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Rumi & The Sacred Feminine

Did Jalal al-din Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and great Islamic Sufi mystic whose 800th birth anniversary is being celebrated around the world this year, shun the feminine and treat it merely as carnal?

This is not true, according to most scholars at the "Wondrous Words' conference held in London from September 13-15 at the invitation of the British Museum and the Iran Heritage Foundation. The conference was on the poetic mastery of Rumi.

Rumi looked upon a woman as the most perfect example of God's creative power on earth. In 'Masnavi-I Ma'navi' (spiritual couplets), his monumental mystical work, Rumi calls a woman, 'a ray of God'.

'She is not just the earthly beloved,
She is creative, not created.'

"Rumi is one of those rare spiritual masters who had female disciples. This is not so common in the history of Sufism. Rumi's letters, teachings, advice to his son to be kind to his wife, and the tenderness he showered on his own wife show how sacred the feminine was to the poet," points out Dr Leili Anwar- Chenderoff, Head, Iranian Languages Department, INALCO (Institut des Langues et Civilisations Orientales), Paris.

Anwar-Chenderoff does not think Rumi considered the soul of a woman inferior to that of a man. In fact, women were the "banos", or the respected ladies of his home. He believed that it is possible for both man and woman to progress towards contemplation of the truth.

There are numerous other examples to show that the great poet, jurist and theologian held women in high regard. These may contradict some misogynic aspects of 'Masnavi' but Anwar-Chenderoff does not think that the writings and opinions of Rumi were misogynic.

Rumi, after all, was a product of a time and culture when the mention of the word 'man' evoked images of courage and strength. He is bound to have shared many of the traditional views of his contemporaries, for he was steeped in both the religious and the literary traditions into which he was born. But he also believed that a woman can be courageous and a man, cowardly.

The late Annemarie Schimmel, author of 'My Soul is a Woman', has expressed that the role of women is the most misunderstood feature of Islam. She disagreed with those who take Islam to task without first trying to comprehend the cultures, language, and traditions of the many societies in which Islam is the majority religion.

Schimmel spent a good part of her life proving the clear equality of women and men in the eyes of God, Prophet Muhammad, the Quran, the feminine language of the mystical tradition, and in the role of holy mothers and unmarried women as manifestations of the divine.

When recited in the right spirit, beyond the male dominated interpretation, the Quran does reveal respect for all human beings regardless of sex or social situation. And none realizes this essential Quranic spirit better than the Islamic mystic or Sufi.

'Wahadat ul-Wajud', the unity of being or oneness of existence, is at the core of Sufi belief. Since there is no room for duality here, there is no divide between male and female either. There is only the yearning amongst everyone to journey towards the one and only 'truth'.

Nargis Virani, a scholar from New School, USA, feels that the gender distortion is created perhaps by the word 'nafs'. "Arabic is a very gendered language and 'nafs', or spirit or soul, is grammatically and linguistically very female. But to equate it with a biological female is a fallacy," she explains. All human beings have 'nafs' and the spirit of every man and woman has both the beauteous as well as the bestial aspects.

Rumi illustrates this best when he says that a human being is a donkey's tail with an angel's wings. The moral of the metaphor is to inspire human beings to spend their lives trying to balance the profound and the profane within the self.

Patriarchal culture, however, interprets 'nafs' literally as woman who is to be avoided and to be treated inferior to man if mankind is not to be led astray.

Sufi articulation of gender is broader than the way it is sometimes presented. In 'I am Wind You are Fire', her seminal work on Rumi, Schimmel writes that the poet may not have been a systematic thinker but was aware that the human being consists of several layers. The first is the body that is mere husk or thorn-bush hiding the beautiful spirit.

Rumi once called the body "dust on the mirror spirit", dust that veils the radiant spirit found beneath it. He also referred to the body as a "vessel for the wine soul". The other component of the human being is the 'nafs', usually referred to the lower instinct of human beings, but which can be educated and refined. Writes Rumi, surely with a smile,

"When the 'nafs' says meow like the cat,
I put it in the bag like the cat!"

Fatemeh Keshavarz, professor of Persian and comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis, USA, talks most poetically of the gendered nature of the images and metaphors through which Rumi portrayed the sacred. "He chose womanhood, the ability to nurture, and the privilege of childbearing as metaphors for the sacred," she says.

Rumi refashioned the sacred as the baby that comes to this world from the deepest and least known corners of a woman's being. He was aware that the sacred is given to imperfect human beings to nurture and valued the profound responsibility carried out by women of mothering the sacred.

He was respectful of the godly function of women who have first-hand experience of the act of sacred making. He saw women with their vulnerabilities and strengths, with their ability to nurture life in their very bodies and withstand the pain of bringing the sacred into existence.

In fact, Professor Keshavarz imagines Rumi delighted at the paradox that the "weaker" sex shared with God productive and life generating privileges and was quite convinced that there is more to the presence of women in the world than just being the lesser sex.

The brilliance of Rumi, according to the scholar, is to have taken the carnal image of the feminine and to have turned it against itself. In 'Fihi Ma-Fih', his sermons, Rumi repeatedly uses the metaphor of the sacred impregnating humanity till all women become Marys impregnated with the seed of God and potentially entitled to a Jesus of their own.

Rumi saw women not just as worshipping and obeying God but "mothering" Him in a very real sense. 


More by :  Mehru Jaffer

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