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Delhi’s female Sufi saint

Blog 18, June 9, 2020

When we think of great Sufi saints, we almost invariably think of men – Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, Baba Farid, Nizamuddin Auliya, Rumi – and many more, but in fact, throughout the Muslim world, over the ages, there have been many female Sufi saints.

Not all of them had formal training, some were highly spiritual women who came to be revered as saints. There’s a lovely story of a poor woman from North Africa, Lalla Mimunah, who asked the captain of a boat to teach her the ritual prayer. But she forgot what he had told her, so she ran over the water after his boat praying all the time “Mimunah knows God, and God knows Mimunah. Now she is revered as a saint in north-west Africa.

Pakistan
Many female Sufi saints were found in India and Pakistan, especially in Sind and Punjab. Many stories are told about them and shrines were erected to them, for example the Bibi Pak Daman (meaning ‘chaste lady’) shrine in Lahore. This shrine, visited by Sunnis, Shias and Hindus, houses the graves of six pious women, believed to belong to the family of Hazrat Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, who came to Pakistan after the disastrous battle of Karbala.

Kashmir
In Kashmir there was the renowned female mystic Lal Ded, 1320–1392. She lived at the time when mystic Shaivism was being influenced by Sufi saints from Iran and Iraq. This was a period of exhilarating intellectual and spiritual exploration. Lal Ded was born into a Hindu family. She married, but left home at 24 to take Sanyasa (renunciation). Although Shaivite, she studied Sufism and interacted with prominent Sufis of the day. Lal Ded helped people to understand that the essence of spirituality was the same in both philosophies and this is reflected in her mystic poetry or Vakhs.

Delhi – Bibi Fatima Sam
But what about Delhi? Did this city, home to many famous Sufis down the years, ever have a female saint. Well – the answer is – “Yes – Bibi Fatima Sam”.

One day with my friend Gaby, we ventured out to find Bibi Fatima Sam’s dargah in central Delhi’s Kaka Nagar. We entered the colony and were going in circles trying to find her shrine. In clear Hindi I asked two men on the road, who seemed to be residents, as to the location of Dargah of Bibi Fatima. Without thinking, the guy asked me for the quarter number. Gaby went into fits of laughter, then the guy realized his mistake and pointed us in the right direction. Does a saint need a quarter number?

This dargah is beautifully tranquil and serene. It used to consist of just a roof built over the grave, now it has a large hall with marble flooring built by a businessman from Daryaganj. Bibi Fatima lived in Delhi in the 13th century and was believed to be the adopted sister of Baba Farid, whose dargah is in present-day Pakistan.

Bibi Fatima belonged to Sam, a place on the Iraq-Iran border but came to India in response to an inner urge. She eventually settled in Delhi, where she later died. Her faith was based on the belief of the final meeting with the Great Beloved. She never married, but passed her life in the love of Allah through meditation and mystic experience. To those who came to her, she was a guide, philosopher, and friend, and had both men and women as her disciples.

The great Sufi saint, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, is said to have often visited Bibi Fatima’s tomb to pray and meditate. He remembered her saying “The saints will cast away both worldly and religious blessings to give a piece of bread or a drink of water to someone in need … this state is something one cannot attain by one hundred thousand fasts and prayers.”

Sadia Dehlvi in her book The Sufi Courtyard, Dargahs of Delhi, writes about Bibi Faitima’s death. “Weakened after forty days of continuous fasting, her soul left her body during a ritual prayer while her forehead touched the ground in prostration. She is called the Rabia of Delhi, after Rabia of Basra, the famous Iraqi women mystic of the eight century”.

Bibi Fatima’s ‘Urs’ is held every year on her death anniversary in February (as she died in that month in AD 1246).

Mai Sahiba
As an end note, let’s just mention the shrine of Nizamuddin’s mother, Mai Sahiba, who was a pious woman, but not strictly a saint. This stunning dargah is located in Adchini, near Mehrauli, and is a haven of peace and tranquillity. After Mai Sahiba was widowed at an early age, she brought her son to Udhchini for his education. There were days when the family had nothing to eat. On the days when they were starving, Mai Sahiba would tell him that they were God’s guests. Nizamuddin Auliya was overwhelmed by the spiritual nourishment which was more satisfying than food. “When will we be Allah’s guests again?” he would often ask his mother. 

Heritage walks with Surekha Narain. Contact details, +919811330098, surekha@delhimetrowalks.com and visit www.delhimetrowalks.com

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