Integrating women into Islamic hagiographies

By Miriam Cooke
Submitted to Session P4828 (Restoring History, Recording History: From Bint al-Shati' to Samar Yazbek, 2017 Annual Meeting
Arab States;
I will focus on the feminist aspect of the lives of three Muslim Arab women considered to be saints. I will look at the narratives told about and by them that provide examples of empowerment through some form of spiritual practice, especially jihad. The hagiographies of the Basra saint Rabi`a al-`Adawiya al-Qaysiya (717-801), the Tunisian Lalla Aisha Manoubiya (1180-1267) and the Egyptian Zaynab al-Ghazali (1917-2005) confirm the consequential impact of their lives and the narratives they have inspired. Each sought to bring those with whom she came into contact closer to God. The first serious enumeration of the lives of Sufi women saints is Abu `Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami’s (d.1106) 11th century Mention of Pious Sufi Women. He begins with Rabi`a, providing a few extant citations with chains of authority going back three centuries that define Rabi`a the saint and specialist in the “study of legal doctrines pertaining to worship.” Several other Sufi women find a place in his encyclopedia. I will pose and try to answer the following questions: How has the legend of the 8th century Rabi`a al-`Adawiya shaped the frame narratives of other Muslim women’s hagiographies? Are the similarities between the Rabi`a legend, the myths surrounding the 13th century Lalla Aisha Manoubiya and the prison memoir of the 20th century Zaynab al-Ghazali indicative of a pattern in woman sainthood? Or, is there a trunk narrative to which new details from the life of a later saint return to embellish the original story?