More thoughts on stories of holy women: Half-truths and lies

In the last post, I gave some of my initial reactions to a recent article about early pious and Sufi women on the Feminism and Religion blog. A stroll down memory lane, basically. Yes, reading and retelling these stories was a way that we sought validation, and tried in some limited ways to resist the patriarchy-on-steroids that otherwise surrounded us in our very conservative Muslim communities.

But what was their impact on us? Sure, they inspired us to make greater efforts to try to engage in certain stereotypically “pious” acts such as praying at night and fasting extra days—and also, to beat ourselves up when we failed. But did they help make us better people? Were they really spiritually uplifting, or did they function more as an opiate that temporarily distracted us from the tedium, poverty and petty cruelties that hemmed in our lives then?

I was particularly struck by the author’s bald statement that conservative Muslim “talking heads” use these stories “to lie about the past.” She points out that:

“These… narratives of the past… do not empower women, but rather leave men in charge of women’s history and worship today….

The majority of pious and Sufi women have been left out of the major sources that have come to define the tradition of Sufism itself. There are a few sources that collected transmissions about women from the early period. Some three hundred extant accounts of these early women survive in the collections of Ibn al-Jawzi and Abu `Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami. But these numbers are insignificant compared to the number of men mentioned….

BUT you would never know this to listen to conservative talking heads. They use these stories to support an ideal patriarchal past. They cite recent work on female hadith scholars as if it proves that women were equal to men in authority then, or that their numbers were substantively equal when nothing could be further from the truth. When we do the same, even as we relay stories of powerful and authoritative pious and Sufi women, we prop up the conservative narrative that all was well back then and the problem with patriarchy is that we are doing it wrong.” [emphasis mine]

Back in the day, we didn’t think to approach these stories in any critical way. We didn’t ask questions such as: Is there any historical evidence that X ever lived? If she did live, what do we know about her life? Who wrote down her story? Are there different surviving versions of it? If so, what do these differences tell us? We approached these stories in search of inspiration, not historical truth. If the story seemed to have some sort of inspiring message (even if that was just that some saintly woman of the past had been regarded by some man as worth remembering…) then that was enough for us. We wouldn’t have seen the point of a critical approach. And when we began to hear shaykhs like Hamza Yusuf and others lionizing female scholars of the past, we felt a sense of vindication, as well as hope that the future for women in our communities might be better than what we had experienced.

But now, I am moved to ask myself whether believing in half-truths or straight-up lies about the past was really just a harmless if rather desperate search for validation and inspiration. What are the fruits of basically buying into something that isn’t true?

Because, these stories as we read or heard them had been “spun” in various ways. They helped to foster the illusion that somehow we could find access to study as well as spirituality  on par with the male members of our communities, and to enable us to not see how impossible our quest was designed to be. After all, these holy women achieved such heights, but they hadn’t had to ask for any changes in the way things were done in their communities, so what right did we have to do that? These stories had the effect of reinforcing the notion we had already been taught: that being pleasing to God means buying into patriarchy.

In the last post, I discussed how these stories encouraged us to hold up ourselves to unrealistic standards, that were destructive to us and our kids. Thing is, they also encouraged us to do the same to other women (including those who certainly never wanted to be held to those standards), AND to feel good about that. If we learned from these stories that we couldn’t be “real” about our own imperfections, and harshly judged ourselves, even for things we couldn’t help (right down to the families we had been born into), we also unfortunately learned to help foster communities in which nobody—and especially not girls or women—felt safe enough to be real about their struggles.

Nobody could talk openly about their depression, much less admit that they were struggling with any aspect of conservative Muslim belief or practice, or concede that they weren’t the “ideal Muslimah” and didn’t actually want to be. We did see judgmentalness as a problem, and tried not to be too judg-y (while also being careful not to “sin” by allowing anyone to get the impression that their “sin” was somehow ok), or speak to people harshly. But we were just so unbelievably condescending. We couldn’t listen to people talk about what life is like for them–we were too busy passing whatever they said through a halaal-haraam filter and rejecting anything that wouldn’t fit.

Looking back, I can remember how hesitantly a sister hinted to me that she was on anti-depression medication, testing the waters before she actually came out and said it. Or how another sister who was starting to go through the de-hijabing process indirectly hinted at this for weeks and then broke the news to me very carefully, waiting to see how I would react before daring to allow me to see her outside (in her own car! in the pitch dark!) without her scarf.

We would be profoundly embarrassed by any women who dared to be real. If she did dare to go ahead and show who she really was, we believed that it was our Islamic duty to “screen her faults,” to try to make excuses for her. We couldn’t deal with someone who wasn’t into playing the whole “ideal
Muslimah” game… and neither could the community. Sisters would be warned  to stay away from someone like that, and we didn’t ever feel that we could or should stand  up to that type of pressure and say: “Look: that’s who she is. She’s being honest, and she doesn’t owe you or me anything.” We couldn’t honor people for being themselves.

For us, any woman worth learning from or looking up to needed to be a “good example” who apparently fit the ideal more or less effortlessly. And it was ridiculous. Looking back, it was a wonder that more female converts didn’t crack under this sort of intense pressure.

Now and again, we would encounter a woman trying to be honestly herself, but we scarcely knew how to react it it, “Islamically.” I still remember cringing inwardly when I read that a female convert in Daughters of Another Path admitted to wishing that she “could have a bacon sandwich once in a while.” Those were the days before chicken/turkey bacon strips were available, so there was no doubt that she still sometimes craved—horror of horrors!—pork. What would born Muslims (or non-Muslims) think about the rest of us converts once they read that? I knew that some born Muslims around me would likely cast doubt on the sincerity of her conversion if they read that, and I was embarrassed for her.

Looking back on this, I am struck by how our ideas of women’s spirituality ultimately revolved around outward appearance and had little or no room for personal authenticity. Part of this was because the Muslim communities we were involved with were obsessed with their “Islamic identities” and how to preserve them in North America. But the stories of holy women we read and heard did not challenge this obsession with the outward trappings of Muslimness—if anything, they reinforced it. Because these stories were often so formulaic and idealized. These stories did not usually offer any glimpses of women who were, well, human.

These stories also communicated the idea that anything less than near-perfection meant that  I remember reading—and being bothered by—a well known hadith that says, “There have been many men who were perfect, but only four perfect women: Asiya wife of Pharaoh, Maryam daughter of Imran, Khadija daughter of Khuwailid, and Fatima daughter of Muhammad.” At that time, got the implied message—that women in general are inferior to men in general—and was all the more determined not to be a “typical” woman, to overcome my intrinsic inferiority somehow.

But how? The stories of holy women reinforced our internalized misogyny, while also telling us that having been born into female bodies, we were stuck with being socially inferior and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it—except hope that somehow, we might be able to aspire to reach spiritual heights. Though, any intention of doing that which was in any way based on our resentment of being inferior would (we were told) necessarily void any spiritual attainments that we might happen to achieve, so we had to do our utmost to smother our resentment of our inferior status. Because of course we shouldn’t be feeling resentment at any aspect of God’s will. This was yet another way that we would remain caught up in a cycle of lies, self-delusion and denial.

Thinking about this hadith again the other day, what strikes me is what I didn’t see about it. How I noticed that “only four” women are spoken of as “perfect”—but didn’t notice the absurdity and cruelty of the idea that some chosen humans can and should be entombed on pedestals for the rest of us to idealize. What a terrible burden such “perfection” puts on those who are credited with it, as well as on the rest of us. What it implies about God, and how God sees human beings.

Part of the process of recovery from all this is trying to learn to be honest and non-judgmental (of myself as well as others), and to avoid idealizing people. To stop myself when I notice that my thoughts are heading in either a judg-y or an idealizing direction, and to remember where this leads. How confining and in the end, suffocating and dehumanizing it is. And to demystify it. To ask who it is who really benefits from this tendency to look at human experiences in such a black and white way.

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  1. #1 by Freedom2B on March 24, 2014 - 12:22 pm

    Seeking more information on Maymuna the Black. Do you know of a handy link or book?

    • #2 by xcwn on March 28, 2014 - 1:34 am

      We read about her in Javad Nurbakhsh’s book, Sufi Women. (She is called Maymuna Siyah, meaning “black” in that book.)

  2. #3 by nmr on March 24, 2014 - 1:11 pm

    Really beautiful questions you are asking here in this post i.e. “What are the fruits of buying into something that isn’t true?”

    Also, what you said about putting people on pedestals resonated with a recent biography I read of Cesar Chavez, link is here (review in LA Times):,0,7389504.story#axzz2whj3LPs9

    I imagine this process of recovery must be terribly painful for you at times, sometimes it seems like the worst part is how you imagine your choices may have negatively impacted your children. I admire your courage so much (but not in a pedestal- judge-y kind of way, just “hey, you’re cool!”) and I look forward to reading about your harvest of “authenticity fruits”.

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