Caravanserai Magazine Archive

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


1989 Volume 3. Petra-Beate Schildbach. "The Role of Women in Sufism"

Caravanserai is grateful to Petra-Beate for arranging the translation of her original German text, which has been slightly condensed for publication.

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends,
It is a great pleasure for me to have the opportunity to speak to you; the more so as the subject is, I would almost say, exciting: the role of women in Sufism.

On the one hand, it is as up to date as never before to talk about the status and the role of women. How much is said about this subject nowadays — in different fields and from most different directions — by more or less competent persons!

On the other hand, this subject gives me again the opportunity to speak to you about Sufism, this oldest teaching of wisdom of all, and yet a teaching which is especially the message of our time. Therefore Sufism offers the chance to bring into focus the role played by women when spreading the Sufi Message. And this is what I should like to illustrate in the following.

When preparing this speech I realized that if it is to deal with the role of women, then the role of men cannot be simply disregarded. If men and women should not be regarded in the metaphysical sense anyhow as one, inseparably one, then both belong together so closely that we cannot speak of the one without mentioning the other.

Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, to whom I shall refer later on in more detail, said, "There is a pair of opposites in all things; in each thing there exists the spirit of the opposite."

Here we have one of the many contradictions which belong to the essence of Sufism. Sufism, the teaching of the Oneness in the totality, speaks of opposites. But Sufism is not a teaching which is carefully adjusted and made handy or palatable; it is rather a process, a path, which in itself, step by step, means contradiction and accepts contradiction. Inayat Khan almost tenderly called this the music of the Sufi Message. When he was asked whether Sufism differs from other teachings of wisdom, philosophies, religions, ideologies and creeds, he smiled and answered, "The difference is that it casts away all differences."

By looking more closely at the lives of eight outstanding personalities — all women, as you can imagine — I should like to illustrate some aspects of Sufism for which these women have been living examples.

Let us go back in the history of humanity. Many women have conveyed the Sufi Message; many were known to the world; far more remained unknown. But let us commemorate one woman representative for many others, who was an ardent admirer of God, a mystic, an ascetic, and yet completely human, human almost in its perfection, almost reaching the divine.


Rabia, who lived in the 8th century in Basra, came from a very poor family. She was the fourth daughter of a day-labourer. Presumably, the father was anything but happy to have yet another daughter, a new burden, and she did not even receive a name of her own. Instead, she was simply called Rabia, which means the fourth, the fourth child.

She lost her parents while still a small child, and then was seized by a wicked man, who sold her into slavery. Later, she was released and became a preacher of Sufism, a saint. Her grave is located near Jerusalem.

Farid-ud-Din Attar — who was the author of a book of stories of Sufi saints and mystics and to whom we also owe The Conference of the Birds — tells how one night Rabia, still in slavery, prayed in her room: "O God, Thou knowest that the desire of my heart is in conformity with Thy command and that the light of my eye is in serving Thy court. If the affair lay with me, I would not rest one hour from serving Thee; but Thou Thyself hast set me under the hand of a creature."

So she prayed. And her slave-owner who had watched her through a window saw a light appearing above her head. A light, that filled the whole room. Seeing this, he was frightened and the following day he set her free. From this time on, Rabia spent day and night serving God.

Once, when Rabia had fasted for seven days and not slept for seven nights, she was very hungry. In the evening, a visitor brought her food. Rabia accepted the dish, put it on the floor and went to fetch a candle, but when she returned, the cat had overturned the dish. Then Rabia went to get some water to break her fast. By the time she came back, the candle had gone out. So she wanted to drink the water in the dark, but the jug slipped from her hands and was broken.

Rabia sighed deeply and said, "O God, what is this Thou art doing with Thy helpless servant?" Then she heard a voice: "O Rabia, if you wish, I can give you all goods of the world. But then I would take away from your heart the longing for Me; for both cannot live together in one heart."

When she was asked, "Do you love God?" she answered, "Yes," and when she was asked, "Do you hate the devil?" her reply was, "No." "Why not?" She said, "Because the love for God leaves no room in my heart for any hatred against the devil."

So much in short about Rabia, this Sufi mystic who was intoxicated with God.

Let us now jump to the beginning of this century, to Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, who came from an Indian princely dynasty, and who brought the teaching of Sufism to the Western world. What we owe him, perhaps only later generations will be able to understand fully. Inayat Khan himself emphasized his deep gratitude towards the women who helped him to spread the Sufi Message.

The Begum

I would like to start with his wife, Ora Ray Baker, called Begum. She was the niece of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. Against the strongest resistance of her guardian, and after overcoming various other difficulties, with a heart full of love, she followed Inayat Khan from the United States to England, where they married.

Maybe the saying of Inayat Khan — "Through the loving heart of woman manifests Thy Divine grace," — originates from that time.

According to the basic conviction of the Sufis every person has to play his destined role in the fulfillment of God's plan with His creation. The Begum played her role — as the wife of a dervish and mother of four children — with an admirable courage.

In his autobiography Inayat Khan summarized the life of his wife as follows: "In spite of the vast difference of race and nationality and custom, she proved to be a friend through joy and sorrow, proving the idea, which I always believed, that outer differences do not matter when the spirit is in attunement. The tests that my life was destined to go through were not of a usual character, and were not a small trial for her. A life such as mine, which was wholly devoted to the Cause, and which was more and more involved in the ever growing activities of the Sufi Movement, naturally kept me back from that thought and attention which was due to my home and family. Most of the time of my life I was obliged to spend out of home, and when at home, I have always been full of activities; and it naturally fell upon her always to welcome guests with a smile under all circumstances. If I had not been helped by her, my life, laden with a heavy responsibility, would have never enabled me to devote myself entirely to the Order as I have. It is by the continual sacrifice that she has shown her devotion to the Cause."

About the role of women in general Inayat Khan wrote in his book Rasa Shastra, "Each sex is made of the element of the opposite sex; the female born of the seed of the male, and the male moulded in the womb of the female."

And from this follows, "The sexes are dependent upon each other; but of the two, the male is more dependent upon the female than she is upon him. Her position in the scheme of nature is a more responsible one; and the greater the responsibility of a being, the greater is the dependence of the others upon that being. An infant is entirely dependent on the mother from the time that the seed is conceived, to the moment of its breathing the air of the earth.

"The mother can also quiet the child in the first days of its life, because the child is a part of the mother, and therefore the rhythm of the mother's spirit is akin to the rhythm of the child's spirit. The soul that has come from above is received and is reared and taken care of by the mother; and therefore the mother is its best friend. If there is anything that the father can do, it is to help the mother or the guardian to educate the child."

In this connection, the question arises: Principally speaking, should the father or the mother educate the child? Inayat Khan's answer is, "A man's life demands all his attention in his work; the mother is born with the sense of duty towards her child, and therefore the mother has the first right to educate it."

The role of the mother as educator has a wonderful and most important effect: by educating her child, at the same time she educates herself. "The calmness, the quietness, the tenderness, the gentleness, everything the mother cultivates in her nature at that particular time when the infant is nursed, the infant will receive as a lesson in its cradle."

Perhaps I should add a few words — please do not feel alarmed, but it is relevant to our subject — about prostitution from the Sufi point of view. In Inayat Khan's book, Rasa Shastra, we find the following, "East and West, women show the same unrelenting attitude of sternness towards the prostitute; and one reason is that in all countries women are the main upholders of religion, and no great religion has ever permitted prostitution. But the chief reason for this sternness is undoubtedly the truth, unconsciously known to everyone, that although the human being who has never had an ideal is to be pitied, the woman who had had an ideal and has allowed the circumstances of life to break it, has herself thrown away her soul. And it is hard for any woman to tolerate the thought that another woman should be born without an ideal of womanhood."

It is woman's task to keep high the ideal of divinity. It is also for this reason that one always applies a higher standard to what a woman thinks, says and does. Every woman is finally the trustee of all mysticism, as female, as mother, as priest, as prophet, as deliverer of the message, also of the message of Love, Harmony and Beauty.

And let me quote just one word by Inayat Khan to the subject of feminism. "Woman, whom destiny has made to be man's superior, by trying to become his equal, falls beneath his estimation."

Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan

The third woman I should like to talk to you about now, is the oldest daughter of Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, Noor-un-Nisa, whose name means Light of all Women. Her life seems to me a symbol for a Sufi saint of our time. Noor-un-Nisa was born in Moscow, on January 2, 1914, according to the western calendar. Her first public appearance took place when, on their way back from Moscow to Leningrad, the young parents together with Noor-un-Nisa were surrounded by an angry crowd. "Inayat Khan took the baby from his wife's arms, holding her out for them to see. Every eye travelled from the dark-skinned, priestly figure in the golden robe to the white baby in his arms. ... There was a scraping sound ... and the little party left."

Certainly an important preparation for her specific role in life was the time when Inayat Khan returned to India, and a short time later left this earth. Noor-un-Nisa was then 14 years old. On her shoulders lay the whole responsibility for the family: for her own mother, who, bowed down with grief after the passing away of her beloved husband, lived a totally retired life; and for the two younger brothers and the younger sister. She accomplished this task quite naturally, without complaining. At the same time she was an exceptionally gifted artist. Later she studied at the Musical College in Paris, was a composer and a writer of children's books. She retold the truly heartrending Jataka tales, all dealing with the ideal of the Bodhisattva, that is, one who gives his life for others.

When World War II broke out, Noor-un-Nisa went to England with her family, and here begins the final, essential part of her short life. She volunteered as a radio operator between occupied France and England, and for five months worked behind enemy lines to keep the two countries in contact.

Almost inevitably, she was betrayed and the Gestapo arrested her. To the bitter end, though, she showed unimaginable strength of mind. When a German officer offered to ease the circumstances of her imprisonment on condition that she promise not to try to escape, she refused. Even the least compromise with the enemy was unthinkable to her. After a year's captivity in various prisons she was transferred to the concentration camp in Dachau. In this concentration camp only men were detained, so on her arrival in the evening she was tied to the outer fence of the camp and the following morning she was beaten half to death and then burned.

A brief outline of her, to me, deeply moving life. The consistency with which she followed the path destined for her should make us thoughtful, could challenge us.

So far we have talked about the role of the woman as mystic — of Rabia; as wife mother and educator — of the Begum; and then as martyr, the self-sacrificing woman — of Noor-un-Nisa. Let us now turn to the role of the woman as priest, as instrument for the spreading of the Sufi Message.

Surely it is not in the least surprising that in the days of Inayat Khan women held the spiritual highest ranks in the Sufi Movement. Inayat Khan called them the foundation upon which the building of the message could be erected. In their lives they embodied something which is so rare in the west: the spirit of true discipleship, the total, unselfish devotion to the great cause.
I should like to talk to you in short about four women of the so-called first hour of the Sufi Movement.

Rabia Martin

Ada Martin — later she received the Sufi name Rabia — met Inayat Khan in the United States in 1911 and became his first mureed (disciple) in the West. Inayat Khan wrote about this occurrence: "I saw among the audience a soul who was drinking in all I said, as the Hamsa, the bird of Hindu mythology, who takes the extract from the milk, leaving the water. So this soul listened to my lecture on music and grasped the philosophical points which appealed to her most.... I saw that there was some light kindled in that particular soul.... I knew that she received the call. I had a vision that night, that the whole room became filled with light, no trace of darkness was to be found. I certainly thought that there was some important thing that was to be done next day, which I found was the initiation of Mrs. Ada Martin, the first mureed on my arrival to the West. Since her initiation she has entirely devoted her life to spiritual contemplation and the service of humanity."

After Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan left the United States for Europe, she took the main burden on her shoulders, to spread the Sufi Message in America. The fact, that today we find flourishing centres there, we owe to her pioneer work.

Sherifa Goodenough

Miss Sherifa Goodenough became the most valuable assistant to Inayat Khan during his first years in England. She protected him from the hard and soft blows coming from both his friends and foes; she shared his daily bread with him and proved to be a true friend in need.

She was the daughter of a British general and the Countess Kinsky. Her mundane way of living came to a sudden end when she met Inayat Khan during the First World War. From that moment she concentrated all her energy on the study of the spiritual path, and eventually Inayat Khan made her the Silsiliah Sufiya of the Sufi Order.

As one of Inayat Khan's four secretaries, she took down his lectures and teachings, collected them and saved them from any misuse for the following generations. Her personality, her meekness, her patience, her kindness, at times more than human, were unusual. She gave lectures and lessons herself, travelled a lot, wrote books, edited monthly publications and, above all, she won many new friends and mureeds for the Sufi Movement.

Sophia Saintsbury-Green

Let us now focus our attention on the third outstanding woman, Miss Sophia Saintsbury-Green, also from England, whose work for the Sufi Movement in the West during the first years of its existence was of the greatest importance.

She came from an old British family. When she was still young she was already interested in philosophy. She found the fulfilment of her life when she met Inayat Khan. In London in 1921, Inayat Khan introduced the Universal Worship, one of the five activities of the Sufi Movement. This service, which expressed the hope and longing of all the prophets, had come to him as divine inspiration. Inayat Khan ordained Sophia Green as first Cheraga, meaning lamp or light. It was one of her main tasks to make known this Universal Worship, the Church of All and of All Churches (as was the original term), first in England, and later in the other countries in which the Sufi Message was passed on.

Fazal Mai Egeling

Next, let me talk to you about a woman called by Inayat Khan 'holy soul,' Fazal Mai Egeling.

"After 12 years of wandering and homeless life in the West," Inayat Khan wrote in his autobiography, "with a large family to look after, in addition to having my laudable object to carry out, I was provided at last with four walls at Suresnes, thanks to the kind sympathy of my Dutch mureed, Mevrouw Egeling. ...This saintly soul came into my life as a blessing from above, whom I called Fazal Mai, which means Grace of God, and after her name the house was named. Her hand, as the hand of Providence, became my backbone, which comforted me, and raised my head upwards in thanksgiving, the head which so long was hanging in humiliation, owing to the utter lack of means."

Inayat Khan asked Miss Egeling to live with his family in Fazal Manzil, which she did; for many, many years she celebrated the Universal Worship there and, above all, she intensified the fourth activity of the Sufi Movement, the Spiritual Healing.

To this day, this blessed home Fazal Manzil has been one of the main meeting places in the world for all seeking souls. In the Oriental Room, in which Inayat Khan meditated so often, initiated many mureeds and in his prayers raised the world, the same spiritual atmosphere and the transforming vibration of Inayat Khan are still as alive as in his days. Also, in the garden of Fazal Manzil one can still feel that Inayat Khan sat here with his mureeds, teaching them the mysteries of the spiritual path with so much love and patience.

Helen Wasner

At the end, very briefly, I should like to remember a woman who, very quietly, did so much for the Sufi Message and the Sufis, especially in Berlin: Helen Wasner. Initiated as a mureed by Inayat Khan, she first worked in Munich and later in Berlin. During the darkest time in Germany, when the Sufi-Bewegung because of its universality and in consequence its standing up for the Hebrew religion, was officially forbidden, she held aloft the light of truth and conveyed the idea of love, harmony and beauty. Without her commitment, today's existence of and today's work for the Sufi-Bewegung in Berlin would not have been possible.

To sum up, I think one can say that these women, like so many others, stood firm at the posts assigned to them by divine providence and played their role, either to spread the Sufi Message or to work at many other places mentioned, courageously and with deep devotion.
Let me quote Inayat Khan a last time. "However much qualified men proved to be in the work, the valuable service that women have rendered to the Cause has been incomparably greater. The way how some of them have worked unceasingly with sincere devotion and firm faith, has been a marvel to me. If it was not for some women as my collaborators in the Cause, the Sufi Movement would never have been formed."


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