by Safoura Nourbakhsh—
For centuries, the name Rabi’a has been synonymous with Sufi women. It is not only that Rabi’a is the most recognizable and popular Sufi woman saint in most parts of the world, but also that for most people Rabi’a remains the only name associated with Sufi women. How can one woman overshadow the entire history of women’s participation in Sufi practice and discourse from the third/ninth century to the present time in such a way that would render all other women invisible? How was Rabi’a constructed by Sufi surveys and biographies of the saints and what does her construction mean to the gendering of the Sufi discourse?
Aside from Margaret Smith, who more or less includes and interprets all that was written about Rabi’a from a little after her death to the seventeenth century, there have been no scholarly attempts to explain the confusing, at times erroneous, and even contradictory construction of Rabi’a al-Adawiyya in the discourse of Sufism.
Here I would like to argue that the construction of Rabi’a has followed a peculiar pattern unlike any other saint before or after her. Simply put, I believe that Rabi’a who started out as one of the ascetics of the early period gradually and through centuries has become a composite of images and anecdotes that not only belong to various women by the name of Rabi’a, namely Rabi’a al-Azdiyya, and Rabi’a bint Ismail (something already noticed by some other scholars), but also by other real or imaginary women or mystics of many centuries. How does this composite image emerge? Why does it emerge? And, what effect does it have on our understanding of gender in the Sufi discourses from medieval times to the present?
ATTAR’S RABI’A, FROM SLAVE COURTESAN TO AN EXEMPLARY SUFI WOMAN
Attar’s Rabi’a not only exhibits the kind of longing and devotion attributed to saints and mystics, she is also more fully developed as a character, with a life story chronicling her physical/temporal as well as her spiritual/atemporal journey.
As in all other entries in Attar’s Tazkirat, Attar starts Rabi’a’s entry with an introduction. But unlike other introductions in the Tazkirat, which focus on individual traits and themes encapsulating the specific saint under discussion, the introduction on Rabi’a focuses on the question of gender. Apparently, Attar’s choice to give Rabi’a a separate, long entry as the only woman among seventy-two awliya included in the Tazkirat warranted a justification.
Although Attar does not elaborate on Rabi’a’s past, his veiled reference to her as a former slave and/or a penitent courtesan raises questions about real vs. imaginary possibilities for women interested in pursuing spiritual paths. By highlighting Rabi’a’s slave narrative, Attar defines an exceptional woman wali as a woman in bondage who has no choice but to resign to her suffering and has no agency saving her faith in God.
One cannot ignore the implication here that Rabi’a’s physical servitude to numerous male oppressors and masters prepares her for the final submission, surrender, and spiritual servitude to God. However, there is also an element of awe and wonder in a story of a slave girl (the most powerless and disenfranchised member of her society) turning into a wali/saint capable of performing miracles, rebuking reputable male teachers, and even addressing God almighty directly and in an intimate and at times demanding way. The appeal of Rabi’a’s story is in the fantasy of transforming total disenfranchisement to complete empowerment, which is also so removed from the experiences and struggles of real women of diverse backgrounds in spiritual pursuit. This sense of hyperbole and exaggeration in Rabi’a’s story, while part of the style of Attar’s Tazkirat, constructs the only woman wali as a fantastic, yet unattainable role model in the midst of many male figures who in their sheer diversity provide more chances for tangible and relatable encounters.
Artwork ©KUMI YAMASHITA