Sayyida Nafisa: The Lady of Purity
It would be impossible for me to recount each and every woman that has inspired and touched my life in some way. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that some are luminary figures that have shed their light far and wide. It’s been in such blessed company, in the warmth of a friend’s home that I first heard of a lofty figure who has been inspirational through the ages: Sayyīda Nafīsa. As a community, we tend to be aware of the elevated rank of the wives of the Prophet (ﷺ) or hear of the oft-quoted Rābiʻa al-ʻAdawiyya. Yet other towering women are barely whispered about, except perhaps in the closest of circles. It’s with this in mind that I wanted to share what I’ve learnt about the saintly Sayyīda Nafīsa.
Sayyīda Nafīsa was a remarkable scholar and saint. She was famously known as Nafīsat al-‘ilmī wal-ma’rifat, (the Rare Lady of Knowledge and Gnosis), and held many other titles including: Nafīsat al- Ṭāhira, (the Rare Lady of Purity), Nafīsat al-‘Ā’bida (the Rare Worshipful Lady), and ṣaḥibat al-Karamat, (the Lady of Miracles). She was a woman renowned for her devotion, piety, asceticism, and to whom miracles were attributed. She constantly recited the Qurʾān, prayed through the night and fasted perpetually. As narrated by her niece Zaynab b Yaḥyā: “I served my aunt, Sayyīda Nafīsa for forty years. I never saw her sleeping at night and I never saw her eating during the day, except the days forbidden to fast – the two ‘Eids and the Days of Tashriq (11th – 13th of Dhū l-Hijjah).”
Sayyīda Nafīsa was a direct descendant of the Prophet (ﷺ). She was the daughter of al-Ḥasan al-Anwar, son of Zayd al-Ablaj, son of Imām al- Ḥasan, son of Sayyīda Fāṭimah al-Zahra (r). She was born in Makkah on the 11th of Rabī’a al-Awwal but grew up in Madīnah since her father was the governor of the blessed city at the time.
Signs of her lofty station were apparent from a very early age; she memorized the Qurʾān and studied Islamic jurisprudence comprehensively. Her great intellectual ability enabled her to become adept in explaining the Qurʾān despite her young age. Furthermore, she used to pray the five prayers regularly behind her father in the mosque of the Prophet (ﷺ). It has been reported that her father used to take Sayyīda Nafīsa to the grave of the Prophet (ﷺ) and would address the Prophet (ﷺ) directly by saying: “Ya Rasūllullāh!, O Beloved Prophet of Allāh! I am pleased with my daughter Nafīsa!.” He repeatedly continued this until one day the Prophet (ﷺ) appeared to him in a dream saying to him, “Ya Ḥasan, I am pleased with your daughter Nafiīsa, because you are pleased with her, and Allāh is pleased with her because I am pleased with her.” Again, this particular event signified Sayyīda Nafīsa’s great status at a very young age.
At the age of sixteen, Sayyīda Nafīsa married her cousin Ish’aq al-Mu’taman, a direct descendant of Imām al- Ḥusayn, and they were blessed with a son named al-Qa’ssim and a daughter named ʾUmm Kulṯūm.
Sayyīda Nafīsa and Prophet Ibrahim (AS)
It is reported that when Sayyīda Nafīsa used to recite the Holy Qurʾān, she would pray: “O Allāh make it easy for me to visit the grave of Sayyidīna ʾIbrāhīm, al-Khalīl”. Many years later, Allāh answered her prayer and enabled her to journey to the Holy Land, Jerusalem (Palestine) to visit the grave of the Prophet ʾIbrāhīm (as). It’s narrated that when she arrived at the grave, she wept and recited the following verse from the Holy Qurʾān: “And whenʾIbrāhīm said: My Lord! make this city secure, and save me and my sons from worshipping idols:” [14: 35]
As Sayyīda Nafīsa sat in front of the grave of the Prophet ʾIbrāhīm (as), reciting the Qurʾān, she felt an intense presence, and saw the image of Sayyidīna ʾIbrāhīm (as) in front of her. Of that moment she said, “My heart began to beat harder and my eyes to blink.” She called upon him saying “O my grandfather! – Ya Jiddī! I came to you in body and spirit…. as my soul has come to you before many times, I now come to you in body as well. I seek your good pleasure with me and I seek your guidance and instruction in order that I may worship Allāh until my dying breath.”. At that moment she heard a voice emerging from the image of Sayyidīna ʾIbrāhīm which was before her saying, “Good tidings my granddaughter! You are chosen to be one of the sanctified, worshipful maidservants of your Lord. My advice to you is to recite Sūrah al-Muzammil, wherein Allāh says, “O thou folded in garments! Stand (to prayer) by night, but not all night…” [73:1] until its end and seek to meditate on what you recite. By reciting this chapter you will be guided to the forms of worship and devotion that contain no hardship, as Allāh said, ‘Allāh does not burden any soul with more than it can bear.’ O my granddaughter! The intensity of your worship has made your body weak – try to keep everything in balance.”
Relocation to Egypt
At the age of forty-four, Sayyīda Nafīsa moved to Cairo.
From every distant corner of Egypt, people came flooding to her house in order to take blessings from her, especially women who came simply to touch her and request her du’a. And it’s in Egypt where Sayyīda Nafīsa spent the remaining part of her life.
Sayyīda Nafīsa and Imam al-Shafi
Sayyīda Nafīsa taught most of the scholars of her time but most notably the great Imām al- Shāfi‘ī studied hadith from her. It is reported that despite Imām al- Shāfi‘ī’s incredible scholarship, he would visit Sayyīda Nafīsa to seek her blessing, and ask for her prayers. At times when Imām al- Shāfi‘ī was ill, he would send a messenger to the blessed saint to seek her prayers. Sayyīda Nafīsa would immediately make du’a, and by the time the messenger returned to Imām al- Shāfi‘ī, he would find him already cured. That’s how powerful her prayers were.
On one occasion, Imām al- Shāfi‘ī fell sick and as usual sent his messenger asking Sayyīda Nafīsa for her du’a. On this occasion, She sent him the message: “Tell him that may Allāh make his meeting with Him the Best of meetings and may Allāh lift him to His proximity.” Upon hearing this, the great Imaām understood that his death was imminent. He wrote his will and stated that Sayyīda Nafīsa should pray the funeral prayers over him.
When the great Imām passed onto his Lord, Sayyīda Nafīsa executed his will. Incapacitated due to her constant worship, Imām al- Shāfi‘ī’s body was brought to the house of Sayyīda Nafīsa. There she prayed the funeral prayer over him from the women’s section, following Imam al-Buwaiṭī, who led the prayer.
Her return to her Lord
The pious and saints are given the gift of being able to recognise the signs of when death is approaching them, and that’s exactly what happened to Sayyīda Nafīsa. When she began to feel her death was approaching, she dug up her grave with her own hands inside her home. It is reported that she would enter the grave and worship in it daily. She completed the Holy Qurʾān whilst sitting in her grave six thousand times, and granted the rewards of the recitation to all deceased Muslims.
Sayyīda Nafīsa became extremely ill at the beginning of Ramadan in 208 H, and despite being advised by her companions to stop fasting, she refused, saying, “I have been asking Allāh to die fasting for thirty years; now you want me to break the fast?”
When Sayyīda Nafīsa returned to her Lord, her husband wanted to take her body back to the blessed city of Madīnah where she was to be buried. However, the people of Egypt solicited and asked him to bury her in the grave she had dug up with her own hands in Egypt. They even went to the extent of collecting a large sum of money and offered it to him. The following day, they asked for his decision, and his reply was: “I have decided to bury her here. I saw the Prophet (ﷺ ) in a dream last night, and he told me, ‘Give them back their money and bury your wife in Egypt.'”
Her miracles (karamat)
Sayyīda Nafīsa was notorious for her countless miracles, both during and after her life. Here are a few of those miracles that have been narrated.
1. Curing a paralyzed girl
When Sayyīda Nafīsa first arrived in Egypt and settled in her new home, there was a non-Muslim family living in her neighbourhood whose daughter was paralyzed from the waist down. One day the girl’s mother brought her to Sayyīda Nafīsa to watch while she went shopping. She left her daughter in one corner of Sayyīda Nafīsa’s house. Sayyīda Nafīsa began making ablution and water from her ablution flowed towards the girl. As the water touched the body of the girl, she experienced something strange. She began to take the water from Sayyīda Nafīsa’s ablution and rub it on her paralyzed feet and legs. Suddenly by Allāh’s mercy, the paralysis disappeared completely and she was able to stand. Meanwhile Sayyīda Nafīsa was busy in prayer. The girl stood up and seeing her mother just returning from the market, ran to meet her to tell her what had happened. Her mother cried with joy declaring: “That woman is truly holy and her religion is the truth.” She came in, hugged Sayyīda Nafīsa, thanked her for healing her daughter and asked her to pray that she be guided from darkness to light. Sayyīda Nafīsa then taught her to recite the shahādah.
When the father of the girl returned home that evening, whose name was Ayyūb Abū Surraya, and saw his daughter cured, he was overjoyed. He asked his wife about what happened and she told him the whole story. He raised his head heavenwards saying, “O Allāh! You guide whom You like and I now know that Islam is the true religion, completing what we believe in.” He went to the home of Sayyīda Nafīsa, and speaking to her from behind a veil he said, “I believe in your religion, and I accept it. I testify that there is none to worship except Allāh and that your grandfather Muḥammad is the Prophet of Allāh.” That miracle was the cause for the entire tribe of Sayyīda Nafīsa’s neighbours to enter Islam.
2. Rive Nile failing to flood
In the year 201 H. (816 CE) the river Nile failed to flood, as is its normal annual custom. People went to Sayyīda Nafīsa asking her to pray that Allāh cause the Nile to flood since without the usual flood, no crops would grow. Sayyīda Nafīsa gave them her face veil telling them, “throw that in the Nile and by Allāh’s grace it will flood.” They took her veil and threw it in the Nile. Immediately the river began to rise and overflow its banks.
3. Stolen wool
There was an old lady who had four daughters. She used to spin wool into yarn, then take the yarn and sell it. One day the old lady set out for the market with the spun wool wrapped in a red package. Without any warning, an eagle dove out of the sky, grabbed the package in its claws and flew off. The old lady, overcome with fear and worry, fainted. When she awoke she began crying. People around her advised her to go to Sayyīda Nafīsa and narrate what had happened. Sayyīda Nafīsa said, “O Allāh! Exalted in Power and Owner of this creation: put right what the affairs of Your servant this lady fulana. She is Your servant and her children are Your servants and You are powerful over all things.” She told the old lady to return to her home and wait.
The old lady went home crying with worry for the sake of her young children. Night found her still crying. Suddenly a commotion was heard outside. It was a group of people seeking Sayyīda Nafīsa. They told her, “Something very strange just happened to us. We came to you because we have been ordered to do so.”
She said, “What happened?” They related, “We were on a ship traveling at sea. As we began approaching land, one of the planks suddenly sprung loose and the boat began to flood. Some of us did not know how to swim and we were in deep water still five hours from shore. The boat began to fill up and sink. All of a sudden an eagle appeared holding a red package in its claws. It threw that package, which was full of spun wool, into that crack filling it. The water stopped flooding and we managed to reach shore safely. We heard a voice saying, ‘Go to Sayyīda Nafīsa.’
The boat crew presented Sayyīda Nafīsa a gift of 500 dinars. Sayyīda Nafīsa began to cry, “O Allāh you are so merciful to Your servants.” She asked the old lady, “How much did you usually get for your wool each week?” The lady replied, “I used to get 20 dinars.” Sayyīda Nafīsa gave her the 500 dinars and she went home overjoyed. She told her neighbours what happened and they came in droves to see Sayyīda Nafīsa. Many ended up giving themselves over to her service.
Sayyīda Nafīsa’s miracles continued on after her departure from this world. There was an occasion where some thieves entered her mosque and stole sixteen silver lamps. However, as the thieves tried escaping with the lamps, they discovered there was no longer a door and a way out of the mosque. They were trapped until the caretaker came the following morning and found them.
The miracles mentioned above illustrate the great spiritual power and strength Allāh Almighty provided Sayyīda Nafīsa with; to the extent that even to this day, people from all around the world flock to her blessed grave in Cairo to seek blessings, and to pray to Allāh for the difficulties within their lives to be removed.
Sayyīda Nafīsa was truly a great luminary. She was a great teacher, and lived a balanced life full of devotion to her Lord, and being in service of others. We can use her life story to draw inspiration and strength from, especially more so in the modern age we are living in. Sayyīda Nafīsa’s story also demonstrates to us the pivotal role of female scholarship, and how it was used in the cultivation of the religious sciences and Prophetic tradition.
Source: Excerpted from the Light of Ahl al-Bayt: My Spiritual Experiences Unveiled by Imam Metawalli ash-Sha`rawi
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