As demonstrated in this article, women and female spirituality have significantly influenced the mystical tradition of Islam. In their capacity as mothers, wives, and daughters, but perhaps more particularly as individuals, women had a noteworthy presence in Rumi’s life. His mother Mu‛mina Khatun was well-known for her piety and is revered by the Maulawi tradition as the madar-i sultan (“Sultan’s mother”). She was in charge of his upbringing and his early education in poetry, music and painting. Her tomb in Karaman is still in our day a site of pilgrimage for Anatolian dervishes. Rumi’s first marriage with Gauhar Khatun, the daughter of Sharaf al-din Lala of Samarqand, was pre-arranged according to the customs of that period. She was endowed with artistic talents and initiated him into the sacred rhythms of the whirling dance. She also gave birth to his two sons Sultan Walad and ‛Ala al-din. After the death of Gauhar Khatun, Rumi married Kira Khatun who survived him by nineteen years. According to the hagiographic literature, they entered marriage out of mutual affection. Kira was known for her beauty, and stood by her husband through the trials of their marriage after his encounter with the charismatic dervish Shams al-din of Tabriz.
Unlike his father, Rumi did not practice polygamy, and remarried first as a widower. He had a more liberal view of gender relationships than his father, and disapproved of the segregation prevalent in the Islamic education system. This is attested by his religious practice as well as his teaching of women such as Fatima Khatun, his daughter-in-law, who had a prominent role in the early history of the Maulawi order. Aflaki bases large sections of his hagiographical work Manaqib al-‛arifin on accounts by Fatima Khatun. She was a self-determined woman who did not hesitate to declare her opinion publicly when she disagreed with her husband Sultan Walad. Among Rumi’s closest disciples were women with aristocratic and artisanal backgrounds as well as women from the lower classes. One female disciple who is frequently mentioned by Aflaki is Gurji Khatun, the wife of two Saljuq Sultans. She and Gumaj Khatun hosted sama‛ gatherings in the latter’s palace which were attended by the women of Qunya. Rumi was present at these gatherings, joined them in the invocation and performed the whirling dance. Gurji Khatun supervised the affairs of the female initiates and also funded the building of Rumi’s mausoleum. Another prominent female disciple of Rumi was Fakhr al-Nisa’, who was revered as saint by the people of Qunya.
From historical documents we know that women continued to enjoy a prominent position in the Maulawi order until the beginning of the sixteenth century. In comparison with other Sufi orders its female initiates had a relatively independent role in its formation and organization in Anatolia. They participated in the religious ceremonies and even acted as “deputies” and “masters” in cities like Qunya and Dukat. Among those mentioned by name is Khushlaqa Qunawi who was the order’s deputy (khalifa) in Dukat with female as well as male disciples. Women also played a distinguished role as transmitters of hagiographic material in the early Maulawi tradition. For instance, our information regarding the disappearance of Shams al-din is based on reports made by Fatima Khatun. Despite the women’s important social role, their presence in the hagiographical literature is unfortunately too fragmentary for us to reconstruct their biographies on the basis of this material.