Female Islamic Saints


I. Lalla Faḍma N’Sūmer (here depicted riding a black horse and holding a red standard) with sharīf Bū Baghla her revolut­ionary confed­erates.

Lalla Faḍma N’Sūmer (1830–1863) was an Algerian scholar and mystic of the Rahmani order. Faḍma was born in Ouerdja, a village in the Kabylie region, in year the French began their occupation of Algeria. She was the daughter of Terkia N’Ath Ikhūlef and Sīdī ’Aḥmad Muḥammad, who was the shaykh of the zāwiyah of his father ’Aḥmad Ū Mizyān at the village Soumer. She had four brothers: Muḥand Ṭayyib, al-Hādī, ’Aḥmad, Ṭāhar and Sharīf; while she had two sisters: Yamīnah and Tasa‘adit. She was fluent in Kabyle and at least vernacular Arabic, and while it is not known whether she was literate or not, She memorized portions of the Qur’an as a child and taught it to other children. When she was sixteen, she married her cousin Yaḥyā N’Ath Ikhūlef. She was fiercely averse to marriage and avoided her husband, and although Yaḥyā refused to consent to the divorce, she would never seek remarriage, focusing herself on spirituality and religious leadership. When her father died, her eldest brother Muḥand Ṭayyib stayed in Ouerdja to replace their father as shaykh, while Faḍma and her other brothers went to Soumer to take over the running of the zāwiyah. Some claim she was a disciple of Muḥammad al-Mahdī al-Saklāwī, an important shaykh of the Rahmani order in Kabylie before he left for Syria.

Faḍma's family, along with much of the Kabylie region, joined the resistance against the French after the first French invasion into Kabylie in 1847. ‘Abd al-Qādir, with al-Saklāwī’s backing, led a resistance against the French, although it would be defeated the same year. In 1849, Faḍma met with multiple insurgents including sharīf Mūlāy Brāhīm, Sī Muḥammad al-Hashimī and, most importantly, sharīf Bū Baghla. Bū Baghla and Faḍma grew close, and although Bū Baghla supposedly proposed to her, her husband Yaḥyā still refused to consent to a divorce, despite Faḍma’s refusal to live with him. This consigned Bū Baghla and Faḍma to be dear friends until Bū Baghla was killed in 1854. Faḍma and Ṭāhar went on to lead a strong resistance, defeating the French forces under General Randon in a series of battles. This was until General Randon ambushed Kabylie on ‘Īd al-Fiṭr (the holiday ending Ramaḍān) in 1857, overwhelming the opposing forces, taking Faḍma as prisoner and appropriating the contents of her library. The French had captured Kabylie, the last resistant region of Algeria. Faḍma was sent to the zāwiyah of Beni Sliman, where she would die.

II. Engraving of a Kabylie militant woman, which Lalla Faḍma N’Sūmer is often identified with.

With her religious learning, grand spiritual lineage and military feats, she was considered a saint in life. People would visit her at the zāwiyah at Soumer to seek her barakah, or saintly blessings, as well as her counsel on spiritual matters. Her status as a military saint and national hero (particularly of the Kabylie region) and her demise led to the superficial comparison to Joan of Arc, a comparison she resented. She has since become a symbol of Algerian women and Kabyle resistance against imperialism. In the nineties, a time when Algerian women were still minors under the law and the government was in the midst of a civil war against Islamist insurgents, Faḍma's relevance had not waned. In 1995, the government secretly moved her remains to the El Alia cemetery in Algiers, where numerous important national figures have been laid to rest, and in 1996, the association for women’s rights Bnet N’Faḍma N’Sūmer, “Daughters of Faḍma N’Sūmer,” was formed in Algiers.

Photo Reference

I: Philippoteaux, Félix. “Femme kebaïle.” Wikimedia Commons, 1850, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait-Fatma_N%27Soumer.jpg.

II: Philippoteaux, Félix. “Chérif Boubaghla and Lalla Fatma n'Soumer.” Wikimedia Commons, 1866, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ch%C3%A9rif_Boubaghla_and_Lalla_Fatma_n%27Soumer,_by_F%C3%A9lix_Philippoteaux.jpg.

Other Reading

Akyeampong, Emmanuel Kwaku, and Gates, Henry Louis. “Lalla Fatma N’Soumer,” Dictionary of African Biography. United Kingdom, OUP USA, 2012, pp. 496–467

Touati, Samia. “Lalla Fatma N’Soumer (1830–1863): Spirituality,Resistance and Womanly Leadership in Colonial Algeria.” Societies, vol. 8, no. 4, 2018.

Remaoun, Malika. “Les associations féminines pour les droits des femmes,” Insaniyat, vol. 8, 1999, p. 129–143.

Lalla Fatma N’Soumer • Ahmad Ou Mezyan • Yahya nath Ikhoulef • Ikhoulaf • Yamina • Tasaâdit • Mohand Tayeb • Tahar • Cherif • Abd el-Kader • Moulay Brahim • Bou Baghla

North AfricaRahmani OrderSufiMilitantSpiritual MasterMystic.