TOWARDS A FEMINIST RECONSTRUCTION OF PERSIAN SUFISM
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Contrary to many claims, Sufism is not a gender-neutral discourse and practice. Although women have been present since the inception of Sufism in the eighth century CE, like most androcentric knowledge, the foundational discourse of Sufism is defined by male interest and male privilege. Seeking to address the gender bias in Persian Sufism, this dissertation offers a feminist interdisciplinary examination of Persian Sufism through various forms of textual analysis—linguistic, psychoanalytic, formal—in different fields of study: religious studies, medieval historiography, literature, and ethnography. Through analysis and interpretation of some of the foundational texts of Persian Sufism written from the 10th to the 13th century CE—Hujwiri’s Kashf al-mahjub, Ibn Munavvar’s Asrar al-tawhid, Attar’s Tazkirat al-awliya and Illahi-nama, and Rumi’s Masnavi—my work offers a map of the construction of gender and women’s participation in the early discourse of Persian Sufism that continues to shape the understanding and practice of Sufism in contemporary times. Following medieval textual analysis, I provide an ethnography of women’s diverse experiences as members of the Nimatullahi Sufi order from an insider perspective. The analysis of early influential texts will reverberate through the ethnographic chapter, since many of the texts that I discuss are still central in Sufi ethos and practice. My aim throughout this dissertation is to address male privilege in Persian Sufism by deconstructing the myth of the exceptional woman in Sufism, highlighting women’s involvements in early Sufi communities, reinterpreting Sufi narratives to engage the gender question meaningfully, turning negative interpretations of women into empowering and inspiring tales of women’s spirituality, and finally, to record and preserve the contributions of contemporary women in Sufism for future generations.