Women Mystic Series – Umm ‘Abdallah, Sufi Dreamer
In honor of Women’s History month, I wanted to add to my occasional series on historical Women Mystics. Since most major spiritual traditions were dominated by men teachers and leaders until recently (and many still are), I think it’s important for us as modern women seekers to connect with models from the past – women with rich spiritual lives. It affirms the universality of the spiritual quest, and weaves together a structure for feminine awakening reaching across time and distance.
The woman I chose to feature this time is quite different from the women I have featured in the past. Most have been mystic rebels – in order to honor their mystic yearnings, they defied religious conventions of their time. Most have also been from celibate traditions, and thus have not had husbands or families. They have also largely been literate, and therefore we know of them, and their mystic experiences, through their own personal writings or poetry.
Umm ‘Abdallah is a very different choice, as none of this is true for her. She was the wife of Ali al-Hakim at-Tirmidhi, a 9th century Sufi scholar and mystic. We only know of her and her mystic experiences through at-Tirmidhi’s own memoir of his spiritual journey, The Beginning of the Matter, one of the first known preserved Sufi autobiographies. He never gives her name, so she is referred to by historians as Umm ‘Abdallah, which means ‘the mother of ‘Abdallah.’
As much as it bothers me that we know her only through her husband – that she has no voice or even name of her own recorded in history – her husband’s descriptions of her mystic experiences and dreams captured me. I decided that in fact it was very appropriate to feature her, because like many women throughout history she sought deeper spiritual teachings in the only way she could at the time – through her husband. In so doing, she played a very special role in his path and teachings (which became of some reknown), and as a couple they formed a unique spiritual partnership, one based on equality and mutual support for each others’ search.
Umm ‘Abdallah was a very specific kind of spiritual mystic – a dreamer. Deep mystic knowledge came to her in her dreams, through symbols and visitations, on a regular basis. While we all dream, and occasionally have particularly meaningful dreams, the spiritual journeys of mystic dreamers revolve around their dreams. In every spiritual tradition I can think of, there is a special place for dreamers, and Sufism gives them particular significance. Dreams are considered symbolic representations of spiritual dimensions, belonging to the ‘alam al-mithal’, or ‘World of Imagination.’ Far from considered useless fantasy, this kind of imagination in Sufism is honored as the intermediary between the seen and unseen world.
Umm ‘Abdullah’s dreams were also teaching dreams – they brought new knowledge and teachings to her husband. While much of mystic Sufism is based on a teacher-student dynamic, seekers may also receive teachings directly from the Divine through dreams. At-Tirmidhi did not have a formal teacher for much of his path – he studied and meditated on his own. At a certain point, his wife Umm ‘Abdallah began having dreams that answered his questions when they arose. Many of her dreams included an old man, white-haired and clad in white, representative in Sufism of a Khidr, or teacher of Divine Knowledge who comes to teach those in dreams who do not have a living teacher.
Through a Khidr in Umm ‘Abdallah’s dreams, her husband receives guidance on how to proceed to the next level of his path, and also encouragement to become a guide to others himself. As these dreams continue, at-Tirmidhi writes:
“Now my wife kept dreaming about me, dream after dream, always at dawn. It was as if she, or the dreams, were messengers for me. There was no need for interpretation, because their meaning was clear.”
In further dreams, he is given signs that he has progressed from the level of external worshiper to one who truly communes with the Divine. In addition, Umm ‘Abdallah receives a message that she is his spiritual equal, and they proceed along their path as such, in a united spiritual quest. The level of mutual reverence and spiritual partnership that he describes in his memoir is truly unparalleled in historic spiritual writings, as far as I know. However, this is all in private – in public at-Tirmidhi is the spiritual leader and teacher, while Umm ‘Abdallah devotes herself to protecting and helping to spread his teachings behind the scenes.
What really captured me in the tale of this mystic couple was a 10-day spiritual transformation that Umm ‘Abdallah underwent after many years in her quest, while awake, although including many dream-like visions. She experienced wave after wave of mystic visions, along with ecstasy and light pouring into and through her, unsought and unstoppable. Here ‘s how she described the first two days to her husband:
“I felt as if something penetrated my chest, circled my heart, and enveloped it. It filled my chest up to the throat; I almost choked from its fullness. Heat spread through the cavity of my body, my heart was aflame, and all the Sacred Names appeared to me in their glory. Anything upon which my eyes fell, on the earth or in the sky; anyone whom I looked at, I saw as I have never seen before, because of the beauty and joy and sweetness [which filled me]. Then a verse in Persian descended upon my heart: ‘We have given you one thing!’
“Again I was filled with joy, elation, and great energy.”
“The next day,” she said, “another verse descended on my heart: ‘We have given you three things: Our Glory, Our Might, and Our Beauty.’
“Then,” she said, “I saw this glow behind me, and it stayed above my head as if in a dream, and in this glowing light these three things were revealed to me: the knowledge of the Divine Glory, the knowledge of the Divine Might, and the knowledge of the Divine Beauty…”
From the third day onward, “knowledge of the names of God were revealed to her”, one after the other. At-Tirmidhi writes,
“She remained in this state for some time, and then the knowledge of God was revealed to her. Each day new names were opened up to her, and the glowing light was upon her heart, and the inward meaning of the names was revealed to her…On the tenth day she came to me and said the name “The Gracious” was revealed to her.”
This translation was taken from The Taste of Hidden Things, by Sara Sviri. If you’d like to learn more about Umm ‘Abdullah as well as many other Sufi women, check out the excellent Women of Sufism: A Hidden Treasure, by Camille Adams Helsinki.