intergenerational trauma affected us, our turbulent romantic histories, as well as the deviant Muslim writers, artists and organizers that helped us through it all. We took our shrooms, headed to a neighborhood park and lay down on a picnic blanket, surrounded by snacks and the calming shade of a large tree.
I had taken shrooms before. I was familiar with the connectedness you feel with others and with nature, as well as the perspective you gain when the trivialities of the world fall away and you’re left with what truly matters. But this time, lying under a tree with these two Muslim women, with whom I had some of the most intimate conversations of my life, the connectedness I experienced took on a distinctly spiritual aspect. The tree, with its branches waving in the breeze above us, took on a life of its own. Here I am, I thought as I peaked, at the Universal Tree. Its branches got us talking about our mothers again, about how we had branched out from them to find ourselves, and each other, in the world. The tree was our center. I felt one with it.
I’ve always disliked the word submission. To me, it threatens the loss of agency and evokes passivity. But that psychedelic experience in particular brought me a sense of contentment, a sense of being that rooted me so firmly in the present, I couldn’t think of it in terms other than a kind of submission to the inexplicable workings of the universe.
Shaikh discusses how, in Sufism, the soul or nafs is characterized as a kind of self-awareness that reflects one’s spiritual state. For example, when you’re consumed by fleeting desires and egoistic impulses, you’re thought to be in the most unrefined state, or the nafs al-ammāra. The nafs al-ammāra marks the disunity between God and humanity. In this state, the soul is blinded to the true nature of reality, considering the pursuit of “power, fame, wealth and physical gratification as meaningful in themselves.” At the risk of sounding insufferably cliché, psychedelics have helped me experience that kind of self-awareness, after which the same worldly pursuits feel rather small.
In fact, my shrooms experiences have brought me closer to a feeling of wholeness than misjudged intimate encounters ever have. How often have I desired utter dissolution in another human being, believing it’d allow me to transcend myself somehow?
In “Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay,” Anne Carson asks, “Who is the real subject of most love poems? Not the beloved. It is the hole […] The presence of want awakens in him [the lover] nostalgia for wholeness.” While my nostalgia for wholeness has never been quite fulfilled through others, is its pursuit really so self-destructive? Does the urge to transcend oneself really reflect a hatred of the self, as popular self-help books would have me believe? In Sufism, the desire for oneness through sexual intimacy finds an echo in the spiritual concept of fanā’ or annihilation, which refers to a mystical state of dissolution in the divine. While this concept is considered heretical in many currents of Islam, it reflects one’s desire to transcend the self, to find a sense of wholeness outside the smallness of our own existence. Can we not, then, connect our desire for completion to our intimately spiritual natures, rather than seeing it as a necessarily self-destructive flaw?
Spirituality demands that we ask ourselves difficult questions about selfhood, community and existence in a way that interrogates human purpose and value. While Islam reflects on these questions through an anthropocentric or human-centered model of creation, different communities engage with these questions in different ways to explore spirituality’s relationship to social justice. For example, as Vanessa Watt points out, Indigenous cosmologies across Turtle Island consider land and non-human life as important as human flourishing, thus posing a challenge to the extractive settler-colonial policies that dispossess Indigenous communities and prioritize profit over the environment.
I have been guilty of limiting my spiritual beliefs to the private realm, bolstering them through internal reflection, philosophizing, and intellectualizing.
In Islam, the divine names for God are divided into attributes of beauty (jamāl) or majesty (jalāl). Shaikh notes that the former, such as love and mercy, are associated with God’s similarity to humankind, while the latter, such as singularity and wrathfulness, are associated with God’ incomparability. Ibn ‘Arabī cautions human beings against associating themselves with jalāli attributes. Not only does this encourage us to challenge social hierarchies such as patriarchy, writes Shaikh, it also critiques masculinist ways of engaging with the world that continue to bring war and suffering.
Since jamāli attributes are expressed in social contexts, spiritual development cannot just be solitary. Islam does not limit morality and spirituality to private acts of worship (‘ibādāt), but includes social actions (mu’āmalāt). In fact, the tendency to frame spirituality as personal can often obscure its relation to social justice. Shaikh warns that this can uphold oppressive structures as our spiritual energies end up directed internally rather than towards transformative collective action. This separation can alienate those committed to social justice from spirituality, by convincing them that spiritual struggles have nothing to contribute to structural change.
I have been guilty of limiting my spiritual beliefs to the private realm, bolstering them through internal reflection, philosophizing, and intellectualizing. That was the primary way I held on to being Muslim – by dwelling in a world of theories that validated the core aspects of myself and allowed me to heal my internalized Islamophobia.
Of course, that has been important for me. It allowed me to connect to Islam in certain ways rather than abandoning it outright. My introduction to Islamic feminism occured while I was in high school in Singapore. As one of the few Muslims in my program, I dealt with ignorant comments from peers and teachers that I did not always know how to deal with. Unable to recognize Islamophobia at the time, I felt that the onus was on me to educate myself about Islam, to prove to others that it wasn’t violent or anti-feminist. I dove into Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics and Islam on my bus-rides home from school when I was seventeen. I remember my joy at realizing I wasn’t alone in my misgivings about the patriarchal practices and beliefs that had become so entrenched in organized Islam that they seemed to constitute the religion itself. I remember my solace in knowing there were scholars advocating for reform so that Islam could better speak to the needs of its communities. After reading Ali’s book, I no longer felt tempted to prove my humanity to non-Muslims, who weren’t even affected by these issues in the same ways I was.
The first time I prayed in about a decade was at a healing circle in Vancouver to commemorate the victims of the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting, an Islamophobic massacre that had resulted in the deaths of six worshippers and injured 19 others. The healing circle was organized by a few of my university friends together with el-Tawhid Juma Circle: Vancouver Unity Mosque, a queer and trans-inclusive religious space. As part of the event, we were invited to share what religion meant to us. We weren’t all Muslims, either – the room was full of non-Muslims and non-practicing Muslims as well, the latter of which I considered myself. When it came to my turn, I shared that religion, to me, was about family. But before I could go on, inexplicable feelings overcame me and, to my utter horror, I burst into tears. The room instantly melted into sympathy and warmth. The space expanded to hold all of our diverging experiences and contradictions.
Soon, we stood up to pray, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. One of the organizers invited me to stand next to her at the front of the congregation as she led the prayer. I felt the familiar panic rise. What if I mess up because I haven’t prayed in years? Am I even Muslim enough? But in that space, those questions couldn’t weigh me down. Here I was, in a room with many others who had also felt marginalized by mainstream Islam and its institutions. I had nothing left to fear, only a world of community to gain. I submitted.