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Sufism and American Women

Marcia Hermansen

Loyola University

    Sufism (Arabic: tasawwuf) is Islamic mysticism, the quest for a direct experience of the divine or the ultimate on the part of spiritually inclined Muslims. Sufis trace the origin of their interpretation of Islam back to the Qur'an and the practice (sunna) of the Prophet and his spiritual exercises and experiences. Historically, over the centuries Sufism went from being an individual inclination to ascetic practices and personal devotions to becoming a network of broad social institutions in most parts of the expanding Islamic world. Organized Sufi Orders (tariqas) developed after the 14th century claiming initiatory linkages and the transmission of specific litanies and practices from to great Sufi masters of the past. Sufism is an interpretation and practice rather than a separate sect within Islam and there are both Sunni and Shi'i Sufis. 1
    In the pre-modern period Sufi networking was an important social element and Sufis are credited with carrying Islam to South Asia and South East Asia, cultures whose pre-Islamic traditions had an affinity for doctrines that the world was composed of signs of God and that the individual ego could be absorbed (fana) in the divine consciousness. In addition, the tombs of Sufis became pilgrimage sites and a means of sanctifying the local soil, along the lines of the role of Christian saints in the expansion of Catholicism to Europe. 2
    In the modern period Sufism as an interpretation and practice of Islam has been subjected to critique and even persecution on the part of movements such as the Wahhabis of Arabia and various Islamist groups. A major focus of this critique is that local cultural adaptations of certain Sufi orders such as incorporating music into worship constitute heretical innovation (bid'a). In addition, Sufis were accused of excessive otherworldliness that made Muslim populations subject to colonial domination, despite the fact that Sufi warriors such as the Libyan al-Sanusi order were at the forefront of liberation struggles. Modernity has also shifted many Muslims to an understanding of scriptural authority akin to Protestantism, wherein Sufi concepts of spiritual hierarchy and reverence for the unseen are marginalized as being unscientific and superstitious. At the same time, elements of Sufism that facilitate personal spiritual development have appealed, both in the West and in urban centers of the contemporary Muslim world, to individuals seeking this element of religious experience.
    In the United States Sufi Orders range from being universalist or New Age movements whose membership is largely Euro-American to transplanted communities constituted by recent Muslim immigrants. The majority of American Sufi Orders are what I term "hybrids" of traditional Islamic and modern Western attitudes, practices, and individuals. 4
    It is said that Sufism was first brought to the United States in 1912 by the Indian teacher, Hazrat Inayat Khan. His teachings evolved into a pluralist interpretation that a unity underlies all prophetic revelations inspired by the same spirit of guidance. After Khan's untimely death in 1926 his movement was revived by his son, Pir Vilayat Khan (d. 2004), in the 1970s and joined for a time by disciples of an American born Sufi, Murshid Samuel Lewis (d. 1971). Eventually Lewis' disciples broke off to form their own movement, the Sufi Islamia Ruhaniat Society, now an international movement including practitioners of the "Dances of Universal Peace" developed by Lewis. In fact "Sufi dancing" due to its exposure through broad public healing and dance communities is one aspect of Sufism known to the broader American public. Such practices are quite rare in Muslim cultures, the most notable example being the sober turning ritual of the Turkish Mevlevi Order.
    In classical Sufi practice and traditional Muslim cultures, Sufism may be viewed as giving more scope for female participation since its rituals, such a shrine visitation take place outside of mosques, in many cases. Examples of notable female Sufis such as Rabi'a of Basra (ca. 801), are celebrated in the classical literature. 6
    A recent statement issued by the Order states, "Spiritual practices and service are fully integrated and initial attempts have been made to update the language of the teaching to include the feminine. Several of the women teachers in the Order have made rich contributions by developing practices that facilitate an awareness of, and a deeper identification with, the feminine aspect of the divine."1 7
    To the degree that Islamic shari'a-based rituals are incorporated by hybrid or Islamic Sufi Orders, gender distinctions may become visibly operative their functioning in America. In the more strictly Islamic Sufi movements such as the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Order led in the United States by Shaykh Hisham Kabbani women participate in the gender segregated rituals but are not accorded formal leadership roles. Female members of the leaders' families are viewed as the role models for women disciples. 8
    In the case of many American Sufi women, gender segregation and other restrictions on female participation are likely to provoke some discomfort. It is noteworthy that when Western women visit Sufi teachers in the Muslim world they are often accorded privileges of the shaykh's company and occupying male spaces denied to local females. The symbolic masculinization of Sufi women in American Orders may include adopting symbols of affiliation and authority that had been traditionally unique to men such as wearing special caps or robes. 9
    American Sufi movements of Turkish origin, the Helveti-Jerrahis and Mevlevis, are particularly interesting in terms of the extent of female participation and leadership. The Helveti-Jerrahi Order was brought to America by Shaykh Muzaffer Ozak (d. 1993) of Istanbul who first came to the United States in 1980. Branches of this tariqa developed in New York under the leadership of Tosun Bayrak and Shaykh Nur (Lex Hixon) and in the San Francisco Bay Area under Ragip (Robert) Frager. Ultimately one branch of the American Jerrahis, known as the Ashkijerrahis, drawn mainly from Lex Hixon's followers, evolved separately, and they currently have a female teacher, Shaykha Fariha Fatima al-Jerrahi. Shaykha Fariha notes that she was made a shaykha by Muzaffer Ozak in 1985 and is the first female leader in the Jerrahi order in over 300 years. 10
    In the case of the Turkish based Mevlevi Order (whirling dervishes), American initiates may learn the traditional practice of "turning" and among these disciples are American women who are set on breaking the barrier to female participation in the dhikr. Traditional shaykhs from Turkey may be pleased that Americans are becoming dervishes but unsettled to be asked to give permission for females to whirl, at least publicly. 11
     In another branch of the American Mevlevi movement, Camille Helminski joins her husband, Kabir, in writing and teaching activities including a book on Sufi women.  12
    Among the responses to the challenge raised by converted American women is activism and justice. In the same way that third wave or cultural feminists try to avoid the past mistakes of white middle class feminists in attempting to impose their agenda on women of color; female participants in Western Sufi movements may feel the need to negotiate their understandings of gender roles so as to reflect both traditional authenticity and a contemporary sense of gender justice. 13
    An edited volume on Muslim women's activism in America,2 includes articles by two women activist associated with Sufi movements. 14
    Rabia Terri Harris who is involved in peace and justice movements and lectures on progressive Islam and Gwendolyn Zohara Simmons who is a member of the Sheikh Muhammad Raheem Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Mosque and Fellowship in Philadelphia. Guru Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (1986) a Sufi teacher from Sri Lanka, settled in Philadelphia in 1972, and attracted many American followers. In her writings Simmons, an African-American, directly confronts the oppression of women in some Muslim contexts, including among some American Muslim communities, in the light of her personal experiences during the American Civil Rights movement. 15
    Several Shi'a Sufi orders are present in the United States. One of the leaders is a woman, Dr. Nahid Angha, daughter of the Sufi teacher Shah Maghsoud (d. 1980), whose shrine is located in Novato, California. In her movement, the International Association of Sufism, a gender-equitable approach is stressed. 16
    The son of Shah Maghsoud, Saleheddin Ali Nader Angha, heads a separate organization known as the MTO (Maktab Tarighat Oveyssi) or the Shahmaghsoudi School of Islamic Sufism with over thirty-nine centers in North America. The membership draws on both the Persian émigré and American convert Muslim communities. Women have a high degree of leadership within the movement and run a number of the local centers, giving lessons and teaching Sufi practices. Rituals (the dhikr) of the MTO are performed with males and females seated separately but in the same space as one another. Female members of this movement have published works related to Sufism including Dr. Lynn Wilcox, a California psychologist, Linda O'Riordan, Barbara Larsen, Soraya Behbehani, Farnaz Khoromi, Melvina Noel, and Avideh Shashaani. 17
     Further examples of American Sufi women include Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar a writer in the fields of Sufi thought and psychology who edits and translates classical Sufi and Islamic sources including a book on women in the hadith collections. 18
     Gray (Aisha) Henry, an American woman who was initiated into the Shadhili Sufi Order, makes available scholarly translations of works from Islamic spirituality for both the serious seeker and the academic classroom through two publishing houses that she founded, Islamic Texts Society and Fons Vitae.  19
     In the African American Muslim community Sufism has not played as large a role. Some African American scholars have suggested that spiritually is integrated in their practices to an extent that there is no need to pursue Sufism as a separate form of Islam. African American Muslims usually join shari'a oriented movements such as the Bawa Muhaiyadeen Foundation and the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Order. In African-based Sufi movements such as the Tijaniyya, the Burhaniyya, and the Mouridiyya in the Unites States the leadership is largely drawn from African immigrants, and therefore women's leadership roles have not been prominent.   20


Biographical Note: Marcia Hermansen is Professor of Theology at Loyola University in Chicago.


Gisela Webb, Windows of Faith: Muslim Women Scholar Activists in North America, Syracuse, NY, 2000.

Shekina Reinhertz, Women Called to the Path of Rumi: The way of the Whirling Dervish Prescott, Ariz: Hohm Press, 2001.

Jamal Malik and John Hinnells, Sufism in the West, New York: Routledge , 2006.

David Westerlund (ed) Sufism in Europe and North America, London–New York: Routledge Curzon, 2004.

M. Hermansen, In the garden of American Sufi movements: hybrids and perennials," in New trends and developments in the world of Islam, P. Clarke (ed.), London, 1997 pp. 155-178.

"Sufism's Many Paths" website

2 Windows of Faith.



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