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The Rise of the Sheikha

The Islamic world has (contrary to some silly assumptions) known many influential female social and political leaders, as far back as the time of the prophet Muhammad—and his quite intimidating wives Aisha and Khadija. Today one of them oversees a...

Image of Rabia Basri, a female Sufi saint, via Wikicommons

In 1980, Muzaffer Ozak al-Jerrahi, the 19th Grand Sheikh of the Istanbul-based Halveti-Jerrahi Sufi Order, sat in the old Masjid al-Farah in SoHo before two of his disciples. He’d called them there to place the Taj upon their heads, the crown of his order that would imbue them with the authority to lead and spread his lineage’s three-centuries-old teachings into America. First he laid the Taj upon Lex Hixon, a spiritualist and author (and also an initiate of Eastern Orthodox, Hindu, Tibetan Buddhist, and Zen orders), thereafter known as Nur al-Anwar al-Jerrahi, who would lead the new American Sufi community for the next 15 years. But he also placed it upon Philippa De Menil, thereafter Fariha al-Jerrahi, an oil heiress and head of the then floundering Dia Arts Foundation, and the first woman Sheikh Muzaffar had ever bestowed the power of leadership upon.

Sheikh Muzaffer’s elevation of Fariha was, according to his own universalist values, not unexpected. Although Sufi orders run the gamut from conservative to liberal, most of these mystical, tightly knit and structured communities have a history of inclusiveness, and Muzaffer’s tenure saw an exceptional openness amongst the sometimes traditionalist Halveti-Jerrahis. But in the wider world of Islamic religious communities, it was an unusual and potentially alienating move. And it only escalated when, after establishing a new offshoot of the Halveti-Jerrahis, the Nur Ashki Jerrahi order (based out of TriBeCa), and establishing communities of followers across America and Mexico, Sheikh Nur died in 1995, leaving the community under the ultimate guidance and leadership of Sheikha Fariha. Before then, Fariha had been an important transmitter and member of the Jerrahi community, but Sheikh Nur had been the central pole of the organized Sufi structure. In becoming a leader, says Tom Rippe, member of the order for the past two decades and representative of the Sheikha who responded on her behalf, she became the facilitator and guide of a diverse community on their journey toward a connection with God. “She becomes what that person needs in the moment,” said Rippe. “This takes great clarity, strength, character, love, and humility.”

The Islamic world has (contrary to some silly assumptions) known many influential female social and political leaders, as far back as the time of the prophet Muhammad—and his quite intimidating wives Aisha and Khadija. And today, even in what are often considered (not without justification) extremely patriarchal modern Muslim nations, there are women (think: Iran’s pre-Revolution chief judge and post-Revolution activist lawyer Shirin Ebadi, or Saudi director and provocateur Haifaa al-Mansour) raising some notable hell and gaining recognition for it. Despite all that, though, says Oxford University Professor and recent author of Women, Leadership, and Mosques Masooda Bano, it’s always been rare to find women in Islamic religious leadership. “There’s not too much variation across regions and populations,” says Bano. “For the past four or five centuries at least, across the world, [Islamic religious leadership] has been a very male affair.”

That’s not to say there’s been no role for women in Islamic religious institutions. “Over the last 30 years or so,” says Bano, “more women have entered the madrassa system [of religious education], but mostly teaching women or the husbands of students.” In some madrassas, the number of female religious scholars has reached up to 50 percent. But at the higher levels, and in the leadership of prayers, mosques, and communities, it’s still mainly men. (If that sounds a bit like the Catholic clergy, it is and it isn’t: Save for some sects, there’s no central religious authority telling Muslim communities their leaders must be men. It’s more the force of religious interpretation, custom, and consensus.)

Some argue that far back in Muslim history, female religious leadership was accepted, if not common. Rippe believes that “female leadership has always existed,” though, “mostly because of the [prevailing global cultural] patriarchy, it has been somewhat hidden.” But within the past 200 years at least, the exception to male domination has been, according to Bano, Sufi groups and the informal communities forming within and parallel to them. Rippe generally agrees that it’s often easier to find female leadership in the Sufi world, given its history of inclusiveness of marginalized groups and frequent embrace of antinomian practices, but he cautions that there are many conservative orders as well.

The Sheikha herself has claimed that, even in the Sufi milieu, Sheikhs Muzaffer and Nur showed a great deal of bravery in opening the way for female involvement in Islam in America. Within her own order, says Rippe, her leadership has always been accepted and was never the subject of any dispute or consternation. “People back in Istanbul do not always agree,” he admits. Membership did drop around the time of her rise, according to Rippe, but he believes this was due to unrelated factors, like the general ebb of those who attended due to a unique or personal relationship with Sheikh Nur and his style of leadership that they felt any other leader might lack.

Sheikha Fariha and her Order believe that there is value in female leadership in the Islamic world. The head of their Mexican community is a woman as well: Sheikha Amina Teslima al-Jerrahi. Part of their interest in powerful Muslim women stems from their universal embrace of all Abrahamic faiths, mystical traditions, and backgrounds. But another part of it comes from their belief that we’ve entered the Age of the Feminine. According to Rippe, this refers to “coming into balance, which we’re out of now. It is a patriarchal world we live in, in almost every way. The world is out of balance partially due to the disregard for women and feminine qualities… In general, these traits are thought of as weak and undesirable by man. But a whole person, in Sufism, a ‘true human being,’ must have these qualities.”

That belief hasn’t led Sheikha Fariha and her Order to go out and advocate for women’s involvement in Islamic religious leadership, though. As a small community, they’re rarely the subject of much attention, and that’s fine by them. They keep a low profile, allowing those who seek and agree with them to find them. It’s not an illogical move, given that the few female religious leaders who have entered the public eye leading mixed-gender groups have faced castigation and controversy, like Amina Wadud, an American Islamic scholar who led coed public Islamic prayers in 1994 and 2005 and faced substantial threat and criticism. 

But the low profile isn’t really about fear. Sufi groups are niche by nature. “Not many people are into what we do,” says Rippe. What they do involves devotional worship replete with chants and dances, equality, and openness. “The seeker must visit many groups and teachers to see where they might thrive spiritually,” adds Rippe. Some walk in and complain about their activities or their leadership, but then they leave. And that’s fine and over with.

It’s unlikely that small and soft-spoken Sufi communities will lead the charge for a push to place women in Islamic religious leadership. But Bano believes there may be change coming. “We see many mosques and madrassas with movements for re-evaluation by educated and independent women, especially in the informal [small, part-time group] dynamic,” says Bano. They don’t want to slavishly imitate Western ideals of female empowerment, though. They’re in the tough process of hacking out their own space within the context of Islam, and bit-by-bit these small communities holding true to their own ideals may reach critical capacity. If that happens, perhaps Sheikha Fariha and the Order will have truly ushered in the Age of the Feminine.