Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons was raised in a Baptist family in Memphis. She arrived in Atlanta in 1962 to attend college at the very beginning of the sit-in movement. Her parents had warned her not to get involved, lest she lose her scholarship, and for a while she followed their advice. When Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists approached her for help, she began to feel guilty about her lack of involvement and decided to work with them. She avoided the cameras and arrests at first, but soon decided to join her friends in song as they were being dragged away by the police. This was the start of a life of, as she said it, putting communal goals before individual goals.
As part of the Freedom Summer of 1964, Simmons helped build freedom schools and libraries in black communities in Mississippi. Overall, she spent seven years working full time on voter registration and desegregation activities in Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama during the height of the civil rights movement. She continued her commitment to civil and human rights by working as a staff member of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker peace, justice, and international development organization headquartered in Philadelphia, for twenty-three years.
In 1971, Simmons began her journey as disciple in Sufism, the mystical stream in Islam. For seventeen years (1971-1986), she studied under the guidance of Sheikh Muhammad Raheem Bawa Muhaiyadeen, a Sufi Mystic from Sri Lanka, until his passing. She remains an active member of the Bawa Muhaiyadeen Fellowship and Mosque and a student of the Sheikh's teachings.
Simmons received her BA from Antioch University in Human Services and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion with a specific focus on Islam from Temple University. She conducted her dissertation research in the Middle East countries of Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Religion and affiliated faculty in the Women Studies Department at the University of Florida's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her academic focus in Islam is on the Shari'ah (Islamic Law) and its impact on Muslim women, and she teaches courses in Islam, women's studies, African American religion, and race, religion, & rebellion.