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ʿĀ’ishah bint Yūsuf al-Bāʿūniyyah (عائشة بنت يوسف الباعونية, died the sixteenth day of Dhū al-Qa‘dah, 922/1517) was a Sufi master and poet. She is one of few medieval female Islamic mystics to have recorded their own views in writing, and she "probably composed more works in Arabic than any other woman prior to the twentieth century." Some of her works have been translated to English in the 21st century. "In her the literary talents and Ṣūfi tendencies of her family reached full fruition." She was born and died in Damascus.
Her father Yūsuf (born Jerusalem, 805/1402 – died in Damascus, 880/1475) was a qadi in Safed, Tripoli, Aleppo, and Damascus, and a member of the prominent al-Bāʻūnī family, noted through the fifteenth century for its scholars, poets and jurists. Like her brothers ‘Ā’ishah was taught primarily by her father, along with other family members, studying the Quran, hadith, jurisprudence, and poetry, and by her own claim, by the age of eight, ‘Ā’ishah was a hafiza (she had learned the Quran by heart).
Meanwhile, her principal Sufi masters were Jamāl al-Dīn Ismā‘īl al-Ḥawwārī (fl. late ninth/fifteenth century) and his successor Muḥyī al-Dīn Yaḥyá al-Urmawī (fl. ninth-tenth/fifteenth-sixteenth centuries), whom she held in high regard. Probably in 1475, ‘Ā’ishah undertook the pilgrimage to Mecca. She was married to Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad Ibn Naqīb al-Ashrāf (d. 909/1503), from the prominent ‘Alid family of Damascus, also noted for their scholarship; by ‘Ā’ishah's reckoning, Aḥmad was descended from Muḥammad's daughter Faṭimah and her husband ‘Alī, via their son al-Ḥusayn. ‘Ā’ishah and Aḥmad had two known children, a son, ‘Abd al-Wahhāb (b. 897/1489), and a daughter, Barakah (b. 899/1491).
In 919/1513, ‘Ā’ishah and her son moved from Damascus to Cairo, returning to Damascus in 923/1517. ‘Ā’ishah's goal may have been to secure the career of her son. On the way, their caravan was raided by bandits near Bilbeis, who stole their possessions, including ‘Ā’ishah's writings. It appears that in Cairo, she and her son were hosted by Maḥmūd ibn Muḥammad ibn Ajā (b. 854/1450, d. 925/1519), who was personal secretary and foreign minister to the Mamluk sultan al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghuri (d. 922/1516). Ibn Ajā helped ‘Abd al-Wahhāb find work in the chancery and helped ‘Ā’ishah enter into Cairo's intellectual circles; ‘Ā’ishah went on to write him 'several glowing panegyrics'.
‘Ā’ishah left Cairo in 922/1516, with her son and Ibn Ajā, and alongside al-Badr al-Suyūfī (c. 850–925/1446–1519), al-Shams al-Safīrī (877–956/1472–1549), and several other noted scholars, was granted an audience with Sultan Qansuh al-Ghawri in Aleppo shortly before his defeat at the Battle of Marj Dabiq: 'an extraordinary event befitting her exceptional life'. ʻĀ’ishah then returned to Damascus, where she died in 923/1517.
ʻĀ’ishah "inherited an independence of mind and outlook which is seen in her companionship with her men contemporaries on equal terms". Thus she was a close friend of Abu 'l-Thanā' Maḥmūd b. Ajā, who was the final ṣāḥib dawāwīn al-inshāʼ of the Mamluk era, and corresponded, in verse, with the Egyptian scholar ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-‘Abbāsī (b. 867/1463, d. 963/1557). 'It is quite apparent from biographies of ‘Ā’ishah and from her own comments in her writings that she was highly regarded as a pious woman and Sufi master.' Her manuscript The Principles of Sufism, which is described as her "key work", has been translated into English by Th. Emil Homerin. In this book, she "outlines her philosophy based on the four principles of repentance, sincerity, remembrance and love."
In addition to these, ʿĀ’ishah adapted a range of other texts. Homerin has also published some of the only translations of ʿĀ’ishah's work into English:
ʿĀ’ishah's best known work is her al-Fatḥ al-mubīn fī madḥ al-amīn (Clear Inspiration, on Praise of the Trusted One), a 130-verse Badī‘iyya (a form designed to illustrate the badī or rhetorical devices in the poetic repertoire, with each verse illustrating a particular device) in praise of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Making reference to nearly fifty earlier poets, the work emphasises the breadth of ʿĀ’ishah's learning. This text 'no doubt' inspired ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī's Nasamāt al-Azhār; both writers accompanied their respective badī‘iyyas with a commentary.
Fayḍ al-faḍl wa-jam‘ al-shaml (The Emanation of Grace and the Gathering of the Union) is a collection of over 300 long poems in which ʿĀ’ishah 'described mystical states and praised variously Muhammad, the founder of her order 'Abd al-Qadir Jilani, and her own Sufi shaykhs. She used technical Sufi terminology and typical Sufi poetic motifs such as wine and love in her poems'. They seem to date from throughout ʿĀ’ishah's life up to her move to Cairo, and show her command of almost all Arabic poetic forms of the time.
In this work, she attempted to articulate and clarify some of her mystical beliefs and practices in a separate Sufi compendium. She notes at the outset that the stages of the mystical folk are innumerable, yet all of them are based on four fundamental principles of the path towards God: tawbah (repentance), ikhlas (sincerity), dhikr (recollection), and muhabbah (love).
Principle 1: Tawbah (Repentance)
(1) remorse for past misdeeds, (2) desisting immediately from current offenses, and (3) never returning to sin. She further notes that each member of the body has a share in repentance. The heart must resolve to leave sin and be remorseful, while the eyes should be down cast; the hands should cease to grasp; the feet should stop hurrying, and the ears should stop trying to listen in. This is repentance for the common people. The repentance of the elect goes further by opposing the lust of concupiscence (nafs), and by averting the gaze of the heart away from pleasure and prosperity, while abstaining from all transient things. Such repentance is required for the love for God, who
said (2:222): "Verily, God loves those who turn in repentance. . . ."
Higher still is the repentance of the elect of the elect. They turn away from considering anything but God, including spiritual states and blessings, until God reveals His beauty to them, eradicating everything but Himself.
Principle 2: Ikhlas (Sincerity)
Sincere obedience to God should be motivated only by the desire to draw closer to Him. The believer should have no thought of attaining praise or glory among people, for sincerity requires the utmost humility. Therefore, concupiscence (nafs) is to be disciplined, while the heart must be blind to the opinions of others, as the spirit guards against pride.Sincerity, she says, is like water helping the tiny seeds of good works to grow, while hypocrisy is a cyclone that will sweep away the fields of one's labor.
Principle 3: Dhikr (Recollection)
Essential to both repentance and sincerity is the third principle, dhikr, or "recollection" of God. ‘A’ishah begins her section on this pivotal topic with God's promise in the Quran (2:152): "Remember Me, and I will remember you," and she elaborates on this reciprocal relationship of recollection between God and His faithful worshippers in a series of mystical interpretations: "Remember Me with sincerity, and I will remember you among the spiritual elect; remember Me in your striving, and I will remember You with witnessing; . . . remember Me in your passing away, and I will remember you in your abiding; . . . remember Me in your hearts, and I will remember you in nearness to Me; remember Me in your spirits, and I will remember you in moments of enlightenment; remember Me in
your heart secrets, and I will remember you in illuminations!"
Principle 4: Mahabbah (Divine Love)
This leads naturally to mahabbah, or "love," the subject of the final and longest section of Al-Muntakhab. She opens with God's command to Muhammad in the Quran (3:31): "Say: 'If you love God, then follow me and God will love you.'" She quotes Qushayri saying true love of God requires lovers to efface themselves completely as their beloved wears them out. This love relationship is possible because God created human beings in the best of forms and, so, He has a special affection for them.
She then goes on to mentioning Levels as well as the signs of divine love being bestowed on someone.
For the common believer, the seeds of love are planted by reading the Quran and following the custom of the Prophet, and then nourished by complying with divine law. This love will thwart the temptations of Satan, provide solace in times of adversity, and make service to God delightful. By contrast, love among the spiritual elite strikes like a bolt of lightning, leaving the lovers dumbfounded and confused. This overwhelming love causes the spiritual elite to pass away in God's love for them, which is beyond any description or allusion.
She then turns to the signs of love, which include intimacy with God and estrangement from the world, awe before God and contentment with His will, performing pious deeds, loving others who love God, and passing away in the beloved from all things.
Her writing here reflects an invitation to chase the path of love like she often does in her poems:
"I see love, an ocean without a shore. If you are love's chosen ones, plunge in!"