Persian Women, and Islam as a Cult of Love.

by Brian Griffith.

As Islam changed from a social movement into an empire, the language of its male leaders shifted. Instead of talking about justice and compassion, they increasingly spoke of law and punishment. Seldom in the writings of the all-male legalist scholars do we hear the word “love,” but we hear it from the women. The first Muslim saint to speak of Allah as “the beloved” was Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya (ca. 717–801 CE), a former slavegirl from Basra, Iraq, and author of the infamous line, “I love God: I have no time left, in which to hate the devil” (Helminski, 2003, 20, 31). We should mention that during Rabi’a’s life, Iraq and Iran were part of the same empire (as they had usually been from the 500s BCE), so Rabi’a and her followers probably made no distinction between Iraqis and Iranians.

According to her legend, Rabi’a’s impoverished parents died, and a slave trader came to seize her. Fleeing to escape, she fell and sprained her ankle. She cried to God that she was an orphan in the clutches of an evil man, and heard a voice saying “Don’t worry—on the Day of Resurrection your rank will be so high that even the closest companions of God will envy you.” In her labor as a slave, she took refuge in prayer at every opportunity. One day her master saw her praying, and felt that her radiance filled the room. After that he could no longer see her as a piece of his property, and he decided to set her free. The amir of Basra saw her, and was so struck by her peace and beauty that he asked her to marry him. She refused his offer, and told him to return his wealth to the people he took it from (Helminski, 2003, 26–28).

For Rabi’a, the most important line in the Quran was “He loves them and they love him” (5:54). This, she felt, was the real cornerstone of Islam. She thought the ultimate judgment of God was that all were loved, not that good and bad people must be separated into heaven and hell. Having no fear that she might be labeled a heretic, she reportedly carried a torch through the streets of Basra, announcing that she would burn down paradise and extinguish the fires of hell (Helminski, 2003, 102).

Rabi’a inspired a cluster of female Sufi saints across Iraq and Iran. There was her disciple Maryam of Basra. Then we hear of a Persian female mystic named Sha’wana (700s CE), of whom Malek Ebn Fazi explained, “the whole of her heart is on fire” (Helminski, 2003, 41). In the northeastern Iranian town of Nishapur, a series of female Sufi saints formed a teaching lineage, starting with Fatima of Nishapur in the 800s CE. Of this woman, Dhu an-Nun al-Misri reported, “I have never seen anyone more excellent … She used to discourse magnificently on … the meaning of the Quran … She is a saint from among the friends of God … She is also my teacher.” During the 900s CE, the female teachers of Nishapur included A’isha, and Al-Wahatiyya, who reportedly explained, “The reality of love is that the lover is mute before all but his/her Beloved and deaf to all but his/her speech” (Helminski, 2003, 47–48). In Ardabil, Iran, in the 900s CE, Fatima al-Barda’iyya grew famous for her ecstatic speeches on love. Apparently, it was still deemed praiseworthy for women to teach spirituality in public.

After the great female Sufi saints of Nishapur in the 800s and 900s CE, many women played important roles in the Nimutallahi, Bettashi, Naqshbandi, Chishti and Mevlevi Sufi orders. A Persian Sufi scholar named Abu ‘Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sulami (d. 1021 CE) composed a work now called Early Sufi Women, which was the first book devoted entirely to Moslem women’s spirituality. This collection of biographies portrays the lives and teachings of 80 prominent Sufi women from the 700s to the 1000s CE. Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Raman Jami (1414–1492) in his Persian work Breaths of Intimacy gave an appendix recording brief accounts of many more remarkable Sufi women.

Most Muslim men spoke of Allah as an ultimate ruler whose commands must be obeyed. But the Sufi female saints spoke of Allah as the beloved, and of love as the flame that annihilates the ego. To many authoritarian men of later centuries, such talk of intimacy and tenderness toward the Almighty would seem utter blasphemy. It would seem like the passionate devotion of Hindu women for their lord Krishna. But that language of passionate love was soon adopted by Islam’s most revered male saints, and it became the primary discourse of popular folk religion to this day. As Husayn ibn Mansur Hallaj proclaimed in the 900s, “for those who are in ecstasy, the one and only Beloved is enough.” Rumi (1207–1273 CE) would put it this way: “When it was time to write about Love, the pen was split in half and the paper torn.” Also, “those who are bound by propriety are not like those who are bound in Love, and the nation of religion is not the nation of Love, for the lover knows no other religion than the Beloved Himself” (Bayat and Jamnia, 2001, 28, 12, 143). We may note that in Persian, the Arabian loan-word “Allah” or the Persian word “Khuda” (God) has no gender, so male or female mystics could speak of their ultimate beloved either way.

We can trace a rough outline for the lineage of such teaching among male Sufis, through the famous saints and poets of devotional love such as Hallaj, ‘Attar, Nizami, Rumi or Hafaz. Meanwhile, the female saints and sisterhoods seemed to fade from the public eye, passing into the privatized realms of women. After the 900s CE, the public face of the Sufi movement grew increasingly male. The Sufi orders mainly conformed to customary gender segregation. Somehow, preaching love in public seemed more respectable if it was done by men, even though their preaching was largely inspired by women. As Rumi explained, “The Prophet said that women totally dominate men of intellect and possessors of hearts. But ignorant men dominate women, for they are shackled by the ferocity of animals” (Coleman, 2010, 81). Concerning the mothers of Sufism as a cult of love, Rumi’s teacher Faridaldin ‘Attar (of Nishapur) felt he had to justify naming Rabi’a in his history of Sufi saints: “If I should be asked why I have brought her in the line of men, I would answer that … when a woman takes to the path of God as a man, one can no longer call her a woman … and one can bring her description among men” (Najmabadi, 2005, 300, note 46).

As a Sufi master from Nishapur, Faridaldin ‘Attar was probably well aware of the whole line of that town’s female teachers. He made the theme of spiritual inspiration by women central in his famous stories. In one such tale, the respected Sufi teacher San’an falls madly in love with a Christian girl, and shocks his followers by claiming that this passion has liberated his soul. The followers advise San’an to heed the standards of morality: “If you repent of your sin, God will forgive you, for you have been a shaykh [religious teacher] for many years.”

San’an answers, “What I have repented of is my shaykhood and no more.”

Followers: “You are our guide to the Light, and the one who knows the way to God. If you pray to Him, surely he will hear and forgive you.”

San’an: “I pray for her, for she is the focus of all my prayers.”

Followers: “Are you not regretful of this love that has driven you totally out of reason?”

San’an: “I am indeed regretful, but only of one thing—that I did not fall in love sooner” (Bayat and Jamnia, 2001, 74).

The followers give up on San’an and return home to find a different teacher. But when another disciple hears of this, he reproaches them furiously:

What kind of disciples are you? If you claim to love our master, you must be true to your claim. You should be ashamed of yourselves! If your master threw off his Sufi cloak and put on a [Christian-style] cincture, you should have done the same. That is what love demands—no matter that it be labeled scandalous or insane. How dare you to judge our shaykh as having done wrong? What gave you the authority to advise him to abandon his love? (Bayat and Jamnia, 2001, 78).

In another tale, Faridaldin ‘Attar describes a madman named Bahlul, who wanders the streets babbling to himself. A visitor asks about this man, and a local resident named Ahmed explains, “I know you think that we all love the Almighty. But from what I have seen and heard about Bahlul, his kind of love is different indeed. Far different. He converses with his Beloved day and night. It is as if he is in love with the most astonishingly beautiful woman in the universe. She has stolen his heart and soul totally.”

A listener asks, “What does this Bahlul hope to achieve?”

Ahmed answers, “Some could not understand Bahlul. They wondered about the meaning of such mad love. They could not comprehend that all the lover wants is to be with the Beloved: to see her, praise her, become annihilated in her. Oneness with the beloved is the lover’s only aim. It is not unreasonable if you think about it. If you were madly in love with a woman, would you not wish to spend all your life with her?” (Bayat and Jamnia, 2001, 59).

Reportedly, the young Jalaluddin Rumi came to Nishapur, fleeing the advancing Mongol armies with his parents, and they met Faridaldin ‘Attar. ‘Attar reportedly spoke with the boy, and later gave him a copy of his Book of Secrets. He told Rumi’s father, “Your son will soon be a kindling fire in all the world’s lovers of God” (Bayat and Jamnia, 2001, 121).

Rumi became a great scholar and teacher of religion, but only later in life did he find his real inspiration through love for his spiritual friends, both male and female. One of these “divine friends” was a female Sufi named Fahrunnissa, who inspired him the way Dante experienced his guide Beatrice. In a vision or a dream, Rumi felt that it was not so much the faithful who circled around the Kaaba in Mecca, but the Kaaba that revolved around Fahrunnissa:

The Kaaba spins like a dervish

around the abode of only one idol.

Oh Lord, who could this possibly be,

so distraught and so full of longing?

Compared to her, the moon is a broken plate,

and her sweetness puts the flowers to shame.

All the masters of the way, all the faithful angels bow to her,

crying “O Adored One, for the love of God have mercy upon us!”

(cited, Helminski, 2003, 121)

In case this adoration seems to violate the most basic Islamic principle against idolatry, we should recall that in the Quran, God creates all things before the final act of creating a man and woman. Then God summons the angels of heaven to witness this couple, and tells them to bow down in respect before them. All the angels bow down, save one, namely Iblis, otherwise known as Lucifer. Iblis says he must refuse to bow, because it is apostasy to bow before any but God. And for this disobedience, God casts Iblis out of heaven, making him a fallen angel (Quran 15:26–32). Perhaps the most orthodox interpretation of this story is simply that God requires unconditional obedience. But Rumi’s interpretation was that God requires us to bow in reverent love for the crown of creation, or else our arrogance will make our lives hell.

Rumi’s greatest male inspiration was Shamsuddin Tabrizi, who became his most famous soulmate. After a transformational meeting with this man, Rumi and Shamsuddin reportedly went into seclusion together for three months. Was this a “purely spiritual” love, or was it love heedless of all decorum, body and soul? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. What is clear is that Rumi turned adoration for the beloved into a literal spiritual practice in his Sufi brotherhood.

In the practice of nazar, the seeker gazes steadily into the eyes of another, finding in that person a living presence of the Beloved. As is commonly known, it is difficult to gaze steadily into another person’s eyes for any length of time without sensing the potential for loving him or her like a soulmate. And in the gender-segregated world of medieval Islam, it was males who practiced such a sacred gaze on each other in the Sufi brotherhoods. In all likelihood, the female Sufis did likewise in their more privatized gatherings. Therefore, the poetry of medieval Sufism grows notably homoerotic. As Everett Rowson explains, “some [male] Muslim mystics claimed to see in the beauty of adolescent boys a ‘testimony’ to the beauty and goodness of God, and initiated a practice of gazing at such a boy as a form of spiritual exercise. The boy was thus known in Sufi parlance as a ‘witness’ (shahid)” (1995, 32).

As the Christians spoke of agape love, so the Sufis spoke of selfless love in terms that would clearly distinguish it from heterosexual attraction: “in Persian (especially Sufi-inspired) love poetry, the beloved was almost always male” (Najmabadi, 2005, 53). As the early Christians moved toward gender segregation in church, lest they be charged with encouraging agape love orgies, so the Sufi brotherhoods and sisterhoods moved apart. The brotherhoods became the public face of Sufism, and the female practitioners generally met in private spaces. The male poets were published, though they borrowed the poetry of Rabi’a and her lineage of soul sisters. In the hands of Iran’s greatest poets, the theme of ecstatic love as the ultimate path to God reached perhaps it’s richest expression in world history. In the ghazal song lyrics of Khwaju Kermani (1280–1352 CE),

If one is near the beloved, what is the difference if he/she be in heaven or hell?

If prayer is out of need, what difference if it be in a mosque or a synagogue?

Hafez-e Shirazi (ca. 1325–1389 CE), the most revered poet of Iran to this day, described the beloved as “a heart-stealing shahid”:

Everyone, whether drunk or sober, seeks the beloved.

Every place, whether it be mosque or synagogue, is the house of love. (Limbert, 2004, 117)

Of course legalistic religious scholars claimed that all this outpouring of love, and the Sufi praise for wine as an elixir of love, was all just a stream of allegories for the strictly non-carnal love of God above—as if the proper aim of both poet and preacher was to place firm restrictions on love’s expression. But not all Sufi poets sang of love in non-sexual or homoerotic terms. The great romantic poet Hakim Nizami (ca. 1160–1222), author of the classic tales of Layla and Manjun, and Khosrow and Shirin, clearly meant his heterosexual love stories as expressions of the ultimate spirituality. As Mojdeh Bayat and Mohammad Ali Jamnia explain, “through these stories people learned that a spiritual seeker’s quest for union with the Beloved is an endeavor that leads to the annihilation of the limited identity of the lover in the infinite being of the Beloved” (2001, 81).

In this form of Islam, the spirit of submission to God, as before an arbitrary, omnipotent ruler, was modified. An increasingly popular ideal of faith involved the sense of passionate union with the Lord. Of course for Muslims, such talk of “union” almost never meant a merger of identity with God. The union was best compared to the union of lovers. By implication, the most holy relationship, or the one best symbolizing the highest spiritual values, was not the relation of ruler to subject, but the relation of lovers to each other. A state of grace called fana (rapture) could be attained through the loving instruction of a pir (fairy princess) or a fravashi (spirit of the way), leading the soul to its goal in “the larger full surrender” (Walker, 1996, 974).

Such Sufi devotionalism grew popular among ordinary people across the Islamic world, from India to Spain, or Indonesia to West Africa. According to Joseph Campbell (1976), the Sufis’ spiritualization of sexual love spread to Christian Europe in the wake of the crusades, generating a new counter culture of heroic romance. At a time (the 1070s CE) when the Catholic church was actually forcing its priests to divorce their wives en masse, “sundering the commerce between the clergy and women through an eternal anathema” (Ranke-Heinemann, 1990, 100), the Sufi dervishes became models for the troubadours of Europe. These folk-singers or bards wove tales such as the Arthurian legend of Parzival—a bungling fool who manages to revive the world from a wasteland spell through the uplifting power of pure love for a woman. It seemed blasphemous at the time, but in these popular songs and legends, erotic love was hailed as the greatest initiation of the soul. In a society where Heloise d’Argenteuil (the lover of Peter Abelard, 1100s CE) could lament “Woe that ever love was sin,” the Sufi-influenced troubadours proclaimed passionate love as the ultimate aim of life, more important than any social convention, any church sacrament, or any threat of eternal damnation (Campbell, 1976, 63–65). Likewise, Miguel de Cervantes joked that he was inspired to write Don Quixote after seeing a manuscript sold by an old Muslim, which told the adventures of a love-crazed fool whose madcap passion for a fallen woman was the ultimate sanity. All these things were reflections of a movement inspired by Rabi’a and her mainly Persian soul sisters.


Bayat, Mojdeh and Jamnia, Mohammad Ali (2001) Tales from the Land of the Sufis. Shambhala, Boston.

Campbell, Joseph, (1976) Creative Mythology: The Masks of God, Penguin, New York.

Coleman, Isobel (2010) Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East. Random House, New York.

Helminski, Camille Adams (2003) Women of Sufism: A Hidden Treasure. Shambhala, Boston.

Limbert, John (2004) Shiraz in the Time of Hafez. University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA.

Najmabadi, Afsaneh (2005) Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Ranke-Heinemann, Uta (1990) Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church, Doubleday, New York.

Rowson, Everett K. (1995) “Homosexuality in the Medieval Islamic World: Literary Celebration vs Legal Condemnation.” Paper presented at the “Gender and Alterity in Near Eastern Studies” conference, April 6, Princeton University.

Walker, Barbara G. (1996) The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Castle Books, Edison, NJ.


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