|Painting by Elisabeth Slettnes|
The Eternal Feminine
draws us heavenward.
draws us heavenward.
THE WORLD-FAMOUS Islamic Sûfî poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Rūmī (1207-1273) writes: “Woman is the radiance of God; she is not your beloved. She is the Creator—you could say that she is not created.”37 This paper calls attention to an unexpected and little explored fact of immense significance in Islam: at the center of Islam abides the Divine Feminine.
Before the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, brought the religion of Islam to Arabia, the Arabs were a polytheistic people. Hindu merchants frequently passed through Makkah, a major trading hub. Ancient Indian Vedic texts refer to Makkah as a place where Alla the Mother Goddess was worshiped. In Sanskrit, Alla means “mother.” This name was connected to the Hindu Goddess Ila. She was the consort of the Hindu God Śiva in his form known as Il, and this form of Śiva was known and worshiped in pre-Islamic Makkah. A great deal of cultural and spiritual interchange took place between the merchants of Makkah and India.
According to some scholars however, the ancient Arabs believed that Allâh (the greatest God) had entrusted the discharge of the various functions of the universe to different (lesser) gods and goddesses. People would therefore turn to these gods and goddesses to invoke their blessings in all sorts of undertakings. The ancient Arabs prayed to these lesser gods and goddesses to intercede before Allâh and to pass their desires on to Allâh. As part of their religious practices, they visited Makkah. In Makkah was a large cube-like building known as the Ka’ba. This temple contained three hundred sixty idols. Those who were visiting the great city of Makkah as pilgrims would circumambulate the Ka’ba as part of their religious rites.
The pre-Islamic Arabs had a custom of performing a sevenfold circumambulation of the Ka’ba completely naked. Men performed this in the daytime and women at night.
The door of the Ka’ba is in the northeastern wall. On the outside, in the corner east of the door and 1.5 meters above the ground, the famous “Black Stone” (Hajar Al-Aswad) is found. This Black Stone is now in pieces, three large parts, and smaller fragments, which are tied together with a silver band. The eminently feminine yoni form of the Black Stone’s setting is remarkable. There are several theories on the origin of the Black Stone: a meteor, lava, or basalt. Its color is reddish black, with some red and yellow particles. Its original diameter is estimated to have been 30 cm. The identity of the Black Stone with the Great Goddess and with the moon is recognized by the Hulama – the rationalist school of Islam.
Inside the Ka’ba there were fresco paintings including those of Abraham and the “Virgin Mary” with the baby Jesus. When Muhammad retook Makkah he began a program of removing the pagan influences from the Ka’ba, the most holy of Muslim sites. He removed many frescoes and images that he considered inauspicious but he specifically left on the walls a fresco of the “Virgin Mary” and her child. The Qur’ān obligates every believer to make a pilgrimage to Makkah at least once in his or her lifetime, if finances permit. Since the time of Muhammad, during the Tawaf (circumambulation of the Ka’ba) pilgrims kiss or touch the black stone as they make circuit around the Ka’ba.
Ben-Jochannan who has studied the polytheistic religions of the Arabian Peninsula points out that before Muhammad, Makkah was a holy site to the worshippers of El’Ka’ba (a goddess). Her worshippers knelt at her symbol, a jet black stone. This jet-black stone was probably a meteorite, and the Hajar Al-Aswad was once known as the ‘Old Woman.’ Popular tradition relates how Abraham, when he founded the Ka’ba, bought the land from an old woman to which it belonged. She however consented to part with it only on the condition that she and her descendants should have the key of the place in their keeping. Today the stone is served by men called Beni Shaybah (the Sons of the Old Woman).
The crescent moon goddess (and virgin warrior Goddess of the morning star), Al-Uzza, was known to the pre-Islamic Arabs as “The Mighty.” Some scholars believe that in very ancient times, it was she who was considered enshrined in the black stone of Makkah, where she was served by priestesses. Her sacred grove of acacia trees once stood just south of Makkah, at Nakla. The Acacia tree was sacred to the Arabs who made the idol of Al-Uzza from its wood.
Stones, similar to the black stone of the Ka’ba, were worshipped by Arabs in most parts and by the Semitic races generally. The Kabyles of Kabylia in Northern Algeria say their first Great Mother goddess was turned to stone. Other names of the goddess are Kububa, Kuba, Kube and the Latin Cybele. Other scholars say that this meteorite was brought to Makkah by the Sabeans or the Ethiopians and state that the goddess who dwelt in the sacred black stone was given the title Shayba (see Beni Shaybah – the Sons of the Old Woman, above) who represented the Moon in its threefold existence – waxing, (maiden), full (pregnant mother) and waning (old wise woman). Although the word Ka’ba itself means ‘cube’, it is very close to the word ku‘b meaning ‘woman’s breast’.
Sûfîsm cherishes the esoteric secret of woman, even though Sûfîsm is the esoteric aspect of a seemingly patriarchal religion. Muslims pray five times a day facing the city of Makkah. Inside every Mosque is a niche, or recess, called the Mihrab – a vertical rectangle curved at the top that points toward the direction of Makkah. The Sûfîs know the Mihrab to be a visual symbol of an abstract concept: the transcendent vagina of the female aspect of divinity. In Sûfîsm, woman is the ultimate secret, for woman is the soul. Toshihiko Izutsu writes, “The wife of Adam was feminine, but the first soul from which Adam was born was also feminine.”
The Divine Feminine has always been present in Islam. This may be surprising to many people who see Islam as a patriarchal religion. Maybe the reason for this misconception is the very nature of the feminine in Islam. The Divine Feminine in Islam manifests metaphysically and in the inner expression of the religion. The Divine Feminine is not so much a secret within Islam as She is the compassionate Heart of Islam that enables us to know Divinity. Her centrality demonstrates her necessary and life-giving role in Islam.
Sûfîsm, or as some would define it “mystical Islam” has always honored the Divine Feminine. Of course, Allâh has both masculine and feminine qualities, but to the Sûfî, Allâh has always been the Beloved and the Sûfî has always been the Lover. The Qur’ān, referring to the final Day, perhaps divulges a portion of this teaching: “And there is manifest to them of God what they had not expected to see.”
Islam is aniconic. In other words, images, effigies, or idols of Allâh are not allowed, although verbal depiction abounds. There was a question long debated in Islam: can we see Allâh? The Prophet said in a hadīth, “In Paradise the faithful will see Allâh with the clarity with which you see the moon on the fourteenth night (the full moon).”
Theologians debated what this could mean, but the Sûfîs have held that you can see Allâh even in this world, through the “eye of the heart.” The famous Sûfî martyr al-Hallaj said in a poem, “ra’aytu rabbi bi-‘ayni qalbî” (I saw my Lord with the eye of my heart). Relevant to the focus of this paper is that Sûfîs have always described this theophanic experience as the vision of a woman, the female figure as the object of ru’yah (vision of Allâh).
There was a great Sûfî Saint who was born in 1165 C.E. Besides Shi’a Muslims, numberless Sunni Ulemas called him “The Greatest Sheikh” (al-Shaykh al-Akbar). His name was Muyiddin ibn al-‘Arabî. He said, “To know woman is to know oneself,” and “Whoso knoweth his self, knoweth his Lord.” Ibn al-’Arabî wrote a collection of poems entitled The Tarjumân al-ashwâq. These are love poems that he composed after meeting the learned and beautiful Persian woman Nizam in Makkah. The poems are filled with images pointing to the Divine Feminine. His book Fusûs al-hikam, in the last chapter, relates that man’s supreme witnessing of Allâh is in the form of the woman during the act of sexual union. He writes, “The contemplation of Allâh in woman is the highest form of contemplation possible: As the Divine Reality is inaccessible in respect of the Essence, and there is contemplation only in a substance, the contemplation of God in women is the most intense and the most perfect; and the union which is the most intense (in the sensible order, which serves as support for this contemplation) is the conjugal act.” Allâh as the Beloved in Sûfî literature, the ma‘shûq, is always depicted with female iconography.
The Da Vinci Code, a thriller by Dan Brown, tells the story of a Harvard professor summoned to the Louvre Museum after a murder there to examine cryptic symbols relating to da Vinci’s work. During the course of his investigation, he uncovers an ancient secret: the claim that Mary Magdalene represents the Divine Feminine, and that she and Jesus had a sexual relationship. While the book is a work of fiction, it does represent the force of the Divine Feminine to unveil Herself in the midst of religious traditions that have become altered through cultural accretions into anti-sexual, anti-pleasure and anti-feminine belief structures. There is also the worthy of note nonfiction work The Woman With the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail  which presents the idea that Mary Magdalen was actually married to Jesus Christ and the Holy Grail is not a cup or chalice at all but Mary’s womb as she carried the “bloodline” of Jesus to Egypt and then to Europe. The author, Margaret Starbird, advances her theory by analyzing art of the dark ages and the “understood” meaning behind it. Starbird does an excellent job of researching European history, heraldry, the rituals of Freemasonry, medieval art, symbolism, psychology, mythology, religion, and the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures to discover that the meaning of the Holy Grail could be the lost bride of Jesus and the female child she carried within her.
Starbird’s theological beliefs were profoundly shaken when she read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a book that dared to suggest that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalen and that their descendants carried on his holy bloodline in Western Europe. Shocked by such heresy, this Roman Catholic scholar set out to refute it, but instead found new and compelling evidence for the existence of the bride of Jesus. The roles of Muhammad’s daughter Fātima and Mary are similar. The true line of the Prophet ‘Īsā (Jesus) and his real teaching passing through Mary and into Europe mirrors the true line of the Imāms (who propagated the real teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) who issued from the womb of Fātima. Fātima is regarded by some Sûfîs and theologians as the first spiritual head (qutb) of the Sûfî fellowship.
Among the Ghulat there is much respect paid to the Divine Feminine. In the Ghulat group the Ahl-i-Haqq (“the People of Truth”), the Divine Feminine appears as the Khātūn-i Qiyāmat (Lady of Resurrection) who also is manifested as the mysterious angel Razbâr (also Ramzbâr or Remzebâr). The writer, Frédéric Macler, claims that the name Razbâr is of Arabic origin and means “secret of the creator.” The term qiyāma literally means, “rising” of the dead, and allegorically, it implies an idea denoting the rising to the next spiritual stage, and qiyāmat-i qubra (great resurrection) means an attainment of the highest degree when a man becomes free from the ties of external laws, whom he shackles and transfigures into spiritual substance, which rejoins its divine sources. “The King of the World was sitting on the water with His four associate angels (chahār malak-i muqarrab) when they suddenly saw the Pure Substance of Hadrat-i Razbâr, the Khātūn-i Qiyāmat (Lady of the Resurrection). She brought out from the sea a round loaf of bread (kulūcha), and offered it to the King of the World. By His order they formed a devotional assembly (jam), distributed the bread, offered prayers and exclaimed ‘Hū!’ Then the earth and the skies became fixed, the skies being that kulūcha.”
Another rendition of the emergence of the Lady of the Resurrection is as follows: “After this the Holder of the World and Creator of Man looked upon ‘Azra’īl with the eye of benefaction, and ‘Azra’īl became split into two parts, one exactly like the other, and from between these parts a drop of light emerged in the form of a loaf of kulūcha bread. The Creator then said, I appoint that person (sūrat) who became separated from ‘Azra’īl to be the Lady of the Resurrection (Khātūn-i Qiyāmat), who will on the Resurrection Day be the helper of human beings.”
The followers of Yârsânism, also known as the Yârisân, Aliullâhi, Ali-llâhi (i.e., “those who deify ‘Alī”), Alihaq, Ahl-i Haqq (“the People of Truth”) or Ahl-i Haq (“the People of the Spirit” (Hâk or Haqj), are concentrated in southern Kurdistan in both Iran and Iraq. In each epoch there is a female avatar of the Universal Spirit, a reflection of the higher status of women in the Kurdish culture and tradition.
What do those who study mystical Islam claim is the hidden meaning regarding the existence of the sexes in creation? These researchers perceive that the biological and psychological differences between the sexes are only hints of a more momentous significance hidden within the divinity Itself. Of course, Sûfîsm does not argue against the Oneness of Allâh. The quintessence of Allâh transcends duality, yet the Ultimate Reality manifests qualities in creation that are dualistic.
In Kabbalah (a Jewish mystical tradition), just below the first Sphere (sefirah) of divine emanation known as Keter (meaning “crown,” “summit” or “pinnacle”), lie the two roots of masculine and feminine, known as Hokhmah and Binah. Although they are not masculine and feminine, Hokhmah and Binah are the archetypes of the masculine and feminine. Binah is the Kabbalistic feminine symbol for ‘Understanding,’ a prelude to wisdom. “Binah, the Great Mother, sometimes also called Marah, the Great Sea, is, of course, the Mother of All Living. She is the archetypal womb through which life comes into manifestation.” The “female” principle within God is personified and called by the name: Shekhinah (literally “dwelling”), a term familiar from classical Rabbinical literature. In the Kabbalah, however, the Shekhinah is not only included as a distinctive principle within the inner divine life, but this distinctive principle is explicitly, and quite graphically, described as female.”
The Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine express two very distinct aspects of Allâh. First, that Allâh is Supreme is the principle of masculinity, and that Allâh is Infinite is the principle of femininity.
In the Qur’ān, Allâh reveals Itself by giving Itself ninety-nine names. These names are divided up by Islamic Ulama into the names of Majesty (jalâl) and the names of Beauty (jamâl). The names of Majesty call to mind images of the stern and strict “father.” while the names of Beauty call to mind images of a gentle and loving “mother.” Allâh did not exhaust Itself in creating the world; hence Allâh still exists along with creation. Allâh, in creating the world, is indicative of masculine qualities, such as achievement, strength, dynamism, severity, and rulership. Yet, Allâh is also infinite compared to the finite world. This inconceivably extended aspect of Allâh is the aspect of Allâh that the Sûfî often refers to in ecstatic poetry in the feminine gender. That is why Ibn al-‘Arabî says Allâh can be referred to as both Huwa (He) and Hiya (She). One of the drawbacks of the English language is that we do not give gender to nouns. Arabic, like the Romance languages, expresses words with gender. Many of the essential words regarding Allâh are in the feminine gender in Arabic.
In this paper, the author will analyze three of these words: the first is al-Hakîm, the Wise; Wisdom is hikmah. In Arabic to say, for example, “Wisdom is precious,” you could repeat the feminine pronoun: al-hikmah hiya thamînah, literally “Wisdom, she is precious.” It is stated by some Sûfî Sheikhs (Masters) that Sûfîsm originally was named Sophia, which connects Sûfîsm with the Christian Gnostic tradition, in which Wisdom is personified as a woman, the divine Sophia. The physical mother of Jesus was an external image of manifestation of the Virgin Sophia, the word “Sophia” stemming from Sophos (wisdom). The Gnostics, whose language was Greek, identified the Holy Spirit with Sophia, Wisdom; and Wisdom was considered female. The Virgin was closely associated by the early church with Wisdom, of the cathedral church at Constantinople, while the ascension of the Virgin Mary refers to the passing of Wisdom into Immortality. The litany of the Blessed Virgin contains the prayer, “Seat of Wisdom, pray for us.”
Julian of Norwich (1343-1420?), English religious writer, an anchoress, or hermit, called Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Roman Catholic “Holy Trinity,” our Mother in Wisdom, and our Mother of Mercy or Compassion. The latter title with the words “mercy” and “compassion” returns us to a subtle interpretation of the phrase Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim, often translated as “In the name of Allâh the most Beneficent the most Merciful” but with the added gnosis that God can appear to a human being as the Divine Feminine and that the Divine Feminine is not confined to Christian or Islamic mystical intuitive apprehension of spiritual truths. St. Peter Chrysologos presented the Virgin as the seven-pillared temple which Wisdom had built for herself.” The aforementioned philosopher and Sûfî, ibn al-Arabî, saw a young girl in Makkah surround by light and realized that, for him, she was an incarnation of the divine Sophia.
Mary was born of an angelic annunciation; Fātima (the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad) was considered to come from the level of angels. She is considered by many Muslims as divine in origin and several variations of a major hadīth describe how she was conceived on the night of Mi’râj (ascension). On this night Gabriel took Muhammad to Jerusalem and then to Heaven. While up in Heaven, he was offered some heavenly fruit, the seed of which was responsible for her conception, after the Prophet’s return on the same night and making love to his beloved wife Khadija.
Fātima tul Zehra (Fātima the Radiant, Fātima the Brightest Star, Fātima-Star of Venus, Fātima-The Evening Star), the daughter of the Prophet, is the secret in Sûfîsm. She is the Hujjat of ‘Alī. In other words, she establishes the esoteric sense of his knowledge and guides those who attain to it. Through her perfume, we breathe paradise. Though she was his daughter, the Prophet Muhammad called her Um Abi’ha (mother of her father). What mystery was the Prophet hinting at by this statement? While Fātima Zehra was Muhammad’s daughter, the Rasulallah (Prophet of God – Muhammad) understood that his gnosis was bestowed upon him from the Divine Feminine.
Fātima Fatir as representative of Allâh’s Jamal, saves humankind from Allâh’s Jalal. Esoterically, if it were not for Fātima (Mercy), Allâh would never have sent Muhammad (Peace be upon him) and the Qur’ān to humanity. The night is the exemplification of our sovereign Fātima, especially the “Night of Destiny” (laylat al-Qadr). Lady Fātima was chosen from all women to be the Mother source of Muhammad’s lineage, the core of the generation of Muhammad. Through her, the progeny of the Prophet multiplies – through a woman. The process of giving birth to the spirit is the feminine principle. That to which has been given birth is the masculine. “This is why, in spiritual transformation and rebirth, only the masculine principle can be born, for the feminine principle is the process itself. Once birth is given to the spirit, this principle remains as Fātima, the Creative Feminine, the Daughter of the Prophet, in a state of potentiality within the spirit reborn.” Shī’as revere the person of Fātima, for she is the mother of the line of inspired Imāms who embodied the divine truth for their generation. As such, Fātima is directly associated with Sophia, the divine wisdom, which gives birth to all knowledge of God. She has thus become another symbolic equivalent of the Great Mother. Lady Fātima (as) has various names near Allâh (Exalted Be His Name), they are:
· Fātima (Aleiha Assalam)
· Siddiqah (the honest)
· Al-Mubarakah (the blessed one)
· Al-Tahirah (the pure)
· Az-Zakiyah (the chaste)
· Ar-Radhiatul Mardhiah (she who is gratified and who shall be satisfied)
· Al-Mardiyyah (the one pleasing to Allâh)
· Al-Muhaddathah (a person other than a Prophet, which the angels speak to)
· Az-Zahraa (the splendid)
Fātima was given the title of “az-Zahraa” which means “the Resplendent One.” That was because of her beaming face, which seemed to radiate light. However, others, who must keep their beliefs prudently concealed, know the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter as “Fātima Fatir”. In Her own sacred words, She utters the truth, “There is no God beside me, neither in divinity nor humanity, neither in the Heavens nor on earth, outside of me, who am Fātima – Creator.”
©2004 by Laurence Galian, an excerpt from Jesus, Muhammad and the Goddess. The entire paper can be found on the author's website, and will be published shortly as a book.
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Margaret Starbird holds a master's degree in comparative literature from the University of Maryland and has studied at the Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany, and at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville.
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