Caravanserai Magazine Archive

Published 1988-2000 semi-annually on behalf of the Sufi Movement International by the Sufi Movement in Canada.


1989 Volume 3. Nuria J. Lawrence. "The Aptitude of Women for the 'Lamb's War'"

Quaker theology has some striking similarities to Sufi thought

While striving to attain recognition as social, political and spiritual equals, many women have indiscriminately pushed aside the ideas and institutions of men, some of which should not be dismissed so easily. One victim of this process has been religion, seen by many women as oppressive and undesirable. Granted, many of the world's great religions are male dominated in practice, but must they be so in theory? Or can their teachings also be interpreted in ways that are inclusive of both male and female? This question is of particular importance to Sufis as believers in unity and in the unity of religious ideals, for the concept of universality becomes meaningless if it excludes half of the human race. Fortunately, there are many traditions that have interpreted the teachings of the masters in ways that include women. A good example of this can be found in the Society of Friends, (more commonly known as the Quakers) who have seen the teachings of Christianity through the eyes of the mystic. Interestingly, (and perhaps expectedly) not only does Quaker theology include women as spiritual equals, it also bears marked similarities to the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan.

Historically, the Quakers have been extraordinary in their theological acceptance and social support of women. Some of the most important and influential leaders in the women's rights movement in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were Quakers. Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott were both from Quaker homes, and aided the movement considerably by their own efforts and by encouraging others such as Elizabeth Cady Staton. It is important to realize that these women were activists not in spite of their religious conviction, but to a large degree because of it. As we shall see, both the mystical theology and the internal structure of Quakerism were particularly suited to producing and sustaining such women.

Begun largely as a result of the work of George Fox in England during the mid-seventeenth century, Quakerism was one of many new religious sects to arise in the period surrounding the English Revolution. The Reformation in Europe, reinforced by the anti-Catholic leanings of the revolutionary government of Cromwell, encouraged a return to a simpler and more personal style of religion. The return to scripture as the "highest authority for individuals and societies" was bolstered by the increased availability of the Bible in the vernacular. In fact, during this period, it was common practice for churches to chain a copy to the pulpit, there for all to read. For those who were able, reading the words of Christ for themselves produced some startling insights, especially about the way in which God related to humanity.

A key element of Quaker theology is the belief that the spirit of God can be found residing in the innermost part of every person, regardless of gender. This inner presence, which Sufis might call the Spirit of Guidance, the Quakers refer to by many names, such as: ‘Teacher within,’‘Inner Light,’ and ‘The Seed.' Although it can be found in every person, this presence is not seen so much as an intrinsic aspect of the individual, as it is an ‘internal other,’ suppressed by the ego and only fully realized through a two-part struggle. In the eyes of the Quakers, salvation is the realization of the Inner Light, and the story of creation is used as a metaphor to show the means by which this could be achieved.

The first part of the struggle — often called the 'Lamb's War,' or 'Convincement' — is the attempt to come to terms with the inner light on a personal level; to recognize the presence of the divine within oneself, and to allow that divine aspect to take precedence over the individual ego in thought, feeling and action. As we ourselves may have experienced, this is a task requiring great patience and courage, for introspection can reveal unpleasant things about the illusory self, and there is a great tendency to avoid self-knowledge by becoming preoccupied with external distractions. In order to focus the concentration inwards, the Quakers generally meet in silence, the collective meditation broken only if someone feels the call to "speak out at meeting" and share an inspiration. As well, members are strongly encouraged to keep a journal in which they record their spiritual progress, examining successes and defeats, and the ways in which the former are attained. Some of the most profound and beautiful Quaker literature comes from these journals, and those of George Fox are often referred to as authoritative doctrine.

In his journal, George Fox explains his personal experience of meeting the internal other in terms of the creation story. He compares the light of the divine presence to the flaming sword guarding the entrance to paradise, for once his ego was revealed and slain, he "knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus, so that [he]...was come up to the state of Adam which he was in before he fell."

Essential to the Quaker's acceptance of women as spiritual equals was their re-interpretation of the creation story as a metaphor for the process of convincement. Unlike many literal interpretations, Eve does not burden all women with the guilt of the fall from grace. Instead, the guilt is shared — both Adam and Eve were with God in a state of innocence, or absence of ego, and were guilty of turning their attention away from God, by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, after which they both developed an ego and were expelled from Eden. What was the fruit of the tree of knowledge? Perhaps "the ability to distinguish between good and evil" meant to stop being able to see all things as a manifestation of God, and to start seeing some things as being separate from, or even opposed to God. Salvation is the release from that illusion.

While the experience of the ‘Lamb's War’ is necessary for all, women were traditionally thought to have a special aptitude for this process, as they had been socialized to be receptive to an ‘internal other’ through their role as mothers. In the words of Carol Stoneburner, a twentieth-century commentator and herself a feminist Quaker, "to become aware of, willing to affirm, and creatively react to the natural seed of the other growing within could be a profoundly altering experience. A woman thus learned to accommodate and respond to the other... Pondering this natural mystery, her perspective as a person was altered." Or, in the words of Hazrat Inayat Khan, "Thy divine compassion radiates in fullness through the heart of the mother." While attributing this special aptitude of women for spiritual enlightenment to a biological function could be regarded as sexist, it is important to remember that the Quaker philosophy was developed in the seventeenth century, when the reproductive role was considered, if not the only, the most important one for women. The Quakers, like the Sufis, focused more on the receptive qualities than on the biological function, and even childless women were thought to have some advantage over men who had been encouraged to focus on the external.

The most remarkable thing about this doctrine was the idea that women were capable of any spiritual experience of value. At the time, women were generally not highly regarded, and although the experience of George Fox when he went to Nottingham in 1646 and met people who "held women have no souls, more than a goose," was perhaps an extreme case, it reflected the prevailing attitude that women's souls were inferior to men's because of Eve's role in the fall from grace. The new meaning that the Quakers gave to the creation story meant that women were seen as spiritual equals, both before the fall and after the process of salvation. This opened the doors for women to play an active role in the shaping of their own religious experience, and enabled them to take part in the second stage of the Lamb's War, the transformation of society.

This second part of the struggle was the outward manifestation of the new-found grace. Because of their belief that the spirit of God is indwelling in all people, the Quakers rejected the mediation of a professional priesthood to administer the sacraments. In fact, they regarded the sacraments themselves as unnecessary abstractions of everyday activities, and encouraged members to actively participate in the sacramental qualities of all life, rather than submissively receiving artificial intervention from the Church. The rejection of a traditional priesthood meant that the Quakers had to rely exclusively on lay-people, both men and women, to carry out the work of the group.

Continuing the creation metaphor, Quakers strongly believed that they had a responsibility to transform larger society into a "new creation" by caring for others as beloved of God. Originally the primary concern was for their own members, who often experienced severe repression and hardships due to intolerance. The period of the Restoration was particularly difficult for the Quakers, when many of the members were imprisoned for their beliefs. It was at this time that the Society appeared in America, as some of those fleeing persecution joined together in the colonies.

However, as time went on and the Quakers became more established, the persecution lessened, and they were able to turn their concern outwards, focusing their attention on all the poor and oppressed, including natives, slaves, and the powerless — especially women. The concern for the well-being of others demanded direct involvement from all, whether it was preaching, providing a safe haven, or lobbying for new legislation. Because they saw women as spiritual equals, they did not agree with those who, like Luther, thought that woman's role in the Fall ‘nailed’ her to the home, and Quaker women were able to take an active part in missionary and reform work, even when it meant travelling outside the home for long periods of time.

The situation of the Quakers then was not entirely unlike that of the Sufis now: lacking a professional ministry and with few buildings, they relied on the dedication of the members to spread their ideas. For Sufis, this means opening our homes and hearts to travellers as we exchange information and experiences, and the same was true for the Quakers. In an exciting time, with plenty of things happening and lots more to be done, the houses of the members became important centres of organization and activity. If the horizons of Quaker women were broad compared to her non-Quaker counterpart, it was at least partly due to the experiences of either travelling herself, or opening her home to others.

The use of the home for such purposes had, by the nineteenth century, changed the way in which it was regarded. As a result, even single women could meet the world on their own terms in their own homes. As Susan B. Anthony commented, "the charm of all these women's homes is that their owners are ‘settled’ in life; that the men, young or old, who visit them, no more count their hostesses’ chances in the matrimonial market, than when guests in the homes of the most happily married women. Men go to these homes as they do to their gentlemen's clubs, to talk of art, science, politics, religion and reform... They go to meet their equals in the proud domain of intellect, laying aside...their conventional 'small talk' for the ladies."

She knew what she was talking about; her own home served as the first headquarters for the American Suffrage Movement, and her married friend, Lucretia Mott, was well versed in combining public and private life. One popular story tells of a dinner party that Susan attended at Lucretia's house: there were many people at dinner, and the conversation about politics and reform matters was so engrossing that when the meal was finished, Lucretia went to the kitchen and brought a wooden bucket and soap to the table. The discussion continued, and Lucretia was able to continue her active participation while she washed the dishes and Susan dried them.

For married women, the integration of public and private spheres permitted them to fulfil their family obligations in full partnership with their husbands, raising children in an environment that taught them the equality of the sexes by observation. According to Lucretia Mott, "In the true married relationship, the independence of husband and wife are equal, their dependence mutual, and their obligations reciprocal." The Quaker marriage was very much a partnership as a result of the belief that "the inward light formed the bond of unity between a man and his wife who loved each other because they first loved God."

The theology of the Society of Friends created an environment of mutual respect and support from which women were encouraged to strive for justice and equality in the larger world. Just as recognition of the presence of the inner light enabled marriages to become a creative partnership instead of an oppressive institution, it enabled the Quakers to hope for and work towards the establishment of the ‘new creation,’ a better world for everyone. Sufis know this inner light as the Spirit of Guidance, and it was the mission of Hazrat Inayat Khan to show us the wonders that can be accomplished if we are only willing to listen to and obey that spirit. Differences will be resolved — not only between man and woman, but between Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim. As we live the words of Salat and recognize that the divine light "is in all forms, [its] love in all beings; in a loving mother, in a kind father, in an innocent child, in a helpful friend, in an inspiring teacher..." all of humanity will be drawn together in bonds of unity, all of us loving each other because we first love God.


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