PROFILES- Fatima of Nishapur
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Fatima al-Nisaburiya (d. 849 A.D.) was originally from Khurasan (part of today’s Iran) and the daughter of the prince of Balkh City. She abandoned her life of luxury and willingly chose the Sufi ‘path’. She offered herself in marriage to a well known Sufi of the time, Ahmad ibn Khudruya, who accepted her offer after she had sent to him envoys twice asking him to propose. (When Ahmad did not respond the first time, she sent a message chiding him: “I thought you were manlier than this.”) Fatima lived all her life with Ahmad, but is ostly mentioned in the histories and hagiographies in a separate entry, independent of the life history of her husband.
Fatima was known for her meetings with the eminent Sufi masters of her time, such as Dhu al- Nun al-Misri and Abu Yazid Bistami, in circles of study and discussions on matters of worship and Sufi knowledge. Dhu al-Nun called her a true “saint/mystic” and declared that she is his “teacher.” In the same manner Bistami praised her as a true worthy woman (“I have known in my whole life only one true woman: Fatima”), who surprised him by already knowing and experiencing all the spiritual ‘stations’ of the mystical path before ever telling her about them.
Nevertheless, it is said that Dhu al-Nun once refused a gift sent by her because he could not accept a gift given by a woman. In reply, she was able to put him to shame, instructing him on the basics of Sufi conduct: “ The true Sufi is the one who does not look at the secondary cause but at the Eternal Giver.” With Bistami she used to converse on matters of the Sufi path, until a day came when he observed that she had ‘henna’ on her hands and asked her about it. She replied that she had been meeting with him in the manner of an encounter of two souls in search of the Divine, but now that he was beginning to perceive her as a female object and pay attention to her material appearance, then this defeats the purpose of their seminar and hence stopped seeing him. The world had intervened and free spiritual conversation was no longer possible.
As for her husband, Ahmad ibn Khudruya, we know that she guided him in religious and practical matters, maintaining her independence and self-confidence throughout. When he expressed some jealousy because of her contacts with these contemporary Sufi masters such as Bistami, she clarified to him a certain distinction: “You are intimate with my natural self. Abu Yazid is intimate with my spiritual way. You rouse my passion, but he brings me to God. The proof of this is that her can dispense with my company, whereas you need me”.
The hagiographical portrait of Fatima al- Nisaburiya shows her to be strong-willed, independent, self-confident, and very much involved in the cultural life of Sufi elites at the time. Historical narration about her seems to be impressed by these qualities and mystical capabilities, yet a certain tension is revealed through the discrepancy between the two perspectives of the men surrounding her versus her own. Being a woman mystic in a maledefined cultural and social context, she had to contend with its construction of gender. Whereas she was constantly trying to transcend a human/gendered identity and reach out for a spiritual context outside the limited ‘worldly’ culture of women and men, others continued to be governed in their perception and dealings by a strictly socially and culturally gendered view. It is a view that Fatima tried to make Ahmad and Bistami renounce in favour of a higher level of interaction between men and women, which is governed by egalitarianism and professionalism rather than a sharp awareness of a gender gap. Moreover, Fatima al-Nisaburiya provides a good paradigm for the study of the ‘married’ Sufi woman as a public figure, juxtaposed to the abstaining/single and self-exiled saintly woman or type which Rabi’a al-Adawiya, with all the legendary trappings, provides.