Our mother ancestors hold the knowledge of the womb of love and compassion. Combining history’s stories with poetry allows me to attune to a communicated essence carried and shared in the tradition of Lucille Clifton who wrote a poem on Joan of Arc: to joan, …did you never wonder/ oh fantastical joan/ did you never cry in the sun’s face/ unreal unreal?…
Another favorite poem is W.S. Merwin’s Odysseus: Always the setting forth was the same,/ Same sea, same dangers waiting for him/ As though he had got nowhere but older.…
Traveling with Joan and Odysseus, the creation of inner cinema of lives that become known, felt more deeply— continues to have tremendous appeal to me. After joining Moroccan Sufi women in chanting (zikr) more than 20 years ago, I began to read the stories of the women in their line of ancestors, back to Prophet Muhammad. I felt their strength and influence on the man who guided the birth of Islam long ago. They are still with us, here today.
From my book: Fatima’s Touch, pp. 43, 44…
It was a hot day. Umm Ayman looked in the window and saw Fatima (daughter of Muhammad) asleep, with the millstone spinning, the cradle holding Husayn rocking itself, and a hand raised in praise. She went to the Prophet and told him what she saw. She asked him, “Who was grinding, rocking, praising?” He laughed and told her the names of three angels.1 Husayn holds the tender place in the story, as the son constantly remembered in Shia history, assassinated decades later in the massacre at Karbala. Umm Ayman was the servant of Amina, mother of the Prophet. She assisted in the birth of Muhammad and years later—his children. She was the rock of the family.
While She Sleeps
One grinds. One praises God. One rocks Husayn.
Uplifted gesture in the air—what’s this?
Two angels brought by Gabriel—one mills
the grain for Fatima, one gestures praise.
You see it and you don’t. Not flesh and blood,
nor anything like that. Transparent hands.
Who rocks Husayn? What fingertips can nudge
The cradle? In the room his mother sleeps,
exhausted, fasting, ripe for angel aid.
Her grindstone turns, as if it were a top
and bread could make itself. Who rocks Husayn?
A touch so light, the child smiles in his sleep.
The outside world is still, the stems of thoughts
curl tucked inside, while Gabriel bends down
to stroke his cheek, his heart-shaped face. Don’t ask
Who rocks Husayn, that little cup of love.
1 Encyclopedia of Fatima, 17:119, 120. See also Muslin, The English Translations, 4, #1701. Form iambic pentameter — blank verse.
And from my book Untold, A History of the Wives of Prophet Muhammad this poem:
It is the way for the Wife of the Prophet
not to turn her back on us. After
she notices we are looking to her, she opens the door
and beckons us in. But we are just watchers,
wanting to be close-up from a distance. We stare
at one young wife, leaning forward, her chin
on Muhammad’s shoulder, her fingers
squeezing his arm while the Abyssinian woman
dances. Another wife gives Muhammad
a turn of phrase to calm a thousand
disobedient men. We notice the well-shaped
mouth, the strong white teeth,
her damp hands on a towel. A future wife
stands looking at Muhammad’s open face.
We hear her gasp and understand. She’s modest. Still,
we can’t stop looking. Close details
make each wife’s bustling seem intimate,
but not too real. We wonder what we’d see
inside. There might be holy striving,
talk of paradise, a questioning remark,
a judgment. We may never know,
although there may be truth there
that we need, some understanding
from the source; some word of how it was
before something startled the world
into thinking — us and them.[i]
[i] End notes: There is a hadith that Aisha, watched the dancers in the Mosque, illustrating how relaxed Muhammad was with spontaneous expression. The source is the Alim on CD-ROM, narrator al-Tirmidhi, Aisha hadith, #1565. The other references are to his wives, Umm Salama (at Hudaybiyya) and Zaynab.
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After Untold and Fatima’s Touch, I continue to write about women of history. Most recent is Rabia al’Adawiyya of Basra, the 8th century Sufi woman seen as a saint by many in the Middle East.
What did Rabia Wear?
Rabia, I can’t help it. I’m accustomed to bring home the landscape, an Islamic culture like something out of the Yunus Emre Netflix series from Turkey, with its dirt roads, people walking with mules and hand carts, a minaret with the call to prayer. It’s hot and damp in Basra. Palm fronds will shelter as a roof. What are you are wearing as you walk in longing for God? Sandals in the mud, and a layer or two. Not dirty, but pale cloth, a gauzy veil scrubbed in well water then set to dry on a line near the door. The long sleeved tunic is woven to last, a coarse cotton. I think you were gifted with used tunics from a devoted friend or two. Here’s beautiful fabric, say pale green, with the woven words of God almost worn out on the sleeves. The scribes leave you clothed in nothing but words, but that’s just their way to show how Holy you are. Along with this: robed in the quintessence of pain… Pain? I want to see the fabric move as you walk, haul water, gather dates, or drape it on a hook before bed—when you slip into something else, a lighter covering. As a woman, I like the practical side of bringing you forward twelve-hundred years or so. How you look with an old cat in your lap.