Motherhood in Sufism has a distinct set-up that varies greatly from what I like to call “TV-branded popular Islam.” In the Naqshbandi path, thriving in Damascus and the path I personally follow, motherhood overrides fatherhood; it has greater jurisdiction over siblings, futures and marriage. A mother’s role in Arab societies is usually boiled down to being the secretary of the general manager (i.e. the husband), but in Sufi tradition, she is “the” captain of the ship.
As the world assigns two days in March to observe the feminine icon (Mother’s Day and Women’s Day), stories of interesting mothers flood to mind. Before going into that, one cannot help but note that matriarchal societies are usually remembered as societies that exist outside the Arab context. Feminine personalities who have helped shape Islamic tradition have been removed out of the historical narrative by the patriarchal “Wahhabi” stream, which inarguably positioned women as children makers with voices, bodies, hair, and existence the Devil likes to use to tempt men.
This said, women who used to sit with Prophet Mohammad – in the same mosque and room with men – to learn from him at the dawn of Islam, have been eclipsed in school text books, TV religious programs, and everything that communicates the current image of Islam.
In Sufism, however, the historical narrative of what women have done and can do is completely different. Regarded as an underground movement in the Gulf in particular, Sufism is a healthy, over-ground activity that takes place in Syria. Here, women are treated differently. I don’t have textbooks to support this argument, but I have my mother’s family to testify for it. Part of a long lineage of Sufi mentors, my grandfather is an all-Syrian Sheikh whose mother, grandmother and great-grandmother happen to be strong, independent women who have dared to frequent the mosque to debate in-depth Islamic topics with “peer” scholars and Sheikhs, during times (such as the Ottoman rule) when every woman in Syria had worn three folds of black veils to conceal their faces.
His wife, my grandmother, may she rest in peace, was a self-taught poet, writer and thinker. Everyone in the family used to come to her for council, may she rest in peace. She was not a terrifying, terrorizing woman, as some might think, seeing how pivotal her opinion was in shaping the destinies of her children. On the contrary, she was a softspoken, shy, and quiet woman dedicating most of her time to reflection and “Zikr” (daily Sufi ritual involving the silent remembrance of God’s names).
As it turns out, my grandmother isn’t the only one. I have very recently learnt that Sufi women in the Naqshbandi path have matters related to marriage placed entirely in their hands. From the Naqshbandi perspective, final approval of a potential husband is a matter that two people in the world have the right to consider: the mother and her bride-to-be daughter. If the mother likes the groom, and her daughter is helplessly in love with him, then the wedding is greenlighted regardless of the father’s opinion, or the tribe’s. The father, naturally, has to accept the decision his wife and daughter make, and if he doesn’t, they can go for it anyway.
I asked my Sufi Sheikh the other day, “what if the father isn’t Sufi and is against the marriage?” He answered, “If the girl’s heart wants the man, and if her mother’s heart feels right about it, the marriage takes place regardless of the father, because at the end of the day, the girl will be getting married, not her father.” When I looked puzzled, he explained, “a mother’s heart can tell if it’s a good match. She knows her daughter better than anyone, and she can always rely on her heart to get her the right answers.”
I cannot help but wonder why Arab women would import Western-made theories on feminism when they had this to bank on!