Female Islamic Saints


A mosque in urban Cairo with a golden dome and minaret, flanked to the left by palm trees and shrubs.
The mosque of Nafisah built besides her maqâm in Cairo, Egypt.

Nafisah al-Tahirah (762–824) was the granddaughter of Zayn al-‘Abidin, the fourth Shi‘ah Imam, great great granddaughter of Muhammad, and a prominent scholar and mystic. After her marriage to Is’haq al-Mu’tamin, son of Ja‘far al-Sadiq, the sixth Shi‘ah Imam, she left Arabia for Egypt, where she was met with admiration and adoration. There, she taught and lectured, receiving numerous visitors and spent her wealth open handedly on charity and favors for the ill. She was wary, however, of the inconvenience of receiving so many visitors, particularly for her hosts, and wanted to leave Egypt, but was met with popular pleas to stay. The governor of Egypt provided her a permanent residence, and she ceded to staying.

Shrine-goers walk along a path to the enclosure around Nafisah’s tomb.
The ḍarîḥ of Nafisah in her maqâm.

Nafisah was highly respected and sought out for knowledge and blessings, and among her students were Ahmad ibn Hanbal, the founder of the Hanbali madhhab or school of jurisprudence, and Muhammad al-Shafi’i, the founder of the Shafi‘i madhhab. Al-Shafi‘i in particular held her in high regard. Nafisah sponsored his education, and he attended her lectures to hear her narrate ḥadîths and visited her often. He often sought her du‘â’ (prayers) and barakah (blessings), and he even willed for Nafisah to recite the funerary prayer over him when he died. In addition to her knowledge, Nafisah was also known for her immense piety, being absorbed in prayer, fasting and Qur’an recitation when not lecturing or attending visitors. She memorized the Qur’an and was knowledgeable on Qur’anic interpretation, completed Hajj numerous times, and even dug her own grave. Because of her immense wisdom and asceticism, she was considered a saint in her life, and many miracles were attributed to her, and in addition to al-Tahirah, “the Pure Lady,” she was also called Nafisat al-‘Ilm, “Gem of Knowledge.” Towards the end of her life, she fell ill and passed away and was buried in her home in Cairo, and she is considered a patron saint of the city. Her tomb remains a place of pilgrimage for Sunnis and Shi‘is, who commemorate her birth on the 11th of Rabi‘ al-Awwal. It is also a local custom for weddings to be celebrated at her maqâm seeking blessings for the bride, with the bride circumambulating the tomb.

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