A Female Gnostic: The Story of Umm Iyad

The neighborhood was different back in those days. There was no zawiya, and I lived on the ground floor of a three-story apartment block nestled between our guest-house and the land that would eventually give birth to the zawiya. As I turned right from the black-and-white outer door of my home that faced the street, it was only a few short steps up the hill until the guest-house was reached. It was entered through a courtyard, the edges of which were being slowly colonized by young vines, with fruit still too young and bitter to draw benefit from. Inside the guest-house was where the brothers slept and lived when visiting from overseas. Little teaching took place there though sometimes we would recite Hizb al-Bahr and Hizb al-Nasr after the mid-afternoon prayer. It was only later that the guest-house would become a place of teaching and dhikr before being drawn back to its former service as a rest-stop for the traveller after the new zawiya was built. The hadra was held four times a week—twice in Amman, once in Sarih, and once in Irbid after the Friday prayer. An old bus would swing onto the hill and we would board with whosoever was staying nearby, to be taken to wherever the hadra was. That was in the evening. In the morning we silently recited a portion of our daily litanies outdoors. After the morning prayer a few of us, sometimes numbering only one or two, would walk up to the top of the hill on the edge of Kharabsheh that overlooked the uninhabited barren valley below. There, as sunrise approached, we would sit silently and recite our own personal litanies. After forty-five minutes or so the sun would rise over us and we would leave.This was all in 1996 and 1997.

At around the same time a young Arab of Palestinian descent became my student. His name was Sidi Iyad. He helped with procuring often rare manuscripts and books, for this was his speciality, but he also had some training in calligraphy. This was useful as a new awrad book was in preparation. The awrad book was to contain four litanies authored by our master Abul Hasan al-Shadhili, and others penned by such masters as Abul ‘Abbas al-Mursi and Abul Muwahib al-Shadhili al-Tunisi. We had selected only the most rigorously authentic litanies, which were then to be compiled into a small book of awrad, written by one of the leading calligraphers in the world. The calligrapher was world class: he had won the world championship for the naskh script at an international competition in Istanbul. Now he was living temporarily in the neighborhood, writing out the litanies of the Shadhili path. I put Sidi Iyad’s knowledge to good use. Behind the scenes he would advise me, pointing out any imperfections in the penmanship; and I would go to the calligrapher and say, “this could be better,” or “that could be better.” After a time the calligrapher realized who was advising me, and Sidi Iyad became the enemy. His help was invaluable.

The book of awrad was now finished and I learnt from Sidi Iyad that his mother had decided she would read Hizb al-Kabir, and she continued in its recitation until the early part of 2004. I was somewhat surprised at this. Hizb al-Kabir is quite long and many people of the tariqa do not have the strength, or find it difficult, to recite day on day, and Sidi Iyad’s mother was not in the tariqa. She was just an ordinary Arab woman, though she had sacrificed and worked hard for her children. Sidi Iyad’s father was absent so Umm Iyad had raised her children alone. By day teaching at school; by night sewing piece-work, all to make ends meet. She was always working, working, working. And she did so to give her children an education, and sent them on to university. Umm Iyad sacrificed a great deal for her children.

In the first part of 2004 Umm Iyad had trouble with gallstones. A hospital admission followed, where she had an operation to remove them. It so turned out that the gallstones were accompanied by advanced liver cancer. This was unexpected and came as a shock. Umm Iyad was given just four months to remain in this world. The cancer was too advanced to treat. Sidi Iyad came to me to break the news, and we talked, Iyad and I.

“It’s better not to tell her,” he said.

To which I replied, “In my opinion I would like to be told about something like this so I could make ready, prepare.”

“No, it would wreck the family and everyone would start acting unusual and break her heart.”

Finally I listened to his reasoning, “OK, you call the shots, you know the family better than I do.”

They didn’t tell her. Not about the liver cancer, nor about her shortened life. Even as Umm Iyad grew weaker, which she surely did, she didn’t show any outward suspicion of the seriousness of her illness. She only said over and over, “When I get better I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that.”

Sidi Iyad’s mother now took the tariqa from me and continued on with her daily reading of Hizb al-Kabir. In spite of her illness, her failing strength, and straightened circumstance, Allah Most High made it possible for Umm Iyad to go to the hajj. This she did despite being less than the age that the Jordanian government issues hajj permits for. The numbers have to be restricted to prevent overcrowding and crushing; it’s not easy for Muslims from the East to go on hajj. And so Umm Iyad went with her son and daughter-in-law to attend to her. The hajj was completed and Umm Iyad returned, by now she was very tired, very weak.

Upon his return Sidi Iyad paid me a visit bringing with him some unexpected news. His mother had requested that she be entered into the khalwa.

I said to him, “How can someone go in the khalwa when they don’t know anything about mudhakara, they haven’t heard anything, they haven’t prepared?”

Sidi Iyad insisted that his mother’s mind was set, she wanted the khalwa, and Sidi Iyad persisted in his asking on her behalf. Finally I decided to pray an istikhara about the matter.

Over the years I’ve seen many elderly mothers do extremely well in the solitary dhikr of the khalwa. Such women have spent of themselves, often over decades, serving their children and husbands behind closed doors, with no public thanks or applause. This is very high ikhlas. Such unsung, low-profile service is always a recipe for sincerity. So I prayed an istikhara about whether or not to enter Umm Iyad into the khalwa and to my utter surprise it was positive. She’s been in the tariqa for four weeks and she’s going into the khalwa.

Because of her weakness caused by her illness, Umm Iyad was put into the khalwa at Sidi Iyad’s house. When we arrived Umm Iyad was sitting on the bed saying, “When I get well I’ll be up and about.” Still no one had told her she was passing out of this world. It was there she made dhikr for three days and reached what many people of the tariqa are unable to reach after forty years. Allah Most High illumined her with a complete fath, a complete ma‘rifa. Afterwards she said, “Where on earth was I, where on earth am I now.” She was just shocked at what Allah had opened up to her. I was pretty surprised myself. After that she found it very difficult to listen to the relatives when they visited and spoke of the usual things relatives across the world talk about. She couldn’t listen to any of them for more than fifteen minutes. She couldn’t stand it. And she made dhikr all the time: Allah, Allah, Allah.

Umm Sahl would visit and read aloud the letters of Mawlay al-‘Arabi al-Darqawi, and this soon became Umm Iyad’s whole joy, to hear the words of Mawlay al-‘Arabi. She only wanted to hear of Allah and the next life. This world no longer held her interest and she couldn’t bear to hear of it. Now her whole happiness was Allah, her dhikr, and Umm Sahl reading during those visits.

And still Umm Iyad said, “When I get well I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that.”

But she didn’t get better, instead things became very tough for her. She was unable to move around the house; she could not get out of bed without help.

The King Hussein Cancer Center in Amman is one of the best hospitals in the Middle East. It is also the most expensive. It is the pinnacle of the Jordanian government’s desire to make the country a center of excellence for medical treatment in the Middle East. Wealthy Arabs from across the region visit for treatment. Sidi Iyad went there and talked to the head administrator who told him, “That’s alright, we can admit your mother for nothing.” Umm Iyad was admitted free of charge. Doubtless she saw where she was being taken as the large sign outside the hospital is pretty plain, yet she pretended not to know for her children’s sake. It’s likely she knew all along, only feigning ignorance to make her children happy. She was there for about ten days, then Thursday night came.

The hadra and the lesson had finished, people were dispersing, preparing to return home. Sidi Iyad sought me out. He knelt down in front of me and told me his mother had taken a turn for the worse. I summoned Umm Sahl and with Sidi Iyad we hurried to the hospital directly.

Shortly after our arriving at the ward Umm Iyad closed her eyes and Umm Sahl and I had the same sort of vision at the same time. We could see Umm Iyad’s ruh straining to leave her body to reach its heavenly station. We stayed a while, read the Fatiha, then returned home. It was only later that we would learn that just before dawn Umm Iyad would wake up out of oblivion, as she was comatose when we left her, completely out of it, her body distended, and she would cry out at the top of her voice: “Allah akbar, Allah akbar!” then she laughed uproariously.

The nurses hurried to her, demanding, “Who’s laughing on the cancer ward?!”

A few more hours passed by and Umm Iyad died. She passed from this world laughing, saying “Allah akbar.”

Umm Sahl and Umm al-Khayr washed her body. No trace of her illness remained upon her. She was no longer swollen. She looked very wonderful, very beautiful. She looked completely overjoyed, with an expression of sheer happiness on her face. It was now Friday morning and around 3,000 people came to the mosque for her funeral. Thousands came, and I don’t know why all of those people prayed for her, or where they came from. Then we took her to the graveyard and prayed some more.

When Umm Sahl used to visit Umm Iyad to read the Darqawi letters Umm Iyad confided in her:

“You know, I’ve had a good life but two things I’ve been unsatisfied with. One is that not all my children are praying. I’ve tried to raise them the best I could, but not all of them are praying. The second is that I don’t feel my nafs is like I wanted it to be.”

After she came out of the khalwa all her children were praying, and they’re still praying; and her soul was illumined.

She said, “Now I feel both of these have been taken care of by Allah.”

I considered all of these things that had happened to Umm Iyad over such a brief passage of time: her reciting the Hizb al-Kabir, taking the tariqa, going on hajj, entering the khalwa, ma‘rifa before she died. So many miracles and blessings: “Whosoever goes on hajj is forgiven his sins. He is as the day his mother gave birth to him.” Her wilaya—she died as an ‘arif bi Llah and I have no doubt that she is one of the awliya. So after they buried her and turned the last piece of dirt over on her, I turned away from her grave, and finally I understood: Sheikh Abul Hasan al-Shadhili said, ‘Whosoever reads our hizbs shall have what we have.” And this is one of the things I saw from Hizb al-Kabir.

by Shaykh Nuh Keller


Cover photo by Edgardo W. Olivera.