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Happy New Year and welcome to part 2 of our Urs theme reflections. Fatimah Ashrif contemplates the power of Mary and the Divine.
In recent years I have felt a continual pull toward Mary which I know I may never fully understand. In the days in which I have been working on this piece, I have experienced many small synchronicities. Earlier in December (having spent a few hours reading about Mary), I was called to my aunt’s house for a prayer gathering where (to my surprise) we were all asked to read the chapter named after Mary in the Quran. It is common for Muslims to read this chapter almost as a prayer or blessing for women who are pregnant or struggling to become pregnant. Later in that same day over whatsapp (a social media app) I received a picture from another aunt who was at the time in the Holy Land. It was a picture of the inside of what is thought to be Mary’s home. What seemed to be a beautiful light-filled space… The connections to Mary are, however, always coming thick and fast. Whether I am walking down a street and see a Church named after her, or whether I see an image of a mother and child… Mary is everywhere.
In my heart, Mary is inextricably connected with Muhammad, with his daughter Fatima, my spiritual teacher Shaikha Camille Adams Helminski, and the Divine (and thereby everything else!).
Both Mary and Muhammad are known in their respective traditions as the bearer of the word. This synchronicity between these two beautiful souls seems so important. In both Islamic and Christian traditions, Mary is a pure, honourable woman who is chosen by God to bear the word of the Divine. Islamic tradition relates that before Mary’s birth, her mother longed for a child though she was of advanced years. Her prayers were answered. Assuming she was carrying a boy, Mary’s mother consecrated her to the service of God. After she was weaned, she was taken to the temple, where she grew up and where she worshipped day and night until she began to menstruate.
The Quran speaks of Mary as someone who spent time in seclusion. Islamic tradition relates that this was to have solitude to pray, and it was during this period of seclusion and prayer that she received the ‘spirit’ and the ‘word’ from God, and conceived Jesus. For me (and others) this echoes very much the experience of Muhammad who held a similar practice of retreating to the cave called Hira in the mountains around Mecca for contemplation, and it is here, at the age of 40, he encountered the Angel Gabriel who commanded him:
Read in the name of your Sustainer, who has created — created man out of a germ-cell! Read — for thy Sustainer is the Most Beautiful One who has taught the use of the pen — taught [man] what he did not know!
He responds, ‘How can I read, when I cannot read?’ Just as Mary responds to the news from Gabriel when he tells her she will conceive a child with, How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me?
Both Mary and Muhammad it seems are pure and therefore receptive vessels, which the Divine imbues with word, spirit, self revelation.
From a spiritual perspective, the great saints and seekers tell us that the Divine cannot communicate with us unless we are empty (pure) of our self, and to assist with this emptying, one must absorb oneself in praise of the Beloved.
Whatever it is you wish to marry,
Go, absorb yourself in that beloved,
assume its shape and qualities.
If you wish for the light, prepare yourself
to receive it; if you wish to be far from God,
nourish your egoism and drive yourself away.
If you wish to find a way out of this ruined prison,
don’t turn your head away from the Beloved,
but bow in worship and draw near.
[Mathnawi I, 3605-07]
Both Mary and Muhammad are presented in their respective traditions as humble, honest, devoted, and reflective individuals. The Quran describes Mary as not only an example for all believers but above the women of all worlds!
For me it’s exciting to note how similar the language of the Quran is in describing what it is that both Muhammad and Mary receive from the Divine, and their encounters with Gabriel. This historically led some Muslim theologians to believe that Mary was a Prophet of Islam. However, though Mary is massively revered in Muslim tradition, this position was rejected by the majority of scholars on what seem like technical grounds (to me). Whatever one might believe in this respect, what is clear is that both Mary and Muhammad (like all beautiful saints and seekers before them) through their respective life journeys offer us a possible roadmap of spirituality that we might follow if we wish for a relationship and communion on some level with the Divine!
Fatima (the daughter of Muhammad) and Mary seem in my heart and prayers to merge as one. This seems consciously to have begun in my late teens, with my hearing that there was a sighting of the Virgin Mary in 1917 at a place called Fatima in Portugal. Popular Portuguese culture claims it is named after a Moorish princess who converted to Christianity after a Christian leader fell in love with her. The visions of Our Lady came over a number of months to three shepherd children in what was a difficult time for the region due to economic failure, recent entrance into war, disorder, and persecution of the Church. ‘In short Portugal in that hour experienced the darkest period of its history.’
Parallels are also drawn between the characters of Fatima and Mary in Islamic tradition itself. Fatima is also described as al batul, the virgin or devoted one because of her asceticism. Islamic tradition speaks of Mary as being present at the birth of Fatima and later appearing to Fatima to console her in the final days of her illness. Just as Mary’s role is so critical to the story of Jesus in the Christian tradition, so too is Fatima’s story a critical part of the Muslim tradition. Muhammad had a special love for Fatima and he spoke of her as one of the most exemplary women in history. For me the death of Fatima’s son, Hussain, as a sacrifice for Islam (particularly as expounded in Shi’i piety) resonates strongly with the Christian narrative of human salvation through Jesus Christ. Fatima and Mary seem connected in this sorrow as well as through other details of their lives.
The process of integrating all of this is a continual one but I am struck by the beauty of these women and it feels to me that there is some connection between them both beyond what is known to us. Perhaps it is that they both reflect the same qualities of the Divine. What’s clear though is that just as the children in Fatima needed the sighting of the virgin in 1917, the world today also, sorely needs the energy of Mary and Fatima and all our ‘grandmothers in spirit’ as my spiritual teacher, Shaikha Camille Helminski, refers to them.
With her long flowing ebony black hair, English rose complexion, and gentle smile, our teacher’s physical appearance matches that of Mary. But with Camille – who is also a descendent of Mary Dyer, a prominent figure of the Quaker tradition – the likeness doesn’t end there.
Camille’s gentleness, humility, quiet steely strength, and her sweet, Shems-ian love of God, bring the spirit of Mary to heart.
I recall witnessing Camille’s dignity and strength some years ago, when we were sat waiting to pray in the women’s balcony of the tiny, sweet mosque where Shems is buried in Konya, Turkey. It was the time of the dawn prayer, and there were a very small group of us on the balcony. Suddenly that tiny balcony was flooded with more women than it seemed structurally capable of bearing. They seemed to arrive from nowhere with pushing, shoving and jostling, challenging the space. A few of us left the balcony as a result to pray in a small side-room back on the ground floor. Camille gently held her ground, unfazed, undisturbed by the apparent mayhem. No doubt, she could see ‘God’s unity’ even in this. She completed her prayers and we all walked back to our hotel together. Shem’s mosque, as we lovingly call it, is very small. It doesn’t draw the crowds as Mevlana’s resting place does. Often one is able to pray at the ground floor, and even offer prayers in the ‘men’s section’ undisturbed. Camille’s actions in what may seem quite a small happening, showed me what patience, trust in God and connection look like on a moment by moment basis, and the strength and courage they inspire. Indeed, it reminds me that the core teaching that Camille and Shaikh Kabir Helminski have tried to communicate to us over the years I have been blessed to be their student has simply been this: nourish your connection to the Divine. Nothing more, and nothing else. A steadfast connection, such as that exemplified by dear Mary, and other sweet souls.
Camille’s teachings to us are filled with love and gratitude, and demonstrate her firm heart-connection with the Divine. When she speaks, her words are like those of Shems. She unravels the mysteries of the universe, creating connections and explaining the meaning of things. The theme of her words is always unity, remembering that we are each integral to the Whole.
All roads lead here.
There is much to learn from the historical figure of Mary. I feel certain also that within religious literature, and across tradition, the incredible reverence of Mary points also to a deep desire amongst humans to honour the Sacred Feminine, that aspect of God that must be feminine. I truly fell in love with the Quran the first time I heard its verses recited by Camille. Her voice created a connection at a heart level which I had never experienced before. Through her, I first heard the voice of the Divine Feminine.
Then there are also the female deities of various religious traditions such as the Hindu Goddess, Durga, or Inanna, the ancient Sumerian goddess of love, procreation, and of war! These also draw me to consider how the feminine was conceived by those ancient communities who first began worshiping these deities, and what this might gift to us. In a world which values the masculine above the feminine (in so many subtle and obvious ways) to the detriment of our humanity, these lines of enquiry feel very important.
Some Muslims have held that amongst the 99 Names or Qualities of God as articulated in the Quran, it is possible to identify those which are masculine and those which are feminine. This view holds that the qualities which are centred on gentleness, love and beauty are the feminine ones, and the qualities which are centred on majesty, justice, and awe are the masculine. It may seem clear that Mary reflects the feminine qualities in abundance, but if we look more closely perhaps we would also discover that she held some of the masculine qualities too. In the deity Innana, the masculine qualities seem clear but if we looked deep, perhaps we might also see some of the feminine. It feels that there is much still to discover of the Divine Feminine.
I have learned from Camille that seemingly opposing forces in reality really ‘need’ each other. Light needs dark, and the heavens need the earth, the male needs the female and vice versa to fulfil their purposes. In a conference call earlier in 2015 reflecting on the ‘feminine’, Camille had advised those of us on the call to keep our connection with the Divine, remain receptive to the guidance of spirit in all that we do, and reminded us to work from an acknowledgement of unity, and toward a place of wholeness. She also said:
The more we can go within to find that place of deep love, so that we can speak from and for that love… The more we can brush away cobwebs of fear and conditioning… the more we can raise the whole of this creation together.
It seems that Mary and other men and women of faith have much in common. They also have much to show us about how to become receptive to, and reflective of, the Divine Qualities, and thereby how to move humanity forward.
~ Fatimah Ashrif
Rumi’s Circle has made the intention to create conversations around the ‘Divine Feminine’ in 2016. Please feel free to share any suggestions you may have around this. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and sign up to our blog to hear more in the coming months…
Camille Adams Helminski is Co-Director and Co-Founder of The Threshold Society, a non-profit organization rooted within the traditions of Sufism and dedicated to facilitating the direct personal experience of the Divine.
Quran 96: 1-5; translation by Asad, Muhammad
Quran 19:20; translation by Asad, Muhammad. Similar wording in the Biblical story also.
Helminski, K; The Pocket Rumi
Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran, and has a whole chapter devoted to her as well as many other references throughout the Quran.
Stowasser, BF; Women in the Quran, Traditions, and Interpretation; Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1994; p79
Helminski, C.A; Women of Sufism; Shambala, Boston & London, 2003; p8-12
‘Mary Dyer, the only woman in the history of the United States of America to be martyred for religious freedom… was among those who stood most strongly for freedom of conscience amidst the terrible persecution of the Quakers in the 1600s’ https://sufism.org/articles/cycles-of-witnessing-trees-of-life
Shems ud Din Tabrizi was the friend and mentor of Rumi, who was passionately devoted to the Divine.
Camille’s husband, and Co-Director and Co-Founder of The Threshold Society, a non-profit organization rooted within the traditions of Sufism and dedicated to facilitating the direct personal experience of the Divine.