Encyclopedia of Female Islamic Saints


The mosque and shrine of Syed Ali Fathima, a small colorful white and green building with tall pillars coming out the roof.
Athangarai Pallivasal, composed of a mosque (left) and Syed Ali Fathima and her husband’s dargâh (right) in Radhapuram, India.

Syed Ali Fathima (16th century), also called Fathima Bibi or Fathimasa Bibi, was a missionary and ascetic, who is considered a saint along with her husband Shaykh Mohamed Awlia. The two, along with other missionaries, left Arabia to preach in India, but after visiting locations on the East coast, they got caught in a storm in the Bay of Bengal and had to land at in the southern Tamil region of India and settle a jungle in what is now the Tirunelveli District. The couple are said to have built a home in the jungle and become dedicated to prayer and spiritual contemplation, and were recognized as wise people when encountered by travelers. When her husband died, Fathima continued her spiritual work and garnering a large following. At her death, she was buried beside her husband by the Nayimbar River. In local stories, a boulder nearly fell on a worker helping to build the dargâh, or shrine, over their graves, but it stopped when one of the workers cried “Athangarai Nachiyar Amma” (“Holy Lady of the Riverside” in Tamil), so this has become a name some devotees call her. The dargâh is connected to a mosque, and hence it is called Athangarai Pallivasal, “Riverside Mosque.”

The white painted shrine interior. The ceiling is open and the tombs are covered in green cloths, with banners standing over the head of the tombs.
Fathima and her husband’s tombs within the dargâh.

Fathima and her husband became highly revered in the region, and many devotees, Muslim and Hindu, visit the dargâh housing their graves to pay their respects and seek the saints intercession. Their ‘urs festival is held on June 19 and June 20, including a procession of celebrants carrying pots of paste from sandalwood to apply on the tombs (sandalwood is sacred in many South and East Asian religions, and this is a Tamil sign of respect for Sufi saints). Because Fathima is supposed to have come from a place in Arabia called “Bajjal” (although to where this refers is not clear), the descendants of her Arab companions, including the hereditary custodians of the dargâh, often bear the name Bijili.

South AsiaSufiMystic.