Camille leading women of Threshold in prayer at the Makam of Khidr, Umayyad Mosque, Damascus (2006)
By Mahmoud Mostafa
Islam and the Divine Feminine? Really? Yes, as improbable as it may seem, really. In our times we have become so accustomed to a male-dominated, authoritarian and repressive interpretation of Islam that has all but eliminated the feminine dimension from our spiritual life causing serious imbalances in our lives, our communities and our world.
But it wasn’t always this way. In its original revelation and manifestation, Islam was, and remains, a guidance system that brings the human being into balance and integrates our masculine and feminine aspects into a unified whole. In Islamic terminology, this is the state of the soul at peace, Nafs Al Mutma’inah, where our inner conflicts and contradictions are resolved, our hearts are healed and we come to experience our existence as wholesome beings reflecting the Divine Unity. This is the oneness of Tawheed. This concept of Tawheed, which is so central to Islam, does not mean a theological principle that there is one god. It is actually a verb meaning to make one, that is, to integrate, to bring to unity that which is fragmented. On the human plane it is the act of realizing God’s oneness in ourselves.
Such a state cannot be attained if the feminine aspect of life is not properly integrated and honored in our selves and in society. This integration is not possible as long as our paradigm of the Divine is rooted in mostly masculine symbols, language, and meanings. Islam in its original form is rich with symbolism that brings forth the feminine aspect of the Divine to help guide our knowing of God, who is without gender, yet whose qualities are manifest in existence in a symbiotic balance of both the masculine and feminine.
So what are examples of the Divine Feminine in Islam? We begin with the most basic and well-known divine quality of Rahmah, which is unconditional love, and is the preeminent divine quality that is accepted universally by Muslims. God’s best known, and most often used name among Muslims is Rahman. This name comes from the root verb R-H-M and it means womb and this of course is a uniquely feminine quality. God is the Divine Womb that encompasses all things and from which all existence comes into being or is birthed.
It’s difficult for us to shift our habitual perspective of God as a He, or male, especially with the limitation of a gendered language like Arabic that defaults to the masculine for indeterminate gender. Yet, if we recall that the feminine embodies such qualities as receptivity, subtlety, surrender, empathy, gentleness, peacefulness, healing, sharing, flowing, reconciliation, loving, tenderness, forgiveness, nurturing, patience, origin and mystery, we will see there are many other divine qualities that are feminine in nature among these are, Peace (Salaam), Faith (Mu’min), Creator (Khaleq), Subtle (Lateef), Gentle (Halim), Wise (Hakim), Inner (Baatin), Living (Hayy), Bestower (Wahhab), Loving (Wadud), Tender (Ra’uf), Forgiving (Ghafur) as well as many others.
If we contemplate and reflect upon the Divine Names without our deeply ingrained gender bias, we may open up to understanding the feminine aspects of many of Allah’s Divine Qualities.
We can look further into some of the symbolism in the Quran to explore how feminine symbols are presented to help guide our spiritual development and integration of our souls. Here are two examples:
The Mother of the Book (Umm-ul Kitab): This profoundly mystical term is used in the Quran to refer to the source of divine wisdom, and is closest to God’s unknowable essence. It is the source from which all revelation emanates directly to the hearts of the prophets. The use of the imagery of motherhood, of birthing, of nurturing and caring to describe this metaphysical concept is beautiful and sublime. It takes one to a depth of understanding that divine guidance is motherly in its unconditional loving, its nurturing of our souls, its acceptance of our limitations, and in embracing us with love and forgiveness.
The Houris (Huur-in ‘Een). This term has become generally accepted as referring to the beautiful virgins awaiting the male believers in Paradise. Although this term is often confused with the male-centric sexual fantasy about the afterlife, the word Huur comes from the root verb H-W-R which has the primary meaning of turning or changing, that is transforming. It also has the meaning of the radiance of the eyes, or eyes that shine brilliantly. It also means to be purified of all faults, to be made fit for the companionship of the prophets! The word ‘Een comes from the word for eye, ‘Ayn, which also has the meaning of the essence or origin of something. In the Quran this term is used in the context of pairing of souls in the sense of bringing two halves together to make a whole. Contemplation of these verses may open us to understanding of the realization of our full humanness, when we become complete by the pairing of our masculine and feminine dimensions, that is when our physical, active self (masculine) opens up and connects with our inner, subtle self (feminine) which transforms us from fragmentation, suffering, and conflict (Hell), to the peace and bliss of unity (Paradise).
We can see the Divine Feminine in the symbolism of the Prophet Muhammad. He is named in the Quran, and is most commonly known to those who love him in two ways. One is as Mercy to All Worlds (Rahmat-ul Alameen), this womb-like quality is characteristic of the Prophet’s nature and is a feminine quality as we mentioned earlier. The second is as the Prophet of the Mother (Nabiyy-ul Ummiyy), this term is often understood and translated as the unlettered prophet or the gentile prophet but Ummiyy literally means of the mother or the motherly and it refers to the fact that he received wisdom and guidance directly from the source, from the Mother, not from books or from other men.
Finally, we take a look at the symbolism of the mosque and its characteristic architecture. The interior space of traditional mosques is defined by two things, a dome and a prayer niche (Mihrab). The Mihrab is a really important aspect of the mosque, it orients the worshippers to the direction of Mecca. But the Mihrab also holds a profound feminine symbol. In the Quran we are told that the blessed Virgin Mary used to keep solitary retreat in the Mihrab. It was while she was in solitude in the Mihrab that she was visited by the Angel Gabriel and given the revelation that she would bear and give birth to Jesus. Mary symbolizes the receptive feminine energy that opens to the divine effulgence and gives birth to divine spirit into the physical world. Mary is the archetype of the devoted human heart that is in complete trust and surrender to the Divine. In the Quran, Prophet Zechariah learns from Mary’s devotion how to call upon God and how to trust in the divine generosity despite his doubts, and thus he receives his portion of the divine blessing.
For centuries, it was traditional to see this verse from the Quran about Mary adorning the Mihrab of mosques. The Mihrab is known as Mary’s Station (Maqam). Mary is the Owner of the Station of the Mihrab, her spirit stands at the front of every worshipper in every mosque. She is the Inner Imam of every mosque. The dome of the mosque encompasses the prayer space and symbolizes Mary’s womb and the Mihrab symbolizes the birth channel from which Jesus, the Messiah, comes into the world. When we are inside the mosque we are held within Mary’s womb, which is a reflection of God the Rahman, and when our hearts are properly oriented towards the Mihrab we may be prepared to receive Jesus, God’s Spirit, into our hearts. In this way mosques hold the symbolism of the mystery of the divine flow through the inner, subtle feminine dimension of our being and its manifestation into the active masculine dimension of the physical world.
May we be guided to an authentic state of unity where our masculine and feminine dimensions can be in proper proportion and balance that we may taste the truth of Tawheed.