Female Islamic Saints


I. The main grave of Bībī Pāk Dāman.

Bībī Pāk Dāman (11th century or earlier), “Chaste Lady” in Urdu (sometimes Bībīyān Pāk Dāman or Bībī Pāk Dāmanān in the plural), is the title given to the six saints whose tombs are enclosed by a shrine in Lahore, Pakistan. Despite the shrine's devotion being one of the most culturally eminent in Pakistan, historically reliable information on the identity of the women entombed in the shrine is scarce, as information about them was transmitted orally, rarely being mentioned in written collections of Sufi saints.

The most common narrative of Bībī Pāk Dāman’s identity is that Ruqayyah bint ‘Alī and her daughters, sisters-in-law and servant woman Ḥalīmah, fleeing Umayyad oppression in Medinah, left to Sindh to preach about Islam, later fleeing further to Lahore after further pursual and threats from the Umayyads and local Hindu kings. Continued Hindu harassment lead Ruqayyah to pray for their troubles to cease, after which the earth consumed the ladies in their settlement. The other commonly accepted narrative is that six sisters named Bībī Ḥaj, Bībī Shahnāz, Bībī Nūr, Bībī Tāj, Bībī Ḥūr and Bībī Gawhar, who were the daughters of a local saint ’Aḥmad Tokhta and were also said to have faced Hindu harassment with their servant Bībī Tandūrī. After their father’s death, they stayed home, dedicating themselves to prayer. Later facing a Mongol raid, they prayed to be spared from the destruction and were thus buried in their home by an earthquake.

However, Ruqayyah lived before Islam spread to the Indian subcontinent, Bībī Pāk Dāman were already widely venerated by the time ’Aḥmad Tokhta died in the early 13th century, and Mongol invasions into India wouldn't happen until a century later. The apparent anachronisms make these narratives much more likely hagiographic interpretations of the saints lives, virtue and legacy rather than historical accounts. A large element of their story, for example, is their titular purity, which is reflected by the treatment of the shrine. Until very recently, men have been forbidden or discouraged from the inner tomb near the graves, where women, khwājah sirās (eunuchs or transgender women), were permitted (the male shrine trusties or custodians being exceptions). The female attendants still pour water over and wash the graves as a sign of respect.

II. A display of the other graves.

The stories also reflect the sectarianism experienced by the communities, and the practices and beliefs surrounding the shrine are often drawn on sectarian lines. While majâlis or Shi‘i mourning gatherings are held throughout the year, they are especially large during the month of Muharram, particularly the first ten days. The primarily Shi‘i attendants have a procession of a horse through the tomb representing Dhū al-Janāḥ, the horse of Ruqayyah’s half brother, Ḥusayn, traveling to his family to convey his death, and ’a‘lām or religious banners, a rallying symbol of ‘Abbas, her half brother (commonly said to be her full brother, although they had different mothers), are sold along with other votive items. Sunnis conversely gather at the shrine from all of Pakistan on Bībī Pāk Dāman’s ‘urs or memorial from the 7th to the 9th of Jumādā ath-Thānī, although Shi‘is also attend. The sectarian lines of belief and practice are not always distinct, and even Hindus and Sikhs visit the shrine.

The graves of Bībī Pāk Dāman must have been respected and visited early on, potentially being one of the earliest Islamic shrines in India. Maḥmūd Ghaznavī, the first sultan of the Ghanzavi Empire centered in modern Afghanistan, ordered the construction of the first shrine over their graves in the early 11th century, and the 11th century Ghaznavi theologian ‘Alī al-Hujwīrī, also called Dātā Ganj Bakhsh, was said to have often visited the tomb to recite the fātiḥah for them and spoke about their merits. Many other Sufi saints likewise visited the shrine and venerated Bībī Pāk Dāman. Since the construction of the tomb, numerous regimes have extended and embellished the shrine, with the Pakistani government paradoxically endorsing the identification of Bībī Pāk Dāman with Ruqayyah and the Shrine as a Sunni site in the 1960’s, incorporating the male custodians who claimed descent from Ruqayyah. While the management of the shrine has been controversial, the national, political, and communal importance of these saints in Pakistan since the mid-20th century has increased even further.

A group or multiple persons.

Photo Reference

I, II: “PHOTO GALLERY.” Bibi Ruqayyah binte Ali (a.s.), bibipakdaman.com/gallery.html.

Other Reading

Chawla, Muhammad Iqbal, et al. “Female Sufism in Pakistan: A Case Study of Bibi Pak Daman.” Pakistan Vision, vol. 17, no. 1, 2016, pp. 224–247.

Zaidi, Noor. “Making Spaces Sacred: The Sayyeda Zaynab and Bibi Pak Daman Shrines and the Construction of Modern Shia Identity.” Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations. University of Pennsylvania, 2015.

Bibi Pak Daman • Bibiyan Pak Daman • Bibi Pak Damanan

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