ISLAMABAD: At the turn of the 19th century, Bibi Sahiba Kalan (1752-1803) was recognised and exalted as a great female Sufi master and scholar of the Afghan empire. Her network of thousands of disciples spanned from the Arabian Sea to Central Asia. Her travels took her to North India, Central Asia and Arabia. She led a caravan from Makkah and built and managed colleges and shrines in Kandahar, Kabul, Yemen and Sindh.

This was pointed out by assistant professor Dr Waleed Ziad during his presentation on Bibi Sahiba Kalan at an event hosted by the Asian Study Group. Dr Ziad is an Ali Jarrahi fellow in Persian Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“His upcoming book,Sufi Masters of the Afghan Empire: Bibi Sahiba and Her Spiritual Network, overturns our understanding of women’s spiritual and religious leadership in the Muslim world before the 20th century.”

Dr Ziad said: “Through Bibi Sahiba, we witness the existence of a potent form of female leadership in this geographical belt of Afghanistan, Peshawar, Sindh and Central Asia. What makes this story so fascinating is that she and other women of her time were considered paragons of Islamic orthodoxy – they were not rebels or outsiders – they were strict on matters of Sunnah – while being publicly engaged and practical spiritual leaders.”

“These are stories of the indigenous model of female leadership that exists within the moral framework of the region. The built environment and hints in literature point to many other contemporary women in leadership positions. For example, a Naqshbandi Khanaqah just outside of Peshawar, which had the largest land endowment in KP, was led by two generations of women in the early 19th century, but we know virtually nothing about them. The narratives of Bibi Sahiba and her successors can actually provide context for those marginalised in our history. The key is she points to the existence of a significant world that has been erased.”

Ending his presentation, he said: “In the conclusion of my book, I present a fascinating legal text – written in 2005 by a Sufi master from Bara in Khyber Agency, right on the border. If anyone knows – this is Pir Sayf al Rahman – who has one of the biggest religious networks in Afghanistan, also in Pakistan, I actually visited their centres in four provinces across Afghanistan. Three women Sufis from Lahore wrote to him complaining that some people argued that women could not be Sufi masters, so he responded with a 20-page tract in Persian, Arabic and Urdu, arguing that women’s leadership is completely valid – with three pages on Bibi Sahiba’s story as a key part of the evidence.”

Expressing her views, Mehr Naqvi said: “The talk was fascinating as it evoked the rich history of Sufism in our region. I was particularly struck by Waleed’s reference to Jehanghast - our ancestor from Bokhara and later Uchh - these people spread Islam from upper Sindh, lower Punjab all the way to Bengal.”

Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2022

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