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Female Mystics in Mediaeval Islam: The Quiet Legacy

Female Mystics in Mediaeval Islam: The Quiet Legacy

Author:
Publisher: Brill Publishers
English

www.alhassanain.org/english

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2013

Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 56 (2013)

Female Mystics in Mediaeval Islam: The Quiet Legacy

Arezou Azad*

www.alhassanain.org/english

Notice:

This work is published on behalf of www.alhassanain.org/english

The typing errors are not corrected.

Table of Contents

Abstract 5

Introduction 6

Surveys, Numbers, Profiles 8

Visibility, Image, and Agency of Women 10

The Argument of “misogyny” 12

The Sources on Umm ʿAlī of Balkh 13

Umm ʿAlī’s Path to Scholarship 15

Study and Credentials 15

Marriage and Home 16

Social Class and Family Relations 18

Umm ʿAlī’s Actions and Attributes 22

Social Etiquette in Religious Society 22

Living out the Sufi Experience 23

Advanced Learning and Exchange with Sufi Masters 24

Conclusion 28

Bibliography 30

Primary Sources 30

Secondary Sources 32

Appendix 36

Notes 38

Abstract

Historians and analysts of current affairs alike are interested in the role that women have played in Islam, including the extent to which women were the agents and creators of Islamic mysticism. We still know surprisingly little about premodern learned women, particularly from the eastern Iranian world. This article describes one female mystic, Umm ʿAlī, who flourished in ninth-century Balkh and has so far eluded modern scholarship. A historiographical study of her provides insight into how the representations of mystical women changed over time. From the earlier sources, we learn that Umm ʿAlī applied creative and interesting strategies that provided her access to the highest sources of learning. Umm ʿAlī’s case also allows for some tentative conclusions on the importance of pedigree, and the practice of strategic marriages that connect local power-holders with the ʿulamāʾ.

Keywords mysticism, Islam, scholarship, eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, mediaeval history, gender, women.

anān-i īn pākān chunīn būda-and, tā mashāyikh-i aʿẓām bi chi ḥadd būda bāshand!

If the wives of these pure [ones] were such, [just think] at what levels the great shuyūkh must have been!1

Introduction

The archetypal female mystic of mediaeval Islam is, no doubt, the famous Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya (d. 185/801), known simply as “Rābiʿa.” Annemarie Schimmel pointed out that Rābiʿa had many successors and that they did not all resemble Rābiʿa.2 But, despite wide current interest in the role of women in Islam, the story of public, mystical Muslim women remains largely focussed on Rābiʿa, and, in the accounts on her, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between fact and myth. Fragmentary records, scattered references, and ambiguous representations also confound attempts to form a coherent view of other female mystics. The goal of this article is to bring together evidence on one nearly contemporary mystic, Umm ʿAlī of Balkh, also known as the “one of high standing” (mahd-i ʿaliyya). It will be seen that Umm ʿAlī presents a very different profile of female mystic. A close reading of the primary sources highlights the fact that the narrative of her agency and impact changed over time. The transformation occurred at the hands of her biographers, who were bound by social conventions that restricted women’s agency. From the earlier sources, we learn that Umm ʿAlī applied creative and interesting strategies that provided her access to the highest sources of learning.

The topic of female mysticism in mediaeval Islam is particularly important because religious scholarship was one area in which Muslim women assumed roles equal to those of men. This article might best be compared with the “women worthies” genre that Margaret Meriwether and Judith Tucker identified. The expression refers to the history of notable women “who have played a role that is visible (although often neglected in history writing) in public activities.”3 Given that we do not have much information on female scholars in pre-modern times, this approach that “adds women to history” remains valid. It raises new questions about the role of women as social and economic actors. There is not enough data on premodern female scholars for us to answer them comprehensively. Nonetheless, Umm ʿAlī’s case allows us to reach some tentative conclusions about the importance of pedigree and the practice of strategic marriages that connect local power-holders with the ʿulamāʾ.

It should be added, as a caveat, that reconstructing the life experience of learned women such as Umm ʿAlī of Balkh from fragmentary texts with difficult historiographical traditions is a daunting task. The job is more difficult because early Islamic scholarship does not, by its very nature, lend itself to generalizations. Our clearly-defined modern view of Islamic scholars ( ʿulamāʾ) and the legal schools (madhāhib) to which they may have belonged, for example, denies the plurality found in early mediaeval religious scholarship.4 Our Balkhī source on Umm ʿAlī, the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh, nowhere contains the word “Sufi.”5 Some of the biographies in this work are of public religious figures who have since been canonized as the prototypes of Sufism.6 But, because our main source does not use it, we shall not call Umm ʿAlī a “Sufi” either and will use the generic term “mystic.”

Before we turn to Umm ʿAlī’s story, let us consider some of the relevant historiography and scholarship on the history of women scholars in the Islamic world. Most relevant for this article are quantitative studies; qualitative analyses of the visibility, image, and agency of female scholars; and the discussion of “misogynistic” attitudes held towards them.

Surveys, Numbers, Profiles

Since the early 1990s, modern scholars have questioned the traditional wisdom that Muslim women were “silent” and “oppressed” in pre-modern Islam. Relevant studies of the past two decades have revealed that women exercised far more power than was previously believed, including in the area of Islamic scholarship.7 Evidence for pre-modern female scholars in the Islamic world can be found in the biographical dictionaries that formed an important genre in Islamic historiography. Modern scholars have collated hundreds of women’s biographies from these sources. The surveys do not always differentiate between categories of Islamic scholars - e.g., mystics, female traditionists (i.e., collectors of ḥadīth), and legal analysts - but total numbers of recorded female scholars remain relevant to us, because they allow us to place Umm ʿAlī in the context of the history of female Islamic scholarship.8

Ruth Roded found that several dozen mediaeval biographical compilations were filled with tens, hundreds, and even thousands of women scholars.9 A more recent encyclopaedic collection of 8000 muḥaddithat is being carried out by Mohammad Akram Nadwi.10 Irene Schneider focussed specifically on the twenty women scholars of the seventh to the thirteenth centuries CE discussed by the Syrian historian Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabī (d. 748/1347). She found that they played an active role in the educational system of their time.11

Disaggregating the numbers, Roded, and more recently, Nadwi, have shown that the majority of women are concentrated heavily around the first century of Islam. This is no doubt related to the unique position of the ṣaḥabiyyāt - women Companions who were the contemporaries of the Prophet - as precedents and role models for Muslims in general and for Muslim women in particular.12 The numbers are lower but still significant in the eighth and ninth centuries CE but taper off dramatically thereafter.13

Umm ʿAlī flourished during the ninth century CE, when women scholars were still well represented in the biographical dictionaries.

The accounts on female scholars have survived not only in biographical dictionaries but also in local histories. There are important references in Ibn ʿAsākīr’s (d. 571/1176) Taʾrīkh Dimashq with 13,500 biographical entries, including more than 200 women (although these are mainly members of the Umayyad family rather than scholars).14 Richard Bulliet examined the entries on women in the biographical dictionaries of Baghdad, Nishapur, and Gurgan. Al-Khatị̄ b al-Baghdādī’s Taʾrīkh Baghdād (completed 463/1071) includes thirty women out of a total of 7,831 biographies.

ʿAbd al-Ghāfir al-Fārisī (d. 529/1132) wrote his al-Siyāq li-Taʾrīkh Naysābūr and included twenty-two women among his 1,699 biographies.

Ḥamza al-Sahmī’s (d. 426/1035) Taʾrīkh Jurjān gave the biographies of twelve women among his 1,194 biographies.15 Bulliet spells out the important finding that these (relatively few) women were mentioned on account of their kinship ties to the compiler. Some were noble, others were involved in mysticism, and more were known for scholarship in ḥadīth or, rarely, in other disciplines.16

The local histories from further east - Bukhara, Samarqand, and Balkh - which are missing from Roded’s survey, have a much smaller selection of women (and men). The Faḍāʿil-i Balkh, a text that forms the basis for much of this article’s discussion, includes only the case of Umm ʿAlī and, to a far lesser degree, that of her husband’s second wife, Ḥakīma Zāhida. The excerpt with the relevant account is translated from Persian into English in the appendix to this article. The Persian Tārīkh-i Bukhāra, which is more a history than a prosopography, does not mention any Bukharan female scholar, much like the Arabic Taʾrīkh Samarqand, which follows the western Islamic prosopographical style of listings of isnāds (chains of transmitters), with limited information on the lived experiences of the scholars. The Taʾrīkh Samarqand profiles a single muḥadditha named Ṣūfiya bt. al-Shaykh al-Ḥāfiẓ al-Mustamlī Ismaʿīl b. Ibrāhīm b. ʿAbdallāh b. ʿUmrān al-Balkhī.17

Visibility, Image, and Agency of Women

The image of women as passive citizens confined to carrying out domestic chores and raising families was revised amongst Orientalists and Islamic historians in the 1970s and 1980s with studies of working women. Maya Shatzmiller studied mediaeval Muslim “working women,” including rural labourers, hairdressers, peddlers, secretaries, prostitutes, and ḥadīth scholars. She concluded that “women were involved in economic life in medieval Islam to an important degree.”18 Leslie Pierce and Ruby Lal, who reinterpreted the Ottoman and Mughal harems respectively, have shown the complex and contradictory character of domestic life, which was not limited to the home but extended well into the “public” domain.19

This complementary view of women as social and economic agents still, however, requires further refinement amongst Orientalists and Islamic historians. Julia Bray, in her study of men, women, and slaves in Abbasid society, laments that:

[D]espite their [women’s] much greater prominence in the biographical sources from around the thirteenth century onwards and in documentary sources from the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, and the greater attention that both families and women of these later periods are now receiving, women - though no longer families - tend to be seen as objects rather than as agents, of social development.20

One might add the criticism that, even where women in the mediaeval Islamic world are considered, scholars have tended to focus on the western Islamic lands, providing far less evidence from the eastern Iranian world or Central Asia. Umm ʿAlī of Balkh contributes in a small way to rectifying this imbalance.

The image of the mystical woman, in particular, has dominated the discourse on learned Muslim women. And, within this discourse, the case of Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya has been adopted as the archetypal form. Rābiʿa was born into a poor home and sold into slavery. Her sanctity secured her freedom in a life of celibacy and prayer. She gathered around her many disciples, including one of Balkh’s most famous early saints, Shaqīq al-Balkhī (d. 174/790-1) and the traditionist Sūfyān al-Thawrī (d. 161/778), both of whom feature prominently in the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh.21 She received several offers of marriage but refused them all, choosing celibacy over marriage.

She was famed for her teaching on mystic love (maḥabba) and fellowship with God (uns).22 As we shall see, Umm ʿAlī of Balkh has a very different background to that of Rābiʿa, which indicates that mystical women must have been diverse.

Another line of enquiry concerns the alleged taboo against Muslim women studying with men to whom they were not related or married. In his study of Mamluk learned women, Jonathan Berkey refers to the fourteenth-

century Egyptian scholar Ibn al-Ḥajj, who held that it was not generally accepted that women sit across from men and get up and show the “private parts of their body.”23 This was seen as a threat to established sexual boundaries represented by the mixing of men and women in informal lessons in mosques or homes. Often, women were taught by other women. Huda Lutfi, however, emphasizes that there are discrepancies between the prescriptions that Ibn al-Ḥajj wants to uphold and women’s agency in reality. This becomes obvious in the fact that Ibn al-Ḥajj criticizes what had become a reality in Cairene society - the free mingling of women and men, as in mosques during public festivals.24 We shall see that Umm ʿAlī also displayed a more open attitude towards her male colleagues and teachers.

The question of women’s visibility and the law has been taken up by scholars such as Christopher Melchert, who surveyed mediaeval Islamic law on the question of whether women should be kept out of the mosque. He prefaces his article by saying, “It is commonly observed that women enjoyed greater freedom of movement in earlier Islamic law than later.”25 Matthieu Tillier found this public visibility to be true also of women at the Abbasid legal courts.26 Our study of Umm ʿAlī fits within these historiographical debates that find mediaeval Islamic women to be visible and influential in society, albeit usually mediated through male connections - a husband, father, or some other male relative.

The Argument of “misogyny”

Some scholars have tried to explain the decline in female scholarship after the ninth century CE as the result of a misogynistic bias of the male biographical compilers. Roded suggests that the ninth-century “ʿAbbāsid legists” purposely removed or omitted references to women scholars.27 Richard Bulliet has a counterargument: He takes the numbers of entries at face value and concludes that women actually lost importance in the scholarly circles from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries CE.28 As we shall see, Umm ʿAlī did not provoke an overt misogyny amongst her male biographers, who would have called into question her moral character or professional skills. She appears in numerous sources over the centuries, but again, she is only one case from Balkh.

The mediaeval female scholar presents a dilemma often misunderstood by those who look at ancient models to find support for contemporary views. Some scholars of the early 1990s held that the “origins” of the repression of modern Muslim women lay in the mediaeval period. Julie Scott Meisami argues strongly against this judgement29 posited by her colleagues, Fedwa Malti-Douglas, Leila Ahmed, and Denise Spellberg.30 Scott Meisami writes:

Gender and gender roles are social constructs and subject to change over time, both in actuality and in textual representations. Arguments based on the assumption that gender is a constant in any given society, culture, or religion and that it is uniformly so treated by writers, are therefore untenable.31

Equally, Umm ʿAlī should not be taken as the prototype for any paucity of women scholars observed in today’s eastern Iran or Central Asia, even though she presents only one case: we simply do not know the percentage of women scholars. Moreover, Umm ʿAlī’s scholarly path and her actions were mediated by a literary tradition that evolved over time. It is to this literary tradition that we now turn.

The Sources on Umm ʿAlī of Balkh

There are half a dozen interesting textual references to Umm ʿAlī in several Persian and Arabic sources. We are, in general, dealing with a challenging and limited base of sources, when compared with the evidence base in other disciplines. This contrasts markedly with the wealth of sources that scholars of learned women in ancient Greece possess, for example.32 It is with this source gap in mind that I deliberately adopt an in-depth view of the historiography on Umm ʿAlī to embrace the plurality and full range of possibility of her agency.

The main source of information on Umm ʿAlī’s life is the third part of the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh, which profiles seventy shuyūkh (pl. of shaykh, i.e., members of the ʿulamāʾ) who flourished in Balkh between the seventh and twelfth centuries CE. From this underused prosopographical and historical source we can extract by far the most data on Umm ʿAlī’s life. The original Arabic version of the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh was written by the Shaykh al-Islām al-Wāʿiẓ al-Balkhī (fl. 610/1214), and his account survives only in a Persian rendition made by a certain ʿAbdallāh [b. Muḥammad] b. al-Qāsim al-Ḥusaynī (fl. 676/1278). We know of the author and translator only what the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh tells us, and we have no way of determining how closely the Persian rendition follows the original Arabic. We can say with some certainty that the Arabic author was a member of the ʿulamāʾ, as was probably the Persian translator.

The work survives in four manuscript copies only, none of which can be precisely dated.33 The Faḍāʾil-i Balkh is largely hagiographical and anecdotal, The second-oldest manuscript came to light a decade ago

which might call into question its validity as a source for history, but scholars such as Jürgen Paul have argued that storytelling is a narrative technique that keeps the audience interested while giving them a taste of universal messages that are common to works of adab (educational and entertaining prose); factuality was not so much the issue.34 We need to be careful when using the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh as a historical source, but, as the earliest surviving narrative from and on Balkh, it remains invaluable for our study.

The Faḍāʾil-i Balkh, in turn, cites at least three sources for the account on Umm ʿAlī (see translated excerpt in appendix): the Risāla by Abū al-Qāsim Qushayrī; a work of ṭabaqāt, a biographical genre that classifies scholars according to “levels”;35 and “history books”. Abū al-Qāsim Qushayrī (d. 465/1072) is the source for the account of a dinner that Umm ʿAlī’s husband Aḥmad organized for a member of the futuwwa - the organizations of chivalry sometimes associated with Sufism but which, unlike the Sufi orders, tended to be more social than spiritual in orientation.36 Qushayrī is the well-known Khorasani mystic and scholar of the Shāfiʿī legal school, and his Risāla (c. 438/1045) is an important early compendium of the principles and terminologies of Sufism.37 The Faḍāʾil-i Balkh is a text that values the principles of piety and mysticism, and it is, therefore, not surprising that the author cites the Risāla. He was true to his source: the original account of the dinner in the Risāla survives today and is recognizable from the account in the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh.38

Sufi sources tend, in general, to provide more information on female spiritual figures than do other Islamic texts.39 Qushayrī’s Risāla has contemporary parallels and successors that the author of the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh could have cited yet did not but which we will consider in this article.

These include Sufi hagiographical and prosopographical compilations and tadhkira works, such as Abū Nuʿaym al-Ḥ āfiz ̣ al-Isf̣ ahānī’s Ḥ ilyat al-awliyāʾ wa-tạ baqāt al-asfị yāʾ (composed 422/1031), al-Hujwīrī’s (d. 465-9/1072-7) Kashf al-maḥjūb, and Farīd al-Dīn Atṭ ạ̄ r’s (d. 617/1221 or earlier) Kitāb Tadhkirat al-awliyāʾ.40

The second source cited in the excerpt on Umm ʿAlī is a certain ʿAlī b. Faḍl on the wise sayings attributed to Umm ʿAlī (and her husband Aḥmad’s second wife, Ḥakīma Zāhida). Perhaps this is ʿAlī b. al-Faḍl b. al-Ṭāhir al-Balkhī (d. 323/934-5?) whose ṭabaqāt is mentioned elsewhere in the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh as a key source.41 Women were by no means excluded from ṭabaqāt, as is demonstrated convincingly in Roded’s inventory. A very early source in the form of the Iraqī Ibn Saʿd’s (d. 230/845) ṭabaqāt, for example, included more than 4000 women (amongst them 629 independent entries, the rest being embedded in other sections).42 In the Khorasani Ṭabaqāt al-ṣūfiyya by al-Sulamī (d. 412/1021), from Nishapur, we find no mention of Umm ʿAlī,43 but she appears in al-Sulamī’s minor work, the Dhikr al-niswa al-mutaʿabbidāt al-Ṣūfiyyāt.44

A third set of sources in the excerpt on Umm ʿAlī is referred to as “the history books” (kutub-i tawārīkh), which the Shaykh al-Islām al-Wāʿiẓ used to describe Umm ʿAlī’s ancestry.45 The generic reference is repeated elsewhere in the work and reflects the author’s primary focus on legal, scholarly, and Sufi works, his limited familiarity with historical texts, and a possible later redaction.46

Umm ʿAlī’s Path to Scholarship

Study and Credentials

From the excerpt on Umm ʿAlī in the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh, we learn that she received an Islamic education of the highest level in her time. She studied with a certain Ṣāliḥ b. ʿAbdallāh and transmitted his book of tafsīr (Qurʾanic exegesis).47 Faḍāʾil-i Balkh editor ʿAbd al-Ḥayy Ḥabībī and Richard Gramlich have identified this teacher as Ṣāliḥ ʿAbdallāh Ṣāliḥ b. ʿAbdallāh b. Dhakwān al-Bāhilī al-Tirmidhī (probably d. 239/853-4), who also taught the Qurʾan to Umm ʿAlī’s husband, Aḥmad b. Khiḍrawayh,48 to whom we shall return shortly.

Umm ʿAlī later travelled to Mecca, where she performed the ḥajj pilgrimage and remained for seven years to study, until she mastered all the branches of Islamic knowledge ( ʿilm) and was instructed in ḥadīth. None of the other sources describes the educational background that formed the basis for her scholarship. These are, of course, the credentials sought by male ʿulamāʾ as well. Travel was an important part of Islamic education until the sixth century of Islam, that is, before Muslim learning became more formalized through schools and madrasas.49

Umm ʿAlī’s studies should not strike us as unusual for women. Berkey explains that obtaining an education is well attested in the sources for mediaeval learned women. Amongst the 1075 women listed in al-Sakhawī’s al-Ḍawʾ al-lāmiʿ fī aʿyān al-qarn al-tāsiʿ on leading figures of the fifteenth century, for example, 411 obtained such an education - either by memorizing the Qurʾan, studying with a particular scholar, or receiving ijāzas (licenses to transmit). Her transmitting a book - rather than a set of ḥadīth - is likewise not uncommon.50

The standards and expectations of Umm ʿAlī as a scholar were in no way less rigorous than those to which her male counterparts were held: she still needed to travel to Mecca for the pilgrimage, to study with a master for an extended period, and to obtain the credentials to transmit her teacher’s work. The Faḍāʾil-i Balkh mentions without judgement her travels, in which she may have been unaccompanied by her husband.51

Marriage and Home

Nowhere have I found Umm ʿAlī’s birth or death dates. The lack of dates is a common feature in mediaeval accounts on Muslim learned women in general. Fortunately, the biography of her husband Aḥmad b. Khiḍrawayh in the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh gives some information that allows us to home in on the second half of the ninth century. The clue is that, when Umm ʿAlī returned to Balkh from Mecca, her husband had already died. We know from the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh and other sources that Aḥmad died in 240/854-5, at the age of ninety-five. This sets the terminus post quem for Umm ʿAlī’s death at 240/854-5. If she did survive to old age, she would probably have lived well into the second half of the ninth century CE.

The Faḍāʾil-i Balkh does not mention Umm ʿAlī’s given name, but other sources do. Al-Hujwīrī tells us in his Kashf al-maḥjūb that Umm ʿAlī’s name was Fātịma.52 Umm ʿAlī married well, as one might expect for a woman of her standing (see below), but she did not marry a wealthy noble, choosing instead one of Balkh’s most beloved scholars and mystics, the qāḍī Abū Ḥāmid Aḥmad b. Khiḍrawayh (d. 240/854-5), who receives ample treatment in the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh53 and other hagiographical sources and is known as an example of the futuwwa (spiritual chivalry).54 Gramlich does not see him as a proponent of the malāmatiyya –the early Islamic mystical tradition that originated in Khorasan and based itself on the tenet that all outward appearance of piety or religiosity is ostentation– but, as Hamid Algar explains, the concepts of futuwwa and the malāma overlap during this period.55 As a fatā (a young male exponent of futuwwa), Aḥmad is credited with exhibiting much generosity, which left him in a constant state of debt.56 He expounded on the mystical concepts of seeking refuge in God alone, outlined a ten-step process to attain the Sufi ṭarīqa, and pondered the battle with the soul (nafs). He is said to have met and studied with major shuyūkh, such as Ibrāhīm b. Adham (d. 161/777-8), Ḥātim al-Asạ mm (d. 237/857-8), and Abū Ḥ afs ̣ b. Ḥ addād (d. c. 265/878-9) in Nishapur. Much is also written about his stay with Abū Yazīd al-Bistạ̄ mī (d. 261/874-5?).57 Aḥmad b. Khiḍrawayh had many students, including some better-known authorities.58 According to ʿAbdallāh al-Ansạ̄ rī al-Harawī (d. 481/1089), who mentions Umm ʿAlī only in passing, Aḥmad b. Khiḍrawayh also performed the ḥajj to Mecca, besides visiting the above-mentioned masters.59

While one might assume that Shaykh Aḥmad had chosen his betrothed, al-Hujwīrī’s account and those of his successors tell us that it was quite the opposite: Umm ʿAlī wooed Aḥmad. Umm ʿAlī’s decision to marry apparently came after a change of heart on the matter. We are not told what made her change her mind, but perhaps the message here is to stress the importance of marriage even for pious, mystical women. Al-Hujwīrī states that Umm ʿAlī had to ask Aḥmad more than once before he complied, and then only after she had cunningly appealed to his spiritual conscience.

Al-Hujwīrī says:

Chūn way-rā irādat-i tawba padīdār āmad, bi Aḥmad kas firistād, ki: “Ma-rā az pidar bikhwāh.” Way ijābat nakard. Kas firistād, ki: “Yā Aḥmad, man tū-rā mard-i ān napindāshtam ki rāh-i ḥaqq nazanī. Rāh-bar bāsh na rāh-bur.” Aḥmad kas firistād, wa way-rā as pidar bikhwāst.60

When she changed her mind, she sent someone [with a message] to Aḥmad: “Ask my father for my hand.” He did not respond. She sent someone [again with a message]: “Oh Aḥmad, I did not think you a man who would not follow the path of truth. Be a guide of the road; do not put obstacles on it.” Aḥmad sent someone [with a message] to ask her father for her hand.

In Atṭ ạ̄ r’s Tadhkirat al-awliyāʾ, Shaykh Aḥmad’s biographical entry contains a discussion of his wife Fātịma as a miracle-working mystic and “an accomplished master of the Sufi path” (andar ṭarīqat, āyat-ī būd).61 From here on, Atṭ ạ̄ r’s account closely resembles that of al-Hujwīrī. The latter recounts her wooing of Aḥmad thus:

Tawbat kard wa bar Aḥmad kas firistād, ki: “Ma-rā az pidar bikhwāh.” Aḥmad ijābat nakard. Dīgar bār kas firistād, ki: “Ay Aḥmad, man tu-rā mardāna-tar az īn dānistam. Rāh-bar bāsh, na rāh-bur.” Aḥmad kas firistād wa az pidar bikhwāst.62

She changed her mind, and sent someone to Aḥmad [with the message:] “Ask my father for my hand.” Aḥmad did not respond. Once more, she sent someone [with the message:] “Oh Aḥmad, I thought you were more manly than this. Be a guide of the road; do not put obstacles on it.” Aḥmad sent [a messenger] and asked her father for her hand.

Al-Hujwīrī, too, identified Umm ʿAlī as the daughter of a high official, although he calls her “daughter of the amīr of Balkh.”63 The imprecision about Fātịma’s lineage - she was the granddaughter of Balkh’s governor, as will be seen shortly - is repeated in later sources of the same genre. It contrasts with the persistence of the image of Umm ʿAlī as astute and “manly.”

After all, convention would have it that the man proposes to his prospective wife, and not vice versa.64

Social Class and Family Relations

The Faḍāʾil-i Balkh is a rich source for details on Umm ʿAlī’s family background and social class, the like of which I have not found elsewhere. By tracing the family links between Umm ʿAlī and other shuyūkh of the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh, we can glean that Umm ʿAlī had considerable financial means and was descended from an important local family. Umm ʿAlī’s maternal grandfather was one of the early Abbasid governors of Balkh, al-Ḥasan b. Ḥumrān (fl. 142/759-60). The name of this early wālī (governor) of Balkh is attested also in fals coins.65 We are given her mother’s name (Muʾmina) and burial place, which emphasizes the importance of Umm ʿAlī’s semi matrilineal lineage, that is, one in which the mother is mentioned, with her patrilineal genealogy.66

The picture of Umm ʿAlī’s family comes into sharper focus when we trace the family links mentioned in at least five more biographies in the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh, all of which lead back to her grandfather, al-Ḥasan b. Ḥumrān. In fact, a genealogy emerges that is situated in the highest echelons of Balkhī society, both scholarly and secular. Thus, in addition to her maternal grandfather al-Ḥasan b. Ḥumrān, we learn about the latter’s brother (Umm ʿAlī’s great-uncle), Mutawakkil b. Ḥumrān (d. 142/759-60). He was a successor (ṭābiʿ) to a Companion of the Prophet. Mutawakkil was also Balkh’s first qāḍī and is profiled as the ninth shaykh in the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh’s seventy biographies.67 We are told that he was a staunch supporter of Umayyad rule, until its bitter end, and distinguished himself as a proponent of irjāʾ.68 Men like Mutawakkil were the reason that one of Balkh’s epithets was “Murjiʾābād.”69

We also read that the governor had a second brother (i.e., a second great-uncle of Umm ʿAlī’s), called ʿAbdallāh. His line accounts for four more of Balkh’s seventy saints: Balkh’s thirty-sixth shaykh, Muḥammad al-Fuḍayl (d. 261/874-5), is his great-grandson, while Balkh’s fourteenth shaykh, the qāḍī Abū Mutị̄ ʿ al-Balkhī (d. 204/819-20), married his greatgrandaughter (and aunt of the said Muḥammad al-Fuḍayl ). The son of Abū Mutị̄ ʿ al-Balkhī is Balkh’s thirty-first shaykh, called Muḥammad b. Abī Mutīʿ (d. 244/858-9). Moreover, the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh’s twentieth shaykh, Qāsim al-Zurayq (d. 201/820-1), married into the family through one of Abū Mutị̄ ʿ’s daughters.70 We can now construct a family tree, which I call, for convenience, the “House of Ḥumrān.”

Mapping the genealogy of the “House of Ḥumrān” makes a convincing case that scholarship and political power often went hand in hand within the same extended family. This house alone produced six of Balkh’s seventy scholars profiled in the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh, in addition to Umm ʿAlī. Thus, family ties and elite connections in the formation of the mediaeval scholarly community seem to have been equally important for men and women. I have argued elsewhere that a significant number - but not all - of Balkh’s shuyūkh were independently wealthy and connected to social and political circles of power.71 The same seems to have been true of women scholars. As we have seen, Umm ʿAlī had major family connections through maternal blood relations. Richard Bulliet also found that al-Fārisī’s women scholars were mentioned in his eleventh-century history of Nishapur, on account of their family and marriage ties.72

The Faḍāʾil-i Balkh emphasizes not only Umm ʿAlī’s family pedigree but also her wealth. She spent a considerable amount of her own money to finance her pilgrimage to Mecca.73 The ḥajj was an expensive undertaking for an eastern Khorasani: the distance between faraway Balkh and Mecca was 3150 kilometres, as the crow flies. Expenses included transport, food, and lodging costs for the outbound and inbound journeys, which took months. It appears she also financed her seven-year sojourn in Mecca herself. She obtained seventy-nine thousand dirhams from the sale of her estates and other possessions, and this would easily have covered all her costs.

It seems reasonable to assume that her wealth came from her grandfather’s days as the governor of Balkh, for he would probably have been a major landowner.

We do not know whether, during her sojourn in Mecca, Umm ʿAlī disbursed some of her great wealth to charity, a practice ascribed to other ninth-century women during their pilgrimages.74 Charity is a common trope in later accounts of Sufis and other mystical religious figures and scholars. Jāmī, in his account of Umm ʿAlī, says, “She was of noble descent and had many possessions. She donated everything to the poor” (Way az awlād-i akābir būd wa māl-i bisyār dāsht. Hama-rā bar fuqarā nafaqa kard).75

The channels through which female scholarship was acquired thus have a pragmatic element. The hosting and training of scholars and the patronage of shrines dedicated to them was expensive. In the ninth century CE it was the noble families, such as the House of Ḥumrān that had the financial resources, the know-how, and the important link with the early Abbasid past. The House of Ḥumrān is the only important family we can reconstruct from the biographies of the shuyūkh of the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh. The Faḍāʾil-i Balkh ends its own historical account of Balkh in Part One, which precedes the biographies - Part Two is a brief geographical overview - with that of the Samanids. Their ascent in Bukhara and that of the Banījūrids in Balkh seem to coincide with the end of the prominence of this family.76

Umm ʿAlī’s Actions and Attributes

Social Etiquette in Religious Society

One anecdote related in the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh excerpt concerning Umm ʿAlī (see appendix) emphasizes Umm ʿAlī’s awareness of social etiquette when advising her husband on how to organize a dinner for a member of the futuwwa. The author portrays Umm ʿAlī as the one with the “insider knowledge” on how to host such fatā men. Her husband, on the other hand, is depicted as lacking such knowledge (thus, we read in FB’s excerpt: “Oh Aḥmad! Can’t you do that, and don’t you know how one ought to invite these people of humanity and [fol. 135b]77 chivalry (murūwat wafutuwwat)?”). We are thus left with the sense that Umm ʿAlī was worldly and “in the know,” while Aḥmad appears to have lacked confidence and sociability.

The anecdote on the dinner is recounted in several Sufi hagiographical works, with some variations. Al-Hujwīrī identified the chivalrous guest as the mystic Yaḥyā b. Muʿādh al-Rāẓī (d. 258/872).78 He explains that Shaykh Aḥmad consulted his wife on the dinner party in this way:

“Daʿwat-i Yaḥyā-rā chi bāyad?” Guft: “Chandīn sar gāw wa gūsfand wa hawāyij wa tawābil wa chandīn shamʿ wa ʿatṛ Wa bā īn hama nīz bīst sar khar bibāyad kusht.” Aḥmad guft: “Kushtan-i kharān chi maʿnī dārad?” Guft: “Chūn karīmī bi khāna-yi karīmī mihmān bāshad, nabāyad ki sagān-i maḥallat-rā az ān khayr bāshad?79

“How do I make the invitation to Yahya?” She said: “Some cows and sheep, carrots and seasoning, and some candles and perfume. And on top of all this, twenty asses must be killed.” Aḥmad said: “What is the meaning of the killing of asses?” She said: “When a great man comes to the house of another great man, should the dogs of the quarter not benefit from it?

The implication in Faḍāʾil-i Balkh that Umm ʿAlī was questioning Aḥmad’s competence is absent from the Kashf al-maḥjūb. It appears that al-Hujwīrī’s account is less concerned with the possibly unbalanced relationship between Aḥmad and Umm ʿAlī but keen on passing on her experiences of hosting proper dinners and the importance and act of generosity in general.

It could be that the killing of the asses is a secondary element in the story. It certainly sounds like a component added to the main story, which concerns the treatment of the futuwwa. The secondary element is inserted to show that Umm ʿAlī was so sensitive to the needs of God’s creatures that she considered the needs even of the unclean dogs. The charity may, however, have gone too far: why slaughter useful asses to feed ravening dogs?

Living out the Sufi Experience

The second anecdote in the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh’s excerpt on Umm ʿAlī recounts her receiving the news that her husband had died and, shortly thereafter, learning that Aḥmad had merely fainted and was actually in good health. Umm ʿAlī is depicted as the apotheosis of composure and patience, which are important virtues for Sufis. Her unruffled stance throughout this series of events is contrasted with the agitated reactions of the co-wife, Ḥakīma Zāhida. The author concludes that it is clear from this account that everyone reaches his or her particular “station” (maqām) and “moment” (waqt) in life. The implication appears to be that Umm ʿAlī had reached higher levels in both maqām and waqt.

The concepts of maqām and waqt are important in Sufism. The Sufi maqām is the dimension of spiritual experience generally characterized as having a certain duration and resulting, to some extent, from individual striving. The Sufi waqt is a dimension of mystical experience considered a timeless instant in which one is aware most acutely of one’s spiritual state.80

Umm ʿAlī, who is also called the one who is “of a high standing” (mahd-i ʿaliyya), had reached these spiritual heights. Umm ʿAlī is, for Shaykh al-Islām al-Wāʾiẓ, an exemplary mystic.

Al-Hujwīrī also emphasizes Umm ʿAlī’s spiritual qualities, stating explicitly that she was “on the ṭarīqa”, the Sufi path upon which all mystics embarked: “Fātịma, his [Aḥmad b. Khiḍrawayh’s] wife, had a noble standing in the Sufi path” (Wa Fāṭima, ki ʿiyāl-i way būd, andar ṭarīqat shaʾnī ʿaẓīm dāsht).81