It’s Islamic History Month Canada and we celebrated by checking out Muslim Heritage Day at the Royal Ontario Museum. We dropped Eryn off at her grandparents’ house and went to see what all the fuss was about.

It was nice. Simple and informative.  I really wanted to go because there were musical performances and speeches from two esteemed scholars: Dr. Abdullah Hakim Quick and Dr. Katherine Bullock.  I was excited to see if the ROM was set up differently, what special displays they had pulled together for the event, and went starry-eyed and wistful, hoping to spend an afternoon steeped in my first passion: Islamic History.

If you haven’t previously gleaned that I sometimes have a penchant for being a true geek (*cough*Dr. Who*cough*), then know now that there is possibly no better afternoon than one spent wandering the halls of a museum, or with my nose in an old textbook (unless pizza and Dr. Who are involved. Sometimes historical British drama can trump that too, but only if it’s Mr. Darcy).

So we had a good time, but I think my expectations were too high. Dr. Quick zoomed through his recent research excavation to Ethiopia, studying the cultural expression of Islam in the religion’s fourth most holiest locals. I was hoping for more history and less zoom. Dr. Bullock gave an interesting talk on Toronto’s first mosque.  But I also know Katherine personally — so while it was good to see her again, it was a familiar talk. The music performances were great… but we also knew the performers. They’re involved with UM Financial (shariah compliant banking) and the Islamic Society of North America. So it was just kind of like, “Oh hey there’s Bob from the local market.” “Yup, that’s Bob alright. He has a nice voice.”

What really impressed me though were the activities for the kids.  There was a scavenger hunt, make a camel craft, and create your own astrolabe. We’ll definitely be going again next year when Eryn is old enough to enjoy.

So to mark Islamic History Month, here’s WoodTurtle’s fun and informative review of two rockin’ historical women in Islam.

The first is Shifa bint ‘abd Allah, known as the first female teacher.

She lived in the 7th century as a skilled healer who actively practiced during the time of the Prophet. She passed on this knowledge, as well as reading and writing to groups of women students. She was also a narrator of hadith and her words are preserved in the scholarly works of al-Bukhari, Abu Dawud and al-Nasai.

During the reign of the second Chaliph, ‘Umar bin al-Khattab, she was appointed to the position of market controller in the city of Medina (the second major Islamic city after Mecca). Her main task was to ensure that business ran smoothly without disputes, cheating or usury. She is known not only for her intelligence, healing and teaching ability, but for the fact that she walked around town with a bull whip to keep the money lenders in line. A bull whip. She kept the male money lenders in line with a bull whip.

The second is Rabia al-Adawiyya.  Born in Basra almost 100 years after the death of the Prophet, she is known as one of Islam’s first mystics, who influenced many of the male scholars throughout antiquity (such as al-Ghazzali, Jahiz and al-Qushari).  She’s certainly an interesting character with hundreds of stories and miracles attributed to her. And she became the model from which all other female mystics drew their inspiration.

Sometimes there are subtle differences or confusion to the details to her story, but suffice it to say that she was born to a poor family and worked as a servant in the house of a rich neighbour. He constantly chastised her for having her head in the clouds, of always reading the Qur’an and praying to God.  One night he heard her in his courtyard and went out to send her to bed, when he saw an unnatural light suspended over her head. An unseen voice explained to him that this light was As-Sakinah (a feminine attribute of God — translated as the peace and reassurance of God) who had come to earth to bless Rabia. From that moment on, she was freed of servitude and devoted her life to mysticism and worship.

There are too many stories attributed to her to include in one simple post. It’s said that she used to run around the city with a bucket of water in one hand and a flaming tortch in the other. When asked what she was up to, she replied:

I want to pour water into hell and set paradise on fire – so that these two veils will disappear and nobody shall any longer worship God out of a fear of hell or a hope of heaven – but solely for the sake of His eternal beauty!

Her stories are often told in conjunction with another character, the staunch male ascetic, Hasan al-Basri — who employed weeping as a way to communicate with the Divine. Often the stories have the two in competition — with Hasan constantly being schooled by our awesome Rabia. My favourite:

One day Hassan saw Rab’iya near the river-side.  He threw his prayer mat on to the surface of the water where it floated and boasted, “O Rab’iya, come and let us pray together.” Evidently, he was counting on her powers to keep his prayer mat afloat.

Rab’iya said, “O Hassan, was it necessary for you to offer yourself in the bazaar of this world to the people of the next?”  Meaning, do you need to build your worldly reputation by using spiritual gifts of miracles? Then Rab’iya threw her prayer mat into the air, flew up to it, and stood there looking down at Hassan.

She said, “O Hassan, come up here, so that people may see us!”  Unfortunately for Hassan, he had not yet attained this level of spiritual holiness, and so he remained silent. Rab’iya, wishing to not make him feel  bad, comforted him by saying, “O Hassan, that which you did, a fish can do the same; and that which I did, a fly can do. The real work for the saints of God, lies beyond both of these – and it is necessary to occupy ourselves with the real work.”

Image credit: Sheikha Khadija by Lee Guthrie