The Principles of Sufism

By A’isha al-Ba'uniyya. Edited and translated by Th. Emil Homerin. New York: New York University Press, 2014. xii+210 pp. $ 30.00 (cloth).

A’isha al-Ba'uniyya (d. 923/1517) was an exceptional Damascene scholar and Sufi, perhaps the most prolific premodern female writer and poet in the Arabic language. After having translated one of her collections of Sufi poetry, Emanations of Grace (Fons Vitae, 2012), Th. Emil Homerin went on to bring to light her valuable prose work, The Principles of Sufism. Aside from the value of the book’s contents, to which we will return, perhaps the book’s greatest value is in what it represents. Female Muslim scholars are not at all rare in the premodern period, and Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi’s forty-volume biographical dictionary of female scholars of hadith is sufficient to show that.1 However, as Homerin stated in an interview with the work’s publishers, it was very rare for a Sufi woman— or perhaps any kind of Muslim woman—to compose her own original work. Al-Ba 'uniyya does just that, and confidently asserts her mastery in assessing and commenting upon the wisdom of her predecessors, after which she always concludes with her own unique contributions. Perhaps even more important still is that in this work al-Ba'uniyya assumes the role of a spiritual mentor and guide, in a time in which female sheikhs of tarbiya (spiritual upbringing) are almost unheard of. 

Looking at an early biographical work like that of al-Sulami’s Early Sufi Women, a great number of women were indeed recognized as consummate spiritual masters and knowers of God. More importantly, however, we see some of these women actively involved in the spiritual upbringing of other women (and possibly men); that is, they were sought out as guides on the Sufi path. For example, Shabaka of Basra oversaw the spiritual growth and progress of her disciples (muridat) in underground cells beneath her house.2 Likewise, Shawana preached to the public, and her sessions were attended by spiritual masters, aspirants, and ascetics.3 The biographer Ibn Sa d also tells us that Mu adha al- Adawiyya, who according to Ibn al-Jawzi was a direct student of the “mother of the believers” A’isha, would sit with her legs drawn up, “discoursing to a group of women who surround her.”4 Throughout al-Sulami’s work we see entries on women who were either the teachers or disciples of other women mentioned in the same work, giving us a picture of a time in which women took charge of the spiritual upbringing and guidance of other women (and sometimes men). The famed Rabi 'a al- 'Adawiyya herself had women who served her in order to learn from her, while others, like the great jurist Sufyan al-Thawri, visited her seeking her counsel. Al-Thawri referred to her as “the mentor” (al-mu’addiba).5 Clearly it was a time when women sought other women to be their spiritual guides and mentors, and were not in any way dependent on men. One could even argue that there was a chain of female teachers starting with A’isha, wife of the Prophet (peace be upon him), after whom came Mu'adha al- Adawiyya and her female disciples. Mu 'adha died in Basra around the time of Rabi a al- Adawiyya’s birth in the same city, and though no famous teachers of Rabi'a are known, she may have met some of her predecessor’s disciples.

After that early period documented by the likes of al-Sulami, Ibn al-Jawzi, and Ibn Sa'd, we do not hear of such female mentors who attracted and guided disciples for several centuries. Perhaps the first name we hear of is the Qadiri Nana Asma’u (d. 1864), who started the Yan Taru movement of female scholars and preachers whom she sent to educate women in different villages and towns within the Sokoto Caliphate. An unbroken line of female scholars from that movement survives until today. More recent is Munira al-Qubaysi (b. 1933) of Damascus whose Qubaysi movement of female teachers bears a very close resemblance to the Yan Taru. Sheikha Munira was ranked the eighteenth most influential Muslim alive today in the 2014/15 edition of The Muslim 500, and the most influential Muslim woman. Almost a millennium seems to have passed in between those early Sufi women and these more recent movements, without any prominent female Sufi guides. They did exist, of course, and we get glimpses of some of them here and there. For example, Muhyi al-Din ibn Arabi used to visit Fatima bint ibn al-Muthanna of Cordoba, who used to tell him that she was his spiritual mother, while his actual mother, Nur, was only the mother of his earthly body. She used to address his mother and say, “O Nur, he is my son,” and she seems to have had other people also serve her in order to learn from her. Ibn Arabi described her as a lover and knower of God.6 At the same time, Ibn Arabi’s contemporary Shams al-Tabrizi denied that women could act as sheikhs on the path, stating that even if God opened for them the door of spiritual illumination, they would remain hidden and out of sight, “behind the spindle in the corner of the house”.7

Similarly A’isha al-Bauniyya’s younger Egyptian contemporary Abd al-Wahhab al-Sharani (d. 973/1565) denied that women had the capacity to guide aspirants along the spiritual stations of wilaya (proximity to God). “It never reached us,” he added, “that any woman from the pious predecessors assumed the role of guiding spiritual aspirants,” and that their furthest extent was to be devout worshipers and ascetics “like Rabia al-Adawiyya”.8 It seems that despite being a biographer of the Sufis, al-Sharani was not aware of the role of Rabia or her contemporaries and predecessors in the spiritual upbringing of other women. This is why a work like al-Bauniyya’s is so valuable. The difference between the views of Ibn Arabi and al-Bauniyya on one hand, and that of Shams and al-Sharani on the other, could be down to local culture. Ibn Arabi came from Andalusia where society was far more open regarding the public role of women, and where he could meet women who acted as spiritual guides. On the other hand, cultural norms in Shams’s Persian lands and al-Sharani’s Egypt may have prevented women from assuming such roles. We know from al-Sharani’s own celebrated Sufi guide book, al-Anwar al-qudsiyya, that it was not common practice for women in Egypt to formally enter a Sufi tariqa, and that when it did happen, it was looked down upon by other Sufi scholars because it could lead to a blurring of boundaries between the sheikh and his “spiritual daughters”.9 On the other hand, we know from the case of A’isha al-Ba uniyya that she did formally enter a Sufi tariqa at the hands of a male sheikh. Of course, Sufis never claimed that formal association with a Sufi path was a prerequisite for proximity to God, but ever since the emergence of the Sufi tariqas, the role of spiritual mentorship was much more closely dependent on attachment to one of these channels of spiritual grace and the authorization of a previous master. That would explain why al-Sharani may have never met or seen a female spiritual guide.

A’isha al-Baniyuya was raised in a prominent scholarly family in Damascus, and received a high level of scholarly learning, which she even supplemented at an older age studying jurisprudence with a number of scholars in Cairo during her three-year stay there. She took the Qadiri path from a male sheikh whom she praised greatly and who eventually became highly regarded in her time as a Sufi master. The Mamluk sultan al-Ghawri even met with her before he set off for war against the Ottomans, possibly by way of seeking her blessings. 

Many Sufi masters left a great number of disciples, but not works. Others had a more limited number of disciples, but left works that continued to inspire and guide Sufi aspirants and masters alike for centuries. That al-Bauniyya acted as a Sufi guide through her written works would have been rare enough for a woman in her century (and many preceding and following centuries). However, it appears from The Principles of Sufism that she may have also had direct disciples during her lifetime. The first clue is from her introduction, which states that one of the ahbab (admirers), who is clearly a male based on the passage, requested “instruction in the way of realisation and for guidance to the right path”. Homerin translated “one of the ahbab” as “one of the dear friends”, because the word ahbab may also mean someone dear to her or whom she loved. Yet the passage seems to support the idea that this was someone who admired her and loved her as a spiritual master, who remained “waiting at [her] door with his head on [her] doorsteps”, requesting her guidance (2). Similarly in her final passage, she prays for her “children and the ones [she holds] dear in [God]” (164). This passage could have two meanings. In the first, she would be praying for (a) her actual children, and (b) those she held dear in God. The second possible interpretation is that she was praying for (a) her children in God (i.e., her spiritual disciples), and (b) those she held dear in God. In any case, the passage in the introduction shows that she was sought out for spiritual guidance by those who deemed her a spiritual master. For that reason, she penned down her book as a guide. 

The Principles of Sufism deals with what al-Ba 'uniyya regards as the four main principles of the spiritual path: repentance, sincerity, remembrance, and love. Each of these sections is larger than the one that precedes it. The work is conceived as a selection of the finest sayings on each of the four topics. In each chapter she begins with verses from the Qur’an, supplemented with subtle mystical allusions and remarks from al-Qushayri’s Sufi commentary on the Qur’an, and other sources like al-al-Sulami’s commentary. She then provides an impressive selection of prophetic traditions followed by her beautiful selection of the teachings of Sufi masters. Most of the quotes she chooses come from the early masters like Dhul Nun, al-Bistami, al-Karkhi, and the like, but she also included some teachings from later masters of the Shadhili path, as well as the Andalusian Ibn al- Arif (d. 536/1141). Al-Ba'uniyya shows her mastery by commenting on these teachings of her predecessors, assessing them, and comparing them. She then confidently concludes each chapter with her own authoritative teachings, both in poetry and prose, thus presenting herself as a muhaqqiqa, a master who can assess the teachings of their predecessors and then bring forth their own conclusions. In other words, she always has the final say, which she attributes to inspiration and illumination (fath)

This text is part of the Library of Arabic Literature series, which presents Arabic editions of classical works along with their translations. It should be noted that the first print of The Principles of Sufism, to which I had access, had an unusually high number of errors in the Arabic text, which were quickly corrected in a subsequent print. The Arabic and English fonts are simple and elegant. Homerin’s introduction is very brief, dealing mostly with the author’s life and works about which very little is known. Homerin is a skilled and experienced translator of Arabic poetry, and his area of expertise is Sufism and love poetry, having produced several works on the Sultan of the Lovers Umar ibn al-Farid. His translation makes this work very easy to read, considering the difficulty of translating many Sufi expressions dealing with love and experiential knowledge of God. However, there are several passages, often some of the more sublime and beautiful, where Homerin seems to have missed the subtle meanings intended. Similarly, in one passage that incorporates several Qur’anic expressions, a mistake in translation caused several of al- Ba uniyya’s statements to be paired with the wrong verse (146). Perhaps the translation here was rushed, and a pause for reflection would have alerted him to the running error. Despite these few mistakes, the translation is true to the original and would appeal to the spiritually inclined, as the work is full of gems of wisdom and beauty that anyone, whether or not they would call themselves “Sufi”, would find inspiring and beneficial. 

Samer Dajani, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, University of London