This was delivered by Ustada Muniba Ahmed on 21st Ramadan 1441 as part of the Dar al-Zahra (Liverpool) ‘Awakening the Hearts’ series.
In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate
All praise to Allah, Lord of the Worlds. And salutations and greetings upon our Master Muhammad and upon his family and companions.
I intend to study and teach, take and give a reminder, take and give benefit, take and give advantage, to encourage the holding fast to the book of Allah and the way of his messenger, and calling to guidance and directing towards good hoping for the countenance of Allah and His pleasure, proximity and reward, transcendent is He.
We wish you all khawatim mubaraka with the ending of Ramadan.
The woman of virtue who we will be exploring in today’s session is a woman who lived in the 8th century of the Hijra. She is one of the most famous female awliya in Yemen; especially in Hadramawt. The great gnosis; precious jewel; free and pure one; famous in outward and inward state; Shaykha Sultana bt. Ali al-Zubaydiyya.
She is also known as the Rabia al-Adawiyya of Hadramawt. There are many in Baghdad, Morocco, and Damascus. This name is known as an archetype of women who dedicated their lives to Allah and His Messenger, prayers and peace be upon him, receiving a special status.
She was born in the family of Zubaydi, in an area called al’A’ra, near Seiyun, which is very close to the maqam of Isa al-Muhajir. The area where she was born and lived literally means a spacious plain land but now it is called the area of Sultana. How did she receive this great honour for the whole area to be named after her? We will find out by the end.
In her area, people lived in small sheds and tents. They worked in farms and herded animals like all of the bedouins. She was born in a normal household. Her mother passed away when she was young and was left with her father and older two brothers: Muhammad and Umar. Her father loved her so much and was protective over her like all fathers should be. He didn’t let her play with others as he didn’t want her to be unaccompanied. She managed the house at a young age, prepared meals and cleaned. In her free time, she would keep herself busy by spinning cotton balls and sewing. She would also take care of the garden near her home. She never went to the field with the men. She would constantly be in dhikr and salawat when engaged in work.
At night, she loved being in khalwa (seclusion). The stillness of the night allowed her to have long hours of reflection of Allah and enjoy the open vast space with the moons, stars, heavens, and mountains. Sometimes she would pray all night long. This was something very strange for a young girl from a bedouin family. Girls were not allowed to go into the work field and mix with the men.
The valley was a passageway between Seiyun and Tarim so many great scholars would pass by the area and give sermons and hold gatherings. She was strongly attracted to the callers and gatherings. She would attend with her fathers and brothers. She would always find a way to hide from the men. She would hide behind the tent or a tree if it was held in an open area. She was always fully covered which was strange with the bedouin women. Most of the bedouin women were known for the use of vulgar language due to their environment; they weren’t interested in attending gatherings; even the men treated scholars as guests so respected them out of hospitality.
Shaykha Sultana was strongly pulled towards them. She would attend with an attentive heart and would take everything with her heart. Her heart was like fertile land ready to receive wisdom and immediately apply them into practise. She never wasted her time.
Her father got her a special tutor for her siblings; Shaykh Muhammad Abdullah Ba’Abbad from the famous Ba’Abbad family. Every time a scholar came to their area, Shaykha Sultana would know about their arrival beforehand. How? She would see the whole valley turning green like grasses that grow after a heavy rain.
‘Wherever scholars go, they are like rainfall for the heart.’ – poet
Her brother mentioned that when they read the book of Imam al-Ghazali with their Shaykh, Shaykha Sultana could see the image of Imam al-Ghazali, meaning his spirit in physical form was in front of her. When they read books of Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jailani, she could see his image too. This is not strange as the spirits of the awliya are present when they are mentioned. Their souls are present in gatherings of knowledge and remembrance of Allah but only those with pure hearts can witness them; Shaykh Sultana was one of them. Allah prepared her to receive these gifts from when she was a child.
She attended gatherings whilst running her household. At the age of puberty, she heard a voice saying, ‘O Sultana, make a wish and it will come true.’ What do you think she will wish for? Wealth, large farmland, or a good husband. She said, ‘I will not ask until I consult my Shaykh.’
This shows her level of maturity. She waited for Shaykh Muhammad Ba’Abbad to come and told him. He said to her, ‘O Sultana, a voice in a dream is usually a call from the Divine. There is no greater blessing in this world or next than being joined with the Prophet, prayers and peace be upon him. So, when you hear the voice in the dream, ask for that.’
When she heard the voice again, she asked for that and the Prophet, prayers and peace be upon him, came to her in a wakeful state. When he, prayers and peace be upon him, asked her what she wanted from him, she requested to be able to see him whenever she needed him. He agreed. Prayers and peace be upon him. Maybe it is difficult for many of us to comprehend that. It is possible for people with pure hearts to connect to the light of the Prophet and communicate with him. Prayers and peace be upon him.
The scholars have mentioned that a person has to pass 120,000 stations of wilaya to reach that. She must have passed all of those by the great bounties of Allah and to receive this great blessing. Soon afterwards, her state became well known to the awliya of her time and they had a desire to connect to her spiritually. Spiritual connections are far greater than physical; they have no limits and boundaries. They transcend all places and time. They reach the living and the dead; the poor and rich; the young and old; they reach all.
Shaykha Sultana requested from her father to set up a separate house for her and her servant for devotion and to welcome guests. She also started teaching other women in her area. She also had a talent for composing poetry for her love of Allah and the Messenger of God, prayers and peace be upon him, and about the states of awliya. At that time, Shaykh Abdur-Rahman as-Saqqaf was the head of the Ba’Alawi (Muqaddam al-Thani) and when her state was revealed to him, he prepared to visit her with his thirteen sons and a caravan of 100 men. When they set off at Asr, Shaykh Sultana heard drumbeats from above the heavens; the same drums used in the hadra (remembrance of God) at Masjid as-Saqqaf. She told her servant that we will have guests coming and need to prepare food for 100. Her servant said they have food for two, how will they prepare for 100? She told her to prepare the dough, cover it and light the fire and slaughter the sheep and make the coffee. Shaykh Sultana would say bismillah (in the name of Allah) with each piece of dough, pass it to her servant who baked it until they had 100 pieces of bread. They finished before the guests came. The food was enough for them all. The guests sang qasaid (poetry) and words of wisdom. Everyone had a good time.
One of his sons, Hassan, said to Shaykha Sultana: How can a virgin female camel compete with a male camel? She asked his father permission to answer or remain silent. He told her to answer him. She immediately responded, ‘The load by the load yet the female camel also produces milk and gives birth whilst a male camel can’t.’ Shaykh Abdur-Rahman as-Saqqaf was happy with her answer and invited her to Tarim to attend the Hadra as-Saqqaf in his masjid. It is held every Wednesday and Sunday night after Isha. Dua is accepted at these times so he chose these times and due to actions ascending to the heavens on Monday and Thursday. It still continues to this day; they even read it in Ramadan after the tarawih prayer.
At first, she refused to attend but she agreed upon one condition when he insisted. Her condition was that the first qasidah (poem) to be read is from her diwan (collection of poetry); he agreed. She would walk all the way to Tarim on the nights and would attend by sitting next to the small door on the side of the masjid.
It is mentioned she also had a marriage proposal from Shaykh Abdur-Rahman as-Saqqaf that she gently refused by saying: ‘I will be your wife in the akhira not dunya.’ It is not clear why she refused his proposal.
After the passing of Shaykh Abdur-Rahman as-Saqqaf, she maintained a strong spiritual connection that she had with his eldest son, Abdullah as-Sakran. He was called as-Sakran as when he was in a state of dhikr, he would be absent from the world. Shaykh Sultana mentioned that whenever Shaykh Abdullah wanted to visit, she would hear an announcement in the heavens, see angels escorting him, and would say to her people: Welcome the Sultan, the son of the Sultan. Let’s reflect on the meaning of Sultan. They say everyone has a portion of their name. She was named Sultana. It’s a title for a ruler. She was the sultana of the soul. She completely conquered her lower caprice such that it allowed her soul to ascend to its highest stations.
The great gnostic of Allah, Abu Madyan, wrote in his famous poem:
The sweetness of life is only tasted in the companionship of the fuqara’
They are the sultans, the lords and rulers.
The scholars also say if the people of paradise are enjoying the same bliss that we are (in the gatherings and good company), they are indeed in a great blessing.
Shaykha Sultana would also say: ‘Allah revealed the states of the awliya of my time except the states of Shaykh AbdulRahman and his son.’
Once a Shaykh from Tarim came to visit Shaykha Sultana and she asked him about Imam al-Aydarus, the son of Shaykh Abdullah as-Sakran, who was still a child. She said, ‘Promise me when you go back to Tarim, kiss the forehead of the Imam from me.’ She loved and honoured the child like his father and grandfather. She had an immense love of all the descendants of the Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him). She would say: ‘If it would be of any benefit for ahl-al-bayt, I would cut my flesh into pieces for them.’
She established a Ribat for men and women. It was also a shelter for the poor and a visiting place for guests. She divided her time between worship, welcoming guests, and serving her community. She completely changed the entire area. It was once a normal bedouin town leading a life of nomads. It then became a place of meeting for the great awliya and scholars, where people seek knowledge and baraka (blessings). Now you can understand why they changed their name.
Her brother, Shaykh Umar, told her you are becoming famous now. She said: ‘If it wasn’t for the fear of fame, I would ask a caller to say whoever enters my home, I will guarantee them a place in Paradise.’ Scholars say that she never said it but due to her wish it can be enacted even for those who visit her after death.
One of her miracles was to visit the Ka’bah and perform tawaf and sa’ee in one night; even to this day, you may see the Ka’bah empty in the physical realm but it is never empty in the spiritual realm. Allah folds the Earth for them; they are called ‘People of Strands or Steps’.
Her miracles were transmitted from generation to generation. Some were transmitted in recordings but most are oral. It was strange for me how people in Tarim find it easy to speak about miracles. I wish we grew up with these instead of Cinderella, Superman and so forth.
She passed on Monday 25th Safar 847AH. Some historians say she was probably in her mid-60s when she passed. We don’t know her exact age as there was no record of her birth.
Every year, they commemorate her in her hometown. Many scholars remember her and the huge impact she had and continues to have in this society.
May her memories remain for generations to come and reward her with the best of rewards and join us with her in the highest levels of Firdous.
When I was preparing for this, I was hesitant to speak about miracles as people may have misunderstandings. We should never be apologetic when talking about karamat (miracles) of awliya as it is part of our creed of Ahl-ul-Sunnah-w’al-Jama’ah. Stories of those before us are filled with miracles. Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Adani said: ‘To believe in miracles is a station from the stations of wilaya yet that should not be our main focus when reading stories of the awliya. We should focus on their knowledge and actions that allowed them to reach high stations. Miracles were not their goal and they should not be the goal of any true seeker of knowledge.’ Our teachers say if you see someone flying in the air or walking on water but they aren’t upright, do not consider them as awliya as even devils can do such acts.
Imam al-Haddad mentions in his book, ‘Treatise on Good Manners’: ‘Steadfastness is the greatest miracle.’
Shaykh Abu Bakr b. Salim is known to have said: ‘Performing the obligatory and sunnan and avoiding the prohibited is better than 70 miracles.’
If Allah honours you with good dreams, firstly thank Allah and secondly don’t dwell on it and be deluded. It could be a way of misleading you from actions and taking you further away from Allah. Thirdly, it is better to hide it unless Allah wants it to be revealed for a greater wisdom and benefit. Lastly, if you don’t receive them don’t wish for them or grieve for their absence. We cannot base Shariah rulings based on dreams.
Imam al-Ghazali also said at the end of his book Beginning of Guidance; which is one of the most important books that a serious seeker should study: ‘Be absolutely certain that this beginning has an end and to reach you have to start from the beginning of taqwa.’
At the beginning of the book, he also mentions the famous Hadith Qudsi from Sahih Bukhari: ‘Whosoever shows enmity to a wali (friend) of Mine, then I have declared war against him. And My servant does not draw near to Me with anything more loved to Me than the religious duties I have obligated upon him. And My servant continues to draw near to me with supererogatory deeds until I Love him. When I Love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, and his sight with which he sees, and his hand with which he strikes, and his foot with which he walks. Were he to ask [something] of Me, I would surely give it to him; and were he to seek refuge with Me, I would surely grant him refuge.’
Unfortunately we live in a time where we are so far from the natural and spiritual path. Children are being constantly bombarded by false images; it creates veils in their hearts. We have to try our best to remove them and make efforts to expose ourselves to the natural world. The best way to start is: by learning about the basics of our tradition and practising it; purifying our food through halal and natural means; training ourselves to have taqwa; be in a constant stake of remembrance and reflection; and attend gatherings. The easiest and fastest way is to develop connection to the people of Allah who are connected spiritually. Now it is easier to connect to these scholars. We all have opportunities to develop connections and love, both men and women of virtue. We are guided by them to the abode of safety. We listen to their advice.
As there are many Rabia al-Adawiyyas in the Muslim world; there are also many Sultanas. You do not need to be from a prestigious life as her life proved to us clearly. They are women who are absolutely pure souls. Let us read a Fatiha upon the souls of such pure women.
May God allow us to be from such pure women. May Allah allow us to breathe the air of such pure women. May Allah allow us to hear about such pure women.
Allahumma Ameen. Allahumma Ameen. Allahumma Ameen.
These are notes. Any mistakes, errors or misinterpretations of words are from me. Please correct me when you spot any mistakes.